Why do I feel that I am engaging in some great witchcraft when marking up a book? When I was a child, my school’s librarian enforced the pristine page. If I were to return a book with one folded over (and I never did), I would have been charged a fine and scolded for my disrespect. Disrespect was my specter for years, until in an English class I was encouraged to highlight and annotate my pages—for a grade! I could hardly contain myself (containment is such lifelong work, isn’t it?). The haunted child became the haunter. I raised spirits with my pen. I engaged the page in battle, slashing straight across, severing in ink, hoping something buoyant and new, so long embalmed, would bubble to the surface through the incision. I cut to leave a mark, to clear a trail back into the land of the living. I read fitfully in corners, in view of windows, occasionally hoping someone was watching and imagining my insides. I was a mind desperate to be seen, all throbbing pink and red flesh and exposed muscle. I am what I have seen. Can’t you love me for that? When I finished, I mounted my bike and listened to Rick Springfield, wishing I could be a boy in an 80s movie, to turn my gaze ever outward, at the horizon and at girls. Wishing I could be simple, to need no language for my I. It licked me in waves, this consciousness of self. In the summer, I inverted under the wet heat, leafy overhead, wide expanses of green, as though upsetting a telescope. I was always at a distance, across a field. The smallness was a freedom too.
A man walks down the sidewalk. He has forgotten something important, from many years ago. It has been so many years, in fact, that he cannot even remember that something has been forgotten.
Exactly fourteen things have to happen before he can remember what he has forgotten, and thirteen have already happened. The fourteen things are as follows, and in this order: He had to make the big move he had been dreading (one). He had to make a promise twice (two, three), and break a promise once (four). He had to get married (five). He had to get divorced (six). He had to apologize sincerely and without a trace of selfishness (seven). He had to adopt a dog (eight).
These were the broader contours of his life, but there were other things too, singularities that added weight and texture and were of equal, if not greater significance. He had to fly to Pittsburgh on business, and wave down a taxi outside of the airport, so that a curly-haired woman in the intervening space would mistakenly receive the gesture and wave back (nine), and he had to be so charmed by this that he would ask her out for a drink (ten), and over drinks, he had to meet her gaze with a tenderness that would inspire something fizzy and bright in her, and compel her to ask him out for coffee the next week (eleven). He had to learn to make a proper poulet à la moambé, simmering chicken, hot chili, garlic, tomato, salt, pepper, okra, and palm butter over a well-loved stove, so that her parents would beam and clap appreciatively (twelve), even though he had slightly overcooked the chicken. He had to park his 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee along the edge of a small beach, and lie beside her on the sand looking up at the stars while Ricky Skaggs’s Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown warbled over the stereo (thirteen).
These things had to happen before he could remember what he has forgotten. And now, the fourteenth quickly approaches.
He walks down the sidewalk. She walks with him, curls bouncing, and the dog walks with them too. He watches a bird flit from tree to tree. It’s May, and the leaves ripple with applause and look like water. He thinks of the ocean, and the beach, and the dawn breaking in pink streaks over the water. He thinks about their morning walk, and how the dog had lapped at the edges of the foamy sea, leaping back when the water rolled in and snapping her jaws at the ghost crabs that bubbled in small holes along the shore. He thinks about dogs, and how they have a funny way of always seeming a part of something greater, about how all things conspire to play with them. He thinks about people, and how they are like that in their youth, and then they learn better, and things do not orbit around them the same way anymore. And then, all at once, he sees the life he has lived laid out before him in his mind’s eye, like many dashes of color coalescing into a larger shape. And something in him lights up like a firecracker, and his eyes grow wide and bright, and he doubles over laughing and stays that way, doubled over, clutching his chest and heaving with laughter for several minutes, happy tears streaming down his face.
“What?” she asks several times, with some alarm. “What is it?”
The dog barks and wags her tail, hesitantly.
Finally, he stands upright again, wiping the tears from his eyes and feeling that a great weight has been lifted.
“What is it?” she asks again.
He smiles, opens his mouth to speak, and stops. He furrows his brow. He opens his mouth again.
“I… I can’t remember,” he says. “I’m sure it wasn’t important.”
She searches his face for a moment, bemused. “I’m sure it’ll come to you later.”
P.S. I’ve been listening to a John Darnielle audiobook. Is it obvious?
I once read a memoir in which the author recalls her childhood habit of drawing corkscrew lines over her journal entries to indicate uncertainty. Each page was threaded over with lines, until they rendered her writing illegible. I garnished my own with qualifiers, never claiming exactness, ever conscious of some omniscient third party reading over my shoulder, asking “who owns this truth?”. Girlhood is dispossession. We are told we are unreliable narrators of our own lives, so we learn to live in liminal places, readying ourselves to leave with skirts in hand. We learn lithe fingers on the wheel so that we may spin sharp pain into dullness, we train tightened teeth to tongues so that we may sip blood from our own veins.
You’ll carry the sky on your shoulders, girl. You’ll feel your spine fold underneath. To the rest of the world, you’ll bend to the empty air.
I have seen God in bathroom tiles. I have heard the warm whispers of the universe at 4am on my front lawn. I have known all I needed to know at the bottom of the ocean—and forgotten it all again when I arose.
The great project of womanhood is isolation, but some will settle for certainty. I awake each morning with two billion eyes, none of them mine, and I am also uncertain. I wage a losing war on both fronts; no other outcome can be expected. Still, I fight dutifully for the fleeting moments—the unself-conscious lilt in the lungs, the effortless softness around the eyes when I meet my own gaze and the world unfurls in all directions. Sometimes I lie on my own sofa in my own home and I watch the TV screen as something both larger than myself and not at all of this earth, and nothing watches back.
Great horror films follow women’s fear and women’s faith. Fear is potential. Faith is certainty. The critical juncture in these films occurs when something slots and turns over, shifting cold sweat into hot rage. Note that a small miracle has taken place: a thing is known, and cannot be unknown. And in that, there is danger and obscene glee (which we’re told is a danger too).
In truth, the woman made certain is as dangerous as a blade. Watch her drive the fever-tired car as red light pours over yellow flesh. Watch her inch toward the corner of the attic. Watch her fling open the basement door. It is all she can do not to laugh.
You have lived in the liminal places, girl. Take comfort. You will recognize their crevices.
As a child, I would spend my Saturday mornings pruning an elderly neighbor’s garden. Her home was full of hanging ferns, china dishes, newspaper clippings in crooked scarlet frames, stacks of cassettes and VHS tapes with cryptic handwritten descriptions in Sharpie on their sleeves. Sometimes, when the stars aligned, she would invite me to stay for dinner, and we’d feed sliced bread to a family of raccoons that came to her porch each night at precisely 9pm. Then we would relax in her living room. We’d listen to scratched Julie London albums while her schnauzer, who looked at me like he harbored some secret knowledge about my fate, worshipped at her feet. Once, clasping a mug of decaf Earl Grey between her palms, she told me about a famous world traveler who would cry if he stepped on an ant. “There is nothing too small to be sacred,” she murmured as the steam threaded between her twinkling eyes. From that day on, that explorer was my touchstone of empathy. I still scan my path for ants.
After her first breakup, my best friend spent three weeks straight watching The Princess Diaries on repeat. After school, she would promptly proceed to her room, shut her door, flip open her laptop, and pop the DVD in. On weekends, she wouldn’t even leave the house. We would often lie side by side, watching and quoting the movie together. “My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I’m good at it.” We felt as if we too were seated at that wrought iron table, sipping tea from porcelain cups. We both wanted to be the woman at the end of the movie, made beautiful by some benevolent, hair product-wielding sage. But Julie Andrews wasn’t knocking at either of our doors to tell us we were royal by blood. In fact, very few people were knocking on our doors at all. I became intimately acquainted with the warm space between our shoulders, and the sound of her throat tightening as she rehashed the last days of her relationship aloud. At the end of the third week, I persuaded her to walk with me to a nearby park, where we sat on a swing seat eating cucumber sandwiches (a snack perhaps befitting a Genovian queen). She turned to me, and the sun was tracing the side of her face. “Y’know, I actually prefer Mia’s before hair.”
I stand opposite a brick wall, holding a frosted glass cup. I turn it over in my hands, admiring the delicate gold band around the rim. This might have been my cup once. I can’t remember. I loop my finger around the handle and hurl it across the room. There is the radiant forward momentum of one moment accelerating into another. There is the sun slicing into a thousand thin lines. I kneel to pick up the pieces. I feel their weight in my hands. Remembering, I hold them gingerly. They leave cuts on my fingers. Blood runs the length of the lines of my palms. This cup held tea once. This cup was warm once. This is still a cup. This can be a cup again. This is still a cup. This can be a cup again. This is still a cup. This can be a cup again. This is still a cup.
Someday, we’ll stand in your kitchen, stirring confetti cupcake batter with a wooden spoon. You’ll be pressed against my back, your hand on mine a parenthetical. We’ll ladle the batter into shiny baking cups. (I’ll take special care to pool them evenly, crouching to inspect them at eye level. You’ll chuckle at me, and it won’t be at my expense. Later, I’ll wish I had looked at you then.) We’ll fill most of the cups, and we’ll have the same idea at the same time. We’ll abandon our posts to fling handfuls of batter at each other, ducking one another’s barrages unsuccessfully. We’ll laugh, and we’ll wheeze our battle cries, and we won’t be able to stop laughing. You’ll kiss a messy laugh into my mouth, and I’ll kiss you back, layering our sugar-grained lips. You’ll drape your mother’s navy quilt over the living room table, and we’ll tell stories with flashlights. We’ll drink herbal tea from soup bowls, our faces shimmering. We’ll speculate about the shadows on the lawn. We’ll name the unnamed things. We’ll wash the dishes. We’ll put them back on their shelves for another day.
(A note for readers: Like much of my writing on this blog, this piece is a work of fiction! Some of the people, places, and events I write about are inspired by my real life, but most are fictionalized. Unless I indicate otherwise, the writing I publish on this blog is not intended to be anything resembling a historical account.)
Somewhere, long after dark, he pores over an encyclopedia under his sheets. This is a private ritual. He lifts each cover as if to ventilate his own lungs, hungering for words but needing something like grace. He makes no mystery of his appetite. He could pluck any distant constellation you wanted from the sky and place it in your open palm, but he could never call me by my name. Outside, there is dry earth, and beyond that an empty mailbox, and beyond that a low thrum as the city expands. And there are stars. You don’t need to see them to know.
Boxes of pastel chocolate candies in pastel boxes glisten in a downtown window. Inside the pastry case, rows of polka-dotted truffles in delicate chevron paper. In the cooler, crested gelato, slices of orange, dollops of cream, rolled wafers curled around hazelnut. Many dozens of busy people file in on their lunch break, talking into cell phones and leafing through daily papers and not having enough time. A child enters with a handful of coins. As she nears the counter, she drops one, and it rolls beneath the cooler. She kneels, fishes clumsily for it. Then she stands, resigning herself to the loss. She counts what remains, then a crowning moment—and she exits into the grey. She makes a game of rolling the remaining coins across the sidewalk.
I always see the same figure on the bus from the corner of my eye. To its credit, it is almost human. Many others board the bus, but they do not see it. Once, defying the space between us—bobbing heads, pulsating arteries of fluorescents, singing metal and groaning rubber and lines of taught pull-cords—I looked directly at it. I do not look directly at it anymore. The city expands. Every day, more stars.
“What will you do when school ends?”
“What do you mean?”
“After exams. After school. What will you do this summer?”
“When have I had trouble keeping busy?” I sneer.
“What will you do without me?”
Your hands were on my back when the sky fell in. I felt the skin break like a prayer. I felt the hot wet air when you sighed the breath you were holding into the crook of my neck. “We have to go.” Your hands were on my back when the sky fell in. Your hair was in your face, but I saw your mouth curl with meaning. You didn’t call me by my name then. I didn’t need you to.
is the hot-bellied glow of
coffee at sunrise
is a weighted blanket while
rain batters the glass
wakes me with a start in the
middle of the day
does not ask for permission
it cannot be taught
is not for the faint of heart
it takes prisoners
has two sets of teeth pointing
in both directions
rings my body like a tree
might make me beautiful if
I spend time with it
is a game I play, counting
the ships in the fog
holds space for an ocean where
dew is on the grass
is forgetting, with fingers
crossed behind my back
looks like holiness; virtue
ends in the attic, dusting
off a fairy tale
I once stood in the blank, sun-white room of a gallery
before an earthy rawhide form,
fashioned into the shape of a jacket
inside the jacket, something red
something striving and small
and shamelessly warm
I cried, overcome
I imagine time as needled thread
borrowed from worn fabric
willed into straight lines
so both ends know the same view
I imagine time as Valentine’s cards cut from construction paper
it folds symmetrically
in private, knowing conference
awaiting my arrival
I imagine time curling in on itself
licking its wounds
everything is alive, and wanting to know it is alive
chasing its own image to confirm
that it exists
because it existed before
I was on the interstate at night when the rain came
hot red tails lapped the lights ahead
dark blue, and red tails
and a clementine
that I peeled, absently, in my right hand
I split it into three segments
and smelling it, I felt my throat constrict
something shone like a heart
but I swallowed it whole
and felt the hot tears of recognition
I became what I wanted to save
but there’s nothing else
I could have been
I’m sharing something from my yoga + journaling class today. We were prompted to write a poem from the heart without trying to be clever, or lyrical, or rhythmic. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of nostalgia, and the dangers of retroactively constructing personal narratives out of the constellations of our memories. I am not a poet by any means, but I am trying to become more comfortable with abstraction. This is what I wrote.
My childhood room had yellow walls, all pale and bare. At night, my dad would fall asleep on the floor beside my bed, because I was scared to be alone.
I would drift off to the sound of his breath—
the sound of a room made full.
I return here when I feel the world is most complicated by adulthood. Little yellow flame. I reach for it when it rains. It is small enough to hold in my hands. A place still quiet and warm, made whole by its simplicity.
Little yellow room.
One patient father pretending to doze on the trim eggshell carpet.
And now, in remembering, me as I am, hovering above,
this memory humming supernatural with my presence.
A scene intact as in a locket,
and now me, me now,
fumbling open the clasp, clumsy fingers on a heart.
Memories keep only so long as I do not enter them.
Doesn’t she look happy? Or is it the yellow on her cheek? Her face is slivered by the moonlight, and one side looks cold.
I can preserve her by forgetting, but where would I go when it rains?
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about energy. Where does it come from? How can we generate it?
I have been falling asleep under the orange glow of my desktop salt lamp each night. I imagine that it is imbuing me with some mystic power as I sleep. I imagine that I will awake with new eyes. I rise and press my fingers to it, communing, inviting. I am here. It is warm to the touch.
I park my car and ride the glass-walled Greene Street Parking Deck elevator to the third level Triad Stage staff entrance. Rooftops, windows, and fire escapes are softened and made warm in the early light. It is a familiar orange glow. I feel as though the lamp has opened its mouth and breathed its light into the world. I am here. I imagine that I have carried the light in my belly, from my bedside. It releases behind me like a trailing mist.
Orange is both present and liminal. It is a quiet, attentive listener. It is light in transition. August to September. The first glimpses of autumn. A pillar. Power on reserve.
Magic and pragmatism are at a convergence in my life. I find myself wondering about ghosts. I hold my breath when I pass a graveyard. I make wishes on dandelions. I am also investing in a healthy lifestyle—cooking for myself, eating well, getting in touch with my body through yoga and daily walks. Journaling. Spending time with animals. Sending letters to friends, semi-regularly. I seek tactile activities, opportunities to see what my hands are capable of. I want to cradle what I create in my fingers. Clarity is seeing my mind laid out in front of me. I want to hold it between my palms.
I am working on cultivating curiosity without surrendering my agency. Magic demands passivity. When I imagine brushes with magic, I am not privy to my own power. Otherworldly forces are at work behind my back. I sleep. I avert my gaze. I am chosen. I do not choose.
I am working on choosing.
What I'm reading: The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Bust Magazine August/September issue
What I'm watching: To All the Boys I've Loved Before on Netflix, Mother! on Hulu, Barry on HBO Now, Crazy Rich Asians in theaters
What I'm listening to: Snap Judgment Presents: Spooked podcast s1 + s2, Up and Vanished podcast s2