An Ouroboros tail in mouth I sit in class and stare at your push-broom mustache, contemplating the profound question: would it be morally acceptable for me to shave the thick bristles off your face? Of course, I’d probably displace a complete civilization of Platos and Aristotles behind the theoretical curtain that shades your upper lip, constructing speech with logical slips, premises you unleash in lecture, frowning at conjectures from students who overlook the facts. If A is justified in believing B and B entails C, then I am justified in believing that your glass mug is not full of tea when you mention consensual sex between man and dolphin, ask us to debate the ethics with a sound and valid argument. When Socrates swan dives into the herbal hot tub you’re sipping, I think maybe the world as I see it is a lie, the universe nothing more than dirt trapped inside the feather-duster under your nose or a paradoxical snake’s essence spinning infinite like a barber shop pole.
In any given room I predict which of my friends and which of my strangers will die first. I note which ones will marry each other, rob banks, and which ones will reappear in my plot-lines thirty years later. When I stare at myself in the mirror, trying to identify my own end, a nictitating membrane lowers itself over my eyes and stops me. When I heard that you died ten days after graduation I looked for you online. I went to the usual places: profiles, search bars and the Herald Sun. The obituaries didn’t know you had a birth or death date, only that you were “joyful and beloved.” It didn’t know you tunneled into your computer screen after school, just that you had “big plans.” A month later I forgot your last name and a year later I went digging again, curious for fossils, but the pages were gone.
Every now and again, when I roam the web at 3 a.m., curved over my desk, my protein bars and thermos flask, the aluminum stars hanging shapes in my window, craning and reforming into constellations millennia before we notice the patterns, I mistake you for a chat room ghost. Your screen name stands in silence on the screen. You join conversations to listen, then you wander off into the terabytes, the Amazon wish-lists and the Minecraft planets, the pixelated wastelands.
I’d like to tell your family that memory, these days, is an infinite physical space never fully erased but preserved in the deep files, running through the bloodstream of databases of rocket launchers and racing stocks. ERROR 404 just means you’re somewhere else.
Wednesday night sessions inside my dad’s shop where blue collar beer bellies escape frozen tray dinners, work calls or wives with old man gossip and southern slurring
behind three garage doors and our back deck. I am home on summer break watching ten Netflix episodes pajama-clad with a tall glass full of chocolate milk when I am called
to play sober taxi for Barry. He stumbles through headlights, fumbles with the door, falls into the passenger seat and Dad steps up to my window laughing at the squinty-eyed man who drops his purple bag of half-full Crown Royal to the floor as he wrestles
with the seat belt. Drive careful and I do. My dying air freshener will not cover the smell of vomit. Barry asks about college, says my ex-wife is a whore, daughter wants nothing to do with me.
He’s glad that classes are going well. I watch him survive the key gauntlet, bending to lift the mat, slow-motion momentum planting his face against the screen door –
all spotlighted by high beams. But the lights are off inside the empty house and his Crown sits forgotten in the floorboard. I find it when I park at home, overhead bulb absorbing shadows around the purple drawstring I now remember packed full of marbles in the toy chest.
Interview with Gail Z. Martin, author of Ice Forged
Aisha Anwar: Who encouraged you to read?
Gail Z. Martin: My mom was a kindergarten and first grade teacher, and she read to me from the time I came home from the hospital as a newborn! She read to me until I had many of the stories memorized. As I grew up, requests to buy books or go to the library were never turned down (I can’t say the same for other items I wanted to purchase!). Both of my parents and my grandmother, who lived with us, were readers, and I always saw books in their hands. Many of my friends growing up were also readers. One friend and I had to climb a tree to get away from the neighborhood bully, but we took our books up with us and were pretty happy up in the branches. Another friend used to come over and we’d each find a comfy chair and a good book and read in companionable silence!
AA: What are your childhood favorites?
GZM: When I was little, it was the Dr. Seuss books and the Winnie the Pooh original books by A.A. Milne. The original Winnie the Pooh stories were well written and not just the super-simplified little books they are today. A.A. Milne wrote paragraphs that could go on for half a page! When I got older, I loved Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, the Meg stories and any of the “girl detective” books. We didn’t have “YA” books back then, so I read anything with a ghost or a vampire in it, including Dracula, Macbeth and Edger Allen Poe. I also read books of ghost stories, and anything I could find about King Arthur.
AA: What or what drove you to become a writer?
GZM: There were stories that I wanted to read that I couldn’t find in the bookstore, so I decided to write them myself! I started out writing what today you’d call “fan fiction”—stories based on the characters from TV shows and movies, creating new adventures within the framework of someone else’s world. My friends enjoyed reading them and wanted me to write more, which taught me that I could entertain people. Eventually, I started writing my own worlds and characters and just kept on going!
AA: What’s the title of your newest book? Where can readers find it?
GZM: The newest book is the first in a brand new series. Ice Forged is Book One in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. It’s available in bookstores internationally, on Amazon, and on Kindle, Kobo and Nook—and soon, it will be available as an audio book, too! The second book, Reign of Ash, will be in stores in April, 2014.
AA: How do your ideas take form? What do you find inspirational?
GZM: Ideas come from everywhere. I might watch a TV show on The History Channel or on The Discovery Channel or somewhere like that and see something about an old object, a long-ago war, a biography, etc., and I get thinking, “What if…” The same thing happens if I am reading something historical, or visiting a historic site. All kinds of little things create ideas, and I build off those ideas for bigger things. I find historic sites and learning about history, myth and legend to be very inspirational!
AA: Are you working on anything new?
GZM: I just signed a contract with Orbit Books for two more books in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga series, so I’m working on the next book, War of Shadows, for 2015. And every month, I bring out a new short story on Kindle, Kobo and Nook in two other series, my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures series and my Deadly Curiosities series. I’ve got some ideas I’m also working on for an urban fantasy book and some steam punk stories, so we’ll see what happens!
AA: What do you enjoy most about writing?
GZM: I enjoy sharing the characters and stories in my imagination with other people and having those creations come to life for readers. That is so much fun!
AA: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
GZM: Never give up. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was 14, but my first book wasn’t published until I was 45! Sometimes, life gets in the way for a while. It’s a business with a lot of rejection, but if you believe in your stories, you’ve got to keep trying until you break through.
AA: Your daughter’s coming to UNC in the fall. Does this mean you’ll be in the area for any projects or book signings?
Our plans are not like a couple’s. As we lie naked under your comforter and talk about the future, the questions raised are not where we will move after I graduate or when we will get a dog. I always thought I was okay with this. It has always been clear: the future is unclear for both of us. I thought I could live here, in the now. With you.
I assumed I would be fine, bidding you adieu when the time came. But as you send off law school applications one by one, I picture you scattered in any corner of the southeast while I am God-knows-where. I wonder if you will still text me just because, regardless of where we’re both living. It’s healthy to have our own ambitions, I realize that. But I also realize that maybe I’m kidding myself; maybe I want to support your goals along with my own.
Things that scare us are more approachable in the dark, so we always wait to talk about the future until after sex. There is never much to talk about, not in the way of a joined future, anyway. Afterward, we always move on to something philosophical to lighten the mood. This time it is life and death.
Then we get up and put our clothes back on and drive to Wendy’s. It’s the only thing open all 24 hours of the day. As we sit in the drive-thru and wait for the loudspeaker to crackle to life, there is a fender bender behind us. We watch in the rearview mirror, discreet and nosy.
“Should I get out?” you wonder.
“No,” I say. “You’re not even involved.”
“But aren’t we, like, implicated? As witnesses?”
I want to remind you you’re not a lawyer yet, that you don’t have to take on every potential case you see. I want to tell you to stay here and tell me that story again about the guy you waited on that pitched a fit about his buttered vegetables, or listen to me complain about my thesis. “They probably just have to swap insurance information,” I say. The sentence sounds dry, boring, logical.
We get our food and you drive to a parking lot across the street to eat. Across the way there is a coffee shop with one string of lights on its front porch.
“Best view in this small town,” you joke, and as I look over at your profile half-illuminated in the light, I think maybe you are right.
As I am sorting through fries and chicken sandwiches and handing you half the spoils, you won’t stop talking about the fender bender. “I mean, it’s crazy,” you say. “What was he thinking? Did he not see him there?”
“He was probably drunk,” I say. I am tired of hypotheticals for tonight.
“I’m glad it wasn’t us,” you say. “I feel like I dodged a bullet.” You’re only joking, of course, but when you look at me something about it is true. We are not dying, or getting jobs or going off to school, just yet. We are here, basking in the glow of Christmas lights, and we have a little time left to spend together.
Cellar Door, Carolina’s undergraduate literary magazine, is now accepting submissions of art, poetry, & fiction for publication in its Spring 2014 issue. We urge you to submit any work you consider worthy of publication. The submission deadline is FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7th at midnight.
If you are unfamiliar with Cellar Door, you can always find a *free* copy of our latest issue in both the Undergraduate and Davis Libraries, as well as in Bull’s Head Bookshop.
He sat down on the couch. The skin beneath his eyes was dark, nearly purple. He wore socks that had been navy but were so dusty and thin they looked gray. It was dark and the TV flickered, garish candlelight. The walls of the room were bare except for a few unadorned nails. His hand landed on an open packet of nuts on the cushion beside him. He ate the remaining ones individually, examining each sphere and crunching down deliberately with his jaw.
“What’s wrong?” It was 4 am. She was in the living room, huddled under an afghan. Only her head and her hand, clutching the remote, were visible. He leaned against the doorframe.
“Nothing. I can’t sleep again. Go back to bed.”
He glanced at the television. “Is this what you watch every night? Infomercials?” Images of women wearing sweatbands and beaming men in aprons flashed by.
“Yeah. Silly, aren’t they?”
“They’re ridiculous. I can’t stand them.”
“Really?” She shifted under the afghan. “I like them.”
“How can you like them? They aren’t likable.” He thought about sitting down next to her but didn’t move.
“I don’t know. They’re always so cheerful.” She turned back towards the figure of a pockmarked woman talking to an earnest Cindy Crawford. “Go back to sleep.”
He held his finger down on the Channel + button. Images raced each other, studio audiences and boxed sets of “I Love Lucy” and attractive families making pancakes while they roasted turkeys in a single sleek machine. The sound of the TV was barely audible. His eyes focused and unfocused as his finger pushed down.
“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t.” She jerked the locket around her neck back and forth on its chain. Her skin bulged as she pulled it tight.
“You can’t do what anymore?”
“Be here, with you. You barely leave the house. You should talk to someone- it’s selfish, do you know that? What you’re doing is selfish,” she said. He watched her, hoping the taut chain burned her neck.
“Selfish? How am I selfish? You’re not making any sense, stop yelling.” He kept his voice even and loud.
“I’m not making sense? What do you mean I’m not making sense? Don’t you dare tell me what to do, I’ll yell if I want to.” She dropped the chain.
He got up from the couch. “This is idiotic. I’m going to bed.”
“I can’t do this anymore, I feel like I’m suffocating.” Her hands spread.
“Jesus Christ, calm down. You’re being ridiculous,” he said, watching her sway.
“It’s you, you’re suffocating me. I need to breathe, I need to get out -“
“Shut up.” She looked at him, matched his gaze, until he felt self-conscious and walked into the kitchen.
He paused on Channel 131. A woman with lustrous blonde curls cocked her head and smiled at him. He turned up the volume as she said “Call the toll-free number on your screen within the next ten minutes to order. Trust me. It’ll change your life.” A number flashed on the screen. He picked up his cell phone and wallet from the coffee table.
“Come to bed,” he said, leaning over her.
“Then talk to me. Look at me. This is ridiculous.” He looked at her profile. She stared straight ahead. He waited but she didn’t budge. He went to their room and made the bed, cut his nails, sat on the trunk under the window and read a program from a play they saw two years ago. He leaned against the doorframe and looked into the living room. The TV was flickering and tears were falling thick into her lap. Everything was silent.
Within two weeks, the second bedroom was full. Juicers, two exercise machines, hair curlers, several types of moisturizer, an inflatable clown, a deck awning, four closet organizers, a grill. He unwrapped each package as it came and arranged the items into towers forming a rough circle. He left the packaging materials in the center of the room. After everything he ordered had been delivered and was in place, he sat cross-legged in the middle pile. The crunching of styrofoam and popping of bubble wrap echoed as he shifted position. He built low walls made of cardboard and used tape, concentrating. In an hour, he was surrounded by a barrier that came up to his chin. He looked around him and pulled his knees to his chest.
Come out with me tonight, Alex’s text reads. We’re celebrating the end of an era.
So I do, even though we are a couple of lightweights who feel nicely buzzed after only two beers, even though we both find the bar scene laughable. I do it because that’s the way things are with Alex: once he gets an idea in his head, you go along with it.
It is so like him to call the past however many years of our lives “an era” – to Alex, everything is more grandiose and important than it appears at first glance. Everything is an opportunity, an adventure.
He has that sparkle in his eye when I push open the grimy door to the bar he’s chosen. The look is mischief combined with visions of grandeur. “David, my kind sir,” he greets me. He’s acting even more jovial than usual, completely ignoring the fact that come tomorrow he’ll be halfway across the country for basic training, and if he survives that he’ll be shipped off to who the hell knows what third-world country, and if he survives that he might come back to visit. But it won’t be the same.
“Three words,” Alex says, nodding to a girl standing at the bar.
It is a game we play, or rather, that Alex plays and I participate in: three words to describe the object in question. No explanations allowed. The girl is dressed in tiny ripped shorts, and she is leaning against the bar on her elbows while surveying the room with a cold stare.
“Duck-faced,” I decide. “Condescending…and tragic.”
Alex furrows his brow, pretends to be confused. “Oh. I was gonna say my next girl.”
We sit for a while and discuss anything that is not the impending flight than Alex will board in the morning. We have been friends since fifth grade, which sounds like a cliché or an exaggeration, but in our case, it’s true. The only hiccup we’ve had is when we entered middle school and I was trying so desperately hard to be cool. After Mike Peterson left me in the dirt (quite literally), Alex picked me up, dusted me off, and showed me what being cool really meant. It wasn’t about being a football star, but instead about charisma, about finding adventure, about being someone who was exciting. Someone like Alex.
Alex always has crazy shenanigans, and I’m always along for the ride. Sometimes he calls them “entrepreneurial endeavors,” like the time in seventh grade we sold Air Heads out of our lockers until the cafeteria shut us down for being in competition with them. Other times they’re just plain off the wall, like the time in tenth grade when he bought two tuxedos at Goodwill and planned out an entire photo shoot. The shoot was going to involve performing bizarre activities while wearing the tuxes. Slip ‘n’ slide in tuxes, grocery shopping in tuxes. That plan came to an unfortunate end when we decided to begin with playing paintball in tuxes. Although we went to different colleges, we stayed close, driving the half hour to see each other at least once a month, discovering drinking, dancing, girls.
But now we are both 24, that precarious age where you’ve been a college graduate for a couple years and if you haven’t yet found something permanent to do with your life, you’re approaching the brink of major failure. For a while there, we were both back at the restaurant we worked at in high school, but while I was busy studying for the LSAT, Alex went and signed up for the Army.
It’s not like in the old days, when going off in the Army was not only a civic duty but also glorious, romantic, and sentimentalized, something you did with all your buddies. Now it’s a choice – a choice where buddies leave behind buddies, where sons (and daughters) leave behind mothers. I mean, I know someone has to do it, but I never thought it would be someone I know. Or let me rephrase and say I never thought it would be Alex.
Maybe it’s what he wants, but I’m worried it’s one of his whims. I study his face, searching for the cloud cast over it, the silent signal that something isn’t right. But no, it’s glowing, his face is pink and smiling and a faint sheen of sweat is gathering on his temples from the beer.
He leans in conspiratorially. “Three words to describe this place.” It’s one of those nameless joints, one we haven’t been to before.
I look around and above me, pretending to think. “Dismal. Bleak. Depressing.” I immediately hate myself for being a cynic, for not being the life of the party and giving Alex a last night to remember, but he just shrugs. He’s used to this from me.
“Bleak, eh? Been reading Dickens lately, old chap?” He smiles, shoves away from the table and goes to get us another round of beers even though we both know we don’t need any more.
On the walk home, I want to talk about life but the words stick in my throat as though I’m eating an unmanageable caramel apple, one of those monstrosities you can buy at the fair. Alex was the one who got me to go on all the rides when we went in sixth grade, and he didn’t even make fun of me for being afraid. My place is on the way to his, and we halt awkwardly in front of my complex, hands shoved in pockets, toes scuffing the cement.
Alex squints in the yellow glow of a nearby streetlight, waves his hands in front of his face dramatically as though he’s being blinded. I look up into the light, see the silhouette of a moth fall dizzily from the sky.
“I’ll talk! I’ll talk!” Alex jokes. “All right, Mr. Lawyer – I’m cutting your sentimental soliloquy short. No pulling the heartstrings of juries today.”
I want to remind him I’m not due to take the LSAT for another month, but then he says, “Three words.”
There is no prompt attached to this assignment; it is completely open-ended. And three words is just not enough. I can’t say I love you because there is not enough room to explain, you know, platonically. Like the brother I never had. Women can say I love you and that’s just assumed, but with men there can never be enough clarifications. I can’t tell him I’m worried about how dull and mundane my life will surely become without him. I can’t ask, Is this right? and effectively question every decision he’s made in the past year. But this is the way Alex wants it, so I embrace him – more of a clap on the back – and say, “Take care, bro.”
Alex gives me one last salute and turns away. I should turn the opposite direction, head into my apartment, but instead I watch him. Is it just my imagination, or does his posture slump as he puts his hands back into his pockets? I watch him until he becomes just a ghostly figure in the distance, nothing more than the silhouetted moth. Three words ring over and over in my head: an era ends.
He kicked the door open glaring at my flaunted smug. “Here,” he hissed, slapping a plate of secrets onto the table and demanded that if I was so damn starved, stop staring at him and eat it already. I licked each one snaking my tongue through foreign, sandy peach chap stick, oily, wormy morals, vinegary dried blood, briny, charred aspirations before spewing it back onto the plate.
When the Martians flew over the Pacific in giant jellyfish hovercrafts, they hardly acknowledged us. We met them on the beaches with a convoy 3 states long, 7 tons of gold bars, and a 100 million U.S. dollars. From their finned backs they dropped an obelisk displaying an ever-changing map of the universe and its planets, and lurched past our tanks with heaving suction cupped tentacles like slugs.
A call North revealed they had been living among the Canadians for years, thousands vibrating supinely on icebergs shared by seals. To the South, we found they had been long since established in Cuba, huddling around sugar cane plantations in massive circular congregations as if kneeling before demigods.
In Florida we approached them with 4-dimensional diagrams, light bulbs, and 50 million U.S. dollars (in cash). All we got in response was an occasional flap of a tentacle against the mushy surface of the everglade wetlands. In the Carolinas they avoided the same offer by nesting themselves deep into cotton fields, not seeming to mind the sharpness of the plants’ dried bristles. In New England they favored oozing on beach logs over the cities’ concrete.
We mobilized panicked bands of foot soldiers, a well written document of formal negotiations, and 5 water towers filled with quarters. But they had already returned to their gelatinous space-mobiles, leaving behind the obelisk where they had first put it, and taking nothing. They left empty tentacled.
When they accelerated past our atmosphere, streaks of blue lightning cascaded down across the East coast, leaving half the country in a month long blackout. Everybody thought it was intentional, but they probably would have apologized if they thought we needed something besides the grass.
You are heavier than I expected, and more somber. Cradled in my hands, the color of dried-out play dough, you are silent, submissive after years and years of electrified hum.
I hold your two halves apart, then nestle them together; trace your deep and thoughtful grooves; and brush with a gloved fingertip the many milky branches of your arbor vitae with a smile.
This is where you remembered how to ride a bike. This is the part that shook you when you were scared, and this one whispered dutifully to your heart: now beat, now beat, now beat.
The worksheet on the lab bench encourages probing you, naming each of your pink, fleshy structures, but I can’t see past the human. I am one brain looking at another.
Brain, tell me, who did you love? What crevice hides your lonesome secrets? Let me murmur to you everything I cannot share with living souls.
I look at you and I am (my brain is) New York City. I look at you and my dentate gyrus swims in dopamine. What happens when two brains fall in love? What happens when there’s one less clumsy body getting in the way?
After three too-short hours it’s time to put you away. I gently lay you down in your chemical bath; but for the rest of the day, walking from dreary building to building, I can’t shake the image of you and your brothers—swimming like eels in a clear bucket of formaldehyde, tucked into the darkest corner of the anatomy closet, waiting, untouched for another time.
No time to slip into stretch pants, Remember to check your watch. For twenty seconds, fall forward into Uttanasana. Touch the floor tiles. In them, you see a pattern like the line graph in your next presentation. Isn’t that enlightening? Roll upward, vertebrae by vertebrae. For thirty seconds, sink into Utkatasana. Chair pose. The one you’ve perfected, for twenty years, over coffee. Time for your first downward dog. They say those get easier by the end. Maybe you could optimize this process by performing repeated downward dogs— only downward dogs, an assembly line of downward dogs. You could propose this, PowerPoint style, to yellow-robed yogis sharp as the Tibetan winds. You might picture them nodding shaved heads, whispering like children when they earn their first dollar: whispering about your enlightening presence your professional diction your pedestal of BA, MBA, and PhD— (how beautiful it is when it shatters)
The engine cuts, I rip my legs from hot leather and leap out the open truck door. Trip, and then am caught, by callused and tanned hands. Daddy says, “I’ll just throw a few casts.” He grabs a styrofoam box and two rods, one made for babies who bait-fish and the other for men who catch real suckers with pretend bugs. Since the worms sicken me Daddy baits my line and when he pulls in his catch, he gives it back to the river so I don’t cry for it. Reaching for roots I stumble down a rusted out bridge, lined with purple bellflowers and broken maple branches. We look for where the water breathes deep and soft. He shows me the entrance to the current, I climb in, toes and eyes to white swirls above, ears to blue swirls below, and ride down. Above I see line rising, curling, licking the surface of the Chittenango on its shining pieces where sunlight warms the backs of fighting crayfish. In this moment, his hair is honey dripping his casts form with the river and his stories are unsaturated by Stretton’s dry gin or the burn of a years-long winter. And then it passes through the current, into the Chittenango.
“I used to think that Heaven was palatial. I was told it had pearly gates and was paved with gold. But now I hope they are wrong about that. I would prefer to find that Heaven was a small town with a bandstand in the park and a great many trees, and I would know everybody in it.”
-Anne Tyler, Searching for Caleb
I like to think it’s some place familiar, that when you show up, you feel like you’ve been invited to the party. Somewhere warm where you get to drink good beer on the fresh-cut lawns of houses built on stilts. I hope that it never smells like our high school cafeteria and that Spoons, the ugly frat cat, didn’t follow you there. If you’re lucky, you can hear Van Morrison crooning from a radio playing inside the house, and God stops by every once in a while, to sit and listen too.
Maybe he’ll strike up an American Spirit and sit in a lawn chair across from you, remembering his glory days: And one day for rest? Shoot, I put the world together in record time. He’ll drink through a straw while he tells you about the times he messed up: Yeah Pompeii was a real shame. Or maybe he won’t speak at all. He’ll just sit, picking at the frayed edges of that woven lawn chair.
Anyway, I hope it’s nothing too proud. Doves don’t wake you up in the morning and clouds aren’t floating at eye level. If anything, I like to think it’s just a nice place for you to sit and not feel like you’re waiting.
Set the table with your best silverware. Use ivory napkin rings and your mother’s china. Make the guest bedroom bed with clean linens and tight corners. Set out fresh towels on the cleared shelves in the bathroom and make space in the closet.
Buy the good kind of wine, don’t overcook the casserole. Hide the cigarettes you’ve been smoking. Slip into your best dress, the plum one that doesn’t snag, and braid back your curls.
Then wait by the door. Will love ring the bell? Honk the horn before barreling up your long driveway? Maybe a quiet knock at the backdoor?
These things are certain: it will track mud through your house, sit on your throw pillows, and wrinkle the sheets, leave dishes in your sink and skew the magnets on your fridge. It will shove the remote between the couch cushions and forget to feed your fish. And at the end of its stay, love will pack up its Wagoneer, spew gravel as it wheels away from your home, and be gone.
It is only a visitor, expecting your best and offering its worst. But for a brief moment, it is yours: to sit in your chair, turn on your crock-pot, and sleep in your bed, while its baggage sits unpacked in the corner of the room.
Put pressure on the lever to release the cloud of foam with a hiss. Rub the soap between your hands, and around, and under. Just don’t look up. You know who is there, and it’s not you in that mirror. Not your frown, not your face.
Your best friend did a double-take when she saw you. Months had passed, and she wasn’t prepared. Neither were you. You’re only sixteen. Your face is swollen and round. Toxic. It is numb every time you trace the outline of your cheek with your nail.
You grind the sudsy molecules into the crevices of your fingertips because that feels the same as it used to. Fingerprints do not change.
You never used to notice your own form in the mirror: the freckled nose, the wide-grinned mouth, the curved chin. You used to have dark circles under your eyes, and now you’re not sure if they’re still there.
You are scrubbing, scrubbing each inch of each finger, and you will not Look Up. Up is a stranger’s face: the low, low price for this medication healing you— Inside, not out.
Rinse. Dry. Do not make eye contact. Wash the mirror from your mind.
She eats alone, folding the napkin in her lap. Despite the shoulder pads framing her Sunday best in stiff poise, her quiet posture sags as she arranges the silverware beside her plate, smoothing wrinkles in the white tablecloth. Her sloppy, wet kiss marks the glass’ cheek instead of branding red lipstick on the forehead of a squirming grandchild or the lips of a lover.
The waiter stops by her table more than mine. He gives her free refills, an apple pie slice – no charge. He listens to her talk about the preacher’s sermon, the neighbor’s dog that digs up her garden, replacing tulips bulbs with ham bones. She’s a retired lunch lady from an elementary school where she used to drive bus 304. Her grandson just got his learners permit, maybe she’ll get to teach him how to make wide turns and not cut corners.
I watch her rip the sweet-n-low packets one by one, careful not to spill a grain. She taps the side and pours the white sand in her coffee cup, wipes the steam off her thick glasses after peering into the swirl of creamer and caffeine. As her wrist rotates in mindless stirring motion, her eyes drift to the empty seats in a way that urges me to pull out one for myself and become her granddaughter for one meal, filling her silence for the times I didn’t fill yours.
Join us Wednesday, April 24th at Bull’s Head Bookshop for the official release of the Spring 2013 issue of Cellar Door. We invite all print and online published writers and artists to come share their works. Come get your FREE copy!
The event runs from 6:30 to 8:30. We hope to see you all there!
Reference, at minimum, two types of plants or grasses: whorled milkweed, for example; an alfalfa sprout or two—maybe even a spiny-leaved sow thistle if you’re looking to make an impression. The more obscure, the better!
In terms of content: aim for impenetrability, but settle for mere obfuscation. (Remember, obfuscation leads to publication!) If your poem has any narrative thread or thematic coherence, you’re doing it wrong.
Alter your name so it reads more like a poet’s: first and middle initials followed by surname. If that doesn’t work, submit under a pseudonym: ‘Henri Cole’ and ‘Natasha Trethewey’ are safe bets.
A week after, someone stuck a pink wrought-iron cross into the strip of sod along Exit 103, amidst grass that roams rampant except during biannual maintenance by the key club or penitentiary. Grimy plastic stems twine around its base, sputtering out frayed petals at the arms. Blood’s stale, but the drivers still rubberneck and almost forget to flick the turn-signal to pass black Suburbans with decals of praying hands: in loving memory. These second graves indict the curve and testify: check the blind spot, sharp turn ahead.
We’ve reached the point where it is acceptable to talk of the future: the dog we’ll have, the home we’ll live in, the places we’ll go together. Two years now and I still don’t know you very well, I think you’ll like Mt. Rainier rising above you and the mossy San Juan Islands. You still don’t know me, you think I’ll like the green neon of the Vegas strip, days of shopping in Berkeley.
But this weekend we settle for your parents’ beach house, walking the low-tide morning shore, pocketing sand dollars broken by the sea, molding back into our bed by early afternoon.
One Christmas, I dropped the star for the top of our tree. Gold, glittered, and fine, it broke into seven pieces across our wooden living room floor, and my mother screamed. It belonged to my Grandmother! My god, how could you have been so clumsy? While she howled, I found superglue, sealed each delicate piece to the next, until it was perfect enough for Jesus and my great-grandmother. I showed her and she sighed: I have never been able to fix things, I never try. You sure didn’t get that from me, you can fix everything that is broken.
When I woke up today, there was no sun, so I walked without you, my bare heels pressed further into the sand stretching muscles cracking bones, feeling the light’s first rays warm my neck, stepping delicately around shells, to not break anything that wasn’t mine to break. Now with my salty legs in our bed, I turn towards your rising back, imagine it as mountains, breathing peaks. Your right shoulder blade, the Appalachians, your spine, the Rockies, your left blade the heights of the Sierra Nevadas. And now I want to smooth out your living ridges, lay each range flat, level, like the Great Plains, press gently with sweet contempt, bitter want.
Before I showed you old Highway 86, the roads to the Virginia routes, I used to ride them alone in the mornings, leave my bike behind a tree to tramp across frosted fields, cut brambles to draw across my chilled white thighs, leaving thin red lines, intricate and gratifying. I would find frozen puddles and break their ice, stand cold and unfeeling, rejoice in the cracking, my numb pleasure from their fracture more satisfying than your touch would ever be.
The sky pulls the sun higher now as we walk the waterline, holding hands. You make an effort to step on shells, crush them into the wet sand. The tide gathers the pieces, hauls them back out to the ocean. Why do you do that? I ask. To make more sand you say.
Like the world needs more sand, more broken things. But here we are, breakers, waves, everything breaking.
They fly, two cranes unaware of each other, she with arched back, legs evaporating toward sun, her form holding a nameless pose:
wave-curl maybe, or sea-grass which rises from him, now a boardwalk, body flat to sloping sand below, now a leaning trunk, hands the splayed leaves of a tree bowed before a hurricane. He faces the sea as if some adversary, draws with heaving chest ocean’s exhale, and then becomes it, legs the thin demand of a wave to wash sand, his breath the half-silence between breakers, salt beginning the long settle downward. Just down the beach she alights, makes of herself an arrow darting motionless through air. He follows her without seeing, gaze locked on the master before him.
Each second the desk clock flashes a low battery icon even though it’s been plugged in for months.
And it’s strange to pull an eyelash out of the mouth – stranger still for the cold to pull secrets out of the mouth when nowhere near drunk – no this slurred speech comes from a frozen tongue and a bottomless hesitation.
It is not necessary to have used an iron to know the fear of having left one on and in that hurry home all those animal tracks of shoes will show how others made their way. That’s no example to follow. Find a clear plot of snow surprise it with a foot declare this a mark upon the world.
Key the door open and notice for the first time that low-battery blinking and while the iron isn’t plugged in the desk clock is – maybe it doesn’t need to worry either.