Out of Houston

When I think back to that bar in Houston, the one that offered us mahogany and beveled glass and a brief reprieve from our hot, damp lives, I can still see Lynda and me: my blue-jean jacket, her skeleton earrings. We’ve swiveled onto our stools, and she’s paid for our drinks. She is laughing, leaning into me, and I nod, slowly agreeing to something.

Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

We were graduate students then. Grad students inspire little pity because their misery is self-generated—what fools to chase education to such an extreme—and they are often obnoxious. Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

But the agonies of graduate school don’t feel manufactured and optional while you’re going through them. They feel like hell. When I finished my orals, for some reason on Wuthering Heights, I went home and wept to General Hospital, my daily, and, I am not proud to say, singular guilty pleasure. I’d become unhinged enough to think of getting a couple of cats, of naming them Edgar and Heathcliff, and of finding this enormously amusing, but I doubted that I could support two feline suitors on a teaching assistantship.

Yes, life as a TA was tough, but what other choice did we have? To work full-time? A Maynard G. Krebs shriek formed in our sensitive throats. The poorer and older of us already had been there, done that. We’d slung enough hash to fatten whole towns, coming home with pockets full of crumpled bills, our hair smelling of other people’s food. Or we’d put in our time at pink-collar jobs, playing secretary in skirts and fingernails. We’d filed and phoned and tried to write poetry on the side, knowing that no one in Poe-Biz would take someone like us seriously.

Being in a creative writing program changed that.

We got to call ourselves writers, not secretaries, not waitresses; we deemed this to be a sacrifice worth making.

I remember breaking down to spend fifteen dollars on a lamp so I could have a decent light to read by. And dragging a mattress and box springs—a lucky find by the apartment Dumpster—up three flights to my lair. Sleeping on that bed was like lying on a slab of rock, with smaller rocks randomly embedded in the primary boulder, but I took pleasure in getting off my two-inch foam pad, in my upward move away from a cigarette-stale carpet.

Lynda was no better off than I. Her apartment had air and light and nothing in it. Well, a card table and two folding chairs, her pink three-speed propped against a wall, a plugged-in radio. I don’t think that I’m erasing furniture from my memory. I recall an impromptu gathering: after one of our fellow students had shot himself in the head, wham bam, dead and gone, a stunned and drunken group of us sitting on the hardwood floor, our backs against the wall because there was nowhere else to sit.

It always looked as if Lynda could be packed and on a plane in half an hour. And she could. Yet in the end, she chose not to fly but to drive her dirt-brown Honda Civic home to Washington. She’d had enough, gotten her MA, screwed around for another year in the PhD program while her beloved awaited and, apparently, issued ultimatums, as beloveds are wont to do. Lynda wanted company. It was a long way to go alone, especially in that rusty bucket of hers.

We had both come into a bit of luck, having been granted the two creative writing fellowships offered that year: five thousand bucks each. The director called me first, and I asked if I could tell Lynda, my best friend, the news, so I rang her up when she was still in Seattle. First, I told her that I’d gotten a fellowship. There was that half-second pause of disappointment, discouragement, despair before she breathed into the phone, “That’s great. That’s really great. Congratulations.” “Oh, yeah,” I said as if I had just remembered something. “You got one too.”

In Houston, we celebrated by ordering fancy lady drinks. I liked something the mahogany and glass bar served that tasted similar to strawberry tea with cream, and Lynda always fancied Pernod, that awful liquid licorice. She would have been a great Absinthe drinker.

We said that we should buy ourselves leather jackets, cocaine, and sexual favors, but we didn’t do these things. I paid bills, bought books, and forked over a thousand of my five so that one of Lynda’s questionable friends, a kindly Charles Manson lookalike, would rebuild the engine in my flame-red Karmann-Ghia. I also decided to take a summer off from teaching in Houston: one of the all-time worst ways to spend that season, wading through one hundred percent humidity into frozen classrooms filled with restless, albeit friendly, Texans.

I should spend the summer in Berkeley, Lynda told me, in that beautifully cool bar. I could see my mother, drink Peet’s coffee, and stroll under the Liquidambars, which blessed my shoulders with drops of their mysterious water. After another drink, I agreed to make the drive with her to the West Coast even though I would have to buy a one-way ticket back to Houston in August, even though it would be a long haul, and even though her tiny car, like mine, lacked AC. She made it sound good: a road trip, two girlfriends taking to the highway, a last hurrah. Lynda could be silver-tongued, and I can make rash decisions.

Usually I flew home on my annual pilgrimage to California, but the year before Lynda’s invitation, I had elected to take the train instead. My on/off ex/boyfriend dropped me at the station, then waved me off as I mounted the metal steps onto the car. Someone directed me to my seat, which was plush enough but did not recline a single inch. I felt a band of panic tighten my chest. Forty-eight hours, they’d said. Forty-eight hours in that seat? I couldn’t imagine enduring this, but the landscape already clipped past the tinted windows.

My seatmate was twenty, a handsome bagger at Kroger’s. We talked for awhile, then drifted downstairs to a small “screening room,” which ran B movies all night long. At 6:00 a.m., talked out, sleep-deprived, we were propped up on our elbows in the observation car, sipping too-hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and watching small, wild pigs jog around the seemingly endless prairie. He kissed me goodbye in San Francisco.

On the way back, I hung out with an eighteen-year-old guy who was traveling with his mother. Young men and trains go together, I guess. As we strolled around El Paso, he gallantly made sure to stay on the street-side of me, puffing up his chest, my protector. Having waved goodbye to his mom, we found a quiet spot and made out to while away the hours. I arrived with hickeys blossoming on my sleepy neck, but my ex/boyfriend didn’t seem to notice.

Let me set the record straight: mostly, I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to stay where I am, usually prone. I want to eat in the same restaurants and order the same food because it was good before and it’s bound to be pretty good again. I like routine, comfort, security. But a vixen in my head sometimes says, “Take the train. Sit in the observation car until dawn. Let that boy slip his eighteen-year-old tongue between your lips.”

So I arranged everything, got new contacts (another fellowship expenditure) and prepared to depart with Lynda. The day before we were to go, I grew convinced that one lens wasn’t sitting well on my eye. How could I leave and not be able to see?

“Oh, honey,” Lynda murmured. She had a good voice, sincere yet amused. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then added, “I hate it when I get like that.”

After a moment, I realized that Lynda wasn’t saying she was sorry my contact didn’t sit right; she was sorry I was crazy. Okay, so Lynda turned out to be right. Eventually, the lens did seem to fit. I accustomed myself to it, maybe.

We drove off, Lynda wiping the dust of Texas permanently off her cowgirl boots, I temporarily retreating from the confusion of loving and hating somebody I wasn’t exactly sleeping with anymore.

The trip was a drag.

We talked, sure. That was the good part. Lynda assured me that I was open-minded when I told her I feared I was judgmental. She made fun of the red bandanna on my head and all the bobby pins that I helplessly had stuck into my layered hair to keep it from getting wind-whipped. One arm grew stiff and pink; then the other. My nose reddened. By the end of the first day, my throat ached from shouting over the sound of the engine.

Lynda leaned to the left of me. I was a liberal and a feminist. She was a Marxist and a lesbian. She told me, laughing, that I kept her in touch with the mainstream. It is true that I made her watch The Princess Bride. Munching popcorn, she looked over at me with a buttery smile of surprise. “I thought it would be more ironic,” I said, but she shook off my apology. Lynda took me, along with half a dozen rowdy cowgirls, to see Desert Hearts, a sensitive and sexy lesbian love story. I tried to interest her in thirtysomething, my favorite television show at the time; she sat on my Salvation Army couch and scoffed. “You mean it’s all about these whiney white people?”

The last time that Lynda had gone west she had done so with her love, the woman with almost the same name as mine. Lynda’s girl had lived with her in Houston for a few years before she called it quits. She was pug-nosed and fair, with small breasts, short hair, and strong legs.

A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out.

Once Lynda’s girlfriend told me about working at a gas station, squirreled away all night in a glass box. A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out. Obviously, he was attracted to her any which way, but he wanted to make sure he’d gotten the gender straight. I loved that story, but I don’t remember her telling too many tales, at least not to me. Hearty and able, she worked at the natural foods market. I felt weakly feminine around her, the effete geek that Lynda dragged home to share their dinners of brown rice and saitan, the straight chick who didn’t even know what saitan was, for Christ’s sake.

On our road trip, I wanted to stop in real restaurants. I longed to be served, to be indoors, and to be out of the wind. Lynda objected. She and her girlfriend had eaten peanut butter and crackers by the side of the road, and they were perfectly happy. “I’m not going to sit by the side of the road and eat peanut butter and crackers,” I snapped.

As a vegetarian, Lynda had a hard time in the places we tried. She ordered cheese sandwich after cheese sandwich, and paid what I’m sure she felt was too much money for them. In New Mexico, at some in-between restaurant in some in-between town, I’d contentedly tucked into my turkey club, and she seemed mollified that they had pasta salad on the menu. Then her dish came: iceberg lettuce leaves beneath a mound of cold spaghetti, on top of which wobbled a large glob of mayonnaise. Pasta Salad. The cook must have put those two words together as best as he could. Lynda laughed but put her fork down. “I don’t think I can eat this,” she said, and she sounded close to tears.

It isn’t easy traveling with someone you’re not sleeping with. Of course, it isn’t easy doing so with a lover either. In my early twenties, a boyfriend and I spent three months wandering as far as our Eurail passes and limited budget could take us. We made it to Monte Carlo, to Morocco, to Athens, to Stockholm. This sounds exciting and romantic; in truth, the trek was difficult and tedious. I remember a fourteen-hour train-ride in Spain, crouching on the wet floor near an overflowing restroom, bound to each other and hell-bent. Afraid of the Babel of tongues and of men looking at me as though I were a side of beef, I clung to my guy, who came to want nothing more than to shake free of me. We parted at the San Francisco airport, each taking BART different directions towards our parents’ homes.

You travel with a partner, you break up. That’s the lesson I learned. There is greater politeness with friends; at least there is for me. I don’t get really rude until I have sex with someone. But it’s tiring being polite, and when you shift out of politeness into extended pissing and moaning, the switch can be a bit of a shock. Plus, you lack sexual soothing to help you through the other person’s terrible sense of direction, endless wheel-turning, or lead foot.

When Lynda and I checked into our first motel, she trilled with self-congratulation on her find—the place was terrifically cheap—but I remained peevish about the cracked tile and funky shower. I prefer standard brands: Motel 6, Travel Lodge. I like sterile and blank, not interesting and creepy. I fussed over the dingy shower curtain, then flopped on my twin bed in a vintage black slip that I wore as a nightgown. Lynda smoked, pleased with herself.

For the first time in our friendship, I felt uncomfortable, as if I had been traveling with a girlfriend, my bestie, and she suddenly transformed into a man.

I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

What was I thinking in that Spanish-style hovel? That Lynda would make a move on me? That she’d try to seduce me? That I’d have to beat her off with a stick? Something along those lines. I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

I had never felt such discomfort with Lynda before. I was surprised when she’d apologized for wearing a thin undershirt in front of me. We were friends; who noticed loose boobs? But Lynda slept with women. She noticed loose boobs. I remember her admiring the dark, cloudy beauty of a woman in our program one night. “She’s a vampire,” I said. “She’d bite your neck and drink your blood.” I didn’t care for the woman myself. “I’d bite her back,” Lynda insisted, and I turned my head away, shy to hear the lust in her voice.

In truth, my discomfort didn’t come simply from my nervousness that Lynda might hit on me. I’ve had a number of male friends flirt with me, make discreet sexual overtures, and, in a couple of cases, overt and awkward passes. But I am used to there being a certain degree of erotic tension with male friends. As long as they don’t push things, that extra zing has been the hot mustard to the hamburger of our friendship. But my relations with men haven’t been the same as those with women. I don’t preen or purr or pose with my women friends.

Yet I’ve always liked lesbians.

When I lived in San Francisco and taught at a private high school, before I’d had enough of kids and gone back for my doctorate in the hope that I would one day teach adults, I answered an ad that promised a household of varying sexual preferences and moved into a fantastic apartment off Van Ness, with a lesbian couple, a cult-happy bisexual, and a woman who seemed to be predominately asexual, which made me the resident hetero.

The pigeon coos of lovemaking on the other side of the wall didn’t bother me, and the nutty bisexual and I got to be pretty friendly. I even let her take me to see Rama, that eighties’ guru, though I didn’t witness his bursting into a shower of lights; apparently, one needed to be enlightened to observe this.

Naïve as I was, I’d thought that the lesbian and bi women in my household also would be intellectual and political. But no. I was “the school-teacher.” The white woman in the couple worked as a cosmetologist, “a lipstick lesbian,” as she termed herself, and spent her free time giving her partner facials. “I used to go for black men,” she told me. “Then I met her.”

Her partner kept taking my typewriter, which annoyed me, but she scared me a little too, with her impressive biceps, on one of which a large, crescent-shaped scar shone. Finally, I got the nerve up to ask what had happened. “I got bit,” she explained. I pictured a mad dog, but she told me about being attacked by a former lover. “Human mouths are filthy,” she said. “That’s what they told me at the hospital.”

We never became more than amicable strangers. I often ate in my room, grading exams, half in love with a beautiful student, who sometimes drove me home in his father’s BMW.

Although I’ve always liked lesbians, I have never gone for women sexually. Well, once, when I was twenty, I made out with a woman at her birthday party. Someone had put on a tape of old Beatles’ songs, and a group of us shouted, “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND! I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HA-AH-AND!” She and I slung our arms around each other, buoyed on the endless Beatles high.

We were in the same acting class, and she’d been sleeping with our married teacher, a man I also found desirable, so I envied her position as the designated student-lover. She was pretty, as I recall, blonde. We ended up in her bedroom, and she, drunk, blathered on about how attractive she found me, about how she’d never been with a woman before.

Then she threw up in the attached bathroom. However, the waves of nausea did not deter her. She’d washed her hands and brushed her teeth, she told me. I was lying on her bed, flipping through a magazine. She wanted to kiss me, so I let her kiss me. Back then, I was “open to experience.”

My friend’s face felt thin, her skin smooth, lips soft, a mirror of my own. I didn’t feel a fire light in my loins, but I let her stroke my jeans as I perused ads in Vogue. She complimented my ass, and I like being complimented.

Finally, I told her that this wasn’t going to happen between us, and she raged more than I would have thought her capable of doing. Then she slipped out the window of her bedroom because it seemed to her less embarrassing to reemerge through the front door than to come out of the bedroom with me. I left the way that I came in and weaved home.

Some days later, she left a note on my door. She wasn’t embarrassed, she said, about being attracted to me, she didn’t hate herself for it, she hoped that I didn’t either. I never responded. I didn’t despise her for coming on to me, but I distrusted the melodrama of that window-exit and the rather extended rant. Now I wish that I had written her a note, called her, something. Because I think that she was embarrassed and that she did hate herself a little for being attracted to me.

At first, I didn’t know that Lynda was gay. I came to Houston as one half of a couple (my troubled and troubling ex/boyfriend), and I was on guard against all comers (one of his troubling qualities was an inability to remain monogamous for more than a minute). Lynda had prematurely gray but hiply spiked hair and a nice figure: slender with curves. I remember watching her warily as she bounced on the balls of her feet and laughed at my ex/boyfriend’s jokes.

We were all in workshop together. She’d turned in some poems that didn’t impress me; one about a grandmother I found sentimental. But I liked what I thought was a poem in which a man tells his father that he’s “a queer.” “Lynda wrote an interesting dramatic monologue,” I told my ex/boyfriend. “Um, I don’t think it’s a dramatic monologue,” he said. I felt like a fool, but I had never heard a woman refer to herself as “a queer” before. I liked Lynda more after that.

“What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended.

Then she handed in a poem that made me want to be her friend. Lynda had down all the details of waiting tables in a nice restaurant: the fanning of cloth napkins, snapping open of a lighter. The waitress goes through her professional moves, believing a man to be a good tipper. Then she feels him tug on the hem of skirt. “What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended. It knocked me out.

When my ex/boyfriend gave me the boot, I called up Lynda, and she met me for gigantic glasses of iced tea, a Texan staple, and microwaved quiche. I confessed my heartbreak and made her my (perhaps reluctant) confidante, pushing us into emotional intimacy.

As a high school freshman, I had a terrific crush on this senior, Wally Silva: long black curls and sky-blue eyes. Cool to the nth degree. One night he actually called me. True, it only happened once; then he made up with his tempestuous girlfriend and never sought me out again, but it was a magical moment nonetheless. Wally Silva called me! Unbelievable! That’s how I felt about Lynda’s friendship. I couldn’t get over that someone as hip and cool as she was liked me, really liked me.

Of course, Lynda didn’t make a pass at me that night in New Mexico. We made fun of the TV and ate potato chips until we fell asleep. In the purple morning, she happily rubbed the soles of her feet together under the sheets, sounding like a human cricket. I told her to knock it off. We kept driving.

By the time we made it to the Bay Area, we had tired of each other. My mother welcomed us, and Lynda tried to be nice, but neither of us was in good spirits. When I ran my hand over my mother’s cat, creating a cloud of fur, Lynda abruptly said, “Stop it.” Then she bought me a red wooden goat from the import/export shop on College Avenue. I had admired it, and I still do. Faded to pink, it watches me in the bath, peeking out between pots of ivy.

Lynda tried to convince me to come with her all the way to Seattle, but I refused, no longer charmed, for the moment, by her seductive offers of adventure. She went on alone, and I spent the summer sure that I had stomach cancer, smoking cigarettes and drinking heart-palpitating coffee, hanging out in my mother’s studio apartment, a flowered curtain dividing our beds.

My ex/boyfriend called to say that he was seeing somebody in the program. Seeing somebody. As if he were spending his evenings watching some woman duck-walk back and forth in his living room. I wailed into the pillows on my mother’s couch as she offered me a cheese danish from Nabolom Bakery and a glass of pucker-sweet sherry.

Lynda didn’t stay on Vashon Island very long. A year, maybe. Then a fellowship to Provincetown, a reckless move to a bad section of Brooklyn. Sirens and car horns drowned out her voice on the phone. She sounded thrilled that I got a teaching job in Rhode Island, just a quick train trip, and came to see me in my new digs on Benefit Street.

I had purchased a shit-brown Civic similar to her old one, after the fiery demise of my Ghia, and chugged to Providence to begin my first tenure-track position. Mostly, I moved through the US mail (books and papers and clothes). Everything else had been folded in tissue, including my neon coyote, a final gift from the ex/boyfriend, and strategically positioned in my small car, while allowing enough breathing room for my little dog, Percival.

My ex/boyfriend and I drove in tandem to Ohio, where he would begin his own job. We traveled like that for days, Percy watching me from his carrier. I watched my ex/boyfriend’s drugged Siamese crawl up the back of his seat and wrap around his head. I laughed when I saw the turn signal frantically sputter on. That drive was us all over: traveling together and alone.

We swallowed mile after mile like that, past countless dead armadillos, their small bodies armored and not cute, out of Houston at last, leaving behind a lot of our history along with fluffy biscuits and white gravy. He dropped off his cat at a feline hotel and came with me to Providence, where we said goodbye for good.

As lovers, I mean. We’re still friends. Well, friendly exes. The cat died, but he’s got a kid, and I think he’s pretty happy. I am pretty happy too. I’m married to someone who doesn’t (seem to) have issues with monogamy. My mother is dead, gone to Alzheimer’s, then gone altogether a few years ago. And Lynda is long dead.

When she came to see me in Providence, she looked great, newly blond and pink-cheeked, but she flicked drops of sweat off the end of her nose as we strolled around the East Side. She bled on my ivory-colored couch: a sudden period. Unfairly, this annoyed me. My first brand-new couch!

Not much of a pet person, Lynda was prepared to dislike Percy, a frou-frou with orange Troll hair, but he put his fox-like face on her shoulder. “Well, that is cute,” she conceded.

In a Thayer Street bar, Lynda admitted that she hadn’t been feeling well, then tapped her pack of cigarettes on the table. “And this,” she said, “has got to stop.” I told her that she looked too good for anything to be seriously wrong. She said, “Isn’t that how it goes? Everyone says that she looks great and six months later she’s dead?”

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

“I’m terrified,” she told me over the phone, having limped home to her family in the Midwest. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, dense as usual. “Of dying,” she told me flatly. She wasn’t ready to meet her maker, to make her peace. Her ex sent her books on death and spiritual transcendence; she threw them out. I got together a care package that she liked: boxes of chocolates and some sort of “healing” crystal, which Lynda said she clutched to her chest as she slept.

Her ex/girlfriend was with her at the end. With Lynda unconscious, on a respirator, I talked to her former partner on the phone. “Please tell Lynda that her spirit is welcome to visit me any time,” I said. She curtly said that she would. I imagine she thought Lynda’s spirit would never want to hang out with a nerd like me. Of course, after I’d made the invitation, I thought the same thing. Of all the places to go in the after-world!

I haven’t believed in a life-after-death for quite a few years. Instead of praying, I retell stories, I look at pictures. Lynda and my mother with their arms around each other, my mother alarmingly white-haired. Lynda and me, my hair alarmingly Texanned, long with poufy bangs. The quality of the photographs isn’t good. Our faces are slightly out of focus, the outlines blurred. But I like those arms around each other’s waists. We love each other; you can see that much.

I remember one long night in Houston when I bewailed the seemingly endless seesaw with my ex/boyfriend: how could I be so damnably weak, why did I let this thing drag on? Lynda shook her head. “Miss Calbert, nothing is harder than breaking up with someone,” she told me. “The truth is, we’ll do anything for love.”

Well, she was wrong, and she was right. There are some things that are harder than breaking up with someone, and we will do many things for love.

 

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of four books of poetry: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Sheila Motton Book Prize, the Vernice Quebodeaux Poetry Prize for Women, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College.

 

Mapping Coordinates of Poor, Queer, and Feminine in the High Desert Air

~an excerpt from the unpublished hybrid memoir Honey & Vinegar: Recipe for an Outlaw

Ruth and I both love horses, wear jeans and plaid shirts, are strong and kind of skittish around boys. We live in remote parts of the desert, where going anywhere means miles of walking or begging a ride. We are both dirt-poor. No shiny new shoes. No hamburger lunches with straw wrappers and easy laughter flying. Free lunch program and the outside edge of a bus seat, grudgingly given. Home-cut hair and hand-me-downs. These rare afternoons of horse care and trail rides and Uno are an escape for us both. Not only from boredom and chores, but of the need to hide our empty pockets.

I will sometimes, but not often, stay the night. The horse corral, her room, these are good places. Full of comfort and easy conversation. Her father, however, poisons every moment he is a part of. His is a sneaky cruelty meant to shame. Anything she values is fair game. Any audience who cares makes it better for him, especially if it is another teenage girl. I never let him within four feet of me, wear my baggiest clothes, and stare hate at him. I wish I could make him disappear for her, don’t even try to disguise it.

Her horse is everything to her. Riding, grooming, training him to barrels, feeling that freedom of movement. She has been carefully growing out and tending his mane and tail for months, getting ready for the rodeo, hoarding change for ribbons and practicing plaits. Every bit of pride her life doesn’t allow for her own sturdy beauty is poured into that chestnut coat, that black horsehair. One afternoon just three days before show-time, her father saunters into the house, swinging a large, rusty pair of shears. “Spring haircut…” he drawls, and she’s already out the door, running for the stable.

Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork.

I find her swallowing rage and tears, face pressed hard against that broad shoulder, while all around their feet lie ragged hanks of hair. Cut right down to the bone of the tail, and in inch-long clumps along his neck, unrepairable. Unbearable. Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork. With some predator’s sense of danger, he chooses instead to head to the bar to laugh about how sensitive women folks are.

I stay all day, through endless games of cards, and distract her with fantasies about a horse ranch run only by women. As usual, ramen is the only food available, and not the freshest ramen at that. As we carefully strain the weevils out with the water, mutually ignoring the fact of what we are doing with practiced moves, the dream of owning land stands stark in my mind as impossible. As with the weevils, we ignore it. We need the dream.

*     *     *

The stars seem closer than usual, even accounting for the fact that I’m up a tree. The storm pushes them towards me, or me to them. The leaves flatten against the wind, dream of flying free. Or maybe that’s me again.

The lightning stretches blue-white light across the length of timeworn mountains and the back of my eyelids. My skin is tingling from widow’s peak to toes curled tight against peeling bark.

This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

I’m snugged into a thick crook, hugging the trunk, head back and mouth open to better taste the ozone. To better smell the creosote, wet for thunder. Want is deep in me like a jagged splinter, invisible pressure on a bundle of nerves, impossible to grasp with my fingers.

Almost all I’ve known of sex is pain. Passive and stolen away. This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

*     *     *

I was raised with a strong sense of justice and fairness, among people who share easily and often. Nobody has much, but nobody goes without. There are plenty of toys, of books, of clothes, none of it new, but no less good for that. Until public school. Until the contests of popular began, and secondhand was second-class. I hold firm against the taunting until high school, when every day is a war. Everything about me is a target. My name, body, brain, all counting against me. I am tired. Tired of have not. Tired of making do.

I don’t remember the first thing I stole, but I remember whole lists of things I didn’t. Things I never had. I have my own rules—no stealing from people or small businesses, or just for fun. I know it doesn’t make it OK, but it makes it bearable. Most of what I steal I give away. None of my friends have much, either, and whether it is caretaker or courtship, I want something to offer. That giving streak, it runs in the family, and I’m not the first to make questionable choices in service of it.

I swipe steel-tipped three-inch heels from a factory discount store on a trip up to Tucson. Slip my fingers in the toes on my way past the table and out the door, so smooth my friend walking next to me doesn’t notice a thing. I wait until we are in the car to tell her, knowing she’ll freak out. Knowing also that she enjoys living vicariously through me and my bad-girl ways. Knowing these shoes hold some fundamental piece of my forming identity that makes them a need, not just a want.

I wear them with tight skirts and silky blouses and a black cotton duster, a wide-brimmed Aussie hat on my head and dark sunglasses. I learn how to walk in them quickly, climbing the stairs to collect the slips that show who is missing from class, and turning (most of) them in. Working in the front office gives me freedom to prowl the halls alone, and gives my friends and other weirdos a break. Not always, but if they really need it. High school is a sequence of forced circumstances, and sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes the need to slip away and lick our wounds in private, or in drunken company, is too big. Those slips, they get lost on the way to the office. Sometimes.

I steal bras and underwear, makeup, and seven silver rings of varying designs that I give to the group of girls I most often hang out with. Misfits and nerds and poor kids, a Venn diagram of different that gives us safe ground to meet on. It is 1988 and none of us has found the language to hang our thoughts on, but we stand strong together. Spin stories of protection and revenge against men that hurt us, or want to. Support each other’s crushes, even if we share them. Pass notes and make up code names, quirky semiprecious stones. I have no words for the safety net they give me, the hope they embody. I want to give them a token of gratitude, and my clever fingers slip seven shiny sparks of love into my pocket.

 

Sossity Chiricuzio

Sossity Chiricuzio is a queer femme outlaw poet, a working-class storyteller. What her friends’ parents often referred to as a bad influence, and possibly still do. A 2015 Lambda Fellow, she writes as activism, connection, and survival. Current projects include a hybrid memoir, poetry chapbooks, her ongoing column, “Embody,” for PQ Monthly, and the performance duo Sparkle & truth. Chiricuzio has been published in a wide range of journals, including AdrienneGlitterwolfNANO FictionLunch Ticket, and great weather for MEDIA, as well as anthologies such as The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care, Glitter & Grit: Queer Performance from the Heels on Wheels Femme Galaxy, and Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent. For more info: sossitywrites.com.

Photo by J Tyler Huber Photography

The Day We Buried My Father

On the day of my father’s funeral, I wake up in a twin bed at his house. Liz is still asleep in the identical twin bed across the room. Dad and Penny bought these beds for Caroline and Cate, my nieces, but as usual, we make accommodations that negate the previous accommodations we’ve made for them, and so, at thirty-five years old, my pregnant wife and I are sleeping in twin beds in a room cluttered by toys that piss me off for reasons I’m still trying to nail down. People tell me I’ll get used to toys like that, but I honestly don’t think so. And the way they tell me pisses me off. They say things like, “Just you wait… You’ll see come June, when you become a daddy.” And they say it with this all-knowing grin on their faces, and I wonder if my child will hate me some day for hating when people say well-intentioned things. Because it feels wrong, but I don’t want to stop hating people for that.

As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I try to guess what time it is, but I have no frame of reference beyond that it’s still dark outside. I don’t sleep well when I need to be marking things off my to-do list. Instead of sleeping, I recount the things on that list over and over, and I try to work out the steps I need to take to complete those tasks. What have I neglected in these days leading up to my father’s death? I try to remember if it’s the electric bill or the gas bill I haven’t put on auto-pay yet. I’ve been ignoring my work email completely. I think I scheduled a meeting with our wellness coordinator for this morning to look at my shoulder. I can’t do much with my left arm and it’s been this way since September when I moved a bookshelf down a flight of stairs, and I have to get it fixed they tell me: “You’re going to need that arm come June when you become a daddy, you’ll see.” As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I make a mental note to reschedule my wellness appointment, but that’s as far as I get on my to-do list. I’m too distracted by what the day will bring. We are putting my father in the ground today and I will never see his body again. I lie in that twin bed and consider my dad’s life until I can’t keep it all in my head at the same time, and I feel like if I can just write it down I can come to terms with it. So, I tiptoe out of the bedroom and walk in the dark to the dining room where the large table is covered with a smorgasbord of food the church ladies brought last night, and I have to move the dishes around a little to make room for my laptop.

There’s a tray of nine homemade cinnamon rolls. I start to cut one from the edge, but the one cinnamon roll in the middle looks so soft, and it has no hard edges because the other eight cinnamon rolls have protected it. I think about how my sister would cut the cinnamon roll from the center because it will undoubtedly be the gooiest. She always does things like that. She will run her finger along the bottom of a chocolate cake tray to get extra chocolate while I will insist on getting only the chocolate goo that is intended for my allotted piece. It pissed me off so much. I remind myself of how my sister strongly suggested Liz and I sleep on the twin beds instead of the room that was built for us with the queen-size, and I decide I won’t be able to handle seeing her get the middle cinnamon roll. And so, I put it on a plate and stick it into the microwave for fifteen seconds before sitting down to write about my dad.

To really understand who Dad was, a reader will have to understand the stock he came from and the heritage he was so proud of. And so, in explaining my dad, I begin writing about his grandfather, whom Dad will soon be sharing a patch of ground with. Maybe I get too into the weeds, but after a couple of hours of writing, I’m still ninety-some-odd years away from the part of the story where my dad is born. That’s when Liz emerges from the darkness into the light of the dining room. She has this look she gives me during the early morning hours, when she doesn’t know how long I’ve been up and she finds me at my computer. It’s a look that says she didn’t like me not being there when she woke up because she missed me while she was sleeping. Even if we were in twin beds. That look is a reminder of how much she loves me, and I take comfort there on this day that has already been committed to both formal and informal sadnesses.

Liz gets a cinnamon roll and laughs at the vacancy in the middle of the pan.

“You didn’t,” she says.

But I assure her I did. I am eating my grief, and it becomes clear to me that my grief warrants a second cinnamon roll. We heat them up and share a fork so there is one less utensil to wash later.

The others wake up and trickle into the kitchen for coffee and to survey the breakfast options. Penny, her friend Anita, my sister’s family. I sip my tea and watch my little nieces sitting at the bar eating cinnamon rolls that are the size of their faces. They’re still in their pajamas—cotton gowns with Disney princesses on them. Cate, the five-year-old, asks why my tea is in a coffee cup instead of a regular glass. Because it’s hot, I tell her. That’s not tea, she says. Yes, it is. It’s hot tea. No, it’s not, Gunkel. I don’t know what to tell you, Cate—it’s hot tea. She’s confused and embarrassed at the things she does not know yet because she is only five, so she changes the subject.

“Talk like St. Patrick’s Day!” she says. That’s her way of saying she wants me to use an Irish accent, but my Irish accent is terrible and I don’t want to do it in front of adults. When I tell her as much, she is unsatisfied.

“Talk like Mommy!” Caroline, the nine-year-old, says.

I can do that, I tell them.

The girls look at me expectantly with their big, little-girl eyes, waiting for my impression of their mother. “Caroline, Caroline—hey, listen to me for a second.” Caroline thinks I’m talking to her in real-time, rather than doing an impression and she drops her head down to listen to what I’ll say next. Chris, my brother-in-law, is listening and he laughs.

“That doesn’t sound like Mommy,” Cate says.

Chris assures his daughters it does sound like Mommy.

“Talk like Daddy!” Cate says.

I tell Chris to say something and then I mimic the line as best I can and the girls laugh.

“Talk like Penny!” “Talk like Aunt Liz!” “Talk like Nene!” I roll out my best impressions for my nieces and it’s fun, but I can feel the inevitable conclusion long before we get there.

“Talk like Papa!” Cate says.

I can’t think of what my now-deceased father sounded like. For years, when I thought of him, I thought of how he would say, “Good grief,” when something had completely exasperated his patience—quite often his son—but the girls wouldn’t know about that. Ever since that first brain hemorrhage three and a half years ago, Dad had all the patience in the world as he endured one thing after the other—the stroke and the physical therapy and the occupational therapy and all the rehabilitation and the shitty food and not being allowed to drive. The seizure while behind the wheel shortly after he got his license back, the wreck that it caused, the tumor on his brain that caused the seizure, the house fire in the middle of the night that nearly killed him because the medicine he had to take at the time made him sleep hard, the tumor that came back on his brain after they told him there was a 99% chance it wouldn’t, the four tumors on his spine they stumbled across by chance moments before they went in after the tumor on his brain, the sleepless days and nights in the hospital that Dad called the “beepin’est place he’d ever been in.” He had times when he could barely breathe, yet he endured the goddamned hiccups as a side effect for two years. And of course, there were the treatments, the treatments, the treatments, and there was the deterioration of the man who let me steer on the dirt road just before we reached our house when I was six. The man who told me to watch the ball and keep my elbow up. The man who took me bear hunting with a BB gun because he just wanted to go to a piece of land he loved and walk around there with me for a while. He just wanted to give me a life I would enjoy. And I hope I can do that as well for my son as he did for me.

Cate was two when Dad got sick and from that time on, so much of his communication was reduced to short but strained yesses or no’s—Are you cold? Yes. Are you hungry? No. I try to think of an impression of her Papa that she will recognize, but I can only think of the last words he gave me. Three days before he died, Dad lifted his head barely off the pillow, which required significant effort, so I knew he meant to tell me something important. I was alone with him, sitting at the side of his bed, and I leaned in so he wouldn’t have to speak any louder than he had to. “What is it, Dad?” I whispered. He had no medicine that day and so I knew he had his incomparable wit about him. I put my hand behind his head to help him lift it.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

“Dad, I can’t do that,” I said.

“But maybe, you can,” he said.

“It’ll be over soon,” I told him.

A stranger might interpret Dad’s asking me to end his life as weakness, but I assure you it was a testament to the dignity with which he lived. Long before he ever got sick, Dad said, “Son, if I’m ever stuck in bed and unable to care for myself with no hope of recovery, just shoot me.” And now he was living up to those courageous and selfless words he’d laid out for me then. My father was strong and dignified, even in those final days—especially in those final days.

He looked cold and I saw his hand trying to pull the plaid blanket, but he was too weak to move it. I straightened it for him and tucked it around his body, up to his neck like he liked it. I asked him if he remembered tucking me in when I was a little boy. He nodded slowly. I told him how I remember watching him tuck my sister into her bed across the hall before coming to tuck me in. And how after he would tuck me in I’d watch him go back into her bedroom and turn on the lamp so they could check her for ticks. She always claimed to have ticks as a way to get him to come back in to see her. And when he’d finally turn out her lamp for good, I’d fear what might be waiting for me in the dark—a possessed Teddy Ruxpin, or an animal of some kind just outside my window, maybe—but I told him how I found security in the sound of the television coming through the wall behind my headboard. Because as long as I could hear that television, I knew my dad was awake on the other side of the wall and would ward off anything that might get me. And if they attacked, he would use his pickax to destroy them, just like he did that copperhead I almost stepped on in our driveway. And I’d be reassured by his strength and his ability to keep anything bad from ever happening to me.

A tear fell down my dying father’s cheek as I conveyed the memory to him. I wiped it with my hand and I told him I loved him and that he was a good dad to have. I sat with him until he fell asleep and I never saw him awake after that.

I don’t know how to do an impression of my father that the girls will recognize and I am stalling until finally Caroline says, with attitude, “Okay, moving on…” the way nine-year-old girls do. And we stop the game and I go to the bedroom with the twin beds and the toys that will hopefully stop pissing me off “once that baby gets here,” and I pull out the suit and tie I will wear on this day when we will bury my father.

 

Guy Choate earned an MFA at the University of New Orleans. Among other literary journals, his work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Cobalt Review, and he is currently working on a manuscript about his attempt to walk across the country with his friend Rory. Guy is the founder and director of the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife, Liz. They are expecting their first child, to whom Guy addresses his photo-a-day blog, which you can follow at getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com.

Photo by Joshua Asante

Big Ball of String Theory

Yoo-hoo! I’m back here, in the bedroom, in the bed. I’m seventeen, I’m twenty-two, I’m thirty-seven, fifty. I dress in white and lie here. Let’s just say it’s mono, or Some Disease, the lazies, or the dreads. Let’s just say I never learned to spell élan vitale right. Let’s just say I should be dead.

My mother says I don’t complain. I’ve been sentenced to six weeks. Not that people will notice. I’m barely a blip at school. Mom tries to fix that with plenty of pudding to fatten me up. She buys me a blue Princess phone for my bedside, and dashes off to work. She went back to school and is all professorial now in her swinging skirt and trim jacket. She always carries a stack of papers. Always. Since Daddy died, she’s raised us on her own.

Sweetheart, she says, I hope you get better soon. Better to her means going to school, cheering her up, not dying. Better to me means getting a letter from my boyfriend back east at one of the Ivies, closing my eyes, floating back to holding hands, filling the neighborhood streets with Prufrock’s love call, back and back again through pheromones thickening the air in the back seat of his mother’s blue compact car. Oh please, don’t wake me up.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years. In Mom’s dictionary, college always comes before marriage, a case of the pot trying to keep the kettle from turning black. Get married, and I’ll cut you off at the pockets, she threatens. So I lie here, spend hours composing letters to send far way. I am what I write. It’s perfect. Just don’t make me talk on that phone, make the words come out of my mouth. If I knew what to say, it would have been, Shut up and kiss me.

Mom comes home at night and asks after my day. I got a letter, but it’s my sweet secret. At dinner she talks about work, so I’m off the hook. I study the grain on the table, cultivating my opaque veneer. She has single-handedly integrated the faculty senate by crossing the aisle to sit with the men. Feminism is just around the corner. What are you reading that for? she asks when The Feminine Mystique shows up on my lap. She has always preferred male company. If she had a best friend, it wouldn’t be me.

After dinner, she types on the Royal. Seventy words per minute, hour after hour—lesson plans, letters, agendas. She’s been doing this my whole life. My first lullaby. No matter what her job is, she never stops being a secretary. I want to be a philosopher. I read Durant’s one-volume history into the night. Plato, Augustine’s Ethics, then on to Spinoza. She makes me take two terms of typing, which I ditch, forging her name on the slip.

Last weekend my sister came home. We’ve slipped into a truce now that she’s going to college away. She got a call during dinner—a meeting of all the new cheerleaders. Mom and I couldn’t stop laughing. She’s always tripping over herself. I was the acrobat. She got the boobs and the bubbly thing, all those guys with their gropey hands. If I had a line of guys at the door, I’d probably crawl back in bed. What she didn’t know then is this—one guy used to kiss me.

Let’s just say I’m not proud of it. Let’s just say I needed the practice. Let’s just say, Every dog has its day, which is what she said to me when she finally caught us.

One year later, my love and I turn eighteen three time zones apart. It’s spring, and his letter says he wants to get married. Nay, nay, I say, my wings are still wet. He mentions his mother, who’s for it. I don’t mention mine. We call the thing done, and I date his brother, who dated my sister, then romance a flurry of friends and friends’ friends, until the connections dead-end. After four years, he finds another blonde hometown girl. After forty years, they’re still at it.

At twenty-two, I’m a senior at Berkeley, where my words are confined to paper, my spoken self broken, no dates in two years. America’s armies invade Cambodia. My fever won’t break. In the next bed a Japanese student is reading haiku. They tell me you can’t get this twice, but, Look, here I am! I feel my credibility sinking as low as my blood count. Outside my window, my classmates are marching, out raging and outraged. Some students are dead on TV. I am holding my debutante ball here, so white and so pure. No one drops in, no one dances. The nurses are starchy in nurse-caps, my makeshift attendants. Two little white pills a day and you’re back on your feet in a week, right back where you started.

When you spend lots of time between sheets, things start to look different. When I turn thirty-seven, they give it a name. Something I had all along that turned ugly, like the divorce. They want to cut out the pain, but I won’t let them do it, not yet. I’m thinking of healing. Months later, a chastened shadow, my ghost gets the message to let it begin—the removal of scraps of organs, one piece at a time. Let’s just say I must have had more than I needed. Let’s just say there are surgeons still sunning themselves on deck during cruises Aruban. Let’s just say there was only one time in ten when I didn’t want to wake up.

When your body is disappearing into biohazard bags at a good clip, it’s time to take stock. Are you still the who that you were, without this, without that? Have you left all the right things behind? What about all those brain cells that live in the gut? I turn on the TV that hangs from the ceiling. The Challenger shuttle explosion is looping the loop, transfixing a nation, blasting carnage and smoke from incredulous skies, and indelible tears from school-aged eyes. My neighbor tells me she’s seen my son ditching classes. My step-daughter hates him. Her friends steal my car.

Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses.

Let’s just say you are Donna Reed, and the kids are clean and squeaky. Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses. Let’s just say you are Harriet and Ozzie is on his way home with takeout. After dinner, the whole family sings.

At fifty, I have my lastectomy. My son stops by with a jones and I pay him off so he’ll go. They stitch me up crooked, take out some nerve endings too. Who cares. I’m getting divorced again. I move to a new town, re-date my first love’s brother, but soon get re-dumped, after making fast friends with their mother. Who the hell knew.

Most days I’m fine now. My own mother’s up on the mantle. I don’t complain. Let’s just say I’ve made some adjustments. Let’s just say I can make the case for adversity, and then rebut it. Let’s just say that in another universe, available in theory via strings, quarks, and quantum leaps, my mother stands in a doorway, misty-eyed in an apron, and blesses a union, one in which love finds a voice that speaks in my voice—a world where I not only squeak through alive, but finally walk away whole.

 

Linnea Wortham Harper writes on the banks of McKinney Slough on the central Oregon coast. A retired psychiatric social worker, she labors under the impression that she is still writing chart notes to make sense of what otherwise won’t. When she was five, she introduced W.H. Auden to the works of A.A. Milne. This has been her greatest literary accomplishment.

Matches

Green signs loom over I-80, beckoning us towards Omaha; it’s difficult not to exit downtown to the Courtyard Marriott, tell them we want our old room so we could pretend we’re still new at this. I could still get butterflies when he emerges from the bathroom in a shirt and tie, flash-forwarding to the man this boyfriend might become; I could take a shower, examining the suck-marks on my sore body with ecstasy, the proof of a desire I believe is permanent; he could take me to The French Café where I’d purr like a raccoon, us drinking cappuccinos by the fireplace, sneaking our hands under the table and between each other’s legs; we could be nineteen and so new in love we can’t stop looking at each other and grinning.

We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted.

But we’re older now, bound for the grit and grub of a campground, turning off the interstate and driving down small Nebraska roads. We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted. I get a little panicky that this road is map-colored the gray of gravel and isolation as we turn into the state park where we’ll camp.

We drive past a series of algae-clogged manmade lakes named 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3. The grandma who took my $15 at the head of the campground promised nothing more offensive than a skunk or a deer, but I can’t shake the fear that a bear has rambled its way across the state, is hiding in the thin patches of trees marking the edges of the campground, so I pick a site near the center of the grounds, making sure other tents will barricade us, just in case.

We brought no firewood or matches, so we drive to the gas station and I refuse to go inside, preferring the air-conditioned car, watching the Dodge-driving high-school football player pull up next to our Saturn, sidle into the gas station, come back clutching a Dasani, and back his truck down the road before my angry boyfriend bursts out with a cord of firewood and a whole paper-covered box of Winston matches. “I had to buy this fucking thing,” he storms, tossing the box of two hundred matchbooks onto my lap. $2.19 is outrageous for something we could have gotten for free, I argue, because he totally should have just gotten a single matchbook up at the register. We yell the whole way back through the campground, the windows rolled up: he says there weren’t any single matchbooks, I contend that we could have borrowed two fucking matches from someone else at the campground, he snarls that he’s sure I would have asked someone to borrow matches when he’s never even seen me call a pizza place in the two years we’ve been dating, that’s fine, whatever, I’m sure we need two hundred fucking books of matches.

We promised the grandma we wouldn’t drink alcohol on the premises, but as the sun starts to set and he runs to the river to take pink-and-orange-scarred photographs, I uncap a Rolling Rock and camouflage the green bottle behind the green gas burner as I pat a hamburger, trying to wipe away the unbudging fat with one of the three napkins we scrounged from the glovebox. I wait for him to come back and fry the burgers, bees crawling in the burger-blood no matter how worriedly I flap at them.

In the gloaming, a flashlight trained on our napkin-plates, I build prairie dreams, remarking how skillfully I’d picked a good campsite, how we’re eating a great dinner of chips, Oreos, and homemade burgers, dreams rapidly dissipating when we can’t even build a campfire, and I snidely poke at him, trying to give advice that wouldn’t be useful even if he’d let me get it out. I sulk in a lawn chair, watching the stars poetically as he swears and snorts until a little plume of smoke gets started and I remind him that the fire probably wouldn’t have started without the twigs and branches that I collected, but that’s okay, whatever, it’s finally working, right.

But the kindling refuses to take off, and we bicker around the charred firewood that’s haphazardly towering inside our fire pit; the family to our north roasts marshmallows and the kids run around with burning branches, excited; angry, we unstick all the burrs from our fur and hurl them at each other, remember when we used to be in love, remember when we didn’t use to fight all the time, we are in love!, don’t you know why we’re fighting, and I start crying, pull my hood over my eyes and crawl into the tent, I’m going to sleep.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons.

I turn on my side and refuse to touch him when he finally enters the tent after enough time has elapsed to show me he isn’t caving. I have a dream that makes my stomach drop out, even in my sleep, and it scares me so much that even when I wake up to him ripping open the tent zipper to piss right outside the tent, I don’t yell at him for peeing somewhere I’m going to have to step in the morning; it is a bite on my tongue I can sustain.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons. We disassemble the tent, the morning air breathing humidly under my hair, the slot-machine shower flushing hot and cold, and I walk in my wet clothes hand-in-hand with him, the rest of the world waking up while we drive out of the campground, sputtering past last night’s roadkill, speeding past the signs for downtown Omaha in the rearview, one hundred and ninety-nine books of matches in the glovebox.

 

Kristine Langley Mahler has recently published nonfiction (or has work forthcoming) in Quarter After Eight, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Bitter Southerner, the Brevity nonfiction blog, and Crab Orchard Review, where her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. She is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel, an assistant editor at Profane Journal, and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

If Memory

If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: my father strides, back straight and face serious, to the edge of the pool. It’s a late summer day. Children of other families splash and shout, a cooling breeze chases the sun. My father is sturdy, not fat and not thin, handsome with wavy dark hair, brown eyes, a high forehead, classically sculpted nose and wide, good-humored mouth. Fun, yet in control. Always in control, so that now what seems remarkable is the happiness I recall amid the games of risk we played in the safety of that pool. As if we were not all the time living under the mandate that ruled him—to keep himself and his family as well-protected as possible from what he could not foresee but felt sure was coming.

We line up to watch, his four children aged six to eleven, clasping arms against skinny torsos in lengthening evening shadows. My father marches to the edge of the pool, grabs his nose with his left hand and the shoulder strap of an invisible gun with his right. He steps out over the water—cautiously, mindful of his bad back. At the same time, his right arm thrusts out in a strong and precise movement, fisted hand opening to signify throwing off the gun.

A vigorous kick or two brings him quickly to the surface. He swims to the side. This is the abandon ship drill, which he learned on the boat going to England for the war, and he is teaching it to his kids. “You’ll need this,” he says, with mock-seriousness that makes us grin without letting us think we can slack off, “if you are ever attacked on the sea.” So, we practice, imitating his movements, working to keep our backs as straight as his. I do everything just like him, with one exception. I sink all the way to the bottom ten feet below, loose and quiet and happy. Suspended. Effortless.

Later, when we’re playing in the shallow end, he might pretend he’s drowning and shout for me to save him. I always do.

*     *     *

If memory is present, here I am: Dad is singing, bass voice thrilling and resonant, songs from the thirties and forties that we kids hear so often we sing too, words memorized—By the light (not the dark but the light) of the silvery moon. Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men. Show me the way to go home.

*     *     *

In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.

If memory foreshadows, this chills: I run up the sidewalk along a block of small Cape Cod houses with driveways in front and sandboxes in back. I’m five years old, and have been waiting until my father, walking home from work, appears around the corner at the top of our street. He stops to watch me. I shriek my nickname for him, Daddy-me-guy! In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.

My father had quit his pack-a-day habit in 1954 when he was thirty and my mother was pregnant with me. By his early eighties, when even minor exertions left him gasping for air and X-rays showed calcifying lungs, his doctor didn’t believe he’d stopped smoking so young. But I recall his workday smell. Until his retirement in 1991, my father had spent his days in smoke-filled offices and meeting rooms.

The doctor biopsied the left lung and put my father on medication to slow the progression of the disease. The biopsied lung developed pneumonia, which quickly spread to the other. It was bewildering. Never had he imagined that the smoky exhalations of others less disciplined than he would sabotage his carefully ordered life.

At that time, I was close enough to him to know he was ill, but too far from him to know he feared he was dying. Or maybe I’d stopped listening.

*     *     *

If memory is present here I am: my father puts key to ignition and glances over at me, sitting next to him—a big girl in the front seat. Before rolling out of the garage, he snakes his broad hand over, grabs my leg just above the knee, and says, “Gripper’s gotcha!” I laugh because though his hand is strong, his touch is gentle.

*     *    *

If memory is image, this I see: he looks up from his book, his legs and feet draped in towels to protect him from the seaside sun, reminding me to stay in sight of the lifeguards and not swim out too far. I run off to dare the sea to overwhelm me.

Dad, who’d made it physically unscathed through the Battle of the Bulge only to break his back falling on a freshly polished dance floor in 1946, would only go ankle-deep into the surf. Perhaps this was then I first began leaving him, each plunge into the traveling waves carrying me further away. Away from his caution for his bad back. Away from the order of his suburban home, neat yard, and mid-level management job. Away from the promise of the fifties and early sixties that had already begun to shred, a process he saw and fought with ever-increasing dismay.

Toward the curling waves where I, by ten-years-old a good swimmer, tread water out beyond the breakers where I can’t touch bottom, watching the shimmer for a darker oncoming swell. My father behind me, the horizon before me, I swim madly at the biggest ones, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, free—sliding smoothly up the face and dizzily down the back. Exultant.

If I time it poorly, the wave breaks onto me and combined forces of forward momentum and downward thrust shove me to the hard, sandy bottom. The ocean’s is a capricious rhythm. Its sand-blasted saltwater stings my nose and throat and eyes. Its disorienting power causes me moments of panic when I’ve lost the surface and the bottom. And air. I develop a relaxed awareness that helps me feel where up is in that roiling world. I surface, swiping water from my eyes, ready—the ocean’s is relentless rhythm—for a new surge. Though the terror of being tossed about never diminishes, I learn to accept chaos while willing inward calm, a lesson that will serve me well forty years on when I seek to overcome inherent, gripping anxiety.

Sometimes I take a deep breath and swim out, head down and not looking, until suddenly swept up—the best option for confronting the ocean. I never know exactly when I’ll soar. Or I dive several feet below the heaving surface, suspended. Peaceful. Later in life I will dream of floating bonelessly in the deeps of a vast ocean, so still I need not breathe.

*     *    *

If memory is present, here I am: we’ve picnicked near Hoopes Reservoir, and are walking off lunch. Dad starts acting like a hippie—his version of a hippie—head bobbing with his long strides, arms swinging loosely from broad shoulders. I’m too young to be embarrassed by his antics, and I laugh when he says, Yeah, man, cool.

*     *    *

If memories explain how the living might ignore the dying, these instruct: I’m fourteen, liberal consciousness dawning and feminist indignation growing. I argue with my conservative, staunchly Republican father, who has only been able to manage the tumult of the sixties by retreating to the suburbs. Sometimes he uses the dinner table forum to vent his ire at permissive parents with undisciplined children, Democrats, hippies, and women’s libbers: those war protestors are un-American, women shouldn’t wear pants because they look like they have watermelons in their back pockets, and Goldwater will save the country. When I argue, sitting to his left at dinners that my mom has ready the minute he comes home from work, he refuses to engage me. He snaps his mouth shut and looks away.

Arguing with Dad is like boxing Jell-O.

I’m a teenager. I resort to one of two strategies, depending on which contentious topic—war, feminism, social justice—is at hand. If it’s war, I often match his silence out of deference to his pride in his World War II service. If it’s feminism or social justice, I goad him, knowing he won’t respond but taking perverse satisfaction in my ability to get him angry, and even though he criticizes women who argue or seem too confident.

“I don’t see why I can’t marry anyone I want. Who cares if I marry an African? It’s no different from marrying a Frenchman.”

“We had an argument today in social studies. It was me and Laurie Keene against the world. We said a woman could be president and everyone else said no.” I watch his lips grow tight and his face take on a remote look that, though I’ve deliberately caused it, I resent.

In my twenties and at last weary of my steps in our dance, I stop needling him. We talk about sports or literature or my parents’ travels. We sing in the car, his basso voice taking low harmony under my soprano. I laugh at his puns and silly jokes, knowing he drinks in my attention. Though I still challenge him when he’s contemptuous of women, I’m also happy to give him the attention he wants.

I am so different than he: divorced after six years in a marriage with a man who either derided or ignored me, I had returned to college in my late twenties hoping for a career in music. I’m living with a rock-and-roll drummer. I have no stability and no prospect of the upper middle-class life that anchored him and that he’d worked so hard to make possible for me—a life that, achingly conscious of social and economic imbalances, I’m not seeking.

And my father had done his back exercises most mornings for sixty years. He had immersed himself only in pools with sides to hang onto and bottoms to stand on. He had kept his suits dry-cleaned and his ties neatly knotted, his family provided for and his kids well-behaved, his work ethical and his actions moral, his religion faithful and his politics conservative. What was he to make of me and my comparatively disordered life?

*     *     *

If memory pierces, I am defenseless before this: I stand at the sink washing the dinner dishes as my father dries them, our usual arrangement on my weekend visits. It’s June 2006. I’m looking out the window at our back yard, my hands in warm, sudsy water, the kitchen still smelling of the roast we had for dinner. He’s putting pans in a cupboard to my left. Casually, he mentions a recent walk. “I thought I might be able to make the lung tissue relax, or expand. I went around the back yard, trying to breathe deeply with each step.”

“It didn’t help,” he says. “Sometimes I get breathless just getting up out of my chair and walking across the family room.”

What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?

That’s all. That’s the memory. I don’t recall if he said anything else, or if I responded. What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?

Long after, my mother told me what he’d left unsaid: as the breathlessness increased, so did my father’s fear. He would jerk out of a heavy sleep, choking and gasping, frantic. His shoulders sagged, bowing protectively around his chest. Then he had a bad fall while walking his dog, and his step became slower, more cautious. Trying to make his fright and his lungs yield to what had served him so well for all his years—discipline, reason, and self-control—he felt persuaded that a regimen of walking combined with deep breathing would heal him.

If memory can exist for an experience not mine, I see him. Just like I see him striding to the edge of the pool, though I was there at the pool and I was not there—I was not there—in our back yard.

He marches along the perimeter of the space in which he’d taught his kids catch, baseball, croquet, and badminton. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the woodpile, following the stockade fence across the back and then down the side. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the garden where he once grew rhubarb and tomatoes, now shaded by a tall birch, down into the hollow where the fence turns toward the house, up to the back porch and then indoors. Step and inhale… His body rebels. He collapses into his recliner in the family room, coughing uncontrollably. Gasping. My mother kneels beside the jerking chair, trying to help him. Such is her belief that the strength of their partnership can overcome even this, she never thinks of calling an ambulance.

When he’d mentioned it that evening in the kitchen, he’d said so little and I asked for nothing more. I wish now I had. He might have told me how afraid he was, and I might have told him about the sea and below-chaos calm.

The end came in late June 2006. In the hospital, catheterized and on oxygen, at the mercy of doctors and tests and shots and bedpans, he wanted no visitors. Not even his children. Only my mother. Anti-anxiety and even sedating medications couldn’t calm his struggle against the relentless onslaught, in such an agony for breath he could not breathe. He thought he was sparing us the memory of this battle. Yet memory exists for this experience-not-mine and I see my father. He is choking. He is gasping. Real fear lives in his brown eyes and I am not there to help him to the shallows. He had not told me he was drowning. I had not told him how to curl himself around chosen inner quiet and allow tumult its way. And so, my father fought. As we all do. Until something like an ocean, or death, teaches us different.

*     *     *

If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: Dad waves his arms frantically and shouts for help, sinking then coming up spouting water like a surfacing whale. I rush to him. We are in no more than four feet of water and I’m a skinny eight-year-old, but in the buoyancy he is light and I am strong. I tow him, on tiptoe and giggling madly, to the shallow end. Still clinging to me and pretending to choke, he staggers, loudly grateful (“Oh, thank you! You saved me!”), water from his hair dripping down and off his nose and chin, his breath smelling faintly of coffee. And though I know it’s a game and his gasping panic is faked, I feel proud as my toes reach for the bottom and my arms bring him to safety.

 

Carol D. Marsh’s essay, “Pictures in Leaves,” won the 41st Nonfiction Award from New Millennium Writings; her essay, “Highest and Best,” received honorable mention in Under the Gum Tree’s fifth anniversary contest. A 2014 graduate of the MFA–CNF program at Goucher College, Marsh’s memoir, Nowhere Else I Want to Be, was published in January 2017, and is a Finalist in the 2017 National Indie Excellence Awards, Memoir Category. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Soundings Review (honorable mention in the 2014 First Publications contest), bioStories, Jenny Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review.

Imposter

Today: “Ms. Rolfe, are you dying?” This isn’t the first time a student has asked me this after I had a coughing fit in class. In fact, I get asked this all the time. Too often. And I’m used to it. But today, I am hanging on by a thread. I have trouble walking up the stairs. Today, when I got to the top, I was so winded I was seeing stars, and for a minute everything inside me was hard, immovable, like the air was made of liquid steel. It’s only ten steps, but it’s fucking hard. Now my thighs ache, and my breath is shallow. I don’t feel well. I can’t go home sick because there’s a standardized test coming up, and my inattentive students need to do well. I want them to graduate. I want them to move beyond this class and learn how to actually think and be good citizens. I must power through. It’s important because I don’t want to look weak. I do not want to be a liability. But when one of my best students asks this question and another snickers and says under her breath, “Daaaamn, that doesn’t sound good. She might be,” I snap. I just snap. And I snap on a kid who really, really doesn’t deserve it. I say, “Yes, actually, I am dying.” And I don’t leave it at that. I continue, “Would you say that to someone who had cancer? I mean, have you ever really thought about how rude that question is? Like, what if the person is dying?” My student is stunned. He is stunned because I don’t often talk about the fact that I am, indeed, dying. That I’ve been dying for a decade. And that I might be dying for another decade.

2007: I have a fourth-period conference that runs into lunch. I have three office aides who are my best students. They edit the newspaper and yearbook. I love these girls. I see one of them four times a day. She stops by my classroom in the morning, eats lunch with me, and takes two of my classes. She has her aunt’s old Cure records, and I quickly realize a few months into the school year that we are cut from the same weirdo cloth. We watch Strong Bad videos together. She makes a video project for my photojournalism class to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” and I think if I had a daughter, I would want her to be this kid. I’m in a bad, abusive relationship. I am sick and damaged and they miss their fun teacher. I feel like crap all the time. I am losing weight. I’m miserable and exhausted. The moping, scattered mess I’ve become is starting to scare my students and they assume it’s boyfriend trouble. They are teenagers and they always assume it’s a boy. I even think it’s about a boy. However, what I don’t know yet is that it isn’t just the boyfriend making me depressed and exhausted and sick. My boyfriend thinks I am faking being sick so he won’t leave me for the hairdresser who, I learn from a barely readable message she sends me, can’t even spell liar. He thinks I am exaggerating the seriousness of the situation. And the whole time, I am not focused on the fact that I might have a terminal illness. I am more concerned with being able to prove him wrong and make him feel like shit—because, you know, that’s what’s really important. Then one morning during that fourth-period conference, my pulmonologist calls to discuss the results of my genetic test. Before he gets into it, I mention that the lab called the day before and said that the sweat test was negative, but he responds by saying, “Well, it doesn’t matter because the genetic test turned up two different cystic fibrosis gene mutations.” He says that usually people have two copies of the same gene, but I have two different genes that cause CF, and one is extremely rare. He calls my CF atypical, and I cling to this word for years. I will think it means that the CF I have is somehow different than the CF that I’ve read about—the one that causes people to die by my age. For years, my CF will exist somewhere in the background. I begin treatment for an infection in my lungs that has been slowly destroying my health for the past few years. And for a long time, I feel better.

When I finally cut that abusive boyfriend loose for good, one of the last things he yells at me is, “Who’s going to love the dying girl?”

2008 or so: When I finally cut that abusive boyfriend loose for good, one of the last things he yells at me is, “Who’s going to love the dying girl?” But I don’t think of myself that way, or at least not yet. Years later, these words will bubble up again, and they will be more painful than they were at the time they were spoken. Now that I know I have CF, I do some research, and while what I learn should be scary, it’s not, because I realize I can’t possibly have the same disease as these people I’m reading about. I’m atypical. I don’t take hundreds of pills—just five or six. I have inhalers but not nebulizers. I have no idea what this vest contraption is that people keep talking about online, and when I read about doing hours of treatments a day, I have no concept of what that’s like because I don’t do any treatments. I take my antibiotics, and I use my inhaler, but other than that, life is pretty much the same as it always has been.

2013: I began my teaching career at a Title I school where sixty-five percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged or “at risk.” Most of my students do not speak English as their native language, and since I teach English, this makes my job a challenge. My last year at this school, eighty-nine out of my 120 students do not pass their standardized test, and now I’ll have to prepare them for not only their ninth-grade test but their tenth-grade test as well. What they want me to do is impossible, but I try anyway because I love my students. I want them to graduate and have opportunities. But I am tired, and I am starting to realize that I am sicker than I used to be. One day after school, one of my coworkers, who confuses my thick-skin and blunt manner for a lack of feelings, says to me, “My students keep asking me who’s going to die first, you or McDonald,” meaning a coworker who is planning on retiring at the end of the year because of prolonged illness. And in that moment, I understand that perhaps I look as run-down as I feel and that maybe my coughing, though normal and routine for me, is jarring for others. Two days later, my school district announces that it is switching to some state-sponsored health insurance and that if I want actual coverage, it will cost me $425 a month out of my own pocket. The union has plans to protest, but I am scared shitless. A week later, I go to see my pulmonologist, and he says that he wants me to get established at the transplant center in San Antonio. My pulmonary function tests are showing a decline. And after requesting these test results for the past few years and doing more online research, I realize that my rate of decline is concerning. I’m getting close to the transplant range. I make the appointment. I start looking for a job in a district with better health insurance. And then I join a CF forum because the only person I know who has had a lung transplant is dead.

Thoughts that regularly occurred between 2013 and 2015: A lung transplant is considered a success if the patient lives one year post-transplant. I know this from Gregory. His transplant went down in the books as a success. But he died one year and one month later, and in my mind, it was not a success because my friend is dead, and I need him now. Most CF patients live five years post-transplant.

At first, at my new job, I do not tell anyone that I have cystic fibrosis. Mentioning this while applying for a teaching position would’ve hurt my chances of getting a job.

2014: At first, at my new job, I do not tell anyone that I have cystic fibrosis. Mentioning this while applying for a teaching position would’ve hurt my chances of getting a job. Later, I tell a few coworkers, but I still don’t want to tell my boss until I’ve proven myself. One day during my first year at this new school, a man approaches me in the copy room and pulls me aside to talk to in confidence. He says, “I know this is a weird question, but do you have cystic fibrosis?” He explains that he heard there was a new English teacher with CF and that his daughter has it. We talk for a while. He suggests I contact the CF clinic at Dell Children’s Hospital, where his daughter is a patient. I realize at the end of the conversation that this man looked at me and recognized that I had CF. I look like I have CF.

2014: I’m in the hospital for IV meds. The infection I had for years is gone, but now I have pseudomonas. I know from my CF forum that this is common, and while not the worst bug you can get, it’s hard to shake. I’ve been quietly lurking on the CF forum for a while now, and I’m starting to realize that I am indeed atypical, but perhaps not in the ways I thought. I slowly begin to understand from stalking profiles and gleaning information from posts that there is no such thing as atypical CF, or rather there is, but in general all CF is different. It’s a disease that affects no two people exactly the same. Some die at thirty, and some live into their seventies, and no doctor can tell you what will happen. They can’t tell you how long you will live or how you will respond to a transplant, if you can have children or not, or even how long you’ll be able to work with the disease. One study I find on the internet says that atypical CF, while once believed to be a milder form of the disease, can actually just be a later onset of the disease that affects mostly one organ, and unfortunately for you, it’s the lung. The one you need to breathe—the most basic life-sustaining function. When my coworkers come to visit me at the hospital, I take them to the mini-kitchen for ice cream. I get to order hospital food like it’s room service, and so I don’t mind being here. I keep saying that it’s like a very boring all-inclusive resort.

Six months later in 2014: At the transplant hospital, they forget about me for two hours. This is my third visit, and my lung function has dropped to thirty-five percent. The respiratory therapist, who is an asshole, grills me about why I don’t go to a CF clinic. He asks why I don’t do the usual treatments that most CF patients do, and then he gives me the hard sell on going to the CF clinic that’s opening in San Antonio. Later, when I see the transplant doctor, he also gives me the hard sell for a lung transplant. I can tell he wants me to get one because he thinks I’ll be good for their success rates. I’m young(ish) and healthy(ish). I still go to work. I still function like a relatively normal person, but my lung is indeed damaged and only getting worse. When I leave, I decide I’m never going back. I don’t want to be sold a transplant. I don’t give a fuck about their success rates. If I get a new lung, I will be out of work, and I’m not going to stop working unless I’m near death. Odds be damned. If I can’t teach, I don’t know who I am. But things are bad enough that I’m finally very afraid I’m going to die, and so I call the CF clinic. I also finally tell my boss. When I tell my pulmonologist I am leaving him for the CF clinic, it feels like a breakup. At the clinic, they give me the vest. I get the nebulizer, and I am put on the typical treatment regimen.

2015: I am going back into the hospital for the second summer in a row. I’ll be getting my first PICC line. And since I still have exactly zero friends with CF, I Google the process, and I’m freaked-the-fuck-out. Websites describe needles and long tubes that go into a peripheral vein and are then guided toward one of the central veins near the heart where blood flows more quickly. They mention the use of ultrasound machines to find the vein. The night before I go into the hospital, I get drunk with my coworkers. I’m facing two weeks of being connected to tubes and drugs and probably no booze. And this realization actually scares me more than the poking and prodding does.

Somewhere deep inside I can still feel a visceral denial coursing through me. Because this has always been my problem—dealing with the admission that I am dying, or seriously ill, in any real sort of way. It’s the denial that allows me to skip treatments in favor of watching the love arc of Naomi and Max on 90210. It’s the denial that never fills my inhaler prescriptions because I would rather spend twenty-five dollars on booze than on albuterol. And I am pretty sure that denial was in full force the night I decided to smoke a clove at a Queers concert despite knowing the probable consequences. (That night I coughed up so much blood that I texted a photo of it to my boyfriend for confirmation that it was, in fact, a disconcerting amount of blood.) The denial comes in waves, but it’s always there. Until something happens and my body forces me to reckon with the reality of its limitations.

Today: I am almost forty, and I’m standing in front of my students—all of them born since the turn of the century—losing my shit over a dumb “are you dying” joke. Which is stupid because I’ve never had trouble with the admission that I am dying when I need it for dramatic or comic effect—mostly when I return home for a visit and my family seems both unrecognizable and unaware that I am visiting for only a short time and forces me to do things I do not want to do, like a family gathering where I don’t actually know anyone they’ve invited. Sometimes I use it when I am pissed off at a friend or ex-boyfriend and I want to make him feel like shit for ignoring me for the last decade, or when a coworker is complaining about something petty and I want to be morbid to freak her out because I am bored of teacher talk. Sometimes I use it to segue into a particularly inappropriate comment or as an excuse for one. Sometimes I whip it out in lieu of an apology. More often than not, it’s the reason I give for canceling plans or being late to work.

But today, I can’t deal with jokes. I am too tired, and the walk up those ten steps felt like it was killing me

But today, I can’t deal with jokes. I am too tired, and the walk up those ten steps felt like it was killing me. I have told my students bits and pieces about my illness before. I have even said at times that I have cystic fibrosis, but they are fifteen, and they don’t know what it is, and even more important, they can’t fathom that the person who stands in front of them every day bitching at them to pay attention or proofread could actually die. But I am dying, and I spend a good portion of my life either trying to acknowledge that fact in some sort of authentic way so I don’t waste time—reminding myself that to do good in the world and make the most of life and all that shit—or trying to ignore it. And when I cough, and I do indeed feel like I’m fucking dying, and the chorus of apathetic teenagers keeps saying what I’m hearing in my head—“You’re dying”—I snap. And then I am sorry. I am sorry not only because I feel bad for making them feel bad but also because I have said over and over again to anyone who will listen that I would teach until my last dying breath, and right now I feel like a liar. I am an imposter. Most days, I don’t feel sick enough for that statement to be true without a qualifier. And, to be honest, I have more important shit to think about. Because fuck that. I’m not the dying girl. I’m Ms. Rolfe.

 

Bree A. Rolfe lives in Austin, TX, where she teaches writing and literature to the mostly reluctant, but always lovable, teenagers at James Bowie High School. She is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a music journalist for ten years before she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to writing poetry and teaching. Her work has appeared in Saul Williams’ poetry anthology Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, the Barefoot Muse anthology Forgetting Home: Poems About Alzheimer’s, the Redpaint Hill anthology Mother is a Verb, and 5AMMagazine. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College.​​

Photo by Cynthia L. Miller

Flash Point

My best friend is buying a house in Upstate New York with her boyfriend. A family friend expects her first child in eight days. I’m twenty-two, and I have never felt more alone.

I. “For this was the round of love: fear which leads on desire, tenderness and fury, and that brutal anguish which triumphantly follows pleasure,” Françoise Sagan, seventeen-years-old, wrote in Bonjour Tristesse.

At thirteen, I lie awake at night, wrapping my arms about my own torso, and imagine they belong to someone else. I dream of unrequited love; the most poignant stories are always bittersweet. The Brontës are my bonnes soeurs.

Five years pass. Unpacking boxes into an empty dorm, I hesitate. What could love do to me? Friends give up opportunities in the name of compromise, for “love.” Chipper, they readily change the shape of their lives to suit someone else’s plans. My decisions are my own now. I choose solipsism.

II. “I don’t know how to write love letters,” Frieda Kahlo wrote in 1946. “But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened up for you. Since I fell in love with you, everything is transformed and full of beauty… love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.”

I have a friend who is an actor in New York. Caught between time zones, we attempt to keep each other relevant in our increasingly separate lives.

I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

On my morning métro commute, I lean heavily against the window, watching the tangle of Gare du Nord slide by. My phone flashes with the flow of his uninhibited late night musings. At twilight, walking home from work, he reads my snarled texts about the trials of putting down roots in a transient city. We compare the pressures of trying to make it in cultural capitals: our shaken sense of place, identity; our occupational dreams and whether or not we’re cut out for them. But we always come back to love.

“This is the most mixed up, terrifying, exciting time of my life, and this love thing? Those feelings are the most mixed up of all,” he writes to me.

I tell him I have met a man. I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

III. “I saw her again last night, and you know that I shouldn’t,” John Phillips wrote for The Mamas and The Papas’ self-titled, second album.

People ask me if I have someone. Turning twenty-five demands it: invitations to weddings clutter my letterbox; engagement announcements stack up in my feed. They mistake my hesitation. I’m searching for words. Do I begin with a lecture on their assumption that a relationship defines me, or attempt to explain the unformed thing we have between us?

What little I know about firefighting is at the forefront of my mind: the time during a fire at which the room is so completely consumed with flames that saving it becomes an impossibility—the flash point. It is the point of no return; a moment splitting your life into a before and an after.

I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me.

A close friend watches me with you. I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me. Does loving you demand division? You’re incapable of telling yourself how you feel, but your whole face lights up at the sight of me. I resign myself to this.

IV. “And I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight,” J. D. Salinger writes at the closing of Franny and Zooey.

In attic rooms, we argue. His bag clinks as he sets it down. He never arrives without three bottles of red wine.

“You’re a child,” he spits, refilling his glass again. He leans back in his chair and tells me exactly what’s wrong with me. I choke down a fourth glass, hoping it will allow me to be myself.

I wake to one-line apologies.

When we first fell, we’d linger in his bed, push our heads close together. Glasses on the nightstand, his face was the only thing in focus as the sun changed its slant across the white plaster walls.

Abruptly, he is gone.

These days are no longer shaped by his fluctuations. Feeling the unspoken edges, my heart heals slowly. For the first time in months, my rhythm is my own. I wonder how he fills his hours. I wonder who calms him down. He still has my book, and I wonder if he thinks of me.

 

Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in creative writing. She has contributed articles for publications such as Paste Magazine, LensCulture, and Teen Vogue. Her short stories have received an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest’s 2014 Popular Fiction Awards, as well as a finalist distinction for Crab Orchard Review’s 2013 Charles Johnson Fiction Award. She currently lives in Paris.

Faith Is What You Have: Reading Photographs with Flannery O’Connor

On the day of my great-aunt Era Mae and great-uncle Alvin’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, I wore my stepfather’s striped, navy tie and—after stopping for breakfast on the drive through North Alabama—a small grease stain on my khaki pants. Over the air conditioner, my grandmother told me I should’ve put a napkin on my lap first. My grandfather fumbled with an Altoids tin.

Is it important to remember exactly how old you are when your grandmother’s family—who she has described your entire life, from the safe distance that separates Birmingham from Southeast Tennessee, as “frustrating” or “backwards”—decides to celebrate a fact of nuptial endurance in the wood-paneled community room of a Protestant church, during which you have been tasked to sit next to the guestbook at the entrance and say to each increasingly distant and underdressed relative, “Please sign in?”

I remember my grandmother sitting with her sister Era Mae as she opened presents, a pinned yellow tulip making the right side of her cream blouse sag. A congratulatory cake, matching white-and-yellow arrangements throughout, and—memorialized in a photograph—my grandmother standing between her siblings, hair coiffed, a single strand of pearls along the neckline of an unbelted black dress worn without regard for the occasion’s theme or day’s humidity.

*     *     *

Southerners, unsurprisingly, age; why is more complicated. After announcing he keeps so young by kissing “all the pretty guls,” Flannery O’Connor’s narrator considers 104-year-old General Sash:

The past and the future were the same thing to him, one
forgotten and the other not remembered… Every year on
Confederate Memorial Day, he was bundled up and lent
to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed from
one to four in a musty room full of old photographs…

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” situates a dying, and then dead, Confederate General between the cultural and social fictions his wartime labor necessitated in a Reconstructed South, as well as the past that labor separated from the future, and present, it produces. “Late Encounter,” like most of O’Connor’s early short fiction, trades in religious undertones and images. Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

My grandmother was born in 1935; my grandfather, 1932. They moved to Birmingham from Lawrenceburg and Talledega after my grandfather’s naval service in the Korean War and started a family. My mother was born in 1962, soon after her sister who, twenty-three years later, died from a rare genetic disorder. During those twenty-three years, my grandparents bought a houseboat, kept at the nearby lake, and lived a life that seems, based on advertisements from the period, precisely metropolitan: mentholated cigarettes, late-night games of bridge, rolled-sleeves, hair buns, well-tailored blouses with accent pieces and exaggerated features. A life to which I have no direct access, under which inevitably lurked the violence and “backwardness” typifying O’Connor’s fiction, but otherwise seems in photographs and memory normal—a life from which my grandmother, at an age just older than I was next-to-that-guestbook, with a courage rarely discussed, decided to flee, leaving behind her hometown, to follow the bright meridian of what she knew she deserved.

O’Connor’s fiction is rife with Southerners torturously denying or confronting their arrogance to comprehend the land of their first or only thinking. Her characters live in and return from New York or Japan; they earn doctoral degrees in philosophy and change their names; they try to educate orphaned prophets in the ways of modern rationalism. In a letter to Robie Macauley from September 1955, O’Connor writes: “I wonder at how you can pick up the feeling of foreign places like that as I cannot put down any idiom but my own. I presume there are some advantages to not being a Southerner.” O’Connor disregards her efforts to integrate theological concepts and registers into the idioms of her characters and narrators, but does illuminate the darker condition: that language, for all the travel and knowledge it is able to communicate, is experience. Displacement is expressed throughout O’Connor’s work as a problem of utterance. What we say—or fail to say—is re-homed in the experience we have left outside our past or trapped inside the idiom of that excision, which fails to make this bright future, this fought-for elsewhere, newly different.

“Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge,” Flannery writes in 1962. When my aunt died, the family that my grandmother had escaped converged for an afternoon in the remains of the life she had built, had selectively narrated to them for years. Inside this time my mother said it changed: my family’s shared, past experience into an unceasing experience of the past. “I know God has a plan,” Southerners are prone to say on funeral occasions, arriving themselves as O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin did at the understanding, “you must have certain things before you could know certain things.” Grief, like grace, is encountered or deepened through gestures of possession. Through these efforts, we know incomprehensibility.

*     *     *

I was given two blue-ink Bic pens to keep with the book, laughing to myself at the blunted handwriting unknown kin offered. Leaving the car, my mom told me I was only there to make sure everyone signed in, so Era Mae could review the ledger and later call the invited but absent guests, wondering with passive aggression if they’d got sick, or what had kept them from the party.

Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away.

I was too young at the time to lie under the awkward questions everyone later subjected me: “Where’s your girlfriend,” for instance, or, “You aren’t going away for school, are you?” Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away. Language that, in the old spirit of her own mother, my mom encouraged.

O’Connor was “roped and tied” into the Protestant South where, she says, with the dilution of time and matter, “the best of my writing has been done.” Her chronicle of this time exposes the fault line along which generations of families in the American South continually form: aspiration, communicated from the past, for a vague and better future is defined within the parameters of the stuck—fallen— parent. In the case of Tarwater and The Violent Bear It Away, this line runs in two directions: toward the past and death, into his uncle’s prophesying, and into the future, where Rayber offers a world that ironically contains and reproduces all the violence his modernity alleges to obviate.

“How do you like being in the country again?” [Rayber] growled. “Reminder you of Powderhead?”

“I come to fish,” the boy said disagreeably.

Goddam you, his uncle thought, all I’m trying to do is save you from being a freak.

Rayber—comically, ironically—thinks “Goddam” in his proselytizing efforts against the quiet orphan he suspects of religious zealotry. Celebratory sign-ins become carceral, and salvation is a function of unbecoming, or staying.

I study the photos from that anniversary party now—in one my great uncle covers his face in laughter—where, in looking around the room of her sister’s celebration, my grandmother refused to smile. She observed with eyes long incapable of ordinary sight. I wonder whether debility is produced by singular losses or trauma, or by the contexts these events reopen. The final pages of The Violent Bear It Away rank among my favorite—even though I’m still uncomfortable with framing Tarwater’s molestation as a prerequisite for prophetic consciousness—because the confrontation between, and the tolls of, understanding what the dead demand and the limiting registers of our sensation are created and perceived at breakneck speeds by O’Connor’s child. The novel’s dated position in its time reinforces the awful paradox of what language produces here: purpose from the absence of knowledge, and absence as the only communicable form of our shared lack.

For my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary we drove them through north Alabama, past the room of yellow flowers, to Nashville, where we sat rows from a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, after which we stayed in a hotel. We ate dinner in a garden where, on a bench canopied by lights, they sat, staring at one another, smiling in profile. I try to imagine what it would mean to look at this photo and think only as my grandmother would: staring across, glimpsing a light behind my grandfather, noticing the handrail a few paces past his shoulder leading down the stone stairway to our car. At what moment she had had her vision, if she recalled that moment in the blink of my mother’s camera. If the string band and hotel room was the fate she envisioned, in a nearby county decades ago, studying the twilight road along which Tarwater comprehended God’s terrible speed of mercy.

 

Born and raised in central Alabama, Engram Wilkinson studied literature and writing at Tulane. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing, LIT, Anomalous PressWag’s Revue, Room220, and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first full-length manuscript, and lives in California, where he studies law. Engram can be found online at engramwilkinson.info.