All Posts in Prose
Beatitude No. 4
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Observe the writer, yes, the writer is in your midst, working in your café, diligently making it through page upon page. With his hand cocked against his shoulder, he rests his chin in concentration. He breathes through his nose. Facing the door, and with his back to the restrooms, he can see everyone as they come in, but he pays them little attention; they are not important to him beyond their capacity to offer the writer a backdrop to concentrate against. As he reads and sporadically types on his keyboard, he falls through his eyes into the pages before him; he plummets down and away from the back of his chair, discovering. If, by some thwarting of his practice he happens to look up, his is surprised, not at whatever is was that brought him back to the world, but by the fact that somehow, incomprehensibly, there is a world to come back to at all. His mouth will open slightly. His eyebrows might rise. He is shocked by the realness of the world before him; he blinks, fondly, with delayed recognition. Today, bright lights of creation are too much for him.
We agreed to write letters. Original, I know. But the point was tangible. Tangibility. The point of letters was proof that we could quantify our love, like the point of the Atlantic was to separate us. We sent the crossword from the AM New York back and forth, each time with a new piece of the puzzle filled in. We stuck to Mondays and Tuesdays, because Wednesday was when it started to get difficult. We shared a stamp card for a corporate coffee chain. I saved and shipped every scone receipt I accumulated in the month of August. He sent back movie stubs. Grocery lists. A check-up report from a routine visit to the doctor’s saying that everything was A-OK. A palm tree leaf with the words “I’m quite frond of you” Sharpied on. A jumbo-size bag of Tootsie rolls, and then the wrappers in return. Little pieces of colored construction paper that people pass out on the subway, with things like JESUS LOVES YOU and the alphabet in sign language written out and you can pay what you want for them, anything helps. I inserted them into my books, to help me keep my place. When one of us got a speeding ticket (which one of us did far more frequently than the other), it got shipped off too. They felt like secrets, like look here I am being vulnerable and I am not ashamed of my faults, here they are. Then when the pay date came around, the receipt stubs were sent, acts of caring, acts of heroism, like look at how much I love you, I will take care of everything. I sent him a scratch-off lottery ticket that was good for $1, so he’d know he was some kind of winner. To spice things up, I Fed-exed a pair of my underwear, lacy and unwashed. He sent it back, dry-cleaned. For my birthday, a little set of nail polish and fresh flowers. Red roses. How original. I painted my nails, let them dry, and chipped the paint off into an envelope. I waited till the flowers died and sent the dried petals over, too. Colored kisses on envelopes sealed around the dead skin peeled from lips in the drying dead of winter. Strands of hair that smelled faintly of coconut shampoo, collected from the shower drain and dried and stamped, sealed, delivered. In response to a sweater he wore to bed every night for a week before shipping, that smelled strongly of his sleep sweat, a thin layer of my sunburnt skin, cracked and peeling. A molar with a growing cavity, because of all the parts of the body, including the bones, the teeth should last the longest.
Mike11 is in my bedroom. Mike11 is in my bedroom because I invited him here, because he came recommended by 4/5 friends. Mike11 is called Mike11 because his real name is Michael Evan, and in middle school, he used to sign his name like that because he thinks he’s clever.
Mike11 has a reputation in my school for being able to give girls their first orgasm. I think this is because he is a senior, and so has had a lot of practice. I’m 16 now, a sophomore, which is the age people generally think is appropriate to stop being a prude. Which is the age people kind of expect you to make mistakes, so your PE teacher has to bring out diagrams of diseased vaginas and your pediatrician who you have been seeing since you were 2 suddenly has to ask you if you drink or do drugs or are sexually active.
At the time of my last doctor’s visit, I was not sexually active, not even close, but sometimes Mary Eliot will bring travel shampoo bottles full of her parents’ rum for us to pour into our Cokes during lunch, and I think maybe I am making two mistakes here: drinking and not asking my friend Mary Eliot if she is okay.
Mary Eliot is involved in a lot of my mistakes, like when we were walking around St. Mark’s two days ago, on a Tuesday, and I got my nose pierced just for the helluvit. At this piercing place in St. Mark’s, everyone who works there was sitting in a lounged back chair watching a reality TV show called Dating Naked when we walked in. People get set up on blind dates and when they meet for the first time, they are absolutely naked. Those parts are blurred out because they are not suitable for America. I did remember hearing, though, that whoever’s job it is to blur out those bits was distracted once and so did a bad job at blurring. Apparently America saw a lot more than it should have, and the girl with the unblurred bits was suing the network.
Anyway, the TV in the piercing place is positioned like in a hospital room, way up, so everyone was lying down and tilting their heads way back and their chins way up to see the screen. They looked kind of funny, all slouched there, and at first we weren’t sure if they were closed. Then a girl with blonde hair and eyeliner that raccooned around her eyes noticed us and said, “How can I help you ladies?” I was glad it was her who talked to us first because I think if I were walking down the street late at night and felt lost or in trouble, she would be the one of all the ones there who I would talk to. She put me in the chair right in the glass display window. People walking by probably thought I was a mannequin for a split second. “Wait right here, okay, sweetie?” she said and disappeared into the back. I heard rock-paper-scissors, and then a man with more metal on his face than flesh came out. He did not introduce himself, but I theorized that someone could learn his whole life story by reading all the faded ink on his body, if he’d let them.
I felt okay getting my nose pierced like this because it was a mistake a lot of other people have made. I feel this way about a lot of things I am vaguely afraid of, like skipping class and standing around Mary Eliot with her cigarettes, like lying to people older than me who I respect, like lying to people who are younger than me in case they are impressionable, like pregnancy and childbirth and death. I figure it’s going to be okay because enough people before me have gone through it, or have gone through with it. There’s a difference, I think; the with implies with choice.
I feel that I have a lot of choice, I am very lucky that way, and that’s why Mike11 came to my front door when I knew my parents weren’t going to be home, in the middle of the day on a weekday. He did that thing that adults do where you go to hug someone and then kind-of-kiss that someone on the cheek. I’m never sure how to respond to a thing like that. Do you in turn go to kiss that person’s cheek? Unless it’s one of the ones where they just touch their cheek to your cheek and make a sound like a kiss, and in that case, do you make the kiss sound back? I thought it was an especially weird thing for Mike11 to do, because I don’t think we’re at that age yet. But Mike11 is a senior and so maybe knows better.
Mike11 is in my bedroom now, futzing with my geometry textbook, because a few days ago I told him I needed help with math. We sit on my bed and stare at the textbook, even though we both know what I meant then. The textbook’s flipped open to a random page, a chapter we haven’t even covered yet in class. There are cut-and-dry formulas and questions about measuring angles and cutting things in half and how much of a thing another thing can contain. There are complicated shapes that are shaded in different ways, with dotted lines for dimension. And I do that thing where I look at it like an optical illusion, and I see the cube either jutting out and up on the left or down and to the right. Out up left down right out up left down right out up, and then my brain has a hard time making it switch back, so I look at Mike11 instead. He has thick, curly brown hair and deep-set eyes that are brown also but still pretty. He’s looking at me in a waiting-way, but not in a way that makes me feel rushed like when you go into a boutique store and it’s very small and the employees are very friendly and just so very there.
Mike11 is so very here in a good way. He’s sitting on the bed, but on the very edge but not in a way that makes him look uncomfortable. Mike11 looks very natural sitting there at the edge of my bed. No part of him is touching any part of me. He doesn’t say anything, and that’s how I know he’ll be a real gentleman about it.
“Hi,” I say, and it sounds lame. The “hi” just kind of hangs there in air for a second, doesn’t know where to go, isn’t sure if it should ask for directions. It cut through the silence awkwardly, like a plastic knife trying to slice through steak. That’s what it sounds like.
Still, Mike11 takes this as his cue. He wriggles a little closer up the bed and puts his face this close to mine. His nose touches my nose. His nose touches my new nose piercing, which still hurts a little but I don’t tell him that. He’s touching my common mistake. It makes me feel more normal.
Mike11’s mouth is on my mouth and his tongue is in my mouth and oh god what do I even do with this? It doesn’t really matter what I do with this, though, because it doesn’t stay for long, and then Mike11 is kissing my neck, my collarbone, my breasts. The song head, shoulders, knees, and toes. The 4/5 friends that went through this, that went through with this, and would recommend it to a friend. All our lines are touching now, and the geometry textbook has slid into our indent of the bed and is gently stabbing my side. I try to ignore it because I think trying to slide it off the bed would be weird. It would make a thud that is like cutting steak with a chainsaw.
A Couple More
A couple more minutes means not really. I hate crying in bed or when I have a cold. The act of becoming foreign. Movies make it nice but sometimes feel like dissociation. Falling out of love is my least favorite part of loving. The mountains alight purple-brown every day at dusk. As if in a play. Sometimes rain dims. Occasionally the sensation prevails. How much of it is always a metaphor for death? Hums in the common living room mean it is past evening and it is not the weekend. The sky has a way of glowing velvet here. Nature doesn’t let you forget about your problems. Good friends often attend meals together. They say strength in the blood makes for a good neck. Sometimes I wonder if anything is worth saying but usually the saying is what helps me back onto my feet. Language makes me feel funny. If people still wrote letters. I see when you’re online and then I know some part of your life. Ownership floats around.
Meeting, An Opera
I can’t talk long.
I’m just on my lunch break.
I thought about calling you,
And asking if you would want to meet somewhere else.
I thought maybe you’d want to meet somewhere warm.
No. This is fine.
It’s right between us.
This is fine.
That doesn’t sound good.
Travis: don’t try and take care of me—
No, no! I just think that.
The cold sort of carves you out and leaves you empty, right?
And that coat looks real ratty.
Why not go somewhere else?
Somewhere warm? //
Whatever you want, Travis.
Whatever you want.
// Here is fine.
You are so full of shit.
I’ve only got an hour.
They expect me back.
Empty churches are weird.
They make all the noise in the world –
Holy screams and hollers –
But without any sound at all.
Empty churches on a Tuesday afternoon in March
Are very weird.
You are so full of shit. //
What do you want, Travis?
(T tries to kiss P. P pushes him away.)
Stubborn as an ox.
Let me care for you.
I know you need it.
(He tries to kiss him again.)
I thought you—
You came to meet me.
On your lunch break.
Not for that, Travis.
I told myself you wouldn’t come.
And then you did. And so I thought…
What the fuck do you want, Travis?
My mouth is stuffed full of words
(Jumbled like alphabet soup),
And I can’t find the strength to spit them up.
This is hard for me; harder than you can know.
I still love you, Phil.
Can you see that?
I miss tracing the lines on your body:
The run of your hip like the lip of a
Brimming wine glass.
I miss tracing the lines on your body
Before you wake up and ruin me
With shrugs and nudges and pushes away.And scurry off to work.
I still love you, Phil.
Can you see that?
You are so full of shit.
We’ve turned this over four times before.
My teeth are caved in:
They don’t have anything for you anymore.
Phil, I still love you. I still love you.
What do you want, Travis?
By this church on a
Tuesday afternoon in March.
Give me more than “I still love you,”
Or I’m gone. I’ve got to get back to work—
It sits low in my gut
And makes me feel like
I’m going to shit myself.
You don’t know. You don’t know!
I’m gone. //
I know you’re sick, Phil.
The coughing, bringing up cancer-blood.
Not good, Phil. Really not good.
Disease of the lungs;
Shallow, empty breath.
How’d you guess?
James called me and James told me.
Last week. Not good, Phil.
You need someone looking out for you
If you’re sick. You need someone around.
And I still love you, Phil.
Like I know how.
Don’t try and take care of me—
Do you know that most mornings
When we were together –
When you would leave for work early
And abandon scattered-me in your bed –
I would make myself oatmeal and honey?
Because that’s all you had in your kitchen.
And no matter how many times I would
Make myself breakfast, I would always
Find that box of oatmeal full, full, full.
More than I left it the day before. It was magic.
Is that where all your money went to?
You’d always be working and
You’d only ever have oatmeal.
But endless oatmeal. Endless oatmeal.
Don’t worry about it, Travis.
You’d only ever have oatmeal. //
That coat! Looks like you sighed
All the warmth right out of it.
Always working, but you haven’t
Bought yourself a new coat in years.
Look: I know your wallet is empty.
The well’s run dry. I get it.
And hospitals aren’t cheap.
And doctors aren’t cheap.
I get it. So take this.
My love to you.
Full and rich,
Like the chocolates
You’d never give me.
(He tries to give him a wad of cash.)
What the fuck are you doing?
This thing I’m giving you.
It’s what I owe you.
I feel it heavy in my gut.
You’ve got to eat more than oatmeal
If you have cancer, Phil.
Oatmeal’s not going to keep you healthy.
Oatmeal is magic.
It’s the only thing
You know why?
Doesn’t try and
Take care of me.
It just fills me up.
I know you!
I know your demons
And your darlings.
I know you!
I know you are sick.
And I know that your
Apartment gets cold
With all those windows.
And I know that the only
Spoon you own is rusting.
And I know that you won’t
Buy yourself a new coat
Even though that one is
And I know that, for whatever reason,
You won’t spend money on things
To keep you full and good and warm.
If you can promise me
That you have the money to…
I’ll leave you alone.
But hospitals aren’t cheap, Phil!
I have to get back to work.
Where does all that money go?
Where does all that money go, Phil?
An empty pantry, but ONE endless,
Magic box of oatmeal.
Don’t reject me, Phil.
I’m not an easy thing,
You can blow off.
There’s more in me –
More I feel I owe you.
Why do you still love me?
I declared war on you
And my bedframe
Every night you came to me.
I left my convictions there
When we ended things.
I wasn’t good to you, Travis.
I wasn’t good to you at all.
I know that in my gut,
I can feel it swell in my
Stomach every time
I think of you.
But I still love you anyways.
Why do you still love me when you only know my mattress?
Understand this, Travis: your love is based on a lie
That you’ve made for yourself – that I could
Give you something more
Than you already have.
That’s as unfulfilled, but vital as the air.
I have nothing to give you.
I pounded you sore, sour
I pounded you reeling
Even when you asked me not to.
I pounded you hatred—
And you took it,
Even when you asked me not to.
I pounded you
Trying to hollow you out.
I still love you.
Try to explain it if you can.
I still love you.
No, you don’t. //
When I left you, scattered in my bed,
Early every morning, making endless
Bowls of oatmeal, I would come here.
I would leave my bed to come to this church.
And I would sit here for hours.
Until I spotted you on your way home.
Then I would run back
To hide on my couch,
To cough my way
Through re-runs of “I Love Lucy.”
Day bleeding to day,
Week wheezing to week.
What are you talking about?
There is no work.
There is no work.
There is no lunch break.
There is no money.
There is no work.
All a lie.
An empty thing.
Nothing on me.
Nothing to give me.
I’ve kept it all together:
The doctors, the knives,
The gasping, the fluid.
There is nothing for you to give me
Because there is nothing that you owe me.
Because your love for me is a mistake.
It’s all a lie,
An empty thing!
Then why do I feel this thing
Press from my inside out?
Why do I feel this thing
Playing checkers with my bowels??
What the fuck are you talking about?
You’ll take this.
You’ll take this
Thing I’m giving you.
You’ll take this!!
(He forces the money on him. He wrestles him to the ground and shoves it into his mouth, or his coat, or his pants. Anything.)
I’m fucking gone.
I have something growing in me.
That you gave me.
I can feel it – it’s a bull, stubborn like its dad.
I can feel its horns scraping against the inside of my intestines.
At first, I thought it was a beautiful thing
That you would come back to me for.
A beautiful thing that would make you kiss me again.
But now I see that it’s a lie:
An empty creature that keeps me full. //
Take the fucking money.
Take the fucking money!
Was someone here this whole time?
It doesn’t matter.
Those mornings I wasted
Dreaming of you at a desk
With a laptop and a ham
Sandwich for lunch.
These things I thought full
I am now finding empty.
Every day, my stomach grows
In time with your betrayal.
Here! Here! Feel it kick!
The monster that you planted in me
This voided beast that drains my life.
(He presses his stomach against P.)
You’re fucking nuts!
I loved you. I loved you!
I gave you money because
I still loved you!
Now, I am lost. I am lost…
You’re fucking nuts!
I loved you! I loved you!
(Church bells. End.)
Cities and Memory
“As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand.”
In Temporia, time runs dependent on objects. Upon entering the city’s limits, it seems quite ordinary. You are the same age you were at the town before, at the city’s outskirts. Your watch runs not a second fast or slow, the time zone remains the same. If you walk through quite quickly, without stopping for a coffee or to sit at a park bench, you will exit with nothing but a fleeting sense of the place, the knowledge that you walked through something, some blurry and indistinct shadow of a city.
However, (and I do not know what cosmic bend caused this, what wrinkle in time), upon touching a specific object, time folds, crinkling and bending, sometimes stretching or weaving, and you are transported to a moment in the object’s life. If you stop to sit upon a bench, expecting to rest and admire the flowers, you may instead zip through time, to another moment in the bench’s life, when a girl sat and wept, or an elderly man wrapped in blankets laid down to rest.
Not even a croissant bought from a corner bakery is safe, as the butter folded in it may bring you to a cow being milked on an unknown and distant farm, or the flour many years back to a field suffering from drought, its earth cracked and sore.
Those who are in a hurry to get someplace, or who simply have no desire to live another life, avoid Temporia or walk through quickly and stiffly, dodging even the slightest brush of a branch or a sip of water from a fountain. However, even the stones embedded in the street below their feet have a history, and many find themselves lost in strings of connections and time.
There are also those who make pilgrimages to the city, perhaps desiring to live in a different century, to escape their lives. There are also those who go to find someone lost, who are in search of a specific red-checkered sunhat that will bring them to their grandmother kneeling in her garden in late spring. Finally, there are those who go to touch every object in hope that one will eventually string them back to their past selves, to the day that their father kissed them on their heads and quietly shut their bedroom door.
“This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support…Suspended over the abyss, the live of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will only last so long.”
Blood flows out of you when you prick your finger on a pin, skin your knee tripping over a rock, or donate it to the Red Cross. The blood that pearls up on your fingertip is brushed against jeans and disappears. The blood left on the sidewalk might evaporate on a hot day, reentering the atmosphere. The blood you donate exits your body through a tube, then is collected in a bag and pumped into someone else. Your body feels the loss for a bit, gets the spins, then regenerates, producing more. That surplus you had goes to someone with a lack, and balance is ultimately maintained. The same can be said for spit, as it travels down the drain after you brush your teeth, flows to a treatment plant, and reenters the environment as water. The same holds for sweat, urine, tears.
In Statera, however, the system is different. The city runs on these excretions, using its citizens’ blood and tears as power. On the outskirts of the city, there is a massive aquamarine lake, a collection point for all its residents’ tears. The tears are burned as fuel and power the cars, radiators, and washing machines.
The city runs most, efficiently, then, when everyone is crying. On the day of a national tragedy the transit system runs most smoothly, the trains are all on time. In the winter, when everyone is just a bit melancholic, the garbage is picked up promptly, and the Internet never slows down.
There is also a vast system of pneumatic tubes that crisscross the city streets, collecting the citizens’ blood and shuttling it to a power plant. Days when there is a five-car pileup on the highway, then, are marvelously efficient and well run. Hospitals are major suppliers, as are children who nick themselves in arts and crafts, who fall off their bike and get a bloody nose. On days without accidents or deaths, however, the lights are constantly flickering, the stoplights malfunction, the bathwater turns murky and grey.
Because of this system, the citizens of Statera find themselves torn, their bodies the fuel needed to power a city that they, in turn, need to live.
“In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the street are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.”
As a child, I always wished that I could touch someone and transmit my feelings. I felt that, if only I could touch my teacher after I skinned my knee and spread the feeling, she would know how badly it really hurt and I would no longer be alone in my pain, both of us suffering. This desire isn’t limited to pain. When I get an A on a paper, I wish I could touch my best friend and the feeling would be diffused between us, both of gleeful, sharing exactly the same emotion. If we could live like this, I believe that conflict would be greatly reduced. A couple would both be happy at the same time, I would know how much my grandfather’s arthritic knee hurt and wouldn’t begrudge him for not going on walks with me, we would never again be alone, suffering in solipsistic worlds.
The residents of Emelia are receptive to shared emotion in the sort of way that you and I both feel cold when the air conditioning is cranked up too high. When they are separate, they exist as we do, alone in individual worlds. However, with one touch, an emotion or feeling is transmitted. Because of this, at any given time there is often a larger sensation or emotion to the city. During large festivities with tightly packed crowds, all it takes is one sullen, tired child to bump into a stranger and set off a chain effect that turns the mood of the crowd sour and morose. At a funeral, if one person isn’t truly grieving and in fact is secretly quite gleeful, hugs a relative of the deceased, the whole sad event quickly turns cheerful.
The residents of the city are thus understandably terrified of a day when a chain reaction is set off that touches every single person in the city and imbues them all one emotion, glee, confusion or pain spreading across the city like a disease. Because of this, there are some that live their lives quite alone, fearful of touch and connection, waiting for the day when this massive wave of feeling strikes.
Cities and Names
“Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them. Perhaps Clarice has always been only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted, obsolete.”
Diluvia is a small city on an island. The region around the city is moist and tropical, with dark and heavy plants that grow from every crevice. The environment is unsteady and at times violent, with whipping winds and massive waves that rise up from the shore. Nothing about Diluvia is made to survive. The island itself is on a fault line, and the city directly abuts the shore. Every few years comes some new natural disaster, sometimes an earthquake, other times a tsunami or a monsoon. The towering waves inevitably wipe out the city, leaving behind nothing but foundations and rubble. The inhabitants of Diluvia, perhaps because they truly love their city, or perhaps because they simply don’t know where else to settle on such a tiny island, rebuild exactly as they remember it. New stones are placed on top of the shattered remnants of the old, streets paved over again.
Looking at the wall of a house, you can see the strata of Diluvia that have once existed, been wiped out, and rebuilt, like layers of sediment. However, nothing can be rebuilt exactly as it was, and over the centuries, the city has slowly begun to bend and morph. The walls are no longer straight, but veer off at a sharp angle. The streets lead into each other, a jumbled web. And through the passing of time, after each natural disaster the generation that rebuilds Diluvia no longer knows how it looked at the very beginning, and builds it in their own vision of the city. Because of this, Diluvia has become twisted and strange, rising at odd angles and curves, and the city, which everyone prides themselves as having remained exactly the same since its founding, is nothing like what it once was.
Cities and the Sky
“For some time the augurs had been sure that the carpet’s harmonious pattern was of divine origin…but you could, similarly, come to the opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fire, screams in the darkness.
Caelia is utterly dull, an average city with a mid-rate educational system, prefabricated buildings, and overall, a vaguely beige quality. The residents of Caelia, who are equally slow and passionless, are painfully aware of their mediocrity, but don’t know what to do to change a city that has been so deeply uninteresting since its birth. In such a mundane place, with equally mundane people, there is nothing to grab onto, nothing with which to pull themselves up. They are jealous of other equally boring cities that have somehow spawned a famous author, or were struck by a meteor and instantaneously became valuable. One man, who for Christmas received the gift of a star named after him from the International Star Registry, decides that the way to bring give Caelia value is to buy it a star. They identify the greatest and brightest star in the sky above them, purchase it for a low, low, price, and name it Caelia.
Instantly, the city becomes electric, alive. They call themselves “The Starry City”, and tourists flock to see this city that has such a direct line to the heavens. The residents of the city, too, are pulled out of their mundane existence, and begin to blossom, discovering passions and interests, wearing bright colors. They look up at their star overhead and thank it for this gift of light.
Something Caelia may not have grasped is that stars die. In particular, the most massive stars burn up their fuel supply the fastest and explode in a supernova after only a few million years of life. Smaller stars die too, but much more slowly, over trillions of years. By some twist of fate, the immense and glowing star that the Caelians chose burned out only a few years later. After an enormous flash in the sky, they looked up and saw nothing. Their star had vanished.
Although Caelia had become a thriving city full of innovation and excitement, the loss of their star cast them back into oblivion. They believed that the star had catapulted them into fame and success, and without it they felt there was nothing keeping them from their previous beige existence. Its inhabitants halted their exciting lives and returned to their prefab homes, and Caelia returned to the way it was, no longer a starry city, scarcely a city at all.
“He feels envy toward those who now believe that they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.”
There is a hidden city that is built and exists only for a specific few. Selenia is found only on maps belonging to a married couple. However, there may be many other similar Selenias that exist exclusively for other people, cities that we cannot know about. Within Selenia are two identical, but slightly offset cities. The wife lives in and moves through one of the Selenias, the husband, the other. Both have the same streets, the same restaurant they both love, the same red brick house they share. However, it is important to understand that these cities are separate, running slightly off from one another. In her Selenia, the wife may at any point be several minutes ahead, or sometimes a bit behind. Because of this, she can call the husband as often as she wants, but the phone in his Selenia will always ring at a slightly different time, and thus he will always pick up to hear a blank dial tone. She will always arrive home at night a few minutes after he has fallen asleep.
Lest you misunderstand, let me make this clear. Selenia may sound like a city of nightmares, and perhaps for others, if similar cities do exist, it may very well be. However, in this city, the wife and the husband are exceedingly happy. They live in the same house and are married. The wife makes dinner and leaves it in the fridge, and the husband finds it. The husband brings home a nice bottle of wine, and by morning, they have both enjoyed it separately. The wife gives vague but positive updates about him to her friends at brunch, and watches him sometimes as he peacefully sleeps. He is comforted by the sound of the shower running and the shadow behind the steamy curtain, the knowledge that she is just beyond. In Selenia, they never fight about the upcoming election. She never makes the ticking nose with her mouth that he hates so much, or at least he is not around to hear it. She is never angry because he doesn’t know how to turn on the TV.
In Selenia, the husband and the wife are happy together, separately. They have occasionally tried to go on holiday to France or visit parents, but every time it has erupted into a furious fight over the restaurant, and they have cut the trip short and hurried back to Selenia, where the wife wakes up peacefully to the sound of the husband’s car starting.
I remember how the smell of my mother’s lipstick would fill up the elevator.
I remember “Shamana”, a 25 year old alcoholic poet I was in love with when I was fifteen, chase after the taxi I got in that night.
I remember taking my friend to see Scratch the Floor, who were performing on Halloween’s Eve. But he got really drunk and cut his finger somehow. I remember looking at it and smiling. We rubbed the blood on our faces as the moon shined down and intoxicated people surrounded us, banging their heads, not questioning what we were doing.
I remember going to second base with the base player of that same band in this gallery’s shitty outside bathroom that had a colored light bulb. Red light spilled out the gaps of the old wooden door. There was a girl waiting outside, wanting to pee the whole time.
I remember a biker offering me straight tobacco, extending my hand, snorting it, feeling it tingle in my nostrils, and having to sneeze twenty consecutive times.
I remember my first cigarette; I was five and my grandfather let me have a drag.
I remember going on a drive on January the 1st with my drunken friend who was wearing a Santa hat.
I remember making out with this guy at a party in the ruins of an old restaurant after talking to him for the first time for two minutes. I remember he was wearing a sex-pistols t-shirt and was either actually a good kisser, or the vodka that was flowing through my veins developed a likeness towards him.
I remember waking up the next day with bite marks on my inner thighs that apparently weren’t his doing.
I remember the first time I got high. I remember feeling like my heart was going to break out of my ribcage.
I remember when I rode on my boyfriend’s new motorcycle for the first time. I remember the hand breaks didn’t work, nor did he know how to drive it.
I remember having to take twelve pills a day and mother discovering that the dose was too strong a year later.
I remember my friend Mikhail, who was so drunk he was tripping over his feet, pick me up unexpectedly to carry me over a huge muddy puddle while we were making our way home through the darkness. I remember clinging to his denim jacket, hoping he wouldn’t accidentally drop me into it.
I remember going to the woods to pee on so many occasions, they all blur together. I remember wiping the tops of my shoes with a leaf and feeling disgusted.
I remember being mistaken for a prostitute on the side of the road, twice. The first time, I was 14- crossing a bridge at night. A man and a woman in their thirties, they didn’t bother getting out of the car. The second time, I was 16- sitting behind a bus stop during the day. It was only a single man that time, also in his thirties. I remember he parked his jeep, waddled over, his stomach fat getting in the way of his thighs, and sat down next to me before going into his pick up speech.
I remember looking my reflection in the eyes and cutting my hair off when I was twelve.
I remember my friend’s father trying to kiss my breast in the elevator.
I remember feeling the needle go through my tongue.
I remember the look in my mother’s ivy eyes when she found a broken piece in my bag.
I remember making out with this girl on a rooftop, whose name on Facebook was “Slaughtered Vomit Pig”, right after we finished the bottle and threw it down- fourteen stories.
I remember having my heart broken for the first time.
I remember having so much dried blood on my legs that I couldn’t take my tights off the night I broke my nose. I was four. I don’t remember the pain. But I remember I was in a lot of it.
I remember losing five hours of my life after that last sip of strawberry skittles vodka at the Tbilisi Open-Air Festival 2012, apparently including a five minute walk to the entrance, security guards checking me and my bag, me showing them my ticket, getting stamped, getting photographed, and falling asleep in front of the stage on the grass.
I remember my mother yelling at me for wearing makeup when I was in middle school.
I remember thinking that I was going to die. I remember hearing the car hit the motorcycle. I don’t remember falling to the ground. I remember the motorcycle crushing into my leg and not being able to lift it off.
I remember watching my mother get ready to go out.
I remember the sirens and the crowd of people surrounding us, studying us silently.
I don’t remember them helping, or moving, or speaking.
I remember teaching myself how to paint my eyes.
I remember the first time I had sex.
I remember making out with a guy that was nicknamed “God” and how terrible it was.
I remember having to take so many tests that the natural anxiety we have towards needles completely disappeared.
I remember piercing my own frenulum.
I remember lighting a cigarette the wrong way.
I remember the way my mother smelled before she would go to sleep.
Looking out of the car window from the backseat, my eyes try to take everything in as my lungs subtly adjust- or readjust- to the city breeze. Even though it’s June and the air feels hot against my skin, it enters my lungs as a cool current. I close my eyes and face the window, letting the air hit my face, the speed my father is driving makes it impossible to breath in at times. My feet stick to the soles of the black flats I am wearing. I take them off and put my feet up on my seat, because I can do that here. It’s my father’s car, not a friend’s, or the school shuttle or a public bus. I could drift off to sleep and there would be no consequences, no stops would be missed or bags stolen. The safest place in the world- my father’s car- where I have taken many naps and created thousands of childhood window drawings.
My mother is sitting in front, twisted in her seat so she can talk to me. She says everything with a smile, laughs at everything I say and disregards things that normally would upset her. She always looks exactly the same; the one constant that remains unchanged. We pass through a graffiti-filled tunnel; I smile because I know most of the artists.
It’s hard for me to understand how quickly buildings seem to multiply in Tbilisi. They take over parks, forests; even children’s playgrounds. Half the town is made up of construction sites and the other half with, hollow houses that stick out awkwardly with their newly dried paint amongst the old Soviet structures. People don’t have money for expensive new apartments, and those who do already own more than one (the others locked up for future children or renters).
I missed the magical spring period, when everything turns bright celery green. Instead, I’ve arrived in mid June, just as the edges of leaves are curling into brownish yellow from the scorching heat. Everything about Tbilisi seems and looks different- is different- even if the difference isn’t visible at first glance, because time and distance leave nothing untouched. Nevertheless, I feel as if I never really left. My lungs are used to this air, and my skin to this sun. The feeling of belonging here is stronger than any other emotion I have ever experienced. Knowing what street leads where, exactly at what second one neighborhood ends and the other begins, which bus runs on schedule an how late, which stops are closer to your destination. Knowing that no matter what, there will always be a bed you are welcome in, a light left on, understanding how the city breathes, what it has for breakfast and lunch, what it drinks, what it smokes, what it wears, what it’s talking about. Knowing that any stranger in the street isn’t truly a stranger, because of how many things you know about their life: like where they bought the clothes they are wearing, or what kind of sheets they probably sleep in, what neighborhood they probably live in, and what kind of desk they sat on in elementary school (because you sat on the same kind), a wooden one with metal legs and curse words etched in ink, and because of the small size of the city, that you probably have been in the same bus or subway car at some point in your life.
We just passed another new Dunkin Donuts. It’s only been a year since the first one popped up, and now they are everywhere. It’s not surprising after the commotion they caused. Dunkin Donuts were the only form of sustenance anyone ate for those first seven days. People walked around with perpetually pasty fingers and sprinkles stuck to their lips, contaminating everything with sugary stickiness. People of all ages hoarded them and stuffed their mouths with the sweet circles, probably thinking, hoping they would magically ingest “Americanness” along with them. Mothers desperately fed them to their children, families had them for dinner and breakfast, they were carried around as presents, the whole city painted a mélange of white, pink and orange. So many donuts were purchased in the first week; they had to close for two days to restock. Tbilisi ran on Dunkin.
The closer we get to home, the more my emotions rise.
As the car turns onto our street I see the familiar shops and vendors. They have crates of vibrant vegetables, fresh fruits and spices in every shade of yellow. The space their shops are in used to be garages that people sold for three times the normal price, because they were on the street and could be turned into shops. The man in the shop is watching a Turkish soap opera in his tiny television, attached to the wall as he weighs carrots. I can see the bakery, its transparent walls offering a peak inside, where a man is bent into the giant, old-fashioned clay “stove” that’s used for making traditional long Georgian bread tonis puri or lavashi.
Coming back from Bennington, a small town in which a car is needed to get a pack of cigarettes and the sky is almost always filled with constellations, having everything at the tip of my fingers feels comforting. My street recognizes me as I recognize it. We have shared so many days and nights, experienced kisses and fights, seen and done and cried. We have painted on each other. I with spray-paint and it with mud. As I get out of the car and start walking toward my building I notice my footsteps, which are still engraved in the pavement outside the local grocery store.
Black Earth, Wisconsin
It’s a long drive from the airport. In the backseat of the car I take comfort in the low hum of my parents’ voices and look out the window as the highway blends with thoughts of wherever I’m coming back from this time.
And then we’re here: Black Earth. To strangers the name sounds straight out of Lord of the Rings or some other dark fantasy land, but really it’s just what the Native Americans who were here first noticed about the soil: rich and dark.
For a small rural town in America’s Dairyland, Black Earth lives up to all possible preconceived notions. The town itself is surrounded for miles by red-barn farms full with saggy-skinned heifers waiting to give up their labors for cheddar, parmesan, and provolone. Fields sprouting corn and hay and soybeans stretch on for miles; you’ve never seen skies so wide and blue or smelled anything more rancid than the fresh manure continually being spread from acre to acre.
Thanks to the arctic glaciers that carved their way down the state ten thousand years ago, Wisconsin is not as flat as its other Midwest friends. Hills roll on and on, some cut high as mountains, or so I used to think. They are sheltered by quiet miles of forest, visited yearly by groups of neon-clad hunters in the fall.
Lots of kids wake up at dawn or earlier to milk before the bus comes. Every spring my old high school, a one-story brick building shrouded between cornfields, hosts Drive Your Tractor to School Day, and several giant red and green monsters can be seen resting in the parking lot from eight thirty to three. Girls wear cowboy boots under their prom dresses and boys have crew cuts; normalcy works as currency and the social scene is straight out of every American high school movie—someone is always throwing up in the bathroom, we are always reading The Scarlet Letter, we are always losing the big game. America’s heartland is composed mostly of clichés.
We’re turning into town and here it is: THE MIDWEST’S LARGEST SHOE STORE. In a village of few more than a thousand people, the Shoe Box takes up two blocks and employs a significant percentage of the population—a set-up similar to an old mining town, but instead of coal the local currency is Nike’s and bedazzled UGG boots.
The gigantic building glows with neon lighting all hours of the day and night, complete with a ten-foot cowboy boot on the front lawn and other foot-centric décor that comes and goes with the seasons. In front, facing the highway is a patio designated for Brat Frys and Girl Scout cookie displays, where cheerleaders do summersaults for cerebral palsy and the 20-foot welcome sign reads “Shoes 4 U!”
Inside, the walls are plastered inch-to-inch with sports memorabilia: plaques and signed photos, helmets and framed jerseys, ticket stubs and laminated newspaper headlines from the biggest big games. The owner, Steve Schmitt, also owns the local minor league baseball team and can usually be found wandering the store yelling at the staff to hustle. Some believe it a right of passage to be shouted at by him while either working or shopping there, and others make the drive to Famous Footwear to avoid it.
Even so, the most bizarre thing about the Shoe Box are the birdcages that hang throughout the store, in them chirping parakeets, tri-colored finches, and at the back one beautiful crimson macaw. She watches over as customers try on sixes, six-and-a-halves, then sevens, every now and then repeating something she hears, and I can never remember her name.
Coasting down Main Street we pass the bank, the bar, post office, and the library. Two more businesses have closed since I’ve been home—the only little restaurant, the Luckin’ Booth, where my brother served slices of pie to every local over 65, and the Meat Market that smelled (understandably) like a fridge full of dead things, but was worth braving for the gumball machine. My Black Earth has been dying since the day it was founded, but with every new loss I worry more about losing all of her someday, of coming back to suddenly find nothing at all.
We take a right then a left and arrive in a cul-de-sac. At the end of the circle sits a white-paneled house with a drooping oak tree in front, and as it appears a sigh of relief leaves my body. Beyond the house the town ends and the cornfields begin, Black Earth creek coiling through the middle. Whether the stalks are green and high, brown and dying, or the field is flat and snowy, it’s certain that the view is gorgeous and the air smells like shit.
I put the Windex in the water I put the pepper in the cookies and it was not poisonous but I thought I’d killed my sister. My father said: When Sue told me, it was like hearing that you’d put a gun up to her head. I was eight years old. I said: I tied the bear up and set the dogs loose I hit my sister when she called me stupid I bit the boy next door when he wouldn’t play legos because he said I couldn’t make a good enough spaceship. I hit the pillow against the wall when the principal was a sexist asshole I got cold when you tried to hug me I walked away when you were eighteen I never spoke to you again I always let somebody else shoot the chickens when they had been torn up by foxes or raccoons from the night before (they usually came a bit before dawn). When the duck broke its leg, my father broke its neck, boiled and plucked it raw to give to the neighbors for cooking. You can’t make a cast for a duck, my mother told me. You have to end its misery. You have to be the responsible one.
I killed a spider once, I drove a herd of calves onto the trailer and rode them to the butcher. We had named them, and then we fed them and then we held them every day. Simon had just begun to trust me.
Who has the right to torture? Who has the right to conduct night raids, strip searches, waterboarding, who kills the duck to feed me dinner who shoots the man who might have shot me first? Is it violent for a lion to kill an antelope? Is it violent for a lion to kill a lion? Is it violent for a woman to kill a lion? Is it violent for a woman to kill a woman? Is it violent that I hit my sister and bit my friend, is it violent that I put Windex in the water, is it violent that I pay taxes?
I shot the duck I hit the girl I walked away I tied up the innocent I ate the meat I drank the milk I drove the calves I drove the truck I held the knife I cut their throats who will cut mine? I hit the spider with a book and wiped the book off with a paper and threw the paper in the trash. Who tortures the inmates in far-off prisons? I am not my money. Somebody else does it somebody else will go to hell for me, I’m clean I’m clean and my hands are in water and my soul is in water and my money is yours, my money is not me my money means nothing to me I can pay for something and then it isn’t mine.
I buy the torture of foreign men and women. I buy it and take it home to my father. Dad, I say, just look what I’ve done. I killed the duck this time. I held him underwater and he told me the truth. He was crying, that’s how I knew it was true. He would say anything to leave that room, so I shot him dead and brought him home for you. Preheat the stove. We can invite the neighbors to dinner tonight.
There's a Bull in My Kitchen
There is a bull who lives in my house. He is gentle and majestic, and coal-colored with an olivey sheen to his coat. His shoulders make it hard for him to fit through doors. Sometimes I worry he’ll kill me in his sleep, his horns are just so long. Sometimes he tries to turn around around and then breaks the china with his tail. Sometimes I bring him to bed with me, and sometimes he fits better in the kitchen.
I remember graduating, with a smile like a chasm across my face.
I remember bounding home in a big yellow dress. It was huge, sun-sized, light all around my body. A weightless feeling like everything was all behind me, and only good things ahead. I remember coming home in a state of bliss, smiling at the sky the whole way home like it'd done something for me, something special for me, little old me. And then, when I got closer to the house and saw it burning, and saw my mum and Yuki parked outside of it wailing. I remember that too. My mum running her hands down her face, tearing her hair down. Yuki white and motionless in his stupid black suit, numbly clutching that black briefcase with his Chopin, in it, with his etudes in it. And I'm like what the fuuck—a long drawn out bellow of disbelief. Oh how I hated them on that day.
I come running across the lawn, my big legs thumping right through Mrs Wu's begonias. There is smoke and this awful smell. Half the neighborhood's there, spectating. Mum and Yuki at the center of it all. I come at them like I'm coming for them. I'm losing it, I'm already flying off the handle because I just can't believe what they've done. I want to take my mother in my arms and slam her back through the burning door. All my stuff's in there. What happened, I demand to know, and with that question I pin the blame right on them, sharp. My mouth is forming a big howl, and I feel my body slam into the ground, face first, and there I am ripping out clods of earth and grass with my fists.
It transpires that what occurred on this, the day of my high school graduation, but also unfortunately of Yuki's incredibly important audition, is that my mother, so wound up, so derailed by the stress of her eldest son's upcoming performance, and also by the rift that this caused with me, her second child due to the fact that in order to transport Yuki to his recital she had to miss my graduation, decided to break the hard habit of ten years and smoke a large Benson out of the front room window, while Yuki changed into his concert-wear upstairs. When we left England, my father decided that his Benson & Hedges were the one thing he couldn't live without, and ordered them shipped to him in bulk. Never mind his mother and father, dwindling away in a London suburb, his siblings. Never mind his friends from work, our house on the hill. I found out later that my mother also left a lover behind, which explains her bitter quiet, and her tight-lipped exclamations of love for Yuki and I during the first few years of our immigration, words which seemed so lined with hate, which seemed as though they were dragged from her mouth with a fishhook. Once we arrived in the States my father went to work for a bank and we rarely saw him, as he was often sent abroad—which seemed to defeat the point of our moving in the first place. Yuki and I were convinced that he had started another family somewhere far away. “Don't be ridiculous” my Mother said, “he can barely handle this one.” And she moodily stared down at the empty table, while massaging Yuki's shoulder, so hard that it left a red mark. True, we were left very much to our own devices—the three of us, my mother very much alone in a strange Californian suburb, without friends and unable to work due to visa complications. It was as if we stopped existing for our father when he went away. My mother missed him, but said things about him to Yuki and I that she never repeated to him. She had always painted, in our house on the desolate hill in the UK but now she'd stopped. She said she didn't want to get paint on the floor. The entire house was carpeted, and the act of tearing it up or covering it seemed far beyond her in those days “I didn't sign up for this!” we heard her howl at our father on one of the rare nights of his return. Yuki and I heard the noise of his answer, muted through the bedroom wall. Whatever he said to our mother must have enraged her, because she knocked over the nightstand, Our father came thundering down to the kitchen with our mother in hot pursuit. My father's black hair standing on end, his eyes wild and closed off—the usual stare of complete denial. “Leave me alone!” our mother begged, although it was clear that she wanted the opposite. She moved towards him, and he backed away. “I haven't done anything!” he protested, and my mother hurled a butter knife at him. It clattered at his feet. He went away the next morning. That night, my mother stalking my father through the house and hurling knives, so desperate to be heard, really heard, dissolved into one of many, their anger coming through the walls, furious, helpless and inevitable. She punched him once, on the side of the mouth, and he said nothing—merely withdrew, told her to stop getting so upset. Told her that she wasn't making sense, that he couldn't understand her when she became so emotional. “Jesus,” I said to Yuki, “Whatever you do, don't let me end up with someone like Dad. I need someone who'll at least hit me back.” Yuki didn't reply, only gave me that long-faced look which suggested I'd said something truly idiotic. His name isn't really Yuki, it's Eugene. Yuki means snowflake, among other things and is a girl's name. It's not even Chinese, it's Japanese. I gave the name to him. I think I was punishing him for being a piano prodigy, and for being half Chinese like me, and for being very beautiful unlike me. It wasn't his fault. The name stuck, and even my mother started to call him Yuki. “We're half Chinese,” Yuki protested. “Chinese. You can't call me that, it's Japanese.” “Yeah, but we all look the same don't we,” I snapped, “so who cares?” “You don't mean that!” My mother cried, from the front seat of the car. “Quiet whitey,” I snarled.
My mother went into my father's office, and nicked the cellophane around his imported carton of Benson's with her fingernail, peeled it off slowly. She shook a cigarette out of the first packet. She took it into the front room, and cranked open the window. She lit it with the stove lighter. She smoked it, and felt like she might faint from the pleasure of it. She did all this while venting to my Aunt Helen on the phone, crying, the tears very quiet and very warm. The white muslin curtain went up in flames, which reached all the way to the ceiling before my mum even had time to stub out the offending cigarette and scream. The sleeve of her cardigan also caught on fire, and then the rest of it, so that as she ripped her clothes from her body the curtain flame travelled through the room. Ultimately all she could do was drop the phone and run into the next room, up the stairs and into Yuki's room. She then dragged her eldest son (one arm in, one arm out of his jacket) back down the stairs. They both simultaneously remembered the piano, or as our father refers to it, “the thing that cost more than our house,” and perhaps, bearing those words in mind spent the next few minutes trying to drag that heavy shining creature from the burning house. As they are both fairly small people and the piano weighed about 400 pounds they accomplished nothing, and it was only as they lay slumped in defeat over the unmoved piano that they realized that they had not yet rung for a fire engine. This had just been accomplished, my mother and Yuki having run out into the front yard to watch in terror as the house grew hotter and hotter, when I arrived. On the way out Yuki had grabbed his briefcase, and my mother, two of the sofa cushions. Having failed with the piano they were determined to have something, anything. I got nothing. My beautiful feeling was gone, and I was just an overweight eighteen year old in an oversize yellow dress, lying facedown on the ground, losing everything.
Only a little bit wrinkled, and promising some kind of danger. Still red. These are almost water, without a perceptible smell, but soft when pickled. I choose one. I pluck. It breaks. It is like a blood vessel on my palm. It releases its jelly. Jelly delivers the delicate smell of: dog shit. Roast turkey, cranberries, juniper and torn grass. Then it slips like viscera in miniature between my thumb and pointer fingers, becoming cold. A bloody, gelatinous perfume with no heartbeat and no hair, the vague scent of citrus, the memory of the temptation to eat the yew berries outside my grandmother’s house. Skin: translucent, even transparent, even window to the soul, even encasement of blood stew, which is coming undone on me, still smelling like the day after a death. Still red.
Winter at the Lake
Lines of broken black water scrawl across the dusty surface of the ice, where it has broken and reformed over night. Geese were here only days before, desperately paddling to keep small pockets of the lake from freezing. They are now nowhere to be seen. A car drives by, whipping the wind up to an unbearable chill. The old-growth conifers at the northern corner of the lake would offer more protection than the dead land of the deforested western bank.
(“What is the importance of vision in the work of John Clare? If Romantic poetry is defined by the desire to notice and describe the natural world, then vision is the primary tool of the poet. He is given the ability to see this interaction, apart from the direct interaction with nature, and so the poetic voice here transcends the natural in order to do the simple work of taking note.”)
The walk to the conifers reveals an unusual sight: at the corner of the lake there is a mysterious shape in the branches of an oak that fell into the lake years before. The trunk and a hemisphere of the oak’s sprawling, hollow breadth of branches reach out across the water, sore against the wind. The skeleton tree rattles against the ice that cuts a cold perimeter around the length of its half-submerged form, cutting out the negative spaces where the water meets its dark, damp bark. The other half of the tree must spread out like fingers in the dark beneath the solid surface of the lake. There, in the space hewn out between two weighty branches, something small is tucked and fluttering.
(“The haunted aspect of Clare’s work appears most powerfully in its subtlety. In November, haunting is both natural phenomenon and disturbance of nature, personified in the movements of the owlet, a creature of the landscape, who is acting outside of the natural order. Clare notices the ripples of this disturbance passing through the web of animals that surround her, finally arriving at the human, who is the first to invoke the word ‘ghost.’”)
The object in the ice, between the branches of the drowned oak tree, is covered in what can only be called plumage, although the actual texture of its surface would be impossible to determine at this distance. The realization that it is feathered is followed by the interminable wait. The hope is that it will move. It must move. It must be either animate or inanimate. If it is animate, then it will move, or it will not move. If it does not move, it might be dead. If it is dead, it might be inanimate. If it is inanimate, then either it is dead or never was alive. If it never was alive, then what is fluttering in the wind? Rocks, for example, do not flutter. If it was once alive, and is now dead, then it would not move when disturbed. I will wait for it to move.
(“Humans, like animals, are part and parcel of the landscape to which they belong. Syntactically leveling the field between human and animal has two primary effects in Clare’s work: the ennobling of the animal world and the reunion of human and natural surroundings.”)
A rock I throw from the bank breaks the ice only feet from the fluttering form. No reaction. I follow it up with a hail of desperate rocks that land one after the other and break the ice in small, controlled explosions until the once-smooth swath of grey ice is pock-marked with dark bruises where water is bubbling through and lapping in small black pools, flat under the weight of the arctic air. No movement. No sound but the howl of wind. There, on the tundra of the western bank of the lake, close to the shadow of conifers, I think I see – in a vision that falls into the murky category of sensation that is neither quite lived experience nor quite hallucination – the shadow of the object’s neck.
(“It is the human […] that is an aspect and symbol of nature. Clare is not interested in the use of pathetic fallacy in the same way his predecessors were. Instead, by placing the human in the context of our natural surroundings, by describing the movements of the human only in relationship to the pressures and whims of nature, Clare is inviting us to see ourselves as part of the landscape, and something very small. Mostly, our peers are songbirds. Clare’s refusal to indulge in metaphor subverts the androcentricity and andro-supremacy of the earlier part of the Romantic era.”)
A rock. Another rock. A hundred rocks do not convince the silent thing to move its silky neck. It must be a neck. When I step onto the ice, the shock of my weight sends an electric, popping rumble hurtling across the length of the lake and back again. I freeze. The small valley echoes for an instant, passing the dissipating sound of the ice back and forth across the hills until it is gone. The surface of the ice shifts, almost imperceptibly, to accommodate me. I look closer: I see the curve of an inky black neck that follows to tuck its head beneath a brown-grey wing on the body of a bird that has been frozen into the ice. It is dead.
(Time dies. Fields are harvested and then they die. People die. And life, it appears, continues on without us. Death, through Clare’s remarkably objective lens, comes out looking as if it were part of the weather […] There is no final hallelujah; there is no wish for or promise of something more. It is his sheer simplicity that strips death bare of image, name and status as a noun. Instead, death is a verb. Death is something we all do, because it is a function of time. Time, which carries us forward, which ripens crops, which brings new storms, which chases weeks with more weeks and seasons with more seasons, time which dies and is reborn, is inescapable. In this way, Clare’s description of time is not linear but cyclical. A time that dies cannot be eternal; it must start and start again. Everything dies as a function of time, and so nothing can die eternally. In a nonlinear view, nothing falls off the surface of the infinite line of time to live in another reality, but instead comes around over and over again, as if each life were a thought that cannot escape the mind of God who is going crazy little by little and refuses to let us go. Time is reborn. The work, it appears, goes on.”)
I am breathing in air that stiffens my bronchial tubes just before it enters and opens my lungs, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to begin the process of freezing to death. I am watching a dead bird trapped in the surface of the ice. Its body must be very, very cold now. At home, there are piles of bio notes waiting to by memorized. I recall something vague about apoptosis, the self-destruction of cells. There are clothes that need folded. There is work, and time, that demand attention. So I, cyclical, and inescapable as I am, go home. And although I almost want it to, the ice does not give way.
The road from Washington is straight and hanging heavy over the Chesapeake. Stretched pregnant, ready for renovation but no trucks moan. Her route reaches the country’s edge in under 3 hours. It floats, even now, along the olive freshwater and funnels into the Atlantic. She does how they do here, afloat on a Hobie far past the break.
It’s only been three months but hot and branding are her growing feet: into each crab house stair and down a flight and up two more and down again and down one more for a joint on the back stoop with Ann and up another back to work and down one out the door and across the street and on the ocean floor and along the edges of a foam learning board. Beside the bed of a man who won’t move to Hawaii and then, finally, back home. Six hour glasses of wine. All this summer fun: He is thirty. Fishtail boards aren’t popular but he favors them anyway. The babes toss their braids at him and lap at all uniqueness. All this summer fun. Swell begins to shy.
She feels the burning palms of her arches on the spill of beer on backyard grass. Soak in. A bonfire at dusk: someone’s toddler fills up the bong water. She wraps her hand in the child’s own for a dance to the Allman Brothers because it turns out that there is nothing closer to everything than the palm of this ripe human. Unstained, she thinks, bleach on our blemishes. She can’t approach the thirty year old’s bed inside, but behind her tanned, closed lids he rubs her back tenderly and brings her to his surfing competitions. She’s still stumbling over the old song lyrics and dancing with someone else’s child curled close, a sponge on her dream.
Her dresses graze the grass and she tosses the skirts around the way all her friends do. Hanging from her scalp are static yellow locks cropped to the ribs’ ends but yes, she has a degree from Washington College. Ask about the specimens. Request a map of the xylem routes in red pen on loose-leaf. I have a degree, you will learn. She: once waif-like, a waistless line. Weeks have passed since then, and her friends stay wasted into fall, eyes wide for the waves’ revival. She knows better. It is the eighties now, their time has passed. She has hips now, has felt the moon crack inside her, crack like the coconuts that Delaware doesn’t have. A fine world, this year is; a fine entrance point for what lay waiting. Her marble eyes keep rolling. All this summer fun.
China blue cradles breast milk pool,
refill. Watch hound slinks off as I wake Wake.
Citrine reflections off morning prisms. Hour hands as stop-
light reminders as rifles as lozenges
and hopes fall far from tree to fingertip.
My first traces in ink incunabula in
a pigeon claws’ clutch.
Someday in this waking world watch
a crawl cross floorboards, fatten vases full with petunias.
There must be a million others. I must be a million others.
Boring Old Jack
Five Sessions on Overcoming Difficulties
I was confidently mountain biking, which is weird because I’ve never done that before. I saw this “sick jump” and I knew I had to take it. Suddenly, I was up in the air and about to fall off a cliff but I wasn’t scared. I saw the edge of the cliff and I grabbed it at just the right time. I got up and then this guy came over and he asked if I was alright. I said, “Yeah, but I almost fell off that cliff.” We looked down and the bottom of the cliff was about nine feet below us. I asked him how far he thought that was. He said, “About nine feet.”
The Third Walrus
There were three Easter eggs, and I knew that each of them was poisonous. I didn’t know which one to pick. I looked up and nobody was waiting for me to pick but I knew I had to pick. So I picked the one on the left. Somebody, I think it was me, opened it and it was filled with gelt. Nobody asked me what I thought was in it, but I remember answering with, “This is bright gold gelt.”
Package for delivery. I couldn’t read the name, but that was okay. A big walrus gave me the package and I remember because it was big. And the flippers.
There was no way that walrus could have held the package, I’m no Suskamachoo. So the walrus disappeared and then I was in a cave with a really big boiling pot. And that was pretty scary, I’ll admit that.
Frank the Walrus
This was the last train to Clarksville and I was at the station. I didn’t know what time it was but it didn’t seem like things worked like that in Clarksville. But then I realized that I wasn’t in Clarksville yet.
Frank Walrus is a thing of which I cannot conceive.
Frank Walrus does not love me and Frank Walrus certainly does not love you. Frank Walrus is love in absentia; he is a void with no love and no waffles-Magorium. Who even is Frank Walrus? Frank Walrus is just some proper noun wordsmash with vague allusions to God and the Tao and the mystic Saint Josephine. Whatever. Fuck it. Fuck Frank Walrus.
Frank Walrus might eat your children, I don’t know. Frank Walrus donates to every cause you hate and avidly boycotts those that you love. Fuck it. Frank Walrus isn’t shit, spit on his image.
Do not let Frank Walrus into your life. All he wants is waffles-Magorium and I have no more to give. His diplomatic lectures were never more than cornflakes. Wake yourself from this dream of who you once thought Frank Walrus was, but know that the harder you try, the more impossible it will become. To struggle against Frank Walrus is to accept Frank Walrus as something where you and I both know that Frank Walrus is nothing. This dream species cake-in-hand hoodlum is codswallop. Frank Walrus is done, he’s gone. Right now.
You won, you beat him. There is no more Frank Walrus and, from now on, you get to keep all the waffles-Magorium. You are mystic Saint Josephine.
YOU ARE A WEB-CAM MODEL FOR CHATURBATE.COM
The way you see it we’re all just trading goods
and services. Still, every time you do it there’s
this feeling behind your belly button like when
you look out of a particularly high window in a
building, in a sky scraper, or when you look out
over a cliff. You love that feeling. It’s weird,
watching yourself, because it feels like you’re
watching a stranger. You’re performing for
yourself, that’s the only person you can see, but
it’s different than looking in a mirror. There are
fragments of yourself that flake away when you
have experiences like this. I don’t mean flaking
in the sense that you’re falling apart, but that
you’re fracturing yourself into smaller pieces,
smaller separate images of yourself that live in
other places. There’s the original image, and
then there’s the image your parents have of you,
the image your boyfriend has, there’s the image
your friends at home have in their heads—what
you look like to them when they can’t see you
and imagine you off at school doing whatever it
is you do. There’s an infinite amount of images
when you start to think about it, and if you think
about it too long, it’s hard to remember which
one came first. You don’t think about it too
much. Now, you’re in bed, and you’re looking
at this image of yourself and you start taking off
your clothes, and you’re making eye contact
with yourself the entire time, wondering if that’s
what other people see when they look at you.
But They don’t care about any of this stuff—the
real things you think about while you’re
spreading yourself open for them. They are busy
buying a fantasy. Most of the guys are older,
and into the little girl thing, even though they
don’t admit it. You always get that one guy who
won’t stop calling you his daughter, and that can
get pretty fucked up. But it’s easy to block
people from your room. You’re not even visible
to most of the northeast. You’re so easily
transported and hidden it’s like you’re not
human. They love telling you what to do. It
makes things easier that way, because then the
whole show starts to feel like you’re not really
there, it’s just a rental. It’s just your body, just a
picture of your body.
YOU ONLY LET BOYS WHO HATE YOU LOVE YOU
You are fourteen years old exactly (it’s your
birthday) and you hear yourself say that
you’ve never done something like this
before (which is not a lie technically).
You’re just glad the boy laying next to you
doesn’t say anything about the elastic
showing in the waistband of your
underpants. For some reason that makes you
feel safe because you thought he might have
laughed at you. But he’s too focused on the
squish-squish sound coming from between
your legs. It makes you nervous because it
feels like you peed your pants, but you were
too embarrassed to google what it meant to
finger someone when he asked if he could
do it to you, so you’re not sure if he’s doing
it wrong. When he pulls down your shorts
he asks if everything is cool and you know
you’re supposed to say yes—he said he just
wanted to see what it felt like—but it
doesn’t feel anything like a tampon when he
sticks his fingers inside you (or what you
imagined that would feel like)(what your
sister said it would feel like). You smile and
you breathe slow to make it sound like
you’re enjoying it (you should be enjoying
it). You think that maybe people like the
way this feels, the way his fingers make you
hurt. He says your pussy feels like a soggy
hot dog bun. You know he’s going to tell his
friends. You’re worried you’re doing it
wrong. You’re worried he feels bad for you
and that you’ll never get another chance do
this ever, not with the beautiful perfect boy.
You think maybe you love him. And now
you’re blowing your one shot to prove you
are a grown-up adult woman, so you fake
moan and say you love it. But it’s too
intimate to have another human being inside
of you, so for a minute you pretend that you
aren’t fourteen in the guest bedroom of your
best friend's house with a boy you barely
know whose meanness you misread as
“passionate.” You pretend that you’re a
grown-up woman and that you want this.
But you’re only fourteen years old, with a
pair of underwear your mother bought you
wrapped around your knees. You don’t even
know that you’re pretending. When it’s over
you know you didn’t cum like you read you
were supposed to. He just stopped and laid
next to you and looked out the window, and
when you asked if you could kiss him he
went to wash his hands.
ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS SECRETLY HATE YOU AND THEY EVEN HAVE A CLUB
They probably meet once a week, at least.
They’re very very organized and have an
agenda to get through every meeting and
someone takes the minutes to send out to all
those who couldn’t make it. They start with
attendance and snacks, and then they make a
joke to get things started. Everyone takes a seat.
They have a list of all the things you did that
week, and things they still haven’t resolved
from the last meeting. 1) You talk too much. 2)
Your honesty is more like brutality. 3)
Sometimes you treat people like objects. 4) You
are too cold, and you never seem to care about
anything. 5) You are too ugly and untalented to
be their friend in the first place. They make sure
everything is written down neatly, to be
transcribed into records for posterity. Then they
open it up to a group discussion. Everyone
laughs at how easy it is to keep the club a secret
from you. Even though you’re suspicious, they
lie to your face about how much they love you.
You try to catch them in the act, but they keep
changing where they meet and you can never
find them in time. They tell you it’s all in your
head, they say that you are paranoid. You are
not paranoid. One day they will slip up, and
leave behind the piece of paper with the
scribbled information about their club’s secret
meeting place, and you will show up right in the
middle, in time for snacks, and you will say: I
knew it. I knew it all along.
My Bomb Shelter
My bomb shelter has four levels. You enter through a spiral staircase. The top floor is the reception/detox area.There are facilities for washing off radiation, and a partition to quarantine any diseased people. There is an emergency eyewash station. There are a few chairs. The manhole that leads to the next level is made of stainless steel and only I can open it.
If I opened the manhole for you, you would climb down a ladder. This is my work floor. There is a small laboratory. My scientist friends have recommended some useful chemicals and instruments. I’m no scientist, but I would hate to be trapped down here without a few beakers.
The arms locker is also on this floor. A couple of my gun-nut friends took care of this one. I’m not crazy about guns myself, but I am quite confident that I will be able to defend the bomb shelter. Besides the guns, I have a nice collection of blunt objects as well. I would hate to run out of ammunition and have nothing to fight my way out with.
There is a small gym on this floor as well. My bodybuilder friend recommended a bowflex, and Linda from work recommended a treadmill, which I thought was more sensible. I also have a punching bag that might come in handy. I don’t really work out much. I prefer to get my exercise outside, walking. But I would hate for my muscles to atrophy if I had to be down here for years.
This floor alone cost me millions, and that’s not even considering what it costs to power it. I have three generators, buried with forty-thousand gallons of fuel, not to mention the solar plant on the surface. Losing power would be a nightmare. Even if the power goes out in the entire rest of the world, I still want to be able to play my records and read by lamplight.
The record player is on the third-deepest floor. This floor is my sanctum. If security was breached on the top two floors, I could seal this manhole, the thickest manhole, and still be able to live out the rest of my days in peace down here. My bedroom is here. It’s smaller and safer than my bedroom on the surface, and it has more of my favorite art on the walls. The walls are authentic wood and painted a deep blue. I like this bedroom better than my real bedroom. This is the bedroom that I would stay in for the rest of eternity, if I had to stay in one bedroom for the rest of eternity.
The reading room is my favorite room on this floor. There is barely enough room for the chair and the record player between the bookshelves and the artificial fireplace. It almost feels warm in here. The bookshelves go up to the ceiling, and they make me feel more secure than the four-foot thick slab of steel above my head.
I have collected here not just my favorite books, but the books I think would be the most valuable to a future civilization. Along with dictionaries, atlases and encyclopedias, I have all the great classics of literature, and a pretty good record collection too. I have enough fragments of culture to start civilization again if I needed to, and I’ll never get bored.
My food stores are buried on the deepest level. This is by far the largest floor in my bomb shelter. It resembles a massive, cavernous warehouse, stacked wall to wall with cans. It took me years to collect them all. But I don’t just have non-perishables. I have a freezer, filled with my favorite delicacies. And maybe someday, long after the last cow has died, I will sit down to a steak dinner and listen to Mozart in my bomb shelter.
I hope I never have to use this bomb shelter. I really do. Some people don’t believe me, seeing as it’s taken me so much of my life to build it. I do come down here often, sometimes for hours, sometimes even days, before returning to the surface. I like it here, but I wouldn’t want to be trapped here forever. I keep thinking that the worst will happen, and it hasn’t so far. But if the worst really does happen, and everything on the surface is destroyed, I have a bomb shelter with four levels. And you would be welcome to come and stay.
It’s even easier than usual to think about how little you’ve accomplished when you live in a soul-crushing heat trap of an apartment. The factory was such a place. Renovated with habitability as an afterthought, the brick facade still housed a gun drill factory on the first floor. The entryway made me worry about getting cancer even more than all the things that I do that will give me cancer, but at least it was air conditioned. Upstairs a stifling heat ruled the place, growing more and more leaden the nearer I got to my apartment door. In the windowless main room four fans rattled constantly as they stirred the thick sedentary air. Inside the apartment I was shirtless, often pantless, suckling on freeze pops like a chainsmoker to cool off.
Sometimes I went outside to smoke. I would pace the gravel parking lot in the hot sun, venting out clouds of smoke and sweating. It provided a momentary break from the stillness of the factory, walking outside and back in again, once every hour or so until I could go somewhere else. The brief exercise of walking inside and out helped stave off the dissatisfaction of choosing between one hot, inhospitable place and another.
For three people we generated an alarming amount of trash. Most of the food I ate came out of little disposable plastic bags which I opened and then put into little resealable plastic bags. Sticky freeze pop sleeves were scattered on the floor like cigarette butts. Cigarette butts were also scattered on the floor like cigarette butts. I wish that all my favorite types of food didn’t have to leave wrappers behind them like little bits of incriminating evidence. All food should come in a blank white package that dissolves instantly upon being opened and leaves no trace of the consumer devouring his prey. Either that or all food should come stamped with health warnings bigger than the label itself and that lie around your apartment long after they’ve been emptied out, like on the packs of duty-free cigarettes Eliot brought back from Europe.
The weekend before we moved out of the factory we drove up to Brattleboro. Up in the mountains, the trees were already turning red. Premature patches of fall color crackled like embers in the late summer green. Lately chilly days had been flickering over town as if someone had been toggling a light switch back and forth between hot and cold, and apparently this had been confusing the trees.The flickering red of their leaves outside the window gave me the impression that I had not seen nearly enough of the world, and probably never would.
Eliot drove too fast as usual, but I figured it was more comfortable inside the car than outside of it. I glanced anxiously between the scenery and the road, watching up ahead for an impending accident that I knew I would be powerless to prevent if it happened.
Science says that summers are getting hotter every year and winters are getting colder every year and the two of them are getting closer together every year, or something like that. Science says that driving too fast makes it more likely that you’ll have an accident, and that it wastes more gas, or something like that. Science says that if you smoke too much you’ll get cancer and if you smoke even a little bit you might get cancer and if you’re around too many people who smoke you might get cancer but you can still quit before it’s too late and even if it is too late you can make it less too late if you quit, or something like that.
The factory was not a good place to be stoned but it was a worse place to be sober. Getting high was not quite as enjoyable as it used to be, but it was more enjoyable than thinking. When I was out of weed I would pace around the factory neurotically, feebly but anxiously trying to coax myself into action before inevitably breaking down to scrape resin. My most consistent source of resin was a glass pipe shaped like a hollow fish. As I chipped the black pieces of residue off the inner walls of the smoke chamber, I wondered if the insides of me and the insides of the fish looked the same by now, both of them having held their fair share of smoke.
I lit the resin and it crackled and glowed red. I didn’t want to think about what the resin was doing to me. I didn’t want to think about garbage and hotter summers and cancer and boredom. Thankfully, the resin took care of that.
August 30, year any
Now that there is only one day between me and Other Continent, I am unsure about how accurately I have packed. It is mathematical: as the hours lessen, my doubts grow – an awful inverse proportion! Have I calculated correctly the number of items required for each of the five months? How absurd: using the same suitcase traveling back and traveling to! Builders of suitcases should take into consideration that the same suitcase will be used multiple times; sometimes it ought to fit a one-month large memories, sometimes eleven months worth of items.
(but really just hours later because the last entry was past midnight)
Trouble! I had finally gone through each item in the suitcase, and in closing it I had to press with with my whole body and a metal chair - I had done it, it was done. And now this!
I have agreed to meet an old friend who came to bid me goodbye: not only did this goodbye take more than two hours but he, as he kissed my cheek, dropped something in my hand and told me that I ought to take it along!
The weight of it was horrific, and it took me good five minutes to even look at it in fear that my gaze upon it would add to the burden.
It was a small leather bag, but the weight made it feel - undoubtedly - larger than my suitcase.
Seconds felt like minutes and a paralyzing anxiety made its statement through sweat on my forehead as I was opening the bag. The bag had buttons, and I spent a fair share of seconds with each of them – there were exactly six – as I went through all the possible excuses I had stored in the past years, searching for the one that I could use to set aside this unexpected burden.
But then I opened the bag, and almost fainted: not out of joy but due to despair! None of my excuses would ever possibly cover such a thing: he had given me his beating heart.
How was I supposed to say that I would not take my friend's heart with me? What would that heart do beating to an abandoned room? There aren't even clocks there to beat back!
Trouble! I better go figure out how to fit this thing in my suitcase, and I will think about its content once it's packed.
I did not manage to fit the leather bag into my suitcase, so I had to carry it with me on the plane.
Oh the terror when I was asked if I could be carrying anything potentially dangerous!
I was just one menacing look away from bursting into tears and saying that I practically have an AK-47 with me; but the officer scanned the small leather bag and said nothing. I think his uniform prevented the flow of emotion that would sound the alarm: the officer saw nothing dangerous about someone's heart traveling with me. Voilà!
September 5, hours later
The heart ocasionally bleeds, which does not surprise me; after all, it was a twelve-hour flight and then a twenty-three minute walk to The Motel.
Still, what an impressive heart – such a long way from home, yet still so full and beating!
I cannot really place it in The Motel, so I am going to leave it in the small leather bag for now; I will think about its contents once I'm Home.
I was about to leave The Motel and had almost forgotten the small leather bag; no wonder, after so much packing! It was much lighter this time, and when I opened it I noticed that the heart has decreased in size. I wonder if it needs something...hearts don't need to be watered, do they?
I hope all the natural light at Home does it some good.
October 1, hours later
Horrific! The heart kept beating irregularly throughout the whole trip, which was almost three hours long. The taxi driver seemed like a decent man, so I asked him about the needs of a heart; how horrible he was to me!
Apparently he had once given his heart to someone, and apparently that someone was better at carrying hearts around than I am. Does he know what this heart has put me through, this burden?!
Why did he take his heart back then, if the person was so good at carrying it? Has it gotten too small to be taken care of?
I have placed the heart into the light, yet it still keeps withering. What more could a heart possibly need? Water?
I am clueless – I hope it sorts its terrible heartbeats out soon.
January 3, year new
The heart has shrunk. It can no longer, by no means, be displayed! And what a beautiful, full heart it once was.
Oh well - I have put it in a drawer now. In a few days, when I am about to fly back to Continent, I will finally be able to fit it in the suitcase. It is no more than a size of a walnut, and just as hard so no damage can be done to it. Good!
Away is always beautiful, the color is right, the lighting is perfect. It is always the perfect distance from where you are. That’s why the inclination is to run to it, to run away. You don’t take your time; when you get your chance you run.
I think I was born to leave. There have always seemed to be some kind of forces pulling me away from our little town, ever since sitting on the front stoop of our tiny first house and asking every person passing by where he or she was going.
In second grade I liked playing the part of the dramatic child by sitting on the edge of our rickety-wooden playground, legs dangling, while the other kids chased each other and flipped off swings and accosted the family of bunny rabbits that lived under the bridge. I’d sit out there on the edge and spend all of recess staring out past the corn at the deep green hills that rolled on and on. I remember feeling pulled toward something out there—something I couldn’t see but could feel deep in my eight-year-old bones. And then, of course, Andrew Page would tap my shoulder and ask if he could take a turn and any sense I had of being a special little snowflake deflated immediately.
I think the real fantasies of actually leaving started when we moved into the big white house on the edge of town. There was a field back beyond the yard that grew crops in rotation: corn, corn, soybeans, corn. I was nine when we settled there and I started dreaming of packing a bag of tuna sandwiches and walking into those tall, mysterious stalks to somewhere far away. I didn’t know where I would go; I just wanted to start walking. Our cat Minnie once slipped out the basement door and got to live my dream, but she only came back three days later weighing five pounds less and matted with dirt and fleas.
As life got meaner all I thought about more and more was leaving, escaping. There began the obsession with airports, airplanes, hot air balloons, helicopters, those BW vans with mattresses in the back; birds that could fly and birds that couldn’t; flight attendants; the travel channel and on occasion the food network if Rachel Ray went anywhere interesting. Streaked across the sky geese flew south in the fall and part of me went with them.
I don’t know how it started but I know that by the end there was no doubt in my mind it was the place I needed to leave, the place and all its people. But even cursing the invisible bars of the town it was impossible to stay angry at something as beautiful as Black Earth. In the summer everything flushed green and the country had a heartbeat that made the leaves on the trees pick up and come back down with the wind. I’ve spent days trying to think up the right words to describe the color that the sun turns just before it dips down behind the hills, but there are no words to put you right where I’ve been. It’s the kind of light that’ll fill your whole body enough to make it feel like any second you might float up and away. Just before you do, though, something sour always yanks you down at the ankles: the inborn and almost imperceptible hate that permeates the soil.
It isn’t loud, this hate. It grows up with the corn and spreads smooth between the layers of bread and butter at dinner. This hate’s old as the iron train tracks that have run through town since the beginning, when anyone here still had hope. You can taste it rusty like blood under your tongue, like tornadoes picking up barns in August, angry like the pastor locked up for hitting his babies with a wooden mallet whenever they cried during services. It’s bitter and fresh in some places, like “fag” written on your best friend’s locker and families fighting over money they all know is gone. It’s hate so deep that the town has been slowly destroying itself for years like an immune system confused. I will see Black Earth die in my lifetime, just like they told us we would when we were little and couldn’t see the cracks in our perfect pretty world.
The tricky part is seeing past the good, heart-swelling parts: driving up to the farm after school and hurling hay out of the back of a pick up truck while the maintenance boys drive around to the different horse pastures; Sundays on our 12-foot fishing boat; weeknights catching crawdads in the creek. Days that made you feel proud at the end of them, tired and a little dirty and filled up full with crisp fresh air.
The photograph I love most in this world is of my third grade class, the fourteen-or-so of us all hanging on the monkey bars in front of a blue blue sky—blue so deep I can still taste it on my tongue. In the picture we are perfect in overalls and toothy smiles, squinting from the brightness of the day. I don’t even remember Mrs. Taylor taking the picture, but in my mind she looks through the disposable lens and knows that she’s caught us in that tiny clear rectangle forever just for an instant—an instant that’s come to speak for so many lost years. I do not know how to reconcile forgetting the texture of whole years of my life, instead substituting in a flat word like “happy” and hoping it’s true.
An instant in time, her finger pressing down. I can relive it over and over even if she is dead. She is pressing down the button and we are smiling because we really are happy and the sun feels warm and sweet like honey and nothing can ever be wrong. Not in that instant.
She pressed down and the camera clicked. Years went by and everything changed and she sent the photo to me in an envelope with my name on it. Then she went home to Virginia and lay in a bed until cancer ate her up and death took all of her memories of us with her. Less and less remains.
I loved that town and I think that’s what broke my heart the most—that it didn’t want me by the time I had grown old enough to understand it. I tried to keep on loving it, but it hurt to wake up and it hurt to look at the faces and it hurt not to understand why a place I loved hated me. No one could understand why on God’s green earth I would ever want to leave this town that was so small it didn’t even show up on the channel five weather radar.
So for the last few years I had to stay there I resolved to leaving in all the ways a person can while still standing in the room. I left them all inside my mind, said goodbye to friends and family without them even noticing. I became the empty girl they thought me to be, smiling at the right times and screaming in the backyard later on. In my head I held pictures of far away places that I would run to as soon as my sentence was up and I was free. No one knew.
Towards the end, on one of those dark January afternoons when no one has the heart to turn the lights on so early, I was in the middle of a period when I hardly left my bed for weeks unless I had to. I lie in there with my door closed and cried for all the places I wasn’t, and the one that I was. Just then I had come down to get a glass of water. My dad leaned up against the counter next to me. I saw in his eyes that he was worried, he and my mom both were, that any second now I might do something drastic. They weren’t wrong; those days I felt like breaking everything in the house, or shaving my head, or running somewhere far away and leaving them forever, but my heart was too tired for any action. Two hands clutching the countertop, he told me “we can take a trip.” They were empty, useless, loving words. We both knew there was no trip; there was no money, no time. He said it because he was afraid. I filled my glass, and didn’t look at him when I told him “Sure, let’s take a trip.”
I stuck out that year of fill-in-the-bubble tests and presentations on the benefits of pursuing careers in finance and/or orthodontia from a guidance counselor who believed in spraying his clothes with Febreze instead of washing them and I figured out how to run away without breaking any rules. So I ran away to Vermont with all the paper work in order.
The satisfaction of leaving was entirely as wonderful as I imagined it would be all those years—to drive away from that town and not know when I’d see it again was something I’d been waiting for in some ways for my entire life. It helped that the place I chose to escape to was special in that it would take me in wholly and I could start again completely new.
When I go back I’m always surprised that no one in the grocery store stops me, amazed at how I’ve changed, how different I look from everyone else there. No one even gives the sideways glances I always expected; no sign hangs above my head flashing in neon “THE GIRL WHO LEFT.” Occasionally a neighbor will ask me how Virginia is and I’ll tell her that Vermont is beautiful, but by then she’s always stopped listening.
Something else happened, though, after I left Black Earth: I stopped loving airports. They are romantic until you’re standing at the gate, looking at people you love and feeling like a criminal for leaving. The magic of the in-between has been lost on me now that I have anchors on either end. I don’t know which end to call home. When I close my eyes I am still the girl stuck in front of the blue blue sky, legs hanging down with a bandana in my hair, stuck forever in that sunny day, looking out at nothing.
Eyes open, here is a whole different world, the one I chose. No matter how long I keep my eyes shut that other world is gone. I have the picture and a few others and the memories of growing up in wide-open spaces drenched in warm sun. I go back there in my mind but can’t stay too long, or else the hate seeps through and ruins everything.
This world, now, is finally a place that doesn’t hurt to stay. I will leave it but for more loving reasons. I got out of the place I was meant to and the rest of the world is empty of the invisible bars Black Earth held around it that I fought against for so many years. I will leave this place just like I left Black Earth but the difference is that here there is nothing to forgive.
Young and Loaded
We made it to Florida and it’ muggy as all fucking hell. The bugs ain’t helping either but we got to keep the windows in the truck down all night long, it’s so hot. Having to piss woke me up. Cheyenne’s lying half on top of me but when I gotta piss I gotta piss and I just push her off. She doesn’t even wake up; her mouth just hangs wide open and drools all on the backseat. Real nice. I grab the gun from the glove box before getting out just ‘cuz this park&ride isn’t like a real friendly-seeming place.
The guy we lifted the truck from in Georgia had the gun sitting in here like it was just for us or something. It’s a pretty gun, too—one of those .357 Magnums—not any of that BB gun shit for going at squirrels.
I push it in my back pocket and walk a little ways away from the truck to the grass. The goddamn bugs are buzzing so loud it’s like they’re inside my head, the stupid things. I’m pissing on the grass and they’re everywhere, and the air’s so thick I can’t hardly breathe, and I think maybe Florida’s not so great. We won’t be staying here long anyway.
“What’re you doin’?” Cheyenne yells from the truck like I’m not allowed to piss without her knowing. I can’t hardly see her except the messed-up blond hair all over her head.
“I’m taking a piss, that ok?” She starts walking over. I zip my pants up and light a cigarette.
“I just got scared when you weren’t in there,” she says.
“I wasn’t gonna wake you up. Settle down, woman.” She scrunches up her smile in the dark. I know she likes when I call her woman ‘cuz she’s only thirteen and no one calls her that.
This whole plan was her own idea. I had a court appointment coming up that I was gonna skip anyway, and then she said we should just go, get out of Kentucky, and I said yeah okay. We were both sick of getting shit from everyone about me being old and she being young, like it’s some kind of horrible thing. I never met a thirteen-year-old like Cheyenne, though. When I saw her standing outside school waiting for her ride home, looking at her phone and swinging her legs turning all around, all I thought was “I want that.”
Now she’s reaching out for me to give her a drag and with her makeup all smeared she doesn’t look like much. The smoke comes out of her mouth and it’s so hot, the air and ground and everything feels wet and like it weighs a million pounds.
“Is there any more beer?” She asks.
“Nah, it’s gone. Tomorrow I’ll find somebody to get us some.” She hands me back the cigarette, almost out now. Then neither of us says anything for a while, and all we can hear is the bugs. We’re both just looking out at nothing in the dark.
“You love me, Dalton?” she asks out of nowhere.
“Sure, baby come’re,” I say and grab her ass. She laughs a little but pulls away.
“Seriously! You love me, right?”
I tell her, “I stole us a truck, and did three Walmarts and a gas station with you. What’dya think, I’m gonna bail?” I can still see the stupid look on all the cashiers’ faces, scanning people’s Mountain Dew and cheese balls and hot pockets like nothing in the world could ever be wrong. Not one of them looked over at us; we were just a couple a’ kids. A couple of smart motherfucking kids. But she’s still looking at me all sad, so I say, “Yeah I love you.”
“I love you too,” she says and kisses me on the lips. We both smell like sweat from not showering for a couple of days.
We make out all the way back to the truck and stretch across the seats together. I start undoing my pants. She says, “I’m tired.” I say, “But I love you,” and she smiles and says “okay,” real soft. The blankets and our clothes are all soggy and fucking her is a good enough reason to have run away. We can just keep running and stealing and fucking and drinking and smoking forever, I wouldn’t mind that.
A little while later the bugs seem to get quieter.
“If you breathe slower you don’t get so hot,” she says.
Then she’s asleep again, and I’m trying to breathe slow and think about where we’ll go next. I start drifting off when I see the lights coming closer—flashing red, white, and blue and looking like American flags somebody set on fire.
The Backcall of Earth
We turned your clock again to assure your heels once more the burial mistress, her body dawned over stone the culp of the plow.
A peel of the tombing babed by swaddlecloth and grain’s eve for sunmothered tracks sooned as you were sleeped: ashore as your were born.
A road journeyed south, a hand turned astone ofsea.
Back open water cumbs to sea astone.
Aforn afrom fedwave I’ll have the wall your back was up again adipping updripping gauged whipping your skin for the cane and the cane’s holding.
A tumbling came through his feet ofland and a stone journeyed.
See him fromsun.
I’ll have his name in a place overseen and might twin at random reaching rams in the eitherribbons of fullstitched murials of my grassend.
All men find their ends in a grass.
The seabead man’s wake.
An ovulant stretch to sun.
And such a stretch nowed see him in the tracks.
And down such rode and in its midness a lady leeving lieves to let and worship milk pouring on everlimb O a nympant swim in the wombing.
And down through such midness his eye dithyrhymned the seeding rode and he tumbled not for he turned astone ofsea to hishand.
Say thee her body in a plyth how comes his mind.
A peel of the wombing he to the stone now it stones.
How he dithyrhymns the blooding the stone does it speak back:
Out of a tree came your falling.
Remnants yet of the wheel assured its shed and its vein, seconds of the best of men.
A sow to their mouthes she adores a swaddling, sea a warble babed in seed, Adam at random leads the premises.
A shower, a wettening, a lee, a sinking:
Mankind stumble forth of her lashen pore.
A pore through the sate, sapid sapient, a lactic flow.
A seasonal impulse for vision.
A trough cistans, urreligion and thurge immol, larum comes the sought a mew cleared the world and errand of further gull, this phallic vegetant beneath seas, sought is thought to see and seize grip and grasp this world all, come conscious.
Sume wroth sistrum in: the bethlam restings.
Melolaw concised and sung, sistrum sing as his eyes swing to socket and come felling trees phrygian, the midrush of sistress in the maw, the linguam guranator through mapped hulks.
How the castrants stummed, their mouthes fedmud, to be born again by their hips, O bees keep your buzzing, to be again langurous in the pollin!
He laid to wrest his mend by the collum.
He bears the great sun mooring above the dawn, ashame for his hands, thestone placed.
A coming gathered the mud.
A drevvy, saved by the well of collumb comes.
Culth stretched in the mulk.
Tull of dolmens they say gone mad.
A calculan swaled once and the hay came down in its treading.
Any tulm thames and a moon mooned and dulled and he trembled barefoot and sulked off mud for weeks and then fore out his eyes a cuncullan and smoke in the coolth he found his spittle.
A cuncullan culled, must be walls for how else such roof?
Once lade cool he found his feet upon such sill.
He knocked, or else did he knock, or did he cumb a knock on the wooden heavement hewn on the hulks.
A walled reeling and the journey where was the sea behind him.
O a heavement here such walled, he culked his feet more and O such a dreaving he did in his heave.
Where: O let him plead mudfed and enswallowed of such stone sprung rampant.
Take off the wools of grass, alain in meadow a ceilinged fire.
Off to meadow and alain come whispered mudstalks the willow that was in the branched tree clingings.
I see a silling a window that is and the walling which mends it not, save the meadow that wills in that utter istofade.
O all: it is to babe!
I know he could have washed him alive the eye the reedsreeek unseaed, the pleroma of nightshade, castrant to be langurourous, strung.
A reeds hum, a lost origin to the mending.
Come given a night, a nightbled weep, he could have for I saw the saw that feeds.
What have I been hungering, lean.
A collum colled, come cadmus, come oedipus, I saw.
A callor, a pillar, reeded, the calender recorded, apparently conceived warm in its bleed.
A simple sunstance judged not of semblance.
An origin stood away the wind stars and shoots upstance alight anight.
Her body washed in seawater, a colming came to her hair beautified.
Alast the wind scattered fore the night.
A toll for coming.
O to come catching the sillen the lofthidden wave O to be leaving my head on its sillwool to see me sirened on stone, to see over wheat the only sun a watching rise.
The fullstitched murials of my grassend.
Where all men find end.
The seabeads find wake: an ovulance.
I sunned ocean I shun, take lambe as your warden, lambleak as warning bah to bah will you see the willing in the meadow, the sun setten.
Coll cadmus come.
And a tongue! Burth curve and lamblipped, you are meadowed. The surring bah and to bah back. O, her lips on you and the deadsea dugs everwet. When archons walked hilltop. To be no curve in the meadow. Settle now for I set my stutter to lipping avowal a vestal washed not in the daying, the wetness she ran like a daygull, truly southing she laid her cold hands on herself and spoke the gullnotes through the spittle, the endlike cooing of her kicking singing fore the moon the lipnote of her breathing and as if sooned by her beading the wayman pebbled and announced himself intoned upon her road to read the plynthculp, in the mermud the reek of shell, extand from beneath his hullbones he pulled a riveread theorem and the broadawn baywinds flashed to read him his root in the marls to feed him his roost in the bedlambs and his lips mumming her body moonbroad stretched ovulant reaches she for he O say I saw forth allread with the bedlambs and the curlnote of their lapping say thee I witness thee I wash thee!
The grass: the blade: spuriant deodands. Unpurposed stone belays the field. Threads of stone run docent, droned. Be, betide, be tide, be happened. A god is behind the wall wracking the earth, searching out sound in the stone. Seeking bliss in the inner tryst of all eyes crowded by: the first siren. A god to all sailors who shall be found upon the moon. Fresh from heat I dread where his lamb wracks the earth.
Bert Rampart wrote a suicide note on Christmas Eve and put it in his wife’s stocking. He didn’t mean to do it on Christmas Eve but he meant to do it at some point and that point just happened to be the night before Christmas. Bert felt he needed to go and that he might as well go festively. It wasn’t meant to be cruel, he wasn’t reaching for the last laugh.
On Christmas morning Bert’s wife found the note in her stocking but she didn’t find Bert. She thought he must be dead. Probably drove his truck into a tree. Either that or he put one end of a tube into the exhaust pipe and wrapped the other end around and in through the driver’s side window. Rolled up the window and started the car. A quieter way to go and more like Bert. But when she went out front to see if his truck was gone from the driveway, or sitting there full of carbon monoxide, she instead found Bert standing next to it, smoking a cigarette. Snow was falling, it had been falling all night, and in the morning light the ground beneath their feet was glowing, a blinding white.
“You’ll catch a cold,” she said. “Why don’t you come on in?”
Just When You Thought Iced Tea Couldn’t Get Any Sexier
“Hey There, Joe.”
She chose him out of the line of many. He was tall, dark, and smelled slightly of Thai tea with a hint of mint. Mm, her favorite. How could she resist? It wasn’t hard to reel him in either. She just went up to the counter, slapped down a couple of bills, and pointed:
When they got back to her apartment, she smiled and said, “Honey, I’m going to drain you of all the 20 fl. Oz (591 ml) you’re worth.”
He stared blankly back at her, wavering ever so slightly. She could still see perspiration dripping into his rather reflective sideburns. His registered birthmark seemed to tremble in its tiny circle below his nametag. Whether he was ready or not, his time had come.
She took a step towards him in order to begin the consumption process. Wrapping her hand around his firm, rigid cap, she started to unscrew.
The Boy at the Reading
He’s here now too, sitting in the back of the audience with his one leg crossed over the other and his head tilted downwards to read something in his lap. I notice him mid-sentence, mid-line; my vision and my attention snag on his thorn-bush beard and his carelessly popped collar. My first thought is: I’m imagining it. It’s a projection of my pre-reading nervousness, my anxiety familiarizing, flowing into the vacancies of an unfamiliar face.
But it’s not.
(I make eye contact with the professor whose class I spoke with earlier, who is the reason I stand at this podium; he beams a comforting smile. I read, and when I reach a section I’m particularly comfortable with, I direct my gaze to the seats sequestered in a darkened pocket above the others and deliver the line, with practiced cadance and perfect poetic emphasis, to a boy who leans over to the girl next to him and whispers something. My voice echoes in the near-empty auditorium, the words I’ve already spoken still strong and unphased by how he cups his hand to her ear as she leans attentively inwards. I can’t be sure, but I think I manage to keep from faltering noticeably, even when they split, covering their mouths with cupped palms and crooked elbows and eventually burying their faces in their laps. I do not betray that I hear their unsuccessfully suppressed barks of laughter. I think, in fact, I don’t even miss a beat when I look up again and see the whole lot, four, maybe even five students, clustered in the topmost seats, faces red and mouths gaping like fish in air. There are those people sometimes who disturb the reading atmosphere giggling at texts, snickering at whispered comments and facebook posts, but something about this, I can tell they’re laughing at me. At my poem. At the section about the swan on the water. After the reading, after the question and answer section, I don’t notice any of them leaving, but I also don’t see them in the audience. Some of the faculty come up to thank me for the reading. One of them, a woman carrying a young child and several books I haven’t written, tells me it was an honor. Some students have lined up in the aisle, wanting to meet me. I try to see past them. I sign three books, absently; I drift to the back of the auditorium, to the door, outside; it’s cold, and there are no leaves on the trees, so I can see very far, through the mountains and to the highway, but I don’t see the boy anywhere.)
He doesn’t notice that I notice him, but for a period of time I can’t be certain of but which can’t be more than a few seconds, I gaze at him in intimate suspension, like falling in love across a crowded dance floor. He tilts his head upwards and directs his vision toward the front of the room, towards me. His brow furrows and his eyes cloud with indecision. I try to keep going; it’s only as I near the end of the poem that I realize I’ve skipped a line, no – a whole stanza!
Observations on Emily Dickinson
1. Emily Dickinson was obsessed with the brain. In her work it represents the curious intersection of body and the ethereal Self. The brain is both organ and the synthesizer of identity. Dickinson creates and explores entire worlds within the scope of this organ – for example, in #280 she describes a funeral in her brain, and the bustle of mourning rituals. Entire processions take place; there are crowds and even the unfolding of plots. The paradox of the brain is its dual nature as both physical (the organ) and intangible (the faculty of thought). This paradox becomes something discomforting due to Dickinson’s reductionism: a person is boiled down to the various parts of Heart, Body, Brain. This discomfort stems not so much from the grisly anatomical connotations, but for its insinuation that the vehicles of our humanity are finite. The Heart will stop, the Mind will deteriorate, and the Body rot – and our personhood, so couched in these specific organs, follows suit. Even our individuality will decompose, and this is a kind of death more complete than we are comfortable imagining. The death of the body is the death of the self.
2. “I mostly write about disgusting, violent things. I’m really liking it.”
“Are you in that class on Emily Dickinson?”
3. Dickinson’s use of the dash is a precursor to modern free verse. It carries the movement on even after the verse has finished, a travelling or unraveling of thoughts that acts as a natural, stream-of-consciousness bridge from one isolated line to the next. Nothing is ever finished with a dash. It is dissipated or transformed. The dash allows a thought to exist beyond the words written on the paper as an indication of the magnitude of thought that exists behind the poem. It is the vector for a thought to return to the psychological landscape from which it first emerged.
4. It amazes me she even allowed visitors near her… ecstasy is such a precious thing to inhabit in the presence of the distractions that live downstairs. I would not want to have known her, only sat on her porch and known that genius was having its way upstairs, and I could drink my tea, alone, down here, and never see her face, but know her by the sound of creaking floorboards, a rustle of quiet cotton, maybe by watching the birds on the lawn. And my unstable and lonely, all that could live up in the attic with her, too. Great writers are like that – they carry the craft for the rest of us, the mediocre, who are happy just to sit downstairs on the porch
Applebee's Falls Apart
The Pancake Palace used to rule over a weedy quarter-acre lot on highway 16, past the Midwest’s Largest Shoe Store but before the Citgo that Mrs. Hodgkin’s son held up last April after Amanda Shepherd cheated on him. Now it is an Applebee’s. The new owners are an old couple from out of town that no one knows. They put up the neon APPLEBEE’S sign, but couldn’t afford the neon apple to match, so instead they painted over what used to be a neon pancake and glued on some green fourth-of-July glow sticks for the stem. It doesn’t look awful.
In the back booth closest to the kitchen, Kitty and her daughter Dora sit and pick at the layers of a bloomin’ onion. When it was still The Pancake Palace, they would come every week for free-bacon-Wednesday. Now, suddenly without this ritual, they are making due.
“Mom, why is it eight dollars for an onion here when at the grocery store they’re 98 cents? And why are there old black and white pictures of Applebees’s that aren’t this one on the wall? And why did they put us in the worst spot when there are so many open tables? And why—“
“Honey,” Kitty says, lifting her head ever so slightly from the bendy straw sticking out of an electric blue fishbowl-sized margarita. “Drink your milkshake.”
Dora does so gladly, in the same moment noticing the trail of little red lipstick smudges on everything her mother’s funny thin lips have touched: they wind down her straw, sweep faintly across the edge of the large glass, and can just be detected on the palm of her hand from when she brings it up cough her cigarette flem into. The same thought must have also occurred to Kitty, because she takes the opportunity to smear on more Riche Red.
“Can I get you gals anything else?” the 20-something waiter asks, seeming to pop out of nowhere. He asks the question the same way a Ken doll would, despite his greasy black hair and savage neck acne. “Refills? Another onion to munch on? Some desert maybe?” He winks at Dora.
“I’d love one more of these,” Kitty says with too wide a freshly-painted smile. The drink has dyed the inside of her mouth blue. “Dora, you want one more?”
“Then just the Fruit Punch Sunset Beach Tea for me, dear.” Bland Ken nods and smiles back as if Kitty is Barbie and winks at her this time. Dora wonders if his eyes work okay.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Dora says, scooting desperately out of the red leather seat. Her mom mumbles something like “okay honey,” and keeps her eyes locked on lackluster Ken as they small-talk about the recent snowfall and what the new owners have done with the place (not enough) and if greasy Ken is legal.
* * * * * * *
“Jeremy, stahhhhp,” Kitty is laughing too loudly when Dora returns. Her mother’s blonde-streaked bob just barely reaches to her shoulders and the true gray roots are almost visible, but not quite. Dull Ken, apparently Jeremy, is sitting on Dora’s side of the booth, staring into her mother’s copper-colored eyes. He takes a sip of his own fishbowl now resting on the table.
“Do you guys want some more unlimited breadsticks?” he asks, blinking crazily. Kitty laughs like she’s forgotten what words are.
“Huh?” Dora asks, now standing at the end of the table. “That’s not an Applebee’s thing; that’s a different restaurant. I’ve seen the commercials.” Jeremy shakes his head flippantly and stands to get up. Kitty shoots her daughter a nasty sort of glance.
“What?” says Dora, powerless. “Olive Garden has unlimited breadsticks, not here. And why do his eyes keep twitching like that? And why was he siting with you and drinking while he’s working? None of it makes sense.”
“Honey,” Kitty says with all the weight in the world. “Do you really think the world makes any sense?”
This is a bit much for even smarter-than-average Dora to handle at thirteen. Not sure of what to do, she takes her place back in the booth and returns to her milkshake, slurping it up in big, fast gulps. At the bottom the rainbow sprinkles swirl and begin to loose their colors, waiting to be sucked away one by one.
* * * * * * *
Soon enough Jeremy is back, his eyes now unable to remain open for hardly any time at all, carrying another onion bloomin’ in the middle of a basket of Olive Garden breadsticks. He has also brought back two more blue bowls of alcohol. After setting it all down on their table, he sits down next to Dora and rejoins them. He smells to her like sweat and something that has been left in the refrigerator for way too long.
“You hadn’t for blue them said isn’t no yet?” he says with a completely straight face. Kitty throws her head back to laugh, but Dora just stares at him, confused.
“What?” she asks. How many fishbowls has he had?
“For you no hadn’t yet blue them said isn’t,” he says more slowly through cheery, yellowing teeth. Dora looks at her mom.
“I don’t get it. What’s going on?” She asks, but the others only go on spewing gibberish. Kitty’s laughs are growing louder and more theatrical and Jeremy’s eyes now seem to be glued shut to his stupid smile.
Just then, one of the framed photos of an old Applebee’s falls to the ground and shatters somewhere close behind their table. Dora gasps, but no one else in the whole restaurant seems to notice it. Another photo across the room falls, and more glass flies. She looks around for verification, but no one has even looked up.
“Mom, didn’t you hear that?” she asks Kitty. But her question is met by the most exaggerated laugh yet, her mother throwing her head back so far that Dora worries it might fall off.
“Breadsticks Unlimited Breadsticks Unlimited!” Jeremy screams. Dora hasn’t even noticed that he has left, but here he is again, the very picture of insanity. He lays eight more baskets of Olive Garden breadsticks on the table. Another picture falls.
He sits down next to cackling Kitty this time and begins to touch her face softly. “You,” he coos, feeding her breadstick after breadstick. “You.” Smash goes more glass.
Then, the music starts. At first it seems to flow out of nowhere, but Dora soon realizes that it’s coming out of every crevice in the brick walls, an inexplicable swelling of a heartbreaking string symphony. But, once more, only Dora seems to be aware of it.
“What’s going on?!” she asks no one this time. “It doesn’t make sense!” Kitty and Jeremy ware kissing now, a revolting mess of blue tongues and low chuckles.
Dora throws her hands up, looking around the room for help but finding none. An elderly couple two booths over is going at some Chicken McNuggets with painful urgency. A group of pierced teenagers is building precarious towers of condiment bottles. A father and his twin sons, all three with flushed red hair, are piling ice cream into their mouths and crying. The music grows louder with every second that passes.
“Craaaaaack,” goes the wall next to her, a gigantic fissure opening up. Not one person flinches at this loud destruction either. Pieces of the brick crumble into what’s left of Dora’s milkshake. Kitty and Jeremy are now in the process of taking off each other’s clothes. Overhead, the hanging lights flicker, faintly swaying back and fourth.
“Stop!” Dora shrieks, unable to think of anything else to say. It feels as if the back pockets of her jeans are glued to the seat, forcing her to stay and watch the world fall apart.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees the old couple finally turn to look at her. However, there is no real comfort in their faces. Finished with their meal, the pair looks utterly lost. Peering closer, Dora sees that the old man has a tiny crack running down the left side of his face. It streams in and out of his forehead wrinkles, through a gray eyebrow and gently down the cheek. The woman too, she notices, has a similar type of slit traveling across her thick freckled arm. Dora searches the room and to her alarm finds that everyone is slowly fracturing this way. There is no blood, she observes; behind these growing openings is only darkness. No one shows even the slightest indication of pain.
At this point the music makes any more pleas useless. Maybe Dora should run out of the restaurant, or shake the others to try and make them see, or call somebody good or 911. But the tragic music and tragic people and the senselessness of it all, together with the crowd’s mutual apathy, make any course of action seem ultimately futile—so she stays sitting.
Above her the ceiling suddenly opens up and giant pewter tiles begin to come crashing down. Dora dives out of the booth onto the floor just in time as one threatens to flatten her. Lying on her stomach, the smell of syrup wafts up from the red carpeting. Kitty and Jeremy are now copulating underneath the table. Violins take over the melody.
Turning over as to not witness the potential conception of her newest sibling, Dora gazes up through the large gap in the ceiling. It is night, and by some absurd grace stars are visible even against the hanging fluorescents that remain. For one moment, looking into the handful of faraway light and listening to bows drift softly across strings, she thinks maybe a person can accept the chaos if it were always this beautiful as it is in that second.
Then she feels a crack. Looking down, she finds it is in her right hand, beginning at the pinky, twisting across the palm, ending in a sliver below the thumb. She does not cry out; it doesn’t hurt. Actually, the fracture feels warm, and somehow, she thinks, like coming home after a long trip away.
The walls have split deeply enough so that the entire building begins to shake, the whole place threatening to give way. Music still sails through the air, mixing with the smell of smoke coming from the kitchen and the icy January breeze. Kitty and Jeremy have finished, and are holding each other tightly as they too began to crack. Dora sees the redhead twins sheltering themselves under the bar, holding hands.
The sight of the twins make her think of being that small, even though she still doesn’t feel so big. Birthday parties and ice-skating and freshly made peanut butter cookies float across her memory, mixing together in a pretty, pleasant way. She feels the crack in her hand crawl further up her arm, and another start at the base of her neck. She closes her eyes and makes herself see more good things: John Deere, their dirty beagle, welcoming her home after school like he had missed her more than anything. Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper that lined her first bedroom. Her mother before one of her dates, standing in front of a mirror in a red dress from Goodwill, looking like she walked straight out of a magazine. Another crack lunges across her stomach.
Just then Dora feels someone touch the hand that is still whole. She opens her eyes to see Kitty lying next to her, a crooked opening running down the center of her face, Riche Red clinging to the edges.
“I—“ Dora begins in a shaky voice, but Kitty cuts her off.
“Shhhhh,” she whispers kindly, kissing her on the nose. Dora imagines the faint red print her broken lips have left there. Though Kitty is silent, the look in her eyes says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Examining the crack in her mother from up close, Dora can see that beyond it, where the spongy insides of a person should be, there is nothing. If anything, from this near it is possible to detect in the blackness a faint collection of tiny, distant lights.
You would think that at a funeral home, the primo place for people to contemplate their own mortality, that a part of that thought process would include taking into consideration the finite amount of meals left in a person’s life, and that whoever is running this thing from behind one of the many closed doors who doesn’t suddenly have one less family member could spread some fucking mayonnaise on the dozen subpar finger sandwiches. The food here is shit.
The onslaught of casseroles has begun before we’ve even put Owen in the ground. We’re a casserole family now, isn’t that something? One day you’re sitting at your desk at work, or letting your legs dangle off the kitchen counter, or driving to the bookstore thinking, “Hey, you know what I haven’t had for a long time? Green bean casserole. I could really go for some of that. Wow, that sounds really good right now.” Then the next day your brother is dead and the overwhelming urge flows over you to smash half of the glass casserole-cradling dishes and sprinkle the broken shards into the other casseroles and see how comforted that makes everybody feel. But you don’t do that. I won’t do that.
At what point are you supposed to give the casserole dishes back? Nice glassware like that people just don’t give away, even at times like this. What’s the statute of limitations on post-mortem Pyrex returns? Is it more socially acceptable to redeliver the scrubbed-clean dishware before all warmth has left the corpse, or only after you forget the way his face lit up when he found his birthday presents hidden in the dryer last summer?
Ugh, and the deviled eggs. They smell like rotting—like my brother is rotting in the box one room over. Maybe some sadistic employee of the funeral home is doing this on purpose. At least my brother is not splattered with little paprika-colored beads of blood, because there was no blood. There was only water. There was only so much water.
Everyone is sipping coffee out of cups that don’t even keep your fingers from being burned, because that’s the thing you do at a funeral, that’s what you do with your hands instead of pinching yourself to make little bruises as a distraction from watching all the people do default things. Why do they all want to be more awake? Maybe they are trying to wake up. I don’t think the coffee pots are big enough for that.
The desserts, though: on point. No one risked bringing a celebratory-associated cake, so kudos to you friends and neighbors. Can you imagine the sickening frosting-scribbled sayings, anyway? “Greatest Condolences.” “We Miss You Already.” “What A Shame The Lifeguard Had To Use The Bathroom Right Then.” “Bit Of Bad Luck, Really.” “It’s No One’s Fault.” “The Sister Probably Should Have Been Paying Attention But We Can’t Blame Her, Of Course.” “These Things Happen.”
An image of a sheet cake with glaringly white vanilla frosting comes to mind, across it, in a 5 A.M.-hung-over-at-the-bakery-daze, some high school student has half-heartedly written:
I clutch my knees in crowded rooms.
I sleep through the days like they aren't there.
I can't dream of anything in the din, the crash of bodies
in this Cape Cod colonial. An early moon lies
on my neck like a wet compress. I lap up the pond
of porter on the counter-top. I spy droplets
on my lover's thighs. Outside, men fry. Their sockets
bulge. They stare into the sun. They breach my gaze.
I glaze over. A baritone slinks out of the wreck.
I bare it all to a man clutching a cold Black Shack
& I sink back into what is on draught. His shouts shrink
to whispers in the clatter of the room. What burnt man,
in denim, doesn't dream of the body of a boy
on the brink? His eyes sizzle on the shore. I see him
crush & curl on the cobbled streets of the only place
that will let him live. I see the men I've loved as years
that will never happen. I hold them up
like they will make the universe.
Agency versus Fidelity in the Act of Translation
I recall to my mind some words of John Felstiner from his essay "'Ziv, That Light:' Translation and Tradition in Paul Celan." In his essay, Felstiner expounds upon his experience of translating a poem of Celan's, "Nah, im Aortenbogen":
CLOSE, IN THE AORTIC ARCH,
in the bright blood:
the bright word.
weeps no more.
all that was wept.
Quiet, in the coronary arteries,
Ziv, that light. (98)
Felstiner uses the word "quiet" in place of the word "still" in German. He discusses his process for choosing the word: "I need a word meaning motionless as well as soundless. 'Quiet'? yes, that would do. But the symmetry between Nah and Still requires an adjective of one syllable. 'Calm'? 'Hushed'?" He then asks "why not 'still' itself? The adjective fits beautifully, and also we can hear the adverb 'still'... Keats's Grecian Urn, Eliot's music in Four Quartets offer rich precedents for a grammatical ambiguity I think Celan's poem also presents us with. Yet still in German has no sense of something prolonged, enduring..." and then Felstiner asks something which, when I came across it, resonated within me: "ought I to add that idea?" (107) How much agency does the translator possess in their act of translation? How much are they permitted to presume for themselves? How much of my own voice can I explore while still achieving fidelity?
In Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman quotes Octavio Paz: "When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate." (75) If we are in accordance we must acknowledge that our every attempt to speak, to write, to learn is an attempt to construct the vocabularies for our inner-lives, to build identities and relate ourselves to the world in which we reside. So what happens when we try to translate the work of another? If one cannot be faithful in the act of translating their own inner life, how will another's language be treated faithfully? Will it not be an inevitable bastardization of the writer's original text? The act of preserving another's intention runs the risk of becoming too "seamless," (a harsh word for a translator according to Edith Grossman) of falling into the shadows and not allowing one's own voice to thrive in the work. On the other hand, a translator insisting upon his or her own voice may become overbearing and we suffer the loss of the original author in the piece. How does one walk that line?
These questions make me think of the first time I well and truly considered the power of translation, of the multifaceted complexity of carrying over the words of another. It came when I read East of Eden, in the form of the Hebrew word Timshel, originating from the story of Cain and Abel. The character Lee speaks of the word and its different translations. He explains that in the King James Bible the word Timshel is translated into "thou shalt rule over sin." In this version, the word is a promise from Jehovah to Cain, an advocacy for predestination. In the American Standard, the phrase becomes "do thou rule over it," and here it is a command from Jehovah to Cain to overcome his base temptation. Lee expresses confusion in the differences between these two translations and then speaks of his experience with studying Hebrew, in an attempt to better understand the original Hebrew text. His studies lead him to discover what he believes to be the closest interpretation of the word Timshel: thou mayest. Placed into context, the phrase would then become "thou mayest rule over sin." This becomes significant for Lee, as he surmises that it must inherently imply "thou mayest not." In his own words: "'Thou Mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice." (Steinbeck 301)
In the context of the novel, this dialogue is instrumental in assisting the character Adam Trask in finding a newfound purpose in his life, saving him from his own self-destruction. It assures him that no matter how deep the roots of his sin lie, there still remains the chance of redemption, and what's more to the choice to choose that path for himself, the path which has been obscured for so long.
I turned the word over, seeking to understand it not just for the meaning but for its structure. Timshel. There is force in that first syllable, Tim. The English translation captures that force as well as its antiquity, "thou," and with that antiquity comes authority. The auditory force in Tim is found in "thou" as well. It engages the lower register of the voice and insists that one take their time before allowing it to fully leave the mouth and enter into the world. The second part, shel, moves softly, and expands upon its utterance. It spreads into the air and fills the space, and also contains that feeling of necessary prolonging. To my ears it is appropriate that the word should translate to "mayest." "Mayest" holds breadth. "Thou shalt," and "do thou" are too linear, too directed. One phrase predicts the way which will be taken while the other commands the journey. "Mayest" allows for freedom. Together, "Thou mayest" is endowed with a mixture of authority and benevolence, appropriate for the gift that it offers: choice.
The choice is the greatest gift afforded to us: "Thou mayest," and "thou mayest not." It gives humanity an agency that surpasses all beings. Timshel gives us the option to accept what happens to us and let that become the central meaning of our existence. Yet we have the agency to refuse this and instead subscribe to one of our own making. In a sense, this is the supreme gift given to the translator as well. The translator is the humble passageway of thought through language. We strive to explain the internal life and in working to translate another's work we may dilute our own for the sake of achieving that lofty ambition of fidelity to the original author. Yet, to read, to comprehend, to translate is to build; the greatest gift given to the translator is the freedom to construct their truth by experiencing fully the truth of another. One has to adapt to the work, destroy it, love it for its strengths and weaknesses, and learn it as intimately as possible in order to give it its full due; it is the closest reading one can give. We are gifted a choice as to how to approach the work, with the most desirable result being a perfect melding of the language of the original writer along with the identity of the one translating. Of course, nothing is perfect, no matter how hard one tries. Yet, in that futile aspiration one will find beauty being created.
Edith Grossman cites a quote from Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett: "Human tasks are unrealizable. The destiny of Man--his privilege and honor--is never to achieve what he proposes, and to remain merely an intention, a living utopia. He is always marching toward failure, and even before entering the fray he carries a wound in his temple." (67) That fidelity may be unreachable, but it is honest and true and demonstrative of the thorough effort of the translator. When I approach my own work, striving to achieve clarity, and to sift through the pieces of my inner world, I hope to find what may well be my own truth. It could possibly never happen, but I will move closer each time I do so. When I approach my translations, I hope to come close to give that writer the fairest treatment I can. And if I am ever in doubt, I will remember what Adam Trask said to his son Caleb in the final passage of East of Eden. Caleb Trask kneels at his father's bedridden form and asks him for forgiveness. Adam places his hand upon Caleb's head and says but one thing: Timshel! (Steinbeck 601)
 Nah is the first word of the poem, "Nah, im Aortenbogen." Felstiner switches it with "Close."
Felstiner, John. Ziv, That Light: Translation and Tradition in Paul Celan. The Craft of Translation. Ed. by
John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Grossman, Edith. Why Translation Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Hurt Me Here
Burning flesh smells like cooked meat. Noah knows because he takes a lighter to his arm, and watches as it eats away at the hair and skin. It hurts like a motherfucker. He rubs salt into the groove afterward, clenching his teeth.
His mother doesn’t ask him about it the day after. Noah wraps it up in gauze, secures it with a butterfly snap. Ron asks him about it. Noah says, “I burned myself.” Ron snorts and pushes Noah against a wall, and opens the gauze. He looks at the wound. “That’s fucking nasty,” he murmurs, and bites around it, creating a red ring around the pit of the burn.
They smoke in Ron’s garage that evening. Ron rolls a joint on the floor, the cold seeping through the rug, in through their jeans, and into their skin. When he’s done, Ron lifts the joint to his lips and wraps his mouth around it, pulls in. He lets the smoke out after a while, watching it as it drifts up to the ceiling. Noah smokes next, the two alternating in the quiet of the garage.
Ron pulls in another drag, then stubs out the mostly dead joint. He slowly blows the smoke up before dropping the snubbed end into the bin. He reaches over to Noah. Noah doesn’t move as Ron cups his face, turning his head. Ron presses his lips on Noah’s neck, careful and sweet, before he pulls aside the collar of his shirt, and bites his shoulder, hard, hard enough that Noah wonders if it’s bleeding.
“You better not having fucking rabies, man,” Noah says.
“Got rid of that shit ages ago,” Ron says, and Noah laughs.
Ron’s funny, Noah thinks.
Noah follows Ron up to his bedroom–his parents are out for the night. He sits on the bed next to Ron, thighs touching as they stare out the window, eyes dry. Then Ron turns to Noah and pushes him down into the bed. The bed is more comfortable than the cold floor of the garage. Noah stares out at the small plastic dinosaurs relegated to the closet in the corner of the room. They are bent and some are missing parts, all tangled together, sharp ends and sharper teeth.
Ron pulls off Noah’s shirt, flips him over so he can bite along his spine. Noah stares at the dinosaurs. Stares until they blur out of focus and all he can see is the dark green spot where they used to be.
Ron murmurs into Noah’s spine, “Can I burn you?”
Noah pauses, pressing his face into the pillow, which smells like sweat and Ron’s shampoo. Whispers into it, “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
Ron reaches into his back pocket, pulls out his lighter. He flicks it, watching the flame for a moment, and then holds Noah’s arm above it. He moves the lighter a bit, watching as it rolls on Noah’s skin.
Noah doesn’t say anything, but when the flame begins to burn past the oils of his skin, his eyes water. Ron moves the lighter in a tight circle, pressing the fire up into Noah’s arm, creating a mark small but so indelible it radiates through his bones. Noah whispers, “Stop.” Ron flicks his thumb off the lighter, and slips it into his back pocket. Noah sits up, bare feet hanging off the edge of the bed. He cradles his arm to his chest, and looks.
It’s ugly: pink and raw and peeling at the edges, fresh skin trying to escape the pit. The center looks wet. Ron smiles when he sees it, and leans down. Before Noah can jerk his arm away, Ron’s biting around it again, ringing it, a house surrounded by a white picket fence. Noah chokes on a sob. Ron looks up at Noah’s face. “Shhh,” he whispers, holding Noah’s head in between his hands. Tears run down Noah’s face, and he can do nothing to stop them, just grab Ron’s arms, and hold on.
The one time Ron came over to Noah’s house was alright. Ron walked in around midnight, idly glancing over the place. Noah’s mom was sitting on the couch, sipping beer and watching TV.
Ron said, “This cool, Noah? With her, or whatever?”
Noah just shrugged, said, “She doesn’t notice.” Her slumped figure seems molded into the aged couch, her lumps mirrored in the padding.
Ron had shrugged too, followed Noah into his room.
Ron left a particularly horrific bite mark on Noah’s inner thigh. So perfect and intense that Noah could see each separate tooth mark. He traced it in the shower the next morning, watching as water sluiced over it.
Noah used to bring home girls at first. Girls and girls and girls: pretty girls, happy girls, drunk girls. High girls. He would bring them in, arm slung around their shoulders. Pull them into his bedroom as they giggled and posed questions about his mother. It’s fine, it’s fine, she doesn’t mind, he would murmur into their perfumed necks, repeating the words until they were placated.
When he brought home his first boy, he was burnt out of his mind, a pile of ashes wrapped in a dry carcass. The boy had his arm slung around Noah’s shoulder, and he was pressing wet kisses on Noah’s neck. He didn’t ask about Noah’s mother. Noah slowly stumbled his way to his room, the boy letting Noah lean on him heavily. The boy closed the door behind them, the sound echoing through the apartment, unsettling the dust on the crooked floorboards.
Noah stops bringing people home after he brings Ron.
The burn on his arm is swollen and puffy, full of pus. Noah is tempted to poke the bulb with a pin, but he’s more chickenshit than anything so he leaves it be. Noah wonders why injuries get swollen. Like they’re trying to put themselves further out there, like trying to point out to everyone: this is where I’m hurt, this is where I’m sore. If you want to hurt me, hurt me here.
The next day, Noah goes over to Ron’s. They sit in the garage, huddled around a space heater on an old rug. They split a bowl, and then Ron drinks a beer while Noah smokes a cigarette.
Ron puts down the empty bottle, and pushes Noah to the ground. He doesn’t do anything for a while, just sits next to him, stares down at his face. Noah doesn’t ask why. Noah waits, feeling the nubby rug against his back. It smells like spilled beer and weed, and he watches Ron. Ron leans down, kisses Noah’s mouth, bites his lower lip. Leaves nasty hickies by his collarbone because Noah hates them.
Ron leaves a truly horrific hickey on Noah’s cheek, near his hairline. Noah feels him leave it, tells him, “Stop, you’re ruining my gorgeous face, man.”
Ron just bites at the spot, and says, “Nah, nothing could ruin your gorgeous face,” before leaning down to suck and bite at it further.
When Noah gets home, he stares at the hickey in the mirror. It’s fucking disgusting and deeply purple, red emanating from the mark like fire. He pokes at it, prods it with his fingernails. Leaves moon-shaped gouges in it.
The next day, Noah can’t even pretend to hide the mark along his cheekbone, so he goes to school with his hair pulled away from his face. He knows when people see it, watching as their eyes slide across his cheek to the bruise. His homeroom teacher downright stares, so he flashes her a smile and rests his chin on his hand so she can get a better look. At lunch, Ron and Noah sit on the back steps, drinking boxed chocolate milk and smoking cigarettes. Ron laughs at Noah’s face and says, “You know concealer is a thing, right?”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather just have a huge hickey instead of a crappily hid one,” Noah says, leaning his head onto Ron’s shoulder.
Ron runs his hand through Noah’s hair, and Noah closes his eyes.
Noah goes out some nights, on the weekends, meeting up with friends he hasn’t seen in weeks. They meet in abandoned alleys or fields, warehouses. Noah watches as they take shots, scrunching up their noses at the taste. Then they head out, arms slung over shoulders, voices drifting through the air. Usually they hit up a party. Noah separates from the group, off into the thickest of the crowd, letting people surround him. Takes a small pill out of his pocket, sticks it on his tongue and swallows. He stands, still, and waits for it to hit. The bodies around him sway and jostle, and he lets himself be moved by the crowd. He closes his eyes, the flashing lights reflecting on his eyelids.
When it hits, and he opens his eyes, and the lights are swirling and bright. Noah feels like he could forget anything, everything. The music thrums through him–he’s a conduit, sparks running along his veins. The world feels like an inkblot around him, rich and vibrant and alive, moving how he moves, the thrum of heat pulsing through everyone like a live wire.
Suddenly there’s a boy, a blond boy, in front of him. Noah smiles, the grin stretching his muscles up into the back of his head. The boy walks over, and kisses Noah on the mouth. Noah feels the boy’s hands on his hair, at the back of his neck, and then moving down to his hips, pulling him in, closer. Noah smiles into the kiss and the boy murmurs, “Hey, wanna get out of here?”
“Okay,” Noah replies, eyes closed. The boy takes Noah’s hand, leading him through the noise and the warmth, until a door opens with a horrific creak and the cool air sinks deep into Noah. Noah still feels incredibly warm, as if the cold is only quickening his pulse. The boy presses Noah against the cold wall of the building next door. Noah shivers, and the shiver seems uncontrollable, shattering its way through his body like glass against the floor. The boy presses his mouth against Noah’s. His tongue feels like heaven, or angels, or something else Noah doesn’t believe in–but right now, he could. He would form a religion of tongues, if he could. The boy takes Noah’s hand again. They walk out into the night, Noah smiling at the boy, the pavement, the sky. The boy seems charmed by Noah, and why the fuck shouldn’t he be. This is the Noah he always wants to be. The boy rests a hand on the back of Noah’s neck, a hot brand.
They come to a crummy apartment building, the bricks faded and some crumbling near the edges. Noah wraps his hand and fingers more fully into the boy’s. The boy mentions something about a third floor walk-up, and then they’re taking the stairs. The stairs creak under their weight and Noah thinks he hears the thumping of a headboard against a wall. But none of that matters because Noah revels in the feeling of how warm the boy is, a human ablaze. Someone who could burn a person to ashes and still leave them whole.
He’s being pushed, back, back, hitting the wall of the boy’s bedroom. A warm hand grips the back of his neck, and they’re kissing again. Noah thinks he might be making noise, but it all seems to buzz outwards from him, dissolving into the air before he can tell whether he’s said anything. The boy presses his chest against Noah’s, and god, that feels amazing. Noah feels like he’s living in a burrito, or a pile of blankets, or he’s tucked in a nest.
The boy slams Noah’s head back into the wall, biting at his neck. Noah is vaguely aware that there are going to be more hickies tomorrow, but at the moment, that seems sweet, almost reverent. A hand grips the back of his skull, and he’s going down, down, until his knees crack onto the floor.
It’s not always Ron, but it usually feels like it is.
A few hours later, Noah wakes up in bed with the boy, curled a few inches from him in a tight ball. He retrieves his shirt from the corner of the room and zips his jeans. He uses the toilet in the small bathroom before staring at himself in the mirror. He has deep purple bruises beneath his eyes, and his lips are chapped. His jaw is tight, sore, and his ears are still a bit red at the tips. Noah runs a hand through his hair and winces when he comes in contact with a bump roughly the diameter of a golf ball at the base of his skull. He presses at it, tenderly, watches his face contort in pain. He splashes water on his face, sipping some from his cupped palms and swishing it around his mouth. He spits it out, sticky spittle hanging from lower lip. He wipes it off with the back of his hand. His jacket is slung over a chair, and he picks it up before leaving the apartment.
The stairs groan underneath him as he goes.
Because his mom is home, Noah walks to Ron’s house. Ron says that Noah’s mom freaks him out; he won’t go over if she’s there, and Noah can’t say he disagrees. So he goes to Ron’s. When Noah walks through the door, Ron stares at the hickey on his neck and whistles lowly. “That boy did a number on you,” he murmurs, “I don’t even go that hardcore.”
“Whatever, I think he was on coke,” Noah mutters. “He fuckin’ smashed my head against the wall too,” he says, feeling around the back of his scalp for the bump. It’s tender and raised. Noah folds himself into the chair where Ron’s sitting. They barely fit, not since middle school–Noah’s more on top of Ron that anything–but Noah refuses to stop, despite how their bony hips fit together. Ron runs his hand through Noah’s hair and drags his fingers over the bump. Noah winces slightly; Ron murmurs a small apology and wraps his arms around Noah’s waist. Ron rests his chin on Noah’s shoulder, the tip of bone digging into muscle. Ron kisses the inside of Noah’s neck, but then just leans and hugs tighter. It’s on the edge of too tight, almost painful, but Noah leans back into Ron’s chest, letting the back of his head hit the headrest. The back of his head is sore, and the pain in his arm is flaring up again, but Noah can only really feel Ron’s heat.
It’s getting late- almost 4am, but they like to wait until the sleepiness becomes its own mind-altering substance, when the edges of everything become softer. They fall asleep on the rug in the garage, facing each other, Ron cradling Noah’s burnt arm close to his chest.
“ `ffffff kj oip noinppi tyhgnajfrq pwxyz. nbv twt 222 665 hijwvuk “
What may look, to the untrained and unexperienced eye, like a typical button mash on a standard computer keyboard, was actually an unfortunately intentional sequence. It isn’t a code. It isn’t a message. James L. Pedagon, its author, had very meaningfully typed each and every letter, and number, and whatever else had come to mind at the moment.
You see, James L Pedagon was high as fuck when he typed that. With no other recourse, poor and unsuspecting James had lit up and fucked his life forever hereafter. Everybody knew as soon as it happened.
James used to be quite the equestrian; his horse, Lord Goring, was his close partner through many a successful jump.
James used to teach basic math to preschoolers.
James used to be an avid student of the flute and Schopenhauer.
Fucked. From this moment on, James is no longer in any condition to do
Joanne had said never to smoke as an escape. It seemed like a paradox now. Everything seemed like a paradox now. Lord Goring was right, haha.
“ Haha, wait, haha. ”
He is a demon. James had become a demon, perhaps the Devil himself.
For the rest of his life, people will see him and know exactly who he is and what he is. They will tell their children to look away from James the Demon because, of course, everyone will know him. They will know him for the deep scratches on his skin. His shoes: always the same. His fingernails: a mess, except that one. And his eyes. His bloodshot, dazed and confused, demonic EYES are always the kicker. Don’t look, Watson. That’s what happens. James the Demon. He used to work with kids. HOW? I don’t know.
Is there a way out of his seeming fate? Is demonhood the only option? Can James turn it all around, right now, and have the world open its arms back up to The Prodigal James ever again?
James is fucked. Forever. Fucked. Forever.
There’s nothing anyone can do. One strike rule, and James will have many more strikes. One and done, more and demonhood. James the Demon.
Nice to have known you, James. Such a good boy, gone to waste. Could have been President of the United States, could have steered the great ship of democracy and shined the light on many a foreign shore.
James, do you even know how to make coffee?
Parental Discretion Advised
From Monday to Friday, nine to five, my job was to look at porn. By that I mean I used to work the day shift at the Whitney on the Upper East Side, and I have seen a lot of weird things pass as art. Weapons in showcases. Black and white videos of people pacing an empty room. Large paint splatters, like pigeon crap. What looks like a first grader’s attempt at drawing his house. And every time they brought in a new exhibit, I thought I could have done that, but that’s just it, isn’t it? I could have, but I didn’t. Someone else did. And now they’re probably living the good life. Maybe not Vacation House Along The French Riviera Good, but Attending Gallery Openings With An Open Bar Good, and that’s better than what I had.
What I had was five days a week of staring at four walls filled with things I could have created, but didn’t. A constant reminder of my wasted potential.
The summer I got divorced, the Whitney—all four floors—had just opened their Jeff Koons exhibit. He mostly does sculptures that look like they’re made of that balloon material. But they filled the third floor—my old station—with porn. Giant larger-than-life oil on canvas paintings so real they look like they blown-up photographs. The recurring naked body of a blonde lady and Koons himself, either with his face buried in some part of her or staring point-blank back at you with this smug smile, and all his teeth are showing.
And my job was to look at that all day. To look at that, and to watch people look at that, which I admit was kind of entertaining when it was a family with small children. Except nine times out of ten, I got yelled at for not issuing a warning. During times like these, I pointed to the small sign painted in thin black letters in the doorway: PARENTAL DISCRETION ADVISED.
Sometimes parents shrank away, covering their kid’s eyes, but sometimes they used these so-called signs as fuel for their fire and lecture me for a good many minutes more on the preservation of innocence and childhood. Sometimes they asked me, rhetorically, “If you were a parent, would you be okay with your kid being exposed to this?!” In these instances, I could have said a lot of things. Yes—obnoxiously, flippantly, for one thing. No—apologetically, shyly for another. I could have been a pretentious asshole and lectured back about how deeply submerged our culture is in media, where images far worse than these are readily available.
But I liked those parents best because the truth is I’ve thought about this a lot. If I had kids. If I had kids. Would I cover their eyes, skip this gallery altogether? Or just let them look? Would they even want to? Would they be museum-going types? Would they be curious about art—spectators or creators? Would there even be two of them? Boys or girls or both?
For a boy: Jon—without the “h.”
For a girl: Sarah—with it.
After my divorce, my therapist thought I needed a change of pace, so now I work the night shift. There are no people to discourage from using flash photography. There are no people, period.
Once, I stood naked in front of a Jeff Koons painting on the third floor. I stripped down completely, fingers clumsily untying my uniform tie, kicking my khaki-colored pants from around my ankles as Jeff Koons stared down at me. My eyes bleary, maybe a little confused. His, full of intention. My thick neck, a double-chin. His one. My stomach, obstructing view of my lower half. His, close to the bones, structured. My arms, shaking, weighed down with flesh. His, toned but not overly muscular, spread out in ecstasy but also as if to say Look at all I’ve done.
I stood there, goose bumps piling onto my body. I read the painting plaque. Jeff Koons is divorced too. From a former porn star who was also a member of the Italian Parliament. Now he’s married to another artist and they have six kids. At night, I think about what their names might be.
A Log A Leg
Last night, there was a party in the woods. A word-of-mouth kind of party. If you can find it, you’re welcome. People came in droves—populating the quiet darkness with shouts and song, someone lit a bonfire, someone brought a keg—up the north trail, just beyond the edge of the woods, on top of the ridge, where you can see the little dipper. None of us can find the big one, and we spend a long time walking in circles, heads thrown back in vain. These were people we didn’t know, Clara and I, but drunkenness is a great equalizer, a friend finder, sometimes. Sometimes not: I think I see Clara and the unknowns walking back into the trees, and I run after, calling for her…
Once I woke up in a car in pitch darkness, when I was young. My sister and I were tangled in the backseat—our legs some kind of sailors knot so that we could both sleep “comfortably” during a road-trip. When I woke, I did not know where I was and could not feel my legs. If you spend long enough in darkness, your eyes adjust. You stop seeing the imprinted colors on your eyelids—what light has left behind—and shapes that dissolve and reform themselves into to people or beasts. There are some things you only believe in the dark: I forgot my sister and our parents. I truly thought I was dead.
As I am running through the trees, someone puts a Beyoncé song on at the party and I trip over a log. A leg. I trip over, what is in fact, a leg. I found a body alone and inert. I couldn’t move for a long time—suddenly in the car again, the feeling gone from my legs, thinking, “this is it”. There is blood on my hands, but I can’t tell if it is mine Not the same clothes, not even the same hair, but undeniably, I was seeing my own face. My body. What am I doing out here? As I sit with myself, crouching over wondering, listening to the echo of Beyoncé, there is a noise close by, a cellphone ringing. Pacing, maybe I am just imagining it. Maybe, I thought, if I stay long enough, she will reanimate. Or become someone other than myself. The noise is getting closer, so I run.
“Just off the switchback”, I call down to Clara whose uneven breath marks our steps up the sun-speckled trail. “Just here, I swear.” I do not tell Clara that I found myself lying dead in the woods, I lie and say it was some other girl. How do you explain that? Today, I don’t see blood on the leaves.
Curious. I wonder how does one get rid of so much of it?
Zoe turns to me “I wanna see his dick…for research.” I’ve heard it all before. Before this bar, before she vomits on the floor, before we are kicked out. Everything is done for research, this is our excuse.
The bartender is high on cocaine and shifts anxiously from one foot to the other. He is telling me about his French girlfriend. “I moved. All the way from Barcelona. For a girl and a shitty job. The fucking French…” That’s a long way, I say. But I don’t really think so, not as far as I’ve come, and I don’t even have a shitty job.
“I just wanna see it “ Zoe whispers in my ear. The bartender shifting so quickly now it looks like he is dancing as he pours more purple, green and flaming poisons. Then a moment later, the lights are on and whatever Zoe just drank is all over the floor. She didn’t get to do any research, but life is full of second chances.
We meet Dylan. A strange kind of frat boy who has done everything—fencing, sailing, rapping, math club, poetry, cooking, French, model U.N. –but is interested in nothing. He tells us that he picks up girls by writing raps based on their names. He has a brand on his ass, smashes bottles, and dips us on the dance floor. Zoe slaps him in the face, I’m not sure why. She storms away and then falls. They start making out. Mercifully, neither remembers the vomit.
Later, two French boys walk us home. They tell us we are pretty. That we are very young to be here. That we speak so well. It is so surprising to meet a smart American, one says to me.
They always tell us these things. As if by force of repetition they would become true. We are their exceptions to the rule that all Americans are tasteless, foolish and materialistic.
I am always the smartest American you have met, the prettiest, the best at French. You tell me the best way to learn is to have a French boyfriend, this too I have heard already. You can’t have met many girls. Or maybe you’ve just met too many. I smile too much. I laugh too much too, and probably give you the wrong idea. But its all for research, I mean, that’s what I’m here for right?
Saoirse’s crush, Richie tried to give her a golf ball but he gave it to her by whacking it at her face and now Saoirse only has one eye. The boy had a mean backswing, which led the ball to fly, which led her to the emergency room, which led her flying in a flapping hospital gown to the operating table which led her to emerge two hours later with only one eyeball in her possession. They had let her hold the golf ball in her hand the whole time.
It is a little pale pink ball. It must be a specialty design but whatever symbol is printed on it is faded now; looks like a loop, like a knotted ribbon, or like fingers being crossed. Maybe a breast cancer awareness ball. Soft with dust, warm with sun when the boy placed it on the tee in his backyard and aimed for her. Its surface is dimpled with round divots scooped by some miniscule melon baller. It fits in the palm like a perfect scoop of strawberry sherbet. There is no other like it.
Over her recovery, Saoirse has cupped the ball in her hand so constantly that she doesn’t think of it anymore. She hardly recognizes it as an object foreign from her body. Like placing a cold hand on a warm forehead, and feeling both the sensation of warmth on the cold hand and coolness on the warm forehead, she touches the lightweight ball and registers the feel of her fingers. She reads the bumps like inverse Braille. Sometimes she dreams that she is inside the small globe with Richie and there are no windows but it is lit from within and the inside-out dimples serve nicely as places for them to sit.
The first day back to her fifth grade classroom after the accident, Saoirse is more concerned about her acne than her eyepatch.
“Saoirse! You’re going to make me late!” her mother cries from the front of the house.
“Take the car, I can walk!” Saoirse shouts. She remains at the bathroom mirror. She has a stick of brownish concealer that she smears over her spots but it doesn’t distract from the mountainous landscape of her T-zone. She wants to look nice for Richie because he sometimes says her acne grosses him out. Then, sliding the golf ball into the pocket of her shorts and her eyepatch over her socket, she leaves for school.
Fortunately, her classmates find her eye injury more outrageous than her everyday acne.
“Do you have a real hole in your face?”
“Whoa, can I see?”
“Richie pulled your eye out with a fork, right? That’s punk rock.”
“Wait, what happens if you stick your finger in there?”
Saoirse is encircled by her class at recess and she smiles and tells them all about her eyelessness. She saves her bravest story for Richie; about how she got through the pain remembering that the last thing her poor eye saw was his pretty face. But Richie sits on the opposite side of the schoolyard and so she nobly excuses herself from the eager crowd and, feeling round and whole, she approaches him, golf ball securely in hand. She scoots up next to him on the bleachers. He is hunched over and only glances at her shoes.
“Sorry,” he says.
“I still have the golf ball you gave me,” she begins, sighing delicately.
“Huh? Oh yeah. Did you tell your parents that it was me? That I did it?”
She stops for a moment. It had slipped her mind that her parents didn’t ask how she was hit in the face hard enough to warrant going to the hospital. “A lot happened at once. They’re probably going to ask eventually.” She says it to herself as much as to him.
“Can I have it back?” he asks. “It’s not mine.”
Saoirse feels her story slipping away. “Why…why do you want it back?”
“It’s evidence, you know?”
Saoirse had thought she was sitting very close to him but she tilts her head a little, puts out a hand, and she cannot reach him. He is messing around with a football instead of looking at her. This entire conversation he hasn’t asked her about her eye-hole at all.
“I don’t want my parents to know what happened. It’s their ball,” he mumbles.
Saoirse thinks fast. “I don’t think you want it.”
“Because. We were thinking of what prosthetic eye to buy and I had to figure out what size I needed and they ran out of fake eyes to try out but I had the ball and…”
Richie finally looks up at Saoirse and there is disgust on his face, but this time it’s not because of her acne. His two perfectly functional eyes dart from the pink ball in her hand to her eyepatch. Saoirse stiffens as something like realization washes over her. Richie will go the rest of his life seeing the world as he would like to, but she will have to live half in darkness because of what he did to her. He allowed her only ten years with two eyes and she wasted some of that time looking at him.
“You know what?” she says, “You can have it. Here.” And she pops the golf ball into his shocked mouth and walks away.
I keep breaking cigarettes in my left pocket
They are fixated on my left breast
There is tobacco spilled in pocket and my mouth
The boys make their own cigarettes
And they say don’t put that trash in your body
But it reminds me of boys
I miss them
They last longer then the taste
I taste them in the smoke
You are quick and bright and loud
And I am quite bold and proud
And if we hit like I think we will
We’ll make a storm strong enough to kill
But if we drop
You’ll turn to ash
And I’ll freeze over smooth as glass
I believe that, no matter how hard one tries, thinking about an event will never make it materialize.
My friend once told me that when she wanted to cry on command she would think of her mother dying. We were in second grade. As an aspiring actress, I too desired this skill. Thinking of every way my mother could perish, I tried to squeeze tears through my eyes.
I felt like a bad person. How could I not be sad at the thought of her death? Then it occurred to me that perhaps my friend was the bad person. Who thinks of their parents’ death for fun?
My acting professor tells me that people are afraid to fantasize about the worst thing that could happen to them, a common technique for emotional preparation. The reason I couldn’t force the precious tears from my eyes was because I couldn’t really think about how my mother would die; I couldn’t picture it.
“People are superstitious. They’re afraid that if they let their mind go there, it will actually happen to them,” she said.
I know this not to be true. I have learned that thinking about you won’t bring you back. Cycling through every possible way I could apologize won’t make you forgive me. Desperately insulting you in my mind won’t lower your self-esteem enough to make you want me again.
A simple fire will do the trick. She will shoo us from the house, rid herself of distractions in making her perfect Thanksgiving meal. In our unrenovated kitchen. Our little time capsule of the 1990s. Formica cabinetry, buckled hardwood and memories of my parents’ faded love. The place where she has been trapped since the home’s purchase. Grease will set fire. Fire will encircle her and her flesh will burn and bubble. And she will give in. Release herself to the flames charring her thin, pale skin, feeding the flame that was meant to feed us. Her freckles and moles, the soft folds of her stomach will melt together in the heat. Into this world she came, out of the world she will leave, alone.
Be careful what you wish for.
Why? What good will wishing do? What harm will I suffer from wishing? Stepping on a crack won’t break my mother’s back. I have learned that my tears mean nothing to you anymore. I’m sure that eventually I’ll realize it’s for the best. Until then, I’m not afraid anymore to tempt fate.
You and I Are Not Safe
"There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture," wrote Susan Sontag in her collection of essays On Photography (1977).
When thinking about being preyed upon, getting photographed is not at the top of my list of my concerns. I’m much more inclined to fear serial killers harboring Freudian hatred or lingering stares on public transportation or the man checking my driver’s license as I buy cigarettes before the break of dawn. I hope he didn’t memorize my last name.
"To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves; by having knowledge of them that they can never have..."
Sontag proposes that the camera’s ability to violate is akin to a gun’s. But, she writes, “The camera/gun does not kill.” Ultimately, the pull of the gun’s trigger is the violator, but the gun must be manned in order to operate. So who is the real predator: the photographer or his machine?
For example, take Garry Winogrand’s 1972 photograph entitled New York City (Woman in phone booth, leg up). Several elements of this photo are immediately notable. The woman central in the photograph is physically confined in a phone booth; its beams are reminiscent of a cage or cell. One beam blocks the majority of her face. Her left leg is bent, almost revealing her crotch, which is placed nearly at the center of the photograph. She is surrounded primarily by men. By photographing a woman making a phone call, an intimate act, Winogrand toys with the concept of privacy in public. The way in which she covers the phone with her hand gives the impression that she is telling a secret. Possibly, Winogrand is mocking her presumed privacy in a communal space. The photo’s canted angle is haunting, suggesting that something is wrong. Perhaps this is Winogrand’s attempt to demonstrate the violations committed against women’s personal space. His career-long obsession with candid, anonymous street photography, however, leads me to believe that he is a peeping Tom, willing to intrude on women’s personal space without hesitation.
“I think she was inviting it,” a classmate of mine says regarding this woman’s desire to be photographed.
An argument can be made that the camera itself is the predator, for it cannot see as a human sees⎯ even if I photograph myself, and control every conceivable aspect of the photograph, the image will still be mediated through the camera’s lens. The violation lies within the camera’s limitations. I find this depressingly true while on evening walks. A beautiful, dusky Vermont landscape might lie in front of me as I ramble up to Jennings, but when I attempt to snap a picture with my phone, I am left with nothing but ambiguous dark shapes; a mere semblance of the scene I see. The camera is objective. It records pure data in the form of light hitting film. Is this why Sontag writes of its predatory nature? The camera does not flatter; it makes no niceties, because it makes no choices. That is the photographer’s job.
What happens when the photographer and subject are one and the same? One of the main devices I have used in my time as a photographer is self-portraiture. A key detail in my photographs is that the pneumatic trigger that sets off the cameras shutter is always visibly in my hands, evidence of my control over my portrayal.
I follow in the steps of many female photographers who decided that they would not allow others to deem whether they were worthy of occupying the space within the frame of a photograph. Tina Barney uses self-portraiture throughout her collection Theater of Manners. This series is a rumination on the lives of her wealthy family members. As an audience, we are invited into the photographs by saturated colors and familiar family customs, yet alienated from her upper-crust world. The subjects of each photo display a mix of spontaneous emotion and simultaneous awareness of their audience⎯ much like our daily social interactions.
I find myself consistently returning to Sheila and I, taken in 1989. In it, Tina Barney sits next to Sheila, who is featured in a variety of her photographs from this particular book. Both women are seated in separate plush chairs that look as though they’ve been moved from their ordinary position in the room; they are pushed close enough together that their arms touch. The room is filled with rich jewel tones of red and green. This is merely a cursory description of the photo’s various set pieces.
Sheila leans slightly towards the camera while Barney sits back in her chair, one hand propping her head up. Shelia’s mouth forms something of a half smile— maybe she has been caught in the middle of a sentence. Her hands join together in her lap; if her habits are at all like mine then she had just been playing with them in the moments leading up to the photo being taken. Her fingernails are neatly manicured and painted red. A gold watch adorns her wrist and she wears blue socks, no shoes. Barney holds the release cable in her left hand. She looks straight into the camera, through the lens and into the world. Her expression is stern; she is thinking about something particular, but… what?
Although the photo is clearly staged, the photograph appears a true documentation of the relationship between these two women. In this way, the photo is different than the average family photo. It is a snapshot of them, existing together, unlike a vacation photo in which a stiff smile is plastered across each family member’s face. This tension between what is real and what is staged is exemplified within the image. Which is more “real” or “true”? The photos from this collection that give the impression of spontaneity? Or the photos in which the subjects address the camera and the audience is under no false impressions that the photo is staged? Barney’s intentional blurring of the line between performance and reality begs the question: in some circumstances, is the viewer actually the one being preyed upon?
All is simple and clear. There is this looming mound of earth – sand, soil, rocks, bones, insects, reptiles, and vegetation – which, when unified in large quantities, seems to humans deserving of the name mountain. It appears as the result of a giant's hands squeezing the stuff of earth into his fist and then letting go and dusting the remnants off of his palm to sprinkle the top with rounded boulders. Yet I also know that this formation can be explained in scientific terms: a volcano collapsed here millions of years ago. The top simply slid off to become the Tucson Mountains while the rest remained to become the Santa Catalinas. Earth shift and erosion dug out a valley in between the two in which humans decided to nestle, calling it Tucson. Weathering slowly shaved the corners off of the rocks of the Catalina Mountains, giving them their rounded shape I see today. These explanations are held in my mind simultaneously as one, and I do not question them. My hands rest on granite and gneiss and dust from a giant's palm.
And this looming mound of earth, that is so much and yet, relatively, so little at the same time, is not separate from me, not a simple place upon which to rest. It encompasses much of that which is me and I it.
I am seated 6000 feet above sea level. The pressure of hundreds of square feet of space below my feet gives my toes a prickling sensation as they dangle off the cliff edge. I feel the curious urge to do what is most simple – to allow myself to fall, utterly under the control of gravity, into the rich emptiness that hovers before and beneath me. I am surprised by how little fear is evoked by this idea. Instead I am comforted as this thought is equally accompanied by a sureness that I am steadily seated on the rock, even as the wind lifts my hair from the nape of my neck and nudges me steadily towards its destination.
Rippled mountain peaks, appearing quite small from my height, spread before me, like sand dunes blown by a strong but unsteady wind. The scar of a valley sucks the edges into it, jaggedly making its way in a diagonal to my right. A very dull yellow-ish pervades but is dappled by greens, darker in some places, thickest in a particular patch to my lower left. In a few spots, this color has been wiped away to reveal the graying whiteness of stone, a similar color to the winding highway that wraps itself around the mid-section of one of the peaks. Dark blue collects in a few caches. Beyond the last mountain, the flat desert is covered in a foggy sky-blue, and the farthest reach of visible horizon is coated in a light wash of blue that denotes distant mountains and fades up into the white that hovers over the landscape. Several clouds imitate the mountain shapes from their positions high above.
All around me sit car-sized chunks of rock resting comfortably on the shoulders of the supporting stone plate that protrudes from the mountain edge. Smaller rocks balance on top of each other. Some of these stacks rise to more than four times my height, and it is impossible not to believe that the dozens of flattened granite slabs were lovingly, tediously, carefully arrange by some very strong being with a passion for tidiness.
Two black specks rising up the side of a thumb-like formation 350 feet away from where I sit are a pair of rock climbers. Upon reaching the top, one sits, drinking from a metal water bottle, while the other busies himself with gathering supplies before carrying on. Their voices reach my ears as clearly and intimately as if I were there among them, exhilarated after a good climb. They talk of coffee shops and mutual friends and car troubles, and as I close my eyes I am there with them, undeterred by where the rocks drop off, living and breathing as part of the very mountain itself.
The card I chose for my friend had a black and white drawing on the cover: a night scene along the Bosphorus, the straight that connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas. On the left was a mosque with two tall, pointy Ottoman-style minarets; in-between them was the outline of a moon. Several dark buildings were drawn along the water’s edge, and in the distance could be seen seven more tiny minarets. The sky was blackness washed in a soft wave of white, like the mist that so often blurred the edges of Istanbul at night.
There is a word in French, ténèbres, which is a noun referring to darkness or obscurity. It is always plural – les ténèbres – accounting for a multiplicity that English does not see. There are layers to darkness, rather than it being a single, unified force.
When I was nineteen years old, I returned to the Grand Canyon eight years after my first visit. This other time, I had been with family and family friends. We had taken pictures at the lookout points, rode a raft down the Colorado River, and read a children’s book about a mule. After the sun had set, we had left the edge of the cavern and gone to dinner.
This second time, returning with one of the family friends I had been with before, a girl of my own age, we arrived just before sunset. We could not stay overnight, so we were glad to catch the view before nightfall. For a while, we stood with the other tourists, taking pictures of the red-orange rock, the spindly fir trees, and the remnants of snow on the edges of the gap.
When we walked to a section with less people around, I decided we should walk off of the path, closer to the edge. There were no fences, but I had noticed a small sign earlier that asked visitors to stay on the path. I figured we could tell anyone who noticed that we hadn’t known it was not allowed.
After slowly making our way down a slight decline, my friend and I edged out onto an extension of rock and sat a few feet from the drop-off, a mile of empty air.
We returned to the path when the sun was nearly all set, giving ourselves enough light to climb back up the slope. As darkness fell – or, really, as darkness seemed to rise up from that deep opening in the earth – we continued following the path along the edge. Once the final red streak of sunset had faded from the horizon, every tourist had either left in their cars or gone into nearby restaurants. We continued walking until it seemed time to turn around, as our fingertips and noses tingled with cold. But before leaving I wanted to look at the canyon one last time. I walked to the wooden railing, six inches from the abrupt drop, and leaned out, steadying myself with my hands on the rail. I looked into the darkness, expecting to see nothing but the purest black, an expanse of unified nothingness. Looking into the Grand Canyon at night must be the very definition of the dark, I thought. However, what I saw was not solid blackness. It was layers, deep and far away, yet perhaps in hand’s reach. I could differentiate thousands of them as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. The canyon at night felt more intimate than during the day. I had the feeling that I, too, was in the ténèbres, just as the rocks were.
Istanbul at night is layered in darknesses, too. Something about these layers – that they are unknown and not fully knowable, distant yet near – draws me in and comforts me in their complexity, makes me lean closer as I did at the canyon and feel as if I am part of something larger as I find myself obscured by them as well.
If you watch the Bosphorus late enough at night, you will notice huge blocks of moving darkness unlike those around them. These are the large freight boats, carrying in the necessities of the city. They are built only for utility, paint peeling off their outsides, and Istanbul lawmakers decided that this side of the city was not one that they wanted to be visible. By safety regulation, these carriers can only enter the waters of the city during certain nighttime hours, sneaking in, as it were, so that the imports and exports exchange occurs while the people dream. They are only visible to those who watch the black nighttime waters long enough to discern what is in them.
January 2014 - Comments Off on Bennington College: A Heterosexual Galapagos
Sarah Shahzad Shaikh '14
The location is ideally insulated, an island of illusory safety, whether intentionally or not, but how interesting it would be if it were done on purpose, an experiment conducted by someone that wanted to document shattered expectations and chart the trajectory of disillusionment.
Rachael Meyers '15
At First She Don’t Succeed
That night, she 17. She ready. She into him. She love him. He milky white, skinny and gentle, the boy, he feel good. Oh, do the girl have it right, have it tight, have it rough. She feel white tonight. Milk on milk, and cute red pimples – they 17.
Natalie Osborne '15
EXT.- MORNING- LAWN
FEET are lying under a tree, resting after a rather wild night of revelry.
Feet are a pair of feet, which are probably attached to some legs, which are attached to a body, which is attached to a head, which all together combine to make a person.
None of that is important.
What is important is that feet are waking up, and finding out that they have lost their shoes.
Colin Hinckley '14
The Webster’s have a mouse problem. They are not cognizant of their problem. If Howard Webster was not such a sound sleeper and his wife, Maureen, did not sleep with earplugs, they, perhaps, would move from Thompson, Canada and never look back. But they reside safely in their REM cycles, Read more
Andrew Plimpton '14
My grandfather used to leave me trails of breadcrumbs. He would leave the house holding a loaf of bread, dropping crumbs behind him. I would follow at a distance, eating the crumbs as they fell. These journeys took us all around my grandparents’ spacious property, which was separated from the beach by a deep thicket of thorn bushes and trees, wherein lay paths to the beach, an aging boathouse, docks, and other houses. Read more
May 2013 - Comments Off on Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life
Alan Dupont '15
CIGARETTE – a woman of twenty, bone to pick with “life”
SYLVIE – a woman of twenty, hasn’t done much thinking
GINA – a woman of twenty, thinks she’s over it, isn’t
CUSTOMER – a man of forty, edgy dad with morals
(CIGARETTE and GINA are both behind the counter of a Barnes and Noble working.)
He’s bored with me, I can tell. It’s insulting.
You’re bored with him, though.
(pause because it’s not different, CIGARETTE indicates the stupidity of this with her face)
Rip off the band-aid.
I should do it before he does. I don’t think my self-confidence can handle being dumped right
(takes a breath)
He’s just so critical, like I’ll say something about how I feel—not fishing for a compliment or anything, just sharing—I’ll say ‘I probably shouldn’t eat these onion rings,’ and he’ll just say something like, ‘yeah they aren’t very good for you’.
It’s hard to come up with a good example, but it happens all the time.
Look whose back from break.
I think I’m a little lightheaded. It isn’t too bad though.
You should lie down.
We’re on the clock I can’t just lie down.
Why not? Cigarette and I never care when we are on the clock, we just do whatever.
We’re getting paid to do a job, though.
Stop being so hyper-ethical. There’s a reason nuns don’t have friends.
My Mom is a nun, you shouldn’t say things like that.
Nuns don’t have kids.
I was lying.
Have some water.
(does not have water)
Wanna know why I’m lightheaded?
I smoked a cigarette. It’s something I’ve been doing pretty often lately. When I’m stressed, usually, but also just whenever.
That’s great Sylvie.
Why do they call you cigarette?
Because it’s my name. My parents named me that. Virginia Cigarette Slim.
What’s it to you, Sylvie?
It’s also a word with beautiful aesthetics: cig-a-rette.
(oddly aggressive, perhaps sarcastic)
Why are you called Sylvie?
My actual name is Sylvia, it’s a nickname. Can I call you Virginia? That’s a beautiful word too.
No, but I’m going to call you Sylvia from now on.
Yeah that’s totally fine.
GINA (to CIGARETTE)
Do you even smoke?
I used to but East coast weed doesn’t do it for me anymore. Not after I had some of that medical
grade Frisco shit. Why, you got a spliff?
You go by Cigarette and you don’t smoke!?
Oh, you mean ciggs. When I’m drunk sometimes or if I’m in need of inspiration.
And you still go by cigarette?
Maybe if you had a cool name your boyfriend wouldn’t be bored.
Gina is a cool name. You aren’t supposed to say things like that, you’re my friend.
SYLVIE (to CIGARETTE)
I always forget you do art.
Cigarette, can I see some of your art?
(CIGARETTE silently walks over to her bag, takes out a computer, sets it down where they can both observe, opens it up.)
Art isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. At a certain moment. No, all the time. You
can’t slip it on and off like a glove. If you’re an artist then you’re always an artist and everything you do is art. Understand?
No, not really.
You’re not saying you’re an artist, you’re saying you’re art. That’s dumb. We’re all just people.
No we aren’t, we’re stylistic choices. All of us are stylistic choices. The people who
acknowledge it, they are artists.
I don’t know about that.
My stylistic choice would be...like, casual prep with hints of something lurking underneath: a
I really don’t see you that way.
Is it lunch yet, I want to call Zack.
Just call him.
(GINA distances herself a little bit, dials her cell)
Are we going to look at your art?
(into her phone)
Hey Zack. I just wanted to call and say hi. No, no, nothings’ really going on; well, just that one of the girls here was being kinda mean. How are you?
This is my dog when she was a puppy. I know you don't like pets. But I don't care.
This is a dress I wanted but it got sold.
These are shoes I want. They are 300 dollars. They will never be mine.
That sucks, listen: am I boring? It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. Also, why don’t
you have a petname for me. Like, everyone else is off calling each other ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie’ or ‘ladycakes’ and you’re always just like: ‘Gina, hand me the remote.’
Woah, those are COOL.
This is Julie and her cat.
This is Mason and me.
That's my sister's boyfriend and his cat. Gulliver. This is France.
I’ve always wanted to see France.
No, no, I don’t want you to call me ladycakes, I want something that’s heartfelt. And maybe edgy. You know how I call you ‘Zee-Zee’ sometimes? I think you should have something like that for me.
This is four goats in a bucket.
This is me when I looked like a lesbian.
You’d be a great lesbian!
They’ve been trying to recruit me for a while now.
This is two sheep sitting on a sheep. I don't know what that is.
That's Julie's cat again. With me.
Excuse me, Miss?
What about ‘G & T’?
One sec, can’t you see I’m on the phone?
(Back to the phone)
'G & T'.
Like the first drink we had together and it also /sounds like Gina, so.
/I don’t mean to interrupt, but.
I can be—I am edgy.
This is kind of the tattoo I want. Sort of.
This is hello kitty but she's a Scorpio. This is a dog wolf.
Miss, I just would like
Ask them. Okay? They work here too. God.
(into the phone)
You know what? I called you to feel better about this whole thing and you just make me feel worse.
(the CUSTOMER moseys over to CIGARETTE and SYLVIE)
There are times when I don’t want to hear the truth, Zack. No. I said that wrong. When the truth is not the right thing to say. That’s what I meant.
(to CIGARETTE and SYLVIE)
Excuse me, could one of you help me?
There is a self check-out, you know.
This is a pink chicken with long eyelashes.
This is more sheep.
Um, Cigarette, I think we should help him.
Can I speak with your manager?
I am the manager.
No you aren’t.
Yes I am. And he needs to wait for one more minute.
Well, this has been great for my self confidence, Zack.
That’s not fair, when have I ever said I think that this relationship is all about me? I would never say that. I don’t get why you can’t just validate me right now. You know what, just: bye, Zack.
This is France again.
This is the birth of Venus.
This is a cat in a car, this is a cat with a hat. And everything else is boring.
Cigg, you’re so cool.
Don’t call me Cigg.
What is it.
(puts book on counter)
Jane Austen, how original. Read some Foucault or something.
It’s for my daughter.
Do her a favor, get some Bukowski.
I don’t think that would be appropriate. I would just like to purchase this book.
(Walking toward them)
Is he giving you a hard time too?
He’s buying his daughter Pride and Prejudice. Now she’s gonna be one of those girls.
I bet your family is, like, perfect. Not even any secrets lurking underneath. Little suburban dream.
Yeah, and I bet you all eat dinner together.
Sir, maybe I can help you.
No, Sylvie, this guy is being mean to us. Sylvie, what do you think his name is?
Yeah, Sylvie, what’s his name?
Oh my God!
Let me ask you something, Philip, how would you describe yourself?
Just answer this question and we’ll help you check out.
Yeah, just answer the question.
I am an optometrist.
(Starting to help CUSTOMER, scanning the books, etc.)
Definitely not an artist.
Typical regular guy. Not living like an artist for sure. No stylistic choices.
Haha, no, not like you, Cigarette. With your sheep in a bucket or cool pictures of cats.
(GINA finishes helping him. He exits.)
Have a nice day!
What a loser.
Is it just me, or did he seem pretty unaffected by that?
Yeah on the surface, but there’s probably something lurking underneath.
CIGARETTE Yeah. He’s insecure, I can tell.
You think so?
Anna P. Rogovoy '13
For six weeks I carried the unopened envelope with me, from the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights to the foot of the Dead Sea, from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to the brilliantly loud Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. I kept it in the hidden pocket at the back of my notebook. I forgot it was there.
I had packed my bags so scrupulously that bringing the envelope seemed an unpardonable luxury. I brought only black clothes so that dirt would not show and assembling outfits would be easy; I did laundry in the bathtub every week. My only indulgences, three books of poetry, sat mostly untouched at my bedside. I was in Israel to study dance and spent most of the time that I was not in class wandering around Tel Aviv. The date of my return flight crept up impossibly quickly until I injured my knee and skipped class on the eve of my departure to slowly explore.
I wandered alone through the neighborhoods of Neve Tzedek and Lev HaIr, pausing to photograph the fountain outside Independence Hall and the patches of graffiti in Hebrew I’d admired on my daily walk to class. My dusty leather boots clicked down Rehov Daniel as I followed the sun on its nosedive into the Mediterranean, the din of the artisan’s market on Nachalat Binyamin buffeting me gently forward. Back in my apartment my small suitcase was tightly packed with gifts and my belongings, and the number for a cab company to take me to the airport in the morning was scrawled on a post-it note on the kitchen table.
The shoreline was peppered with sunset-gazers: black hats, young couples, businessmen unbuttoning their wool jackets. A thickset black and white cat turned his back to the horizon and watched me as I approached a rocky outcrop. I murmured nondescript prayers for the safety of my family, stepping up onto a low boulder. This habit of prayer had begun after I visited the Western Wall and experienced a release of deep tension while pressing my forehead to the stone, awkwardly whispering pleas for divine intervention in what then seemed to be an insurmountable mourning. The cat blinked lazily as I snapped a picture of him before turning to the water.
The Mediterranean Sea has an average depth of 4,900 feet and the deepest recorded point is 17,280 feet in the Calypso Deep. It covers an approximate area of 965,000 square miles, but its connection to the Atlantic (the Strait of Gibraltar) is only 8.7 miles wide. Twenty-three states have a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. On February 12, 2013 at 3:30, an earthquake that measured 2.8 on the Richter scale occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Two hours later, the sun was setting while I watched, and the waves had calmed.
I did not remember putting the notebook into my bag but as I turned to leave I felt it bump against my hip. Without thinking I took it out and turned to the very end, where only a few blank pages remained. I planned to finish the notebook on the flight back to New York, which seemed a fitting capstone. I drew from the hidden pocket the small envelope and tore the seal open.
The ring had come to me through the mail, in a small box inside a padded envelope inside a medium box inside a big box. It stood for an engagement that was already agreed upon and there was no ceremony involved in its acquisition, just trembling hands that held my trembling hands in my room at Bennington and unwrapped absurd packaging to reveal what I had chosen myself and paid for myself. I wore it for a few months, admiring my own taste. Unfortunately, the ring suited me better than the proposed future it bound me to. I hung it from a string around my neck for several weeks after removing it, as if to wean myself slowly from its allure, but before long took it off entirely.
Two weeks after I had taken off the ring, I discovered a quarry. I was in residence with a dance company at a festival in Western Massachusetts and due to the minimal rehearsal schedule and stifling July heat, my colleagues and I spent most mornings flinging ourselves into this still water. Along the path leading to the quarry were a selection of rusted-out old cars and we presumed that there must be more hidden beneath depths where our lungs could not reach. I remembered a drowned squirrel I’d found in my wading pool as a child and knew there must be skeletons nestled into steering wheels, perhaps an ursine skull tucked under an aqueous glove compartment. I left the ring inside my boot and floated into nooks and crannies around the edge of the basin, turning over onto my back to stare up at the stone ceiling. I felt the pull of distance below me but relinquished nothing; my loss was still too fresh to compound.
The artifacts we imbue with our love and desire are worth no more than the feelings themselves. They are pieces of earth molded into significant forms, beautiful and rare, but their value is ultimately sentimental. Supply and demand, limited resources; no economic principle explains the simmering glow of adoration or the searing agony of heartbreak, just as there is no logical reason why a wispy-thin silver band worn on my left ring finger for a matter of months came to feel like a Sisyphean boulder. There did not seem to be an obvious answer to the question of what to do with the ring, since it had not been given to me so much as permitted me and therefore there was no one to whom I might have returned it. I took up the task of carrying it wherever I went in case an opportunity presented itself through which I might be rid of it.
Crumpling the envelope into my pocket, I held the ring out towards the water between my thumb and forefinger. I peered through it, imagining that I could see in this tiny frame a glimpse of the life I had decided was not for me. Then I wound up and threw it as far as I could.
The Mediterranean Sea is considered a small-scale ocean with high environmental variability and steep physicochemical gradients within a relatively restricted region, with salinity, temperature, stratification and alkalinity all increasing towards the east. Acidification is an additional pressure on Mediterranean Sea ecosystems, already suffering from overfishing, increasing sea surface temperatures, and invasions of alien species. With their relatively short residence times, Mediterranean Sea deep waters are likely to lag changes in surface waters by a few decades at most. What I think this means is that an object that rests at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea will be jostled around more often than it might in a different ocean, and also that it will be eaten away by acid.
Months have passed since I turned my back on the sea and let it devour the bond of a relationship that I do not miss. Mine is not the last ring it has taken. I believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that among the sediment and refuse that prevented my ancestors from eating the animals that dwell on the ocean floor, there are fields of diamonds, relics from thousands of men and women who awoke one day and thought, this cannot go on. I am certain that at the very moment that I was drawing back my shoulder for a mighty pitch, somewhere along the shore, someone else was doing the same. I imagine that at the bottom of every body of water, there is a layer of grief.
A week after I left Israel there was another, larger earthquake in the Mediterranean, one that I imagine might have cleaved the earth beneath my little ring and pulled it even further out of reach. Now and then I still feel it on me like a ghostly caress and I catch myself reflexively reaching to touch it with my other hand. I like to think of it being slowly pulled down through the ocean floor, into rock and lava. I imagine great, romantic adventures for it, a fantastic love that lasts for a thousand years, burning away at the core of the world.
Michiel Considine '13
You sit cross-legged on a cooler of Heinekens and listen to your uncle talk ball. You are wearing black thong sandals that dangle and show off pink nails, and a boxy grey dress that hides everything else. Your father is there. He is poking fun at your uncle, calling him a chubby chaser because his new girlfriend, Maureen, has cellulite poking out of her one-piece. All eyes turn to Maureen, who smiles from the lip of the pool. She dips into the water, surfaces, then dips again. She climbs out of the pool and you realize she does have cellulite, messy craters rippling up and down her thighs and it makes you like her less.
Your uncle is grilling bratwursts and dogs. He ignores your father and watches the boys play Wiffleball on his lawn. In a huddled mess they shout and taunt and call each other names. One or two take cuts like Wade Boggs and show real promise. Games end in tantrums and brawls. The boys run to their mothers or hide out in station wagons, locking the doors behind them.
Your uncle recalls his time with the Huskers. His runs-batted-in.
Your father remarks on his .220 batting average.
“D1 is D1,” your uncle says.
Your father finds this funny, and pinches your uncle’s thighs, reminding him he never had the legs for anything outside of Lincoln. It was home run or bust, a moonshot to the bleachers or the walk back to the clubhouse.
Your uncle lets out an unconvincing laugh and puts down his spatula. He scowls at your father. “Pure gold,” he says. “My brother the comedian.” Your uncle lowers his head and barrels into your father’s midsection and the boys begin to tussle. An aunt from Iowa City, coworkers from the electric company, and the boys in the field, all gather onto the porch to watch the two have at it.
Your father is thick and Armenian and your uncle is thicker. Big bellies peak out of too-tight golf shirts; furry, pasty, ass cheeks appear over the sagging denim waistband of their shorts. They were farm boys who tossed hay bales into silo lofts since before they could remember and it turned them into broad-shouldered, roly-poly adults. Your uncle had used his build to knock baseballs a country mile, out beyond the interstate, into the outer rim of the solar system. Your father, however, used up all his machismo on impregnating your mother his senior year of high school. At graduation, he collected his diploma, moved the red-white tassel to the left side of his cap, and took a construction job as soon as he stepped off stage. In that moment, he became his father, the man he never intended to be.
They are older now, but incapable of forgetting. Their past remains displayed, polished trophies they bring up when anyone will listen. And all of this appears as they fight. Both men close their eyes and go red in the face. They grapple and claw, all tangled arms and headlocks, shadowboxing their former selves into oblivion. They slap at each other’s shoulders, bump patio furniture, knock the dogs and bratwursts from the cutting board, and try locking their fingers into the other’s belt loops. Anything to gain an edge.
Your uncle grunts into your father’s kidneys. “You’re a goddamn nobody.”
“Piece of shit,” your father says. “Where’s Sheila, huh?”
This party was supposed to be your uncle’s reintroduction after the divorce. This was your uncle proving he was all right with how things went down. This was his way of saying he didn’t need Sheila one bit. She was better off with the dental hygienist and anyway, he’s got Maureen now. He wanted to prove he was done locking himself in rooms. He wanted to prove he could be a father and a man again. It was supposed to be a blast.
After another moment, your uncle gains the upper hand. He squats low and lifts your father up over the porch railing and tosses him onto the azaleas below. Your father comes down like a bag of fertilizer.
Panting, your uncle turns to his family and friends and looks as if he is about to cry. He storms off through the mass of people and locks himself in his bedroom, refuses to show his face again.
Your father, for his part, has blown out his back. Your family drags him into the living room and takes turns giving him shit, tossing packets of frozen waffles onto or around his spot on the couch. They scold him for instigating the whole ordeal. “On a day like today,” they say. “The first holiday without Sheila.” “Stubborn boys, pig-headed imbeciles.” “See how rough this has been on him?” “See the trashy girls he is bringing home?”
Your relatives turn to Maureen and say, “No offense, Maureen,” and Maureen waves.
You go and find your cousin Becky who, hours earlier, told you that you carry weight well—some girls can’t but you do. She is hiding out in her bedroom, video- chatting with boys. She is not excited to see you. You tell her what happened and she is embarrassed for you all.
“Your dad locked himself in his room,” you say.
“Oh God,” Becky says. “Again?”
Later, to prove there is no bad blood, Maureen guides your uncle to the banister to see his brother off. Guests stand between, five deep, to ward off trouble.
Your father is doped up on codeine and too far gone now to make a fuss. You hold him by one arm while the aunt from Iowa City takes the other. But your uncle is still hurt. He leans against the railing, ruddy and cheated, and loses it. He shouts at your fleeing bodies, “At least I made it that far, Sam. I wasn’t a goddamn nobody.”
Your uncle starts crying and you have no idea why. This is about baseball? After all your uncle has been through, it’s his time with the Cornhuskers that bothers him most. You don’t get it. You don’t like baseball. You are done trying to figure this family out.
You drag your father out to the car and lay him down in the backseat. He starts laughing uncontrollably. “I just thought of a good one,” he says, and through the slacken state of his medicated body, you can hardly understand a word he says.
You cook your father simple meals he eats on the living room couch where he is holed up for long hours, brooding and recovering. You mix pain relievers in with the gravy broth and he chases this mixture with cold beer. “That little shit,” he says about his brother. “How am I the bad guy?”
You’ve gotten a dozen calls this week from annoyed relatives. The phone is out of your father’s reach, so while you’re at school he has to listen to the opinions of many loved ones berating him on his tactful critique of Maureen. “Grow up,” the messages say. “You haven’t had it easy, Sam, but neither has he. Show a little sympathy.” “You’re supposed to be family.” “Asshole.” This last one was from your uncle. He doesn’t leave his name, but the weeping gives it away. Even Maureen calls one evening and hopes this can all be water under the bridge.
“Maureen seems nice,” you say.
Your father says, “It is what it is.” Then he puffs out his cheeks to signify that though Maureen may be nice, she is still a whale.
Your father is upset for many reasons: for being manhandled by his younger brother; for burning the comp time he hoped to spend on a golf tournament; and, in a greater sense, for being responsible for a daughter he understands little about, for regretting a life he never planned.
You don’t want to tell your father he is being an ass, that “growing up” might be just what he needs. It was childish to poke fun at Maureen like that, to bring up the college days—the nerve that never heals—so near to the divorce. Your father’s choices make you wonder about your own character, character you’ve inherited, in part, from this man on the couch, this bloated crab turned belly-up on the sofa, gyrating his appendages up and down, forever reaching for the unreachable television remote.
“Maybe it was too soon for that kind of joking around,” you say.
Your father scoffs and downs his beer. “Because why? Because of his loss? That’s not loss. Anything he ever lost he had coming. He earned it.”
You threw shot put in junior high and made a name for yourself at the Under-14 level. In the springtime your father was known to duck out of work early, leave the half-dug swimming pools on hold until the next day, so he could ride out to your meets and watch you throw.
“Wheelers win at any cost!” he would say, lining up at the fence with the other churlish fathers in Lincoln East Middle School apparel. He repeated this phrase over and over: after meets, on car rides home, during meals with your mother present.
You were going places. You did this well. Your coaches praised you for your brawn, for your ability to hurl steel objects into oblivion without any of the priss that other girls your age were beginning to show. “She’s built like a Cornhusker through and through,” they would tell you, meaning it as a compliment, you are sure. But as you thought about it, as you pictured yourself the mirror of this pot-bellied farm boy in wide overalls, an ear of corn stuffed in your denim, you began to wonder what was so desirable about that.
That last year you rode the red diesel bus into Omaha and competed in States. You took home a third-place ribbon and a sportsmanship award, presented to you at the Rotary Club commencement dinner back in Lincoln. Your father couldn’t have been prouder. When they called you to the stage, he stood on his chair, balanced himself with one boot on the table, his heel in the lasagna, and began to chant, “Wheelers win at any cost!”
“Please, Samuel,” your mother had said. She was patient with him always, never raising her voice, never reacting with vengeance or spite when your father carried out his boyish antics. He had always been that way, your mother explained, him and your uncle both. They just need to rile themselves up, blow off steam, before you can have a decent conversation with them. They’re good people, she told you. Just give them time. Your mother was flawless in this approach. She assuaged their brutish edge simply by keeping a hand on every shoulder, presenting a calm façade to curtail these shenanigans from boiling over into blood feuds.
She stood beside your father as he shouted, hand resting on his lower back, guiding him gently back to his seat so the ceremony could proceed.
This was the last true image you had of your mother, the moment that resonated with you well beyond the lights of the stage.
Becky has left home. She is unable to handle her father’s midlife crisis and she comes to sleep on your floor. You are her last resort, she tells you. She didn’t want it to be this way.
“Cara’s mom has a stick up her ass,” she explains. “She’s a total bitch about curfews.” Becky makes an open palm gesture to your general being—your body, your roof, your floor—as if to say, so here we are.
“Does your dad know?”
“That asshole?” Becky says. “He locked himself in the hall closet this time. Don’t you get how fucked up that is? We never even had a lock on the door, he had to go out and buy one. Besides, the house is starting to smell. I think the food from the party is going bad. I can’t handle that freak anymore. Can I come in?”
You are unable to say no. You have been raised to be a good host and you accept Becky graciously. Turning people out is not one of your strong suits. You are incapable of being rude. Your mother wouldn’t allow it. That is not a virtue we wish to perpetuate in the world, she would say. You keep your mother alive in this way, by stretching every bit of her wisdom over any grievance you might face, though it keeps getting harder not to jumble the anecdotes, to mismatch the images, to clutter the sense of her belonging to you, until you find yourself worshipping a different ghost entirely, another mother, another life instead.
You wash the spare linens and stock the pantry with what you think Becky might like. You offer her your bed, but she accepts the floor. “I don’t want to be a bother,” she says. “I’ll stay out of your hair.”
You tell her it’s no bother. Family is never a bother. Your mother taught you that as well.
In a naïve way you are excited having Becky as your guest. You feel thirteen again, like you should reattach the paisley skirt to the lower half of your mattress, sit Indian-style with a bowl of popcorn between your knees, and maneuver your hands around a Ouija board by flashlight.
Instead, Becky spends the night video-chatting with a boyfriend and sucking up bandwidth. You understand that people change, that lives split and there is no return. But you don’t understand why this has to be okay, why it isn’t worth grieving over. Becky doesn’t know you anymore, and you want to understand why.
You doodle in a notebook and watch her. She is making googly eyes at the boy on the computer screen and the boy responds by sweeping his dashing bangs away from his eyeballs. You wonder how it’s done, how Becky handles being seen. At school, you are called The Futon by boys with messy hair who cackle at this putdown. And though this title might suggest an obvious presence, you are invisible in every other way. You are furniture. Nothing more. These are the same boys who feel swampy, guttural urges for your cousin. They hump lockers and each other. They pop up on Becky’s computer screen while Becky sits on your floor, and they conjure up great laughs from Becky.
Past midnight, headlights sweep across the blinds. Some boy in his father’s car lays on the horn and Becky rises from her slumber. You pray she invites you along. Instead, she tells you not to wait up. She leaves the house and you hear the door slam, the vehicle thrown into reverse. You sense the energy of something happening beyond you, out there, in the world. Silence resumes and you are left to wonder.
You fall asleep in this reverie and Becky returns before dawn.
Breakfast in bed. You explain to Becky that Saturdays are pancake days, and you bring her a plate from the kitchen. She is unkempt at this hour, her hair ratty, her face greasy; she is less put together than you, and this makes you feel warm for a moment. If only the world existed at this hour, on this day. If only.
You have already explained to your father about Becky staying over. He shrugged at the notion and didn’t seem to care. Your father can walk now. He has taken to self-medicating with Heinekens in front of the kitchen sink late into the nights where, when strong enough, he reenacts the fight with his brother. The results always veer from reality. It is your father delivering lightning jabs to your uncle’s kidneys. It is your father standing over him triumphantly. It is your father calling your uncle a nobody.
Becky eats pancakes in big globs like your father, shoving them down, covered in syrup. Once again, she appears undesirable. She looks like every Wheeler family picnic, your father and your uncle at opposite ends of the table, dipping ears of corn in sleeves of butter and then chomping through the ears one by one, mowing through them all to a timer. Who will come out on top? What great meaning will this bring?
“You’re so maternal,” Becky says with her mouth full. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look at these goons and see anything more than just that—goons.”
You ask, “How’s your dad?”
Becky takes another big bite. “Out of his mind,” she says. “It’s been, what, six months since the divorce? He needs to get over it. He’s not young anymore, so what? He’s not supposed to be. He’s supposed to be a dad. Blah-blah.”
“He seems in rough shape.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Do you hear from your mom?”
“Gag me,” Becky says. “She’s worse than he is. She’ll talk to me when the honeymoon’s over.”
“What do you think of Maureen?”
Becky puffs out her cheeks and lets you know what she thinks of Maureen.
That spring, your senior spring, you join Track and throw shot put. You’ve resolved to improve, to enact some meaningful change, to reestablish your life with some order.
The first week is unbearable. You blush uncontrollably. You are embarrassed by the oafish size of your body. Other girls giggle and sprint and succeed without effort. You push yourself in warm ups. You jog at a distance behind Becky and the blonde girls. By the final turn you are crying and wheezing and feel your body—a body that is so big otherwise—being unable to take in the oxygen you so desperately need. Your body has failed you, again. You pull up cramped in the far lane. You dry heave into the fence post again and again. Your face has gone hot and you feel so ashamed.
During meets you are corralled onto a dusty bowl where you are familiar with the task of hurling metal spheres into the stratosphere until they come crashing down in dry dirt. Your fellow putters and javelin-eers and discus-ians all grunt and heave and compete for pride. From this spot in the dirt, you watch Becky and the wood nymphs run sprints and prance over obstacles. They impress boys with the length and color of their legs.
Your uncle is often there, loopy and distant, perched behind the goalposts, watching with binoculars. He cheers for you both. You see his tiny arms from beyond the fence pumping up and down, up and down. Your father comes when he can, when the disc in his back no longer flares up. He stands across the football field, behind the goalpost opposite your uncle, his own binoculars, his own unique gyration to set him apart, glowering at his brother and stomping his feet.
In the evenings you smear Vaseline on your ankles, elbows, and thighs. You ice your heels and take long baths. Your father catches you in the act of soothing your swollen feet one night, and he is amazed by your body’s transformation. He sees the Wheeler trait for muscle mass building up in your thighs, bulging and filling out beneath your gym shorts. Yet he also sees the subtle grace of your mother calming a wound, nursing over whatever ailment could pester body and soul. The feelings are unusual and conflicting for him. He is unable to encapsulate the combination of the two: Himself and your mother, himself and your Uncle. Instead, he compliments you on the size of your legs: how wide and muscular they’ve become—how much like a Wheeler, how vital and strong. All you hear is your father’s battle cry, his mantra, his chanting tone of conquest, his “Wheeler’s win at any cost!” Every word pushes you further from Becky’s grace, further from the woman you hope to become. You hear this all and storm off, aghast.
Your father, for the life of him, cannot understand the hurt this causes.
You leave your father’s house carrying DVDs of classic Westerns in which actors tumble over railings into murky troughs or are shot in the sternum and blown back through saloon doors. They belong to your uncle, and you are returning them as an offering for peace.
Your father has done little to suggest he has an opinion either way towards what you are about to do. You asked him where the DVDs were kept and he pointed to the spot on the rack. He walked away with a neutral expression and that was that.
Your uncle’s house has gone to the dogs. Neighboring animals have taken up territorial disputes across the walkway. Patches of fur clump and catch on the brown grass. As you approach, two coon cats mark adjacent trees, hunch low and growl, and then flee at the sight of your looming presence.
You knock twice at the screen door, announce yourself, and then enter the living room. The blinds are pulled and even in daylight the room is dark and neglected.
You call to your uncle and hear no reply. Throughout the rooms you feel an absence, neglect, a liveliness long forgotten, leaking like pinpricked gas lines seeping out of the drywall. You wonder where Maureen is. Has she flown the coop too? The cabinets are open and empty, microwavable plates are stacked in the sink. A pile of door locks, padlocks, duct tape and nails sits open on the counter in a plastic bag. A few of the packages have been torn apart, their contents spilling onto the floor, screws and latches flung in opposite directions.
This is not the home you remember. This is not the place you came to play when you were young. You and Becky were stubby kids with unkempt hair who tromped through this house in muddy flats and dresses, carrying wild onions gathered from the yard to be thrown into pots and boiled into mystical potions in holes in the yard. But now you are different. Becky has grown into a symmetrical woman with angled cheekbones that complement her soft mouth. She has the rapid metabolism of a second cousin twice removed whom you’ve only met once at a graduation, years ago. This is a far-flung branch of the family tree, a limb that has never dropped seed onto your shrubby alcove. What luck. What unbelievable luck. But now Becky’s house is abandoned and you can no longer remember the way your mother walked. You slouch now, like your father. You have his metabolism. You carry his weight wherever you go.
Your uncle has disappeared. You are sure of it. And your father will stew in his bitterness until he dies. Until he finds some travesty worse than death to overwhelm him, to feel sorry about, to hold up to the world and justify his anger, his rotten disposition. And your mother, for her part, will still be dead. Nothing will be fixed. And does anybody care about Maureen?
You sit at the table and begin to weep—heavy sobs that blur your vision as you clutch your face in your palms. For once you’d like to be heard. For once you’d like to be visible. To have your feelings recognized and consoled.
But no one arrives. You hold yourself as best you can and cry until you don’t.
Beyond the kitchen, a faint plunking sound comes from the yard, ringing like frogs in heat. It is a steady pop you can’t quite place. You lift yourself from the table and walk out onto the porch.
Your uncle is in the backyard. He is shirtless, glowing in the hot sun, a wooden bat in one hand and a crab apple in the other. He is portly and barrel-chested, with double bands of back hair traveling like wide suspenders across his shoulders and down past his lower back. This is your father’s body. This is, in some regards, yours as well. An array of empty Heinekens lie half buried in the muddy grass. He takes the crab apple, tosses it in front of him and with one fluent stroke, he connects. The apple explodes and pulpy bits fly off into the field beyond the house, likely to be scavenged by badgers and wild stags after dark. Your uncle does this again and again, dropping his shoulder, pivoting his feet, his entire body anchored by the mass of his belly. Each time he swings, the contact is solid. The sound reverberates farther and farther into the field, rippling, carrying on.
You call to your uncle from the porch and he turns to you, distracted, startled at the sound of your voice. He is unable to place you at first. “Ginny, sweetie,” he calls at last. “That you?”
You walk into the yard to meet your uncle. He is dazed and panting, his chest blotchy from the beer and the exertion.
“These belong to you,” you say, handing him the DVDs.
He holds them timidly. His fingers are sweaty and dirt-stained. “I guess they do,” he says doubtfully. “Your dad decided it was about time he paid the late fees, eh?”
“Do you miss Becky?”
Your uncle looks confused, like he hasn’t noticed she left. “She’s a smart girl,” he says. “She’s got a lot to look forward to.” Your uncle puts down the DVDs and goes back to knocking around the crab apples. He bites down on his tongue when he swings; the veins in his temples bulge and quiver. He follows through each apple decisively, whipping his body around it, putting his weight behind it. The apples shatter and fall into the grass.
Your uncle wipes the sweat from his forehead and says, “I did this well. I couldn’t do much, but this I figured out.” He stares out into the field. “Now I turn my hips and the sockets just pop. You hear that?” he says, making the motion. “That’s called getting old, Gin. Don’t ever get old.”
Your uncle holds the bat by the thick end and hands it to you. “Have a cut,” he says. He steps in behind you and shows you how to hold it. “Line up the knuckles,” he says. “That’ll give it pop.”
You bend your knees and rest the heavy bat on your shoulder. Your uncle picks up a handful of apples and stands a few feet away. “We’ll go easy,” he says, then starts tossing them to you underhand. You swing as hard as you can. The first few slip by you and plop in the grass. “Knock ‘em out the park,” your uncle says. “Don’t be scared of it.”
After a couple dozen it starts to click. You start knocking apples around the yard, splitting dandelion heads from the stalk, tearing up the lawn, even hitting a few bloopers past the fence into the field. You start making sauce.
“That’a girl,” your uncle says. He winds up and starts throwing overhand. He tells you he’s bringing the heat. You feel the energy inside you. You feel the release. Every time you make contact you hear the thunk of the apple leaving the bat.
“You do this for long enough,” your uncle says, “and you’ll know where the ball’s going before you even look. You’ll know by the sound. That’s magic, Ginny. How many things in the world exist where you hear something for an instant and know what’s going to happen next?” Your uncle is smiling. It looks strange on him. He’s been too tired for too long and looks like he might never get it right.
“More,” you say. Your uncle winds up, tosses one in, and you give it a good wallop. The apple turns to mush. A thousand bits spray onto you and your uncle. You wipe apple flesh from your shirt, out of your eyes and hair.
Your uncle holds his belly and starts to laugh. “That’s one thing the Wheeler family’s got going for them, something comes our way, we sure know how to make a mess of it.”
Mariyama Scott '15
translation from Reinaldo Arenas's "Antes que anochezca"
Perhaps the most extraordinary event that I enjoyed during my youth was the one that came down from the sky. It wasn’t a normal shower; it was a tropical spring downpour that announced itself with a huge crash, cosmic orchestral drum rolls, thunder that echoed throughout the countryside, lightning that traced crazed lines, palms that all of a sudden were struck by bolts and caught fire, going up like a match. And then came the rain as if a great army were moving on the tops of the trees. In the zinc-covered hallway, the water boomed like a rain of bullets; on the guano roof of the living room there was the sound of something like the footfalls of many people marching over my head; in the gutters the water ran with the murmur of overflowing streams and poured over the barrels with the crash of a waterfall; on the trees in the yard, from the highest leaf down to the ground, the water became a concert of drums of many pitches and unusual beats: a fragrant sonority. I would run from one end of the hallway to the other, go into the living room, stick my head out of the window, go into the kitchen and see the waterlogged, wildly whistling pines in the yard and, finally, devoid of all clothing, I would hurl myself outside and let the rain soak into me. I’d hug the trees, roll around in the grass, build tiny dams out of mud where the water puddled, and in those puddles, I’d swim, dive, do laps; I’d come to the well and see water falling on water, look up to the sky and see flocks of green querequeteses also celebrated the arrival of the downpour. I wanted not only to roll around on the grass, but also to rise up, to be lifted like those birds, at one with the rain. I’d come to the river that roared, possessed by violence’s uncontrollable spell. The force of the overflowing current dragged away almost everything, taking trees, rocks, animals, houses; it was the mystery of the law of destruction and of life itself. Back then I didn’t know where that river went, where that frenetic race would end, but something told me that I had to go along with the din, that I too had to throw myself in and lose myself to those waters, that only in the middle of that torrent, always departing, would I find a bit of peace. But I didn’t dare jump; I’ve always been a coward. I’d reach the edge where the water roared, calling to me; one more step and the whirlpool would devour me. How many things could have been avoided if I had done it! They were rough yellowish waters; powerful and solitary waters. I had nothing but that water, that river, that nature that welcomed me in and now called to me at the precise moment of its grand finale. Why not hurl myself to those waters? Why not lose myself, melt into them and find peace in the middle of that beloved roar? What happiness it would have been, to have done it then! But I returned home, drenched; night had already fallen. My grandmother was making dinner. It had stopped raining. I shivered while my aunts and my mother set the table, not overly concerned about me. I’ve always believed that my family, including my mother, considered me strange, useless, scatterbrained, nuts or out of my mind; outside the context of their lives. Surely, they were right.
Original: “El aguacero”
Tal vez el acontecimiento más extraordinario que yo haya disfrutado durante mi infancia fue el que venia del cielo. No era un aguacero común; era un aguacero de primavera tropical que se anunciaba con gran estruendo, con golpes orquestales cósmicos, truenos que repercuten por todo el camp, relámpagos que trazan rayas enloquecidas, palmas que de pronto eran fulminadas por el rayo y se encendían y achicharraban como fósforos. Y, al momento, llegaba la lluvia como un inmenso ejército que caminara sobre los árboles. En el corredor cubierto de zinc, el agua retumbaba como una balacera; sobre el techo de guano de la sala eran como pisadas de mucha gente que marchasen sobre mi cabeza; en las canales el agua corría con rumor de arroyos desbordados y caía sobre los barriles con un estruendo de cascada; en los árboles del patio, desde las hojas mas altas hasta el suelo, el agua se convertía en un concierto de tambores de diferentes tonos e insólitos repiqueteos; era un sonoridad fragante. Yo corría de uno a otro extremo del corredor, entraba en la sala, me asomaba hasta la ventana, iba hasta la cocina y veía los pinos del patio de silbaban enloquecidos y empapados y, finalmente, desprovisto de toda ropa, me lanzaba hacia afuera y dejaba que la lluvia me fuese calando. Me abrazaba a los arboles, me revolcaba en la hierba, construía pequeñas presas de fango, donde se estancaba el agua y, en aquellos pequeños estanques, nadaba, me zambullía, chapaleaba; llegaba hasta el pozo y veía el agua cayendo sobre el agua; miraba hacia el cielo y veía bandadas de querequeteses verdes que también celebraban la llegada del aguacero. Yo quería no solo revolcarme por la hierba, sino alzarme, elevarme como aquellos pájaros, solo con el aguacero. Llegaba hasta el río que bramaba poseído del hechizo incontrolable de la violencia. La fuerza de aquella corriente desbordandose lo arrastraba casi todo, llevandose arboles, piedras, animales, casas; era el misterio de la ley de la destrucción y también de la vida. Yo no sabia bien entonces hasta donde iba aquel río, hasta donde llegaría aquella carrera frenética, pero algo me decía que yo tenia que irme también con aquel estruendo, que yo tenia que lanzarme también a aquellas aguas y perderme; que solamente en medio de aquel torrente, partiendo siempre, iba a encontrar un poco de paz. Pero no me atrevía a lanzarme; siempre he sido cobarde. Llegaba hasta la orilla donde las aguas bramaban llamándome; un paso mas y el torbellino me engullía. ¡Cuantas cosas pudieron haberse evitado si lo hubiera hecho! Eran unas aguas amarillentas y revueltas; unas aguas poderosas y solitarias. Yo no tenia nada mas que aquellas aguas, aquel río, aquella naturaleza que me había acogido y que ahora me llamaba en el preciso momento de su mayor apoteosis. ¿Por que no lanzarme a esas aguas? ¿Por que no perderme, difuminarme en ellas y hallar la paz en medio de aquel estruendo que amaba? ¡Que felicidad hubiera sido haberlo hecho entonces! Pero regresaba a la casa empapado; ya era de noche. Mi abuela preparaba la comida. Había escampado. Yo tiritaba mientras mis tías y mi madre ponían los platos sin preocuparse demasiado por mi. Siempre he creído que mi familia, incluyendo mi madre, me considerable un ser extraño, inútil, atolondrado, chiflado o enloquecido; fuera del contexto de sus vidas. Seguramente, tenían razón.
Olivia Auerbach '14
Panzano is also the home to Dario Cecchini, the most famous butcher in Italy, and arguably the world. His store, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, which lies to the right of the cobblestone square, is a culinary Mecca for anyone with a penchant for meat.
At 20 years old, Dario dropped out of university and returned to Panzano to reinvent and continue his family’s business and has been there ever since. When you hear people talk about Dario you will notice that his reputation as a butcher is inextricably linked with his reputation as a thespian; a man famous for reciting Dante’s Inferno or singing Pavarotti while he strikes his kitchen-axe splitting a cow’s loin in two. Like an encouraging friend, the alabaster bust of Dante is perched atop of the highest counter in the store staring down approvingly at Dario and his famous paper-thin prosciutto. Dario holds a steak like Rabbi would hold the Torah, careful and appreciative of its power and importance. He has a maniacal but inviting grin and the largest hands I’ve ever seen; wide and imposing like a gigantic muscular starfish.
Dario sees butchery as a moral activity. “The most important thing is what the animal eats and that it has a good life . . . just like us. My philosophy is that the cow has to have had a really good life with the least suffering possible," he says. "And every cut has to be cooked using the best cooking method. It's a matter of respect. If I come back as a cow, I want to have the best butcher.” Dario’s cooking methods are traditional and even date back to the renaissance. He grew up in a family of butchers “…and what we ate growing up was what we couldn't sell in the store. But my mother was a wonderful cook, and my grandmother was a wonderful cook, and we always ate well."
Dario became a real celebrity in 2001, during the climax of the mad-cow crisis. He was so outraged and personally offended by people thinking his meat was tainted that he staged, what is now referred to as the “Funeral of La Bifstecca”. He laid a dead cow in a colossal casket and led a procession throughout the entire village of Panzano. The service ended like a feverish scene from Sotheby’s; Dario auctioned off the few remaining legal pieces of meat to the highest bidder. His performance didn’t take long to be noticed by the public. News agencies and reporters were begging Dario for an interview, and soon enough his Funeral of La Bifstecca went viral (which in 2001 took around and three weeks).
Dario has been a close friend of my family ever since my parents bought Ca di Pesa. He always greets each one of us with a lung-collapsing hug and never forgets to kiss my father right on the lips. When we first met Dario his home was just his butcher shop, but starting around five years ago his empire has expanded with two restaurants; one above the butcher shop and the other in the basement. One of the restaurant’s success, “MacDarios”, is such a tremendous feat for an Italian restaurant because the menu is comprised of one of the least traditional Tuscan meals: the hamburger. However, the MacDario burger is still idiosyncratic to classical Tuscan cuisine. There are no squishy buns or Kraft cheese, but a ground piece of meat laden with chopped rosemary and onions, and he substitutes “ketchup” with his original creamy pomodoro sauce or spicy pepper-jelly.
Dario’s other restaurant; “Solo Ciccio” which translates to “just meat” is a meal for the carnivores with a menu that consists of an intimidating 5 courses of steak. "We use everything but the moo -- and the steak," he says. Just like any prolific artist Dario wants to your subvert expectations. Solo Ciccio makes you reconsider what should be the best and most coveted cuts of the animal. "When people learn all the different ways to cook the different cuts, the fillet is the last thing they want. It's beef for beginners." Some his iconic dishes are the boiled beef knees served with his salsa verde, or his “Chianti sushi” where pork is prepared and preserved in olive oil, like tuna typically is.
His theatrical presence is paramount to the Solo Ciccio experience. At the beginning of the meal he slowly appears from the kitchen, clutching a massive steak in each hand. The steaks are perfect, like red and white marbled heart-shaped tiles. They look as ideal and delicious as a T-bone that emerges in the thought bubble of a ravenous cartoon lion. Then looking as serious as any brooding Hamlet, he takes a breath and with crusading urgency screams “To beef or not to beef?” and hurls the steaks into the fire. And just like that, the meal has begun.
When I’m drunk I like to go in bathrooms.
Very specific bathrooms.
I stumble into the bathroom of my old dorm… so many good memories in here. Yes, I think. This is where I want to be. There’s the shower where I cried for forty minutes that one time and I’m pretty sure no one could hear me. And look! The mirror I stared at when I couldn’t recognize my face. Oh hey! That’s the same brand of toothpaste I used to prep my mouth for that occasion that never happened.
I collapse to my knees, my face plummeting towards the toilet bowl. The smell of a goldfish’s grave has never been so alive in my throat. This isn’t how this is going to happen. It’s not going to happen this way. I will control everything in my body all the time always forever.
I haven’t vomited since 2008 and I’m not going to start now.
I hear the muffling in my pants.
Clit’s gotten louder. She knows we’re alone. I turn on the faucet, creating a background of white noise, and unzip my pants. I yell down to Clit, “You can’t want him. Okay? So shut up.”
“You can’t. Just stop it.”
“Why can’t you want something more realistic…”
“Is he not real?”
“Why can’t you want something… like a spoon?”
“A… what? Why would I—“
“Why can’t you want a fucking spoon or something?”
“What am I going to do with a spoon?”
“I don’t want a spoon.”
“Shit. I’ll get you a vibrator just—“
“I’ll buy you a nice vibrator—“
“I’ll buy you a stripper?”
“I want that.”
“Well you can’t and if you do, well… you’re only hurting yourself because you’re not getting that. He doesn’t want you.” I look at the wall and start counting tiles. If I think about numbers I won’t vomit. You can’t count and vomit at the same time. That’s just science.
“I’m not getting any action anyway you slick the cake so I might as well want what I want because what the fuck difference is it going to make?”
“Just… shut up. Please.” Maybe if I start thinking about the Fibonacci Sequence the room will stop spinning and Clit will stop throbbing... Maybe if she realizes this is a problem of numbers, of undeniable truths she’ll shut up. A triangle is always composed of three angles equaling that of two right angles. Eight will always follow five in the Fibonacci Sequence. These are facts that are undeniable despite perception or existence. These. Are. Facts. The. Thing. That. You. Want. To. Fuck. Will. Not. Want. To. Fuck. You.
“I need you to not want this one thing. You can want anything else but this one thing. Hell. You can develop some sort of weird fetish. I don’t care. You just can’t want this one thing anymore. I ask so little from you.”
“You ask nothing of me. You don’t even acknowledge me. You muffle me. You stifle me. You keep me in the dark and away from the party. You’ve made me Helen Keller. I’m deaf, dumb, and blind. You ask nothing of me and therefore make me nothing.”
“…So you agree? I ask so little from you.”
“I’m going to kill your mother.”
“Just don’t want this one thing?”
“Your clitoris is Helen Keller and I’m going to kill your mom.”
“How much more of the alcohols do I have to drink before you shut up?”
“Don’t lie to yourself. You’re not trying to shut me up. You’re trying to shut yourself up. I only get louder the more you let yourself go.”
“So… go away. Let me do the talking for awhile.”
There’s a knock on the door. I cover clit with my hand, muffling her cries for help.
An unrecognizable male voice replies, “You okay in there?”
“Okay. Just checking.”
Clit and I wait for the footsteps to fade away. I whisper down my pants, “See! He was nice. Why can’t you want that one?”
“Y’know, everyone’s going to think you puked.”
“But I didn’t. I don’t puke. I’ve never puked from drinking.”
“They think you’re puking right now.”
“But I’m not. I know I’m not puking. This is not puking.”
“And even if they did they probably wouldn’t care—“
“It’s doesn’t matter what they think. It’s a matter of pride. I’ll know whether I puked or not and I don’t puke. I don’t puke. I don’t fart. I don’t urinate.”
“You urinate. I know you urinate.”
“Jimmy doesn’t know I urinate.”
“…I think he knows.”
“No. I’ve scheduled it so that he’s never seen me exit or leave a bathroom.”
“Exit or leave…?”
“Exit or enter. Shut up. He doesn’t know about my urine yet.”
“Well… he doesn’t know your urine personally but I think he knows you urinate at least a little—“
“He doesn’t. He doesn’t know I urinate. He doesn’t know I don’t have sex. He doesn’t know I don’t fall in love but I do but I don’t tell anyone about it. He doesn’t know I have a brain or a heart—“
“Or a talking clitoris.”
“Or that. He just knows about my boobs thus far and I’m going to keep it that way.”
“Look. Just let me say ‘hi’ one of these days. He’ll like me. I know he will.”
I stand up like a baby giraffe and slap the button on the hand dryer hoping to drown Clit in a bed of multilayered, white noise, monotonous gumbo.
“…Y’know what’s weird? I always get stuck around 21 when it comes to the Fibonacci sequence which is really upsetting because that’s pretty early on to screw up.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Michiel Considine '13
As they arrived at the serving tables, neat rows of Tupperware plates, steam trays and crock pots all fanned out across the floral cloth surface. Hank had always been delighted with the food at these events, surprised at how gracious the congregation was with the meals. In the past, when the events were winding down and guests began to check their phones with more frequency, they would hand Hank plastic containers and tell him, Take, take, whatever you need, and without question Hank would begin tightly packing mounds of leftover potato salad or lime gelatin into these containers as sustenance, he hoped, that might last through the week.
But while Hank was pondering the shelf life of all the offerings on display, the preacher was getting anxious. Without wasting another moment, Pastor Raymond gestured with his hands for all the women to gather round: something important was about to be said. He then began the preamble, treating the event as if he were revealing Hank from behind a set of silver drapes, until, at last, while enacting up his own drum roll, he announced: Ladies, may I introduce to you, the man of the hour, our own gift from heaven… Hank!
The women, at first, seemed pleased but tried not to act like it. They were unsure how serious the preacher's introduction was meant to be taken. Instead, they restricted themselves to a mild round of applause.
Pleasure to meet you kind folks, Hank said, scooping macaroni salad onto a colorful paper plate. The women blushed. They giggled and played with their rings. It had always amazed Hank, more than usual lately, the power of rock'n'roll to devastate the composure of the opposite sex. As they shuffled down the line, being offered baked beans and chicken salad, Hank smiled at all the servers, repeating their names throughout the introductions. Shelia, Tania, Becky, Diane. All of them swooned, fluttering their lashes before stealing glances at their husbands across the lot.
These were women, Hank had gathered in his time since joining the church, whose last resort in avoiding a lonely life with their men—those glorious brutes of men who sat in the pews beside them each week, moaning incessantly about the chore—was to fall into the arms of another lover, the holy spirit, instead. These were religious women, after all. It seemed the less adulterous thing to do, to pile their devotion into an abstract deity, a concept that could be ravished at a distance. And while their men complained and were keen on escaping their wives' zealous hobby, returning instead to lounging and working and nothing much else, these women, having witnessed the wreckage of ordinary life, went forth with the affair. Every Sunday they covered their imperfections and flaunted the features that still held their shape, the ones that had not yet been pilfered by husband or child, age or genetics, and they would reach out to their Lord through song and prayer and offer him, if not their souls, then at least their bodies, their enthusiasm. And truly they meant it. They worshipped at his feet, felt his spirit all around, those fiery lashes of amorous sparks that crackled across their bodies. They read his gospel and wore his crown, followed scripture as best they could. All in the name of the Lord. For salvation’s sake. For the off chance that there actually was a kingdom waiting for them way up above, in a galaxy far, far away. For the possibility of some heavenly villa hoisted above the earth, with acres of cloud coverage and a sprawling view of the Atlantic—the Mediterranean aglow in periphery. And could they be blamed for this fondness? This hope? Life everlasting tends to ring with great promise when following life itself, which is so often framed in disappointment and rot.
Pastor Raymond had confided in Hank that sometimes these women, in the throes of desperation at their lives and children, at men and their God, would throw their arms around him in the hallway after confession or in his office late at night, and dig their fingers into the softest parts of his kidneys, squeezing his sides with an ardor not only holy, but human as well. Hank recalled this story numerous times and imagined Ray had his pick of the litter, that his direct line to salvation might allow for some fringe benefits or bribes that might quicken these women's climb up the ladder. Ray had always denied such things and Hank never pressed the issue, only hoping, instead, that perhaps a bit of this Sunday school runoff might one day fall gracefully onto his own waiting lap. At least, that was the stuff Hank prayed for during services when the Pastor asked the congregation to bow their heads and the women grew solemn and dim, and the only noise echoing throughout the steeple was the moist breath of children, the faint static of an AM radio.
Margaret Sweeney '14
We are through the door—the side door, the door to the mudroom where the family’s shoes rest in crowded rows—and Claudia doesn’t bother to greet us as we pass the kitchen table, where she sits in a sea of ungraded papers. She knows that as soon as she lifts her head from her work we will already be at the bottom of the stairs, climbing the stairs to your room, our shoes and coats still lying limp and dripping where we kicked them off on the linoleum floor, and the door to the mudroom is still cracked open, swaying on its hinges and letting the cold in, so she stands to close it, like a good mother. Doesn’t move our shoes to the mudroom or the rubber mat by the door like she wants to. Little crusts of ice floating in a puddle on the floor now. She grips her pen in her fist and goes back to her papers. A good mother.
And we are climbing the stairs: the static suction of sock feet on carpet, ready to burst with the urge to touch each other for the first time today—it has been a whole day—and there is the hamper that overflows with dirty laundry, right where it was yesterday, and there is a stamp of sunshine on the floor, and there is Claudia’s knitting basket, and now I’ve knocked it over with my foot, sending balls of yarn bouncing, unraveling, to the four corners of the wide, bright room. And I think: it was nice of her to knit me a pair of gloves for Christmas, a scarf for my birthday. And here we are again, at the end of another day.
Through the door to your room: every object saturated with light at this time of day, late afternoon, when we finally arrive home from school. The light bends to embrace the bed with its thin bands of light. And then the impact, two bodies, so familiar it’s almost anticlimactic, but then our fingers warm us up, and there is a belt buckle winking at us from the closet as our stomachs touch, and there is the half-filled glass of water that lives on the bedside table as our mouths touch. All the necessary elements of our union. We are all here.
Winding down now, and suddenly we are two separate bodies, you and I. And this is when you decide to wrap yourself in your comforter, you, in just your socks and nothing else, and sneak to the bathroom to take a shower and I think what if your mom sees you there, what if Claudia sees you there, and I wish you would just put a pair of pants on.
And then suddenly I think, what if we had been good, what if we had just dropped our shoes on the rubber mat inside the door, if you had kissed Claudia on the cheek and asked her about her day and we had sat on the couches in the living room with two pillows and a silver bowl of popcorn and a cat between us. Good like I wanted to be, good like a sixteen-year-old couldn’t be. So I sit very quietly and try to listen for signs that your mother’s downstairs life is still running perfectly and neatly parallel to ours. The downstairs bathroom door slams.
Maybe tomorrow, instead of sitting quietly on your bed while you shower, I might find myself re-tracing our steps back down the hall on my own, without really knowing why. I imagine that outside your room the hallway would be dark; I see myself taking one step toward the ring of light leaking through the crack under the bathroom door, and then one step backward, toward the stairs. And suddenly I would be at the bottom of the stairs, faced with the light and heat of the kitchen, where Claudia sits grading papers. I would ask her about the section on Jane Austen she is teaching, and she would ask me about my AP English homework, my mother, and, quietly, how you and I are. I would say: fine. Claudia would get up to put water on for tea.
Maybe then you would find your way down the stairs, rubbing your eyes and blinking the water out of them, surprised to find me sitting there with your mother, looking at me like “Why the fuck are you hanging out with my mom?” And maybe then you would grab a box of cereal and head for the living room, and something inside me would shift, something small and cold like a pebble at the bottom of a river, just a little bit, not enough to stop wanting to touch you at the end of the day but enough for me to start to wonder what it was I used to do before I started spending every day between four and five with you. What anybody does.
We are climbing the stairs to your room almost immediately after we are through the mudroom door. It’s four-o’clock, and down the street the clock tower in the old elementary school strikes, four even tones. A boy in a red jacket and a fleece hat finds a quarter on the ground and puts it in his backpack. The mail truck starts its stunted, swaying journey up the street. A woman in the house across the street lifts her coffee cup from the table, is distracted by something, replaces it without bringing it to her lips. Your mother moves through the kitchen, the living room, the piano room. And the sun slides lower and lower outside the window, smudging the horizon pink, red, orange.
My grandfather died when I was sixteen. I’m not sure how exactly. Heart attack? Embolism? He collapsed one morning on the gold-flecked linoleum floor of the hallway between the kitchen and the parlor of the house in Flushing where he and my grandmother had lived since forever, since before (or so they said) a single Asian had arrived in Queens and all the store signs were replaced with Korean hieroglyphics and their Jewish neighbors decamped for Brooklyn. I don’t know if my grandfather died there in the house or in the ambulance or on a cold narrow cot in the hospital, but I do know that when my dad called to tell me the news I didn’t feel anything about it at all.
My grandfather’s name was Fred Zander, formerly Fritz Zander, once of the Zanders of Berlin and now the last patriarch of the Zanders of New York City. I called him Opa, which is the German word for grandfather. I did this even though he wasn’t really German but Jewish, and Jews, Opa told me, are always really Jewish no matter what country they happen to come from. Even though Opa was Jewish he hadn’t wanted a rabbi at his funeral—had, I later found out, specifically forbidden it. A rabbi showed up anyway. I don’t know who arranged for this but suspect my Aunt Caroline, who is the kind of person who never throws out the computer manual or wears white after Labor Day and thinks that having a religious figure at a funeral is compulsory.
The rabbi knew Opa as his piano tuner. They had spoken Yiddish together, the rabbi said. I hadn’t known Opa could speak Yiddish. The rabbi was a nice man and did his best, but it was clear he hadn’t really known Opa all that well and I couldn’t help looking at him as an imposter. I thought of Opa working on the rabbi’s piano. I imagined him rolling up his sleeves and plunging waist-deep into the belly of the organ, the wood vibrating around him like the muscle walls of a living heart as he plucked wires with the precision of a surgeon, making minute, deft adjustments until the valves pumped a rich aortic symphony under his hands. All this while the rabbi sat in his easy chair reading the paper.
I played this scene over in my mind as the rabbi talked until by the end of his speech I had convinced myself that Opa had been mortally insulted by this bourgeoisie pulpitarian, this self-righteous Talmudic fraud. I could barely bring myself to shake the rabbi’s hand. When he complimented my dress I wanted to hit him.
In retrospect, I should have been grateful the rabbi came at all. The overlarge funeral parlor made it painfully clear how very few mourners were in attendance. The room was almost empty. Most of my grandparents’ friends were dead, or, more likely, too old and lethargic to make the trip from Brooklyn. Perhaps they had even forgotten about the old man with the blue beret, the fraying suspenders and the thick-rimmed bifocals hanging from a cord around his neck. Perhaps they remembered instead only the handsome young piano tuner with the bootblack hair and clever, calloused hands. Such forgetting happened when people got old. When Opa had been admitted to the emergency room the week previous (chest pains? headache?) he hadn’t known what year it was, or who the president was, and kept glancing at my grandmother in confusion, as if wondering how this withered-apple woman had come to replace his wife.
The next speaker was Opa’s cousin, a famous sex therapist in a black pantsuit. Opa had all of the sex therapist’s books on a shelf over his desk, and once I was old enough to understand what the books were about I averted my eyes from them, embarrassed, and tried not to wonder what they were doing in his office. I hadn’t known that the famous sex therapist was his cousin. My grandmother didn’t get along with her and she was spoken of only in those strained, disapproving tones with which mention is made of illegitimate children in BBC costume dramas. This could have been due to sex therapist’s profession, but I suspect my grandmother simply disliked her, was, perhaps, even jealous of her. The sex therapist was after all a rich and successful woman, while my grandmother was only a secretary, married to a Jewish piano tuner.
The famous sex therapist talked about growing up with Opa in Berlin. She was an impoverished relative; his family owned a chain of movie theaters and had a chauffeur. They collected art, she said, then waved her hand as if to disperse a bad smell. The Nazis took it all, of course. I think of visiting the Met with Opa, him stopping suddenly in front of a painting, staring hard, frowning. I wonder if what I had taken for amateur interest was in fact a moment of recognition.
After the funeral we returned to the house in Flushing. Aunt Caroline marched around the living room thrusting trays of nuts and raw vegetables at the guests. She side-eyed the guys from my dad’s Alcoholics Anonymous biker group, who were tracking graveyard dirt between the treads of their combat boots. My dad stood by the fireplace with a scotch in his fist, the muscles in his face clenching and unclenching as he stared hard into the middle distance. His new wife clung to his arm and watched his eyes redden and blear with an expression of mingled dismay and resignation. His ex-fiancée looked on from across the room, nursing a seltzer and picking absently at the radiation burns on her arm. My mother was outside chain-smoking.
Somewhere between the eulogy and the burial my grandmother and the famous sex therapist had found time to put their contention temporarily aside, like a hat ill-suited for the season. They sat hip to hip on the couch and murmured to one another in French.
Someone (probably Caroline) had put an old home movie in the VHS. Muted images flickered across the screen. Christmas morning, my cousins serene amidst a carnage of torn paper and ribbons; my grandmother and I throwing baguette crusts at the ducks in Kissena Park; someone’s birthday cake. I was watching my sister run across the lawn of our vacation house on stubby toddler legs when suddenly a blurred shadow appeared in the frame. The image shifted, refocused: the shadow resolved itself into the palm of a hand. It was Opa, adjusting the lens.
During all the hours of footage Opa shot of us he had always remained a disembodied presence behind the camera. Sometimes he would speak, cajoling us into a smile, but more often he was silent. Now, seeing his hand hover on the screen, I felt as though I was witnessing one of the spectral apparitions that manifest in the Polaroids of eager tourists. After a moment the focus changed again and the hand withdrew—no more substantial than a glimmer on the lens, a ghost in a bad photograph.
Jess Joho '14
Shackles lose their grip and quiet descends upon a fire lit room as the word Anonymous is signed onto fraying parchment. In one decisive sweep of the pen, foundations where cathedrals, theatres, laboratories, and libraries stand on, collapse. Beauty is emancipated. For once in her existence, Beauty lies bare, without all those men clambering to snatch her from the air, clip her wings, and sell her on the black market. The voiceless, for once in their lives, manage to issue a single, harmonious note from otherwise stifled throats. Those who stand outside the locked gate facing a mountainous cement wall suddenly realize how vaporous they are, how climbable that wall is.
Somewhere in the world, a woman stops. Her brisk strides falter on a cobblestone street with the inexplicable, unmistakable realization that she is being known. Someone—just then in that moment—has cupped her life in their hands, has created something monumental from the thin material that is her identity. She watches a disembodied hand with sinewy fingers and calloused palms write the word Anonymous across a page. “That’s me,” she exhales, release flooding her muscles and tears trailing her cheeks.
Something is shared universally—almost unanimously.
And that remarkable being—the emancipator of beauty—sits in an upright wooden chair, smiling wearily down at words which no longer lay dormant. The words will quite certainly be buried; with no owner to latch themselves on to, these words will hide in shadow of the act itself. But who in the world can care for legacy or endurance at a time like this—when a human being, for once in our existence, favors love over glory.
Tiny hands clambered for attention at Anonymous’ feet like the voiceless begging to be heard again. The children demanded immediacy because Catherine had pulled Sally’s hair and Sally had pushed Catherine into the dirt. And so, wrapping her irate children into her arms, Anonymous wipes the soot from a porcelain face. Rocking back and forth, she once again smiles down wearily at creation which had once been within her, is now without her, and will remain immeasurably beautiful forever.
Jess is a literature student and definitely not selfless enough to write anonymously.
Maria Jacobson '14
DEBRA, a woman
CHRISTOPHER, a man
SOCK, a sock
DEBRA, CHRISTOPHER, and SOCK sit in a plain room with white walls. DEBRA and CHRISTOPHER stand at opposite sides of the room with a chair at center stage. The sock lies on the floor. Anywhere downstage. DEBRA and CHRISTOPHER begin to laugh without smiling. This continues for a few minutes. CHRISTOPHER stops and looks toward the audience.
Why are you laughing.
Lights up on DEBRA and CHRISTOPHER sitting on top of each other in the chair. DEBRA on top. They turn their heads to look at each other when they speak.
Hello Christopher. What did you do today?
I fell in love.
Oh. With whom?
What did you say? I couldn’t hear you over the din.
The din of the refrigerator. It’s loud and obnoxious.
Well, all I said was “Oh, with whom?” Who did you fall in love with?
I saw her on the TEEEEEEEE-VEEEEEEEEEurrrrrrrrrgrgrggrglrlrlrgrrrrrrrggrlrlrl
(The ee sound turns into a low, gurgling noise.)
(Over the gurgling)
(CHRISTOPHER stops, pause)
Lights up on DEBRA sitting in the chair while CHRISTOPHER crawls around the room, apparently looking for something. He plops down, dejected.
(Speaking fast, determined)
And then I said, “ok ok ok ok ok!”
(He begins to scratch behind his ear)
Listen! Stop! Alright? Jeez.
I said, “ok ok ok, but where, like WHEEYYY-ERRRR are we going when we’re just sitting in this room… by ourselves… on this mountain… by ourselves… on this PLANET… by ourselves… I mean, ok ok ok we’re just sitting here and it’s, oh GOD, I mean OHHH GODDDD WHERE ARE WE??” And he says—
I know what he says.
And he says that—
(Suddenly very angry)
I KNOW GODDAMN WELL WHAT HE SAYS!!
Long silence. They stare at each other. SOCK begins to cry. They both look at sock. Long pause.
Now look what you’ve done.
Lights up on CHRISTOPHER and DEBRA both sitting in chairs equidistant from center. They look at SOCK. SOCK begins to speak.
Froufrou. F-R-O-U-F-R-O-U. Froufrou.
(CHRISTOPHER and DEBRA clap. They will do this after every word.)
Gelatin. G-E-L-A-T-I-N. Gelatin.
Abscess. A-B-S-C-E-S-S. Abscess.
Obelisk. O-B-E-L-I-S-K. Obelisk.
Bouillon. B-O-U-I-L-L-O-N. Bouillon.
Euthanasia. E-U-T-H-A-N-A-S-I-A. Euthanasia.
Its. I-T-APOSTROPHE-S. Its.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE VOICE
Ohhh, I’m sorry. The correct spelling is I-T-S. You spelled the conjunction of “it is” when you should have spelled the possessive of “it” as in its owner or its partner.
Long pause. DEBRA and CHRISTOPHER both stare at SOCK.
I am female, and I go to Bennington College.
Kestrel Slocombe '12
I met Jaime in the spring and from that first moment, I saw death retreating down the years like a deformed creature that doffed its cap to me. Jaime, my brother, my long-lost: he used to dance like a devil on the tables with the girls we’d meet down on the beach—like hungry children living by the light of dawn, we’d all cram into some vehicle with the top down. We’d have philosophical debates while we drove, sitting close as in a pew, only getting out when the wheels stopped spinning and Jaime started speaking Gaelic. He was speaking Gaelic when I met him. “Ishtar, Krishna, Orpheus, Osiris,” he said. And then something in Gaelic.
He was lying on his black leather couch when I first saw him, one leg thrown up on the back, like a weary marionette, with his long tweed limbs. He was surrounded by maps—his hobby, I was told. A bonafied cartophile. He had on a red hat, one of those Scottish hats, like a beret with a pom-pom in the middle. It was Christmas, the window was cracked open, the place was filled with Scots; a live band was playing murky hot jazz. Donovan, the red-haired cyclist, slung an arm around my shoulders and yelled, “Jack, old man. Have you met our host?” and that was when I saw him, there on the couch, not too tall, dark bright small eyes, a strong forehead, hollow cheeks. He showed me his map of India; I was drunk, but it made no difference, because he was too. He told me how the trains used to run hot and red as blood, metal hot in the sun, metal painted red, bright as a holy day, bright as that stupid red hat of his that he said had been passed down in his family; since the dawn of hats, he said.
All night I watched him: sometimes he walked like a king, a drunken king—but in the land without kings, the drunken king is still king. He could make a chair into a throne just by the way he sat in it; hold an apple and knife like an orb and scepter; bring a whiff of frankincense and myrrh with him. Watching him, I thought he’d shaken something off—that coldness you begin to feel after enough years have gone by. The presence of a certain being. Although no one else can see that being, you feel its hollow touch.
I had begun to feel it myself, just a year earlier, back on the east coast: when I walked up to that podium and Yale told me it was glad to see the back of me; when I threw two brown suitcases in the back of my sea-green ’51 Buick. This is one of the three stages, I thought. The three leavings. You leave home; then your kids leave home; then you leave this world. I’d just knocked number one off the list.
When I got to San Francisco, I told all this to a fortune teller. She listened, and then her eyes began to narrow and she dropped the persona—Madame Magdalena, or whatever it was—and told it to me straight: this happens to everyone upon leaving college. It’s called the quarter-life crisis. Get a job, you’ll feel better.
I lurked around my new rooms in San Francisco, avoiding the phone calls from home, the postcards, like cries from the grave: “Jack, you never said goodbye!” “Took me ages to get your address. How come you’re out there in California?” “Call me, Jack! What are you doing out there?” “Dead people,” I muttered. “Grave-people.” I could smell the gloomy East-Coast pine-trees when I thought of them—pine-trees and cemeteries.
Jaime smelled like smoke and gasoline. The wind at night on the summer highway. The unending sky. “You ever going back to Scotland?” I asked him sometimes. “Yeah, someday,” he’d say, like he had a thousand years to live. He was planning the trip to India when I met him—he said he wanted to sleep on the rocks where the gods slept, kiss the women the gods kissed. We stayed up all night, he dancing from map to map, scribbling, making notes, telling me things; sometimes we laughed, sometimes we stumbled sick and tired down the stairs at dawn, into the fog; Jaime still laughing, laughing like a seagull, Jaime on the stony beach with a bottle in his hand, unsteady in the tide with his coat flapping. Standing against the day, against the cold and gray, in his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow-patches, in his plaid pants, his Cuban boots, his goddamn hat. He told me, his strong brogue echoing out into the stillness, while somewhere behind us the sun was rising, “Some people hate this fog, y’know.”
“ ’S all right. Reminds me of home.”
Home of Jaime: somewhere at the ragged lip of the North Sea, where the land shook under the fearsome wind—quarries filled with rain, branches bleak and black, and Jaime just a young pup—I tried to see him, running sliding scrambling, panting, lonely, growing, rangy, lean, watching, waiting, waiting, howling.
“Show me,” I said, sitting at his kitchen table. “On a map. Where you lived. Where you came from.”
“Sorry, mate. I’ve only got maps of India.” He put the bottle to his lips.
“What? Only? But you collect—”
He swallowed, ducking his head. “Did, but I sold ’em. Only need the Indian ones now.”
“Once I’ve gone to India, I won’t need to go anywhere else. And I needed money for a ticket, as well. Why do you want to see, anyway? People hate Scotland. ’Cause it reminds them of death.” I could feel him looking at me. I tried to think of something to say, but he went on, “’Cause we’ve no sunlight, just rain, cold, and the smell of the dirt. But I’m going to India—land of Krishna! D’you know what he said? There are some things that never end, because they never began. Like being. Don’t you think that’s lovely?”
“Yeah, and they also have dead bodies floating down the Ganges, don’t they?”
“Exactly, and little children drinking out of it. The circle of life, mate! It’s grand!” He slapped my shoulder.
“Yeah, and then they die of some terrible disease.”
“Or they don’t. People die of terrible diseases everywhere. In India at least you see life first—really see it. You see gods. There are no gods in San Francisco—” He slapped my shoulder again and stood up. “Which is why I’m going to India, like a sensible person.”
“You won’t see their gods,” I called out to him, as he left the room. “You’ll only see their death.”
How much I didn’t see. How often I remember the wrinkles around his eyes, the way he’d bump into me while we were walking, how his voice began to get husky when we said goodbye in the airport. I only knew him eight months, but in that time he became my oldest friend. When I got the news I went to find somewhere to cry and feel like Someone was listening. While back in Connecticut my mother and father prayed for Him to make me good, Jaime was somewhere else. I never saw the green plants springing through the ribcage as it lay half-buried: the glory that never ended because it never began, it just was. But maybe he saw it, as he knelt there so close to his holy earth.
They burned his body—brother, you were always burning. Now the spirit and the body are one. Did they see the shapes of gods in the smoke? Would I? When I got the news, I touched the dry hard earth of America, and heard all the silence where once there had been singing. Was there anything here? Were there any bones left? Was it stupid to pray?
I did anyway, brother. I prayed you were floating down a river somewhere in India. Little children drink your body.
Kestrel Slocombe is a Massachusetts native who tends to write very long novels, but is learning how to write short stories like this one, thanks to Becky Godwin.
Brittany Kleinschnitz '13
Female deer do not normally produce antlers,
aside from reindeer or caribou.
The head - bare between the ears
and rounded, the flesh taut and
flat to skull - feminine,
and thus a lack of congenital weaponry.
So when she is found walking in fall,
between pines, a belly full,
they call her doe with skepticism, they
look at her branched antlers covered with velvet,
17 cm. high and bearing three points,
and say No woman here.
Artemis, Greek goddess of wilderness,
childbirth and virginity - a mother of the hunt and
simultaneous protector - her chariot is drawn by
four deer. The fifth, Kerynean, roams free and
cannot be captured.
When Agamemnon steals the life of a stag in
a forest dedicated to Artemis, the goddess snuffs out
the wind on the seas in Greece. For the wind’s
return she demands sacrifice as reparation in the
form of Iphigeneia, the king’s daughter. Yet, before
the youth could be slaughtered, the good mother
Artemis snatches her body up from the altar and
deposits a deer in its place.
who steals your motherhood?
Internally, too, she is horned and heart shaped.
There is a baby in the bicornuate,
the fertile cornucopia filled with a certain fruit,
the horns of which ended blindly.
No one before has told her that she cannot bear young.
Native American lore (that of the Cherokee,
the Muskogee, the Seminole, the Choctaw) calls the
deer a shape-shifter. “Deer Woman”, a spirit that
moves and morphs between forms at will from deer
to woman and back again. She is a teacher of
sexuality, fertility, and maturation.
When a man comes upon this spirit, she
appears to be the most beautiful woman he has ever
seen, his desire for a body contoured, lean and soft.
She lures him with movement and her sex, the chase,
towards the cover of trees, gives him a moment of
ecstasy before driving his head into dirt with strong
hooves, their edges sharp and cloven.
I see her move and I match stride through the thick
of dripping pines.
The curve of her body bulging with young,
and pumping blood.
Her spindly legs skipping beats, wobbling.
See me horned and heart shaped, too, internally.
I have branched antlers
where others are bare and rounded.
A bent and empty cornucopia,
for this body is not as lithe as hers,
and not nearly as strong
In the Celtic tradition, the deer is a symbol of
femininity. They believed them to be faeries, a
shape-shifter as well, changing from deer to woman
in order to protect her fellow females from being
hunted by men.
Celtic warrior, Finn, fell in love with and
married the goddess Sadb to allow her a human
form after a druid had turned her into a deer. Upon
returning from battle one day, Finn finds that Sadb
is missing and searches for her for seven years. Time
passes, and while out hunting, Finn comes upon a
boy. He is naked and his hair is long. The boy says
that he lives in the woods with his mother, a gentle
doe. Finn realizes he has found his love, and that she
had given birth to a human child, his child, and dubs
him Oisin, meaning “little fawn”.
What women are we, how masculine,
what organically malformed beauty is hidden beneath velvet skin?
In the heat of a sunbeam
she paws the dirt, upturning stones,
and grunts like a stag.
Rubbing soft clothed antlers impatiently on a tree,
the bark crumbling, she bends at the knees as woven wicker
and I move to sit parallel,
cross-legged. Her body shifts from beneath its weight
and the stomach rests, balanced
on a bed of moss and leaves.
Brittany Kleinschnitz is a junior and studies Visual Arts, with a focus in photography and printmaking, and Literature.
April 2012 - Comments Off on Abbatino [in the event of an accident]
Naomi Washer '12
In 1791, Frenchman Claude Chappe invented a system of two sided panels—one white, one black—and synchronized clocks to send messages. Moving hands on the clock paired with black or white side of panel displayed encoded messages visible through a telescope. Chappe called his invention the tachygraphe—from the Greek “fast writer” until a friend persuaded him to call it the telegraphe—“far writer.”
Compasses installed in cars indicate which direction the driver is headed. As a kid, I thought those four letters were my own initials and my father’s. N stood for North but I thought Naomi.
E was not only East but Erin, my middle name. W was both West and Washer, my last name from my father’s side—my father S/South/Steven.
MOCCASINS RUINED BY SNOW STOP WE’LL GO TO THE PARK IN SPRING STOP SOON AS MY FEET HAVE THAWED
Chappe’s invention depended on sight—on sight lines. Messages could only be received in short distances. It was personal. Visual and quick. Every early version of this invention held fast to the benefits of sight.
On long car rides in the back seat I was small enough to squish between two others, to watch the compass tell us who we were, where we were going. A long journey took us towards Naomi but turned sharply into quests for Erin. From Erin we would shift to seek the Washers and to go home we would always follow Steve.
LET’S DANGLE FEET IN MEKONG STOP MISS HOW WE WALKED IN CAMBODIA STOP CHEAP SANDALS ROAMING CITY STREETS
The telegram era was briskly ushered in by Samuel Morse and the invention of Morse code. Impersonal. Auditory and quick. Series of dots and dashes representing words, tapped out, transmitted across wires, received by operators. Hand of the writer rendered
irrelevant. Voice disembodied. Morse code’s small bandwidth could be amplified quite loud providing assurance that a message would always be received. Multiplexing: the ability to transmit eight messages simultaneously over a single wire—four in each direction.
I thought I understood what it meant to travel a path Northeast towards Naomi Erin. Northwest was logical too—my whole self. Heading Southwest meant going after Dad. But it perplexed me endlessly to ponder what I’d find if I ran Southeast.
STILL NOT WINTER HERE STOP DON’T KNOW WHY STOP SNOW WHEN I WAS FOUR PILED TALL AS DAD AT FRONT DOOR STOP NOT COLD NOW BUT LEAVES ON TREES TREMBLE STOP WONDER IF I SHOULD BE STOP KNOW YOU ARE
The height of the telegram age was the 1920’s and 30’s. Western Union maintained a fleet of 14,000 uniformed messenger boys on foot and bicycle. Telegrams took less than a day to be delivered, faster than a letter, more urgent than a letter’s wandering tone.
As a child I often rode in the back of station wagons, facing the road, traveling backwards while the driver moved forward. I never saw streetlights or signs until we passed them and stop signs breezed by my face—their warning message not received.
GET IN YOUR CAR STOP I’LL PAY GAS STOP ROOM ON COUCH TO SLEEP STOP PLEASE
Telegraph prose had a snappy brisk style. The frequent omission of pronouns and articles often became almost poetically ambiguous. Telegrams were almost always brief, pointed and momentous in a way unmatched by any other form of communication. Often used to inform loved ones of events too difficult to say aloud: the end of a life. Punctuation was more expensive than a word; telegrams avoided using periods, avoided proper sentences, merely found the essence of the message. Instead of “.” between lines, simply STOP.
HOW’S YOUR HEAD STOP KNOW YOU HATE DRIVING STOP WALLACE STEVENS NEVER LEARNED STOP PLEASE LEARN TO LOVE WALKING STOP THEY SAY HE WROTE POEMS BY FOOTFALLS
Caught up in the magical nature of telegrams, some people believed them capable of miraculous feats. In 1870 A woman in Prussia appeared at her local telegraph office carrying a plate of food. She asked that it be telegraphed to her son—a soldier fighting in the war against France. Operators told her it was impossible to telegraph a physical object. The woman insisted that if soldiers could be ordered to the front by telegram you should be able to telegraph sauerkraut. Another man tried to telegraph his son a pair of boots.
DOE EYES SEE NO BETTER ON MAIN ROADS STOP I MISS THE JOURNEY WHEN I READ ON BUSES STOP WORKING MY WAY UP NORTH STOP SAVE ME THE AIR
If your telegraph station is unable to receive, simply transmit the word “wait.” If a telegraph station does not reply, repeat your call at suitable intervals. Every telegram must be terminated with a cross signal.
I hide boxes of letters from old friends in the Northeast. I visit them and read the old piece of advice that got me through a difficult year: “Do what makes your heart beat faster. Or slower. Or consciously beat. Come to New York.” This piece of paper has become too frail. Years later I still feel the rhythm of these lines when I exhale.
FEEL LIKE I’M MELTING STOP CONNECTICUT CHEMTRAILS STOP SMOKING COWBOY KILLERS STOP NEW BOOTS ARE CLUNKY STOP NO MORE SHIT FROM STRANGERS
In Morse code 1 dash is equal to 3 dots. The space between signals that form the same
letter is equal to 1 dot. The space between 2 letters is equal to 3 dots and the space between 2 words is equal to 7 dots. Silence differentiates measure. Travel implicates empty space.
Wallace Stevens never learned to drive. He walked through Hartford’s purple light towards work and home again. Each day he’d use his footsteps to compose a line of poetry, backtracking and replacing certain words. I choose to walk because of this. I tell myself that getting there is not about the time it takes but the way in which one moves.
JAMMING FEET INSIDE POEMS STOP TRIED DRIVING STOP NEVER GOT LICENSE
By 1845 books of numeric codes were being published for use in telegrams. Many codes were numbered lists for words such as “A1645”—Alone.
I finish conversations and take the long road home. The words they uttered last become
my tempo: right, left, right, left, take, it easy, Naomi, take, it easy, Naomi, take, it easy, Naomi. My left hand taps out each melody against my thigh until my feet receive it—
1 3 4 3 2 1
1 3 4 3 2 1
1 3 4 3 2 1
GET OUT OF BED STOP GET YOUR POEMS READ
Some very sensitive business was conducted via telegram and codes were designed to keep information secret.
Libant: If it is not… Libavio: Why is it that you…
Liberons: The issue between us… Libitum: It is as I said…
Libongo: It is all wrong… Liburnos: Would jeopardize everything…
Librated: It will now soon be ended.
Naomi is slowly saying goodbye to Vermont to pursue her MFA in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.
Naomi Washer '12
I am going to tell you this because you asked. I am going to believe you will go the way I tell you. You could drive onto one of the ramps from the entrance by the West Farms Mall, but you will feel displaced. That car of yours will guzzle too much life out of the landscape. You will see a landscape built for cars, transformed by flora as exotic as any jungle.
Drive to the Holy Family Monastery. Park in the lot closest to trees. Get out of the car with what few belongings you’ve brought with you. You are about to walk a great deal. Enter the serene, wooded area next to the lot. You will see prayer stations arranged in a circle, designed and labeled as the ideal Path of Peace. You will see other humans at these stations, or walking gently side by side in silence. Your presence is no disturbance, though you are on a different path. Muted metal statues of Mary and Jesus rise up alongside Connecticut’s white oaks, a small kneeling place beneath each one. Continue walking. You will come to the image of a woman washing the feet of Jesus. Stretching beyond this, an unmarked path. Take it. A large wire fence lies trampled up ahead, slowly becoming buried by dirt and time and beer cans. Don’t worry—this is the right way. You will need a pair of solid shoes. Mounds of dirt substantial enough to be called a hill require a bit of careful footing. Last time, at least seven huge logs, just horizontal trees really, seemed to be blocking my way to the base area. A simple obstruction, if you have brought a worthy friend with you. Don’t let him make you turn back; don’t let him think this is a bad sign. Remind him there are flattened cans of Bud Light all along the path—someone would have cleaned them up if anyone monitored this place.
These are the facts: Across the border of West Hartford and Farmington, a four-level Stack Interchange lies almost completely abandoned, built as sections of Interstates 84 and 291. The ultimate goal was a beltway surrounding the city of Hartford. The hope was better roadways; less traffic. The highways themselves were built to completion, as were the majority of the connecting ramps, but problems soon arose. Trouble with reservoirs, just north of 84 in West Hartford, halted completion of those portions of the Stack. Homeowners (whose houses backed right up to the 291 section) complained of problematic environmental conditions. They did not want the deafening sounds of never-ending motion, of motorcyclists, teenagers revving their engines, music blasting, or cop cars. The people won this argument, and all plans for the entire Stack were terminated.
Diagonally crossing each other, one right atop another, each highway is visible from every other in the Stack. You cannot climb from one to the next. You must retrace your steps, back to the base area, to follow the ramp which leads to the next highway. The lowest in the Stack is just above the active highway. This one is my favorite. No, I can’t choose. Here, you should stand with your torso leaning over the guardrail. Clasp onto it, then allow your body to loosen and become a detail of the scene. In summer, which is the season I recommend you go, the metal protected by shadow will feel cool to the touch. Shadows elongating from the extinct highways above form patterns intersecting with the street art at your feet. Whether you stand in these shadows, or throw your upper body over the guardrail in the sun, feet firmly planted on cement, no face in any car will feel your face. You could scream even. I have tried. I have flung my arms, waving hello, inviting them to take a glimpse. But I know it does not work this way. When I’m in a car, zipping down I-84, I sometimes think I see the abandoned highways—every highway looks dingy on the outside. There is a moment where I am certain I have plucked them out of the extinct jungle of their recreated existence; plunked them down into the suburban sprawl of vehicles. Then I see a car speed across it, and I know my secret landscape has eluded me once again.
This is what you should do: lean over the edge of the guardrail on the lowest highway in the Stack. Hold on tight as huge trucks and semis hurtle right at you. The floor of this highway will rumble and the metal bar will shake, rattling your wrists. The trucks pass through and under you. It looks as though they’ll hit you every time.
On the middle ramp, the one with the most street art, an active highway curves toward and past you. You will be no more than six feet from zooming vehicles. Do with this knowledge what you will.
I know hundreds have been there from the sight of broken beer bottles and the evidence of graffiti: “So it goes” stretches out long and black. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” “I’ll take you blindfolded dancing under bridges,” “Welcome to Narnia. Please wipe your feet.” All those young people; all their pains told through spray cans of paint. I suffer this affliction too; all suburban kids I’ve known do—writing out another’s words with care, precision, before learning to push through them to our own description.
Only once before have I run into strangers here—a group of young, rowdy boys drinking beer out of green bottles at two in the afternoon. This was well before my imagination could see any pleasure in that. They were smashing the bottles on the colorful pavement after emptying each one.
Once, from here, I watched a plastic grocery bag snap itself from a car window, fly over and under several, then settle to the ground, only to then be flung every which way by the speeding semis. Another time, here, I dangled one leg off the slab of concrete with no guardrail, feeling the ease with which I could sit in this dangerous spot, laughing. All I need is wind from cars in summer.
What I wonder is if the children of those homeowners—the ones who ended the building process—know what is in their backyard. I wonder if those kids ever found a short trail down.
Look: if anyone sees you, you know what to do. And don’t share this with just anyone, okay? Last thing: I dare you to find the plant that’s gone extinct—they say it grows nowhere else but the abandoned highways.
Till an undetermined time,
Naomi studies theatre, dance and literature, and loves to walk in Vermont.
Leah Zander '12
Alice James is remembered as the brilliant invalid sister of author Henry James. In writing this vignette for "Historical Fictions", I drew upon Leon Edel's biographies of the James family as well as Alice James' own diaries.
There is a fly on the ceiling. Alice can see it from where she lies on the sofa. It creeps along the blurred meridian above the top of her book; every so often it pauses to rub its legs together, a gesture Alice cannot help but interpret as mocking. She wants very badly to throw her book at it, but this would be the act of a hysterical woman. Instead she resolves to ignore the fly. She will be a model of Christian restraint and forbearance. Vive et vivas.
Fortunately breakfast arrives before Alice’s tolerance is too sorely tested. Katherine carries the tray, looking, Alice thinks, more like a stern English governess than a Peabody-Loring in her muddy brown day-dress. While Katherine is bending down to arrange the tea tray on the table, Alice shrugs her shawl from her shoulders so that it falls about her knees. Katherine straightens to see Alice in wide-eyed disarray. Clucking her tongue, she tucks the shawl tight about Alice’s chest.
As Katherine unhinges the silver sugar dish, Alice kicks her foot-cushion to the floor. Katherine spoons twin lumps into Alice’s tea, stirs; she offers cup and saucer to Alice, who accepts with a tremulous hand. Katherine stoops to pick up the wayward pillow and replaces it beneath Alice’s slippered feet. She adjusts the shawl again and tucks back a strand of hair that has slipped from Alice’s braid. All this happens with the deft choreography of a ballet.
As Alice sips lukewarm tea Katherine begins her daily recounting of gossip, rumor, and news of dubious journalistic integrity. Alice supplements the narrative with dry remarks that make Katherine’s narrow shoulders quake with laughter. Katherine sits on the end of the settee; Alice can feel the warmth of her even through the thick cocoon of blankets, quilts, and shawls. The mid-morning sun that slants through a crack in the curtains illuminates Katherine from behind, giving her the golden aureole of a saint. Alice thinks of medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary, swathed in cerulean against a backdrop of pearly gold leaf; the knife-thin nose, pious mouth and almond-shaped eyes. She imagines Katherine fondling a fat baby and has to swallow an unrefined guffaw.
“Shall we go out today?” Katherine asks finally, once she has no more engagements and scandals to prevaricate upon. “The weather is very fine.”
Alice takes roster of her various ailments: the sore knee, agitated bowel, and head-ache that has been her constant companion for what feels like the age of the Earth. She thinks of sunlight, of fresh air. Is it spring? Will goldenrod grow woolly over the fence and meltwater rush in the brook again? Perhaps she will fling herself from her chair and roll bottom-first down a hill tangled with wildflowers, through the open gate of a cow-pen and onto the road, where she will set off into the great green beyond with weeds in her hair and dung on her skirt.
Or perhaps she will simply fall like an old woman and break something. Her hip, her wrist. It must be cold yet; she will catch a chill. The sunlight will blind her, the birdsong deafen her. She will be made mute by the chaos of color and noise. Or will she simply sit in her chair and smell the grass and remark upon the flowers and feel nothing but the ghost of sublime rattling through her?
Alice shakes her head. “Not today.”
The day passes. Alice lounges in the parlor, listlessly paging through her book. She does not know whether to blame the book for its dullness or herself for her indifference. Katherine has moved to the rocking-chair and is bent industriously over her embroidery. Alice watches her from around the sides of her book. Katherine’s face is a drama far more marvelous than that of Alice’s dreary novel. As her hands genuflect over the fabric her brows ascend and furrow, eyes squint and dilate, lips pucker and puff; within five minutes she has silently conveyed every agony and ecstasy of the human experience. The embroidered chrysanthemum on her lap has gained a leaf. Alice wonders what intensity of emotion a whole garden would require.
At noon her nurse brings lunch. Two boiled eggs and tomato sandwiches on blue china, as well as a bowl of what Alice has come to think of as invalid’s gruel: translucent chicken broth swimming with chopped greens. She sips it slowly while making faces at Katherine, who gives her an admonishing look over the rim of her teacup.
After lunch Alice takes the paper. It is heartier and more sustaining by far than the meal. There has been a deliciously gruesome murder in Cheapside; Alice reads the account out loud to Katherine, who listens with her mouth an O. Alice employs her most bombastic tones, like a prurient preacher whose enumerations of Hell’s lewdest horrors are accompanied with an ungodly enthusiasm. At the bloody denouement Katherine goes so pale that Alice pauses to ask if she should continue.
“Really,” she scolds, “we ought to regard fainting as wholly my office.”
“Oh, but do go on,” says Katherine breathlessly.
There is, Alice thinks, a little of the heathen in Katherine Loring.
The rest of the paper is not, perhaps, quite as exciting, but Alice savours each detail nonetheless: the continuing madness of the German emperor; the dauntless Irish, clamoring, as always, for Home Rule; the marriage of one Ambrose Pringle to a Lady Patience Lovestrand; the death of a Dutch painter. The final page is attended by the same rush of desolation that might accompany the sudden loss of a dear friend. Alice sighs. The hours until her guests arrive for supper stretch out endlessly.
When six o’clock arrives Alice is, of course, entirely unprepared. She must verbally flog her Nurse and maid into swift action. Her dressing-room seems suddenly full of a disproportionate number of hands, brushing and pinning up her hair, wrestling her into her only evening dress, rolling stockings up her legs and gloves down her arms, and struggling to work her bloated feet, so accustomed to slippers, into a new pair of shoes which prove perversely reluctant to accommodate her toes. By the time she has been dressed and propped up in the parlor Alice is exhausted and out of sorts. A fine film of perspiration has collected at her nape. She must fight the strong urge to rip off her clothes, crawl naked into bed and hibernate like a bear.
Henry arrives at half past. How odd, Alice thinks, that he should always contrive to make such a humble entrance, sidling into the hall with his chin tucked into his breast as though he were an under-butler and not the greatest writer of his generation. The effect is compounded by the fact that all of Henry seems to be sagging these days. His eyes have sunk into dark pouches as though exhausted by his battle against the inexorable assault of gravity. He has grown vastly fat. There is little left of the dark romantic gypsy-child he had been, save his hands. Long-fingered, knotted and chapped by vigorous activity, with milky oval nails, they are the hands of a poet crudely jointed to the body of a banker.
“Alice!” Henry says, his voice, as always upon greeting her, holding some note of surprise—as though he had expected to find her moldering and insensate and is instead delighted to discover that she has dallied in the lands of the living for yet a while longer. When he kisses her cheek his lips are as thin and dry as wax paper.
Alice plays the genteel Boston hostess and ushers him into the parlor. Despite the vase of fresh flowers on the mantle there remains the lingering staleness of infirmity. Henry pretends not to notice. Of the many things Alice appreciates about Henry, perhaps above all, is the fact that he never bothers to condescend to her (as William never fails to) with conversational pleasantries. Instead he speaks to her as she imagines he would any of his brilliant friends. He is no longer writing novels, he says; rather he will devote his talent to plays and short fiction.
“My literary posterity, as it were,” he says, “shall be in a large number of perfect short things.”
Alice imagines her brother constructing stories as precious and baroque as Faberge eggs. The thought comes, unbidden and unwelcome, that he has become irreparably European. Instead of dwelling on this perverse observation, Alice replies, “I have every confidence that you will astonish the critics.”
It is the wrong thing to say. Henry’s lips thin to a grim equator that seems to split his face like the hinged jaw of a ventriloquist’s doll. Too late, Alice remembers the damning response of the critics to his last novel, The Tragic Muse. It is clear from the way Henry seems to dwindle in his somber evening-suit that he is now reliving the agony of that still-fresh humiliation. He had always been baffled by bad reviews, never failing to take them personally. It is clear that without immediate intervention he will sulk throughout supper and spoil everyone’s appetite.
“I cannot lend you my fullest support in your endeavor, however,” Alice continues hastily, “for I have always thought perfection an entirely dull and commonplace aspiration. Take for example—” she begins warming to her topic—“the face of the society beauty. How many times, Henry, have you seen a lady powdered and tweezed with the acutest precision, her every feature rendered flawless by her own excruciating energies, only to create an effect with so little to interest one’s eye that it cannot help wandering from this banal visage to the buffet table? And is the converse not true as well—that the most unique defects can rescue an otherwise trite countenance, bestowing upon the wearer an ineffable allure?”
“I have often seen the proof of this,” says Katherine, understanding the game at once.
Henry’s eyes are bright with amusement. “Yes,” he says, “as have I, many times.”
“In fact,” says Alice, thus encouraged, “I am of the opinion that if the writer is to generate anything of worth he cannot limit his frontiers to the merely perfect when the purely interesting is so much more engaging of the mind and soul. Indeed, I move that we consider it the most Jamesian endeavor imaginable.”
She is rewarded by one of Henry’s true laughs, rich and delighted and seeming to sound from the very depths of him. He is about to reply, no doubt with a spirited rejoinder, when they are interrupted by the arrival of William and his wife. Alice stands too quickly and must clutch, dizzy, at the arm of the sofa for support. Katherine is at her side immediately, hands fluttering to feel her pulse, her forehead; William and the other Alice enter to see Alice slumped against Katherine like a drooping aspen, with Henry looking on in concern.
“I see we have coincided with an apoplexy,” says William mildly, handing his hat to the maid.
“Not at all.” Alice lowers herself back down onto the sofa. “We were only just discussing Harry’s new artistic direction.”
“Oh dear.” William smiles indulgently. “Henry, I hope you shall not prove one of those writers who cannot commit themselves to a single mode but rather skip from one to another as the fashion changes, like a mondaine at the hat-shop.”
“Henry isn’t a faddist, dear,” chides the other Alice, laying a gloved hand upon her husband’s arm.
“No, indeed,” says Henry, “I consider myself a bulwark of stolid integrity in a world where the novel is too often as cheap, as promptly obsolete and as easily disposed of as the New York World.” He licked his lips. “In fact, I find I have altogether grown out of the form.”
“Like last season’s bonnet, I suppose,” says William.
“Instead,” Henry pushes forth, “instead I shall write for the theater.”
William tugs his whiskers in an expression of pompous benevolence that is so very the mirror of their father that for a moment Alice can see the translucent image of the dead William transposed over that of the living. As soon as it is come it is gone again, leaving her with the sudden sure premonition that William is about to utterly ruin the evening.
“Let us adjourn to the dining room,” she says quickly, but it is too late; William has begun to speak and will not be interrupted.
“Henry, allow me to speak plainly. The truth of it is that you simply cannot call yourself an artist if you allow yourself to be influenced by these petty aesthetes. I have always said that the critic is nothing more than the merest chaff of human wit. Your last book was, perhaps, a mistake; still, you must not permit yourself the false comfort of self-pity. Take your inspiration from Socrates.”
“Socrates committed suicide,” Henry remarks.
“But his legacy endures. And so too, my dear brother, shall yours—but only as long as you do not allow this disappointment to drive you from the novel, the form which has made your career, and into the callow embrace of the theater. Chin up, Henry! Have done with regret; it is within you to make good your name once more.”
He stands back, beaming, as though he has just delivered the most soul-stirring address imaginable.
“The critics have never understood Henry,” says Alice. “Posterity shall vindicate him.”
But it is too little too late. Henry has receded into himself entirely, the folds of his suit closing around him like Ophelia’s waterlogged rags. William will be smug and self-satisfied all night. Everything is spoiled. Alice thinks sourly that family conversation is one arena in which the interesting can be held as subordinate to the perfectly dull.
Supper is that peculiarly British indulgence, the Sunday roast. Their plates are heaped with glistening slabs of beef and thick potato slices slathered with herbed mayonnaise; sweet buttered rolls, roast carrots, and faintly stinking Brussels sprouts. The excess makes Alice feel ill. She pushes a potato around her plate with her fork and surreptitiously watches the other Alice.
Naturally, other-Alice’s manners are impeccable. Each bite is precisely proportioned, speared elegantly on the end of her fork and lifted to her mouth; then a flash of pearly teeth, discreet mastication, and a slight bob of her slender throat as she swallows. Once the procedure is complete she lays down fork and knife crosswise across her plate and dabs delicately at her lips with a napkin.
Meanwhile William has been allowed to go on in sonorous tones about some subject or another which has been caught in the illuminating beacon of his attention. Alice has the unkind thought that her brother is at times a kind of human dirge. What is it he is speaking of, anyway? Ah, the Mind. Of course. And what is this obsession amongst their family with the Mind? Why has it become with William clinical, Henry literary, and Alice pathological? For a moment Alice allows herself to imagine them as disembodied brains, floating in the soup of human experience. Or drowning, as it were. She almost laughs—grimly, hysterically. She mustn’t be morbid. It worries people.
It is at this time that Alice notices the fly. It is the same fly from this morning; she is sure of it. The fly is crawling across the wallpaper above and to the left of Henry’s head. It stops and rubs its legs together, as if in greeting.
In her childhood Alice had once been permitted to look at a fly under a microscope. Beneath the miraculous glass Alice had perceived the minutest details of its features: the swollen, refracted eyes, the exquisite delicacy of the gossamer wings. It had bristled, she remembers, all over with hair, like the fuzzy down on the head of a human baby. It had fangs; she can recall them acutely. Terrible hair-thin fangs, each one like the needle of a syringe.
Alice must have stood without realizing. The conversation has ceased. At the corner of her eye she can see William and Henry exchanging looks of concern. The other Alice’s expression is entirely blank. She raises her fork to her mouth. Alice thinks of the flexing pincers of a fly. She will not remember collapsing; only the sudden smell of ozone, the brief, perfect joy of Katherine’s hand on her own.
James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. Dodd Mead & Company: Scranton, 1964.
James, Henry. Henry James Letters 1883-1895. Ed. Leon Edel. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1980.
James, Henry. The Notebooks of Henry James. Ed. F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock. Oxford University Press: New York, 1947.
Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin Company: 1964.
Toibin, Colm. The Master. Scribner: 2005.
Leah is a literature student at Bennington College.
November 2011 - Comments Off on The Topology of Human Networks Online
A current research topic of mine has been the architecting of social groupings and communities to shape the topology of human networks online. It's a new discipline that merges traditional computer security, social science, cognitive hacking, and computational ethology to think concretely about influence and behavior on the internet. Mathematical models that quantify the topological characteristics of complex networks provide insights into a system's controllability. My work comprises of the manufacturing, distribution, and automation of personas that are "socialbots" - robots that attempt to emulate every attribute of a person. The bots then attempt to influence human targets to behave in certain ways.
Through this work, the I'm particularly interested in the fabrication of social prosthetics to provide missing features to a network. Conducting the bots to lower frictions that prevent stories, ideas and other features of a network from being shared and distributed to other users. With community detection capabilities, bots can identify users with similar interests and group them to have heavier edges within the network. Modeling a network allows socialbots to act tactically based on user relations and interests. Recent field test results suggest increased human to human interaction in a network with deployed socialbots. This work is the first of it's kind to demonstrates the use of automation tools to shape online communities at a large scale.
Naomi Washer '12
In the evening it fit to sit upon the sill, with feet tapping against the chipped, white siding of the house. It was warmer in the daytime now; we weren’t wearing sweaters anymore. I dug my fingernails into thick orange skin and peeled, peeled. Juice dripped on my hands while a settled quiet overtook the street. From my perch on the low windowsill, the street seemed a moving painting in progress, detached from anything my toes or fingers could step on or touch. Silhouettes made their way down the road, each footfall a drop of paint from an unseen hand. Night was settling gently, a welcome change from winter’s cold, black cape, which tossed itself over treetops and secured its strings tightly before we could speak to allow it. Now, in the evenings, it was warm to sit snuggly in the window, watching the sky’s soft blue brushstrokes; watch them fade. I tossed orange seeds to the ground and dreamt of magic trees in Haitian folktales.
Julia Mounsey '13
I love creaking, but I love pots and pans especially. You go to bed and CLANG! The kitchen is full of me! I have so many hands. I love my hands, but I love your feet more, your tired footsteps down the stairs, your lovely head full of my hands, full of my pots and pans. You always smile. I love creaking, and I love your sheets. I pull them off to watch you shiver. I have so many hands, but no fingerprints mind you. I’ll never leave a mark, I love you too much for that.
Cold rushes in so fast it becomes hot, down my throat like a hand and I feel hoarse, I feel hoarse, I feel hoarse. Can you see me? You can’t see me. You can’t see me because there are fifty of me! There are fifty of me and then another fifty, and if you really saw me you’d be so scared that the cold would rush in hot like a hand made of ice through your throat all the way down to your belly and you’d be DEAD! Who’s pulling your curtains? Your shoes? Are they damp? Who is it? It’s me, all of me! All fifty of me!
You’re mine, darling. You’re all mine, darling. I pull all the books off the shelf with my breath because you’re mine, darling. Look! There! My hands tickling your doorframe. Did you see them? You’re mine, darling. And I’ll break your eggs and chew up your floorboards until you know it. I’ll suck at your curtains and walk up your windows and push ever so slightly against the bottom of your mattress while you sleep, until you’re down on all fours with your heart on your tongue, laughing, saying you love me.
I lived in your chest for three years. I brought you warmth when you didn’t want it. I crawled. Climbed you from the inside. Rubbed your heart the wrong way. It was mine. I lived there. I brought you warmth, brought you to your knees when you didn’t want it. I lived on your ceiling for three years. Kept still while you fought for sleep. Kept you still while you watched me, knowing me. Kept you, because you’re mine.
I don’t mind being a nightmare, as long as I can be yours!! Do you remember me? I found you in your bed. Do you remember my fingers? The stain? The tapping? I found you in your bed, pinned you there with my fingernails. Do you remember your heart beating? Broke through your chest, unearthed like a vegetable. And the stain when you woke up. I left it for you. No, I don’t mind being your nightmare.
You are soft. You are my cushion. I take my teeth out one by one. I take my teeth out one by one and push them into you. First the shoulder. I trace a circle with the sharp end, then push and it goes in easy. You break. Like cutting thread. I make a line of teeth across your shoulders, a collar, my little bones. I break you. It’s not personal. Skin is soft and sweet. It begs me to. Down on all fours, mouth dripping, chest heaving, it begs me to.
I had a question on every finger tip. They were oily and I covered you in them, and for that I am sorry. I am sorry I took all of your answers and forgot to leave you any. And I am sorry you had to live with my prints on your skin. But I wanted you to understand that you looked beautiful under my hands. I know it hurt to have my palms there but I wanted you to know that you looked beautiful with my thumbprint on your face, and my lifeline across your throat.
All of my pain has become fruit. My blood’s turned sweet. See here? A blueberry. And here: hearts become grapefruit. Pain goes sweet, then rots, because pain never goes away. The smell stays on your clothes forever. You know that smell? Thick and full of sugar. An apple split open on the asphalt like last summer. It’s an apple split open on the asphalt boiling last summer. Almost delicious, because sweet things always rot.
Will you? Won’t you? Haven’t been looked at for so long. Never get looked at. I’ve forgotten my hands. Left them somewhere. Can’t remember where. Can you spare a glance? A sniff in my direction? A laugh, at the very least. An eyebrow, maybe two. A reach would make me soar. A reach, not a touch, there is no touch, there is no touch, but a reach would do the same. Will you? Won’t you?
Life is over. Love is over. Family is over. House is over. Home is over. Book is over. Shoe is over. Bed is over. Touch is over. Sex is over. Handshake is over. War is over. Kitchen is over. Friend is over. Train is over. Sitting is over. Running is over. Grass is over. Money is over. Food is over. Singing is over. Yours is over. Mine is over. Yours is over. Mine is over. I am not ready.
About the Author: Julia is from New York City and wants to be a playwright, probably. She really likes Patti Smith.
Katherine Perkins '11
Somewhere in a black and white melodrama, there is a classic scene: a woman in a dark, tight-fitting dress with a cigarette and an upper-crust Manhattan accent turns her tear-streaked face away from her young lover to say this line we know so well: You’re dead to me. The violins pick up, her shoulders convulse in rapid shudders and by the time the camera returns to where he stood, he is gone. Perhaps we see a shot of his hand on the latch and then his furrowed brow as he shuts the door behind him—forever. Or perhaps the next shot frames him from behind, standing on the street, turning up the collar on his long grey coat and raising one arm to hail a taxi in the rain. In any case, as the rain, combined with the full orchestra, deluges our senses, we are hit full force with the reality of this moment; Jimmy really has made his exit; Scarlet really is alone, and her pronouncement collects its full gravity—he is dead to her; their lives will never overlap again.
Fast-forward fifty years. In this day, in our lives, this scene could never happen. Imagine, for just a moment: the scene’s the same, but now in color; her dress might still be black, but the cigarette, for the sake of argument, is one she rolled herself. Again, she turns from him; again, you’re dead to me. Again he makes his exit. But this time, just as he reaches street level and is groping for a cigarette himself, his pocket vibrates and the source of this buzzing is an electronic note that says: “wait.” In rapid succession, the following text messages will pass between their phones:
“Didnt mean that”
“U said im dead.”
“Sry i fl bad”
“Yea wanna talk”
Or, as he is standing, waiting for his taxi in the downpour (weather, at least, can be consistent through the ages), he shoots her a text: “Gross,” and her response, though not deeply committed, is at least immediate:
“Rain,” he’ll say back. “Gross out,” and something in the eloquence of these brief words will move her tides of sympathy, and she’ll ask him meekly if he wants to come back up and talk things out (“les tok upstrs?”). Which, of course, or maybe grudgingly, he does, and their drama, for a brief time, is over.
Here is the shallow reality, the muted drama, of love as we experience it now.
Let’s call our drama now off the hypothetical stage and onto the tile-floored, fluorescent-lighted, shouting, boisterous stage of the New York City Public School. Here we find the cell phone has become the ubiquitous tool or weapon of this generation, a toy whose full impact is near impossible to gauge—imagine how 7th grade note-passing is altered when conducted through text messages. Try flirting. Try bullying. Mean whisperings behind somebody’s back. The sheer capacity to pay attention in class. And finally, imagine the excuse that has become as cliché as ‘the dog ate my homework’ of old: I’m talking to my mom.
The girl talking: Aliani, the kind of student teachers both dread and love above the rest, one eyebrow permanently locked in an arch of defiance, her upper lip mirroring the gesture and in doing so, exposing a row of teeth soon to be corralled into the metal chains of braces.
“I’m sure you are,” I said, “but now’s not the time.”
“But she doesn’t know where I am.”
And as implausible as that was, how would it look if I, the assistant afterschool music teacher, demanded the phone put away and caused some crisis of miscommun-ication, some unwarranted worry for a parent with already too many stresses.
I tried the simple, direct root.
“Aliani, put your phone away. Samantha, you too.”
“In a minute,” said Aliani.
“Just a sec, it’s important,” said Samantha.
You’re twelve years old, I wanted to say.
I tried teaching by example. Feeling my phone in the bottom of my coat pocket, I lifted it up for the class to see. “These away,” I said. But a sound of disbelief rose up from the girls sitting in front of me.
“Yo, Miss,” said Aliani. “How old is your phone?”
“Is that an antenna?” said another girl, and they fell into peals of laughter.
“An antenna, yes,” I said, and pulled it out for them to see.
“What does that even do?” asked one girl.
“Nothing,” I said, “as far as I can tell.” Another girl asked if she could touch it.
“But enough,” I tried to corral the focus back to the lesson. “We were talking about harmony.”
Aliani, for once, had turned her attention entirely to me, eyes narrowed, her voice adopting the no-nonsense tone of an interrogating cop on a show about Law and Justice, but she wasn’t interested in the subject at hand.
“How old is it really?” she asked.
“It’s my first phone,” I said. “The phone I was born with.”
“No—I bought it right before I went to college.”
“And you’re how old now?”
“And it was your first phone.”
“Yes. Okay, let’s get back. Who knows what harmony is?”
Aliani held up her phone, which looked to me like the pink, pocket-sized star of a movie about love and robots. “I’ve had a phone?” she said, “since I was seven.”
“That’s beautiful, Aliani, that’s great,” I said. “But what is harmony?”
I was trying to recall exactly the ways that dramas played out between me and my peers in my eighth grade classroom. I remembered one particular day when Jean and Paige, rural Maine’s equivalent to the Samanthas and Alianis of Brooklyn, were caught with an entire three pages of notes whose subject was a boy who, rumor told, had herpes, and who one of them, or maybe both, had allegedly—what did we call it then? “Made out with” sounds too modern for my innocent youth; “Hooked up with” sounds too citified for the coast of Maine—I suspect the phrase we used was “French Kissing,” which still, to me, late bloomer that I was, hadn’t shed the stigma of something a little bit racy and a little bit gross in that it involved tongue and also the exchange of saliva. (Our health class text book taught us that French Kissing was when one person “explored” another person’s teeth with his or her tongue—that sounded gross more than racy, but even so, I was curious; my best friend Helen taught me how to practice with my middle and my pointer finger acting like another person’s lips—“They have to go every other,” she told me—“your lip, then his, then yours, then his, like this—“ she held her own two fingers up to her mouth. “And then you kind of move them up and down, and if you really like him, you put your tongue in.”) So Jean and Paige had pages and pages of notes, which I gathered—through glimpses and whispers and the stretches of my own imagination—were about Kissing and Boys and if Kissing (Frenching!) a Boy who had Herpes might cause YOU to get Herpes… our algebra teacher, 26, his patience tested past its limit at last, snatched the pages and threatened to read them all aloud. But glancing down at that round, wide handwriting in alternating colors, blue and pink, he thought better of it. Standing over the garbage, he tore all three pages into neat, narrow shreds.
After school, in a rare and giddy moment of rebellion, Helen and I decided we would piece the fragments back together—somehow, we even conceived that our Mr. Macko would find it amusing too—that he would laud our efforts and laugh along with us. But alas! Before we could garner all the most precocious and delicious details, we were caught in the act and shamed to the point of apologies with something along the lines of I expected better of you both. But even our hot faces weren’t enough to sate the want to know another person’s secrets—or just to know what it was like. It might have been kissing and it might have been something else—sex, love, love-making? What did those girls know that we didn’t know? What had they experienced that was so grand and so dangerous and seemed so impossibly out of reach?
In any case, I was brought back to all of this as a girl behind Aliani took out her phone and showed it to the girl beside her, holding it low beside her chair in what she thought—or pretended to think—was a subtle gesture. And when she would not put her phone away, I grabbed for it—an impulse there before the thought. And she, faster on her toes than I (and with a great deal more at stake) snatched it back with a glare and I was instantly too aware of myself—aware of my hand which had acted without my permission, aware of the mistake I’d made.
My supervision teacher stepped in.
“Erica, you have a choice,” he said. “You can stay here with us and learn, and put your phone away, or you can go down to the cafeteria and wait there.”
“But this is important,” she said. She wasn’t looking up—she was still texting.
“I gave you a choice,” he said.
“Okay,” she shrugged her shoulders and glanced up at his face.
“I’m not playing, Erica”
“I’m not playing either,” she said, and the other girls giggled and whistled as she picked up her things and walked out the door.
It was late August the day I bought my phone, sticky hot and the end of an era—it was my last day home before college, but more importantly, for the sake of this story, it was my last day home before leaving behind the person who I was sure, at the time, was the love of my life.
The room where I waited was in one of those highway-side, block-shaped buildings that crop up overnight across America—one day a field or a vacant lot, the next a supercenter staffed by exhausted women wearing blue vests and nametags visible to the legally blind: HELLO! I’m Kelly, Casey, Kimberly. The room itself was one of those spacious, sterile electronics zones with wall-to-wall carpeting, lit by fluorescents and whirring with subliminal noise. I was told by one of the women—Kelly, Casey or Kimberly—with a tired, pained expression, that it would be an estimated two hours before she or anyone could give me the time of day. The waiting area she directed me to was differentiated from the rest of the store only by the existence of two quasi-comfortable chairs and the proximity of the televisions—not two, but three, each positioned at such an angle that there was nowhere that the eye could rest away from them. I tried to shift my chair to face the window, but found that it was attached to the floor.
The love of my life, for lack of a better term—neither ‘boyfriend’ nor ‘lover’ ring true—was a beautiful five-foot, four-inch dancer from Zimbabwe. We taught in summer camp together and had adventures, hiking down to the rocky shoreline after our teaching day was done, lying on the only patch of flat, smooth rock and feeling the sunlight on our backs and bodies; we swam together and I turned away from him while I changed in plain view—a make-shift bathing suit made from my painting smock and skirt. I don’t remember how I put together the necessary parts for proper restaurant attire afterwards, but I remember running to my second job with dripping clothes in hand, both of us out of breath and laughing—he like a hyena, me like a creature who is learning for the first time how to laugh. I think now of a kind of inventory of our summer days, facts of our existence together: that when I walked in front of him I could feel a prickling on the back of my neck from his eyes on my body; When I asked him questions, he never gave me answers, only artful convolutions, rich with color; And sometimes we would sit quiet for hours painting silent, private landscapes, and I never understood him the way I thought I should, but he knew me—this, I told him, and my friends, and myself, repeatedly—better than I knew myself. And when I told my mother that fact, sitting in her Subaru, and that, as a result, I was no longer a virgin, she began to sob there in the parking lot of the farmer’s market and told me to go on ahead, she’d catch up, then called me back, half-panicked when I had nearly reached the fray of people milling and trucks parked, beds full of vegetables, to ask, did you know everything you needed to? Did you use—condoms, and everything?
As I sat in the US Cellular oversized office, I was already forming letters in my mind, based on my impending departure—I was missing him already while still in the same state. How ridiculous to be here, doing this, when I could be spending my last afternoon with him. But these wasted hours must, I thought, be a necessary evil; they would allow us to keep in touch; they would sustain our love. We were ill-equipped for the transition to come.
I am trying to remember now if he and I had ever spoken on the phone before that day—if we had, it was only to say the bare bones of facts and details—where we would meet and when—never real ideas, never feelings. Our conversations were always dense with circuitry and guessing, and I became accustomed to a style of response in which nothing was given; any tiny revelation of his came with work:
Do you have siblings?
There’s a start.
More or less?
No, guess again.
There—how did you know?
And where are you in the lineup?
You’re the oldest.
This is hard for you, isn’t it?
There! How did you know?
Shortly after my arrival at the cell phone store, I was joined in the waiting area by a twenty-something man named Chris or John or Steve who worked in the gravel pits near my home and was also, incidentally, in the process of breaking down and buying his first cell phone. We were mutually ambivalent about this necessary advancement in personal technology and I was ambivalent about him, but I found myself in that state of openness that sometimes sets in between strangers together in limbo. I learned that he grew up in the town next to mine and that he was in the market for a cell phone so he could have friends again.
“Yup, I graduated four years ago,” he said. “And I’ve pretty much lost touch with everybody.” Would a cell phone solve that problem? I tried not to cast any judgment in my quiet inquiry. He shrugged. “Maybe not,” he said. “But I guess it’s worth a try.”
When it came time for me to leave, my new phone (the least expensive model, the most rudimentary design) in a box in my purse, he said it was too bad I was leaving for college the next day because he would have liked to take me to a movie in Bar Harbor. And I said, yes, it was too bad, and walked out into the now-dwindling daylight.
That night, I would be up all night, packing and weeping, weeping and packing, and my mother would come down, bleary eyed and warm with sleep every hour or so to say, “You’ll stay in touch, darling. You will stay in touch with him.”
My new phone would not act as an aide in our transition apart; our conversations would continue with their circuitry and convolutions, but without the reassurance of his hands or the amusement in the glow behind his eyes.
How are you?
Keeping alive, keeping alive.
A long pause would stretch out between us.
What does that mean?
Don’t ask me, I just work here.
What have you been doing?
A little of this, a little of that.
What does that mean?
I told you, I just work here.
In one of these talks, he told me: “so I think, if it’s okay, I’ll come and visit,” and to myself, more than to anyone, I pretended excitement, I pretended joy.
When he came, I didn’t know how to bring two worlds together; I no longer recognized the space that we made when we sat in one room together.
I told him that I was no longer in love. I thought it then a simple fact.
In Brooklyn, in the winter of my senior year, I attempted a romance with a shortish, mustachioed man in a red cap and skinny jeans. It began, one could say, semi-accidentally—a friend of friends, he bought me a drink at a bar, an action, in the moment, of no great significance. Later, I followed up with a facebook message: “I’d like to get you back for that beer you bought me.” I thought I was being, if not subtle, then at least indirect. “Are you asking me out on a date?” was his reply. Was I? I didn’t know. And what was the inflection of his question—was it warm and flirtatious? Excited? Are you asking me out on a date!!? Or was there something a little aggressive about it—possibly accusatory? His status did, after all, declare him a married man. I wrote—and discarded—a few drafts in which I expounded upon my great affection for the moral pillar of monogamy; I attempted humor; I attempted clarity, but settled, in the end on something glib and potentially charming, pointing out the fact of his so-called married life. His reply was a screenshot of his information page as he changed his status from ‘married’ to ‘separated.’ Alright then, yes. Yes! I was asking him out on a date. I was dizzy with the romance.
What was beginning here was an elaborate game, a kind of excruciating hokey pokey in which the emcee sings the directions in a language that none of the players have quite yet mastered. The object, you discover as you go, is to maintain dignity while trying desperately to determine which limb is supposed to be in the middle and how long you have to shake it. More often than not, you find yourself exposed and off balance, teetering with some essential part of you hanging in a void, smiling so that everyone knows you’re having fun. You put your whole heart in! You put your whole heart out! You put your whole heart in, and you shake it all about…
Aren’t we all so flippant? Aren’t we so delightfully nonchalant as we sign ourselves of as players for life in this sordid little game? And I say for life because we’re all, you know, becoming addicts to these new ways of talking, thinking, feeling. Mustache Man and I—we never even had a real date. He invited me to his studio one day, and we sat on stools at a table made from rough wood propped on saw-horses. I asked what he was feeling and he told me that sometimes he got nervous, while I sat across from him rolling pieces of masking tape into tiny little beads and lining them in perfect intervals on the table in front of me. He offered me coffee and we drank it black. This could work, I thought. This could be something sweet that moves slowly.
We never exchanged a single phone call. Text messages aplenty, touching our big toes to the water, testing, testing, testing, but never making a real dive. Once, on a beautiful snowy night, I sent him what I thought might be a lure: “Snow!” I wrote, and waited. “Fresh start!” he wrote back eventually. My heart skipped a beat. What could he mean? I discarded the draft that said, “What’s starting?” and also the one that said, “Start with a bang!” and settled for “What’s so fresh?”
“Feb tomorrow,” he wrote.
Oh. The first day of February. The conversation ended there. What he wrote was not, perhaps, a closing door, but it also wasn’t a full return; there was no desire, no momentum in his words. I turned in without a late-night, snowy city ramble, or the thing I sought beyond that: a simple bit of warmth.
The mustachioed fellow and I went our separate ways. What it came down to, in the end, was the game—my lack of game savvy. “You like the game?” I asked, and he admitted, with a smile, that he did. I could only shake my head in bewilderment. “You’re not as bad at it as you think you are,” he said. “I mean, you know you play it too.” This was, for me, the most disturbing part of the whole affair.
So: my own culpability. Let’s turn our attention there.
In the summertime, I almost loved a wiry, sun-tanned science camp teacher from Colorado. He didn’t have a cell phone. He didn’t have facebook. He did have an email address, but we didn’t exchange the necessary details. We relied instead on the landline in his apartment, notes left on or under each other’s doors and messages relayed through friends and roommates. He is the only friend I’ve made in the last four years who knows my phone number by heart. By the end of the summer, I recognized not only the sound of his voice, but also those of his three roommates. Here’s how phone-calls to his house would go:
Me: Hey! Is this Jen?
Jen: Hey, let me find Ian. (off) Ian! Katherine’s on the phone!
What unaccustomed practice for my ear! How nice to get to know somebody in the context of his family—or something close to that—again! The time was sweet, quaint. Refreshing, was the word I used when people asked. I said no to the part of myself that was frustrated when I wanted to send him text messages and couldn’t. Isn’t it good, I told myself, that I’m learning to make real plans again, that I’m learning again to say a time and a place and stick to it. Isn’t it good that this is a real, genuine connection and not a game.
Some time around late July, my phone developed some funny personality traits, turning off in the middle of conversations, shutting down at will, only working, in the end, when it was attached to a charger.
It would be overdramatic to say that the death of my phone caused the death of our relationship, but to ignore the correlation would be, I think, dishonest. With essentially two landlines between us and busy daily work schedules, communication petered to a perfunctory trickle. He left messages on my voice mail; I didn’t listen for days at a time. I left messages with his roommates; he went on a four-day trip and didn’t call back. After a series of misses like these, it is hard to motivate, hard not to think: well, so be it—this is how it’s meant to go. By the time my new battery came in, (one-week shipping from China—just two dollars!), the spark was gone.
Addictions come in many forms. You play a game for long enough, you don’t know you’re playing. It morphs away from the status of game, evolves, simply, into the way that you live. Of course, it doesn’t take a facebook account to play a mind game; nor a cell phone to set a lure or fall for one—I am told that my foremothers and fathers were well-versed in many games, including, but not limited to hide-and-seek and hard-to-get. But what happens when this luring—the baiting and the long anticipation before we bite or are bitten—becomes our only language? What happens when we forget about the loves we had before this time?
Let’s return to the original heroes of this tale. We left them last with Jimmy in the downpour, Scarlet in a torrent of her own emotion. Two months later, the sun is out, the windows are open—my god! Fresh air! Scarlet sits in a cafe. She’s alone with her computer. Let’s zoom in for a moment, first on her face, where a faint, enigmatic smile plays about her lips, then a shot of the screen—ah, facebook. She is looking at her own profile, carefully taking stock of how she is presented there. She is changing her status from ‘single’ to—the mouse hovers between options—‘in a relationship,’ or, ‘in an open relationship.’ But just as she’s about to make her decision, on the table beside her, the telltale vibration sounds. She glances at the message:
“Wanna hang out?”
She waits a moment, ponders.
The arrow hovers and makes its decision—In a relationship—it’s official.
No, on second thought, It’s complicated. Yes, that’s better. She breathes a sigh of fresh spring air. The phone buzzes again, threatening to edge itself off the table. Her eyes don’t leave her newsfeed as she reaches out a hand to set it on silent.
About the Author: Katherine Perkins was born and raised on Mount Desert Island in Maine. She studies Drama and Literature and is currently enjoying her final spring term at Bennington College.
Kaitlin Yaeko Tredway '11
A selection from Our Hands in Our Laps, a novel in progress
Papa did not walk home from church with the rest of the family. Looking ahead, Kiku thought her brother, Riki, looked very distinguished in his Sunday jacket. One of Riki’s friends had wanted to take him for a soda down at the market after church, but he had declined politely. Kiku guessed that this had not just been a soda between friends, but that the girl Riki liked would have been there too. Nonetheless, he had said, “Not today. I have to walk my family home.” Riki strolled with Mama. Papa accompanied friends into town. Kiku shook her heard. The reversal of roles seemed odd.
She noticed that a lot of families were walking home without fathers this Sunday. Daughters chatted, their mother walking safely in their midst. Other boys, like Riki, walked with their mothers. The weight in Kiku’s hand grew heavier and heavier.
“Hana, stop dragging your feet.”
Her five-year old sister looked up, her thick, dark hair bouncing on either side of her head in pigtails. “I don’t want to walk. Riki usually carries me.”
“Riki is with Mama.”
“I don’t know.”
Hana stopped, tugging on Kiku’s hand. “My shoes are dirty.” Some mud was caked on the toes of her light shoes.
“That is why you must watch where you step.”
“Mama will be angry.”
Kiku guided her sister to the side of the road and crouched in front of her. She pulled a clean handkerchief from the cuff of her sleeve. Wetting a corner on her tongue, she lifted Hana’s foot and started to clean the shoe. “Now, let’s make a deal.” Hana, starting to lose her balance, laced her hands around the back of Kiku’s head. “You step carefully and keep your shoes clean. If you do, I’ll give you a piggy back ride from the last hill all the way home.” Hana nodded and eagerly lifted her other foot. “But you must have clean shoes, understand?” The sisters locked eyes and smiled. They were off again.
Hana walked so carefully that the walk took twice as long. But, eventually, they did reach that last hill. After Hana showed her spotless shoes, Kiku hoisted her sister onto her back. She burst into a sudden jog up the hill. Hana giggled as she was jolted up and down, letting her voice modulate with the rhythm of Kiku’s steps. Kiku paused at the top of the hill, despite Hana’s commands of, “Go! Go! Go!”
Far to the left was the Malloy farm. The hakugin family had two boys, both older than Kiku. They grew berries and leafy green vegetables. She could already see the leaves spreading wide in their fields.
A little ways up that road there was home, the Isobe farm. The farmhouse stood on the uppermost corner of the property. Its whitewash had grayed, but the walls still gleamed in the early afternoon sun. Spring flowers bloomed in her mother’s garden, which hugged the side of the house. She could see the clusters of violets and yellow daisies. The bathhouse stood a little apart from the house, the grass between the two buildings long and unmowed. To the right of the house stood the small barn and tool shed.
Lines of growing things stretched out in rows from the house to the road. It seemed as though the watermelon plants were assembled for duty, an army of green vines guarding her home. Close to the house, the thickness of the green shifted. Those were other vegetables – some beans and tomatoes in the family garden.
Abandoned at the far edge of the field stood the skeleton of a wagon. Papa would borrow the Malloy’s truck every year during harvest and hitch the wagon to the back bumper. The next morning, ha and Riki would load half the crop into the pickup, and the other half into the wagon. Then, he and Mama would to drive to market. He always entered the market with his shoulders set squarely to the road. In the off season, that cart lay forgotten, until Papa coaxed Kiku and Hana out of bed one morning with some drops of water on their faces. They would trek across the fields, while the air was still cool, to wash the cart and add a coat of paint. The year before, Papa had started to water the paint down. The wood now resembled parched bone.
Near the cart lay two halves of a barrel, each filled with chrysanthemums. Around the time of the cart washing, the flowers would be budding. Hana insisted on calling these “Kiku’s Chrysanthemums.” A late blooming plant, she kept them by the cart to add a little beauty to its resting place after long days of lugging watermelons. The barrels showed no signs of life. New stalks should be shooting up.
Hana’s repeated, “Go!” grew louder and more urgent. Kiku looked back to the road and said, “Hold on, Hana-chan!” The little arms circling her neck tightened. Kiku stretched her own arms out like wings and sped down the hill. She and Hana raced home, pursued only by the echoes of their own laughter.
Papa came home with three cardboard suitcases under his arm. “We have six days.” He said these words, resigned. He sounded exhausted. It was only one o’clock.
“Six days for what?” Hana asked cheerfully. She was playing on the kitchen floor with her stuffed sheep, Shiro. Kiku stood frozen in place at the sink, her sleeves rolled to her elbows. She had been rinsing rice for dinner. Mama, who had been snapping some early peas, paused too. Hana kept playing.
After a moment, Kiku began to rinse the rice again. Mama left the room. Papa followed. She could hear them speaking in rushed Japanese. Kiku had translated the notice for her parents before church. They had passed many notices on signposts. The bold, black letters of the sign floated behind her eyes, affixed like a label. “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” That was her, and her family. She remembered the other words on the notice: evacuation, temporary residence, toilet articles, bedding and linens, sufficient knives, forks, and spoons, essential personal effects, departure. They were leaving.
Early next day, Papa went to the Civil Control Station to register the family and receive further instructions. Riki insisted on accompanying him. Kiku did not go to school that day; she was a junior in high school. As the oldest daughter, she stayed home to help Mama. Hana kept close to Kiku, scurrying to hide when it was clear that she might be made to do chores. She was just glad her older sister was home. Hana did not go to school at all. The previous fall, she had attended class for a couple of days, but always returned home in tears. Mama, Papa, and Kiku had spoken to the teacher; she told them Hana did not participate in any of the class activities. She did not speak to the other children easily. If she did, the other child usually cried.
When Kiku had translated the teacher’s words, Mama and Papa’s faces had flushed with embarrassment. “There must be a mistake,” Mama had said in Japanese. “Tell that young lady that Hana is a good girl.” Kiku did.
“Please assure your mother that I understand. I know Hana is not a bad child. I just need you all to be aware of what is happening as well. If we all work to help her, I’m sure we can solve this.”
Papa had said nothing at the school and did not speak until they were home. He stood above Mama and Kiku on the porch step. “Hana will not return to school until she can learn to behave.”
Mama took a breath, as if to argue, but then she silenced herself. Kiku, however, was not as quick to respect her father’s decision. “Papa, the teacher said she would help Hana.”
“We can help your sister here.”
“But”—She thought maybe she had communicated the teacher’s intentions poorly.
Her father’s eyes flashed as he interrupted her. “My decision is final. Do not embarrass yourself, Kiku. You do not understand.” She still didn’t. Hana remained home from school. Kiku hoped Papa would let Hana try school again this coming fall. Kiku would be entering her senior year, and she did not want to be worrying about Hana all the time.
She thought about all this as she cleaned the mirror by the front door. It was small, about the width of her hands if she placed them side-by-side, and framed by a simple bamboo trim. Her mama had brought this to America from Japan. Kiku studied her own face in it, wondering which of her ancestors she looked most like. The square-ness of her cheeks and jaw line resembled her father, the Isobe family. The skin stretching between her cheeks was pulled into a slender slope with a rather wide base – her mother’s nose. She was thankful that she did not wear glasses. The bridge of her nose was very flat. The glasses would constantly slip down her nose. She smiled, blinking rapidly. Her eyelashes were short and dark. Her upper lip got very narrow when she smiled. She hated those things about her face. But she thought she had a rather nice complexion, her skin a soft bronze from the sun. She also thought she had shapely, brown eyes. She looked at herself for a moment more. “Mama, are you going to bring your mirror?”
Her mother answered, “Just clean, Kiku. I will not leave this place a mess.”
“But the mirror, Mama?”
“We’ll decide later, when Papa and Riki return.”
Kiku didn’t press the matter. Mama would not talk about packing, only cleaning. Kiku guessed that cleaning the entire house was both a way of somehow making this right, and of beginning to say goodbye to every nook and cranny. All flat surfaces had to be dusted with a damp cloth, and then wiped with a solution of rice vinegar and water. The sweet pungeance of the vinegar permeated the air and remained until their departure.
Mama scrubbed every dish in the cabinet, even the ones that were already clean. After that, she arranged a set of dishes and utensils for each of them: knife, fork, spoon, plate, bowl, and cup. She then set aside some extras of each, just in case there was room in the suitcases. She also laid the wooden cutting board out. She would make room for that. Kiku helped Mama put all the dishes away, and then they moved into the bedroom. It was one big room with five beds. Mama and Papa slept on the bed nearest the door. Then Riki. Then Hana and Kiku. The little one did not want her own bed yet. Kiku and Mama stripped all the linens from the beds. Mama sent Kiku to get the extras from the linen closet, and to find her sister. Hana had avoided housework long enough.
Kiku didn’t have to look far for Hana. She found her hiding at the bottom of the closet. It was so narrow a space that even a girl as little as Hana had to scrunch to fit. Kiku knelt opposite her.
“You’re to help me with the laundry.” Hana crawled out and made no fuss. “Is something bothering you?” Hana shook her head. “But you hate this chore.” Hana shrugged. She started to walk away but Kiku caught her by the waist. It was unusual for her sister not to make a fuss. She didn’t question Hana again, just fixed her with a concerned look. But Hana said that she was fine, just feeling helpful. She would not say anything more.
They were still scrubbing and rinsing sheets on the porch when Papa and Riki returned. Neither looked pleased, and it seemed to Kiku that her father looked more exhausted than he had the previous afternoon. Riki carried a manila envelope. Mama dried her hands on her skirt. Papa stared at the ground, Riki at the sky. Hana made swirls in the soapy water. Kiku looked from face to face. No one spoke.
Kiku noticed a new line in her brother’s forehead. It ran above his eyebrows and, at times, seemed to come to a sharp point above his nose. He hid his anger and confusion, and the emotion just etched itself deeper in his forehead.
Papa slid his hat off, revealing his balding head. Kiku had not noticed the size of the shiny patch before. It seemed to weigh on Papa, forcing his chin and shoulders down. Papa was shrinking, but his bald spot was growing. Finally, he cleared his throat. He had everyone’s attention, but only Kiku looked at him. “I sold the farm to the Malloys. Got a good price since the crop is already planted. Looks to be a fine year for watermelon, too.” Silence fell over the family again.
Hana wailed. She sobbed and screamed and breathed at a high pitch. Then, she took off, pushing the wash bin as she went. Kiku steadied the tipping bin, watching Hana run into the house. Quicker than Kiku expected, both Mama and Papa followed her. The door closed and muffled the sounds of the pursuit and Hana’s tantrum.
Kiku turned her gaze back to her brother, who was still staring at the sky. The sun glistened off the veins that were straining in his neck. She tried to return to her chores, dunking the sheets into the soapy water. She always splashed a lot of water when she did. One of her splashes landed on Riki’s shoe.
“Cut it out,” he snapped, his silence broken. Glaring at his sister, he shook the water off his foot. “Be more careful.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” Her comeback was weak. Even though she was seventeen, her brother could still make her feel so small. She resumed the washing again, mindful of how much she splashed. She strained to hear murmurs of the conversation inside. Hana had stopped wailing, at least.
Riki sank onto the porch step with an exhaustion reminiscent of Papa. He laced his fingers behind his tanned neck, and let the weight of his arms drag his head closer and closer to his knees. The rhythm of Kiku’s washing slowed until, eventually, she stopped. Her hands were soapy and wet. She approached her brother, sat beside him, and dried her hands on the bottom of his shirt. She heard him snort as he shook his head a little. It was easy to picture his smirking face. Still, he did not sit up.
“It’s that bad?” she asked, staring out across the field.
“We knew it would be,” he answered. “Since Pearl Harbor, we knew.”
“Why are they moving us?”
He looked at her as though she was stupid. “We’re the enemy, Kiku.”
“No, we’re not.”
He laughed derisively. “We’re at war.” His laughter stopped and he staed out over the farm. “I thought this would someday be my farm.” With that, Riki stood and went into the fields. He walked up and down the rows of watermelon plants with no particular destination. He walked that way for the rest of the afternoon.
As Kiku finished the laundry, she thought about Riki and the farm. When he was sixteen, he had dropped out of high school to work with Papa on the farm full time. The family could not afford to pay more workers. As the oldest, Riki knew it was his job to help support the family. He had taken on the responsibility willingly. That had been six years ago.
By the time she hung the last sheet on the line, she was exhausted. At a certain point she had become too tired to think anymore. If she had the energy to, she might have thought about what Riki had said about being at war, and not the farm. Perhaps, she thought, it was better not to think about any of it, but to do as she was told, help all she could, and be strong for her family.
When she went inside, it seemed that Mama and Papa were still talking in the bedroom. They had not emerged all afternoon. With them in there, Riki outside, and Hana somewhere, it seemed that it was up to Kiku to make dinner. She sighed and swatted her cheeks a few times to wake herself up.
She set the rice cooking and found some fish in the icebox. She fried the fish in the cast iron skillet and made a salad with some early bitter greens and strawberries from the Malloys. She only called for dinner when the table was entirely set, when the food was steaming, and when she could not wait any longer to eat. One by one, her family entered the kitchen, surprised both by the aromas, and a smiling Kiku. Mama and Papa took their places at the table, and Hana waited until Kiku fetched the crate she used as a booster. Then, she scrambled into her seat. When Riki came in and saw them all around the table, he scoffed.
Before anyone could speak, Kiku reprimanded him. “This is still our home. We are still a family. We can still all enjoy dinner, so wash your hands and sit down.” He looked ready to give Kiku a piece of his mind but Papa chimed in.
“She’s right. Go wash your hands.” Riki could not argue with his father.
The next few days passed in a parade of different chores and tasks, interrupted only by the requisite medical examination. At dawn each day, Riki and Papa rose as usual. They spent the morning tending to the watermelons, repairing a weak spot in the fence, grooming the horses, and all other sorts of tasks. Work on the farm did not stop, even if life was changing.
Room by room, the house was cleaned to Mama’s satisfaction. Clothes were washed, and mended, if need be. The moth holes in the wool sweaters were patched. Little by little, the suitcases filled up. The clothing and the sheets were packed in tight. Small, breakable objects and utensils were tucked in those folds for safekeeping. Mama kept saying: “All of us go together, not all of this.” Bring the whole family, not the whole house. Still, the mirror by the front door made it into Mama’s bag.
As she was packing, Kiku could trick herself into believing this was just a vacation. Her family had never been on a vacation, so she had always imagined packing a bag for some adventure. She would describe it like this whenever Hana started to get upset. Her sister’s face would brighten as Kiku talked about breaks from school, no chores, and games all day.
Papa’s face never brightened. Kiku kept trying to make him smile, but her hugs or jokes only elicited a barely audible grunt.
It was their last night in the house. Tomorrow, they would walk to the Civil Control Station to await transportation. Everyone was somber, even Kiku. Two of the three suitcases sat waiting by the front door. Kiku and Hana’s lay open on their bed. Mama was still packing her own leather bag with all the extras. Riki refused to bring anything but clothes.
As the sun started to set, Kiku realized that she hadn’t seen Papa since lunchtime. Hana was helping Mama with dinner, so she was free to search. Riki, who was on the front porch again, hadn’t seen him. He wasn’t in the house, or the empty barn. The Malloys had moved the horses over to their own barn the day before. The only two places left to look were the bathhouse or the tool shed. Kiku opted for the latter.
Papa stood in the fading light, hands clenched behind his back, staring at his tool bench in absolute stillness. She wondered if he had been standing there all afternoon. It wouldn’t surprise her if he had. She waited a few moments before walking in and touching him lightly on the shoulder. He jumped, clearly startled, and she couldn’t help but laugh a little. He looked so surprised.
Resting a hand on his heart, he said, “What is it, Kiku-chan?”
“Dinner will be ready soon.
He nodded and looked back at his tool bench. ‘There is no knowing if I will need those.” A whole assortment of tools lay out. Pliers, wire cutters, saws, trowels, hammers, screwdrivers — on that bench, Papa had all he needed to fix anything that was broken. Different kinds of nails and tacks were sorted into glass jars. Kiku looked from the tools to Papa’s face. She suddenly understood what leaving here would mean for him.
He had built the bathhouse with those tools, had used them to fix a broken plow. Most of her memories included Papa and his tools. She realized that, somehow, these instruments made him a farmer, made him Papa. What would he be without these? How would he fix what was broken?
After surveying the tools, Kiku selected the hammer and a hand trowel. She also grabbed one of the jars with nails, and added a couple different sizes. “Leave those alone.”
Kiku turned back to her father. “There’s some room in my suitcase.” She smiled at him, and he did not argue. He considered her with a tenderness that she had not seen recently.
“Come, let’s go in for dinner.” As they left the tool shed, he put one arm around her and hugged her tight. He kept a tight hold on her as they walked to the house. She leaned her head on his shoulder, the tools and nails safe in her arms.
It was morning. Kiku stood in the center of the bedroom, just breathing. If she drew this place into herself, remembered it in her bones, then she could recreate it, wherever life happened to take her family. The coils of the mattress squealed as she laid herself upon it. This would be the last time the bed cradled her, the last time she would rest blanketed by the scent of hay and thistle. She started singing, “I walk with my shadow and talk with my echo, but where is the one I love?” As she sang to herself, she began a silent prayer. Jesus, please keep my family safe and together. Please grant me peace as I leave this place.
“Kiku, are you ready?” Riki’s voice cut through her meditative good-bye. “Is Hana with you? I can’t find her.”
“Goodbye, bed,” she whispered, patting the bare mattress. “Goodbye, room.” She tried not to look over her shoulder as she left. “I’ll find her.”
She set her suitcase beside the others. All three cardboard suitcases stood, full, in a row. “Hana... I have Shiro. He’s lonely. He wants to find you.” Hana had named her sheep when she was very small. Shiro means “white.” Kiku held the stuffed sheep out in front of her, stepping quietly down the hallway. She guessed Hana was hiding in the linen closet again.
Kiku edged Shiro’s nose into the closet and pushed the door open. It was empty. “Hana! Hana... Shiro’s crying.” She began to baaa tentatively, poking her head into some of Hana’s other known hiding places. She could not be found.
Kiku asked her brother, “Have you checked the bathhouse yet?”
“Yes, it’s empty.” She nodded and, Shiro still in hand, headed towards the front door. “Where are you going?”
Hana had never hidden in the barn before. But, the family had also never moved before. Kiku remembered that, once, Hana had said that the barn felt the most like home because home smelled like hay, and so did the barn. The barn door creaked more than her mattress had. “Hana? Hana, if you’re here, answer me.” There was silence.
“Is that Shiro?” The voice came from one of the stalls.
Kiku smiled, spying her sister’s silouhette through the wooden slats. “Of course it is. Come out here.”
Sighing, she entered the stall and handed the sheep to Hana. “Come now. We have to go.”
“I’m not leaving.” She buried her face in Shiro’s cotton back. “You won’t leave without me, so I’m not going. Then we can all stay.”
“Hana... we must leave.” Kiku held her sister’s head to her chest. “If you stay here, I would be very lonely. What should I do without you, hm?”
“Stay with me.” The words were a little muffled by the sheep and the shirt. “They can’t leave if we both stay.”
“Mama would be very sad to not have you. Who would help her with the dishes?”
“I have other chores, Hana-chan. You must help Mama with the dishes. Who will Papa read to at night if you stay here?”
“Riki has read by himself for a long time now. He would have no one to throw in the air. If you stay here, who would make me laugh if I wake up a little sad?” Hana couldn’t answer. Kiku let her little sister sit quietly for a few more moments, before standing and offering her hands. “Up, up, up. We need to go.” She smiled upon feeling the small hands in hers. She swung Hana’s hand a little as they left their barn. “I’m glad you decided to come.”
Hana looked up at her with wide eyes. “Where will home be now?”
Forcing a smile, Kiku echoed her mother. “You know what Mama says: home is where your family is.”
Everyone was dressed in his or her Sunday best for the evacuation. Kiku had heard some people refer to it as “Evacuation Day.” She thought this made the whole event sound like a holiday.
They were only walking to the church in the next town over, a half hour stroll at other times, but each step felt long. The Isobes walked in a row of five, Hana in the very middle. She held Kiku and her Mama’s hands. Everyone, except Hana, carried a suitcase. Each of them wore a tag pinned to their shirt—even Hana. It was the family number assigned to the Isobes by the War Relocation Authority. It appeared on all their paper work. All of their bags were labeled with it.
At the Civil Control Station, they were identified by this number, not their name. They left their baggage with a receptionist. Then, an Army man directed them to a bus. Riki translated the instructions into Japanese for Mama and Papa. When the soldier heard how quickly Riki translated, he asked Riki to stay with him on the platform. “I’m hving a hard time communicating with some of the older folk. I could use someone like you.”
“I won’t leave my family,” Riki retorted. “And why would I want to make your job any easier?”
Even though Papa could not understand Riki’s conversation, he could hear the tone of disrespect in his son’s voice. He demanded that Riki explain what the officer wanted. Riki did, after a stubborn pause. When he had finished, Papa bowed to the officer and said in hesitant, broken English, “My son help you now. I sorry for him behavior. Go.”
Riki froze, staring furiously at his father. They did not say anything else. After a while, Papa nodded almost imperceptibly, and Riki turned and followed to soldier. Mama protested, but Papa soothed her. Riki would be fine.
Kiku saw very few smiles that day. She knew that the sight of all these Japanese Americans in their Sunday best with sad and grey faces would never leave her memory. This day marked the death of their former lives. She wanted to cry.
Kiku let Hana sit in her lap so that she could look out the window. “I’ve never been on a bus before,” she whispered, awe in her voice, as they pulled away from the curb.
“See? What did I tell you? This will be an adventure,” Kiku responded, trying to convince herself of just that. But, she didn’t know where they were going. She didn’t know how long she would be there. No one knew. With Hana perched happily on her lap, face pressed to the window, Kiku felt hidden enough to let a few tears fall. She did not want anyone to see. Mama and Papa sat across the aisle, stone-faced. Some of the other women were crying, but, of the Isobes, only Kiku openly mourned the loss of home.
About the Author: Catholicism, the Japanese American Internment, James Joyce, and Icarus have chosen Kaitee; she will probably write about them for the rest of her life.
Emmet Penney '11
And you’re back in it again. Maybe you’ve put on a few pounds since your last bout, but you’re not completely out of shape. You step out of the Boston cold and down the steps, past glass cases of trophies, medals, belts, samurai swords, photos of impossibly muscled men still on the follow-through while their opponents lie limply on the ground at their feet. You shrug off your coat, hang it in your locker. Already, the smell of sweat, the buzz of the boxing clock.
Cripplingly sore. Your whole body throbs on the way to the bathroom. You shower, make coffee, eat a light breakfast. This week you will start to watch footage of your opponent. Your trainer tells you he’s already fought in Vegas, that his body knows not to let the levy break and curse him with the deceptive gift of adrenaline. Over and over you watch him take hits to the face, knees to the stomach; he parries, chokes, and, once, with extreme precision, snaps an opponent’s right-side floating rib in a single concussive kick. But this is nothing, your trainer assures you, Nothing.
On Monday, you step back into the weight room. Your training partners call you bitch, call you pussy, call you faggot or fairy, and threaten to bend your mother over her living room couch and have their way with her—all this to make you heave impossibly heavy weight over your chest, or lift twice your weight up off the floor only to set it down again. Friday afternoon, you wobble out of the weight room for two minutes and vomit in the bathroom. After wiping your face without looking in the mirror you return to their frothing mouths, their violent begging for more.
Without notice, your body has shed its fat. More quickly than the last time. As you peel off your rash guard, then untie your shorts, you see yourself in the locker room mirror. Your thighbones bedight with tear-shaped muscles, your stomach like shards of stained glass cobbled together. Viewed from the front your back muscles flare out like a cobra’s hood. That Thursday your trainer says a single word all day: Anaconda. You practice choking one man after another until you choke someone so hard he pops every capillary in his right eye.
Every morning you take the T from South Station to Alston. A few people gawk at your split lips and black eyes. Some women are repulsed, some are not. You know what kind of woman wants you, but you wonder about the ones who refuse to look at you. You imagine the softness of their bodies, the way they their backs might arch as you trace your tongue along the length of their ribs, or how their lips might kiss every callous accumulated on your palms or every scar cut across your eyebrows. Your trainer demands to know what the fuck is wrong with you when you somehow forget to keep skipping rope when you are supposed to be skipping rope, and why do you keep fucking around with your jockstrap, you ape-ish fuckstick.
This week, your trainer tells you, is shark week. And your training partners begin shark-baiting you on the mat and in the cage. They stroke your ego with feigned weakness, then hammer you with knees to the face or stomach. They threaten to snap your forearms backwards with quick armbars. On Tuesday, the new kid tricks you so badly you almost black out. Your trainer locks you in the cage on Saturday and feeds you a fresh fighter every round—men who resemble your opponent in size, shape, and style. You toil in the shark tank and go weak in the knees in the final round. Without showering, or changing your clothes you head home and pass out in a pool of your own sweat. You wake up in a corona of dried salt in your sheets.
You help your mother with what small amount of handiwork you can. She asks you how the boys down at the gym are doing, though she refuses to watch you fight. But your face. My son’s beautiful face. What if you get hurt? and she holds your face and kisses your forehead. After dinner, you sit in the cold on her front step and recount all the fistfights you got into growing up, the first time you learned to hit back. There are some kids you grew up with you haven’t seen in years. For the rest of the week, you think the name Danny McCoy, and can’t put a face to it until you’re working the heavy bag late one night. The boxing clock goes off—Danny hustled pool in high school and got himself shot up in a parking lot after someone caught on to his scam.
The time in the weight room stops, but now you run stairs at Harvard Stadium with sandbags thrown over your shoulders. You run wind sprints with a snorkel in your mouth until your heart pumps acid. Something’s wrong with the fingers on your right hand—they won’t stop shaking. When you wrap your hands the next day you suck air in through your teeth and try not to wince. The pain in your stomach must be from all the Ibuprofen, you tell yourself.
Now your trainer’s talking travel arrangements to Vegas, organizing hotel rooms with the manager. Still, he sits you down and forces you to watch more videos of your opponent. You’ve seen them so many times you’ve memorized the swirl of black ink around his right shoulder, his daughter’s name across his left ribs, the hand grenade pulsing on his thick neck. When he steps forward like that, your trainer whispers in your ear, just catch ‘em with an overhand right. You practice this: a haymaker, a fist driven hellward.
Your left knee has swollen. An unhealed, torn blister puckers up at you from your hand. You take Monday off, see a doctor who tells you what you shouldn’t and shouldn’t be doing. Nothing’s really wrong, you’re just pushing too hard. Then he tells you when you can expect the bill. First thing on Tuesday: your trainer has you take a sledgehammer to a tractor tire, then push his car around the lot. Posted on your door Wednesday morning: Your rent is overdue. That night you knock out a friend’s mouthguard. He convulses on the floor, unconscious, as you stand panting above him.
No food or liquid after five p.m. Cut the unnecessary carbs out of every meal. No booze. You weigh yourself everyday. All anyone wants to talk about is how much of a pussy the other guy is and how brutal you are. You once folded a man’s thigh onto itself like a piece of licorice; left one fight with another guy’s tooth embedded in your knee. You’re unforgiving. You’re a monster. You’re evil, a Spartan, a psycho, you’re diesel. And you can’t stop looking at your hands wrapped in red, encased in five-ounce gloves.
On the flight to Vegas you can’t stop touching your lips they’re so chapped. When the stewardess offers you water your trainer says no for you. For the past two days you’ve been living on fruit and protein shakes. On the night before the weigh in you don three hoodies, winter gloves, three pairs of sweat pants, and two beanies. Your trainer shuts the sauna door behind you. For two hours you beg, and after three hours total you make weight. The rest of the training camp makes sure you don’t eat. At the weigh-ins, you do the interview, stand on the scale, flex your muscles, stand toe to toe with your opponent. This is all foggy except for the five gold teeth glowing in your opponent’s smile
In the first round you took what he gave and kept coming, picked him up and slammed him down on the canvas—you descended upon him like a Biblical plague, swift and suffocating in your brutality. In the second, he rammed you against the cage and split your eyebrows open with his elbows. You spent the rest of the round holding him close to you, not believing what had just happened. Now, you sit and watch the minute clock. Someone washes the blood out of your mouthguard. The cutman does what he can with your eyebrows, but I ain’t gonna make any promises, kid. And your trainer says this: You’re a hardass, you’re the undertow manhandling the other guy’s ankles, your fists were forged from the flat ends of cinderblocks. His breath hot in your ear, he tells you you’re everything I’ve worked for. And you know that no mouth could ever cradle your name so delicately—not like his, not like now.
About the Author: Emmet Penney '11 was born in Chicago, IL. He now lives in White Creek, NY and spends most of his time reading and writing.
Killian Walsh '14
He approached the podium with sullen eyes and sober gait, an expression of rueful guilt tacked on his pale, aged face. The walk was long--perhaps by design--in an effort to add insult to injury; to intensify the shame of his crimes. Eyes of others, cries of reporters, and the click of countless costly cameras followed him the whole way up, falling silent only when he began to speak.
“I would first like to apologize,” he began, “to my wife, Helen.” The woman behind him pursed her lips, pressing down the wrinkles of her pantsuit’s jacket. “She has shown remarkable courage for the position I have put her in, and I am infinitely grateful for both her forgiveness and her continued support during this time.” She nodded in the manner of a vindicated parent. None of the cameras captured this.
“Furthermore, I would like to apologize to the people of the Great State of Minnesota. I have brought shame to this office, and to this state, with my actions, and while there is no way to undo what I have done, I would like to extend my formal apology on the matter, and request forgiveness from my constituents, if they see fit to forgive me.”
A stir of murmurs made its way through the crowd with words like, ‘believe,’ and, ‘nerve,’ and ‘bastard,’ and ‘aquarium,’ extending themselves audibly from the din. The Senator took this opportunity to clear his throat and drum up some emotion for the final drive of his speech.
“These last few weeks have had a toll on me as well and, while I am fully deserving of whatever emotional stress I may be under…I must say that it is extremely difficult to live like this.” He wiped his eyes. A man booed him from the back.
“That’s why, at this time,” he said holding back tears, “I would like to announce my resignation from the office of Senator effective next month. Thank you.”
The response was a medley of cheers and jeers, unified not in message, but in volume and passion. He removed himself from the podium, walking toward the stately limousine parked at the Dunkin Donuts across from the State Capitol building. Reporters wasted no time surrounding him, asking questions like, “Senator McCallum, any comment on the status of the choir boys?” or “Have you considered what PETA’s response to this will be?” or “Can you explain your relationship with Shahkam Farah? Are you lovers?” The abrupt silence that followed the closing of the limousine door disarmed him for a moment.
“Dave, I gotta say, you did a damn good job up there.” Senator McCallum’s advisor Rob Sanchez was a greasy little fellow with a mustache, and that was all that could ever really be said about him. “The language, the waterworks, the…uh, dignity. Top notch stuff. Top notch.”
“Thanks.” He got himself a glass from the minibar and filled it with Coke.
Sanchez leaned over and topped it off with some brandy. “I mean, we can forget about the presidency. That’s a given. You’ve lost that. But I think you can get a decent city council position in a few months--granted you’re still moving to Kentucky. You are still moving to Kentucky, right?”
The limo turned onto Keynes as a beer bottle was thrown at it from across the street.
“Jesus!” Sanchez fidgeted to get a look out of the tinted windows. “These yahoos got no dignity. No sense of civility. None what-so-ever.”
“Rob?” McCallum had been looking into his glass as if it might reveal something to him. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, Dave, sure. What’s the matter?”
“If…if you were in charge…”
“Yes?” Sanchez poured himself another drink.
Dave looked up. “…what would you do to a man like me?”
Sanchez was momentarily taken aback by the intensity of the eye contact and candor present in Senator McCallum. “Yeesh…Dave. I know I’m…a lawyer, but my background does not cover the finer points of animal husbandry.” He laughed, but, seeing that it had no effect, cut it short. Then, after a few moments of silence, he tossed back his glass and wiped his mouth with his sleeve when he was finished. “Look: we all make mistakes, Dave, but not all of us get off scot-freet understand? Show some fucking appreciation for your situation and put a smile on your face. Christ.” He turned to the window as the limo hit the highway.
About the Author: Killian Walsh lives on the left side of campus.
Natalie Casagran Lopez ’14
Visits to my grandmother's house are scattered throughout the year like ingrown spikes on a porcupine's back: infrequent and torturous. At the most I’ll call her before every major holiday.
"Hi, Grandma," I say.
My name is Steven. Peter is the name of the Jehovah’s Witness she's adopted as her own plaything. He lives next door to her, and she keeps tabs of his whereabouts by staring out of a 3-inch wide, curtain-free portion of her front window. Whenever he opens his garage door and sets out, Bible in hand, she shoves the curtains aside and yells "Yoohoo!", waving an imaginary handkerchief as if she was standing on the caboose of a train, beckoning him inside to tell her "those funny stories," which the poor kid does, biting his tongue whenever she asks if Goldilocks was a distant relative of Jesus Christ.
"Grandma, it's Steven. How are you?"
"Well, hey there, Stevie! Whaddya want?" Her tongue was thick, swollen, undoubtedly, from her fifth barrel of gin.
“I'm just checking in. I'm going to be in town next week, so I thought that I might stop by and give you your Christmas present early."
"Oh, goodie! Come right on over. And then you can tell me more about The Three Little Apostles."
When it comes to buying gifts for my grandmother I have long since realized that traditional items for an eighty-year-old woman are not appreciated. She hates porcelain figurines, china patterns, and velvet cushions. Once, when I foolishly bought her a fancy teapot from a Japanese import store, she asked me when they had started attaching spouts to bedpans. As a result, I have made many a trip to off-the-beaten-path boutiques in search of the perfect beer cozies, or a teddy bear that makes vulgar jokes whenever you tickle its stomach.
This Christmas I settled on an even more adolescent approach. I went to the nearest toy store, making sure to cover my throat so that holiday-crazed soccer moms wouldn't be able to rip out my Adam's apple with their newly-sharpened acrylic nails. After weeding through the creepy, anatomically correct baby dolls and "My First Mansion" dollhouses, I finally discovered a gift that was perplexing enough to be deemed grandma-worthy.
While many might think that a jar of slime is a toy straight out of a turn of the 20th century seance- some deluded housewife's ectoplasmic magic trick- I knew that this particular item would appease my grandmother's sense of youthful wonder. If she didn't snicker at the packaging itself- the label delicately explaining that not only did the slime feel "cool", it also made "farting noises"- I would be forced to move the Jack Daniels from her lips so that I might have room to stick a mirror under her nostrils and check if she was still breathing.
Every time I walk into my grandma's house I am struck by the silence. Outside birds chirp and lawnmowers growl at a pleasant volume, but inside the shift of tectonic plates is enough to burst an eardrum. My grandma prefers to stifle all forms of chaos in order to illuminate her own madness. She is the sole performer of her life story; a drunken menace perpetuating her own Theatre of Cruelty. Even when my grandfather- a man too selfless to be born into the hedonism of the 1920's- was alive, she still insisted on acting out her one-woman show.
The night of my senior prom, when my parents forced my date and me to promenade down the stairs so that they could capture our awkwardness on film, my grandmother, triggered by the camera flashes and the reflective shine of my date's forehead, pushed the poor girl out of the frame and took her place, my moist palm forced to rest on the gristle of her waist. My self-control was put to the test even further when she instructed my date that, to look good on camera, "One must suck in one's cheeks...both sets."
Over the years my grandmother's body has changed in the most peculiar of ways. I'm sure the alcohol has played a part in the transformation; there can be no other cause for her swollen appendages, not helped by muslin garments that pucker in the least flattering of areas. Her face has morphed on its own accord: her cheeks flabby, her skin pallid, and strangely enough, her nostrils stretched and widened, so that the overall effect is something like a monkey wearing face powder. That image greeted me as I walked into her living room.
"Steviiiiie! Come give Grandma her giftie!"
With one hand she clutched a bourbon decanter shaped like W.C. Field's head. The other hand obnoxiously groped and grasped at the air for whatever I had brought. I handed the present to her and cringed while the wrapping paper was ripped to shreds under the bleary-eyed scrutiny of W.C. Fields. Even he, with a head-full of cheap liquor, didn't approve of my grandmother's manners.
"Grandma, I'm starting to worry about you. I know Grandpa was in charge of the money when he was alive. It's a tough job keeping track of everything, especially...under the circumstances. If you want, I can send someone to look over your finances."
She disregarded my attempts to discuss her affairs. Instead she kept sticking her fingers into the jar of slime, snorting whenever the green sludge emitted a wet fart. Looking at her, I was amazed that two of her fingers could fit into such a small container. The plastic flatulence soon became too much to bear, so I left her struggling, looking like a well-dressed ape on the verge of throwing feces at unsuspecting bipeds.
I crossed behind her chair to the epicurean shrine she had set up. A wall of glass bottles reflected my face. The sunlight played on their surfaces, sending silver and gold light arcing across the room, creating a sort of halo around my grandmother's head, like a bordello rendition of La Pieta: Holy Grandma cradling the W.C. Fields decanter with too much love.
A fat bottle of Tequila shaped like a Mexican sombrero caught my eye. It was mostly empty, but I noticed that the worm resting in the dregs seemed to be missing half of its body: alcohol-soaked dentures had chomped away its boozy dignity.
The bottles seemed to reach back for miles and miles, like Bacchanalian orange groves. I was certain that if I was desperate enough, if in a drunken stupor I placed my sweaty cheek on one of the shelves and hoarsely whispered for some liquid to quench the thirst that none of the now empty bottles could ease, the hand of Bacchus himself would appear to tip bourbon onto my lips...sweeter than orange juice, deadlier than a switchblade.
She must have experienced that countless times. The Lord of Moonshine had visited her with a hand-wrapped bottle every year of her life. I was ready to bet that I'd find a rubber nipple-tipped bottle of port somewhere in the back, still bearing the marks of teething.
"Grandma, I know we don't see each other much, but I do have your well-being in mind. I really do. I just want you to know that."
I felt a sudden wetness spread over the back of my head. The Grand Ape had thrown slime at me. Apparently opposable thumbs are no use when it comes to solving the immense puzzle of closing a jar.
I took this as my cue to leave. I said goodbye to my grandmother and hesitated over my next move. It would have been appropriate to hug her, but the hardened dreadlock forming on the back of my head only served as evidence of our disparate lives.
As I stood there, frozen, meditating on our relationship, she slowly hoisted herself up and waddled over. I almost winced as I saw her face draw near. I was certain that another trick was up her sleeve: this time she was going to throw a cream pie at my head, or ask me to inspect a cyst growing under her chin. But to my surprise, she simply brought her lips to my cheek and planted a wet kiss. Then, without missing a beat, she sank into the nearest chair and asked me to mix her a cocktail on the way out.
"Sure, Grandma." I said. "But this one will have to last until Easter."
About the Author: Natalie Casagran Lopez is a native of Los Angeles, California currently coming to terms with the harsh reality of Vermont's climate. When she isn't writing she enjoys tapioca and percussion.
Alexander Barry '12
Then, as now, I was running dangerously low on cigarettes and the will to live. The cigarettes felt like the more pressing matter. Castler gave me one of his, I had a light, and we both lay back and looked up through the trees. The wind sent through them a pleasant thrill, and I watched as the loose leaves waved in response. It seemed to me that they were waving goodbye.
“You’re goddamn depressing.”
Castler laughed that ironic laugh of his and shut his eyes against the wind.
We left to hit the town, more out of some sense of obligation than out of any real desire. At the first bar I ordered whisky. Do not think that this was depressive drinking; on the contrary, I was determined to enjoy myself. I have found that the true key to an awful night is not whisky, but tequila. Beware: despite its bright and shiny moniker, and any fiesta related imagery that this may inspire, I have never experienced more universally dreadful evenings than those sponsored by that devilish drink. Then again, sometimes tequila is just what you’re looking for.
Castler ordered tequila.
I will admit that I had a great amusement watching Castler drink that night. It was like watching an elbow gradually cast a glass over the edge of a table, and doing nothing to stop it. Strange tidings, given how composed Castler normally was. But I am not one to talk. If anything, I appreciated the company.
It was a dimly lit and dreary affair, this bar. The kind of place where kings met, or so I imagined. Duct-taped booths and dartboards, and an unleveled pool table you could only use to some degree of success when drunk.
But we were well gone by the time the blonde in the corner pulled out her cigarettes. Of course, they wouldn’t let her smoke inside, which got right to me. No one is more persecuted than the modern day smoker. Even when permitted inside, he’s segregated to a separate and lonely section in the back, outcast. He can’t advertise on television. In film, he is the villain. I viewed No Smoking signs as merely a polite way of saying No Smokers. But the activist in me had long been dead.
Castler nudged me – it was, after all, our cue - and we followed the blonde and her friends outside. She placed a cigarette between two perfect lips and made a show of searching her purse for a lighter. I offered her mine. Pretty girls don’t light their own cigarettes.
I held the flame close and let her dip her head ever so slightly forward, the proper way. It was all in their eyes, and in ours, or at least in Castler’s, but subtlety is hard to achieve in that condition, and unnecessary. I left Castler to the blonde and moved on to a raven, and I saw right away that she was smoking cowboy killers and couldn’t help but think of Mel.
“And how are you?” with a tilt of her head.
How was I? I was seeing nooses in shoe laces.
But you can’t see stars in the city. There’s light grey and dark grey and darker grey and not much else at night, and I was preparing an excuse to leave when Castler hailed a cab and entered with the blonde, with her slipping over the curb as they went. The taxi pulled away and the raven, whose name was Charlotte, looked at me expectantly; Castler, thou hast forsaken me.
I watched Castler’s cab reach the light and stop. Charlotte and I walked that way and rounded the corner, but I paused to look back, another cigarette my excuse for the halt. There were no cars to be found in any direction, save for the lone taxi. It was close to four.
And yet the cab waited. No right on red in the city. But it could’ve crept forward and challenged the intersection. It could’ve gunned through the light at sixty. There was no chance of… anything. And yet the cab waited, the driver unobstructed by anything but propriety.
It struck me then that this cab was everything that was wrong with the world. That the damage had been long done, and irrevocably… That we were ruined.
“I don’t think I’m any good tonight,” on the next block.
She seemed to understand, and wrote out her number on my hand, “just in case.” We parted at the subway. The Charlottes of the world were doomed to find guys like me… Fuck me…
Blurred vision and staggered breaths down the stairs and through the turnstile. An expected development, though. I could feel the whisky turning on me and sought out the men’s room. No, it was not the kind of men’s room in which you wanted to get sick, but in a dirty, dingy way, it was also perfectly suited for that purpose.
And I always felt better afterwards. Maybe even spiritually, I don’t know. My eyes cleared enough to examine the stall, and there was something about the plastic dividers, the cracked tile and industrial toilet that brought me right back to middle school. Even the writing on the walls, although cruder, achieved a similar effect. Why people felt that this was the appropriate way to mark their existence, to leave some form of legacy: this, I would never understand. Why bother…
I got on the train with the numbered route that no one needs to know, going uptown or downtown, it doesn’t matter. I’ve never been one for street names, either, and the only thing at all remarkable about this street was that it was where our apartment could be found. On the pavement, I stood, exiled by uncertainty.
If it all went well, we would snuggle on the sofa, and put on a movie. No… First I’d enter the apartment and she would run up to me in that way she does and rub against my arm in that way she does. She’d insist on making the selection and then fall asleep, her head resting on my shoulder; I would ignore the movie and watch her breathe. I’d realize that it had ended some time ago and wake her up, and if she were cold enough or lonely enough, she would ask to stay in my room, so that the scene on the sofa would be repeated in my bed, and I would die two deaths that night in the wonderful sadness of it all.
But maybe I would enter and find Mel painfully absent. Or painfully with company.
About the Author: Alex is in the middle of the ocean, hasn't left his room in four days, has never been more lonely in his life, and thinks he's in love with Margot.
May 2010 - Comments Off on The Duplex Body, an excerpt from That Which Moves, Of Which I Am Inside
Forest Purnell '12
When trains were first introduced in the U.S., many people believed that moving at the obscene speeds involved would cause the blood to boil. Yet as thousands of Americans began fanning across the continent in the mid-19th century, blood no hotter than usual, the concern subsided.
The train was an alchemical re-purposing of energy and material, a bizarre thing had neither appetite nor breath nor capacity for fatigue, yet on its own seemed somehow to move. The question first posed by a people habituated to the wafting of reeds and panting of horses was, could this machine be safe? Could the flesh of a human being withstand its conditions without being blistered to death in its act of biological transcendence, of hubris?
One orange summer, below the aerosol shroud surrounding Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport, my father and I ran bag-strapped down a long, wide corridor. Our footsteps clacked on the shiny linoleum as we passed from the arrival terminal to the magnetic-levitation train station. The first operational high-speed railway of its kind in the world, the Shanghai Maglev Train had been running its one-way trip between the airport and downtown for three years by this time.
Magnetic levitation trains do not touch their rails. Instead, they float over an infinitesimal space held open by strong like-charged electromagnets. Because the only resistance that they meet is air resistance, maglev trains are among the fastest mass-transit ground vehicles. Today, only a handful exist worldwide.
Outside the glass wall of the causeway, we caught a last glimpse of endless crowds in a dusty world being siphoned off by bus and taxi. We arrived at the ticket kiosk and passed through spotless chrome turnstiles, finally settling into the nova-blue interior of the train while a few other passengers arrived.
Shortly after the doors slid shut, a whirring din rose as the train began to creep, first walking speed, then running, then faster than any human being. The digital tachometer over the baggage racks read 40 kilometers per hour as we pitched out of the station. Soon the number doubled, then doubled again. We were bolting over the sweltering landscape on elevated tracks raised by stilts a story above the ground. The distant skyline approached as we overtook car after car on the adjacent highway. Everything under the sky began to transform. People in the passing slums and construction sites became impressionistic figures then abstract blotches, then disappeared completely. As we approached 350 kilometers per hour the same began to happen for nearby buildings; the music of architecture began to unfreeze. Factories and farms transformed into tones and rhythms; it became possible to feel more than see them. The horizon flowed along at a creeping speed while a city engulfed us. At 400 kilometers per hour, my blood began to boil.
Toyo Ito is an architect known for designs that challenge conventional concepts about urban design, energy use, and the human body. "We posses one body as lived experience,” Ito says, “and another body which tries to burst through it." In the fact that a telephone booth is both a "physical space," connected to its immediate surroundings, and a "virtual space," connected to a multitude of other places, lies the fundamental distinction that Ito uses to describe the "duplex body." For Ito, the human body can be spoken of both in terms of physical form and the ideas latent in that form.
Many of Ito's buildings are designed to act as "media-suits" that extend the virtual body in the same way conventional architecture accommodates the physical body. Ito began exploring these ideas with his work on the Mediatheque, a multi-purpose public building in Sendai, Japan that allows patrons to access both traditional and new media.
What do the media devices Ito pays so much attention to have in common? They evoke elsewhere. The whole intent of cars, airplanes, trains, and other vehicles are on elsewhere. Yet these vehicles are more than objects; they are the buildings themselves.
Thus, architecture that moves has always been about elsewhere as well as here, virtual space as well as physical space. An airplane extends the physical body by moving it, but even as the body moves, it remains―from the reference of the airplane―static. The experience of flight is not an experience of movement, but rather a dream-like sequence of being still, waiting in lines, sitting in rows, drinking, using the toilet.
We look out the window and see our surroundings sliding by, but it is not movement in a physical, bodily sense; it is movement in the sense that we know intellectually that we are in motion. The world outside is like the world we could walk through, except if we did so it would not effectively be the same to our senses. We, as three-dimensional creatures, cannot envision a fourth dimension; neither can we experience the speed or the energy transfer involved in machine transport. The faster the maglev train goes, the less the world outside seems like a tangible reality until―at 400 kilometers per hour―it evokes a dazzling kind of cubism. Yet even at low speeds―10 kilometers per hour, 20 kilometers per hour―we are not actually experiencing the physical space the vehicle passes through as much as the interior the vehicle itself and the exterior imagery it generates.
While a static building's physical space is connected with that of its immediate environment, the moment a piece of architecture begins to move relative to its surroundings, a disconnection occurs. Once the speed of the structure exceeds a certain limit, human passengers can no longer experience physical space outside the vehicle. Thus, the surroundings of a piece of moving architecture become abstract. It has been the nature of machine transport, ever since the first passenger trains, to convert physical space into virtual space.
May 2010 - Comments Off on Rebuilding a Sustainable Food Culture in America
Isabel Marlens '12
Indian farmers have been growing Basmati rice for thousands of years. They cultivate it with knowledge accumulated over the course of generations. The seeds are saved from one summer to the next. The rice adapted over centuries to thrive in the ecosystems they call home. This uniquely aromatic rice is a staple of the Indian diet -- and possesses significant cultural importance as well. One strain is used to mark a wedding, another, a funeral, a third, the birth of a child.
In September 1997, the Texas company RiceTec took out U.S. patent No. 5,663,484 on Basmati rice. Soon after, the world's largest seed corporation, Monsanto, took out a similar patent (EP 0445929 B1) on a traditional strain of Indian wheat. Scientists from the U.S. and Europe then began to genetically modify these crops in ways they claimed would promote higher yields. In reality, they undid centuries of traditional breeding by Indian farmers. The GMOs (Gentically Modified Organisms), not adapted to the unique environmental conditions of the places they are grown, are no longer able to survive without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They are subject to disease and blight. Some genetically modified seeds are even self-terminating -- meaning it is impossible to save them from one year to the next.
Genetically modified seeds infect and interbreed with crops of the same species planted in their vicinity. If farmers save seeds from their own crop -- as they have always done – the result is that they are almost certainly violating a patent. As food activist and physicist Dr. Vandana Shiva explains: "It's basically a system that criminalizes the small producer and processor." In order to plant legally, some farmers have no choice but to buy seeds from huge multinational corporations like RiceTec and Monsanto every year.
GMOs are expensive, and the seeds unreliable. These added costs, combined with new competition from foreign markets are a death knell for many small farmers trying to maintain their traditional way of life. They fall deeply in debt. Their land is taken away, and they are left with no choice but to migrate to urban slums. The desperation provoked by these corporate patents and the debt they lead to has driven 100,000 Indian farmers to suicide.
Everyone knows Italians love their cheese. Mozzarella di Bufula, Parmagiano Reggiano, Pecerino Romano. Each region of Italy has a unique culture, a unique cuisine, and at least one very unique cheese variety to its name. In Puglia, a dry but fertile southern region on the Adriatic, Caciocavallo Podolico del Gargano is the favorite. It is made from the milk of Podolico cows, a rare cattle variety that lives exclusively free-range, roaming the Lucanian Mountains to feed on rosehips, blueberries, hawthorne, and cornelian cherries. Caciocavallo translates to "cheese on horseback," which is thought to be a reference to the way the cheese is hung to age -- one ball of cheese on either end of a rope, held by a hook in the middle. But it could also stem from the days of the Roman Empire when traders and soldiers hung the cheese from their saddles as they rode the major trade route -- which runs through Puglia -- from Rome to Constantinople.
Either way, this cheese and those who produce it have a history that is lengthy and rich. Caciocavallo producers insist that the only way to age their cheese properly is to hang it for years in the caves of soft Tufo stone found in the Puglian countryside. Time spent in this cool dark environment is what gives the cheese its delicate flavor, its consistency. It’s also important that the cheese be made from raw milk. Caciocavallo producers take great pride in their history, in their product, and in their way of life. They insist that cheese made from pasteurized milk is simply not the same.
Recently, however, their caves have been scrutinized by European Union (EU) health regulators, who also argue that selling cheese made from raw milk is unsanitary and illegal. It is often prohibitively expensive for small farmers to pay for the sterile, industrial kitchen set-up the health standards require. Only corporate scale food producers can afford to compete causing a precious cheese, a precious understanding, and a precious way of life to vanish. As the "Manifesto in Defense of Raw Milk Cheese," published by Slow Food Italy, warns: "Be aware that once the knowledge, skills and commitment of this culture have been lost, they can never be regained."
For traditional farmers and food producers like those in India and Italy, growing food, cooking food, and sharing food have significant cultural value that has developed over hundreds or even thousands of years to fulfill social, spiritual, and ecological needs as well as the physical need to eat. Here in the United States, we have less depth to our cultural history. Since European colonization, our nation has been a cultural melting pot with few unified traditions. Today, however, a blossoming interest in gourmet cooking, a wide variety of ethnic influences, and the movement for organic, fresh, and local foods, are converging to sow the seeds of a vibrant food culture.
But for the past fifty years, the food market in the U.S. has been dominated by the same vast corporate interests now threatening rice-growers in India. These corporations have put up powerful structural opposition to movements made in the direction of localizing food economies. They have justified their dominance by presenting one argument after another for why their system benefits consumers.
Among these justifications is sanitation and health. Recently, health regulations, like those affecting the Caciocavallo makers, have been instituted all over the world in the name of public safety. While many of these regulations have a degree of validity, many more of them involve the purchase of equipment and facilities that bankrupt the small producer, while doing little to promote the health and safety of consumers. Only corporate scale operations have the capital required to follow the safety codes without falling into debt, and it is interesting to note that much of the research done in support of these new health regulations is conducted by organizations like the Stanford Center for Food and Health Research, which was founded with a three million dollar grant from corporate agricultural giant Cargill.
Much corporate enterprise has also taken place in the name of efficiency -- supported by the argument that only through industrial scale food production will we be able to feed the world's ever-increasing population of poverty-stricken hunger. The assertion is that large-scale production is by nature more efficient than small-scale production. But to corporate agribusiness, efficiency means reducing human labor to a minimum and substituting it with mechanized technology and chemical pesticides. This creates both unemployment and debt for farmers who feel they need to purchase ever more new technology in order to compete. In the United States, throughout the 20th century, much of the land once owned by small family farmers, planted with diverse edible crops, has been lost to agribusiness due to debt. It has been converted into monoculture -- space where tremendous amounts of cash crops like corn and soybeans are grown for export. Food and jobs were removed from local economies. Heavy machinery and chemical pesticides arrived in their stead. Those farmers who remained and chose to grow for agribusiness were more than ever vulnerable to global market swings and commodities price manipulation.
Today, this model is being exported to countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and traditional farmers everywhere are losing their land to agribusiness, to soybeans and corn. It has been said that by purchasing food imported from developing countries we are helping to prevent poverty and increase infrastructure. But as Vandana Shiva explains: "The idea that poverty reduction in the south relies on access to northern markets is a child of globalization. We (in India) have limited resources. There's limited land, there's limited water, there's limited energy. And if we have to use that limited land and water and energy to produce one extra lettuce head for a British household, we can be sure we are robbing Indian peasants of their rice and their wheat. We are robbing India of her water. We are in fact creating a situation where we are exporting, to the third world and the south, famine and drought."
One way in particular that globalized corporate agriculture defies efficiency is in its relation to resource use and the environment. As Zac Goldsmith, former editor of The Ecologist explains: "We often hear about efficiency of scale but the truth is we have developed a system that could not be more wasteful. We have tuna fish caught on the east coast of America, flown to Japan, processed, and flown back to America to be sold to consumers. We have English apples flown to South Africa to be waxed, then flown back again to be sold to consumers." Every year in the U.S. we import 365,350 tons of potatoes, and export 324,544 tons. In come 953,142 tons of beef, and out go 899,834. We buy 41,209 tons of coffee, and sell 42,277. Tremendous amounts of metals, plastics, and fossil fuels are required to make this system operate. It is often extolled as "free trade," the foundation of a new global community. But in reality, as Goldsmith goes on to point out, it is the farthest thing possible from free trade -- it could never exist without massive government subsidies.
As Helena Norburg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture explains: "Because of hidden subsidies and regulations, we have a situation where food from the other side of the world often costs less than food from a mile away." Those who run corporate agribusiness have enormous amounts of money at their disposal, and they use it to wield considerable political power through congressional lobbying, campaign contributions, and the placement of former agribusiness executives in key government posts. The end result is that the U.S. tax payer winds up subsidizing the giant corporations that grow the food, pump the oil, and manufacture the transport required to keep the industrial agricultural system running smoothly. With these government subsidies giving agribusiness an increasing competitive advantage, it grows ever harder for the small farmer to compete.
"We're living in a country and in an environment where we don't value food," says Barclay Daranyi, co-owner -- with her husband Tony -- of Indian Ridge Farm and Bakery, a small, diversified organic farm operation in Norwood, Colorado. "We're used to food being one of the cheaper things in our budgets. We're used to the high price of gas, we're used to the high price of energy -- there are even people who won't blink an eye when they pay five dollars for a latte. Yet, you consistently hear people complaining about the high cost of organic food. People go to the farmer's market and say this is ridiculous, it's so expensive -- but I think what they're looking at is the actual cost of what it takes to grow the food. People aren't used to paying that." Barclay Daranyi acknowledges that as a small farmer -- especially considering the expense of land, which is usually priced for development or industrial agriculture -- it can be difficult to make ends meet. But then she adds, laughing, "people don't usually go into organic farming because they are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme."
When asked why she did choose a farmer's life, Barclay says simply: "It seemed like the most direct form of action I could take … I think a lot of the world's ills stem from exploitation of our resources whether it be environmental resources, human labor, air, water, soil, the spirits of people. If you do something in a very sustainable and conscientious manner, you will be doing your small part to right some of those ills."
Barclay is one of many hoping to end the domination of agribusiness and rebuild a more sustainable food culture here in America.
She had the good fortune to grow up on the famous (in the organic farming world, at least) Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her parents, Sam and Elizabeth Smith, were pioneers in the organic farming movement, and they ran one of the nation's first CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs). She began learning to run a farm from a very young age, and she acknowledges that this was a big help when starting one of her own. Yet, she did not always intend to be a farmer herself. Barclay attended Yale University, where she majored in art and thought of becoming a painter. Her husband Tony earned an MBA at Northwestern, and the two met in the small ski town of Telluride, CO. They bought their farm in nearby Norwood several years later. Some may express confusion that such well educated people with access to a world of opportunities would choose to spend their lives farming. But as Barclay says: "It's hard to separate out how much I farm because I think it's important, and how much I do it because it's my passion … It sustains me spiritually, physically."
The Daranyis are frustrated by the fact that farming is often painted as an undesirable occupation because it involves physical labor -- a notion prevalent in the U.S. and currently being spread to sustainable farmers all over the world, who, for the first time, are feeling ashamed of their traditional ways. This is explained by Eliana Espillico, founder of PRATEC, an organization which strives to maintain the ancient farming traditions of the native people in Peru. Native Peruvians have farmed sustainably for thousands of years, and, although they have very little money, their knowledge of the land allows them to enjoy a very high quality of life – certainly higher than that enjoyed by those who have lost their land and live in the slums of vast, third world cities. But now, Eliana explains: "Our children learn to reject their own culture in school.Why? Because the teachers tell them 'if you don't learn multiplication, you'll go feed the pigs. If you don't learn multiplication, you'll go farm like your father.' As if to farm would be an offense or a crime or something bad!"
Any time spent on a farm like the Daranyis' will likely convince one otherwise. At Indian Ridge, it is easy to see the beauty of living simply, sustainably, and the act of being in touch with one's surrounding environment. From the graceful comfort of the straw bale home they built themselves, to the soft clucking of the chickens and the garden rows stretched out beneath the bright mountain sun, it all feels somehow right. "I've always loved Little House on the Prairie," Barclay explains."I've been enamored with a more subsistence way of life. I don't see it as archaic or primitive. I see it as really interesting and fun."
Just like Ma and Pa Ingalls, the Daranyis have taken care to insure that they run a diversified operation which can satisfy a significant percentage of their basic needs. They grow many varieties of organic vegetables and raise pastured poultry for eggs and meat, goats for milk and cheese, and pigs for meat as well. They bake and sell organic bread, pizza crusts, and granola. This is done in part to insure that, should one area of their operation suddenly fail -- say due to a drought, or a disease affecting chickens -- they would still be able to rely on the others for income. In addition, a diversified farm, unlike a farm planted in monoculture, functions in some ways like a diverse natural ecosystem. Certain plants and animals, when kept in balance with one another, play beneficial roles by maintaining soil nutrients, keeping pests away, and regulating disease. This lessens the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and leads to healthier plants, animals, and human beings.
The sense of community is also important to the health of humans, which is something Americans often have difficulty finding. The Daranyis feel that this problem is one that CSAs are able to address. Barclay explains: "Running a CSA really connects me with a community-- the people I feed off my farm. Families with children will come, they bring their grandparents. We have harvest days and members volunteer. Their kids come and pick flowers, and maybe ride the pony. People have connections to each other and to the places they live, and these connections are strengthened through food, and sharing food."
CSAs are also crucial to the survival of small farmers like the Daranyis says Barclay: "There are many variables in farming that are out of your control. There is weather, and if you are a commercial farmer, markets, price fluctuations. Your own health is a big variable too." CSA members give a degree of security to farmers by paying at the start of the growing season, accepting that some years they may receive more produce for their money than others as Barclay says, "A CSA is a close relationship between a consumer and a farmer -- it's the consumer saying, God forbid you have a terrible year, I'm going to support you. We will support you as our farmer because we want you to be around next year and the year after that and the year after that."
The Daranyis are just one example of a worldwide movement toward living and eating in a more sustainable fashion. Organizations like Slow Food (originally founded in Italy, now global) and Terra Madre, which strive to protect the unique and varied food traditions of cultures all over the world, are gaining victories against the forces of corporate agriculture. Basmati rice is no longer under a U.S. patent and, after presenting their manifesto signed by 20,000 thousand traditional cheese producers, Slow Food has convinced the EU to legalize the sale of raw milk cheese. The living heirs of these ancient food traditions see them as something worth fighting for.
Those of us attempting to build a new food culture here in the New World melting pot may not have ancient traditions to inspire us, but we do have one valuable example to follow. In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy of Cuba and its industrialized agricultural system threatened to collapse as well. With the U.S. determined to maintain its embargo, Cuban oil imports were cut by more than half, food imports by more than eighty percent. But the Cubans, relying on the traditional knowledge of the nation's older generation, were able to work together to save their people from starving. They stopped growing for the export economy and converted all the land once used for industrial agriculture into land that would produce food for local consumption, for example American housewives planted Victory Gardens during WWII (gardens planted in vacant city lots and on the rooftops of apartment buildings). Communities worked together to find a way to live local and sustainable lives that did not require fossil fuels -- and to rebuild a healthier culture surrounding food. Which is what people like the Daranyis are trying to do.
One lesson Barclay Daranyi says she learned from her parents is this: It is the responsibility of small farm operations like Indian Ridge to be classrooms for the farmers of tomorrow. "I think farming is one of those professions where you truly, truly have to learn by doing it," Barclay explains. She says she sees increasing numbers of young people becoming interested in learning to farm --in returning to a simpler, more rooted way of life. Many schools throughout the U.S. and the world are incorporating garden education into their curricula and placing added focus on sustainability, community, and the creation of a local food culture. Professor Keibo Oiwa of Japan, author of the book Slow is Beautiful, says of the young people he teaches: "They are desperately looking for contact with nature. It's important to learn traditional farming, but at the same time just being in the mud, having fun, working like this, they are learning what it means to live."
May 2010 - Comments Off on The Effects of Resistance and Inductance on a Capacitor in a Simple RLC Circuit
W. A. Kirby '10
Tuesday was just one of them days where by five a.m. you’re already behind. I was more’n halfway to the bus stop when I noticed my nametag wasn’t in my purse, and Chuck’d already yelled at me twice this month about not wearin’ it, so I jogged the best I could back to the house to get it. I’d rather risk bein’ yelled at about bein’ late than about my nametag again. Chuck doesn’t like havin’ to repeat himself.
That might seem strange, I guess, but not to me. See, I been here my whole life. I was born only about a half mile from where I live now, down round the knee-bend on River road. Still don’t know why they call it that—Maybe the crick used to be a river, but not since I been alive. Reason I mention it’s cause most people might think it worse bein’ late than not havin’ a bit of plastic with your name on it, but that’s not how we live ‘round here. Here, you can wave off bein’ late by sayin’ the dog got through the screen door again or the bus was late, and that don’t matter. It’s the littler things that get to Chuck. He always says, “Meg, I tell you, Meg, you got to look perfessional when you’re helping the customers.” I tried to tell him that the nametag don’t matter s’long as the food’s good, but he don’t think so, just yells “perfessional” and wipes his nose with the back of his hand and spits in the grease bucket under the grill.
That’s why I wasn’t too worried on the bus. When we got on the highway by the Piggly Wiggly I was actually feeling good about the day. The sun’s comin’ up earlier than usual, and it broke through the clouds somethin’ beautiful. Like how they talk about God’s grace in church on Sunday. I hollered to the bus driver when it was time for me to get off, and I walked from mile marker four down the exit ramp to Chuck’s Stop. You wouldn’t think it’d get business, since it’s about ten miles off the interstate, but for the hauler who knows these parts, our highway is a neat little shortcut round the city, save you twenty or thirty minutes; just enough to get an extra meal in between breakfast and lunch. That’s what they used to call it when I started workin’ here, Shortcut, I mean. That was before Chuck though, before nametags.
When I walked in the back door of the place Chuck was sittin’ on a big pot mixing up the potato salad. He looked up as the door slammed shut, bounced, and slammed again.
“You’re late,” he said.
“Dog got out the screen door again,” I said, and he nodded and stuck his arm back in the potato salad. New girls always ask why he does it that way and not with a big spoon, and he’ll laugh and I’ll laugh and then they have to come in early and mix the salad for the next week. By Thursday, sometimes quicker, they got their arm in the bucket, elbow deep in mayonnaise and celery—it’s just easier that way.
Today was our day, me and Chuck. Most other days there’d be another girl sides me who’d come in early, help get the place ready, but Tuesdays it was just the two of us, me and him. Sometimes they were good days, we’d laugh a little and each have a cup of coffee before the first customer came in, but most times, these days were the worst. There’s a lotta work that needs to be done, and four hands just ain’t enough to do it.
I walked out into the front of the restaurant and flipped on the lights. Same as I left you, I thought and I slipped off my coat and slid it and my purse under the register. I went through my usual, gettin an apron off the shelf in back, puttin the coffee on, takin the till out of the old tobacco can and countin it before puttin it in the register. I mixed bleach and water in the buckets and set some rags to soak, made sure the toaster was plugged in and the muffins were good-side forward. By then it was almost 6:30, and even though I’d come in late I was about five minutes ahead. I looked around to make sure I wasn’t foolin myself, then I poked my head through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
“Hey, Chuck,” I said. He turned half around from what he was doin. “Do me a favor?”
“What is it?” he said, wiping his hands on his apron.
“My legs hurt somethin awful from runnin to catch the dog this morning. Would you do the ice for me?”
There was a second where it looked like he was just gonna ignore me, but he didn’t, instead he said awright and leaned back before taking off his apron. “You gonna come with me?”
I nodded. Nobody likes to get the ice anymore since our ice machine broke about a year back. Since then, every morning we gotta walk a quarter mile up the road to the pump station and buy us about six bags of ice. Most mornings I do it in two trips and it takes me the last half hour before we open, but on good days—today was a good day—Chuck’ll help, or even do it for me.
We weren’t but ten foot out the door before Chuck spoke up. “Since I’m doing you a favor, you got a cigarette for me?”
I nodded and reached into my shirt pocket for my pack. It was more’n half empty but I gave him one and he stuck it between his lips and reached for a lighter before he spat it out and stepped on it. “What the fuck is this?” he said.
I went immediately for the cigarette, but his boot and the gravel had ruined it. “What do you mean what’s this? It’s a cigarette.” I said, “If you didn’t want it, why’d you ask for it in the first place?”
“You know I don’t smoke menthol, dammit.”
“Well I do, and I aint got no other cigarettes sides these.”
He stared at me for a moment and shrugged. “Get your own damned ice.” And before I could say anything he was back inside. My legs did hurt, and it took me an extra trip get the ice. We opened twenty minutes late because of it. Just one a those days.
When I did flip on the open sign and unlock the door, I was surprised to see a man already waitin in the parking lot. He was heavy, but so were most of the men who came through, except for the occasional bean-pole who was probably skinny cause of his metabolism or drugs and not cause he cared. What was surprising about this’n was he was driving a silver sedan, not a truck or a pickup.
When he opened the door and set the bells to jinglin, I said, “Mornin, hon, sit wherever. You want coffee?”
He grunted and sat down at a corner booth. I went back to polishing the counter while he looked at the menu and out the window. After five minutes, when he set the menu down, I grabbed an order pad and walked over.
“How you doin this morning?” I asked in my tip-voice. I know I do it, every girl who works a table or a pole’s got one.
“Eggs, bacon. No toast.”
“How you want the eggs?”
He shrugged. I took his shortness in stride, writing egg, bcn, no tst on my order slip. “Anything to drink?”
“Do you serve beer?”
I shook my head. “Coffee?” I offered.
“I’ll just have a glass of water.”
“Sounds good, I’ll have that for you in a minute.”
I walked back towards the kitchen and stuck my head through the door, “Hey Chuck, got an order. Eggs, bacon. Scramble em.” I laid the order slip down on the shelf between the kitchen and the front of the restaurant and went back to the counter, attacking the smudges with my bleach rag, trying to get the fine scratches out of the Formica and chrome. It used to shine, back when I first started here. It would catch the morning sun, everything in the place would. The silverware, the register, the counter—it was bright, and more people came through then. People from the town and the city instead of just the truckers. The truckers and this guy who sat, staring out the window at his own car, checking his watch.
When Chuck rang the order bell I took the man his plate, a glass of water and some silverware. I set them down, asked him if that would be all. He didn’t say nothin, so I turned around to see what needed doing.
“You fifty?” he said.
I turned to him. “Excuse me?”
“Are you fifty? You look like you could be fifty.”
He paused, but not long enough for me to talk back at him.
“I’m fifty. Today, actually. It’s my birthday.”
I knew what to say to that. “Happy birthday,” I said.
“My dad died when he was fifty.”
I stared at him for a minute cause I didn’t know what to do with what he’d said. He hadn’t said much, but his eyes were talkin to me, sayin somethin more’n just the words, and I still wanted a tip, so I nodded and said, “I’ll get your food,” like I understood what he was really tryin to say.
He opened his mouth, but the bell on the door jangled a new customer in and I excused myself before he could talk. He sat there another hour, but I didn’t go near his table again, and when I finally got up the courage, he was gone. Slipped out when I wasn’t lookin. All the same, I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. You fifty? Might as well be, guess I look it.
He didn’t leave a tip.
That means I been workin at Chuck’s for thirty-one years. When I got the job I was eighteen, and it was just a way to make money for going to see a movie and for Momma’s pills and the rent. I liked the work but I was so sure I was gonna make it outta here. I had a boyfriend I loved, then a husband I didn’t, and then he died. By then the thought of bein anywhere but here was too far gone, and I just stuck. After he died, I moved back in with Momma, and things were good again, real good for a bit.
Then Chuck came along, and he was a good cook, and I liked him and he said I was pretty. He said it so that even though I knew it wasn’t true I believed him. Even when he said it to all the girls, I believed him. He was sweet to me, and he was sweet to my Momma when I brought him home for dinner, even brought her flowers once. That night was the first time we slept in the same bed, and in the mornin I told him to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake Momma goin out the screen door. Pretty soon after that I moved out from with Momma and in with Chuck. We were happy, and he asked me if I wanted him to ask to marry me, and I said no. I wasn’t gonna do that again.
When Ed died—Ed owned the diner—he left the place to Chuck, said that he deserved it, that Chuck was the best employee he’d ever had. That changed everything. Chuck changed. He fired a couple people he didn’t like and he hired on some new girls and they left pretty quick and he got angry and fired some more people and hired some new girls and they left too, and when I found out why the girls were leaving I threatened to leave and I did for a couple months. I went back to my Momma, but I couldn’t find work, and she had to spend all her money on her pills, so I asked for my job back and Chuck said okay. I didn’t know any better. I guess I don’t need to say it, but it was never the same again. For a while it was just him and me and he changed the name to Chuck’s Stop and he cooked and I served and it worked out all right and we didn’t talk about how it used to be. He even came to the funeral when my Momma died, and said some real nice things about her even though he didn’t know her that good. Things were okay after that, and he hired on another cook and another girl and he behaved himself a bit better and they stayed longer.
Now it’s me and him and a few girls from the town and another boy from town who cooks. His name’s Jason and he shows up at about noon for the lunch rush. He’s got greasy black hair, the kind where you can’t tell if it’s on purpose or cause he just don’t shower much. He talks big, talks with his arms and hands, and he likes to whistle and flirt with the girls, even me. He says I’m pretty. Reminds me of Chuck sometimes.
When I heard Jason come in the back, I was fixin to brew a new pot of coffee. That’s when the day started going really wrong. I could hear him whistlin and then I heard Chuck tell him to shut up, and then there was a crash. I went in the back and I could see why Chuck was mad. When Chuck cooks he likes to keep a bowl full a eggs next to the grill. Says they’re easier to get to if he don’t have to take em out of the carton every two minutes. Jason musta hit it with his elbow, or maybe Chuck did when he turned around to say hello and tell him to shut up, and now Jason was on the floor trying to scoop yolks back into their shells, and Chuck was just standin there, not swearin, just fumin. Then Chuck saw me.
“Meg, did you leave the front unattended?”
“I just came back here to see what that crash was.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to le—fuckin stop it Jason, it ain’t no good, the eggs are broken, just clean em up and get your damned apron on—how many times do I have to tell you not to leave the front unattended?”
“Sorry Chuck, I just wanted to see what—”
“I don’t care what you just wanted to do, you get your fat ass back to the front and deal with the customers. That’s what I pay you to do. Dammit Jason I said clean up the fuckin eggs! Do not make me repeat myself or I will shove this spatula so far up your ass I could use it to flip your eyeballs.”
I started movin for the door, but I wasn’t goin fast enough I guess, and Chuck put his hand on my back and shoved me, just sayin, “buncha goddamn amateurs. You gotta be perfessional.”
Now Chuck’s a big guy. Not real strong big, but more like kitchen big, if you know what that means, and when he shoved me, I went. I bust right through the swingin doors and tripped myself up a little, and I put out my hand, and that coffee pot I had been gettin ready to fill was just sittin there on the edge of the counter, right in my way. I hit it and it slid. Fell. Shattered. Then everything was quiet. That was the real problem, right there. See, like Chuck just said, he don’t like to repeat himself, and I, well I had done just exactly what had just happened, what had pissed Chuck off in the first place.
In that quiet—me almost on the floor, the glass everywhere—in that quiet everything stopped. Then two things happened at once: I went to my knees to get the glass before it hurt somebody, and Chuck burst through the kitchen door and grabbed me by the collar and pulled me through the back and out into the parkin lot.
“Stop it stop it stop it,” I was shouting, smacking at his hands, but he was stronger than me. He let me go and I fell down and I don’t know what he said cause I was just saying I’m sorry over and over again.
“Get up,” he half shouted, and I got up. “What the fuck were you thinking breaking the fuckin coffee pot like that, shit, how stupid are you Meg? How goddam stupid? Buncha fuckin amateurs.”
And I just said I’m sorry that I wasn’t thinking, I was startled and I was sorry, and it wasn’t my fault, if he was gonna hit someone it should be Jason because Jason made him mad first. But then Jason was there too, and he helped pick me up off the ground and brushed the gravel off my knees. “You okay?” he asked, and I felt bad for sayin that Chuck should hit him. Chuck was smoking a cigarette and looked calmer.
“Shit,” he said. “Go make sure the customers pay before they leave.” I got up and hurried to the door and he yelled to clean up the coffee.
When I got back to the front, no one would meet my eye. I cleaned up the mess, and then I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and I did not cry.
By three the lunch rush was over, and Chuck and Jason were in the back cleaning the grill, feuding and not talkin about it. I’d done my best to keep my nose out of the kitchen. When Chuck gets angry he gets real angry. A few years back he popped a girl in the eye cause she was mouthin off at him. She told her momma and her momma told the police, and the police told a judge who made Chuck go to meetings every week for two months. They said he had an anger problem. Now I’ve known Chuck for longer than anyone a those people, and seems to me that if someone has an anger problem like Chuck does, the last thing you’d wanna do is tell him that he’s got an anger problem—it’ll just make him angry. But Chuck musta knowed how serious it was, because he behaved himself and went to the meetings and even called up the girl and her momma to say he was sorry, I heard him do it. After six weeks of his “sessions” they said he was cured. But I know Chuck, and he was angrier than ever. That’s why today, I was keepin out of it.
At three thirty, Susan’s momma dropped her off so she could help me close. She was a skinny girl with ratty bangs and shoes that used to be white. I saw her in the parkin lot, her momma parked where the silver sedan had been this mornin. Susan’s momma was yellin at her, and she was ignoring it, walkin away with her head high. She came in through the front, still wearin a backpack, and chewing gum with a snap and pop and a casual “Hey” as she tossed her things under the counter next to my purse. She went in the back to grab an apron and I knelt down to pick up her books that had spilled out when she threw her bag on the floor. I looked at them one by one, Chemistry, Geometry, somethin called The Old Man and the Sea. I turned them around in my hands, flipping the pages before put them into her pack. I didn’t know what they were about.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin goin through my things?” I turned around and Susan was standin there tying her apron with a scowl on her face.
“I was just puttin your books back, they spilled and I didn’t want them to be ruined.”
She rolled her eyes and muttered somethin under her breath before she skipped off to help a man sitting in a booth. I stood up slowly and brushed my knees. I watched Susan’s smile as she wrote the man’s order, and watched him watch her as she skipped away. She gave me a grin that said she knew he was lookin, and what was I gonna do about it, then she called the order back to Jason. There was somethin in that girl that hated me.
Chuck hired Susan a few months back when her momma brought her in and said she needed to be workin so she would stay outta trouble. Chuck looked her up and down, asked how old she was, and handed her an apron. I spent a week tryin to teach the girl how to use the register and how to grind the coffee, that you need to shut the door and lock it at night and to count the till before it goes back in the can. She never really listened, but would slouch back on a stool and draw on her shoes. Once, when I was showin her that she had to wipe down the tables between customers after someone had complained, I heard her call me a bitch, and I grabbed her by the ear and marched her right back into the kitchen before I told her she needed to shape up or I was gonna tell her momma. But she told her momma first, and her momma told Chuck, and Chuck told me to keep my fat ass outta where it didn’t belong. So I shut up and did my work and tried not to worry about Susan. Chuck liked Susan, said he liked her for two reasons. “She’s easy on the eyes,” he said, “and easy on the customers’ eyes. Real perfessional. Always wears her nametag. She brings ‘em back for more.” When Susan heard that she’d just giggle and pop her gum and skip away. She was always skippin.
I wanted so bad to hate her and her dirty fingernails and her pretty young face. I wanted her gone all the time, and I know she felt the same way about me. Some days I’d see her scream at her momma and slam the car door and I’d wonder if I ever acted like that to my Momma. Other times she’d come in quiet as a lamb, walk straight into the bathroom and come out smellin like cheap gin, and spend the rest of the day with one eye half closed. She’d come in with boys who would sit in a booth all afternoon, never orderin more’n one cup a coffee, or she’d tell Chuck she was sick, and I’d watch her get in a car with some friends, then give me the finger as they sped out the parkin lot. But as much as I wanted to hate her, as much as I wanted to be rid of her, I couldn’t.
I couldn’t because, every so often, when her friends were sittin in a booth and the afternoon was slow, I’d hear her talk about college, and New York City. They’d be loud, makin a mess of salt and pepper, drinkin creamers like shots, and laughin at me, and I’d look over and see in her eyes somethin familiar, somethin that I used to see in the mirror before I went to bed. Somethin desperate, somethin far away and over the horizon, like the sun but bigger and brighter. Then she’d catch me starin and make a face and the look would disappear, and she’d laugh and her friends would laugh, and I’d go back to work.
This was not one of those afternoons, and all that I could see in her eyes was meanness. When I started closing down at five, we hadn’t had a customer in over an hour. Chuck was in the back takin inventory, and Susan had disappeared somewhere, probably down to the pump station or in back to smoke a cigarette before her momma came around to get her at six. I undid all the things I’d done in the morning, and felt again that I might as well just leave them done instead of do them and undo them every day.
I swept up and dumped the bleach buckets and took the decaf coffee pot, which I was usin instead of the one I broke earlier, in back to wash it out. I swilled what was left of the coffee around and dumped it down the drain, waiting for the tap water to warm up. I washed it and I turned around, but musta turned too fast or something caught my foot, it don’t matter, what does is I almost fell and when I reached out to catch myself on the counter, I dropped the coffee pot for the second time, and it cracked and splinters of glass skittered across the floor. I looked up and Chuck was standing right there, and I opened my mouth to tell him not to yell and before I got my words out he smacked me. With the back of his hand, twice. He didn’t yell, just stood over me while I sobbed on the floor. “Clean this shit up. If you don’t bring new ones tomorrow so help me God I hope it’s cause you’re dead.” Then he was gone. I looked around for Jason or for Susan, for anyone, I didn’t care who. I tasted blood, my lip had been split by his middle knuckle.
I rushed myself into the front of the restaurant, past the counter and into the bathroom. I pushed the door open and there was Susan, bent over the sink, her skirt around her waist and Jason’s pants around his ankles. I stared blankly and she screamed get out and I did. I ran out the door to the parking lot and didn’t stop until I couldn’t breathe and my heart felt like exploding. My legs hurt.
I wanted to go back, to walk right into Chuck’s Stop, into that bathroom, to grab Susan and shake her till she listened. I wanted to smack Jason in the mouth, and pull Susan by her ear back to her momma. I wanted to scream and shout and cry till my throat wouldn’t talk. I wanted to say get out get out get out. Don’t be here thirty years workin at Jason’s Stop, taking the bus and dying a day at a time worryin about nametags and a dog you don’t own. I wanted to say this to her, but I wanted even more to call back to another girl, call in a voice no bigger than a whisper, get out.
February 2010 - Comments Off on Jock Art: The Presence of Sports in Contemporary Art
Silas Van der Swaagh '12
Although athletics and art are rarely thought of as having much of a relationship, sports have had a presence in visual art since ancient Greece. Recently, the fusion of sports and art has been reconsidered by a small, but thriving, group of “jock artists” who seem to see sports as a metaphor for larger life experiences. These artists have recognized the potential of sports as a subject for their art and, although they go about it in very different fashions, engage similar themes. These themes include masculinity and camaraderie (even to the extent of homoeroticism), the exultation of the victor and deflation of the loser, endurance, working within the constraints of a set of rules, and the very physicality of sports and how it relates to the active process of creating art. This response to what artists have witnessed in sports, both as spectators and active participants, has been expressed in all mediums of the fine arts: painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, and performance art.
People have always been drawn to athletics, and the realization of sports’ potential to communicate significant themes is not a recent one. Ancient Greek artists were among the first to demonstrate an interest in sports to communicate ideals and values. Possibly the most recognizable example of Greek, sports-related art is a sculpture by Myron entitled Discobolos
(The Discus Thrower, c. 450 BCE). In this sculpture a discus thrower is caught in the moment before the ascent of his arm to release the discus. In a carefully planned expression, perfectly balanced between tension and release, Myron skillfully executed an example of the idealized, muscular depictions of male nudes that were so common to the art of mid-5th Century (BCE) Greece. Through the perfect order and symmetry of the athlete’s taut body, the well-known Greek philosophy that “man is the measure of all things” is symbolized. Just as the equally famous sculpture, Dying Gaul (3rd century BCE), which expresses the power of Greece by showing its defeated enemy not as a weakling, but as a strong, intimidating foe, Discobolos acts as propaganda for Greek ideals and values. Myron succeeds in using athletic and physical prowess to represent the order and superiority of Greece, thus pioneering the rich relation between sports and art.
After an absence of some 1,600 years, sports reclaimed a presence in Western art in the 17th century through the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age (Hume). Unlike their Greek predecessors, these artists do not dwell on the magnificence or pathos of athletes, but rather depict hearty Dutchmen in their leisure: playing golf, ice skating, and sledding. As Canadian writer and critic Christopher Hume states, there is “not much truth or beauty” found in the Dutch Golden Age sports paintings, “just chubby-cheeked Amsterdamers out for an afternoon's fun on the nearest frozen river” (Hume).
In the 19th century, though, an American artist emerged whose sports-themed paintings and lithographs differed greatly from the Dutch depictions of people at play. George Bellows (1882-1925), whose paintings and lithographs span a variety of subject matter, is perhaps best known for his depictions of boxing. Organized boxing was prohibited at the time that Bellows was painting and the unglamorous, illegal matches that the artist attended are captured in works such as Stag At Sharkey’s (1909) and Both Members Of This Club (1909). These are “gritty and violent” paintings that express the ferocity of two humans in physical competition and, as art historian Mahonri Sharp Young states, deliver “the rush and wallop of the ring” (Morris).
Bellow’s artistic focus on sports was most likely born from his personal experiences in atheletics. In his youth, Bellows displayed passion and talent in both sports and art. During his enrolment at Ohio State University, Bellows illustrated for the school yearbook and played varsity baseball and basketball. After college, Bellows was offered a contract to play baseball with the Cincinnati Reds, which he rejected, choosing instead a career in art (National Gallery of Art). This athletic experience was not left behind and is evident in Bellow’s work. The broad, quick brush strokes of his paintings convey an energy that is felt inside the ring, reflected on the faces of the spectators and passed on to the viewer. One can imagine Bellows in his studio, transferring the violence and exertion he witnessed at dark, illicit matches, to strokes on his canvas – moving his arm with the same intensity as his subject’s arching punch. “The illusion,” claims author Joyce Carol Oates in her examination of boxing and the art of George Bellows, “is that the artist (and by extension the viewer) is physically present at ringside, not coolly detached from the violence but vicariously, voyeuristically participating in it” (Morris). Bellows recreates for his viewers the furious expressions of masculinity and drive for survival that he witnessed in the shadowy, underground matches he often frequented.
One hundred years later, a new league of primarily American “jock artists” has attempted to tackle similar subjects as those of Bellows. American artist Lee Walton (b. 1974), who works within a wide range of media, shows an interest in the rules by which sports are played. His “baseball drawings,” for instance, are similar to the stunning wall drawings of American artist, Sol LeWitt, in both process and composition. Like LeWitt, Walton creates for himself a set of rules that govern how he composes his drawings. These rules are often directly related to the play of a particular baseball, basketball, or football game. For example, “curved lines can stand for base hits; a fly ball out is a straight line…; a double is a
wide stripe running to bottom; a home run is a thick line across the top of the space” (Agee). In a baseball drawing such as The Yankees vs. Mets - 3 Game Series (2007), one can even see Walton’s rules written out in the upper left hand corner. The results are visual score cards that delicately and gracefully record the details of each game.
Australian photographer and filmmaker, Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960), is another contemporary artist who has shown interest in sports. Her series Fourth features twenty-six stills from television coverage of the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Rather than focusing on the winners of the athletic competitions, Moffatt scoured Olympic coverage from all over the world searching for images of the athletes who came in fourth place. These competitors, who just missed the top three medal positions, often display blank, unbelieving faces. Moffatt’s photographs are poignant and express sport’s power to elicit authentic, deeply felt emotions from the players.
Another artist in the forefront of the “jock art” field is American artist, David Rathman. Rathman (birth date unavailable) has always shown an interest in American culture, especially American images of masculinity, such as cowboys, punk music, and car racing. Home and Away (2006), from Rathman’s series of ink and watercolor paintings of high school football, is representative of the artist’s painting style. In this painting we see the back of a stocky football player as he gazes over the vast playing field and, as is typically found in Rathman paintings, expansive sky. Members of the opposing team are huddled together, casting long shadows
across the ground, and on the distant scoreboard one can read, “Home: 20, Guest: 30.” Rathman’s work is dramatic. His grandiose use of negative space, often humorous titles, predominantly monochromatic hues, and frequent use of text within the paintings (in the case of his football paintings, clichéd phrases such as “Time to Deliver the Shiver”) give his work the melodrama of a sports movie or classic American westerns.
Rathman has extended his interest in expressing masculinity to boxing and wrestling as well. In his effort to capture the essential moments of the athletes’ time in the ring, Rathman, unlike Bellows, strips away the violence of the sport and presents his subjects as quiet dancers, elegantly moving around their stage.
Although Rathman addresses macho, American themes, he does so with grace and elegance. His details are always delicate and the perspective presented is never from within the action, but from the viewpoint of a quiet observer. Perhaps the way Rathman treats his violent subjects with such gentleness stems from his own background with sports. The artist explains that as a child, growing up in a small Montana town, he was always interested in football but never played because he was “small” (The Rake: Magazine). In Untitled 7, from Rathman’s football series, we see players huddled together, awaiting the news of an approaching referee. From a removed perspective, Rathman’s ever faceless, always masked subjects lack the bruises and sweat that would most assuredly be present. This fondness for elegance is present even in some of his
most violent images, such as the triptych Into Your Arms (2005), in which Rathman transforms the image of a racecar flipping through the air and crashing back to earth into a delicate abstract against a pure white backdrop.
The sport of wrestling proves to be a subject favored by “jock artists.” For years, American artist Collier Schorr (b. 1963) has photographed high school and collegiate wrestlers during practice and before and after bouts. Schorr’s photographs do not share the same distant perspective as Rathman’s paintings. She talks of the experience of her ducking and weaving among the wrestlers’ bodies as she photographs them grappling with each other (Art:21). This “dancing” among the wrestlers has resulted in very intimate portraits of the young men.
A piece like Catch/Caught (A.C. & S.S.) (2002), demonstrates Schorr’s intention to distort the “extremely macho, extremely masculine” (Art:21) attitudes often associated with sports. In this image, two wrestlers are shown carefully practicing a takedown; one on his knees, holding the leg of his standing partner whose arm gently rests on the kneeling wrestler’s shoulder. The two teenagers look to be in the middle of quiet moment of intimacy, rather than a wrestling practice. When explaining her interest in wrestlers, Schorr asserts that “masculinity has been depicted in very black and white terms…There never seems to be a wide range of emotional definitions of men” (Art:21).
As Schorr explains, “I love…to see two guys throwing some moves and then being careful that they didn’t hurt each other. Pushing as hard as they can but then pulling back, making sure they’re okay. Talking about it, how to do it better, giving each other advice. All that...is a rich part of masculinity” (Art:21). Through images such as Catch/Caught (A.C. & S.S.) and An Image and a Likeness (2003), Schorr attempts to present the full range of emotions that she observes on wrestling teams, moments of determination or toughness as well as those of tenderness.
As would be expected in such a high contact sport, one of the main studies of Schorr’s work is how wrestlers physically interact with each other. Schorr presents camaraderie between teammates that, at times, is almost homoerotic.
The rivalry between God and other gods (2002) depicts two shirtless boys in a strong wrestling embrace. Considering the relentless assertion of machismo that is often linked to “jocks,” these two teenagers appear intimately familiar with each other’s sweaty, muscular bodies. Images such as Lives of performers (G.R.) (2003) and Reaching (H.T.) (2003) further demonstrate Schorr’s skill to alter her subjects, transforming the violent wrestlers into beautiful abstractions sprawled out against the black canvas of the mat.
If any artist has successfully considered all of the themes discussed above—the physicality of sports, self-imposed rules and obstacles, masculinity, and ambiguity of gender—it is Matthew Barney. Barney (b. 1967), heralded by chief art critic for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, as “the most important American artist of his generation,”, has received, since his emergence in the art world, a mixture of unadulterated praise as well as unabashed criticism. Overall, though, Barney must be acknowledged as one of the most imaginative, ambitious, and significant artists of his time. Throughout the vast, eccentric collection of sculptures, videos, and performances that Barney has created, there is a constant presence of sports. These recurring athletic references are rooted in Barney’s personal experiences with football and weight training.
Since an early age, Barney has been familiar with locker rooms and gym equipment, weight training, and the physical endurance that athletics demands. In high school, he was the quarterback of his football team. Later, he paid his way through college as a model, part of the time working for J. Crew. Clearly, Mathew Barney is a “jock.” His familiarity with athletic subject matter is very accessible in works such as Transexualis (Decline) (1991), but becomes more abstracted in Barney’s later work, such as his Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) video series.
One of the most commonly recurring concepts that Barney gleaned from his athletic experiences is the breaking down of muscle tissue in the body in order to encourage its growth (SFMOMA). This theme of enduring a challenging and often destructive process in order to develop is present in much of the artist’s work. Although this drives virtually all of Barney’s art, it is most clear in works such as the Drawing Restraint series, which Barney first began to develop while still in college. In these performances and videos, Barney would impose physical restrictions on himself, which he would then have to overcome in an attempt to create a drawing. It is only after struggling against resistance and enduring severe physical strain that the drawings are created. This theme continued to fuel Barney’s work on his five-part Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) series of films. The cremaster, the muscle that
regulates the temperature of the male testes, and the embryonic process of sexual development in the human body provided the starting point for this set of cryptic films. The Cremaster films are rife with symbolism and historical references—including Harry Houdini, Gary Gilmore, Freemasonry, and the Mormon Church—that are all connected and significant to Barney in some mystifying, esoteric way. Although the Cremaster films are much different from the Drawing Restraint series, they are inspired by the same concept: a long, challenging process yields development.
Ostensibly, the connections between Barney’s art and his past life as an athlete are much more conceptual than they are visual and, as a consequence, are not always obvious. Although he is greatly influenced by organized sports as is David Rathman and Collier Schorr, Barney’s creations are much different. Beyond obvious images and references, such as the role Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho plays as the stage for the synchronized dancing in Cremaster 1, or his gigantic photographs of his high school idol, former Oakland Raiders center, Jim Otto, as well as the use of wrestling mats in his Jim Otto Suite instillations, it can be unclear that Barney’s art has any connection to sports at all (although his still very athletic physique, which is featured in many of his near-naked performances, might hint at his former life.) When Barney addresses “unacknowledged or suppressed sexuality in men’s sports” (Woodward 3), the same subject that has fascinated Rathman and Schorr, he does so, not by delicately portraying violent, macho
images, but by a performance of him pushing around football blocking sled while wearing a cocktail dress. In all of his art, what establishes Barney most as a “jock artist” is his conceptual references to the physicality of sports and how that physicality relates to the physicality of his own process of creating art.
This interest in the physical activity that goes into creating art links Barney to the early process and performance artists of the 60s. A piece such as Splashing (1968) by Richard Serra, who plays a lead role in Cremaster 3 as an architect of whom Barney is the apprentice, is directly quoted as being influential by Barney and is reenacted in Cremaster 3 (although this time, instead of Serra flinging molten lead against the corner between a floor and wall to create a mold, Serra hurls one of Barney’s signature mediums, Vaseline). Similarly, Bruce Nauman was interested in using his body as a medium for his art. Many of his pieces involved him exploring the space of his gallery with his body. A video piece such as Violin Tuned D.E.A.D. (1969) for instance, features Nauman strutting around his while studio droning the open strings of a violin, examining how the sound changed with his movements. Another influential predecessor of Barney was Chris Burden who was made famous for his highly physical, often violent, performances. His gruesome Trans-fixed (1974), in which Burden had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, certainly exhibited endurance through pain.
The lineage of this fascination with the physical process of art can be traced through the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Descriptions of Pollock working on a painting in his studio, as well as the famous documentation by photographer Hans Namuth, depict the artist dancing around a giant, outspread canvas on the floor, flinging paint. This physical energy and movement is abundantly clear in paintings such as One: Number 31, 1950 (1950), an emblematic Pollock painting. To extend the lineage further, author Joyce Carol Oates argues Pollock’s “action painting” (a term coined by American critic, Harold Rosenberg) is anticipated by the quick and energetic brushstrokes of George Bellows whose paintings exhibit a “rush of skilled activity" that evidences the fact that Bellows certainly wasn’t standing perfectly still as he created his art. Barney’s artistic ancestors are clear: a family of artists who are fiercely interested in the way the physical movements of the body create, and sometimes are, works of art.
The relationship between physicality and art appears to be what unites the team of jock artists. Sports and the creating of art are both highly physical acts. As Schorr dances around her wrestlers and Matthew Barney struggles against a harness to try to complete a drawing, or, by contrast, Rathman delicately details his paintings, they are all responding to the potency of sports, even if that response is, as Rathman’s art presents, a gentle one. Through such artists two seemingly disparate disciplines are brought together.
Jock artists, regardless of whether or not they themselves play sports, have realized the power of sports to affect people. They see athletics as analogous to life, even more, as a microcosm of life. Through sports, humans are pushed to mental and emotional extremes. They compete in a drive for survival and victory that could be compared to the experience of fighting a battle; and when they fail, their grief is deeply felt. The sometimes painful, often blank, faces of Moffat’s subjects are not the just faces of defeated athletes, but human beings who have battled and lost; their pathos is recognizable to everyone. Even Matthew Barney’s concept of development being achieved through endurance, is not one exclusive to sports; consider, for example, all the unpleasant experiences that have been justified by parents to their children as “character building.” Collier Schorr, too, believes there is universality to the characters her photographs presents when she states, “I think a lot of people see their own struggles as teenagers in the pictures. They see that transition from adolescent to grownup to adult” (Art:21).
Athletics has proven to be a resilient resource for artists. From Myron to Matthew Barney, jocks have had their place in the art world and sports’ ability to evoke authentic, deeply felt, and recognizable emotions in both the subject and the viewer, has been acknowledged for centuries. This power coupled with the image of sweaty young men grappling together in an effort to force each other into submission, renders sports a subject that is understandably too enticing for artists to ignore.
Agee, William C. “Lee Walton: Drawing and Baseball.” LeeWalton.com. 2005. 15 October, 2008 http://www.leewalton.com/biography/William_C_Agee_Essay.html
Art:21. “Wrestlers Love America.” Art:21. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/schorr/clip2.html>
Clementine Gallery. “David Rathman.” <http://www.clementinegallery.com/rathman2004.html>
Hume, Christopher. “Athletic heroes once art staple.” Toronto Star 1 July 2001 Sunday Ontario
Edition: SPORTS 08- . Lexis Nexis Academic. CUNY Hunter College, New York, NY. 6 Nov. 2008 <http://academic.lexisnexis.com/online-services/academic-overview.aspx>
Matthew Barney discusses his influences. SFMOMA, 2000
Morris, Daniel. "Figuring and disfiguring: Joyce Carol Oates on boxing and the paintings of
George Bellows." Mosaic (Winnipeg). 31.4 (Dec. 1998): p135. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. HUNTER COLLEGE. 28 Nov. 2008
National Gallery of Art. “George Bellows – Biography.” <http://www.nga.gov/cgi-
The Rake: Magazine. “David Rathman.” The Rake: Magazine 29 Jan. 2007
Woodward, Richard B. “Home Team Advantage.” The New York Times 15 Feb. 2004: Section
2; Column 1; Arts and Leisure Desk; Pg. 17.
 Although it may not be the first time it was used, the term “jock art” was found in the New York Times article “Home Team Advantage” by Richard B. Woodward.
 Only a Roman copy of the Greek original remains.
 Examples can be seen in images 17 and 18
Katherine Perkins '11
In a photograph you capture only a millisecond, if that. We stumbled out the back door of the bar into a semi-deserted patio. It felt like somebody’s backyard and therefore like trespassing, but the space was muffled from the music and general debauchery inside, so we stayed. The rest of the river guides were trying to set the camera’s timer so that we could all be in the picture, but James was too drunk and probably too slow to begin with—sometimes he got all of us in it, but in those cases the flash didn’t go off so we looked like blurry ghosts, orbs caught by accident on film. In other cases the flash worked but the aim didn’t so all you could see were twelve or thirteen groping bodies with beer bottles.
I had grabbed Matt’s hand and told him to come outside, but the confidence of the impulse left me as soon as we stepped off the dance floor, so we joined the rest of the photo crew like it had been our intention all along to stand there with a bunch of drunken, hugging, almost-strangers and smile at a digital camera in the dark.
That night I decided I was more in Maine than I had ever been. The weekend had seen me compromise all of my definite morals. Friday midnight I was driving back dirt roads with stoners and drunks, who drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a Bud, slow, not to save the occupants, but the interior of the car from another coat of Jack and soda. Saturday afternoon, sitting in the back of a stranger’s coup, I took sips of drinks mixed in Styrofoam by a thirty-two-year-old mother with cigarettes and beer on her breath—where’s the kid, someone asked, and she laughed, he’s with James, he’s with James. That same night I danced in a bar with girls who pretended to be lesbians so the men who walked in, stinking of bug spray and whiskey and smoke, would drool in their general direction. There still, I tried giving signals with my eyes to the boy I’d known all of twenty-four hours and stumbled with him into someone else’s drunken Kodak moment. Everything about the place made my insides revolt, but I didn’t want to be an outsider there. In the back of my mind there was a steady inkling of the notion that none of it could possibly end well, but that was combined with the other voice in my head, that self-effacing voice that said Stop being a mother; Stop being so goddamn responsible; When the hell else will you ever do anything like this? So I gave in to the second voice and decided that I would be a little bit of a different person for the evening—I was more in Maine than I’d ever been.
Before that weekend, the boy, Matthew Leisure, was the river guide my cousin Alix kept telling me about. As usual, Alix was more concerned about fixing my dry spell than I was, so her cogs were turning way ahead of time, making considerations about who might be the fix. She described him as tall, overall-wearing, Texan, blue-eyed, sheepish and a bit of a drinker, so I was pretty much all for it—except for the drinking part, which she kind of glossed over with a half-apology that it was only this summer, now that he was living in The Forks.
You couldn’t really be part of that world without drinking, Alix kept saying. It was like one collective bad decision after another, but because everybody took part, it was okay. This is how you really live, they said with everything they did. If you’re not risking your life, how do you know—how could you possibly—that you’re living it?
Alix told me this—it was Friday afternoon and we were driving down the dirt road to the Moxie Guide Service base camp and the light was real nice through the trees because the light is always nice through the trees in the late afternoon in Northern Maine, and she told me this: You’re the kind of girl that a boy will never make a move on, unless you give him a real sure sign. You’ve gotta put something out there that he can grab ahold of, she said. See, you’re the kind of girl he wants to marry, not make-out with. A guy doesn’t want to go in for something casual when he thinks you might be a marriage prospect.
The thing about my dry spell, is that it doesn’t bother me so much until somebody I love and care for gets to addressing it like it’s their own. My own disappointment would, for the most part, be manageable, but seeing the looks on their faces makes my stomach grimace because you would think, from those looks, that they’d all had five hundred dollar bets going that I had an engagement to announce.
But Alix told me this: that unless I want to come across like a marriage prospect—for somebody’s younger, more religiously motivated brother, or a boy scout—I’ve got to make a general announcement with my body and my mouth that I do not, in fact, intend to be a cloistered nun. Touch his leg or something, she said. Give him a little sign. Use your eyes. Use them. You’ve gotta use what you’ve got.
The frustrating part is when she gets to giving me these pointers, the whole time I’m thinking: but wait. Wait a second. Don’t I do that? Don’t I do that already? If those weren’t signs I was giving with my eyes, then what the hell were they? Which leads me to the question: when you say ‘give clear signals,’ how overt are we talking here? I begin to think, based on these and other conversations whose primary subjects have been my dry spell, that the best approach would be to say it all straight out: Hello, my name is such and such and I am a sexual being. Would you like to ----? Or something along those lines. Very clear, very direct, a statement of what is, followed by an attractive proposal. Of course there are some who would say that there is nuance lacking in this approach. But the world seems to be in agreement these days that nuance is secondary to sex appeal, so I’ll go for the clear and direct I guess.
I didn’t realize until more than a month after I’d left The Forks, that I was getting inadvertent lessons in all the advice Alix was trying to give me from a woman named Maria. She was mentioned earlier as the thirty-two year-old mother mixing drinks in the front seat. She’s the mother of a seven-year-old named Romeo and she wears a skirt so short that you can see her underwear when she leans over, or you could, if you were looking. Our first night in The Forks, she came upstairs where all the guides were drinking Buds and chatting, and she sat down with her legs spread and Romeo right there between them, facing out at the rest of us. I don’t think there was a person in the room who could have avoided the thought that if Romeo decided to move just a tick to one side or the other, we would all, whether we signed up or not, have a free peak at Mother Maria’s downstairs.
You could say Maria knows what she’s got—it’s not for no reason that she wears that little tiny skirt—and I say ‘that’ skirt because there is just one that she wears, her goldy-tan legs coming out like little roman statues in all their naked glory—every day. I know it’s the same because on Sunday morning, following Saturday night’s debauchery, the object in question was muddy and stained with beer and who knows what else, and she was there in the kitchen in that, a Moxie T-Shirt and an apron, mopping the floor at 7:30. Maria is nuts, the guys kept on saying, but she’s a hard worker. She’s a hard fucking worker.
On Saturday afternoon the drinking started as soon as we got off the river—Buds opened up out of coolers in the flatbeds of muddy pickups—just like a bad advertisement. The overall-wearing, sweet-singing Texan invited me to go swimming with him at some falls somewhere nearby, and I thought this swimming trip might just be the beginning of a ticket for relief from my dry spell. Also, as my presence hadn’t really allowed Alix and her fiancé, Todd, any hanky-panky for the weekend, I decided it would be a nice gesture to accept.
A long, skinny girl named Meredith with kind of hunched over posture was driving and Matt hopped into the back with me. For a minute, I thought he was being romantic and letting Meredith be our chauffer, but then we stopped at the Moxie base camp and Maria got in front with her short skirt and a bag of ice and a cloth bag over her shoulder. Maria’s teeth and her legs are the most vivid parts of her and she was showing them both, grinning big to have her Mommy obligations on hold for the moment. She turned around in her seat and produced a stack of Styrofoam cups, a liter of coke and a bottle of Bacardi from her bag. She pointed at me with the rum. Who are you again? She asked. You’re Todd’s other girlfriend, right? Your Todd’s other girlfriend.
Kate. I filled in the blank. Kate Kate Kate, she said. I’ll remember it now. I swear I’ll remember. She turned back to the front. Okay, driver first, she said. You ready Meredith?
With the cap of the rum in her teeth and the cup balanced between her knees and the bottle not in use at her feet, she mixed it strong, all the while saying, Don’t worry—it’s mostly ice. Looking at her, you wouldn’t think this woman could possibly be a day over twenty-three—even less that she could be the mother of a seven-year-old, or of anybody for that matter. She passed one back to Matt. Jee-sus Maria. His whole body winced as it went down. I’m sorry—do you want me to dilute it for you? I could pour some into mine, she said. Naw, it’s alright, he said. But Christ.
By three or four dead-slow miles, bumping and sloshing down the road—all of the cars and trucks in The Forks smell like drunk driving, mostly on account of the fact that that is their primary occupation—Maria and Meredith were all over each other and loud in the front seat, saying how good it was to get together like this and why the fuck hadn’t they ever partied together before? Matt and I in the back seat were, for the most part, pretty quiet, except when we were laughing at the two in front and answering the occasional questions they threw back at us, like, Do you want another drink, and What’s your name again?
So far, I’d gathered a number of facts about our trip and its participants:
1) We were going to some falls that were really beautiful to swim before dark; 2) They planned on smoking pot when we got there; 3) The distance from the base camp to the falls was anywhere between five and ten miles—Why? asked Maria, grinning all her pretty teeth at me, Do you want to get out?; 4) That Meredith had gotten in some degree of trouble for previous drunken afternoon and evening expeditions; and 5) That Romeo was in the responsible, if slightly inebriated, hands of Maria’s well-intentioned, dumb-ass younger brother, James, for the duration of her binge.
The fact of the eventual pot-smoking got significantly more attention than the other facts, as we spent considerable time discussing the cost-benefit ratio of smoking in the car vs. smoking when we got there. Matt said he needed to smoke a cigarette to give the issue proper thought and asked Meredith to stop the car so we wouldn’t have to breathe his second-hand. Meredith enjoys driving a stick-shift with one rum & coke down the gullet and another in hand, but she draws the line firm and clear at cigarettes, a delineation that I think deserves at least some vague form of acknowledgement or appreciation, if not respect.
Standing outside the car with a thin line of trees and the lake behind him, Matt asked Meredith for her lighter. Would you look in the backseat? she asked me. And in that box at your feet? I found a clothespin and a condom and part of a candy bar and a stack of papers, but nothing resembling a lighter. Shit, they began to giggle in the front. We’ve come all the way out here and we don’t have a fucking lighter. Two things were decided: one, that we were officially too far out to turn around and go back, and two, that we’d come too far to turn around with only half our mission complete. So they decided that as soon as we saw somebody, anybody, we would ask them right away if they had a lighter and how much they wanted for it. Matt got back in the car and we were on our way again.
What didn’t seem to be occurring to any of them was what seemed to me the very distinct likelihood that we wouldn’t see anybody at all. They were discussing what they would say to somebody and whether they would offer to borrow or pay for it, and I was thinking how I should go about phrasing how ridiculous they all sounded, as I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen another car, or house for that matter. Then like an apparition out of nowhere, a vision of an angel, there was an old guy with a beard and a beer-belly, fishing on a bridge on the road in front of us. Meredith leaned out her window—Hey. Do you have a lighter?
The guy had one of those mouths where the bottom lip is constantly moving out and in, like he’s trying to chew on something without using his top teeth, while also making it prerogative to maintain his frown.
Yeah, I’ve got a lighter, he said, fishing in his pocket.
You catching anything? asked Matt.
Naw, he said. He turned out to look at the lake for a minute. He turned back again, still frowning. Naw, he said again. There’s nothing out there.
He produced a lighter and handed it to Meredith, glancing in at the rest of us with big sad eyes. Thanks, said Meredith, and she shifted the car back into gear. Wait, you’ve gotta ask him if it’s okay if we take it, said Maria. Yeah, said Matt, or ask him if he smokes. Hey, do you smoke? asked Meredith, sticking her head back out the window. Yeah, he said. He was a little bewildered now. You smoke pot? No, I don’t have any on me, he said. But you smoke it? Sure he said. When I can.
We’re just gonna pull over up here, Meredith said. You wanna smoke a joint with us? Yeah, sure okay, he said.
We pulled over on an old side road leading up towards an old gravel yard and he left his fishing gear on the bridge. You wanna drink? Asked Matt. No, don’t drink, he said. Just smoke. When I can.
I was feeling kind of antsy by this time on account of driving piss-slow on a dirt road that was in no way familiar to me for upwards of half an hour with people who were also unfamiliar and also drunk, and also on account of not knowing how much longer we’d be driving to get to the nowhere that was our destination in the middle of even more nowhere. On account of all of those things, and also the fact that pot makes my heart beat about a million times a second and turns my mind into a paranoid den, I didn’t want to smoke with them, and I didn’t really feel like standing around and watching them get high, so I said I wanted to go look at the reflection of rocks in the lake and I took off. Hey, I’ll come with you, said Maria, and she left the stoners to join me by the water.
So you don’t really drink, she said.
Not really. I said. Occasionally. Sometimes.
So you don’t. It’s okay—I don’t really either—just sometimes. Weekends, you know. I can’t really. With Romeo.
How old is he? I asked.
He’s seven. You wouldn’t know though, looking at him, would you? He’s small for his age. I’m small too, you know, she said after a minute, like I hadn’t noticed her hairline at my chin level. So I’m hoping he takes after his father. Romeo’s father is really tall.
He’s not in the picture? I said.
His dad—Romeo’s father—he’s not around?
She looked me in the eye to see how her words would affect me. She tilted her head to the side and rubbed her fingers through her hair so the sun struck her eyes and her hair and her teeth just right. No, she said. Romeo’s father is in jail.
That must be rough, I said, and we were both silent for a while.
Yeah, she said eventually. It is. He’s a good person you know—we’re all good people right? But he’s the kind of guy who makes a lot of bad decisions. She looked at the lake, Fucking beautiful isn’t it?
It’s nice to have a conversation with somebody you don’t know when you’ve got something scenic to look at while you’re talking so you’ve got a real decent, genuine excuse not to make eye contact too often.
No kidding, I said, Fucking beautiful. I was trying to figure out how to phrase to her that she was, in fact, the kind of person that I most wanted to connect with and that it seemed like there was something cosmic about out meeting here like this. All winter I’d been talking to and thinking and writing about women whose husbands and brothers and boyfriends and fiancés and child-fathers were behind bars—women in California, women in the city—and I thought, how strange and purposeful this whole world must be, if I’m meeting this woman here, like this, on a planet so unrelated to the first. What I ended up saying was something mostly incoherent about how the women’s stories—the stories of the women on the outside, the ones who were suffering from the absence rather than the confinement—were so often overlooked, which is why I’m interested in telling them. But I think I said too much and I’m not sure if she believed me, though she did most likely develop an impression of somebody significantly stranger than her first glimpses had indicated.
I kept on getting struck by how much younger than thirty she looked, standing there with the late afternoon sun in her face. The word to describe her may not have been vulnerable, but she was worn to being open for a moment at least—a young person worn through and weary to the core. And also with a kind of brimming drive and intelligence that her looks and circumstances got in the way of far too early on in her existence. It was no innocent game she was playing, but I also got the sense that she was programmed to play it from the start.
Come on, she said. We should go back. We walked along the edge of the lake to where three blood-shot-eyed individuals were waiting, staring into space, leaning against the bumper of Meredith’s car. Matt gave the fisherman his lighter and got in with me. We pulled away, and I watched the old man through the back window as he returned to the fishing gear on the bridge, where he would sit and catch nothing until the sun went down.
February 2010 - Comments Off on Part I : Tristan’s Proclamation For Lemon Poppy
Faith Griffiths '11
Scene One: The Restaurant Kitchen.
Tristan and Lorena are in the otherwise empty kitchen of the restaurant where they both work. Tristan is sitting, shaping cookie dough, while Lorena stands, fidgeting, in the doorway. Kitchen sounds and yells are in the background so both characters must shout.
I’m sorry Tristan, but I’m leaving you.
Tristan drops the pan of warm cookies he is holding.
I said, I’m leaving! Look, I’ve fallen in love with Antonio, and-
The new sous chef?!?! What, are his knives sharper than a measly baker’s? Is it because he has a perfect dice? Because he smells like garlic and liver and onions? You like that, Lorena?
Antonio is nice, he’s good looking, he has a normal SLEEP PATTERN! I can’t do this anymore, Tristan. I can’t be with a baker. I mean, you’re a professional baker. A man who bakes. Who makes cookies and cakes all day. I need someone more…more… (quieter) serious.
Serious? Serious? You think I just play little dessert games all day? Fine! Go be with the handsome, serious chef. See if I care! You never appreciated me! You never respected my profession! Just go!
Lorena slams the door, leaving Tristan alone in the bakeshop. He stares at the crumbled cookies on the floor. He takes deep breaths, an attempt to be tough. He fails, sinking to the floor and starts crying in his hands. (Fades.)
Scene Two: The Grocery Store.
Tristan is sadly moping around the aisles, every so often (seemingly at random) picking up baking ingredients and dropping them carelessly into his basket.. He is continuously sniffling and occasionally right out sobbing (pretty exaggerated and a little embarrassing for him, but he cannot help it). Other customers are giving him either strange, embarrassed looks or very sad, sympathetic looks. During this:
Tristan, usually a rather happy, go-lucky man (but serious when he needed to be, certainly), was a baker. He had been for many, many years. He knew he wanted to for as long as he could remember. He still used the recipe he’d created as a boy for his very first cake – German chocolate with thick chocolate butter cream frosting. Tristan had worked hard in baking school and in all the restaurants and bakeries throughout the years, putting in 110% to his craft and climbing the ladder to get to be head pastry chef at the prestigious restaurant of the preceding scene. He’d been dating Lorena practically since he’d arrived at the restaurant, half a year ago, when he’d won the job over 14 other very good bakers. Lorena had begun flirting with him almost immediately. She’d idle around the bakeshop, asking him questions about baking, trying samples; seeming genuinely interested in him and his art. Tristan had been delighted and soon the two began dating. Now, in his despair, Tristan realized how deceptive it all had been, how Lorena had only been interested because of his title, and now so quickly won over by new prestige. Even so, he sobbed and sobbed, heart-broken and hurt. Bakers are sensitive people after all, even if they can be serious when they need to be.
(mumbling not-so-quietly to himself) I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it! After all we had together! All the soufflés I baked for her! The marzipan roses! The heart-shaped cupcakes! She told me she loved-
Tristan stops dead in his tracks, frozen. A hearty and silent pause before narrator starts up.
The reason for Tristan suddenly freezing in his latest lament was because, right then and there in the produce aisle, he saw her. Rather, he saw her basket. He didn’t even see her yet. It was as if she was blurred, but the basket, well, the basket was crystal clear.
We see the blurry figure of a woman (a large pane of crystal glass is in front of her, but there is a hole and we can see the basket quite clearly – light is shining brightly on it – it is glorious.)
This basket, friends, was filled with-
TRISTAN (in a sort of daze)
-granulated sugar, all-purpose flour, baking powder, sour cream, butter, eggs, and poppy seeds. And-
-The blurry figure was bent over the shelf of lemons, clearly intent on finding the three most perfect lemons. Obviously, she had-
-ALL THE INGREDIENTS TO MAKE LEMON POPPY SEED MUFFINS. MY-
-absolute favorite dessert. (pause) Tristan finally forced himself to look up from the basket, at the woman herself. He barely needed to, though. For he was perfectly certain that he had just found-
-the love of my life.
The glass is slowly wheeled away from the woman. She is holding up a lemon to the light, trying to gauge any flaws. She and the lemon are both quite beautiful.
Tristan gulped loudly. (gulps loudly) And he could not help but burst out grandly with the music of his brimming heart:
(bring light on Tristan)
TRISTAN (with musical troupe)
Let me be the lemon to your poppy seed
I will give you everything you’ll ever need
We’ll share flour, butter, and sour cream
For your sugar I will have an endless greed.
We’ll make heart-shaped muffins
Baked to golden brown
And when we wed,
You’ll wear a lemon-colored gown.
A lemon-colored gown.
(with Lemon chorus) Ohhhhhh, Lemons! Lemons! Lemons! Lemons!
Poppy Seeds! Poppy Seeds! Poppy Seeds! Poppy Seeds! (repeats 3 or 4 times)
Let me be the lemon to your poppy seed
I will give you everything you’ll ever need
We’ll share flour, butter, and sour cream
For your sugar I will have an endless greed.
Let me be your… poppy… seed.
(When the “Ohhhhhhh, Lemons!” section arrives, the chorus comes out and stands behind Tristan, playing instruments and singing along with him for the rest of the song. They also dance around the woman, who is oblivious to the entire number as she continues to focus on finding the last lemons. As the last line finishes, the stage lights go off and the chorus members slink off quickly. Normal lighting comes back on quickly and Tristan remains in his last pose, hands raised and reaching for the woman, who is now rummaging through her basket.)
Well, the music was just in his head. Don’t you wish people really proclaimed their love like this in real life? Tristan did, too.
(turns around, breathing heavily and trying to muster his courage)
(to himself) Okay, okay, I’m just going to walk over, and say “hi”. No that’s stupid – maybe, “Oh, are those lemons you’re choosing? I may be mistaken, but I do believe those are the ingredients for…” No way. How about, “My, do I love lemons… Oh – you too?” Okay, okay… that’s good, okay…
(Woman has left behind a shelf during his mustering – she walks through the audience and out of the theater)
(Tristan turns and says) MY, DO I LOVE LEM- oh. She’s gone.
(Tristan crazily searches around the aisles of the stage, into the audience.)
Hello? Uh, miss? Uh, Lemon Lady? Hello?
“The Lemon Lady” was gone. In and out of his life, in an instant. But it didn’t matter. Tristan just knew that he would find her! And when he did, he would profess his love to her for real. And then they would make muffins together.
(in the middle of the audience) I just know I’ll find her! And when I do, I’ll profess my love to her for real! And then we’ll make muffins together.
(Exits through audience.)
Nick Janikian ‘13
The chair reclines as the oral surgeon presses down a button on the floor with her foot. She is reassuring, keeping a mundane but comforting conversation about my senior high school career flowing while she prepares the tools for the surgery. A drill, an IV needle with accompanying bag, filled with a mysterious liquid, and an assortment of other sharp looking tools not necessarily meant for the inside of the mouth all lie on a metal tray to my right. I am not worried, only antsy.
A large rubber tube with an opening in the middle is placed over my nose. The surgeon tells me to start taking heavy breaths. Laughing gas. I’m smiling almost immediately and stare at the plaster tiles on the ceiling. Each groove of the tiles is different, like thousands of rocks surrounding me in a cavernous enclosure. I’m floating now, my whole body becoming a giant balloon. The IV goes into a vein on my right arm, allowing what I think is water to travel slowly into my thirsty blood (it has been ten hours since my last bite of food or sip of water, doctor’s orders). The surgeon comforts me, asking if I’m feeling okay. I tell her yes, my voice a weak, giggling whimper. I’m still smiling, on the verge of laughter as I keep inhaling and exhaling through the contraption on my face. She places monitoring devices on my right index finger, right and left wrists. The beeps on the monitor send me into a state of desolate brain activity. Every thought stops and then starts again by the beeping intervals of the machine.
Another woman enters the room, smiling at me and asking if I remember her. Of course I remember her. She's the receptionist from the front desk. I then realize I have no idea how long ago it was I was out in the waiting room, inattentively flipping through a magazine as I awaited this procedure. I picture my father still sitting out there, reading his book and chuckling out loud at the witty little passages that he tried to explain to me (without much interest on my part, but considering the gravity of my situation, could I really be to blame?).
The surgeon tells me she is starting the anesthesia and if the ceiling starts to spin, it’s a perfectly normal reaction. She is correct in her explanation; the plaster tiles slowly rock back and forth, move into a swirling motion, and remind me of Van Gogh's “Starry Night”. I don’t fall fully asleep, yet I am not aware of what is happening to me. My perception of time is lost, my eyelids heavy and free. At certain points I feel awake, conscious enough to have a clear image of the surgeon and the receptionist removing my wisdom teeth. I do not know if this is a figment of my chemically impaired imagination or a murky reality.
The operation ends in a cloudy haze, my vision and motions like that of a car crawling through an October morning fog. I shuffle slowly back to the waiting room, my knees weak and loose. I am stuck in my own state of mind, not aware of others around me. My father escorts me out of the surgeon’s office and into the car.
I arrive home not feeling much pain, just the taste of iron from the blood in the back of my mouth. My spit is a vibrant red like that of a heavily dyed fruit punch. Two small gauze pads sit atop the bottom-back corners of my mouth. The surgeon told me these pads are vital for the forming of blood clots. Still, trying to talk with gauze layering my teeth is not a lighthearted affair. My father fills two bags with frozen peas and places them into tube socks. He tells me to hold them against my cheeks. This task quickly becomes tiresome so I use an elastic band to keep them in place as I watch television. Every twenty minutes, the pea-filled socks come off, go back into the freezer for twenty minutes and then return to my face. Twenty on, twenty off. Everything has become an exhausting process.
For my first night of rest (or rather lack thereof), I have been instructed to sleep in a propped up position with my back flat, body facing forward. This is unfortunate considering I cannot recall a single night in my entire life in which I’ve fallen asleep this way. With my head inclined by two pillows, I sit back in an armchair and try to sleep. My mouth is sore, the pressure from my jaw sharp and constant. My neck is tense, strained from this awkward position. I look like a vampire resting in his coffin. I can’t sleep so I move from the armchair to a sofa, propping myself up with more pillows. No luck. I move to another sofa and end up lying awake for 4 more hours until the sun comes up. All hope of sleep is lost.
My diet for the first few days after the surgery consists of pudding, ice cream, mashed potatoes, refried beans, jello, chicken broth and water. To some this may seem like a dream come true but the desire for hard, substantial food drives me to the edge of insanity. I miss the feeling of grinding up nutritious delights between my teeth, which have been rendered useless by inflammation and pain. My jaw throbs and my gums burn whenever I accidentally open my mouth too wide, generally yawning or trying to talk. I watch as my parents indulge in a delicious meal, munching away with powerful bites that I am utterly incapable of performing.
The swelling at my jaw line extends into my cheeks I appear as I did in my pubescent days, chubby and clueless. Frozen peas no longer help. I sprawl my body across the couch and escape reality, entering a world of sitcom reruns and romantic comedies. Daytime TV programming proves to be almost as dreadful as my appearance.
Five days in, the bleeding has long since ceased and the swelling starts to fade, my skin no longer stretches across my face in an unequal fashion. These early teases of a healthy recovery make each day move by quicker, sunrise to sunset no longer takes an unbearable amount of time. I close my eyes and fantasize about my first solid meal: a juicy steak, cooked medium-well, accompanied by a baked potato (no more of that mashed nonsense) slathered in a heap of almost melted butter. For dessert a slice of chocolate cake with thickets of creamy frosting. Ah, the sweet bliss of chewing once again like a person with a fully developed set of teeth. I can barely stand the thought of these foods, can barely wait for their triumphant return to my palate.
Seven days after the extraction I look into the mirror to see a face staring back that will not scare off innocent bystanders, pedestrians simply strolling down the sidewalk to bask in the afternoon sun. Jolts of pain throughout my mouth still occasionally take hold of me, but, for the most part, they are much more subdued than those in the exhausting days past. The rawness of the sites of incision remind me of fresh puddles of mud an hour after a torrential downpour, soft and loose atop the wet earth. The dissolvable stitches still protrude from the corners of the inside of my mouth, poking and prodding my tongue. Hopefully they will soon wither away and release their wretched grips on my fleshy mouth tissue.
By the passing of the tenth day, post-surgery, I have made a full recovery. I walk amongst the masses, once again a human, with the permanent absence of four useless teeth. The two teeth the surgeon allowed me to keep are stored in a small transparent plastic case. The case sits atop a shelf on my desk on display as a reminder of the experience. Whenever my eyes wander over to it, a chill sails up my spine, echoing flashbacks of what was and always will be the loss of my wisdom teeth.
Elisa Bonesteel '11
She is in the shower, two weeks after her son’s disappearance down by the loading docks. She lives in a small New England fishing town, littered with fisherman’s kitsch. Outside of her own house the welcome mat reads, “A fisherman and a normal person live here.” Although this sentiment is true now, just a little earlier it would have been more appropriate for the mat to read “normal persons”. It is painful for her to step on this mat these days. She is thinking about it, now, in the shower. She is wishing she had never given the damned thing to her husband for Father’s Day three years ago. She is thinking about how pointless holidays are these days. She is wondering if he is still a father even, without a son. She doesn’t care to think about the validity of her motherhood.
Her husband is downstairs, sitting in an overstuffed leather chair, staring at his desk. He is letting his eyes wander along with the wood grain, all the way left to the edge and then back to the right again. He is not thinking, or rather, he is thinking but only about the wood in front of him. On the desk are tackles and lures, and above it, framed, is a fly his father made next to a fly he made next to a crude one his son made. Back in the shower she hears a loud thump and is startled. The noise has not come from downstairs, where her husband sits (now staring at his reflection in a darkened window). The noise has not come from outside of her house, where a pool is covered with a tarp for the winter. The noise has not come from the basement, because she would probably have been unable to hear it. The noise has had to, without much doubt, come from the upstairs, where she is showering. She gets out of the tub without turning the water off. The mirror is covered in steam and small streaks where water has beaded and slid down the smooth glass. The doorknob is wet in her hand and she slips while gripping it. In the dark hallway nothing seems out of place. The master bedroom is swathed in shadows from the streetlight outside their window and she cranes her neck to look into each corner from the doorway. Everything looks as it should. Her sons room is at the end of the hallway. The door is closed. There is another thump, and this time she knows where it has come from. Her husband looks at the ceiling as he hears his wife’s feet slapping the hardwood at a quickened pace. He knows where she is going and yells up to her, “Cecile, come down now, don’t start this again!” But the footsteps do not stop. He sighs and reaches for his son’s framed fly, putting it gently into the bottom drawer of his desk.
Will’s final A.P. Art project was a series of images depicting Jesus in a leather jacket. The images were:
• the full figure in a forest, next to a small brook and a doe. (oil paint)
• close ups of his beard and the zipper lining the collar. (charcoal)
• a photograph of his sister wearing a felt beard, her nightgown and their dad’s leather.
• a cubist rendering (acrylic)
He received a 2 on the evaluation, a B- in the class and did not go on to college.
I took my daughter to a wedding last summer. It was the hottest summer in years, you couldn’t cool down if you stuck your head in the freezer, it was that kind of summer. Lemonade was no good. Ice cream was no good. About the only that helped was ice down the pants but that left funny marks on your shorts and begged for questions you didn’t really want to answer when someone came to the door uninvited. Anyhow, took my daughter to a wedding. Would’ve taken my wife but she had been acting funny for a while and didn’t want to risk something happening, would have been too embarrassing and also not fair to the kids getting married. I didn’t know them too well but I had worked with the groom’s dad for a couple of years and we’d kept in touch all right. He was the one who invited me, not his kid, no pastel invitation in the mail, just a telephone call in late afternoon. I checked my calendar and told the guy, Hell, I got nothing better to do, might as well get a free drink out of it. So I took my daughter down there. She had just come home from college for the summer. I had missed her like hell. She had grown up some since being away. She wore more black, and didn’t show her boobs off too much anymore. I fought like hell with her in high school to cover them things up. She never did listen, but back from college, ta-da, proper as pie. Anyhow, I guess there was still some of that old girl in there because she got drunk at the wedding and ended up going home with the best man and made a big scene. I should’ve just taken the wife.
Ariana Ervin '11
When my baby is born I am surprised by its size.
They hand It to me, Its pink tongue loping around in Its mouth, Its chest crushed so tightly in a white velour blanket I find myself prying with my fingers to feel the anxious little patter of a heartbeat. They are stamping Its feet and rolling Its toes through black ink and smoothing the thin strands of hair that sprout from Its soft head and saying time to go.
Time to go. Time to go.
But I feel dizzy. My legs are angry bees and earlier, before, they had strapped me in this plastic dress with thick silver buttons down the back and the snaps are harder to undo than one might think. I fumble madly so the nurse helps me. I slide into shoes and socks, my baby safe inside Its plastic box, the one they have inches next to my bed that I could make go up and down if I wanted. The one with buttons for calling for ice cubes. And I am signing papers and assigning names and they are lifting my baby from the box and handing It to me saying watch the head.
Watch the head. Watch the head.
So I do. I clutch the little head like a tiny boy clutching a sled and I take myself out into the day that is partly warm but also turning grey with graphite pencils as the birds swarm the sky. I think my baby is too young for public transportation so I ignore the #1 and # 12
and #4 buses and move my feet in the direction of a place that is maybe just a little warmer than the air here so cold it burns my ribs.
I have a sandwich in a Cafe; my baby tucked under one of my arms, Its eyes closed and shallow. I am chewing really slowly, the sandwich so hot it has melted the mayonnaise and a tiny sad pool of white liquid has formed on my plate, the insides dotted with brown crumbs. When my baby presses Its pink tongue to Its cheek and thumps at the blanket with Its foot, I feed It too. I pull out one breast (the breast farthest away from my sandwich) and we eat in silence, the only sound from puckered lips. When I am finished eating but my baby is not, I lean down to tell It about a life under the trees.“Your father will drive you to school in a Chevy Impala.” I say. “You can drink from water fountains and run your fingers under the leftover spray and when you are tired so that your eyes feel hot and warm and hazy, like now,” and I pause, press on Its eyelids with my thumb until the flesh twitches and jumps, “you can lie under the window and just lay or sleep or dream." The Café man asks to take my plate and I am struck with a sudden urge to tell him I think my baby hates me. But that is stupid so I nod and he does and pours me more coffee at the exact moment I remember the nurse told me to watch out for caffeine.
Watch out for caffeine. Watch out for caffeine.
I wonder if it matters that I have already forgotten or if you can fix things in reverse like the man in Memento, exonerating himself from murder. So I push my coffee away and like the sound it makes as it slides across the table and tell my baby who is still mashed against my breast that It has to be done eating because suddenly my breast is an aching, wounded lion, roaring into life and I can’t stand for one more drop of milk to be taken.
And then we are walking again, after I have paid the Café man and hoisted my little swaddled thing to my right shoulder and tucked my face into Its fleshy neck all wide and bunched like uncooked dough. I think maybe it is five ‘o clock because here are the people, imitations of angry bird flocks, onslaughts of black heels pounding the sidewalk, red hands wrestling with “Don’t Walk” signs and briefcases with metal locks and slippery stroller handles and other more slippery, much smaller, hands.
I am looking for a blue door in a nice part of town and that kind of generalization can really help you get where you are going. So the flashing neon McDonalds signs are just another part of the design and the people, so incredibly jolted, bumping at my shoulders, banging at my baby are just becoming a pulse like a heartbeat. Or a ringing telephone.
When I get to your door I stand outside for the longest time, my feet moving all on their own in a pattern I never thought up. Here is the blue door and this one with a tiny gold brass knob for knocking one two three times or banging, pounding, one two three times, or ignoring. And I don’t need to go inside because it only matters that I found it, only now, my baby’s face is red and I remember what the nurse said which was outside is much too cold for a baby.
Much too cold for a baby. Much too cold for a baby.
So I make the brass knob go bang bang bang (three times) and you come. When you answer the door, I am surprised by your size.
I thought I remembered you bigger, so much bigger. I thought you would need to be to create something so small but you are almost the same size as my (our) baby now and so I come inside as we sit on the couch and I let you hold the baby and you feed me tea. And here we are now five or ten years later past the right now and you are driving our daughter to school, rinsing our son in the bath, his squeamish naked body riled with water droplets as you pull him from the tub, slipping her tiny feet into pajama bottoms, rinsing his bottom teeth because he can never reach them himself. And you are saying things like “Okey Dokey,” and “Daddy loves you” and cuddling with the moon, which is astonishing.
Except here’s the thing.
The thing. The thing.
I have finished my tea and the baby is squawking and clawing at Its cheeks and you are holding it out to me, your shoulders shrugged into your neck and I hear myself saying time to go.
Time to go. Time to go.
Out on the sidewalk, under the blue door, I feed my baby again and its head is already getting bigger and I think it’s from all that milk.
Daniel Goldberg '11
Donna wasn’t born yesterday, you know. She’s seen what you’re up to and she’ll deal with it her own way, however she likes. In pre-school she bullied the little boys. In college she fucked them. Now she mostly travels, to the places it’s best not to go. She screamed “STOP” once, on an airplane. Everyone was scared, no one knew what she was thinking. Donna is like that.
Alex is preppy and orange and he hates to wear clothes.
He swims tall and emerges unchanged.
He wraps his wet claws around the giggling girls who adore him.
He is dainty and tall and loves to chat.
Melissa hands him a towel and a Styrofoam cup of bourbon.
Out at a restaurant, Alex sits on a throne with lowered eyes.
He smiles slyly and watches the girls sit in unison and cross their legs.
Alex is a self-hating vegan, and he stares while the girls chew their steaks.
Slurping his orange vegetables, Alex mutates slowly.
The conversation grows wild, with Alex talking in tongues.
Alex is left alone.
Seven different suits, all the same. The boss makes 12 times more money than he does, which doesn’t bother him really. It’s just sick how much money they make. Eric doesn’t care about money, though. He wears gym shorts at home, never leaves the bedroom, doesn’t spend. He doesn’t dislike work, really. It’s just so long each day, and he isn’t exactly close to Wall St. either. He read a book that taught him how to make enough money so that he could work from home 3 days a week – that’s it. He hasn’t quite figured it all out. The markets plunged, but the analysts at his company are feeling good. Sometimes he goes to the sensory deprivation tank in Chelsea with the other men, to float in saltwater and forget his body, to lose time.
Gaze swimming, eyes far apart under a skinny forehead. He shifts uncomfortably in the spacious overalls. Lies down on his back for a nap. Matthew can sleep endlessly if nothing wakes him, even on the hot baked ground. His tan is red but not a burn. It suits him, even in winter. Inside him there is quite a temper. You can tell because his arms stand straight at his sides, which only ever happens when his brother calls him “frog foot”. Matthew thinks his feet are perfectly fine. Even Tracy said so.
Born in Tennessee, went to New York once and loved the scene. Stays in Tennessee though, building up an underground following. Dave feels big in a small town. Puts on a tight black shirt, leather pants, metal boots. Caresses his new guitar. He licks it. Dave once beat a man with his electric guitar. Spent 5 years in prison.
Viktor lives in his studio. He wants to be famous. Sure, he knows how to party, but he does it for the fame. Everybody likes Viktor. We want to be his friend because we think maybe he has it in him – something, anyway. He looks the part too – blonde, a steady walk, boots and jacket from Germany. You’ve seen his parents, I’m sure. Both are still stars on the big screen. They didn’t push him into this
business though. The city did it. What else is there in LA?
Audrey claims she likes to eat her vegetables – always did. She says she likes to wash the dishes. She even claims her homework is “really quite intriguing”. The truth is, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She just gets by on that pretty smile. Even I can’t resist it.
Jerry won’t tell anyone about the tens of thousands of dollars he spends on laser hair removal. The truth is, no one’s even seen him without a suit and tie, and if anyone did he’d say he was born 100% hairless, just a freak of nature like that. Jerry destroyed photos of his hairy past, he goes back to the dermatologist out of compulsion, knowing he’ll always be a freak. The dermatologist suggested he
see a shrink.
Her parents love to squeeze her cheeks. She blinks. Her older brother can walk and talk. She can sit up sometimes, but he’ll push her down if she does. She blinks. Her cousins wake her up to play with her. If their mother’s around she won’t let them. She blinks. She didn’t get fed tonight. She blinks. Her brother wakes up crying. She blinks. Her parents put her in a frilly dress.
Zack throws his baloney sandwich on the sidewalk. The fucking birds can eat it. He wipes the grease on his shiny black hair. There’s nothing to do in New York.
Alida Salins '09
All I can really remember is the lifting feeling in my chest, like in the moment when mountains are suddenly visible through a break in the trees. Of course, this happened before mountains, when all I knew was long driveways and sticky maple seeds and my brother. The two of us, we would have competitions jumping off his bed. He was older by four years, still is, I suppose, and my parents could afford only one box spring. While he was at school, a dull ache accumulating in his limbs, I would sneak into his room and practice. Our parents shuffling around the kitchen: my small-boned mother mildly worried about germs or wrinkles or Russian literature, my father planning Sunday’s sermon, or just mildly contemplating dust motes in a stream of sunlight. They would never suspect. One day I jumped off, soared, and very nearly landed. Instead I kept going forward, not down, as if I’d snagged my ribs on some laundry line in the air. It pulled me around the corner all the way to the door before I dropped with a start at sounds from downstairs. I felt a little like Jesus. I was pretty sure that with his soft eyes and open palms, Jesus had done similar things. Or maybe Wiley Coyote. My points of reference were not that extensive. I always label this memory as true when I file it away, yet in it I am never the small and suspicious 5-year-old that I was. In my mind it’s always present me, or me in my awkward adolescence, when my brother was absent from school more often than not; a period of time particularly noted for the night when my father had to take an axe to that same door, so now the new one opens out, instead of in. I’d told Mama about flying on the first day of kindergarten while waiting for the bus. I remember it in English but I know we didn’t speak English at home. Mama laughed. Or maybe cried. She had beautiful children full of picturesque ideas. She brimmed with feelings like love or pride. I told Andrejs about it years later, when we had finally become not only siblings but almost friends.
He just squinted his grey eyes and nodded. It was like there was something about the impossible that echoed, something that made staring at the cracks in the walls of his apartment look a little less like the years he spent watching paint chip off the walls of fancy places like Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center. Something that made the ever-present past a little more distant. It was like how we used to trick our dear parents by pretending I was being strangled, feet dangling in the air, my hands safely grasped onto his forearms. It wasn’t really happening, but it could be, and if you twisted around just a little, sometimes it was.