I Remember You

Adrienne Sharp

The man I was deeply in love with when we were both twentysomethings was murdered last summer.

He was more than brilliant, more than talented, more than handsome, but he’d inherited his father’s bipolar disorder which he refused to manage with drugs, preferring instead to outwit the illness by quitting everything and everyone that mattered to him and running somewhere else to start over again, hopefully where his own dark moods couldn’t find him. He did this again and again. In his twenties, this seemed romantic, adventurous—he left one college for another, left one graduate writing program for another and another and then another.

I met him at one of those graduate programs. In any room, he was the first person other people wanted to talk to—he had inherited his father’s charismatic charm and his mother’s beauty. He had been captain of the high school football team and senior class president, had garnered an appointment to the Naval Academy, gave that up for writing and then published a story in The New Yorker while he was still in college. He was preternaturally accomplished. But he was also unpredictable, impulsively self-destructive. And soon enough, I found my formerly ordered life now in splendid disorder. Our friends said they were never sure we would show up to class until we did. Because often we didn’t. Often there was some emotional ruckus that distracted us. He convinced me to move out of my dorm and into a rural motel with him, the Town and Country Motor Lodge with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a crusty yellow plaid herculon fold out couch that served as our bed, and once he got me there, he then convinced me not to go to class, not to write, not to, not to, not to do anything but run around with him.

When summer came, he left school with no plans to return, having applied to yet another graduate program (his talent was such that he was accepted here, there, and everywhere, his talent the medium for his flight), while I, under his influence, had failed my classes and ruined my status at the university. As we packed up our motel room, he came up with the idea that we should leave the country for a while, spend a month or so in Isla Mujeres, filled with expatriates, other runners. We could be one of them. Two of them. I refused to accompany him. I was exhausted. I needed a break. It was difficult enough to deal with his charismatic craziness on my native soil, to argue with him in my native language. So I went home to my parents’ house.

And off he went to Mexico, black depression nipping at his heels as he sped away.

On the first day of that trip he somehow forgot the name of his hotel, a hotel he never could find again and where he had left all his belongings, now lost forever. He ended up in a different hotel, a hostel with hammocks, where he slept with some other travelers, Mexicans who offered him their marijuana but who he feared would steal his wallet while he slept. He wanted to come back to the U.S. cleansed and purified, as if mental illness were something to be sweated out or better yet outrun. After a month, he came back broke. And still ill. Still lost. And I still loved him.

I joined him that August after his return, took a sleeper car on the Amtrak train, a two-day trip, to meet him at his grandmother’s house in Mississippi, where I found him thinner, browner, but happy to see me even after all the castigating letters he’d sent me from Mexico about how I’d abandoned him. We slept in a back bedroom filled with the suite of furniture from his parents’ old home. They had divorced. Their furniture ended up at his grandmother’s, some in that bedroom, some in the basement. Maybe it was the evidence of that broken marriage in that bedroom we shared that made his grandmother so determined to create something whole. Or maybe it was because his grandmother knew that her beloved grandson was a spinning top, like her son-in-law, and somebody needed to stop the spinning before he destroyed himself and everything around him, as her son-in-law had.

Because that summer, his grandmother nudged at us every day to go on over to the courthouse across the street, get married, and have a church wedding later. She dressed me up in a filmy chiffon aquamarine negligee with a matching peignoir, a costume she plucked from some drawer from some dresser and then had me model for my perplexed boyfriend, telling him, “This is for her wedding night.” Finally, she resorted to telling visitors that we were in fact already married but just hadn’t had that church wedding yet.

Not a fact.

What we were, in fact, was engaged.

I wore the cornflower blue one-third carat sapphire gem he’d given me on a gold chain around my neck. Too uncertain to get an actual ring, we bought that instead. We said we were being original. But we were actually afraid to marry, to be alone together again. He was a lot of responsibility. I wasn’t sure I was up to it. He wasn’t sure he could behave. So we would be engaged. Perpetually. To the frustration of his grandmother who wanted things settled.

Nonetheless, that summer did settle us, became a respite from the tumult of the past school year together, from the tumult ahead. I still dream about it. It was my first visit to the deep South, to its slow, friendly rhythms. We spent August sleeping late, the drone of the window air conditioner a metallic lullaby, eating food from the pans his grandmother’s maid left on the stove (food not hygienically refrigerated but no one ever got sick, despite the Mississippi heat), visiting with his various relatives, his aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, his cousins. At his grandmother’s house we were safe and I was not in charge of taming his moods. I could enjoy his humor, his intelligence, his passion. Other people looked after him.

At the end of the summer, he went off to his new graduate school. I moved home.

We wrote letters. All his were apologies for his past bad behavior, for the ugly things he’d said to me, including, on our last parting, his comment that he hoped I’d rot.

He could be that ugly.

The last time I spoke to him was almost thirty years ago. I was married by then, to someone else, not to him. I had just given birth to my first child. I don’t know exactly how he tracked me down, found my number. He was living at his grandmother’s house again—she’d left the house to him—in town with his suitcase always open, snapping shut the locks and heading out of town the minute the depression started to hit. He’d called to tell me that a married couple we’d admired for their stability had divorced. So there. So much for our admiration. I’m not sure why he wanted to tell me that, except maybe to say, Look, there is no stability. That thing you wanted that I couldn’t give you doesn’t exist.

But I had that thing now. And a baby daughter.

We were both thinking, She could have been ours.

I never heard from him again.

Then, a few months ago, I saw his obituary. He had been murdered in Thailand.

It was his illness, apparently, that finally drove him out of the country for good, to decades of teaching jobs in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, and then, last summer, a particularly black mood that drove him abruptly out of his apartment in Thailand—where the friends who saw him the day before he bolted reported that he was clearly not himself. It drove him into a hotel room in a seedy bar district, a district he wandered, probably with the lost face he wore in the strip of photos he sent me taken in a photo booth at Isla Mujeres thirty-five years earlier.

Two weeks before he was killed, a couple of tourists had been badly beaten in that same Thai bar district. I believe they survived. I’m thinking that my boyfriend walked those same streets, was confronted by those same thugs with iron rods and wooden bats. But he wasn’t left in the street, wasn’t taken by ambulance to some hospital. Maybe something interrupted his attackers after they’d robbed him but before they’d managed to club him to the ground. Or maybe they had, and somehow, somehow, he’d managed to stagger back to his hotel, get to his room, lock the door, sit down at the foot of the bed, where he died. Maybe he didn’t know how badly he’d been beaten. He probably just wanted to get back to his hotel room, sit down, catch his breath, take a shower. It’s impossible to know the condition in which he arrived there because the camera in the hotel lobby was broken. It’s impossible to know what he was thinking because he died alone, left no note, made no call. And then his body was collected and cremated before a police investigation could even be opened. Cause of death: respiratory distress.

I can’t even describe my emotions at discovering his death. But I will tell you this: I wasn’t surprised.

I had hoped that age would calm him. I despaired that his illness meant all his early promise led to nothing further, that his relationship with me, and then whatever ones he later pursued, had led to nowhere: not to marriage, not to children, not to a secure home.

Nothing stable in his life but his illness.

My life with him would have been like my life with him.

So I drove to Mississippi. I wanted to see his grandmother’s house, to revisit the very clear memories I had of our time there. There was no other way of getting close to him, of returning to the past. His mother was dead. His aunt and uncle I’d met so long ago were dead. His great aunts and uncles were dead. His grandmother was dead. But her house was still there. The sight of it was anguishing. This stately home built in 1902 where I had felt so safe—as long as we were there together with his family around, he couldn’t do anything too rash, too wild—was now a decaying thing. Clearly no one lived there anymore, yet it had not been sold, was still owned by the family, what was left of it. No Trespassing signs were taped to the front door. The windows were broken on both the first and second floors (behind the broken glass still hung the window shades, with tassels, pulled part way down against the southern light), the stucco walls were water stained and yellow-brown, the porch steps and ceiling battered and broken, the lattice work torn. Around the back, the small yard and the few trees at the edge of it were covered in kudzu, that foreign invader of the south that winds itself around every tree, every telephone pole, every signpost along every interstate. It has to be hacked back, practically macheted.

The house looked as if it had been beaten, like my boyfriend himself.

I took pictures of it all, front, side, and back. I took pictures of the street, lined with magnolia trees and crepe myrtle trees and old fashioned black gas lamps, a sloping cobblestone street that led all the way down to the Yazoo River. I took pictures of the old courthouse where we did not get married, of the back bedroom windows beneath which, inside, we had slept in his parents’ old bed. I took pictures of the beautifully restored and stately homes around his grandmother’s ramshackle house, many of those homes refashioned now into law offices. Hers was the last family home standing. The neighborhood and the family and even my boyfriend had moved on.

I don’t know what has become of his ashes.

I wanted to leave a note in the mailbox by the front door, a mailbox already stuffed with uncollected circulars, clearly as unattended as the house. But I did not. Who would collect such a note? And in it what would I say?

So I wrote nothing. But if I had written something, it would have been, I remember you.

Adrienne Sharp is the author of the story collection White Swan, Black Swan, a Barnes and Noble Discover Book and a national bestseller; the novel The Sleeping Beauty, named one of Booklist’s ten best first novels of 2005; and the novel The True Memoirs of Little K, a finalist for the California Book Award and translated into six languages. Her latest novel, The Magnificent Esme Wells, was published by Harper in April.

On Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass

Michael N. McGregor

My first visit to Florida came this past March, exactly one month after the massacre of seventeen students and staff at a Parkland school that put the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas on news anchors’ lips. Like most Americans not from Florida, I didn’t know who Douglas was, or bother to find out, until I started seeing her name everywhere in that state. My guidebook said she was a champion of the Everglades, but it wasn’t until I stopped into the Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City (an old company town whose name reflects the wrongheaded ways whites have viewed that land since they first encountered it five hundred years ago) that I began to understand why Floridians revere her. A chatty docent gestured toward a photograph of an elderly woman in a red dress, oversized glasses, and a rakishly tilted Panama hat. If I wanted to understand the Glades, he said, I had to read her book.

The woman, of course, was Douglas, a journalist, fiction writer, and conservationist who authored a dozen books in her 108 years. None of them was more important or had a bigger impact than The Everglades: River of Grass, which many credit with bringing the destruction of the Everglades—the damming and canalling and turning of vital wetlands into farmland—to the attention of the general public. When it was published in November of 1947—just weeks before Harry S. Truman dedicated the Everglades National Park, preserving only a fraction of an ecosystem unmatched anywhere in the world—its first run of 7,500 copies sold out within a month. It has sold another half-million copies over the past seventy years but despite its eloquence and impact, it is curiously missing in discussions of the most important conservation and environmental books today.

Personal Hell

Eric Dean Wilson

¶Let’s begin: we’d been gone for a week. (Vacation?) We returned, I ran into the backyard, I touched the bark of the oak that stood in the center, and, gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the light, I became aware, inches from my face, a broad spot on the trunk, covered in bright worms, worms a color I’d never seen before or since—a kind of alien red-orange or cinnabar, though I didn’t know that word then—so vibrant I seemed to feel its shaking, the even radiation of its sinusoid, the tree pulsing, a clenching and unclenching fist, pulsing with waves of worms, pulsing the sunlight glinting from moisture moving with each peristalsis, a pulsing as if driving blood through an orifice, blood from a torn intestine. I threw up. ¶The undulating bodies had somehow penetrated mine. I felt their pulsing at my esophagus. I tried to run. I was rooted. Like the oak. The brilliance of their color staked me there—a hypnotic adhesion. The repetition of their movement. The nausea was and then was more. In the relief that followed the vomit, I broke. I was free from its orbit. I ran inside. ¶The next day: no worms. Had I imagined it was the sense of the not-exact sentence I held to my thinking self. The absence of an evidence worked to cultivate my fear. Worse, I worried I’d created this, this horror I now couldn’t stop showing to myself within my own mind. Whatever I’d seen then—that day—worked, worked—a repetition, appearing to me grown from banalities un-rotted, since, forever since—like little worms, into my brain. I thought I’d seen, for the first time, a thing for how it really was.

 

¶Let’s begin again: when I was ___, a youth minister described to us what Heaven would be like. He’d conducted (he said) extensive research. He’s found (he said) the answers. In the basement of our church, he drew a map on the whiteboard: a thick (concrete?) wall (the exact dimensions noted in ft) surrounded the New Jerusalem (the ramparts studded with gems). Here the zone for children. Here the zone for pets. Everything (he claimed) was accounted for. Zoned. ¶What did I know? Then, as now, little—but enough to recognize the arrival of a soul in the divine realm—if it existed at all—would have to be an abolition of zones, a bleeding through bounds of being. I said nothing. We were meant only to absorb, like a bath towel. ¶The next week, the minister described Hell—a description I was looking forward to with deviance—but here, the minister offered senseless abstractions. Few of them scared me much. Few offered anything I could imagine with the senses. Hell (he said) was darkness without the light of God—but didn’t I know this already? Had I not catalogued this already as part of my library of experience? Hell might also be (he said) eternal melancholy. But hadn’t my thoughts conditioned me to this, too? Was Hell just more of the same? ¶But then the minister defined a certain kind of hell more tangible than the others, an idea new to me: Hell (he said) was forever watching your life as you had lived it, from birth to death, objectively, perhaps on a small tv screen in an off-highway motel room by yourself. The screen played a life—yours—on loop, and you were forced to watch it forever. ¶Unlike the others, this Hell haunted—still haunts—even after I left my belief. In this Hell of Endless Repetition, your life becomes a ritualized callusing for the thrill of life. You become a stranger to your own life as you’d lived it, more distanced from your life with each viewing. This Hell of Endless Repetition is an emancipation from life, but in its emancipation of your life from yourself, a wicked emancipation. Here, I think, is the scariest way of imagining Hell: the freeing of your life as no longer yours—your life as anyone’s life, as disassociated and impersonal. Everything you think you know is atomized and spread over the universe with indifference. The knowledge you had carefully acquired disassembled and dispersed. Lines between stars broken, unconstellated. ¶We met like this on Sundays. The minister lectured to us and sang at the front of a small, carpeted room under fluorescent lighting, and we sat in crammed rows, so many bath towels drawing into us parts of whatever spilled our way. I was ___ before I finally gained the courage to articulate clearly the words in my own thoughts directed not to God but to myself that this was its own kind of hell. These words worked like a performative utterance. Once formed and heard within my head, the obligation to attend vanished. I entered heaven.

 

¶Let’s begin again: Andy Warhol’s “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times” offers two orange canvases. The left is fourteen repetitions of a violence, the tabloid image of a car crash, the dead driver slumped over the wheel. The silkscreening of this same photo, same photo, same photo is excessive—machinistic yet imperfect. Considering that it shows a life so recently lost, the execution is careless, car-full, the driver re-executed fourteen times. The canvas is emptied of empathy. In its place is glee in proclaiming the Gospel of Nihilism. Borrowing Lacan’s idea of trauma as a missed encounter with the real, Hal Foster argues that, in this Warhol series, repetition serves to screen the real understood as traumatic. But the very need also points to the real, and at this point the real ruptures the screen of repetition. It is a rupture less in the world than in the subject—between the perception and the consciousness of a subject touched by an image. ¶The right panel is pure orange. No, not “orange”—vermillion, real hell the heat of this vermillion, a word meaning “little worms.”

Eric Dean Wilson’s work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, DrDOCTOR, Music & Literature, Seneca Review, and Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He’s currently finishing a book-length essay on refrigerant, climate change, and personal comfort in America (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming). He teaches undergraduate writing and studies at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC.

The Non-Writer’s Guide to Easy Cocktail Party Conversation

Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob is the author of the novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and the graphic memoir Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About. This guide is the Last Word in Tin House‘s 77th issue: Poison.

New Words for the New World

Paul Crenshaw

When your sleeves bunch up while putting on your coat it’s called a scrauntlet, or malsleevance. Gripping the shirt sleeve to keep it from bunching is called cuffling.

Saying the same word at the same time as somebody else is a jinxing; trying to get past someone at the elevator door is a juggling, a side-step, a beshuffling.

Not getting enough likes on social media is being screenied, and when a less important post than yours gets more shares it’s an inter-rage.

Your daughter’s first steps are a jottering and her first tooth is a trying and the way her fine hair disapears when it gets wet is a willowing. Perffluvium is a baby’s new smell. Morlorn the feeling on the first day of November when the last leaves rattle toward the forest floor. Azura’s the color of the sky when it’s so blue it hurts to look at it, on days you feel you could float away on the wind.

Parcheron was the feel of your grandmother’s ancient papery skin and blemings were the bruises she wore around the IV needles. Emphysematic was how she sounded in her last days and dreaden was the feeling you got when her breath caught in her throat—airfloat was how you felt every time she drew another.

Corrified is when you hear the screech of tires as your children are playing in the front yard or anytime there’s an amber alert, breaking news, a school shot up, which is a shredding, of heart and hope.

When you fall out of love after 20 years it’s a dawning. Deciding to stay together because it’s too hard to move on is a shielding, and the weeks you slept on the couch while wondering what to do is called a caesura.

When the kids never call from college, that’s a sylon, and when the phone rings late at night that’s a voidwind. When you drink too much remembering how small they seemed on the first day of school that’s maundering, and the day they were born is a gripping in the same way their tiny hands held your smallest finger.

We need a word for loneliness that doesn’t rely on the word alone. That doesn’t sound like love. Say it’s azura. Or morlorn. Loss isn’t the keys you can’t find but the hook where hers used to hang. There’s a reason the heart is the symbol for love, a reason we say it’s somewhere near the lungs.

Nulling is the terrible news we hear every day and shaddering the silence that won’t let us sleep. Intercurses are the words we say when the horribleness won’t end and begrief the feeling after the intercurses, when the sylon sets in and the voidwind comes down.

We’re always searching for the right language, the right words. I don’t know if we need more words or a better understanding of our insides. I don’t know what new world we’ve wandered into. Only that sometimes I feel hapshaken. Or contumbled. I don’t know which way the sky lies. I don’t have the words I need and so make them up: dolorment and bewhining and love-drunk. Hope-filled, heart-hurt, joybilant. We’re always inventing new words, always brushing up against places we never thought we’d be, whether it’s our own mortality or all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

We don’t need a word for those. That’s just breathing. It’s walking around in our thin skins, our hearts holding at the point blood begins, at the place in the body we store all the emotions we can’t explain.

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. 

Lost & Found: On Burt Reynold’s Hot Line: The Letters I Get. . . and Write!

Michelle Wildgen

Our staff mourns the passing of Burt Reynolds—the man who gave us not only Smokey and the Bandit and Boogie Nights, but one of the greatest mustaches of all time. His unabashed celebrity tell-all expanded our sense of the actor’s range and the erotic possibilities of the mens’ singlet. Vaya con Dios, Burt. May you have as much fun on the next plane as you did on this one. —The Editors

As a child, I had an affinity for men with mustaches. “Oh, half the time I’d look up and you’d be off sitting on some strange man’s lap,” my mother blithely tells me. Apparently, my new acquaintances tended to have facial hair reminiscent of my own father’s brief and ill-advised flirtation with a Fu Manchu.

All in all, I came away with the impression that the seventies were a hairier, more trusting time. The magic of this era returned to me as I read Burt Reynolds’s inexplicable 1972 tome, Hot Line: The Letters I Get . . . and Write!, a book that rekindled my dimmest childhood recollections of all the uncomfortable things adults seemed likely to do and say.

It’s fair to assume that Signet’s literary goals in publishing Hot Line were modest. The three-paragraph intro—in three different fonts—and the back cover copy (“The great new fun book by the guy all America’s talking about!”) suggest the efforts of a passing intern. For the body of the book, the publishers gathered up a few of Burt’s numerous fan letters (many received in the wake of the infamous 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold for which he reclined nude on a bearskin rug) and a brief response by him to each. Then they added some photos and called it a day.

Hot Line Burt’s concerns include hot pants, ladies’ measurements, randy grannies, and his own luxurious pelt. His literary style is heavy on puns, brief suggestive messages that sound jaunty but upon closer inspection are mostly nonsensical, and many an unnecessary quotation mark.

The letters form an accidental social document that cuts across social class, gender, sexual preference, and intention; there are letters from seventy-year-olds, children, men, and women, single and married, urban and rural. Husbands, especially when they try to compete with Burt for their wives’ attention, seem a hapless, beer-swilling, yet accepting lot. Most of the writers are women, some dangling the promise of a swinging single girl (“I dig fast cars, motorcycles, groovy guys, groovy times and sex”), while others see no reason to prettify their particulars. “I can’t write too good,” explains Hot Mountain Gal, “as three years ago I cut the first joint of my index finger off grinding meat . . . I smoke a pipe when I’m hunting. Other times I smoke cigars.”

It soon becomes evident that even for the seventies, Burt’s hairiness was notable. Correspondents frequently discuss his body hair and mustache, speculating on the location and potential applications of both. “Say, Burt,” writes one Connie L. of Lincoln, Nebraska, “that mustache is a real womb broom.”

Sometimes I think these fans actually intended to leave a time capsule of the decade. They drop seductive promises for “a motel with waterbeds,” plenty of grass, no VD, and a good lay. The tone ranges from chummy (“Isn’t that a big howl?”) to brash (“Dear Ballsy”) to outright desperation (“Honest to God, Burt, the thing in the world I’d most like to do is fuck your brains out”). But most striking is the cheekiness of the overall tone, indicating either pre-AIDS freedom or just the freedom of writing to someone you do not know. Sex as wished for, joked about, and offered in these pages seems human, forgivingly imperfect, even fun-loving. Compare it to chaste Twilight-style abstinence melodrama and tell me that “womb broom” doesn’t sound a little better.

Still, some letter writers were gravely offended by that Cosmo centerfold. One states primly, “I found you very repulsive with that hairy body.” And a few letters are simply transactional, whether tendering horses for sale or a role in a presumed-to-be-inevitable film adaptation of the letter writer’s book, titled The Cocksman and His Geronimo. One mother literally offers up her virgin daughter.

I should say, however, that it’s not all pleas for sex: there are missives from young boys in need of father figures and romantic guidance, semiliterate teenage babysitters, and several people who’ve flirted with suicide and seem mostly to need some contact or to prevent Burt from feeling the same despair. And so Burt becomes the furry, grinning screen on which to project a thousand needs and fantasies.

* * *

As enjoyable as it is to dig for subtext in the letters, the photos in Hot Line’s sixteen-page spread are truly riveting. Burt can often be found in wrestling singlet or head-to-toe denim, gazing skyward and guffawing at his dizzying good fortune. He has his soulful moments, too. He likes to peer out a window, bare-chested and holding a highball. I suspect he may have been mentally preparing himself for the final photos, which display him–nude but for a ranger’s hat and cigarillo clamped between his teeth–astride a hand-shaped chair. (I looked in vain for the suggestion of undies before accepting that this situation is probably just as unsanitary as it appears.) The spread concludes with Burt, exuberant before a white screen, pantsless and catching a football.

Hot Line’s photos depict a version of male beauty almost unrecognizable today, when a glance through People magazine’s sexiest men, undertaken for purely professional reasons, reveals a far more manicured vision of attractiveness. Modern teen idols are now depilated to an unthreatening smoothness that calls to mind laminated paper or a waxed apple. Men in their late twenties or above are occasionally permitted a scattered heart-shaped chest fuzz or two-day chin stubble, but even the modern sex symbol’s rumpled look is polite and controlled. Jon Hamm’s occasional dishevelment indicates he rented a cabin and stocked up on craft brews, whereas Burt’s fur suggests he unwound with a little light logging before consuming the uncooked head of a lynx.

The photos, staged and ridiculous as they are, have that same fleshy, silly enthusiasm that seems as much a relic as a gold medallion: buttocks are cupped; women hang on to Burt’s limbs like gibbons, gazing ferally up at him. Burt’s hand sometimes grips a woman’s flank firmly enough to indent the skin–nowadays, I bet that hand would hover, so as not to suggest any unsightly softness in an actual human body. Burt’s seamed and too-tan face, his many forms of tobacco, his sweaty glasses of booze . . . it’s all a bit much nowadays. Looking at these images, I feel I know exactly how everyone smells.

But it must be said that this overbearing, long-outdated version of manliness is also strangely enthralling simply because it may once have been sincere. While I was making the acquaintance of a plethora of mustachioed strangers, all of this was going on. There was a whole subtext I couldn’t have guessed at the age of four: men like Burt were part of the reason all of these men were cultivating sideburns and goatees. As ludicrous, baffling, and deeply embarrassing as Hot Line is, it also has a disconcerting ring of authenticity beneath all the staging, like discovering a dream that you felt silly about having was not a dream at all.

Michelle Wildgen is executive editor at Tin House, as well as the editor of the anthology Food & Booze and the author of three novels, You’re Not You, But Not For Long, and Bread and Butter

 

Intrusions

Melissa Febos

In the summer of 2004, when Montrose Avenue was still Bushwick, and George W. Bush was the incumbent president, my best friend, her two pit bulls, and I moved into a duplex on the same block as the L train. It was the nicest apartment I’d ever lived in, cheaply refurbished with parquet floors and shiny fixtures that went wobbly within our first month. My friend took the basement, and my bedroom was on the building’s ground floor, with two big street-facing windows. Every few minutes, the train rumbled underneath us, but despite the stream of commuters that rushed by my windows all day, I kept my curtains open, reveling in the abundance of natural light.

I was nearing the end of a four-year tenure as a professional dominatrix and spent three nights per week at a “dungeon” in Midtown, spanking and changing the diapers of stockbrokers. I was also newly sober. All of which is to say that I spent a lot of time at home reading novels and self-help books instead of drinking and shooting heroin.

One night, after I’d turned off my reading light but not yet sunk into sleep, an uneasy feeling swept up my back. In his story “The Cure,” which tells of a suburban man going through a marital separation who is peeped on by his male neighbor, John Cheever aptly describes the physical response to being watched as a “terrible hardening of the flesh.” I was accustomed to the sweep of shadows along the walls as the train emptied its passengers and they marched by my windows and cars braked at the corner stoplight, but one shadow had stopped, its source blocking the stripe of light at the corner of my closest window.

“Hey, baby,” a voice murmured from outside. “Are you sleeping?”

The Allure of the Rose and the Bow

Emily Schulten

Our mothers drive an hour south to Nashville so we can go to the department store and try on training bras. In fourth grade, we’re the only ones left who don’t have them, and when mom suggests the trip, it’s all I can do to wait until Saturday, to be surrounded by racks of pretty things.

My best friend Joanie and I take off our shirts. In the cramped dressing room, we lean over. She shows me how they look bigger hanging down. They multiply in front of and behind us.

At home, I admire the centering of a tiny satin bow, of a pink embroidered rose. I admire my lace-adorned flat chest above my round belly.

On Monday, Joanie and I meet on the bleachers, laughing in a blush about the new lines underneath our white uniform blouses. The boys notice, too. It goes on this way all week, the novelty of the new accessory. The innocence. It is a new layer to playing dress-up, to telling a secret, to keeping one poorly.

The following Monday I decide not to wear the training bra. It sometimes bunches up when I slouch, and the elastic rubs under my armpit until it’s bright red. Besides, the allure of the rose and the bow have subsided, and Joanie and I have a plan to dig for glass on the playground at recess, hoping to add to the coffee tins of bottle shards we pass back and forth, alternating the responsibility of hiding them from our parents.

As I walk downstairs, I hear my brothers’ spoons clacking on the ceramic cereal bowls and the morning news playing in the living room. Through a door in the hallway, I catch a glimpse of my father, standing at his tie closet. I start to pass him, but he stops whistling and grabs tight to my shoulder. In a second he has yanked me into my parents’ room. The door closes. The sounds of the morning are muffled.

I cower like an animal on the opposite side of the four-post bed, my mother’s side. Straight upstairs, he says, and put that bra on. He’s gritting his teeth. I can’t understand how he knows about the bra. Your little brown nipples show right through your shirt, he says through his clenched jaw, an anger usually reserved for my brothers. My face is warm, then warmer. I know it is flush-red when the tears come. I want to have never gone to Nashville, never looked into those mirrors. I want to unsee the way my father looks at me.

When I leave the bedroom, I stay close to the hallway’s stone wall. Back upstairs, I take my time. I look at the tangled elastic and stitching of the bra, the X-patterned front of it. I pick it up, feel its weight between my fingertips. I hate it. I unbutton my uniform, pull a binding across one shoulder, then the next, contort one shoulder toward my ear and around to my back to make the tight straps reach. I fold both arms behind my back so they will meet to fasten the eye-hooks. It can feel the weight of the thing. It’s heavier now.

After school, before my parents are home from work, I find a lighter in my father’s top drawer, where he hides his cigarettes. I take the coffee tin from my backpack and open the sliding glass door to the porch. I sit with my legs wide and arrange the slivers of glass between them, mostly green and clear, some brown, fewer blue. I watch for the way they catch the sunlight. I reach under my blouse, undo the elastic, pull the bra through my sleeves, and tear the tiny pink rose from between the triangles of fabric. I set the rose on one of the larger pieces of glass, slip the lighter from my pocket, and watch the tiny flower blacken and dissolve. A bit of ash drifts onto my plaid skirt.

I don’t linger long. I don’t want to be seen. Upstairs, I tuck the tin of glass behind old towels on the high shelf of my closet.

Before bed, I undress and shower. I put the bra back on, then my nightgown. As I fall asleep I can hear the jingle of the silverware when my parents open the kitchen drawers.

Emily Schulten is the author of Rest in Black Haw. Her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, and Barrow Street, among others. She is a professor of English and creative writing at Florida Keys Community College.

On Subtlety

Meghan O’Gieblyn

I.

In ancient Rome, there were certain fabrics so delicate and finely stitched they were called subtilis, literally “underwoven.” The word—from which came the Old French soutil and the English subtle—often described the gossamer-like material that was used to make veils. I think of organza or the finest blends of silk chiffon, material that is opaque when gathered but sheer when stretched and translucent when held up to the light. Most wedding veils sold today use a special kind of tulle called “bridal illusion,” a term I’ve always loved, as it calls attention to the odd abracadabra of the veil, an accoutrement that is designed to simultaneously reveal and conceal.

 

II.

Doris Lessing once complained that her novel The Golden Notebook was widely misinterpreted. For her, the story was about the theme of “breakdown,” and how madness was a process of healing the self’s divisions. She placed this theme in the center of the novel, in a section that shares the title of the book, which she assumed would lead readers to understand that it was the cipher. Rather than making the theme explicit, she wanted to hint at it through the form of the novel itself, “to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.” But in the end, her efforts did not translate. “Nobody so much as noticed this central theme,” she complains in the introduction to the 1973 edition. “Handing the manuscript to publisher and friends, I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis.”

There are people, of course, who will argue that divergent readings are a sign of a work’s complexity. But whenever I return to Lessing’s account of her novel’s reception, I can’t help but hear a note of loneliness, one that echoes all those artists who have been woefully misunderstood: Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a protest against abstract math. Georgia O’Keeffe insisted that her paintings of poppies and irises were not meant to evoke female genitalia (flowers, her defenders keep pointing out, fruitlessly, are androgynous). Ray Bradbury once claimed at a UCLA lecture that his novel Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship, but the dangers of television. He was shouted out of the lecture hall. Nietzsche abhorred anti-Semitism, but when Hitler came across a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he interpreted the image of the “splendid blond beast” as a symbol of the Aryan race. One wonders what might have happened had Nietzsche simply written: “lion.”

 

III.

We say that things are subtle when they are understated—such as makeup, or lighting—or when they are capable of making fine distinctions, as in a subtle mind. But the connotation of subtlety that has long preoccupied me is that which means “indirect” or “concealed,” and also its archaic definition (“cunning, crafty”), which still haunts the contemporary meaning. “All literature is made of tricks,” Jorge Luis Borges once said. Some tricks, he noted, are easy enough to decipher, but the best ones are so sly they hardly feel like tricks at all. As a child homeschooled in an evangelical family, left to my own devices for great swaths of time, I became particularly good at uncovering the most obvious cues in a text. I knew that the poet meant for snow to symbolize death, or that a conversation between two people concerned abortion, even though the story never used the word. Literary interpretation is, essentially, a form of hermeneutics—a skill one learns osmotically from listening to sermons, a genre in which I was immersed. But the stories that captivated and unsettled me were those that remained irreducible. In these, there were no codes to be cracked, no definitive meaning to be exposed—just the faintest sense that the surface of the text was undergirded by a vast system of roots that must remain forever invisible.

Today, many of the smartest people I know have become infatuated with melodrama, genre fiction, and TV dramas: narratives that wear their ideas easily on their sleeve. “It is heavy-handed in the best way,” writes a prominent magazine critic about a novel that has recently been serialized for television. “It makes everything blunter and more explicit, almost pulpy at times.” It seems that all of us, exhausted by New Criticism, caught up in the throes of peak TV, have finally outgrown whatever charms the elusive once held. There exists among people my age a tendency to dismiss subtlety as “evasive” or “coy,” as though whatever someone has taken pains to conceal must be somehow ill intentioned, cut from the same unwholesome cloth as dog-whistle politics and the silky doublespeak of reptiles like Richard Spencer. Perhaps the slogans of the Trump era have now extended themselves to the arts: we must speak in one voice, in no uncertain terms. Each week, I receive emails from any number of activist organizations that begin in more or less the same way: “Let me be clear . . .”

 

IV.

For me, growing up in a Christian family required an interpretive vigilance, a willingness to harken to whispers. As children, we were taught to remain alert at all times. God could speak to you through a fortune cookie, a highway billboard, the lyrics of pop songs. Fools could proclaim his wisdom and radio DJs could be his angels in disguise. Once, during a long drive to a church retreat, our youth pastor pointed to the license plate of the car ahead of us and explained that each of its letters corresponded to a problem he’d been praying over for months. Interpretation slid easily into paranoia and faith into superstition, but the point was you had to pay attention. If you let your guard down you might miss the miracle, like the disciples at Gethsemane who fell asleep on their watch.

The problem was you could never be certain the signs were not from the darker forces. The devil too was subtle, according to the book of Genesis: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” (My mother, who dictated the passages my siblings and I committed to memory, preferred the King James Version, which renders it subtil.) As a child, I often wondered what it meant that the devil was subtle. It was clear that he was mutable, appearing and disappearing throughout scripture in various disguises: as a snake, a lion, or an angel of light. More likely, though, it referred to his rhetoric, which was coy and Socratic: “Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” A cruder entity would have made demands or arguments, but Lucifer wove elaborate traps of questions, prodding his victim to reach the relevant conclusion herself.

When I began writing, I believed that fiction should be a form of seduction. I wanted to write stories that were like the stories I loved: oblique in their approach, buttressed by themes that revealed themselves upon multiple readings. But in workshops, my classmates were vocal about the many problems lurking in my stories: the character’s motivation was not clear; the backstory should be addressed, not alluded to; the conclusion was too cryptic. For a while, I dismissed this as obtuseness. People wanted things spelled out. They weren’t reading closely. But there comes a point when a reproach is repeated so often it become impossible to dismiss. At times, it seemed less a critique of my craft than an indictment of my character. People regarded my tactics as cagey, as though I were ashamed of my ideas and trying to hide them behind a veil. More than once, readers discovered a meaning I hadn’t intended. For a while, everything I wrote seemed to hazard misinterpretation, inviting accusations of chicanery, purposelessness, or bad faith.

 

V.

Christ himself was a master of the indirect, speaking in parables more often than sermons. In their original form, as they appear in the logia—the collection of his sayings that circulated before the writing of the gospels—the parables have the tenor of a riddle: A sower went out with a handful of seeds, scattering them across the earth. Some seeds fell on rocky soil, others fell on thorns, some were eaten up by birds before they could take root, but some found good soil and produced fruit. What does it mean? In the logia, Christ provides no guidance. Many of the stories end with the phrase “He who has ears, let him hear.” Another riddle, though most scholars believe it to mean: Let he who is capable of understanding these mysteries receive them.

When I was at Bible school, struggling with the first shadows of doubt, the subtlety of the gospel troubled me. The message of salvation should have been democratic, available to all. But it was not clear. Time and again, the disciples asked Jesus if he was the son of God, and he refused to answer—or else gave some impossible reply: “Who do you say I am?” Was it not irresponsible that Christ had come to earth with a handful of koans and esoteric stories and expected his message to be understood by the entire world? I once raised this question in a theology course. The professor opened the question to the class. When it became clear that nobody was going to answer, he took off his glasses and spoke with a quiet gravity. “One paradox has remained true throughout history,” he said. “The more explicitly God reveals himself to mankind, the more likely we are to reject him. Christ did finally declare himself the son of God, and we crucified him.”

 

VI.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had vivid and memorable dreams. They are often very beautiful, rendered in lush floral colors and almost cinematic in their level of detail. The only problem is that they are so relentlessly on the nose. When I turned thirty and my inbox was suddenly flooded with birth announcements, I had a recurring dream in which a tiny deformed man followed me around as I performed my daily rituals. I would be trying to brush my teeth, or walking to the store, and there was the little man waddling after me, waving amiably like a salesman trying to get my attention, so that I was forced to admonish him, beneath my breath, to go away. Another time, after I’d written something of which I was ashamed, I dreamt that I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen being made to drink a vial of ink just as I’d been made to take cold medicine as a child. “Your dreams,” my sister remarked once, “are like Freud for idiots.”

If the purpose of dreams is to alert the conscious mind to what it has ignored or forgotten, then mine are very efficient—a fact for which I suppose I should be grateful. But I often wonder whether my subconscious isn’t giving me too little credit. It is a strange thing to have your sensibilities so offended by your own dormant imagination. In the end, the obviousness of these messages makes me reluctant to heed them, as though doing so would only increase the grimy indignity of being pandered to.

 

VII.

During those years of doubt, when God seemed distant or completely silent, I tried to remind myself that this was what it meant to be the bride of Christ. Earthly life was imbued with a kind of romantic tension; it was a cosmic game of seduction wherein our creator played hard to get. If life seemed unjust, if God himself felt absent, it was because we were blinded, as humans, from seeing the unifying story that would emerge only at the end of time. Until that glorious wedding day, when the veil would be lifted and the truth would be revealed, the nature of reality must appear to us as shadows, like figures passing darkly across a clouded mirror.

When I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind. I imagined myself exiting a primitive cave and striding onto terra firma, embracing a world where there would be no more shadows, no more distant echoes, only the blinding and unambiguous light of science and reason. But as it turns out, the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I left behind. The laws of physics are slippery, and resistant to grand unifying theories. The outcomes of quantum experiments change depending on our observation of them. Particles solidify when we probe them, but become waves when we turn our backs. As the physicist Paul Davies once put it, “Nature seems to play tricks on us.” Some scientists have now begun to take seriously the proposition that we exist within a multiverse, that we are forever separated from the truth of our existence by an impenetrable quantum veil.

What to make of this sly and nonsensical world that is indifferent to our curiosity? If the universe were a novel, we might say that it is “elusive,” or perhaps even “opaque.” If it were a god, we could only conclude that he had hidden his face. But perhaps it is a mistake—one common in our age of transparency—to perceive that which escapes our understanding as necessarily malicious. Others have found in these cosmic mysteries not tricks but signs of the ineffable. “The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not,” said Albert Einstein. “Nature hides her secrets because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse.”

 

VIII.

I worry, once again, that my oblique approach has managed only to muddle things. I suppose I’ve been trying to suggest that subtlety is always a sign of mystery, and that our attitude toward the former is roughly commensurate to our tolerance for the latter. I have come to regard it as something of a dark art, a force of nature that can be summoned but never fully harnessed, and can backfire at the slightest misstep. Anyone can pick up a bullhorn and make her intent clear to all, but to attempt something subtle is to step blindfolded into the unknown. You are always teetering on the brink of insanity. You are always walking on a wire strung across an abyss, hoping to make it from one end to the other without losing your balance, or your mind.

Perhaps this is another way of saying that subtlety is a transaction of faith. The artist must have faith that the effects will be perceived in the way she intends; the reader must trust that what he detects beneath the surface of the text is not merely a figment of his imagination. The disciple must come to believe that the whispers he hears in the wilderness are not the wind, or the devil, but the voice of his creator—just as the physicist must accept that there is order to the universe, even when its rules elude us. Such leaps of faith can be motivated only by love—a love so fierce it is willing to subsist on morsels, taking bread crumbs for a path in the dark. And perhaps, in the end, it is love that allows us to endure these mysteries, to subsist on so little, believing that somewhere, beyond the darkness, exists another consciousness that is trying to reach us.

Meghan O’Gieblyn is a writer who lives in Wisconsin. Her essay collection, Interior States, will be published in October by Anchor Books.

Art credit: Andrea Matone / Alamy Stock Photo

Small Talk

Krys Malcolm Belc

We could talk about how easy television chefs make it look to strip thyme off the stems. It never comes off like that, in a neat pile, does it? I’m sure we can agree that laundry pods are a useless invention, that the world still needs magazines, that nobody’s feet look sexy in Birkenstocks. I’d like to discuss how the train tracks in this small town are not just for show; you used to be able to get somewhere from here. It should be easy, this kind of talking about nothing, but it is not so easy for me to meet anybody anymore. I’m afraid now. I see you trying to look through my clothes and I don’t mean in a good way. You and I are the kinds of people who should make small talk at the grocery store or the library, should nod when we pass each other with our strollers. But you will try to look through me, try to learn my insides, not whether my heart has four chambers or whether my capillaries can move the blood between arterioles and venules. They can. Italian biologist Marcello Malpighi first observed the capillary system, in a frog’s lung. He discovered several structural elements of kidneys; that blood clots differently in different areas of the heart; that invertebrates do not rely on their lungs to breathe. Let’s talk about him when we cross paths in Target, buying our children mittens because first snow came early this year; winter always seems to be coming in Michigan and yet parents never seem to be ready for it. Target is the same everywhere and I could be anybody in Target. In the 1600s, when Malpighi worked, it was easy to trailblaze, to conquer and map the human body. A man and a microscope, a yearning to know what is inside. You, too, want to know. You try to undress me but you can’t. You get to have clothes that are just clothes. A shirt with a crumpled collar. A tee shirt from your high school graduation. But mine are an elaborate covering: covering binders, covering curves, covering the poor posture of a lifetime of hiding. Shielding me from eyes that wander during small talk. You probably wish you were my neighbor. He has seen me naked dozens of times because I am not as careful as you think someone like me ought to be.  One evening after he got into an argument with my wife over pushing his gigantic lawnmower too close to our toddlers, he stood in his window watching us eat dinner. He was lit from behind like a Halloween decoration. He crossed his arms and watched me serve stew into five bowls and I could just see that he knew, knew everything underneath my sweats and my tee shirt. It is possible that Malpighi was not the first person to see red blood cells, that he was the second. But he saw a lot of things first. Is knowing what’s inside when it is already known to somebody else the same? The fluid, the rush, the noise of the body: dilation, contraction, a system working perfectly, moving as if by design, something worth talking about.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s chapbook of flash essays, In Transit, is forthcoming from The Cupboard Pamphlet. His work has been featured in The Adroit Journal, Brevity, Redivider, and elsewhere. Krys lives in Marquette, Michigan with his partner and three sons. He is an MFA student at Northern Michigan University and Managing Editor of Passages North. You can find him on twitter @krysmalcolmbelc.

Teatime in Darjeeling

Ann Tashi Slater

1.

Every morning in Tokyo, as the tile roofs of the neighborhood houses come into view, I put the kettle on for Darjeeling tea. When the water reaches a rolling boil, I pour it over the dark, crinkly leaves of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis tea plant. Like the Japanese paper flowers Proust writes of, the ones that bloom when put in water, a world unfolds as the leaves steep and the musky, floral fragrance rises.

The tea estates, which I first saw as a small girl when my mother brought her American husband and children to her hometown of Darjeeling, lie 6,700 feet in the Himalayas near the India-Tibet border. The long, even rows of emerald tea bushes undulate with the hills, dirt paths cutting through them like veins. The estate names read like a roster of champion racehorses: Margaret’s Hope, Makaibari, Happy Valley, Rangaroon, Liza Hill. The teas include crisp and ethereal First Flush, harvested in spring; rough-edged Rain Tea, produced during the summer monsoon; fruity, coppery Autumn Flush.

Bringing water to a boil, waiting for the leaves to brew, pouring the tea into a cup and milk into the tea (only a drop, so the taste isn’t diluted), I’m doing what my Tibetan family has done for over a century. The earthy notes of the amber liquid conjure the wool-and-camphor smell of our Darjeeling house, the odor of butter lamps and incense in the altar room. They make me feel connected to the land itself: 28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, soaring over the town; sacred Observatory Hill, where our family feasted at Losar New Year; the dusky waters of the Teesta River, where my grandparents’ ashes were scattered. 

On Jeffrey Tennyson’s Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger

Tabitha Blankenbiller

Somewhere in the Buckley, Washington, library you’ll find a copy of Jeffrey Tennyson’s Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger with twenty-five 1996 checkout stamps. I read Tennyson’s book for a year, studying each page’s playful layout and memorizing his cheeky captions, as rapturous as scripture. His history recounted the sensational White Castle slider revolution, the drive-in neon constellation sky of California, and the coffee-shop-counter sentinels of respite along Route 66. An imagined America is pieced together in Tennyson’s pages, an America of families that dress up for dinner with the same ceremony as they do for church, of smiling waitresses in scalloped-lace aprons and starchy paper hats delivering toasted, melting, salty divinity to waiting cars. As he describes this golden age, Tennyson’s voice lilts off the page in a cadence that is self-aware (yes, he’s talking about hamburgers) but relentlessly reverent (god damn it, he loves hamburgers):  “At the local drive-in, burger-bearing dreamgirls such as Brenda helped put the amour in glamour, and the kitsch in the kitchen.” He spoke about his favorite food in a way that didn’t simply make me want to listen. It made me want to live in its world.

Through Hamburger Heaven I could imagine an adolescent life in which each day started with a freshly pressed poodle skirt and ended at the drive-in. If I could magically slip into Tennyson’s collection of original road stop photographs and toothy advertisements, I’d have everything my postmodern teenage life lacked: friends, acceptance, milk shakes.

Different Meanings

Maura Cheeks

In German the word gift means poison. In the Scandinavian languages it can be translated to either poison or marriage, depending on the context.

The word Tao in Japanese and Chinese has profound meaning. In America we use the word to name nightclubs.

Silence in Japanese business meetings is both expected and appreciated; it is considered poor form to fill the room with idle chatter. In America we talk nervously, watching the minutes tick past the start, hoping to make the meeting worth our time.

If a white man talks in a meeting in America and another white man interrupts him, they’re considered to be engaging in a healthy debate. They’re getting things done as we like to say here.

If a white woman interrupts another white woman, it’s considered rude. The woman who did the interrupting is violating the female code that says, it’s tough for us out here. My success is your success. Show that we respect each other so others will learn to do the same.

If a white woman interrupts a black woman, the white woman assumes she is treating her as an equal. The black woman, perhaps, feels differently. Her anger is not the same flavor as the white woman who gets interrupted by another white woman. They can commiserate, but the black woman feels in her bones their interruptions carry different weights: hers feels heavier. And she will hold the difference for a brief time in her heart and then file it away in the place where the other intangibles go. There is no point in saying to anyone, It’s not the same when you interrupt me. She will think it but she will not say it. In English the silence becomes poison. For the white woman it becomes a gift.

When a woman with more experience and heftier credentials is passed up for a promotion by a man, eyebrows are raised.

When a black woman with an Ivy League degree, a decade of experience, and a graduate degree en route reflexively narrows her eyes and feels a tightening in her chest when asked if she can handle a client call, her boss will privately ask, is everything ok and do you need to be switched from the account?

She most certainly can’t say, My great grandfather had to be referred to as ‘boy’ into his old age, and refer to white people as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ regardless of whether they deserved that respect (especially if they didn’t deserve that respect).

She’ll find her empathy and grasp it with white knuckles, convincing herself no one meant anything by it. Get out of your head she’ll tell herself.

We accept that words can have different meanings because it is in that slipperiness we find—and lose—ourselves.

Maura Cheeks is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review and Lenny Letter, among other publications.

 

 

 

 

The Erosion of Stone

Dana Mich

I dress my infant daughter, belt her into her stroller and walk her down a mile stretch of tree-lined streets to our library in Charlottesville. I ride the elevator down one floor to arrive at section 92, peruse the names, the faces, the back covers. I often leave with a stack five or six books high, with works like Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Roxane Gay’s Hunger. From the depths of a red-brick building named for two of our country’s founding fathers—a building bolstered by marble columns and topped with a pointed pediment—I retrieve the best of today’s memoirs, written by women.

Six months ago, I made it my job to raise a tiny human. To prepare her for a life that, in just a few short years, will be lived largely outside the walls of our home. I will watch as she both shapes the world and allows herself to be guided by it, like water carving a canyon. And yet, these are our days right now: rooms, windows, soft carpeted floors. The inward-swinging side of my front door. So I crack open the covers of these books while she naps. I immerse myself in true stories authored by powerful female voices who push out against rock and find that their pliancy makes them stronger.

Bagged or unbagged, I avoid the statue of Robert E. Lee. The small block-by-block park in which it stands runs along the library’s west side, and I’m grateful that it’s out of the way, even if just barely. Beneath the canopy of her stroller, my baby stirs from an urge that is both thirst and hunger—a primal wanting for which we don’t have a word because the desires diverge before we can speak. I won’t waste my steps. Out the library’s south-facing door, I turn left, and left again. I pass my synagogue—an unsuspecting temple with five turrets and arched doorways, vines climbing up to a glass-windowed hall. And I’m reminded of an old proverb:

“What’s truer than truth? The story.”

I’m drawn to the adage, perhaps because at first, it evokes a firm, unyielding, no. Story is myth. A fanciful stringing together of events to present a moral. To make sense to our ethnocentric, human selves.

But then I hear my own rebuttal, quiet but resolute. It says, yes. It says, without story what would our lives be, other than an infinite set of entirely trivial data points? This moment, for instance: the specific cerulean hue of the sky, the sound of my breath, the squeak of stroller wheels, the winding ant trail, the car horn, the traffic cone, the crosswalk, the corner, the curb… Story is the sieve we use to sift through the noise and find meaning. It is the lens through which we look at the world and at ourselves and arrive at a common denominator. It is subjective and mercurial and flawed—which is exactly what makes it the purest, unadulterated piece of truth, if not (as the saying insists) truer than it. Each day I live I become more convinced that objectivity, like many of the virtues we glorify, is a mere construct. A fallacy. Stripping ourselves of our humanity to reach some form of certainty, what does that achieve? We can go about our lives erecting stones but they will only ever be nonliving.

That’s why I have these books in the basket of my daughter’s stroller. The urge to read them arises from the same deep-seated need that brought me into being: give me skin, give me eyes, give me lungs. I want to experience another person’s unique reality. I want a point of view so different from my own that when their words resonate, I feel—with profound awe—that I’ve stumbled upon something universal. I want a meeting of minds and bodies and spirits that can only be achieved through turning the pages on which these brave women have written down their lives. I want their self-evident truths. Their declaration of personhood.

I turn onto Park Street and am reminded of last August. The flag-wielding hate that gathered and the Nazi chants that reverberated across my town, my neighborhood. I’m reminded of being sixteen weeks pregnant, of laying on the couch by the front-facing window of my home and watching my daughter, not even the size of my palm, kick her foot in rhythmic pulses down by my hip. It would be three more weeks until I learned her sex, but I promised her, “we will outlive this”. We, as in she and I, and the lives she might one day bring into the world. We may carry the surnames of our fathers and husbands, but the matrilineal bond is a deep and endless river—a force uniting daughters of daughters from womb to womb since the beginning of humankind.

I look down at her now as she dozes, her eyelids softly closed, her dimpled chin tucked into her shoulder. “Adira Malka,” I lean in and hum, touching her toes, “Strong Queen.”

It’s the voices of women that I hear—ancestral, present-day, future—as I sing my daughter’s Hebrew name. Voices of women who have gifted language and legend to each next generation, sowing seeds of hope within us when there was more often reason to despair. And it’s the voices of women that I will continue to seek out this and every August as the asphalt beneath my feet swelters. I am tired of hate blighting the world, invading my hometown, crowding my thoughts. It’s peace and reason and fairness and justice and love that I will embody. That I will become. That I will pass on.

We turn onto our street—the street that, four months ago, was strewn with flyers insisting “It’s okay to be white.” They were sealed in zip-loc bags and weighed down with stones—to our driveways, our lawns, our sidewalks. I remember forging down our street, holding back tears—my baby girl then ten weeks old, swaddled against my chest as I gathered and discarded the remaining pieces of hegemonic angst.

I step in through my front door, putting thoughts of days past aside. I unbuckle little miss Adira Malka and set my books on the coffee table. She wakes up and demands to be nursed. I kiss her head and bring her to our rocking chair. The remote is in reach, but the television stays off. My evening news lies between the covers of these memoirs. These written accounts of women’s lives lived today are my barometer for how we are faring in the ongoing battle to weather our adversities. They are my sense of duty and promise in the world.

“What’s truer than truth?” I hear myself say, “The story.”

I realize that I don’t just believe these words. They are the water in the well that lies within me. And like the bucket that lowers, I find myself returning, over and over again, to this: Our prophecies self-fulfill.

As I nurse my baby, I open the covers of the memoirs I brought home, reading the first passages in each. My eagerness to take in these women’s life stories lies somewhere between thirst and hunger—a desire both familiar and also ineffable. From these pages, there is an outpouring of love and strength and perseverance. I hear a coalescence of resilient voices. Like a river flowing into the future, it promises to pave a new path, eroding stone along the way.

Dana Mich is a Jewish mother and writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, Brevity’s Nonfiction blog, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and her memoir writers collective @movingforewords

Riley: An Excerpt from Patient Care

Dr. Paul Seward

He had a first name, but for the entire time I knew him, I called him Mr. Riley and he called me Dr. Seward. Most of our conversations were on the phone in the context of prescriptions for ER patients. And in the ER, when we talked about him among ourselves, he was just “Riley.”

Riley was the owner and principal pharmacist of Riley’s Drugs, a pharmacy a few blocks from the hospital. This was the late eighties, and the large pharmacy chains were starting to come to town to compete with the mom-and-pop pharmacies that had been there for years. Despite the competition, Riley was a favored vendor both for people in the neighborhood and for the local emergency departments in that part of town.He had a first name, but for the entire time I knew him, I called him Mr. Riley and he called me Dr. Seward. Most of our conversations were on the phone and in the context of prescriptions for ER patients. And in the ER, when we talked about him among ourselves, he was just “Riley.”

There were a lot of reasons for this: he had been around for a long time; he was a well-known member of the community; and he was known to deal fairly with the less well-to-do clientele who lived in the neighborhood. But beyond all that, there was one big reason we all used him: Riley’s was open until midnight.

This was not true of the chains—at least then. During the day, they were there for you, full service, shiny floors, bright lights, and well-stocked shelves. But when the sun went down, the lights turned off and they went home.

That system didn’t work for the ER. We were not licensed to dispense medications, and evening was when things got busy. Evening was when the waiting room began to fill with coughing children whose mothers thought they felt warm; with asthmatics, whose breathing was starting to worsen; with people who had fallen and hurt themselves; with the elderly, who were having vague chest and abdominal pains that they hoped was just a little gas. Sometimes it was.

A lot of those people had had their symptoms for much of the day, hoping whatever it was would go away. But as the light grew dim, as the fevers went up and the breathing grew worse, they would finally get themselves into a car and come to the hospital. In those days—and since then as well—I thought of those people as the ER’s—and Riley’s—special responsibility.

By that I don’t just mean Riley’s Pharmacy; I mean Riley. Yes, he had other pharmacists who worked for him, and yes, I am sure he did go home some nights. But most of the time, after the sun went down, if someone needed an antibiotic, or a refill on their asthma inhaler, and if I picked up a phone to call it in, it was Riley I would be talking to.

So one day, after a couple of years of phone conversations, I decided that I wanted to meet him face-to-face. It was easy to arrange. After all, I was not only a doctor; I was a patient. I was in my midforties then, and like many of my own patients, I had some cholesterol problems and a touch of high blood pressure, and I too had prescriptions that needed to be filled. I don’t remember what pharmacy I had been using. But I do remember that one night, after the customary couple of calls to Riley, I realized that I needed some way to tell him that what he was doing mattered. So a few days later, after working the seven-to-three shift, I drove over to his pharmacy, walked in with my prescriptions in hand, and said hello.

At first it felt a little strange. For one thing, he didn’t look anything like my image of a pharmacist, and I don’t think I looked too much like many of the physicians he was used to. I was after all a refugee from the sixties. My hair was long, I had a full beard, and when I talked I sounded like I was from California.

Riley reminded me of the sort of old man you might see in rural America, sitting on his front porch in bib overalls, overweight, smoking a cigar, and telling stories. That day he wasn’t smoking a cigar, but he was probably smoking a cigarette. He was a chain smoker, and this was well before the days in which smoking cigarettes was banned in stores and health facilities. Riley sold them, and he smoked them as he did so. That was who Riley was.

This did not mean he was unprofessional. On the contrary. While his store was old, it was clean, it was organized, and it had all the things that patients needed. And that was also who Riley was.

We shook hands, I gave him my prescriptions, and we talked for a bit while he filled them for me. We got along immediately. We talked about family; and we talked about patients.

We both took care of the same people after all: those who came to the ER for much of their care, and who did so mostly at night. This generally meant that they were poor. And we both knew that these people were hardworking and honest, loved their families, and served their communities. In short, we had nothing in common, except that we both thought that taking care of people who didn’t have much money was a good thing to do.

So after that first meeting, every couple of months, as my prescriptions needed refilling, I would stop by and say hello for a few minutes and chat, becoming gradually more comfortable in our conversation. One day I asked him whether he had ever been robbed. After all, his store was open till midnight, he was almost always alone there, and there certainly must be money in his cash drawer. Wasn’t he scared?

I remember his smile, calm and unafraid. “No,” he said. “I keep this.” Then he reached under the counter, took out a short-barreled rifle, and showed it to me—not to touch, just to look at. I didn’t ask him anything else. I just nodded at it and said something useless like “Well, I see what you mean.” He put it back under the counter, we chatted a bit more as he finished my prescriptions, and then I left.

I didn’t think that much about it. At that time, it was common to have a weapon in an establishment frequented by the public. Also, while our friendship was real, it was still a workplace friendship. Finally, despite years in the ER seeing what people can do to one another, I still didn’t expect that sort of violent encounter to happen to anyone I knew personally. So I was surprised one day a year or so later when I came to work to hear everyone talking about what had happened at Riley’s the night before.

It had evidently been around nine or ten o’clock. He was, as usual, alone in the store. A young man, perhaps in his late twenties, had come in and at first had just wandered about, looking at items on the shelves. Then, presumably when he was sure that there were no other customers, he came over to the prescription drop-off area. Riley went to assist him. But when he asked the young man what he needed, the man took out not a sheaf of prescriptions but a revolver. He pointed it at Riley and told him to give him all the cash.

I don’t know precisely what happened next—whether Riley went to the cash register and pretended to be getting out the money, or whether he just reached under the counter. I do know that he came up with his gun, pointed it at the man’s chest, and pulled the trigger. The man dropped to the floor and did not move again. Then Riley called the police.

They came immediately, called the coroner to deal with the body, and took Riley’s statement about what had happened. I talked to the coroner later, and he said that Riley’s aim had been good and the wound was through the heart. It was his opinion that the man had died nearly instantly. I don’t think the police even took Riley down to the station, or if they did, they let him go home later that night. When the dust and paperwork had settled, the shooting was ruled self-defense and a justifiable homicide. And from a legal point of view, that was that.

In the ER, the general feeling was one of shock. But at the same time, we all felt that Riley had done the right thing. He had defended himself, perhaps even saved his own life. Certainly he had made sure that no one would try to rob him again. If anything, Riley’s stock in the ER had gone up. On the one hand, there were no high fives. But at the same time, we had all seen seriously wounded and dead people come to the ER after a robbery, and the fact that in this case the victim was the robber was okay with us.

Riley was not in the store the next day or the next. But within a week or so, he was back at work as usual, although I think that at first—perhaps permanently—he stopped working nights. I do know that a couple of weeks later I realized that I had not spoken to him, so I went over one afternoon just to say hello and find out how he was doing.

When I entered the store, even from across the room, I could see that something was wrong. He did not smile or greet me. He just looked up at me and nodded, obviously tired.

I asked him how he was. He didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said, “I can’t sleep.”

I thought I knew what he meant.

“But you are safe now. Nobody’s going to try to rob you again,” I said.

He nodded. He continued to look at the counter. Even so, I could see that his eyes were red. Whether from sleeplessness or tears I couldn’t tell. He went on as if I had not replied. “He comes to me when I dream,” he said.

And suddenly I understood.

I said nothing. I did not know what to say.

Riley shook his head, still looking at the counter. Then he went on quietly.      “He was so young.”

He paused. Then he looked at me. “He didn’t know what he was doing. He had a life in front of him, and I took it away.” He said it as if he were reading it from a newspaper, with no emotion, only a deep fatigue that hinted at a hidden reservoir of pain. “I’m sure that’s why he comes,” he said.

For a little while we both were silent. Then I tried again.

“But if you hadn’t shot him he might have killed you,” I said.

He shrugged slightly. “Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not.” His eyes were closed now, and he continued to shake his head. “But I did kill him. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.”

I didn’t know how to respond. So I responded as a doctor. “Are you seeing someone about this?”

His eyes opened, and he thought about the question for a moment. Then he said something about how the pastor from their church came to talk to him. “But that doesn’t change what I did,” he said.

We both were silent, he sitting in his chair behind the counter, I standing on my side at the place where I would normally hand him prescriptions.

I thought about what he was trying to say. Then suddenly, as if some thoughtful stranger had handed me a note, I found myself asking, “When he comes to you, does he talk to you?”

Riley looked up at me, surprised. He thought about it. “No,” he said, “he just comes. I don’t think he has ever said anything.”

“Do you know why he is coming? Do you think he wants anything from you?”

His answer was uncertain. “I don’t know,” he said.

I suddenly felt like I was treading water in the middle of a deep ocean, knowing nothing of what swam beneath me. All I knew for sure was that the good man sitting in front of me was in hell, and I did not know how to help him. At the same time, I felt as if I were right about something: whatever was going on in Riley’s heart, it seemed to me that forgiveness was the key.

So after a moment I said, “The next time he comes, why don’t you ask him what he wants?”

He looked back at me, frowned, and nodded just slightly.

I went on, “Maybe he just wants you to apologize. Maybe he wants to forgive you. But you have to ask.”

Something worked. Around then he took a deep breath and reached over on the shelf for my small bag of prescriptions. “Thank you,” he said.

I did not see him for several months after that. I heard that he had been taking a lot of time off, and other pharmacists were working his shifts. But one day when I came into work, the doctor I was relieving told me that Riley was in the hospital. He had had a small heart attack and was in some congestive failure.

So on my lunch break, I went up to his room and knocked on the door. He was sitting in bed, and in chairs around him were several members of his family—I believe his wife and I think a grown child or two, but I can’t be sure. I know that he introduced me around, saying a couple of nice things. They all said hello. Then when I turned to Riley, they politely started talking again among themselves.

I remember very little of our conversation. I know that it was not a long one. I know that I asked him whether he had talked to the man in his dreams. And I remember that he nodded at me, without smiling.

I asked him what he had said to the man. “I did apologize,” he said, “but I don’t think he said anything back. I’m not sure.” He paused and then said, “He doesn’t come by much anymore.”

I did not know what to say. I shook his hand and told him to take it easy and get well, and then I went back to the ER.

I never saw him again. A few months later I heard that he had had another heart attack at home, and this one he did not survive. I think he was already in the process of selling the pharmacy, but certainly after his death the building was sold and I think did not open again. By then we had started a system of giving small medication starter packs to patients if the pharmacies were closed, and life went on.

Except for the young man who had come to his store with a gun. And except, of course, for Riley.

Paul Seward has been a physician for nearly fifty years, and has spent the majority of those years working in emergency rooms on both coasts. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Medical School, and did his internship and residency in pediatrics at UC San Francisco. Seward is an Emeritus member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Emergency Physicians. Now retired, he and his wife live in Vermont. 

 

Sweetness Mattered

Aaron Hamburger

It’s been a couple of decades since I last held a roll of Smarties candies: roughly a dozen dimpled pastel tablets of chewable pressed sugar, tightly wrapped in cellophane. However, as a teenage boy in suburban Detroit, I always kept a stash of them in my closet, on the shelf above my prep school uniform. Every morning before school, I brushed my teeth and hair, tied my necktie, and yanked the knot up to the collar of my button-down shirt as dictated by our dress code. And then I placed a roll of the candy in the inside pocket of my sport jacket.

I recently bought a bag of Smarties, which I’ve never cared for. According to the company’s website, the different colors are meant to evoke different flavors: white for orange cream, pale green for strawberry, etc. Yet to me they all share the same stunningly sweet taste, which makes my tongue curl. They have a harsh chalky texture between my teeth, like aspirin.

But liking Smarties was never the point. The candies weren’t for me. For three years, I doled them out as gifts, one roll at a time, day after day, to a classmate named Justin, on whom I had a hopeless crush. It was my very first attempt at a love offering.