I walk out to check on the squawking hens & brood
of chicks, the morning night an atmospheric dew
immune to suspicion & fear unlike the nature
of heifers in the barn, a rest from snagging necks
on barbed wire to eat honeysuckles along the fence
line, a commotion often thwarted by territorial hens
perhaps unsettled by the blue moon, I think, heading
up the hill for a view, pausing to watch a feather
sailing near a dogwood Grandpa planted before he died,
ate up with cancer, heart gave out—then an awful cry
from an owl in a trap atop the shed’s utility pole deceptively
moving, shadows shimmering the ground, up its greased
spine, a barn owl pecking at cotton rats scaling the pole,
a claw trap Grandpa set, a trap I failed to move.
Delightful way to go,
I say to the fox salivating from a distance,
vanishing within the vowels of night, the consonants
of curiosity. May mine be like the jazzy sap of maple
trees, a moon walking hills & fields of figs & dates,
my atomic spirit a double-helix sunrise,
no second death! Yes, an eternal weekend of light slides.
May I welcome my first not by my hand.
I resist the voice that speed-dials a coward’s end:
Curse the pills crushed in milk, the train that tempts
me to its tracks, the nail gun hissing near my temple.
The tongue can heal, the tongue can kill, I rebuke what lessens me.
Better to seek than to stray: Nearer, my God, to thee.
Is that you whispering, “Ain’t I good,” while I ease my maple’s tap,
that ladybug hitchhiking the grasshopper’s back,
that dragonfly patrolling the stalled tractor in the pasture,
those hypnotic eyes of a luna moth thought dead in monkey grass,
awakened by my breath, wings winking toward an ash
tree where I carved the words seen in a dream, “Divine Laughter”?
My heart knows its sadness, only I can share its joy on hiatus
lately: To lose a love, his highway death—suicide, some say,
is like an anchor, a wasp that won’t let go. Going blind,
like a curtain slowly closing, is a grief of a different kind.
To see or not to see, that is the question. Nonetheless,
may this morning bring digression. May the wild lilacs
rise in the air as I burn the pasture, burnt grass
crackling like fat in a skillet, like popcorn between my toes
when I rescue a fledgling fleeing weeds near approaching
flames. May the hen, missing a chick last seen among the scallions
skirting the coop, raise the bobwhite quail with her brood.
We all deserve second chances, companions too.
Interviewed by Sarina Redzinski
The first thing that struck me about “Blue Moon” was its merging of our “human world” with the natural world. For instance, the anthropomorphism of the animals provides the emotional arc of the poem. I found this a useful lens through which we could chart the speaker’s free-associating thought process. What are your thoughts on the overlapping of these subjectivities?
Your observations and questions address a long-standing conversation between literary predecessors about the human in relation to the natural world. Narrowly stated, the crux of the debate concerns the assignment of meaning and value to nature either as an imbued reflection of our sensibilities and intellect, or an entity synonymous with a benevolent or wrathful God, thus a positive or negative influence, a dichotomy classically depicted in religious and literary texts through acts of nature upon us or in correspondence with us. In my poem, a pastoral elegy that is neither an example of light verse nor a standard representation of the peace and simplicity associated with rural life, nature does not so much wail in sympathetic response to the speaker’s grief as reflect the speaker’s mood through a chain of correspondences, a formulaic approach known as the objective correlative. However, the role of nature, in my poem, is more than a mirror of the speaker’s feelings. Rather a symbiotic relationship is established wherein nature becomes a source of consolation and transcendence for the speaker who perceives it as innately good, indicative of a benevolent God, a source of comfort and hope despite his real sorrows. Such a stance runs contrary to Eliot’s The Waste Land which emphasizes a loss, rather than a gain, between the individual and the natural world.Conclusively, I, the poet, am resisting the negative conclusion that we merely read meaning into a deterministic and meaningless world. I’d rather believe in a primitive homeopathy while wandering among the philosophical vegetables of Emerson and Rousseau than swim with Melville’s vengeful whale, inspired by Burke no less, all of which is a matter of perspective. Given that the mind is its own place, endowed with the ability to make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven, as Milton aptly says, why not transform the psychological dump into a fertile field? Why not perceive and internalize nature as a remedy to our detriment? After all, nature is an image of transformation. And since we are ranked under the name, NATURE, as Emerson says, it seems logical to conclude that we are in, and of, nature. We all possess the wonder and power of nature: we create; we comfort; we destroy; we wound. Therefore, we are all, unfortunately, divided by our deeds and will to increase or decrease each other in the smallest or gravest sense.
There seems to be two kinds of grief here. The narrator’s grief for his grandfather seems more rooted in mundane dialogue and images, whereas the language around the other loss of a “love” is more existential and abstract. How do you think these different kinds of grief operate in the poem, and how did you go about connecting them?
The first stanza does indeed establish a solemn and reverent tone, the gruesome and violent image of an owl triggering an emotional memory of the speaker’s grandfather who battled cancer. Given that one perception leads to further perceptions, this moment in the poem serves as a springboard to juxtapose the seemingly negative image of death with pleasant, peaceful images: “may mine [my death] be like the jazzy sap of maple | trees, a moon walking hills & fields of figs & dates, | my atomic spirit a double-helix sunrise, | no second death!” Here, the speaker appropriates nature to offer his definitive stance on the afterlife when he alludes to biblical scripture, “no second death,” a phrase synonymous with everlasting life in contrast to eternal damnation. In addition, the layers of grief unfold as the speaker continues to walk and think, eventually contemplating but rebuking suicidal ideation in the wake of his lover’s death (suspected to be suicide), and eventually analogizing his lover’s death to the loss of vision.
Essentially, losing vision is as permanent as death, vision therein coinciding with life. I could have ended the poem there as a stark reminder of our frailty, but I chose instead to end it with images of optimistic contingencies within an open denouement. In a sense, I inverted Bishop’s conceptual line: I did not write it as a disaster! Within this conceptual context as represented in my poem, I would not argue with anyone who labeled me a transcendentalist. I was a transcendentalist before I ever read Emerson and Thoreau, which is not to say that I have consistently acted accordingly. In writing this poem, I took this task quite seriously. I wrote numerous versions, eventually merging portions of other poems into this final version; sometimes a poem must be wrestled with, especially when trying to figure how to best evoke the sentiment of loss without being sentimental.
This feels like a very Southern poem to me, though I’m not sure if that’s due more to the farm setting or due to the measured, molasses-like pace of the poem. I know you grew up in Mississippi, and you also have a book of poetry, Thus Spake Gigolo, which is set in the South. Could you tell me more about the ways in which you think your deep South background finds its way into your work?
I should visit a Northern farm. Are cows milked differently there? If I were to write about the city instead of the countryside, would I still be considered a regional poet? The hypothetical outcome would depend on my use of language, imagery, tone, and diction, but also my perspective, the lens through which I view and interpret the perceived landscape. Undeniably, stylistic conventions and motifs can delineate the shape and presentation of a text, as demonstrated in Thus Spake Gigolo, wherein I chart the evolution of a self within the conceptional landscape of the southern gothic, my persona poems engaging themes of isolation and marginalization, oppression and discrimination, destitution and decay, decadence and transcendence. Some have said my persona ultimately profanes the sacred, the religious fervor of his upbringing a source of angst rather than refuge, which may be the case, narrowly speaking. However, in “Blue Moon,” a poem that is characteristic of my second collection, now near completion, I have created a persona who, despite his loss—that is, the loss of his lover and his partial loss of vision—focuses on benevolent optimism to counter desolation and views nature as a sacred source of wisdom, hope, and spiritual reflection. Overall, within this literary context, the cultural, physical, psychological, religious, and social landscape of my upbringing provide a rich context in which to reflect upon and historicize the world around me, the South knocking on my door regardless of where I am, the idyllic pastoral and the southern grotesque forming the narrative in which I walk.
You also came from a very religious background. How intentional are these references to God and religion?
Verses of scripture, poems of poets, essays of philosophers, and texts of other influential authors are interwoven in me, synthesized ideas elemental to my deductive reasoning and subjective truths. “Bildungsroman,” an early poem included in Thus Spake Gigolo, captures my struggle with my sexual orientation, an adolescent wrestling with condemning scripture and his “prescribed desire,” a phrase that suggests that desire is predetermined, as natural as walking. “Adolescent Tornado,” another poem from my second collection that appeared in The Ocean State Review, echoes a similar adversity albeit diminished more so by the speaker’s unapologetic acceptance of himself despite the voiced disdain of others. Instead of responding negatively, the speaker quotes scripture from the Book of Proverbs, as in “Blue Moon” he paraphrases scripture: “words can heal, words can kill.” In these instances, my references to God and religion were intentional, as much of a foundation upon which to build as all the other texts I have read. “Blue Moon” can be read, then, as part of a long conversation on the relation of man to nature and on poetry as imitation of nature, in which I portray nature as a representation, even an extension of God, nature as a church per se. When the speaker says, “Nearer, my God, to thee,” he confirms his belief in the existence of the divine; he’s voicing his desire to walk alongside God as he walks in nature, God and nature thus intertwined, with God’s existence evident in the “the dragonfly patrolling the pasture” or the sound of sap oozing from a maple tree. The perceived resurrection of the luna moth flying to the ash tree where the speaker carved the words seen in a dream, “Divine Laughter,” strengthens this correlation, specifically the perceived resurrection of the luna moth flying to the ash tree where the speaker carved the words seen in a dream: “Divine Laughter.” Subsequently, the speaker’s sorrows are overshadowed by acts and images of nature endowed with benevolent optimism. To reiterate Milton’s aphorism, value comes from the human mind reflecting on Nature; the same principle pertains to the assigning of value to all aspects of Our Nature. In other words, perception can be a decisive and transformative action; our lives are affected and altered by how we choose to perceive and internalize the external forces upon us.
To finish on a lighter note, I wanted to ask if you have a favorite memory connected to the natural world.
I learned to swim in a pond, with milk jugs tied to my back.Continue reading
Sacred Window Exhale
At the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, our goal was to provide a safe place for people to get treatment and heal, so it was bad when one of our guests got hurt during their stay. I don’t mean on a horseback-riding trip or from slipping on the tiled deck of the mineral pool. I’m talking about a dart to the third eye.
All our guests came to stay with us because they were suffering from one or more weaknesses in the trifecta of mind, body, and spirit. Norbert Fischer had traveled all the way from Germany. He wanted to give his mind room to breathe, he said, to allow a higher percentage of his brain to function, and we were like, “You’ve come to the right place.” Norbert participated in the Spring I session, which lasted for three weeks, and he had this mix of Zen and good cheer that could have tricked you into thinking it wasn’t his first trepanation. His procedure was scheduled for early in the morning, when sunlight started to break up the mist and wash the world in gold. The staff later told me that he’d said “Thank you” before they made the first incision. After the whole thing was over and he’d gotten stitched up and bandaged, he went straight to the dining hall and shook hands with the kitchen staff, beaming as if he’d just had a child, and ate a breakfast of sausage, grits, and black tea. That’s the kind of man he was, endlessly hungry.
Norbert’s recovery was textbook, no issues, no complications, until right before he was due to go home. He was playing darts in the game room with a fellow guest, Wilmer Alvarez of Buenos Aires. I had been arranging flowers in the great room when I heard Wilmer calling for help and saying that he had accidentally thrown a dart and hit Norbert in his third eye. The third eye is the hole drilled in the head during a trepanation. The skin is cut and peeled back, then a drill goes through the skull, drumming up a ring of wet-looking bone dust. The drill stops before it hits the brain and then is retracted. In the old days, the procedure was performed with an auger, cranked by hand, or sometimes giant screws, chisels, or scrapers. The modern way is electric.
When I rushed into the game room, Norbert was sitting in a chair, arms on the armrests, ankles crossed, the dart sticking out of his forehead. A cup of tea rested on one of the shelves across the room, which made me wonder if he had decided, at the last minute, to cross in front of the dart’s path to retrieve it. I remember everything about how he looked, sitting there. He was wearing loafers without socks. A once white Henley French-tucked into a pair of blue wool trousers. His face was pale and smooth, with fine wrinkles around the eyes, but the skin on his neck was pink and resembled gooseflesh. There wasn’t even gauze wrapped around his head by that point—no, he had insisted on having it removed, saying that the incision wanted to breathe. Poor man. He had wanted the whole of himself to breathe through that aperture in his head and the whole of the world to breathe into him.
The dart was deep in there, there being his brain, and just a tiny bit of the feathered tip stuck out. It didn’t help that Wilmer Alvarez was incredibly fit, having been a matador in Mexico in his youth. Imagine him sticking banderillas in the back of a bull’s neck. Imagine the tendons and muscles in his arms when he threw that dart, the speed at which it traveled. Wilmer was saying that he didn’t know what had happened, he’d never even played darts before, his athleticism was a curse. I called an ambulance and sat with Norbert. He started saying things in German that I couldn’t understand. Something about his tone made it seem like he might be telling Wilmer that it was all right, that it had been an accident, that the world had a will of its own and we as guests on earth must learn to accept the plot twists. At the time, I took this wisdom to mean the trepanation had been successful and that his mind had been expanded. It didn’t even cross my mind that it could have been gobbledygook. Norbert gave me a thumbs-up as he was carried away on a stretcher. At the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma.
Our guests had to sign a bunch of paperwork when they arrived, basically saying we couldn’t be held liable for anything that went wrong. This was considered alternative medicine, so there was a play-at-your-own-risk attitude. The head of operations at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat, a man by the name of Dan Collier, who definitely wouldn’t have had that job if his father hadn’t been the retreat’s cofounder, said thank God it was a freak accident and not malpractice. Otherwise our reputation might have gone down the tubes.
The big reason I felt terrible was that I had been the one to hang up the dartboard in the first place. I was head of guest services and did any number of things around the property, depending on what was needed, such as changing sheets, fulfilling special requests, and maintaining the aesthetic integrity that guests came to expect of the retreat. I also did things like deciding we were missing a dartboard. This is probably because when I was growing up, my father kept a dartboard in his office at the University of Florida. He was a professor of anthropology, and whenever I went to school with him, he’d be off getting coffee with graduate students or attending department meetings and I would be left to play darts among his stacks of books and ungraded papers in Turlington Hall. My mother was also a professor of anthropology, but, being department chair, she was, as a rule, busier, more stressed out, and less tolerant of my gum-smacking. Her office was farther down the hall, near a display of an ancient mortar and pestle.
After the Spring I session ended, all of the guests departed, including Wilmer Alvarez. Dan said everything was fine, legally speaking, to which I said yippee. I still felt this personal guilt, both because I’d hung up the dartboard and because I hated the idea of one of my guests leaving in a condition worse than the one in which they’d arrived. Before I started working at the retreat, I had been a guest myself. So maybe I imagined myself in Norbert’s shoes and thought, What if I put my well-being in someone else’s hands and they let me get a dart to the third eye? The third eye never blinks. I became a little depressed.
Between sessions, I cleaned half-heartedly and often tuned the portable radio that we kept on the room service cart to a station that played bizarre ambient stuff. One time I was restocking the cart, making sure it was loaded with towels, soap, and extra toothbrushes, when one of the cleaners on my team asked me what I was listening to. I said it must be some avant-garde broadcast from a liberal arts college somewhere, and Liz, a teen mom who wore braids and ribbons in her hair, said, “I think that’s a dead channel.” I didn’t know that was a thing, but she said I hadn’t been listening to music at all and it was just a white-noise whale song bouncing off the topography.
So that is what I was dealing with when the Spring II session began and I met Flip Goldberg. He was my perfect guest, a dream born of a nightmare, and I knew from the first moment I saw him that he was mine to protect.
The first morning of the Spring II session, I got up when it was still dark outside. I did a final walk-through of my domain, which included the great room, the game room, the listening room, the Brown lounge, and the observation deck. It was a manageable domain, so it seemed reasonable that every inch should be exactly right, not an artifact out of place, not a patch of velvet brushed in the wrong direction. Other teams dealt with the kitchen, the spa, the barn, the trepanation theater, etc., and even though all that stuff was flashier, I took pride in the fact that my rooms became known as “home.” Home was comfortable. Home was safe. You could call the front desk, say, “I’m cold,” and I would be there with a blanket.
I put a few more citronella candles out on the observation deck and found an apple core in one of the trash cans in the great room, which I put in my back pocket. I could have taken the extra two minutes to walk in the kitchen and drop it into one of the big bins, but carrying around trash seemed like a small punishment I deserved. Ever since the dart accident, I was always looking for little ways to hurt myself. It felt good to feel bad, and it felt especially good to feel bad in the early morning, when the mist had not yet shifted from ominous to luminous. We were already into the spring sessions on the retreat’s calendar, but in terms of weather and mood, we had just come to the edge of winter and were about to cross over.
I went in the game room and stood there for a minute, among the busy shelves, the leather armchairs, and the goatskin rugs. I touched the pool table, softest burgundy, with my hand. The wallpaper was desert shrubs, cowboys on painted ponies, coyotes drinking rainwater from hoofprints. There was no physical evidence that anything bad had happened in this room, and though I knew the memory of seeing Norbert Fischer with dart feathers sprouting from his third eye was a thing trapped in my head and not a thing that existed, presently, in the real world, still I wondered why that memory had to linger when it could easily slip through my own unblinking third eye and be released. I suspected it was because you couldn’t always choose what you let go of, that just as often the good slips away as the bad. For instance, I’d recently realized that I couldn’t remember my father’s middle name, which seemed like an unbelievable thing to forget, to lose, to have slipped through my third eye without my even knowing. I could have called my mother and asked, but I didn’t like to bother her.
I took down the dartboard and removed the set of darts from the wooden box they were kept in, a box cared with pine cones and squirrels. Was it ironic or was it fitting that the dart to pierce Norbert Fischer had slept on velvet in a Black Forest box? It was perfect and it was painful. The set wasn’t even complete anymore, since one of the darts had traveled to the hospital and probably ended up in a hazardous waste bag or something. If it was incinerated, good, but if it went to the landfill it would likely pierce another innocent animal in the head.
I took the dart stuff to Dan’s office. Golf clubs stood erect as Boy Scouts in the corner of the room, while on the desk sat an unopened Sea-Monkey kit that one of his kids must have given him. All of the guest paperwork was printed out and arranged in a neat stack of folders, which was important in case another tragedy struck and we needed legal language to free us from financial and emotional obligations. Reparations? Nah. Guilt? Who could be bothered? In front of his computer, Dan hunched and scowled in the blue light. He must have trimmed his nose hairs that morning, because he kept rubbing a knuckle on the end of his nose. I leaned the dartboard against a file cabinet and set the bundle of darts on the floor. I had put a rubber band around them, so I wouldn’t have to throw away the beautiful box. Without even looking at me, Dan said, “Everything all set?”
I said, “Destroy this.”
What he said caught up with me. Of course everything was all set. If it wasn’t all set, I would have still been dealing with it, instead of sitting in the wine-colored chair in his office. The thing about Dan was that he shaved on the first day to make a good first impression and then let his beard grow out over the course of the three weeks, which had an inexplicably endearing effect on the guests.
I said, “I have a bad feeling,” and Dan looked up from the computer, eyebrows pinched as if I’d summoned evil. He said, “Enough with the bad attitude. Do me a favor, would you? Smile today, for God’s sake.”
“He’s in a coma, Dan.”
Dan twisted his wedding ring around his finger. “As you will recall,” he said, “we have a special someone coming. So I would greatly appreciate it if you made yourself the picture of hospitality. One person has a good time, they tell their friends, their friends come and have a good time. It’s called word of mouth. It keeps the lights on. So if you can’t get yourself straightened out, we’ll have a talk.”
“We’re talking now.”
“I’m sorry, let me rephrase. We’ll have to reexamine your position here.”
Dan was bad at being human. He seemed to forget that I had once been a guest at the retreat, and back then, two years earlier, I had been sitting in that very chair as a paying guest and not as his subordinate.
“You know how I figured out who the special someone is?” he asked. “The guy registered with one name, but it didn’t match the name on the credit card. Can you guess who it is?”
“I’ll give you a hint. His face is on the cover of the National Enquirer. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame got bashed in with a hammer. I thought about turning him away, but we need the business.”
Trash-talking guests was not a game I played.
I said, “I don’t gossip,” and left.
It made me sick to think of Dan running a lint roller over his quarter-zip and practicing his smile in front of the mirror. I’m sure he did that before welcoming new guests. He had to get in character as someone likable.
It began as it always began. Our shuttle pulled into the front driveway and hummed in mist turned red by brake lights. Walkie-talkies buzzed as the bellboys, Jimmy and Rodrigo, furiously finished their chicken biscuits, balled up the greasy wrappers, shot them into a trash can from an imaginary free throw line, and jogged through the service hallway into the great room. Their tennis shoes gripped softly. Their calves bounced like oranges. The front doors opened for them automatically—what New World extravagance, what accessibility!—and when they returned they were loaded down with luggage. They breathed through their noses, never their mouths.
Dan led the guests inside. They floated on a wave of mist that skated over the floor and then dissipated in the warmth of the room. The vapor was still there, even if we couldn’t see it with the naked eye. It drifted over the handwoven rugs and leather sofas, then rose to the height of the antler chandelier and curled around buck points. Dan lifted his hands like he was playing preacher. Guests tentatively approached display cases holding shards of ancient pottery, medicine pouches, delicate pipes. On the wall hung a framed photograph of our three founders with shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. Dan’s father, Frederick Collier, stood in the middle. The little plaque read new beginnings, 1978. The guests looked up,
around, and beyond, to the observation deck that faced the sunrise each morning, with a row of rocking chairs.
I watched the guests from behind a service door. I always enjoyed seeing their reactions, which was selfish of me, I know, but surely not the bad kind of selfish, because it meant I took pride in my work. When Norbert Fischer had arrived for Spring I, he had said, loud enough for the entire group to hear, “What do I see? I see wonderful things!” A memory tolled in me when he said that. As a child, I’d read a book about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. When Howard Carter cracked into the tomb for the first time and cast light on what treasure had been sitting in the dark all those years, someone behind him asked, “What do you see?” and he said, “I see wonderful things.”
I counted six. There were always seven. I figured the missing guest was the someone special mentioned by Dan, the one who had registered with a different name from the one on his credit card. It was highly unusual to arrive outside of the designated “welcome window,” but it wasn’t my place to judge, only to serve where I could. Dan’s voice was muffled, but I heard him leading the group into the dining hall for breakfast. I slipped down the service corridor and into the kitchen, where I saw the head cook, Farrah, spying through a little porthole in the kitchen door. She said, “They’re all going for the avocado. No one’s touching the oatmeal.”
I hopped up on the stainless steel counter and began rolling knives and forks into napkins. My adrenaline was pumping, as it always did with new arrivals, and I needed to give my hands something to do. A whiteboard hung in the kitchen that listed every guest’s name and any relevant dietary info. There were a couple of vegetarians and a pescatarian, which was fairly common with every group, since there was a big overlap between people who wanted to get a trepanation and people who didn’t believe in eating meat. At the bottom of the whiteboard, Farrah had written:
–REQUESTS MEALS BE TAKEN IN HIGS ROOM
After breakfast, the six new guests were taken on a tour. They met the horses, saw the brand-new kiln in the art therapy room, and shook hands with the medical team who would be supervising the physiological aspect of their treatment. Then they were shown to their suites, to unpack and wait for their appointments with Dan to complete the paperwork. I made sure to smile as I introduced the guests to their suites, pointing out little touches like the linen bathrobe, the smudging kit, and the basketful of bottles of spring water and clementines. When I looked them in the eyes—Hulda, Axel, Inga, Tomás, Richard, Nattapong—I tried not to imagine them getting hurt. I tried to imagine them safe and clean and restored. I said, “If there’s anything I can do, please ask.” They smiled, nodded. I said, “Anything at all.”
People didn’t really ask for outrageous things as often as you might expect. For the most part, guests were polite and didn’t want to make a fuss. There was only one time when something weird happened, and the guest who made the request was suffering from a major chemical imbalance. I won’t say her name, because she has political ambitions. One night she called the front desk and asked if I could come to her room. A piece of used toilet paper lay unrolled on the bathroom counter like a soiled scroll. She requested that I read the marks, from left to right, and tell her what I saw. She said she saw birds, tons of birds, and if it really was tons of birds, that was an omen she couldn’t live with. She asked, “Do you see birds?” I had to breathe through my mouth to keep from gagging. I told her that I didn’t see birds, only clouds blowing in the wind, which was the truth. She said she could live with that.
Where did it come from, this desire to serve? I guess you could argue it came from having a father who served his entire life, offering all of himself to his students, his university, his field, his wife and daughter. Or I guess you could argue it came from a mother who mainly served herself, which I can’t necessarily blame her for, because I know she was the first woman to be department chair and that came with its own challenges, namely an endless stream of spittle from the old guard, but it would have been nice if she’d held my hand every now and then. My dream was a tent made of bedsheets, draped over kitchen chairs, and a flashlight casting spooky shadows. What I wanted was for her to crawl in the tent with me and tell me about sleeping in a gorilla’s nest during her field research and waking to the sound of rain. It didn’t matter if that actually happened or not. I guess most women who are the first to do something are sacrificial lambs, as in, OK, you’re doing something exceptional here, but the other parts of your life will dry up.
The mist was heavy all through the morning and into the afternoon. I fetched extra pillows. I relayed the Wi-Fi password. I passed around binoculars on the observation deck and pointed out a skinny black bear that had just emerged from hibernation. It flipped over a rock, sniffed, and sneezed. The guests asked if we had a nickname for the black bear, and when I said no, Nattapong suggested the name Equality, which we all liked. Finally, the sun came out at the warmest hour of the day and the mist thinned, revealing dark patches of trees, trees gasping for breath, and that’s when the helicopter was finally given clearance and Flip Goldberg came down from the sky. He stepped out of the helicopter in a Hawaiian shirt, chinos the color of butter, and flip-flops, with one Louis Vuitton bag slung over his shoulder and another in his hand. He wore gold aviators. Dan had warned me, “Don’t act starstruck. And don’t bring up the accusations.” I told him it wouldn’t be a problem. I was a professional. The bellboys took Flip’s bags and jogged down the quarter-mile trail to the retreat.
Over the helicopter’s slow chop I shouted, “Welcome to the Smoky Mountains, Mr. Goldberg.” Flip ignored the greeting, then headed down the trail by himself. Flip Goldberg was his stage name. Even so, he let everyone call him that. He must have been cold, since he didn’t have on a jacket, only resort wear, but he didn’t comment on the weather at all. It was obvious from the first moment I met him that he was used to leading, not being led. The helicopter revved up, rose above the trees, and surged west.
I followed at a respectful distance and thought, This is what a celebrity looks like. Flip was forty-four years old, and I could tell his true age from the sun-damaged skin on the tops of his ears. His hair was dark, almost black, and the silver at his temples flashed whenever he turned his head. The hair was buzzed to hide the fact that he was developing a bald spot, but a bald spot coming on gently. His neck was not anything special, although I paid attention to it, because most of my first impression of him was from behind, which might sound dirty, except I made a conscious effort not to look at his butt. Instead I looked at the skin on the back of his neck, which was deeply tanned with an orange undertone that made sense once I learned that he had been hiding out on the Big Island before coming to the retreat. That’s where he must have gotten his shirt. It was printed with Hawaiian teenagers feeding one another rings of pineapple.
As we walked down the trail, from helicopter pad to retreat, he moved with confidence, never slipping on a rock or tripping over a root. Despite the turmoil in his life, he seemed to convey strength and resilience that I would not have expected of someone in the throes of a scandal. A bald eagle sat in a tree ahead of us, holding a fish in its mouth, the fish’s wet tail gleaming, dripping water, but Flip Goldberg didn’t even look up. It would have been easy for me to judge him then, to say he was a Hollywood prick, that he couldn’t see past himself, but when you are in guest services and you take your job seriously, you do not judge. If I say that over and over, know it’s something I believe.
Flip’s suite was the largest we offered and also the most private. It was a room that made you feel at the center of the universe, which would have been an incredible rush for regular people, for people like me, but it was the norm for people like him. I had learned the most basic facts of his career earlier that morning, when I overheard an assistant cook ask Farrah why Flip Goldberg was famous in the first place. She explained that he started off with sketch comedy and stand-up, then transitioned into cameos and supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, and then created and starred in his own kids’ TV show. Apparently the kids’ show did the miraculous thing of appealing to both kids and adults, but especially potheads. This was a level of success nobody could have predicted for such an offbeat talent. “Offbeat” was the word Farrah had used, as in, Good thing you’re funny, because you’ll never be Leonardo DiCaprio. The truth is that the center of the universe must have been lonely no matter who you were. There was money and love and good ratings, but the weather could change at the drop of a hat and all of those precious things that made life so wonderful could be hidden behind a wall of impenetrable mist. I said to Flip Goldberg, that star who fell from the sky, “That’s a steam shower
in the bathroom,” and he said, “Fine.”
Then he asked for Lincoln Logs. It wasn’t a joke. My heart quickened. I bowed at his request, which was something I had never done before, not to anyone, and said, “At your service.”
Going down the mountain in the company truck, I felt that apple core in my back pocket, the one I’d put there earlier that morning, a lifetime ago, back when the world was dark. I found Lincoln Logs in the toy aisle of Target and wondered about the potential for a freak accident. Could someone fall and have their third eye pierced by a Lincoln Log if the Lincoln Log had been standing upright? The odds seemed pretty low. A man in Target saw me and said, “You look like you’re in that cult up there.” He blocked my path so I couldn’t get past him. I said, “Excuse me,” and he said, “I see it on your face. You’ve got the mark like all those wackos.” Then he wheeled off toward the automotive section and I headed for the checkout.
I didn’t give it a second thought, because I’d learned a long time ago that I couldn’t get wrapped up in what other people thought about me. Some of my college friends had thought I was crazy when I first went to the retreat as a guest, as in, “Are you seriously getting a hole drilled in your head?” They thought it was totally understandable for ancient times, back when flies laid eggs in cheese and ash fell from the sky, but in today’s world? “Just go to a doctor,” they said. “A specialist. A regular spa!” The truth is, I was going to end up with a hole in my head one way or another, so I figured the retreat was worth a shot.
Flip’s suite was empty by the time I got back. He was going through paperwork with Dan, which meant skimming over legal clauses that basically said, You can’t sue us, bud! I left the shopping bag on the dresser and was about to leave when I noticed a depression in the bed from where Flip had been sitting earlier. I sat in the depression and faced a print of woodpeckers on the wall.
The next day the laundry attendant, Nina, dropped her phone behind one of the washing machines. Why she had her phone out, I don’t know. Suffice it to say some people didn’t take their jobs very seriously. As she started to reach behind the washer, she saw behind it a copperhead with hellfire eyes, saying, “Come at me, bitch.” Nina got her walkie-talkie and shouted that a “serpent” was threatening her safety. I showed up, along with the bellboys. Where was security? Where was the custodian? Probably smoking by the woodshed.
Jimmy and Rodrigo fastened a pillowcase onto the end of a hook. I think it was something they had seen on TV. I didn’t watch TV, or even follow the news, but sometimes it seemed like that was all other people did. They talked constantly about the things they’d seen, read, and heard, as if absorbing media was their second full-time job and their third full-time job was regurgitating all that crap at their first full-time job. I supervised, since I was technically the most senior employee out of everyone, even though I was the same age as the bellboys and twenty years younger than Nina. She was a tiny woman in a big blue smock. She sat crouched on top of the folding counter, her arms crossed in front of her chest in an exaggerated self-hug.
I reminded everyone that we could call pest control, since this pillowcase contraption looked risky, but Jimmy and Rodrigo shut the idea down. Nina said that one of her nephews had gotten bit by a copperhead once and he didn’t go to the hospital, just sipped a bottle of rock and rye through the pain, and his hand swelled up so big that the skin ripped and you could see through to the bone. Jimmy and Rodrigo moved one of the washers so they could pin the snake behind it. Jimmy said, “Maybe we could relocate it to that faggot’s room,” and Rodrigo said, “Yeah, he deserves to get bit in the ass.”
I said, “Excuse me?”
Nina, who was still crouched on the counter like a gargoyle, said, “That man deserves worse than that.”
“Yeah,” Rodrigo said. “Maybe he’d get bit in the dick and then they’d have to
cut it off.” His brow shone with sweat. It was warm down in the laundry room, especially behind those machines spinning hot water all day, which is probably why the snake had gotten cozy. A noise came out of Nina, rising from deep within. It was a mother’s mm-hmm. Rodrigo said, “Your kids ever watch his show?” and she said, “Not anymore they don’t.”
Jimmy said “Got him” and showed us the pillowcase, heavy with snake. He raised it up to the lightbulb that hung from a chain on the ceiling. We could see the snake’s silhouette sliding around, the shadow of its flickering tongue.
I said, “You can’t talk about guests like that.” Jimmy lowered the pillowcase, disappointed, like I had ruined his big hero moment. They tried to argue that it was all over the magazines and if Flip Goldberg hadn’t been a celebrity, he would have already gone to prison, where he would’ve gotten shanked in the showers, and rightfully so, but because he was a celebrity he could afford fancy lawyers and would probably settle out of court. Nina said, “The system’s rigged,” and I said that we had to do our job with our guests to the very best of our ability, and they should all be treated equal. That was our job; our job wasn’t to judge people. We weren’t a court of law. Nina said, “What if he was a Nazi? Would you still love him then?” I didn’t have a chance to answer, because Rodrigo died laughing, saying that Flip Goldberg was Jewish.
I told them to get out, to drive that snake far away and release it.
Nina said, “The linens,” and I said, “I don’t care––get out, get out, get out.”
The snake was the same orange and brown as Flip’s Louis Vuitton bags. I had heard whispers of the scandal, but I didn’t know all the details and I hadn’t sought them out. I didn’t know if the accusations were true or not, which I guess is what made them accusations and not facts, and I had tried to explain to my co-workers that, the way I saw it, Flip was a guest like any other. He was here for a reason. He was seeking treatment. It was our job to facilitate his healing. Period. It’s not like I believed in protecting bad people, but I didn’t think it was right to judge someone for something he may or may not have done, especially when it was mostly being written about in the crap tabloids and magazines on sale in the supermarket checkout line. Sometimes the people who appeared the most powerful were really the most vulnerable.
That is why I won’t repeat the accusations here, now. It does no good to perpetuate rumors or unfounded claims, only gives breath to delusions, lies, and a fantasia of hurt. I say: Let the air go out. Breathe anew. In all likelihood, you have heard the accusations against Flip Goldberg anyway, but in case there is someone out there who hasn’t, I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us. What is weird about him, if you want to call it that, and it seems like everyone wants to call it that, is weird about all of us. I think we should examine the lives of others as if we were looking in the mirror, which requires a certain grace, an instinct for forgiveness. My co-workers were not on the same page.
I went to Dan’s office. He was staring at the computer, greasy-eyed, and he told me that he’d found something interesting. “Turns out,” Dan said, “the name Flip Goldberg was actually the name of a character he came up with in some sketch comedy group in like ’95. The early days of his career, blah, blah, blah …” His eyes scanned the computer screen. “No wonder he didn’t make Saturday Night Live. It says Flip Goldberg was a fictional dentist who wore dentures. I don’t get it. That’s funny?”
I told Dan that employees were gossiping.
He looked up from the computer and asked, “Did they say something to his face?” When I didn’t answer, he said, “All right, then.” He touched the corners of his mouth with his index fingers and curled up the corners into a smile. If I was a person capable of intentional violence, I might have perpetrated some right then and there, maybe swung a golf club at his head. Instead I saw the darts and dartboard still sitting on the floor. I picked them up and left for my cabin, which was on the retreat property, about a mile away from the central hub. I put everything in a trash barrel and burned it. Smoke rose to meet the mist. I had once heard a guest say our famous mist was like a blanket, which I guess meant beautiful, protective, swaddling. There might have been a time when I agreed, but lately the mist seemed more like it aimed to smother. I looked up and said, “You can take me if you want,” but there wasn’t anything up there, or anyone, and nothing happened.
With the barrel still smoking, I went inside and did a thing I am not proud of. I went in the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and cut myself on the inside of the thigh with a razor blade. Back when I’d been a guest at the retreat, I had met this other guest who cut herself, which was a thing I hadn’t understood back then. When I asked why she did it, she said it felt as though her sadness was leaving her when the blood came out. After I made the first cut, I waited for my sadness to leave me, and also my anger. If I hadn’t felt it work, I probably would have stopped right then and there. But I did feel a little something. So I tried it a couple more times, and then I thought, OK, maybe this works. Now I can see this for what it really was—another way of trying to heal old wounds by opening up new ones.
Five guests opted to go horseback riding: Hulda, a woman in her early fifties from Humboldt County, California, who owned a marijuana farm and told most people within ten minutes of talking that she planned to stay single for the rest of her life; Richard, a white-haired retiree from Seattle who volunteered on archaeological digs and had heard about trepanation from one of the interns; Nattapong, a young man from Thailand who had recently graduated from college and decided to abandon a career in hotel management to be an LGBTQ+ activist; and Axel and Inga, a thirty-year-old couple from Iceland, both of whom wore matching Fair Isle sweaters and suffered from mild depression.
Two guests stayed behind, even though they had technically paid for the horseback-riding trip as part of the all-inclusive price of the retreat. Our brochure claimed that it broke down to $1,300 per day, but I think that was before taxes and the online processing fee. One of the guests who stayed behind was Tomás, the pescatarian. I don’t think he would mind my saying that he wanted the treatment to let the evil out of his head. He’d told me that he had been hospitalized for manic episodes twice, because he struggled with medication adherence, and he thought trepanation might help. He’d heard about it on a podcast where armchair anthropologists talked about trepanation being an ancient surgery that was believed to help ailments such as demonic possession, babbling, drooling, glassy eyes, brain diseases, paranoia, parasites, swelling, bleeding, epilepsy, energy imbalances, fractures as a result of blunt force trauma, hard knocks, battle wounds, mania, migraines, visual disturbances, hallucinations, and a general feeling of impending doom. Tomás sent a cheek swab to a DNA company that advertised in the podcast and discovered that 22 percent of his DNA traced back to Oaxaca, Mexico. A simple Google search revealed that just outside Oaxaca City was Monte Albán, the World Heritage site where trepanned skulls had famously been discovered. This is what Tomás described as life coming “full circle.” He himself was an embodiment of the kiss sealed between then and now. I said, “Good for you, Tomás,” and arranged an appointment for him to float in the isolation tank.
The other guest to stay behind was Flip Goldberg.
Everyone who wanted to go horseback riding met for breakfast at seven o’clock, then walked to the barn together. Tomás closed himself in the isolation pod. The retreat became so quiet that I could hear clocks ticking in the great room. Liz, one of the room service attendants, came back from her daily rounds sucking on the end of her braid and saying Mr. Goldberg wasn’t in his suite, which made her nervous. I sensed something more. “What is it?” I asked. “You can tell me.” She said there were toys on the floor of his room. I handed her a toothbrush and a can of Bar Keepers Friend, saying if she was really that freaked out, she could expel some of the bad energy by scrubbing the staff bathroom.
Before I even knew it, I found myself wandering into the great room with my hands behind my back, teetering on my tiptoes, senses piqued. If anyone had caught me and asked what I was doing, I almost certainly would have scuttled off like a roach. I heard the hiss of a bottle being opened and knew where to go.
He sat on a barstool in the Brown lounge, sipping our house-brewed kombucha out of a bottle. His hair was pressed flat against his head, and he wore an old Hollywood Bowl T-shirt that had tiny holes in the collar. He was barefoot, his toes curled over the barstool footrest. He looked like he wanted something more than kombucha but didn’t have the energy to be disappointed. The Brown lounge was a self-serve deal. The name didn’t come from the wood paneling, which made the room glow, but from the Brown family, who had two seats on the board of directors. The effect of being in the lounge was intoxicating, but in the dreamy way, not the way where you’ve been drinking and have a headache and want to die when the party ends. We didn’t offer alcohol on-site anyway, since technically we were in a dry county.
This was the first time I’d seen Flip out of his suite. He’d been taking meals in his room and hadn’t joined any of the scheduled activities, neither the rafting trip on the Nantahala nor the frozen yogurt social. Knowing he was lactose intolerant, the kitchen staff had even brought out a machine called Yonanas, which turned bananas into ice cream, and then they complained when he didn’t show up. I don’t know what he did in his room alone. Every now and then I heard him talking on the phone. I never eavesdropped. I always walked away. I figured he had ventured into the Brown lounge because the place was empty. I asked if he wanted some nuts. He said, “Sure.” I stepped behind the bar and shook organic salted peanuts into a vintage Planters Peanuts dish. There was a jar of maraschino cherries behind the bar from back when a guest had requested a Shirley Temple, but, remembering the “no cherries” on the kitchen whiteboard, I pushed the jar into the shadows.
Flip didn’t touch the nuts.
He said, “I’m thinking of a Christmas special where I pull back a manhole, then go underground and find creatures living in the sewers. They seem scary at first, then we make friends.” His voice was quiet and deeper than I expected. He held up a cocktail napkin scribbled with notes. “Or maybe not,” he said. “Maybe they eat me alive.”
This was the first time he’d said anything to me that didn’t involve a request of some kind. I was excited that we might be having a real conversation, although nervous about how to proceed. Obviously, I wanted to shoot for professional, cool, a little coy, quiet. It was always better to start on the quiet side. I said, “Are the Lincoln Logs well?”
“Playing with toys helps me think of ideas,” he said, as if he thought I was making fun of him. “You should see my house.”
I smiled, but I don’t think he trusted my smile.
He asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“I know you’re an actor and a comedian. You have a kids’ show.”
“That’s what people think.”
I never would have pried into his perception of himself, but this felt like an
invitation to peel back a single layer. I asked, “Who are you, then?”
“I do the aforementioned,” he said, “but none of that happens unless something’s written, so really I’m a writer. Some would say not a very good one.”
“Isn’t that what you do, not who you are?”
“Not a bad question,” he said, speaking into the narrow opening of the bottle, his voice trapped, ricocheting in amber glass. “But no. I am a writer. I am this head, its contents and its creations, however fucked they might be.”
He pushed the napkin into the kombucha bottle, pressing with his finger until the whole thing made it through the tiny opening, then he swirled the bottle. Faint wrinkles on his face showed that he had spent much of his life smiling, but he wasn’t smiling now. The look on his face conveyed the loss of something terribly important, of something it would be too painful to put a name to. There was also a dash of self-hatred. I could tell that by the curled toes. It made me hurt inside to see him like this—not because he was a down-and-out celebrity, but because I could feel his need for healing. Maybe the thing he felt he’d lost was respect in the public eye. Or maybe it was something much less obvious. His eyes were flat brown, like the fizz had gone out of them.
I waited for him to speak, and when he didn’t, I wondered if his tolerance for company had waned and he was ready to be alone again, so I put my hands behind my back and said, “I’ll leave you to it.”
He asked, “Am I crazy for coming here?”
“You have to say that. You work here.”
He rubbed his face. His fingers, one by one, brushed over the length of his nose. It was a terrible thing to realize that I was attracted to him, because from then on I would have to consciously remind myself not to be attracted to him, not to let it show, not to do or say anything that would reveal the fermenting affection I felt. I was a professional, after all, and almost everything had to be corked.
I said, “I didn’t always work here. I was a guest before.”
He didn’t go googly-eyed or anything. He said, “I could tell,” and pointed to my third eye. He asked if it felt strange, and when I said no, you could just feel the rim of bone, his eyes narrowed in a way that suggested curiosity. I said he could touch my third eye, since he was going to get a trepanation soon enough. He made a thumbsup with his hand. Then he turned the thumbs-up sideways and touched the pad of his thumb to my forehead, where my third eye pulsed. The thumb was cool from holding the bottle.
He said, “I’d have to get makeup to cover up the dent. If I ever work again.”
The front doors opened. There were voices. The trail ride had been scheduled to last half the day, but they’d had to cut it short. Flip got off the stool without saying a word and went back to his room, silent on bare feet. I started to clean up so that there would be no evidence of Mr. Goldberg’s roaming that could inspire further gossip.
Joe came into the lounge, bowlegged and peeved. He worked down at the barn and was in charge of trail rides. His background was a mystery to me, although he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his hand. It didn’t seem to bring much luck. He looked at the jukebox, which had neon piping that shifted from red to orange to yellow, and he said, “Fucking Twizzler lights.” He ripped the plug out of the wall and said they’d encountered paparazzi in the woods. “Yeah,” he said. “Paparazzi.” He clenched his teeth together like they were a race of people he wanted deported. The story was that he’d been leading the string of horses when the first of the paparazzi jumped out from behind a tree and started taking flash photos. This spooked Joe’s horse. Joe said, “Lucky I know how to hold on, because if it’d been anybody else, they might have fallen off and bashed their brains in.” When his horse reared up, he reached over to the nearest tree and snapped off a branch. Then, when the horse dropped to all fours again, he whipped that branch across the paparazzo’s face. It made a solid white mark, completely bloodless, and the paparazzo ran off screaming before Joe could have the satisfaction of seeing the welt rise. As the injured paparazzo tore through the woods, two others broke free from their hiding places and followed the first guy like ducks in a V.
I said we should let Dan know. Joe said, “Thanks, Mom,” and I gave him a look that said “Do we have a problem now?” Because we had always gotten along OK. He said, “What am I supposed to do? Hammer a ‘no flash’ sign out there? Flip Goldberg coming up in here and trying to fuck up my trail ride. What a fake-ass name. I heard you were defending that pervert, like he’s even got the right to a defense. Why do you care so much, anyway? Why do you care at all?” He sucked his teeth and headed out the door, muttering, “Whole world’s gone to shit.”
I went to Dan’s office and said Joe was creating a hostile work environment, as evidenced by the fact that he’d stood in front of my face, close enough that I could see the wad of dip in his mouth when he talked, or rather when he yelled at me.
Dan said, “Maybe he’s got a point.”
I stood there, in my perfectly ironed uniform, my flared trousers and buttondown shirt and fleece vest. I didn’t know how I was becoming the bad employee, when I only ever tried to do the right thing. I told Dan that the right thing to do was to hire more security, because paparazzi were clearly a threat to the safety of everyone at the retreat. Surely that was an objective we could both rally behind. At the moment the retreat had only two security guards, one a middle-aged man whom everyone called Turkey Tom, because he made gobbling noises during his nonsanctioned work naps. He sat in a dark room and reviewed footage from the handful of security cameras scattered across the property. The other security guard was a kid with cystic acne. He made ten dollars an hour for reading Fight Club on repeat.
Dan complained about the cost.
I said, “Forget the cost.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“How can people expect us to help them if we can’t even keep them safe?”
Dan slammed his fists on the table. He started to laugh. I thought, Wow, he’s
losing it. Turns out I wasn’t wrong. He admitted that he’d tipped off the paparazzi in order to make a little extra money. This went against the entire ethos of the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, which had been co-founded by Dan’s own father, his own flesh and blood. I said, “Your father would be ashamed,” and Dan drew a spiral in the air with his finger and said, “Loophole: the dead don’t feel shit.”
Having lost my own father, I could only look at him with pity. “Are you in
trouble?” I asked. “Is that what this money stuff is about?”
There were dark gray rings around his eyes. He said, “I’ve got triplets! That’s three times everything! Goddamn IVF.”
He sighed, as if all of this was too much for him. He tapped his desk. His beard thickened before my very eyes. The mist pressed against the windows and waited to see what would happen next. I said, “We have to protect the guests,” and Dan simply nodded without saying a word. He said that he had some cousins looking for work and they might be able to help out. By the end of the day, Dan had hired three new guards.
Johanna called from the spa to let me know that Flip Goldberg had requested a manicure. She said, “We’ve got an issue on our hands,” completely unaware that she had just made a pun. The “issue” was that our cosmetologist had called in sick because of a case of the dreaded double pink eye. Johanna said, “I offered to arrange a visit to the nearest salon, but he refused, because I guess he’s trying to be incognito or whatever, and then he asked me to call guest services. Which is you? I don’t know what to do. He’s like, right here.” I said I would be there in five minutes.
It was raining, so I took the golf cart. I passed one of the new security guards, who was lumbering along the muddy trail, probably going to his outpost in the woods, where, if he was lucky, there would be a roll of toilet paper in an old Christmas tin. He looked mad about having to wear a poncho. I wanted to shout, “Cheer up! You’re doing a good service!” because I was glad that my safety concerns were being taken seriously. I waved, but he didn’t wave back.
At the spa, flute music played through hidden speakers and an artificial grove of bamboo grew in the center of the lobby. Just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, there was a giant sprinkler head above the bamboo that released mist on a timer; just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, a noise like thunder preceded the mist. I took off my shoes and put on one of the pairs of slippers that were kept in every size by the door. The air had a smooth, creamy texture that you didn’t find anywhere else on the retreat. This was owing to a filtration system that pumped in extra oxygen. After a few breaths, I already felt more alert. Edges sharpened. I walked up to the bamboo, which grew in a familial clump, and stopped in front of a ring of stones. Each stone had a word etched on its face. When you read them together, they told a story: INHALE. LIFE. SACRED. WINDOW. EXHALE.
Johanna snuck up behind me. “Should I have lied?” she asked. “Should I have told him we didn’t do manicures? Would that have been easier?”
I told Johanna that it was never OK to lie to a guest. Our job was to accommodate their wishes whenever possible, and no, Mr. Goldberg’s request was not impossible. I would perform the manicure myself.
We sat in a room tiled from floor to ceiling. There was a long sink against
one wall, reclaimed from the psychiatric ward of an old Memphis hospital, with enough room for six nurses to stand side by side and scrub up. The hardware was copper, very expensive, and there were two kinds of soap cakes: unscented, for those with sensitive skin, and lavender. The tile was baby pink, which made it easy for the mind to wander and think of bubble gum and newborns and lying naked in a bed. I tucked those images away and got to work. Even though I had never given a manicure before, I familiarized myself with the cosmetologist’s tools and decided I would learn as I went. Success was the only option.
I directed Flip Goldberg’s hands into the soaking tray. He said it had been a few weeks since his last manicure in Hawaii. It gave him a restless feeling to watch his hands revert to their natural state, “natural” meaning rough and dry, even though they felt nice to me. I didn’t say that out loud, though, because I didn’t want him to think I was sucking up. I clipped the nails first and discovered how much there was to consider, like keeping the lines clean and not cutting too far down. Then I filed and buffed. Buffing was my favorite part. By the time I got to work on the cuticles, pushing them back and clipping the excess, he spoke again. I had to be careful. The trimmers were wicked.
“You said you were a guest,” he said. “How did you end up here?”
I told him it was migraines.
He said, “It’s supposed to help?” and I knew by “it” he meant getting a hole in the head.
I explained that trepanations relieved pressure. This pressure could have
different causes, such as headaches or unwanted spirits, for example, and when you created a hole in the head, there was a way for this pressure to escape. Otherwise, your head would be a pressure cooker. And what happened to the brain and, subsequently, to the mind when the pressure built and built and built? Complete deterioration. Mush. The funny thing was that back when I’d had migraines, before my trepanation, I had always wanted a hole in my head. It was a fantasy that materialized in the throes of pain, a primitive desire that worked its way up from the subconscious, rising like a whitehead. It was not just my subconscious, either. Trepanned skulls had been found all over the world, dating back thousands of years.
The desire was collective.
I didn’t know what kind of face Flip was making while I told him all of this,
since I never dared look up and risk an inauspicious snip, but I sensed wariness. I tried to soften the whole spiel around the edges by saying, “I studied anthropology in college.”
He didn’t comment, but I assumed that he could relate to the feeling of
overwhelming pressure. His entire life must have been a performance, whether he was playing a character or just being himself, and what defined the life-asperformance was the constant presence of an audience. They were always watching, whether it was on TV or in real life. I couldn’t imagine the effect that would have on a person, so I put all of my energy into exfoliating his hands, beginning with his left hand, with the goal of scrubbing the old, the damaged, the weary, and leaving only the fresh and new. The paste smelled like crushed walnuts. Grit filled the lines on his palm. Then I exfoliated his right hand, working over the palm, the individual fingers, the back of his hand. Some of his suntanned skin scrubbed off, like tiny bits of dough rolled into snakes. Even though I felt self-conscious about my performance as a manicurist, I was giddy at my core.
Some co-workers had thought it was weird that I liked Norbert Fischer so
much, the guest who had been so ebullient, up until the dart accident, but it was only because Norbert reminded me of my father. Flip Goldberg didn’t remind me of anyone. He was unlike anyone I had ever known. It might sound crazy that I held any affection for him at all, especially considering the scandal he was wrapped up in and all the speculation about his life and what kind of man he really was, but I hardly took any of that into consideration. You can’t tell your heart not to race when it’s already racing. All you can do is deal, even if dealing means praying that the sound of your nervous blood can’t be heard pounding through your ears.
Next came the moisturizer. Flip wanted to know if the trepanation had
helped me. I said, “I haven’t had a migraine in two years.” It was true that I hadn’t experienced a headache or anything, but lately I was feeling like I wasn’t totally healed in the broader sense of the word.
“How do you know the procedure was responsible?”
It was almost as if he didn’t want to say the word trepanation. I asked, “What do you mean?”
“How do you know it wasn’t from lifestyle changes? My manager, or ex-manager, had migraines. He kept a list of triggers in his wallet, which was supposed to remind him to avoid MSG. I should’ve kept a list that told me to avoid people like him, the jackass.”
The objective truth was that I had not isolated the variable. When I decided that something had to be done about my migraines, that I couldn’t keep living with them, I had a trepanation performed and then I quit drinking. Alcohol was my trigger. Now that I’d quit drinking and had the trepanation, I no longer suffered from migraines, so it was hard to give a definitive answer. I told Flip the truth, which was that the trepanation had not harmed me in any way. His lip curled. I said, “I always assumed it was the trepanation that made the headaches stop, but I don’t know for sure.” I felt terrible admitting that—advocating the treatments we offered at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness was, after all, my job—but
only thirty minutes earlier I had been telling Johanna that you should never lie to a guest.
I asked what color polish he preferred. For all I knew, he could have wanted a clear coat. He declined any. He said, “I’m having second thoughts.”
The copper pipes banged, as if we were being called to dinner in a castle. Flip and I looked up at the same time and saw Johanna, standing on tiptoe and watching us through the diamond-shaped window in the door. Flip said, “I don’t want to see her face again,” and I said, “Of course, sir. I’ll take care of it.”
Later, I pulled Johanna aside and asked what she possibly could have been
thinking, spying. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said. “Seriously. I mean, I saw you touching his hands and I was thinking about where his hands had been.” I couldn’t believe her stupidity. I said, “Let me see your hand,” and she held it out, doe-eyed, like What are we looking for? I shook her hand, hard, businesslike, and said, “Now you’ve caught it, too.” She wailed, then ran into the oxygen chamber and strapped on a mask.
For me, evening in the Smokies wasn’t characterized by natural wonders, such as hooting owls or star-spangled skies, but by walking home in the dark, putting on the kettle, and kicking off my clogs. My cabin was decorated in the style of a Pigeon Forge rental, which is another way of saying it was dressed like a sitcom set. The photographs hanging on the walls didn’t even represent local wildlife. It was all summer elk, white rabbits, and moonlit wolves. I guess those images came from Alaska or somewhere, I don’t know, but the cabin had been furnished when I moved
in and it was easier to leave everything alone. I had never even turned on the TV. Sometimes I used it as a mirror. The windows became mirrors at night, too. They didn’t show the outside world like they did in daytime, but reflected the inside of the cabin back at me. Lights, furniture, my face. If I had to describe my expression in the windows during the Spring II session, I might say at sea.
We were far enough into the session that guests were going through pretreatment counseling and being asked to visualize their trepanation. Soon they would be in the surgical theater, with the chair in the middle of the room, positioned directly under a skylight, and a drain in the floor. On the walls around them, a mural depicted trepanation through the ages. Their foreheads would be wiped with disinfectant. Gauze would be wound around their eyes, a layer thick enough to absorb the blood that dripped from the incision, and they would wait in their own personal darkness for the words “Now I am going to make the first cut.” Then the sound of the drill, which started at a low pitch and got higher as bit bore into bone.
The isolated variable thing nagged at me. That’s why I skipped my nightly hot chocolate and had a bottle of bourbon on the coffee table. Dry county, I know, but the bottle had been a Christmas gift from—who else?—Dan and his wife, Ivy. That tells you how well they knew me. I knew them, too. For Christmas I had given Dan a Titleist headcover for one of his drivers and Ivy a stainless steel bento box. She was a mommy blogger, and I’d heard somewhere that they liked to meal-prep.
I had devised a little experiment, which was to drink a single glass of bourbon and see what happened. I figured one glass would do it, since my tolerance was zero. Plus, when I drank back in college, I normally noticed the early signs of a migraine during the first drink anyway. You might be asking, “Idiot, why drink at all? If you knew what was going to happen, that you were going to feel terrible, so terrible that you wanted to die, why would you revert to the behavior that had made you feel that
way?” The truth is that I always hoped it might be different this time, whenever “this time” happened to be. This is the ultimate delusion, that an established pattern might randomly be broken. When you hear it in real life, you hear people say, “Things might change,” or, “Maybe it will be different next time,” even though the pattern suggests otherwise. You might be saying now, about me, “Oh, she was an alcoholic,” but that’s not the truth. I just wanted to hang out like a normal person.
This is the story:
Some friends and I had gone to an on-campus screening of A Man Called “Bee”: Studying the Yanomamo and then for drinks after, where we talked about the disgraced anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the ethics of ethnography. The bartender came over to our table, shouted “No sniveling” into a megaphone, then went to pour us a round of shots with blackberry liqueur and vodka. The shots were called “Zipperheads,” a name that I can’t be blamed for, since I didn’t come up with it. My head started to hurt, so I went home and drank water and took my prescribed migraine medication, Topamax, which didn’t help. I managed to fall asleep. I would not say that I “woke up” later, because it wasn’t as gentle as that, a coy fluttering of eyelids at first light; no, it was more like being cut out of sleep, as a baby is cut out of the womb. I was brought back into the pain, but it was a pain so bad that it almost didn’t register as a feeling; it was more like another dimension of existence. I stumbled through the apartment, looking for a gun so I could shoot myself, as if there was a gun in a drawer somewhere. There wasn’t. I tried to summon a gun by saying, “Gun, gun, gun,” which woke up my roommate. She called 911. This landed me in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. They pumped me with drugs and fluids. After twenty-four hours, I was back to normal. Mostly. My mental status had to be evaluated before they would discharge me from the hospital. They asked, “Do you remember talking about black holes? And singing, ‘Cock it and pull it’?” I lied when they asked if I was currently suicidal, even though I knew I’d have to kill myself if I continued experiencing migraines like that. My father was the one who suggested trepanation. He had a friend in the linguistics department at Auburn who’d gone to the retreat. “Highly recommended,” he said. Off I went. My experience in the surgical theater? Terrifying, but delicious—because I had nothing to lose. I remember the relief that came once the drilling stopped, which meant I had a hole in my head. I had done something terrifying and survived. No more headaches. The retreat changed me, too. I considered the full picture of my health and wellness. I quit drinking. I focused on my breath. My father said he was happy for me, that all he’d ever wanted was for me to be happy, which is a stupid thing to hear in somebody else’s story, but when it’s your own story it’s enough to make you cry. My father ended up dying in a lecture hall, in front of an audience of graduate students. At least I had the chance to feel sad. I don’t think my mother did. The bureaucracy of death was, in some ways, no different from the bureaucracy of being department chair.
I didn’t want to be home after that. I didn’t want to continue with my education, either. So I’d gotten a job at the retreat and had been there ever since.
I sipped the bourbon and felt the trail of warmth go down my throat and into my stomach. I kept sipping, and it started to make me nervous. The whole point was to see if I was going to get a migraine, and yet a migraine was the thing I was afraid of getting, mainly because migraines hurt but also because if I got a migraine, it would mean that I had not been cured by trepanation.
I kept drinking anyway. Ever since that dart had hit Norbert Fischer in the third eye, I had been feeling disenchanted with the retreat. A crack had formed and doubt had slipped in, like a cat.
Once I finished the glass of bourbon, the experiment was over. I sat there and looked at the wall, trying to decide what I felt. The wall was blank, but slowly Flip Goldberg’s face began to fill it. A halo grew around him, fuzzy and gold. I knew it wasn’t a halo, but an aura, which was a precursor to a migraine. That was enough for me. Fully spooked, I called it. I went into prevention mode, taking the loading dose of ibuprofen, drinking a glass of water, and then having a hot shower, since that regimen used to help. I changed into pajamas and determined, with immense relief, that the pain was not getting any worse, only hovering at “annoying.” It was scary to think how close I might have been to a migraine, but in a way, it was scarier to think that I had not been entirely cured, when I had believed I had been for so long. I didn’t think the trepanation had done any damage, but not doing harm is a far cry from helping. People wanted an endorsement. They wanted the brochure to say “It works!” not “It can’t hurt!”
I was about to go to bed when a security guard knocked on the door. It was one of the new guards Dan had hired. My initial reaction was that something terrible must have happened, like Flip Goldberg had been kidnapped by paparazzi and was being held for ransom. I was ready for anything, because earlier that afternoon, once the rain had stopped, two stoned middle schoolers had been found hiding in a hollowed-out log. They were fans of Flip’s TV show and carried pictures of him that they’d printed out from the internet. The pictures were sealed in gallon-size Ziploc bags to keep from getting wet. When asked what they hoped to accomplish, they said they wanted autographs. When asked how they knew Flip’s location, they pretended not to hear the question.
I opened the door to see what it was all about, crossing my arms over my pajama top. We must not have had any spare security uniforms at the retreat, because this guy wore a silk bomber jacket and a black baseball cap with security embroidered on the front. He said, “Hey, how’s it going?” and I asked if everything was all right. He said, “Oh, yeah, everything’s fine. Everything’s good. Not to be weird, but I saw you having a drink through the window and wondered if you wanted to have another one with me? It’s kind of cold out tonight.” He stamped his feet on the ground, as if to emphasize his point. Women know this moment, the moment where you think, Oh, come on. I told him I was going to bed and started to close the door. He blocked the door with his boot.
“Did I mention I’m Dan’s cousin?” he said. “I should have mentioned that. People call me Ozzy because I like to rock. Dan said he was shorthanded with security, so I’m doing him a favor. Crazy about those kids in the log earlier, right?”
I told him it was late, which is as nice, as accommodating, as gentle as you can be in that situation, and he sort of laughed. “Let me come in and I won’t tell Dan you were drinking. I know it’s a dry county and employees aren’t supposed to drink.”
That might have been true, but the fine print in the employee handbook wasn’t worth getting assaulted over. I said, “If you don’t step away, I’m going to call the police.”
He held up his hands, a gesture of surrender.
“Forget it,” he said. “No worries. Dan just mentioned you were the one who liked that creep so much, so I thought you might want to role-play and let me eat a cherry out of your ass.”
I must have known all along that something would happen with the accusations against Flip Goldberg, but I didn’t know when it would happen or if he would still be in my care. The two options, if you were trying to be simple about it, were either that everything would explode, which I guess meant he would end up going to court and being found guilty, like all of my co-workers wanted, or that the accusations would disappear. True, if the scandal died a quiet death, Flip’s reputation would still be tarnished. Whenever the general public saw his face or heard his name, they would always think, There’s that guy who did that thing, but at least he would be free. I never believed Flip Goldberg was a bad man. I’m not sure I even believed he was a sick man, and I certainly didn’t believe on a philosophical level that being sick made you bad. So I was glad that the quiet death happened, not the explosion. I was also surprised that I was there, or at least in the vicinity, to witness it.
It had been a busy morning. Axel and Inga’s toilet was clogged. Hulda asked that all the light bulbs be removed from her suite, because she thought natural light would ease her into a headspace fit for trepanation. “I know what you’re going to say,” she said. “Leave the light bulbs and just don’t use them. That’s missing the point. I want the temptation removed entirely.” Nattapong wanted his clotheswashed and folded. Richard needed pens. I delivered a package of black pens. He said he preferred blue. A mysterious stain appeared on the velvet settee, which my co-workers blamed on Flip Goldberg, even though there was no evidence to back up the claim. The stain acted like marmalade, which screamed “Richard” to me. There were always marmalade jars in his trash when I emptied it, plus X-shaped stains on the hand towels in his room, as if he were always wiping a sticky finger on them. I wanted to tell Dan about the encounter with his cousin and order that the creep bedisposed of, figuratively speaking, but I never found the time.
Then Flip Goldberg came to the front desk. “In private,” he said to me, and I urged him into the service corridor, which was empty at that time, except for a piece of limp broccolini that lay between us on the linoleum. He said his reception was terrible. He was trying to answer an important phone call, but the call kept dropping. I asked if he could use the landline in his room, but he didn’t believe the line was private. I said, “I can assure you, sir, that no one listens in,” and he said, “Not good enough.” His eyes were glassy. He glanced at the broccolini and his toes curled in his flip-flops. I offered to set up a videoconference in the business center, which I could seal off using caution: wet floor signs. “Is it 1999?” he said. “I didn’t ask for a videoconference. I asked for a phone call.”
I told him that I understood completely and I could offer two options: we could drive thirty minutes to a Waffle House parking lot acclaimed for its good reception, or we could go to a fire lookout that sat on retreat property and had a clear shot to the nearest cell tower.
Flip picked the second choice. His nerves must have upset his stomach, because I smelled farts as we hopped in the golf cart, and then luckily the breeze whisked them away. I couldn’t remember exactly where the fire lookout was, so we drove around for about ten minutes until we arrived at an electric fence I had never seen before. On the ground, I spied a circle of downy feathers, with a bird head at the center. The rest of the bird was gone. Flip said, “Tell me you know where we’re going,” and I said, “We’ll be there momentarily, sir. My apologies.” Flip was pale. We backtracked, and I found the turn that I’d missed before. The fire lookout was not entirely abandoned. Someone sat on the bottom of the stairs. I said, “Let me see who it is,” afraid that it might be Dan’s cousin. The figure was short and squat, though, and wearing a black polo that I recognized. Flakes of skin dusted the shoulders. It was Turkey Tom, one of the original security guards. I said, “What are you doing here, Tom?” and he said, “I could ask you the same thing.” He said one of the new guys had boasted about his computer chops, so Dan offered to let him try overseeing the wall of security footage, while Tom was sent into the woods like a horse to pasture. He said, “This is a young man’s job, standing in the elements.” I knew it must have been a big change from his usual position, with the comfy swivel chair, the heat vent blowing on his feet, and the nearby kitchen where he could sneak muffins.
“Sorry about all that,” I said. “I had my own problems with one of the new guys.”
Flip was waiting in the golf cart, his trifecta deteriorating by the minute, and I felt bad for keeping him waiting. I pointed to a big tree about twenty yards away and said, “Would you mind standing there for a while, Tom? I’ve got a guest trying to make a phone call. It’s private.”
He looked around. “This is as private as it gets.”
“Well, OK,” Tom said. “Good reception up here. Nice view, too.” He pointed to the fire lookout and said, “I had to climb up there earlier to make sure paparazzi weren’t hiding out. The door was unlocked and the place was a mess, so my heart was going pretty fast.”
“Secure?” I asked.
He picked up his thermos of coffee and started walking to the tree. He gave a little wave.
I told Flip that I would be waiting at the bottom of the tower. A security guard was on standby. Before making his ascent, I thought he might say thank you or give a meaningful nod. Instead he said, “How can it be this hard to make a motherfucking phone call? Jesus fuck, this place is stuck in the Dark Ages.”
I knew he was under stress, so I tried not to let it get to me. The fire lookout was much taller than I remembered, even though I’d only seen it once before, when I was new to the job and had been exploring the property on a day off. I’m not good at guessing heights, but it might have been a hundred feet off the ground. There were two flights of steps, with a landing in between, where I suspected Turkey Tom had taken a break so he could catch his breath before continuing the rest of the way. The lookout itself looked like one big room, with a wraparound balcony. It would have been a little kid’s dream if it had been erected for the purpose of play and not spotting potentially deadly fires. Flip walked up the first flight of stairs, paused on the landing to check his phone, then walked up the second flight of stairs. Here he stood on the balcony, head bent, and turned in nervous circles. After a moment, he seemed to have collected himself and then went inside the room at the top of the lookout, slamming the door behind him. I guess he wanted that extra layer of privacy. I watched everything from below. I could have cried.
I waited in the golf cart for a long time. I worried that Flip was getting terrible news, like he’d have to go back to Los Angeles for a deposition or a hearing or even the beginning of a trial. Like I said before, I didn’t know about the state of his affairs. I had been out of the loop for the past two years. When I came to the retreat, I’d quit reading the news and watching TV, since it was part of my quest to cut out noise. Only since Flip Goldberg’s arrival had I begun to have tinges of curiosity about him, moments when I was tempted to tune back in and google everything from “Flip Goldberg scandal” to “Flip Goldberg shirtless.” Ultimately, though, I couldn’t do it. I was afraid of what I might find. Worse, I was afraid the evidence against him might be convincing. Maybe at the center of all this is a question that I have difficulty confronting. A question that makes me embarrassed, sick. The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile? I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t want to be the answer. So I never gave myself the opportunity to really know, believe, or acknowledge that he could have been one. In this way, I protected myself from becoming a woman who liked a pedophile. I’ve said before that I believe in examining the lives of others as if looking in the mirror, with the same kindness and gentleness that we hope to afford ourselves. I saw myself in him, as any human can see themselves in any other human, and I said to myself, in the mirror, “Please be good.”
Eventually, Flip came out on the balcony and leaned against the wooden rail. I got out of the golf cart and craned my neck to see him. When I looked up, my lips must have been parted, because one of his tears fell into my mouth. It was cold from falling. He leaned on his elbows, hands clasped together, head forward. This would have been the moment when the scandal passed out of the world of the living and into the world of the dead, a vapor making its way from one room to another. It was a quiet passing, because the rest of the world didn’t know about it yet. All of that would come with time, but just then, at that moment, it was only a nearly imperceptible exchange of energy: as the scandal left, so returned Flip’s life.
I waited for a minute, giving him time.
Then I said, “Is there anything I can do?”
He squinted at me in the silver light. Maybe it only looked like he was squinting because his eyes were swollen. Over by the tree, Turkey Tom had fallen asleep. Flip said, “Come up here a minute.”
A hundred stairs later, I saw mountaintops breaching the mist. It felt like there could not possibly be a higher place on earth. Flip appeared unsteady, with his head bobbing and the silver glimmering at his temples. I could not ask what had happened, even though it was the human impulse. What I heard later was that his lawyers had settled out of court, for an amount of money in the millions, and the case had been dropped. The phone call taken at the fire lookout in Tennessee was the moment he found out that his life was not over. I would have thought such good news would invigorate him, would make his strength return, but the opposite happened. In the midst of the scandal he had been at his strongest. The scrutiny made him tough. It was the only way to survive the judgment of an entire country, a dark sea of nameless, faceless people who had no problem cursing him and his mother and the day he was born. He couldn’t bear to be seen as weak during this time, but the second he realized the battle was over, he grew frail. Tears streaked with tears. He was his most animal, his most fetal, his most ancient self.
We went inside the lookout and Flip sat on an army cot in the corner. Beside the cot was a bookshelf, with guides to the birds and wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains. Old papers lay scattered across the dusty floor, maps among them, as well as a guide to operating a flare gun. I stood in the middle of the room, upright, hands behind my back, and looked at the floor as politely as I could.
He said, “I can’t get a trepanation.”
He leaned forward and put his hands on the back of his neck. His voice was more muffled that way. He was twitching all over, legs bouncing, fingers tapping. I wondered if his brain was trying to remind his body that it was still alive.
“There’s no reason to do it anymore,” he said. “People said it would look good in case there was a trial. Like I was seeking help.”
I knew that in order to protect Flip Goldberg, I couldn’t make the argument that he should have the procedure. Before this, I probably would have tried. I would have thought I was doing the right thing by convincing him of the wonders of this place, but I had recently grown up a little. That was a truth I hadn’t known before, or hadn’t been willing to accept—that I wasn’t finished growing up, even though I was twenty-three years old. I’d felt plenty old. I had all that knowledge in my head from growing up with anthropologists for parents, visions of temples, pyramids, middens, markets, huts, and graves. When I had migraines and my head was bursting with hallucinations of outer space, of black holes, it felt as though I had the entire universe inside me, not just one measly planet. When I had the trepanation, everything could pass through me. The delusion had been that I was complete.
So I didn’t try to convince Flip.
I said, “OK.”
He sat up and looked toward the ceiling, where the shells of insects dangled from spiderwebs. The whites of his eyes were pink. He said, “I’m empty anyway. If I got the hole, I don’t think anything would come out. It’s taken everything from me. There’s nothing in here.” He knocked on his chest with a fist. “I should be relieved.”
I said, “Now you can rest.”
He nodded, looked through the windows, and then took a deep breath. He said, “I can try to sleep on the plane. I don’t think I will.”
On the way back to the retreat, he said that he’d already called his personal assistant, who said she could have a helicopter at the retreat the next morning. Flip said that wasn’t fast enough. His assistant found a flight to Los Angeles out of McGhee Tyson Airport. He asked me to take him to the airport and that we keep it quiet. He said that his personal assistant would be calling the head of operations, Dan, to announce that he, Mr. Goldberg, would not in fact be moving forward with the trepanation. To all of this I said, “Yes, sir.”
I escorted him back to his suite, where he packed his things, and then we took the service exit to the company truck. On the drive to the airport, he kept his eyes covered with his hands, and I wondered if he was replaying the phone call in his head, or thinking of all the things that would come next. I could have interrupted the silence, saying, “Hey, this has been crazy getting to be around you, and I’m sorry to see you go, since we’ll probably never see each other again, but just know that I never felt the way everybody else felt, and I never trash-talked you once.” I couldn’t say that, though. He needed the silence more than I needed to fill it.
I gave Flip a ten-minute warning so he could put on his disguise. He dug through his Louis Vuitton bags, pulling out a Puma track jacket and a Yankees baseball cap, which I assumed had been purchased for the express purpose of traveling in disguise. His aviators had been hooked in the front of his shirt. He put them on, along with everything else. It probably made him look like a regular person from a distance, but up close the disguise was betrayed by the exceptional quality of his leather bags and, beneath the track jacket, the silk of his bowling shirt, which looked like it had been snagged from the wardrobe mistress of a gangster movie. I stopped in front of the arrivals area, where he got out, slinging one bag over his shoulder and carrying the other in his hand. When a guest leaves, it’s typical to say something like “I hope you had a wonderful stay” or “Please come back again,” but neither of those applied here. Without any parting words, Flip Goldberg stepped through the sliding doors and into the airport, where he would in turn navigate through other people, other travelers, on his way to the counter, where he would give, I presumed, his real name. I liked that the last time I saw him was from behind, just like how I first saw him when he walked down the trail that day.
Dan was furious.
I said, “He didn’t want the trepanation.”
Dan said, “Well, it looks bad for us.”
“How is that?”
He said that if guests left before getting a trepanation, it made it look like we had done something wrong. People would talk. They would assume our facilities were unclean or the staff was unprofessional. They might think we had BO or spinach in our teeth. Dan said a bad pattern was emerging. First, Norbert Fischer in the Spring I session, then Flip Goldberg in the Spring II session. What would happen next?
Dan said, “You certainly haven’t helped the situation.”
I said, “Maybe I should leave then, if I suck so bad.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe I will.”“It might be for the best.”
“You can’t resign.”
“Your job isn’t important enough. You’re not high up enough in the chain. You can quit, but you can’t resign.”
“I still resign.”
“No,” he said. “You quit.”
I stood up from the wine-colored chair that sat in front of his desk. I said, “Here’s a hint, Dan. You should get rid of those Sea-Monkeys.” The Sea-Monkey kit still sat there, unopened. “I’m saying this as a parting gift. You’re going to make somebody mad one day and they’ll dump those shrimp into your coffee. I’ve thought about it, but I’ve always had the willpower to stop myself from actually doing it. Somebody else might not. So it’s better if you remove the temptation.”
When I left his office, I knew that my time at the retreat was officially over. I would have to move out of the cabin, since it was on retreat property, and the unexpected discovery I made when packing up my things was that I owned almost nothing. I had some clothes, some pots and pans, that sort of thing, but everything else had been there when I arrived. My stuff fit easily into my car, and my presence in the world felt very slight, but in a pleasing way. I hadn’t spent much money in the past two years and had been able to save a good chunk of my income, which came to a total of $57,600 that was spread across a checking account and a savings account. It seemed logical that I could go back home before I determined what to do next.
Before I left, I wanted to visit Norbert Fischer in the hospital. I hadn’t heard any updates on his condition lately, which was probably Dan’s intention, and it felt like a loose end. It would always be a loose end.
Because of patient confidentiality laws, I couldn’t receive a status update on Norbert Fischer’s condition or find out his room number. I told the nurse that I understood, even though it was disappointing, because I had visions of feeding him banana pudding if he was awake, or, if he was still in the coma, trimming his fingernails. On my way out, I got turned around in the hospital. I was wandering down a hallway when I saw an old woman in a wheelchair. There was vomit on the floor and several gurneys pushed to one side. I looked for someone who could tidy up, but this old woman was the only soul in town. I asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” and she said, “Anything?” and I said, “Name it.” She’d had some kind of procedure that had given her two black eyes, or maybe she’d been in an accident, I couldn’t tell. Air whistled through a gap in her front teeth when she spoke. She said, “How about more of that apple juice with ice?” I didn’t know where the apple juice was, but I told her I would find it and be right back.Continue reading
Interviewed by Savannah Horton
The narrator in your story, “Sacred Window Exhale,” is a former guest and current employee at an alternative medicinal retreat that spans the realms of the real and surreal. Could you explain a bit about how you developed this backdrop and whether you began with the environment or its characters? They seem perfectly matched. You so carefully balance the humor and strangeness without dipping into mockery—was that a concern while writing?
I had the idea of a trepanation retreat in the Smokies a few years ago, so that was definitely the first seed. No characters yet. My initial approach was to have it be journal entries covering a patient’s stay at the retreat, but that wasn’t working, so I decided to take that patient and have her end up becoming an employee later on. And I’d had this other idea floating around that I’d like to write something about a celebrity in the midst of a huge scandal, so I thought this could be an opportunity to drop that scandalized character into this trepanation story, and finally I got some traction.
As I was working on this, I never intentionally wanted to mock alternative medicine or the retreat. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that I never thought of this as satire. I had to approach it as earnestly as possible, even if some of the details are pretty wild. I always imagined it as a mix of summer camp and health retreat. This allowed the itinerary to encompass pretty much anything I wanted––like ice cream socials, horseback riding, and rafting trips. This is also a high-end, expensive place, so anything I feasibly dreamed up could be there. Want a float tank? Boom. Sure. That gave me a lot of room to play.
You manage to very successfully humanize and complexify an accused pedophile through his relationship with the narrator, who is driven not only by an urge to serve and care for others but also by her need to understand. The narrator asks herself: “The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile?” When you were developing your story, what led you to frame the traditional villain in the eyes of someone empathetic to his situation?
The empathetic approach seemed like the only option to me––I never considered doing it any other way. I’ve always loved the play Doubt, which never explicitly says “yes, the priest did this” or “no, the priest didn’t do this.” I think it really makes the audience more involved. You get to address that gap in knowledge however you want to and that also teaches you something about yourself as a person––are you willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt? Do you assume the worst is true? How do you handle not knowing?
Another influence was “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus. In that story, the narrator has done something that is morally questionable, and it isn’t revealed until much later in the story, so you have all of this time in the beginning to get to know the character without any judgment. Then you find out what the narrator has done, and you understand why he has done it. I intentionally didn’t use the word “pedophile” until the end of my story. It’s a charged word. It drops and there are ripples, you know? I think if that had appeared on page 5 it would have been a totally different story.
How did you decide to incorporate an unnamed celebrity into your story? The narrator claims: “I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us.” What do you think this type of anonymity can do for contemporary fiction, especially when blurring the lines between real and not?
Incorporating an unnamed celebrity was there from the beginning. While Flip Goldberg is a fictional character, I definitely drew on examples of scandalized celebrities that I’ve read about in the past. The anonymity worked on a practical level, because the narrator’s job would require her to be discrete. Confidentiality and protecting privacy would be a huge deal, especially considering these guests are also patients. It also adds this other layer of the narrator wanting to protect Flip Goldberg and, in turn, protect herself. This narrator is very empathetic, but I think there’s also a degree of her trying to convince herself of these things as she’s going, almost trying to support the version of the truth that she wants. So, you can read this story and wonder if Flip Goldberg is guilty or innocent, but you can also read it and wonder if the narrator is super compassionate or totally delusional.
Regarding the anonymity in contemporary fiction thing, I’m not really concerned with what’s “real” and “not real.” If something is published as fiction, then I read it as fiction, and everything is presumably the same degree of “real.” I do think that including known figures in fiction, which I’ve done more of lately, can be really fun. I recently wrote a piece about Andy Richter. And one about Tiny Tim.
Your narrator’s backstory is subtle yet very poignant, especially because her desire to serve stems from a somewhat difficult relationship with her parents. When you are drafting, how do you typically incorporate a character’s background to ensure it seamlessly flows within the narrative without revealing too much? Do you often use backstory to enhance the events transpiring or to contextualize a character’s actions?
Hmm. It’s hard to generalize, but I hope that any included backstory is enhancing events or providing some necessary information. For this particular story, I knew that the narrator suffered from migraines and that’s why she was a patient at the retreat. A lot of the other details just…appeared as I was writing, and I trusted that they were correct.
The retreat itself is very much based on undergoing invasive physical procedures to achieve inner peace and change. The narrator also admits to harming herself in an attempt to try to “heal old wounds by opening up new ones.” She refers to her head as a “pressure-cooker.” How did you think to combine these concepts of physical laceration and emotional trauma?
Honestly, I don’t think I consciously tried to combine those ideas. It just happened––maybe because it’s a biological quirk or something. I was going to say it’s a quirk in humans, but even birds will pluck out their feathers if they’re stressed out. I’m not sure if that technically falls under the umbrella of “self-soothing” behaviors, but it is interesting to think about the line when a self-soothing behavior becomes self-harm. The moment in the story where the narrator goes home and cuts herself, I remember that happening very suddenly while I was writing and then I looked back and thought that it actually made sense for this character. Kind of funny to think of stories as a balance between calculation and surprise.Continue reading
Dark Sky City
Later, you will find out that the man who presented your face to the pavement is a six-foot-two, two-hundred-plus-pound former enlisted U.S. Marine. By then you’ll also know he is a police officer. But that night, with fear and adrenaline pumping hot blood through the fresh gash in the back of your head, with your heart kicking fast into the middle of the street, all you know is there is new weight on your back, new ill-meaning hands around you. And you fight back.
This is Flagstaff, Arizona, home to the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. A liberal mountain town of students, hippies, and outdoors enthusiasts, surrounded by desert, snowbirds, and ranchers with rifles. This is a training place, both for athletes who come in the summer to fortify their lungs in the high-altitude air and for students at Northern Arizona University. It’s also the stomping grounds for a stern-sounding scramble of acronymic law enforcement agencies like the ATF, USFS, USMS, FPD, FBI, ICE, and AZDPS, flexing their muscles outside of border towns and the greater Phoenix sprawl.
This is Flagstaff, Arizona. As someone who grew up in twenty-plus countries, it’s as close to home as you’ve ever known. A soft walk behind you is NAU, where you received your BA in journalism. Those two points in the distance are the Sacred Peaks, soon to be covered in snow. A hop over to the right and you’ll be back in your old hood, where all it takes is a dash of lighter fluid to set off a chain of grills from house to house. Where people gather around the smell of barbecuing chicken, garden vegetables, or whatever’s on hand. Any day of the week, you’ll find neighbors, homeless folks, new friends singing together and passing stories and bottles across low picket fences.
You and your boyfriend met at the tail end of one of those impromptu block parties. You were twenty-five and high up on a makeshift swing, watching the whole of a friend’s front lawn swoop beneath you in big, sweeping arcs. From across the street, a neighbor stuck his head out of his bedroom window and asked you to start reining it in because it was four in the morning. But the next day, when you and your friends went to your regular swimming hole among the red rocks of Sedona, he tagged along. You all took turns jumping off the high rock into glacier-cool water, and then he gave you a wildflower and a line involving the word “beautiful,” and somehow, in that setting, it was not at all cheesy.
Your backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. You spent your childhood putting on puppet shows and choreographed dance acts for people in refugee camps, never went to formal high school or prom, knew how to say goodbye in a slew of tongues. He’s a midwestern boy who grew up singing “America the Beautiful” at Fourth of July parades, who didn’t have to be nudged to put his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, who stops to pet every dog he meets.
When he put his arm around you that night, he craned his head to the crystal moon, and the singing voice that came straight from his chest was that of an oldtime bluesman.
You found your common ground in the sky.
That summer, the two of you spent many nights on his lawn couch pointing up into the Milky Way, whisper-reciting the names of the countries you wanted to visit together like prayers to the constellations.
This is Flagstaff, Arizona: the world’s first International Dark Sky City, where electric lights are capped at night to preserve your view of the stars.
Once a clump has broken free from the other parts of the cloud core, it has its own unique gravity and identity and we call it a Protostar.
Earlier tonight, the two of you went out for a drink after getting off the late shift at the restaurant where you both wait tables. You clinked glasses with friends and told them about your upcoming trip, first backpacking for a few months in Peru, then off to Southeastern Europe where you have yearlong contracts to teach English in Georgia. You sat jacket-free on the patio at Flag Brew, made some noise for the bluegrass band that was playing their last set by the time you arrived, signed on to their email list when they brought it around. You bought a six-pack of craft beer and were headed home when the ground fell through.
Later, the pieces will start to fit into a quasi-narrative frame, but that night it’s a collection of sensory details coming at you so fast you don’t have time to register one before something worse is going down. You and your boyfriend are crossing the street kitty-corner, holding hands. He lets go. Crash of glass. Car doors slam. He is taking punches to the face. A rapid series of full-force blows. One impossibly tall man is holding your boyfriend’s arms behind his back while two more take turns smashing their fists into him. This image will stay with you. Your beloved, eyes already swollen shut, unresponsive as the fists hail into his face. You have to stop it before it’s too late. You charge into the vicious cluster, straight for the guy who’s holding your boyfriend in place. He’s so tall, you can’t even reach his nose, so you kick him in the knees. The contact of your meager leg does little, but for a moment, the sickening knuckles-to-flesh sound abates, and you are overwhelmed with relief.
Then: “Bitch!” A female voice from somewhere behind you, and, before you can turn to place it, a dull thud.
The stars are in the ground.
Later, the report by the private detective you hire will confirm two things you already suspected: (1) The thud that hit you in the back of the head was a beer bottle. (2) The carload that originally attacked you and your boyfriend have a hefty bunch of criminal records.
So why, when the police arrive, do they take the criminals’ side? While you and your boyfriend lie knocked out on the ground, with the red and blue lights of Dark Sky City closing in, the four people who assaulted you for a six-pack of beer they are not yet old enough to buy themselves corroborate a story. In that story, the roles are reversed: You were the attackers.
Outbursts from a young star change the chemistry of the star’s disk, from which planets may eventually form.
Maybe if you had been calmer when you came to, the police would have assessed the scene and reasonably deduced that the story from inside the car was off. Maybe if you hadn’t woken up with the new weight of a malicious stranger straddling your back, you wouldn’t have stirred up round two.
Eventually you’ll read about it in the police report: “The suspect repeatedly managed to slip out of the handcuffs, she was agitated and energetically resisted arrest.”
Later you will replay the scenario in your head and understand that when you struggled, you were acting out a scientifically recognized physiological response to danger. Even though you spent your teenage years bringing relief supplies to countries freshly ravaged by war, you will suddenly gain an intimate, personal understanding of textbook concepts like fight-or-flight.
Well, you can call yourself Houdini. Between the sweat on your wrists and enough adrenaline in your bloodstream to power an elephant stampede, you manage to slide your small hands through the tight metal latch again and again.
And as you lie prone on your stomach, flailing for your life, the officer, sitting astride your back, struggling to get your hands back inside the handcuffs, must feel like a blundering hippo. It must be very frustrating for him, there in the middle of the intersection, struggling to lock down this girl who weighs the equivalent of one of his legs.
Maybe the officer is only responding to his own biological cues, or maybe he’s reverting to his military training when he picks your head up by the root of its scalp, hits you in the face, and then smashes it back into the city street, where any passerby can see everything he’s doing.
Later, the private detective’s report (not the police report) will quote a witness who said that on August 22, 2010, “the officer grabbed the girl, getting on top of her, then ‘threw a full-on lunging punch,’ striking her in the face.” The witness will also be quoted as saying that “the girl had bad scratches all along her back and she was a small girl compared to the officer” and that “when the officer hit the girl, he felt the officer was trying to ‘take her out.’”
Months from now, when you are surprised again by a summons to appear in court, you will be dumbfounded by the charge against you: aggravated assault on a police officer.
All those liberal arts course studies about law enforcement cover-ups and manipulated evidence—you’ll understand them now on a cellular level. You’ll hear it in the white-noise static where your boyfriend’s official recorded statement somehow got erased. You’ll read it in the police report, in the blank spaces where the testimony of six witnesses should be. When the police are concerned with covering their own behinds, your story is not the one that will matter.
Later, inside the official evidence packet, you’ll see a Polaroid of the ex-Marine/officer, taken at the scene. If you weren’t still having trouble sleeping at night, you might laugh at the way he uses his fingers to hold out his lower lip, like even his pout is contrived.
“Injury sustained by punch to the face,” the handwritten caption says. If it weren’t for the explanation, you might not know what you’re supposed to be looking at. If you focus hard, you might just see a hint of red where he’s pointing, but it’s so faint, there’s an equally good chance you might not, or might assume you’re just imagining it.
The officials will not have taken pictures of you. Three days later, after you’ve bailed yourself out of high-security jail, you and your boyfriend will take some of each other with the same Nikon D60 you bought for your trip to Peru. Even after seventy-two hours of healing, the wounds are gruesome, the bruises varying shades of fiery-fall-foliage hues. You and your boyfriend take turns with the camera, getting evidence from all the hard-to-reach places: Blistering wounds across your back. A blood-clotted gash in the back of the head. Swollen eye. Face like a puffer fish.
“I don’t usually look like this.”
Your quote in the police report—without context—comes off as vain. One might imagine a dissatisfied prom queen whining into the mirror at a beauty salon. Based on the report, one wouldn’t know that the words came between great gasps of air after the sight of your own readjusted face in the hospital bathroom shocked you into hysteria. You balanced on the edge of the ER bed surrounded by uniformed men asking stern questions and struggled to enumerate the events that led you there. You couldn’t understand why they kept steering your questions away from the attack. And when you said, “I don’t usually look like this,” what you meant was Please, don’t you understand? The truth is right here on my rearranged face. All you have to do is look.
What did you do? That’s the question you will see in others’ eyes when you try to explain all this to them later. You would ask it too if you were the one being told this story. If the Dalai Lama wound up with a felony charge of assault against an officer, you would take his side, of course. But even as you shook your head in solidarity, your eyes might dart to his upper arm, imagining it flexed in rage. You might think there always was something a little off about his smile. Because things like this just don’t happen to people who haven’t done anything.
Years later, you may still want to give police the benefit of the doubt when you read about Jemel Roberson, the Chicago security guard who was killed by law enforcement officers after heroically stopping a shooter while on the job. Reports say police shot Roberson even as witnesses shouted at them that he was a security guard. That slain hero was twenty-six, the same age you were that night in Dark Sky City.
In fact, it is possible all stars go through this dramatic stage of development in their youth, but many of the outbursts are too short in cosmological time for humans to observe.
The true story is out there. But it’s not in the police report. You’ll only need to read the police report once to realize you’ll have to find an unbiased professional to do the things the police should have done themselves: interview eyewitnesses, take photographs, investigate the scene. You and your boyfriend will use a thousand dollars each of your long-saved travel fund to hire a licensed private investigator.
Judging from the gaping holes the police left in their report, it’s not likely
they’ll want to hang it out to air-dry in trial. That’s what a lawyer friend tells you, and you agree, but just in case, you pool the cash for the private eye who will put together a hefty packet filled with the missing parts. You’ll find out that, before police arrived, you appeared to lose consciousness twice, the second time when you were dragged down the street by a moving vehicle. In the private detective’s report, you’ll read a witness account of what your body did when your senses had checked out: “[Witness] said that a girl grabbed onto the driver’s side of the car to prevent it from leaving … it appeared that the suspect driver was holding onto the girl as he accelerated northbound causing the girl to be dragged for a short distance.”
Then you’ll remember in hazy flashes how you got the screaming welts on your back. How you woke up just in time to hear sirens, running, car doors slamming, shouts of “Let’s go!” Your head was throbbing, but you ran after the vehicle to stop your attackers from getting away.
You are lucky. It may not appear that way on the surface, but break it down later and you’ll see there are many places where the story could have forked off in a much darker direction. Think of it like a video game where the magical banana in your arsenal gives you a life. Who would have thought that your hair could be a magical banana?
“The girl with golden hair.” That’s how an eyewitness will describe you in the private report. It’ll take a few reads before you realize they are talking about you. Your hair is long, straight, light brown, with highlights. But golden? It’s a romantic image that reads oddly in the context of the report: “Then the officer tackled the girl with golden hair.”
Later you’ll see the faces of people who have been killed by police after offering much less resistance. Some were children playing, or young adults walking home at night, same as you. They were doctors, thieves, students, women, men, children, old, young. But line up their headshots and you’ll see that not many of them would be described by a witness as having “golden hair.”
In a few years, BBC News will say about a twelve-year-old black boy named
Tamir Rice, “Video footage shows he was shot within one second of the police arriving.”
The final collapse is a messy, chaotic event … This may cause spectacular bursts of gamma rays or supernova explosions. But in some cases at least … the stars would seemingly vanish without trace.
After you’ve spent a night locked up in the holding tank, your golden hair will be matted into stiff, bloody locks.
The arraignment room is packed worse than a DMV, but with more sweat and higher stakes. You catch a glimpse of your boyfriend on the other side of the room, his eyes swollen down to two slits, his hands cuffed. You try to use impromptu signals to communicate with him, but the guards catch on quickly, bark you down. When your turn comes to face the judge in the telemonitor, drops of blood dribble down from the ends of your hair onto your arm. Drip. The old judge’s face is blown up 20x on the flatscreen. Drip. The look he gives you, with your crimson-splattered shirt and swollen face, is the look of a man who’s found a dead fly in his champagne.
In college, you’d learned from sources like Psychology Today that “the clothing defendants wear, the jewelry they display, the way they style their hair, can sometimes mean the difference between doing time and dodging jail.”
The blue lace top you’re wearing has been refashioned into a single-strap
with crimson-brown tie-dye, and the last time you saw your platform shoe, it was lying on its side across thew street, but still! Up until that moment, as you sat in that overpacked room, you were thinking—you were assuming—that once your turn came, the whole mess would be sorted out. All you had to do was explain. Drip.
You’ve landed in prison. “Jail!” your uncle Frank will later correct. Your uncle is an old dog, a former cop himself, who in the eighties, while you were being pottytrained, ran for sheriff of Maricopa County against the now infamous Joe Arpaio. “Prison is where you go after you’ve been convicted. You went to jail, honey.”
OK, so jail. But this is no drunk tank, cooler castle, jive joint, country club. We’re talking high-security long-term holding jail, where they keep people like the bigboned Native American woman one cell over. She’s been held there for five months while in New Mexico prosecutors prepare their case against her. Murder. On the third day, she’ll warm up enough to give you too many details. On the first day, after you’ve worked through most of the contents of the compartmentalized meal tray, all she does is jut her chin at your peas and say, in a voice/stare combination that would make the earth quake, “You gonna eat those?”
Let’s talk about jail. Jail is the place where you get marched over to the clinic where someone with a face guard conducts a thorough search through your hair because the last occupant of your bunk was afflicted with head lice. Jail is where your gaping head gash remains unbandaged, so they prod around in there, never mind the blood-crusted clusters of hair, looking for lice or lice eggs. Jail is where there are no partitions around the showerheads, and the water is cold. Jail is where the drains are level with the floor so that when the blood washes down from your head, it makes a swirling, red pool over the entire surface. Jail is where there is no light switch. Where the fluorescent bulb eats through your eyelids, hums into your mind. And when the light goes out at nine o’clock, the darkness is sharp, total. If your cellmate is not a sociopath, you may work out a system for using the shitter in quasi-privacy. It’s the focal point in your otherwise hollow room. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to poo. The time between minutes is long, flickering corridors that taper closer and tighter but never end.
Sometimes you’re glad for the tears. You are legally blind without contact
lenses, and now yours have shriveled up in your eyes, for want of solution. In the real world, your purse exists for the sole purpose of carrying contact lens solution. But this is your real world now, and there is little that is more real than having to choose between sharp bits of dried-up plastic in your eye or taking your contacts out and relying solely on your sense of smell for survival. I smell bleach, body odor, piss, shit. Or, worse, your hearing. I hear my cellmate rambling on conversationally again about her child abuse charge, I hear the insect hum of the fluorescent bulb, I hear grunting. I hear a tinkle of water hitting water. I hear keys jangle-jangling down a hollow hall. No, you need your eyesight. But they don’t let you pack for jail. And they don’t rush to provide you with the essentials, either. You try to preserve your sanity by writing imaginary Yelp reviews. “The cell service in this place is terrible.” “I’m giving it one star because there is no zero-star option.” “Between the poor cuisine and the open-floor bathroom layout, I’ve discovered how a person can experience diarrhea and constipation at the
same damn time. Two thumbs down.” You make up music videos featuring a hefty turd singing, “I’m locked up, won’t let me out.”
Truth is, that’s not what’s going through your head in that jail cell in 2010. You are thinking of your boyfriend as you last saw him, with his eyes bruised and swollen shut. You are seeing him lying wounded in body and spirit in another bunk in another part of the jail. All the plans you had lined up, they’ll torture your mind—the flight to South America set two weeks from now, your teaching job in the Republic of Georgia, contracted to begin a month after that. You’ll think about just the other night, when your boyfriend kissed you under a vast sky. How you saw yourselves in a pair of shooting stars. You’ll think about it and it will hurt more than the open wound on the back of your head, more than the road rash that burns against the hard top bunk. The Yelp reviews, the joking around. That’s all you later as you try to tell this story. Because the act of telling means revisiting, and your mind does not want to go back to jail.
Black holes are the dark remnants of collapsed stars, regions of space cut off from the rest of the universe. If something falls into a black hole, it can never come back out Not even light can escape.
By day two you’ve already started to acclimate. When the droning first stretch of the second day verges into the outrageous clamor of lunchtime (“It’s chicken nugget day!” your cellmate says brightly), you fall in line, take the tray from the receiving portal, eat the compartmentalized portions of frozen carrots and gristly cold chicken and chase them with a mini-box of milk. Your peas you offer to the big-boned murder suspect. (You do not, as you did on day one, save the crackers for later, which you have since found out is against the rules.) Then you stack the tray against the wall beside the bars, not on the sliding side, the way you did on the first day, inadvertently causing a monumental jam and bringing a severe glare from the meal distribution staff.
Now, as they collect the trays with austere precision, you step back and bow
There’s a pay phone on the wall of the common area. It’s a big, boxy, ancient-looking thing. When, on your first day, you tried to conjure a phone number from memory, the other accused cons gaped. They leaned in while you dialed what you hoped was your aunt’s number. But there was no ringtone, so you hung up and they all laughed.
On the third day, you approach the magic box again, ignoring the stares. Now you see that there is a list of phone numbers stickered to the side: bail bondsmen.
You dial the first number and are surprised when a voice answers. You’ll be rendered momentarily speechless by the professional human greeting—“Bustout Bail Bonds”—and you’ll find out that, yes, you can bail yourself out of jail, it’ll just take $3,000, with $1,000 of it put down now. And here’s where your second magical banana comes in: You happen to have $1,000 ready to go. Sure, you’d saved it to pay for your trip abroad; sure, you’ll need it soon on legal fees; but fuck if you aren’t glad to have it now. The man on the other end is happy to take it off your hands. Only, since it’s not in your hands, but in the bank, he will have to escort you to the bank in
handcuffs so that you can get it. You don’t hesitate to agree.
Maybe because, at 110 pounds, you are an unlikely overpower-and-escape risk, or maybe because of your golden hair, the bondsman does not end up following through with the handcuffs bit. Although the bank tellers do give one another some nervous back-and-forth looks, what with your face notably bruised, withdrawing $1,000 in cash while a hefty, unsmiling man watches nearby, arms crossed.
Your boyfriend did not have the same success that you did with the pay phone. Instead, he’s had his bail posted by your mutual boss. He arrives back at your shared apartment looking like a pole that the tent has collapsed around. You go in for a hug, but it’s not the reunion you’d anticipated those nights on the top cot, since he winces under the pressure of your embrace.
In the movies, incarcerated folks have dreamy conversations in which they talk about the first thing they’ll do when they get out. In your case, it’s not a shower or a hot, well-seasoned meal that you want. Instead, after hugging your boyfriend, you go straight for the Nikon D60. Even after three days, the wounds make for dramatic visuals. On advice from your lawyer friend, you hire the PI to gather evidence on your behalf, then take your trip abroad as planned, feeling your hearts lift along with the plane.
In Peru, you seek healing deep inside Amazonian jungle. You drink ayahuasca, the ancient, bitter brew, and feel your spirit pulled into shamanic song. With your eyelids closed, you feel the shadowy presence of uniformed men. You recognize the fear. You see the waves of energy that connect everything on earth and understand suddenly that these uniformed men exist on a lower plane than the one on which you are floating, far above the laser lines on ground level.
But when you are summoned back after a few months to face criminal charges— cutting off both the remainder of your trip and your teaching jobs in Georgia—it’s as if you’ve been sucked into a black hole.
If there was nothing to stop it, the star would just continue collapsing for millions of years until it became its smallest possible size … But there is a pressure pushing back against the gravitational collapse of the star: light.
Juries are moved by dramatic visuals. If you stood next to the officer you are accused of assaulting, your cheek would brush his holster. While no advantage on the street, this size difference is potentially a magical banana in the courtroom, where a judicious observer may be moved to question the real threat posed by a five-foot-two girl to a towering, thick-necked former Marine. Juries are moved by dramatic visuals. Still, you’ve seen enough news stories to know the dramatic visuals aren’t always enough. So you pool your remaining savings and hire an attorney.
Your public defender is court-appointed. She looks at your folio and then into your eyes, and, by God, you believe her when she says this is absurd and she’s going to fight for you.
Your boyfriend is not so lucky. His court-appointed representative has straight-up told him that she doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” and pushed him so hard to plead guilty in exchange for a plea bargain that he has no other option but to hire a pro. Now he’s being defended by the best criminal attorney in town, and his going rate proves it. The two of you pooled your remaining travel funds to pay the retainer; you borrowed more money from family and hoped like hell the case could be resolved without going to trial. A person could spend the rest of their life working off the cost of a single day in trial. Trial or not, the two of you are firm: you will not—even to reduced charges—plead guilty. Your boyfriend’s charges are technically less severe, but the irony will boil your blood. They’re trying to nail him with “Assault and Resisting Arrest,” the former for the assault that he himself sustained, the latter for when he shouted and tried to shake off two restraining officers to help his girlfriend while another cop smashed her face.
Your lawyers have a few tricks up their sleeves, and they bust them all out for a nearly empty courtroom at the pre-hearing, the purpose of which is to decide whether the state has reasonable evidence to proceed. Your public defender explains this point carefully to make sure you don’t get your hopes up: In 99.999 percent of cases, even if it’s the weather that stands accused, the court always rules reasonable cause.
At the pre-hearing, they don’t make you stand next to the officer you are accused of assaulting. You’re OK with that. Psychoactive-plant-induced epiphanies aside, in that courtroom you feel very much reachable.
Between bail, the cost of the private detective, the flight back from Peru, and hiring the defense attorney, this whole affair has already gobbled up every crumb of your savings and then some. You can’t afford a new court-appropriate outfit, so you spend the “getting ready” hour trying on and taking off every old shirt you own before settling on an old button-up work blouse with a collar and a bit of a puff around the sleeves. Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights of the courtroom, you can see that the blouse is more yellow now than white, and your attempt at ironing the thing only served to awaken semi-dormant fryer smells from the Italian restaurant where you waitress evenings.
More important, you’re relieved to be sitting, because just the sight of Officer Hard-Fist, “the victim” over in the elevated witness stand, gives you a fever chill. You stare at your hands, at the varnished walnut grain of the courtroom bench, at the garish light flickering on the floor.
Beforehand, your lawyer advised you not to look at the officer who punched you in the face. With his pressed, starched uniform, the officer looks very official in the witness stand. Composed, sitting straight upright, he answers in short, no-frills sentences that bounce over the hard edges of the courtroom, filling the empty space between the curved benches and the judge’s podium. It takes all your willpower to control your eyes as this trained fighting machine sits calmly in the witness stand and tells the courtroom in fabricated detail how you, the accused, beat him up. You feel righteous indignation rise inside you. It wants to beam forth from your eyes and cast him naked under the all-knowing light of Truth. But you heed your defender’s advice. She is the professional, and later you’ll realize that she was right, of course. What you thought was the searing light of Truth would have been interpreted as a thuggish glare, the kind that is followed in gangster movies by a threatening swipe across the throat.
For a person facing their attacker, the officer/victim is amazingly calm. His composure falters only for a suppressed half breath when, in a dramatic turn, your lawyer produces the self-portraits you took. Upon the appearance of evidence on your behalf, both the prosecutor and the officer look surprised. Now, with the two sets of headshots lying side by side, the contrast is even more dramatic than the size difference between you and the cop. Your lawyer’s voice rises like Tom Cruise’s in A Few Good Men:
“And were you aware, when you arrived at the scene on August 22nd, that Ms. G. had sustained multiple injuries?”
“No, I …”
Splat! Another print hits the table. It’s your face this time, glossy and enlarged, but far from glamourous. Your skin is swollen and inflamed and dramatically bruised. Splat! Another print, this one of the back of your head, where the hair is bloody and matted around a gaping gash. It’s still gooey and red in the self-portrait.
“So you did not see the bleeding wound to her head when you found her in the street and attempted to arrest her?”
The dramatic peak. This should be the part where Jack Nicholson’s character turns into a lizard and sneers, “Truth? You can’t handle the truth!” But in this courtroom, even though it is pretrial and the whole theatrical display has been wasted on a few teams of lawyers and a judge who would sleep through the second coming of Christ—and who knew before this dress rehearsal started that the case had reasonable cause (99.999 percent of cases do)—you feel a wash of relief, a moment of vindication, of the possibility of fairness and that, maybe, justice does
sometimes triumph. All the fine hairs on your body do a standing ovation. There is something powerful and cathartic about hearing this articulation of the obvious truth—no jargon or conditions in that ritual altar room. The words wash through you, and all the frustration, hurt, fear, and relief comes out in a salty brine through your eyes. You cry through the rest of the hearing, and that, along with the blouse, does little for your image.
This is the only time throughout the year-plus legal process that it will ever get close to resembling a Hollywood movie.
Once you’re past the heart-jolt moment of falling through the ground, it’s a slow, suffocating death by desiccation. Your life falls into an anxious pattern of court dates and deferred hearings. Deferred hearings. Deferred hearings. Run home from work. Change. Show up at the courthouse. Feel your pulse quicken. Wait most of the afternoon. Not today. Court date reset. Come back in a month. Fill the space between with shadowy scenarios. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The process of collapse destroys every characteristic of the original star except its mass, spin and electric charge: everything else is radiated away as gravitational waves.
When the lights go dark, you can see the stars, or maybe you’ll just see shadows. You may find that you are not, as you once believed, composed purely of love and light. You may lash out against yourself, play the role of victim. You may weep, feel your heart curdle over the injustice of it all, cry out, “Why me?”
You may ride your bike to the bar in the night after drinking a bottle of vodka on your own. You may flip over on the railway tracks and wind up in
screaming at nurses in uniform. You may find yourself facing new charges after an officer in the hospital recognizes your name and encourages the staff to take legal action against you when you resist a forcible injection of sedative. Maybe it’s the sedative, or your own numb spirit, but you won’t even care when they send you back to jail and the intake warden tells you to bend over, spread your ass cheeks, and cough. You may find that you begin to assume the role the legal system has cast you in.
Your attorneys are invested, though. They find a legal loophole to keep the hospital incident out of your case record. Later, when you scroll through the ACLU case profiles of some of the 3,278 people—an estimated 65 percent of them black—who are serving life without parole for nonviolent, circumstance-driven offenses, you will begin to realize just how lucky you were, even then.
After sixteen months of deferred court dates and unwavering prosecution, the official conclusion is anti-climactic, as if the whole case had just bored itself to sleep. By the time the prosecuting team has used up the maximum limit of deferred hearings—you still refuse to accept any plea agreement that would label you guilty—once it comes down to a matter of trial, the prosecution folds faster than a poker player with a bad hand. They drop your felony charges and give you another deferred: “Deferred Prosecution.” Stay out of trouble for a year, go to anger management class, write a letter of apology to the offending officer, and all charges will be wiped from your record. It will be as if this never happened.
But your spirit will have imploded.
For a case that never made it to trial, you’ll get your share of judgment.
“I would have taken it all the way,” your friend’s friend will say. Your friend’s friend may not understand that the cost of trial translates into a lifetime of indentured servitude. Your friend’s friend may not know the uncomfortable experience of gambling with your life in a legal poker game where the odds are stacked in favor of the house.
You’ll tell yourself to be happy, that what you got was the best possible outcome. Remind yourself that you’re a poor public speaker, picture all the ways they could have found weak spots in your character, reiterate that you might have lost. Or how, even if you had taken it through and won, you would have lost your financial credit, your emotional health, and years of your life.
You got the best possible outcome. You can move on, you tell yourself, and continue to remind yourself every time you sign in to the anger management class, or fill out an alcohol consumption questionnaire, or opt out of a job or lease application that requires a background check because your arrest record might show up. You’re lucky. You can move on.
Still, sometimes you’ll allow yourself to imagine what it might have felt to stand in that courtroom and hear the words “Not guilty” reverberate from the juror’s bench through the rest of your life.
A constellation family refers to a group of constellations located within the same region of the night sky.
About six months after reading the last word of legal jargon, after the surface wounds have gone internal, you and your boyfriend are invited to participate in another healing ceremony, this time on your home turf. This ceremony is led by teachers, social workers, and artists, modern apprentice practitioners of ancient, indigenous medicine. These local leaders acknowledge the limitations of American institutions, the subjugation of spirit that occurs when human lives are commodified. In search of alternatives, they gather in the arid plains.
And you, who have had all your complexity of emotions filed away in a guidance counselor’s office drawer, who have felt rage expand inside you while sitting on metal chairs in anger management classes—you and your boyfriend will go into the desert.
And there, under an infinite expanse of naked sky, and under the influence of bitter plant medicine, in a circle of relative strangers, your boyfriend will tell the story. Of the night he was attacked without warning and punched within a beat of internal damage, and how you tried to help him and were hit on the back of the head with a bottle, and how when the police came, they listened to the aggressors, who sat in their car and constructed their story even as the two of you lay bleeding in the street. How when the police came, they came not as saviors but as a posse. How after the two of you tried to put the whole hellish business behind you, were blindsided for the second time by a summons to answer felony charges with gravesounding
After the telling, one of the elders seeks your boyfriend out. This elder has heard the resin of pain, the anger, the hard let-down in your boyfriend’s voice. He has noticed how your boyfriend’s aura, even his face, has darkened visibly over the course of the storytelling, how his eyes have gone from sunny-sky blue to flash-flood mud.
“That’s an interesting story,” the elder says, “and brave of you to share. But now, consider this.”
The elder is then silent for a long while, and when he finally speaks, even the wispy clouds lean in to hear.
“That story is yours. You don’t ever have to tell it again.”
Your boyfriend respects these words. He takes the elder’s advice to heart. If he stops feeding the story by retelling it, it will lose its hold. Finally, two years after the first blows, he will begin to heal.
But sometimes, in years to come, you will see the wet-glass look in his eyes, you will see him glring at the sky, you will hear the edge in his voice when he sings to the moon, and you will wonder whether, without the release that comes from telling, a story can corrode into a life force.
You, who have delivered aid inside war-torn countries, who have dodged land mines, who have witnessed the deep imprint left by military-grade boots—you will wonder whether this elder’s advice is right for you. You will see the faces on the news. Sometimes, when the U.S. flag waves, you may squint between the stripes and read a different story in the box with the stars.
Only much later, when your pain is no longer fresh and the scar tissue has grown over your scalp, will you understand that when the elder said, “You never have to tell that story again,” he was speaking to the immense power of story—how a narrative pulled from an open wound can tear it wider still. But a story owned, one that reaches beyond itself, that seeks to connect—that story is the difference between a bunch of floating gas and dust particles and a galaxy.
You will see citizens rally together under the power of storytelling, and understand that it is turbulent atmosphere—winds blowing in many different directions—that causes what we perceive as stellar twinkling. When you read about people like Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life in prison after shooting her rapist in self-defense when she was sixteen, you pick up your laptop, your credit card, your phone, your picket sign, your microphone, your mixing board, your pen. You find your fire, link arms with others, and form a chain of light across the darkened sky.
In the case of a star, it absorbs all radiation that falls on it, but it also radiates back into space much more than it absorbs.
Fraser Cain, “Interesting Facts About Stars,” Universe Today, February 2009.
Peter Christoforou, “10 Interesting Facts About Star Constellations,” Astronomy Trek, February 2013.
Dan Falk, “What Is a Black Hole?” Mach, NBC News, December 2018.
Michael Marshall, “Introduction: Black Holes,” SPACE, January 2010.
NASA, “Loneliest Young Star Seen by Spitzer and Wise,” July 2016.
Jon Schiller, 21st Century Cosmology (BookSurge Publishing, 2009).
Larry Sessions, “Top 10 Cool Things About Stars,” EarthSky, May 2016.
Interviewed by Timothy Schirmer
In your essay, Dark Sky City, you recount a violent attack that you and your boyfriend suffered late one evening while crossing the street in your hometown, Flagstaff, Arizona. You use the second person perspective to strap the reader in for an immersive experience. In a technical sense, it has always seemed to me that the second person is like cilantro: people either like it, or they don’t. I personally like the second person, and the effect it has in Dark Sky City, and I wonder if it was an intellectual or more of an intuitive choice to tell the story from that vantage? Can you comment on how writing a long-form personal essay in the second person might have been challenging? Or liberating?
Because this experience was so difficult to revisit, I’d filed it away for years under the general label “That thing with the law.” Recently, though, I began feeling an unrelenting urge to tell the story. I knew I was ready but was having a hard time taking the first step. I joined a creative nonfiction workshop at the Attic (led by the phenomenal Brain Benson) in Portland, Oregon and procrastinated until I only had a few days before my draft was due for submission. Our suggested reading for that week was Jerald Walker’s “How to Make a Slave.” I remember getting the chills when I read it, because of the way the second person voice placed me inside the author’s shoes. By using second person, the author invited me into a complexity of experiences and emotions that I might otherwise have only perceived as a spectator.
Because my role in the story evokes immediate assumptions and connotations, I realized that writing in first person felt almost like I was trying to plead my case in the court of public opinion or tell my side when, sadly, this is essay is not only about my story, but that of many Americans who have had their lives upended or even ended by the same justice system that is supposed to protect them. The “you” voice felt right because it asks the reader to imagine themselves inside a scenario that many reasonably law-abiding, non-marginalized citizens have probably never imagined themselves inside of, just like I never fathomed it would happen to me until it did. Misuse of power is not someone else’s problem, far, far away, but something that threatens all of us, that we need to acknowledge and examine as a society.
Once I started writing in the second person, the story just flowed and within two writing sessions, my first draft was complete. I did try rewriting the beginning in first person, but it didn’t feel right, and I changed it back to the “you.” I like cilantro. As a creative writer, it’s liberating to know I can experiment with voice and form, and that there are many storytelling tools to choose from.
One of my favorite components of your story are the short and sporadic asides about the science of star formation deep in the cosmos. Taken out of context, these sections of text could be seen as educational, or informative, but spliced into the narrative, they assume some serious poetic muscle and shine. Are you especially interested in outer space as a subject? And how did you come to settle on the cosmos—and star formation specifically—as a thematic anchor for the essay?
While I’ve always loved looking up at the sky, I can’t say I understood much at all about star formation, or had even paid much attention to the workings of the cosmos, before this essay. It was only after I’d written the first draft and named the essay “Dark Sky City” that I thought about looking more deeply into the science of stars. The first text I read about star formation was a hair-raiser—all those descriptions of sudden implosions, violent collapse and energy sucked inward—the information could have just as easily been describing my personal experience. The more I learned, the more I saw that our connection to stars is both metaphorical and literal, that we really are, as Carl Sagan said, made of star stuff.
A provocative question is touched on near at end of Dark Sky City, and that is the issue of how—as human beings, and storytellers—we are to better understand our own experiences, including those which are painful to look at. At a healing ceremony in the desert, an elder who hears your boyfriend recount the attack tells him that it’s okay for him to stop retelling the story of that night, and to let it go silent inside him as a way of moving forward. At what point did you know that the alternative approach was true for you, and that you needed to put your story on paper? Did it occur to you early on, or after some time? Did writing this essay transform your relationship to the events?
As a storyteller, I’ve thought about this a lot. In the same way that we have choices with form and voice, there are also important questions of perspective and distance, especially when it comes to personal trauma. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer and there are times when a story absolutely needs to be told, and right away. But I think it comes down to the fact that we do have a choice, that we have ownership of our own stories.
In this specific case, my boyfriend was reliving all the toxic emotions every time he relayed the events. The wound was still wide open and by telling the story frequently, he was not giving space for it to heal. I remember when he told me about his conversation and the elder’s advice, I misinterpreted it at first as “You must never tell that story again,” when in fact he said something close, but monumentally different: “You never have to tell that story again.” The difference between “never tell it” and “the story is yours, you can choose whether, when, how, and to whom to tell it” is the difference between silencing and freedom.
While writing this story, I had to go through an old file of official reports and witness statements, taken at the time. It’s difficult even now, to revisit those events. I can only imagine how painful it must be for people who have to relive traumatic moments through their retelling in court, or for the loved ones of people like Ahmaud Arbury whose murder is replayed again and again on social media and yet who have no choice but to keep telling the story, because otherwise his case would just slip through the cracks of our prejudiced justice system. One personal way that this story has changed me is that I can no longer separate myself from the realities of injustice. I’m aware of living in a white wealth- privileging country with an ugly history that has not gone away but has instead been folded into institutional policies and the national psyche. Even now with Covid-19 threatening health and lives across the nation, the CDC reports that “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” While acknowledging these injustices can be difficult, ignoring or denying our reality is not an option if we do, as we say, value freedom.
In my case, I think this story had to be written now, years after the incident. Now, with more distance between myself and the immediate trauma, I can look back and see the bigger picture beyond my relatively small experience, now I can also see the large-scale failure of the justice system and the systematized class and race prejudices that are deeply ingrained in policy making. James Baldwin said, “It takes a long time to understand anything at all about what we call the past—and begin to be liberated from it.”
A piece written from the place of fresh pain would have been a different story, one that may have been unable to see beyond the immediate, the personal. Or in star terms, the story might have been too absorbed in its own fiery process and missed the perspective that comes with looking back from a distance and seeing the whole night sky.
There’s a line in the essay that expresses your confusion over the randomness of the attack and its subsequent events: “Because things like this just don’t happen to people who haven’t done anything.” At one point in the essay you share your experience of traveling to South America, where you took Ayahuasca with a shaman, and you were able to see how everything in the Universe is ordered, connected, and perhaps harmonious. Based on your experience, do you think plant medicines like Ayahuasca are helpful for healing old wounds?
Based on my personal experience, yes. However, once again, each experience is very personal and there is no right answer for everyone. My experiences with Ayahuasca were extremely intense and I’d recommend careful research and consideration for anyone interested in going that route. There’s also the matter of respect to indigenous cultures and that if we do ask for this gift, we must approach softly, with humility, willing to admit we know nothing, desirous to learn. My experience with Ayahuasca brought immense release, but first, I had to directly confront the slew of uncomfortable thoughts, memories, and feelings that resurfaced in my consciousness. To quote James Baldwin again, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Plant medicines or not, I think our whole society would benefit from stepping back and considering our connection to one another, to the sky, and to life. And to cilantro.Continue reading
Santiago José Sánchez
You Will Not Cry
We stopped on the side of the path for two men on their way back to town. One had leathery skin and thick barbell earrings. The other was shorter, wearing a bright neon green Speedo, his biceps banded by tribal tattoos fading into blues and grays.
“Hi, love,” they said. And to me: “You must be John’s boy.”
“That’s me,” I responded, turning to John with a fake smile.
“Heading back from the beach so soon?” he asked, and they began to talk about who else was in town, where everyone was staying, and what parties were where that weekend. The three of them massaged one another’s shoulders, standing close together in a triangle. His friends were also in their fifties, and all three of them had been coming to Provincetown, year after year, since they were my age—or at least these were the gaps I filled in as I took in everything they were saying, grasping only fragments of how the people and places they spoke of made up their lives.
Occasionally, as they spoke, John shot a glance over his shoulder, to where I stood behind him to block the sun from my face. And I understood that he wanted me to see him being kind, funny, that he was bringing his most charming self out from wherever he kept it from me, for the pleasure and entertainment of others.
This is what I’m withholding from you, his face told me.
The beach, when we reached it, was empty. A single man held a yoga pose in front of the frothing waves. He looked weathered and bronzed, a statue. I wanted to see other men and I wanted them to see me. This was, after all, Provincetown, where legions of men before me had come to drink and dance and fuck, to be among their kind. I had but two days left.
“I thought there would be more people,” I said to John.
“They gather down that way.” He pointed to where the coast bent back behind the line of wind-shorn trees. “Go find them if you like.”
He slipped out of his trunks and T-shirt. His orange-hued skin against the blue of the sky, the blue of the slow-churning waves, was gorgeous. A bestiary of tattoos decorated his body: an Egyptian eagle spread its wings across his back, a blue whale and a howling wolf stared each other down across his thighs, and a bear brandished its fangs between his dark nipples.
“But I, darling, am going for a swim.”
John retrieved his wetsuit from his drawstring bag and snapped it in the wind, the whole black thing unfurling in his hands like a shadow. His fat, pendulous balls dangled as he raised his feet into the slots of the suit. Admiring the flourish of graying pubes, where I’d buried my face countless times, I crawled to him on hands and knees. I rolled the suit up his pale thighs, over the small mound of his hairless belly, around his freckled shoulders, where the skin was thin and shiny as scales. When I finished zipping him up, I already longed to see his naked body again. His hands, groping my ass, drew me into him. He lined up his legs with mine and pushed my feet with his into the sand. I adopted the shape and rhythm of his breath, our bodies in accord. And then he chuckled, the firm curve of his bulge jabbing my stomach. His piss, as he went inside his wetsuit, flowed warm between us.
Some men climbed over the ridge behind me. I waved and bantered with them, the first group I’d seen since John left.
I could find them beyond the trees, they said, if I got lonely.
“My man,” I shouted over the wind, pointing at the sea. “I’m waiting for him.”
When they were gone, I rubbed the erection that he had cruelly left me with through my trunks. An hour passed and there was no sign of him. It was impressive. I knew he swam at the Chinatown Y, and the Rockaways when the weather permitted, but I hadn’t expected that a man of his age could swim for this long.
When two hours passed, I wondered what would happen if he went into shock in the open water. He was old enough that a heart attack wasn’t out of the question. Or what if he was stung by a jellyfish? Attacked by a shark? What if he never returned? I would have to call the cops. I would have to file a report and contact his friends and family. Would I speak at his funeral? Would I grieve like a widow? But before all that, I would have to bike into town to get cell service, and I wasn’t even sure I knew the way back. I scanned the coast. It was too early to worry, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had to, as if I could stave off all the terrible things that might happen to John by anticipating them. The light was shattering in long shards over the waves. I closed my eyes and lay back down with my arms over my head to tan my palest skin.
Another hour passed. He should have warned me he planned to be gone for so long. Was this normal? How far could he really swim? I stood to touch the water. It was cold. The temperature was dropping and the tide beginning its return. I moved our things farther up the dune and watched the swirling pools form in the sand in front of me. The men who had earlier invited me to find them behind the trees were leaving with their fold-up chairs and empty coolers. Earlier they had noticed me. Now their eyes swept past me like I was part of the scenery.
By the time another hour had passed, I had thought of several scenarios to explain his disappearance. Either he had died in the water, or he had found old friends swimming, or, worse, he had run into an old fling and they were getting reacquainted in the bushes. The sun and the moon shared the sky. Tiny silver fish in the pools danced like starlings. I didn’t have any water left and my stomach rumbled for food. When I climbed to the top of the dune, there was no sight of him. Behind me, over the marsh we’d crossed, the water was rising, already ankle deep.
I was furious when I saw the speck of him wading through the waves. John, studded in gems by what was left of the light, stood up on the sandbar. He unzipped the top of his wetsuit and the bear with its glinting teeth glared at me.
What I had known best, all of my life, was the power of silence. I would say nothing for him to hold on to. I would begin to disappear now. Before he had time to change, I climbed to the top of the dune with my arms crossed, my shoes and bag in my hands. Below me, he hopped on one foot, then the other, nothing in his face acknowledging how long he’d left me waiting.
His body swooshed through the waist-high water as he caught up with me. I held my shoes and towel over my head to keep them dry. Swift little things slithered past my legs below the water. I followed what seemed like a path between the shoots of marsh grass. The tune he whistled behind me bled into the night and I could almost, if I were another person, believe that everything was all right with us. He put a hand around my neck, his fingers kneading their message into my skin: I’m leading you.
“You always do this,” he said.
This will be over soon, I told myself. Don’t cry. You will not cry.
“You shut up inside of yourself.”
His hand drove me forward. The water broke like glass against my ribs. My arms trembled. I couldn’t tell when I had begun to shake. The sun smoldered behind the line of trees, indicating the road to town was still in the distance. If I could catch the ferry back to Boston, I would go home tonight. I would never return to Provincetown. I would never see him again.
“You’re not even here right now.”
In a moment, without thinking, I sneezed. It was the first sound I’d made in hours. My spit in the wind freckled my cheeks.
“Fucking gross, Santiago.”
My name echoed behind me. I went so still I could see the water wrinkling out from my body. He let go of my neck, and when I turned around he brushed his face with the backs of his hands, as if something of what I had could get into him.Continue reading
Interviewed by Sarina Redzinski
So first I wanted to start with a little bit about your background. You’re from Italy, but you live in Germany and “The Drama Club” is written in English. How did you come to decide to write in English, and would you say your Italian upbringing still influences your writing (outside of the setting, of course)?
I’ve been writing stories in English for quite some time, since I was fifteen years old. Back then, my reason for switching from Italian to English was mostly pragmatic: I’d been writing fanfictions in Italian and posting them online, but I understood quite soon that only if I wrote in English would my stories actually be read by someone. However, I was still writing my own original stories in Italian. Then, after moving to Germany, I started to speak English daily and to read almost exclusively in English, and I joined a local Creative Writing group of (mostly) non-native speakers who write in English. Eventually, I decided to stop writing in Italian altogether: I’ve come to realize that English is the language that best suits my voice as a writer, and I now embrace the challenges of writing in a non-native language as part of what makes the process of writing so exciting.
To answer your second question: growing up in Italy, I think I’ve developed a fascination for ruins, emptying towns, abandoned buildings, collapsing infrastructures, etc. which shows through much of my writing. It emerges quite clearly in “The Drama Club,” but I find myself returning to similar images even when I’m writing stories that aren’t necessarily set in Italy.
The setting of Italy is obviously very important to this story, and you spend a lot of time describing both the physical surroundings of the characters and the culture in which they are living. Would you say you drew more from your own childhood surroundings, or were you more focused on the current Italy in which young people live?
I definitely drew a lot from the physical surroundings of my own teenage years, which I entered right as the economic crisis struck, so I grew up surrounded by images of factories, offices and shops shutting down. Besides, in my hometown there are plenty of unfinished or unutilized buildings and not many places where young people can hang out, just like in the town where the kids of my story live. A few years have passed, but the empty and unfinished buildings are still there, and not enough new businesses have opened to replace the failed ones; besides, many people in their late twenties still live at home with their parents because they can’t find a well-paid job, and if you enter any tobacco shop in Italy, you’ll find someone obsessively playing the lottery or using a slot machine. So, yes, I’d say that the town I describe is a town that could exist in current Italy.
Even though Italian culture is at the heart of this story, there’s also a lot of conversation around American culture as well as that of other countries, like environmental careers in Australia and British artistic figures like Shakespeare and Banksy. There almost seems to be an unmoored nature to the world the teens inhabit. What would you say is the ultimate purpose of this melding of cultures, and do you think it speaks to the current cultural state Italy finds itself in now?
I didn’t think of it as a “melding of cultures” as I was writing this story, actually, because to me American popular culture is just popular culture: in Italy—but I guess the same could be said about many countries outside the US—we are constantly exposed to American movies, music etc. so American culture shapes our own tastes and interests to the point that it is experienced as our own popular culture. The same could be said about Shakespeare or Banksy: they’re artists about whom most people know just as much (and perhaps more) as about Italian artistic figures. At the same time, we’re sometimes keenly aware of the foreign origin of American culture, especially when we compare contemporary American and Italian cultures: in these cases, I see lots of people (especially young people) lamenting, for instance, that Italian music or movies are not as good as American ones, so there is a widespread sense of inadequacy, I’d say, when such comparisons are drawn. But there are also many young people who prefer Italian popular culture, so it’s not easy to make broad generalizations. I can only say that, as a person who’s always been much more up to date on (and enamored of) American contemporary culture than on Italian contemporary culture, it came naturally to me to represent young Italians who are fascinated with cultures coming from outside the country and who make these cultures their own.
Within the context of the story, American culture is perceived by the kids mostly as familiar, though it also introduces them to realities that they won’t get to experience directly (like drama clubs), thus leading their expectations about growing up to be disappointed. There is a discrepancy between the stories they grew up with and the reality of their own lives, yet they keep wanting more than what is available to them in the “here and now.” In this sense, their fascination for cultures coming from other places can be seen as stemming from the desire to live different lives from the ones they’re “stuck in.” Similarly, Australia sounds to the freckled girl like a country that would give her the opportunities she lacks in her town (and in Italy at large). In Italy we grow up being told that we must move abroad because our country has nothing to offer to us, and some of us are quite young when we decide we’ll leave sometime in the future, often without even trying to look for a job in our own country. I know something about that myself, since I moved to Germany before even getting my Master’s degree.
Similarly, the story seems to exist in a kind of in-between space. The characters explore an unfinished theater that they’re not convinced won’t be completed one day, they live in a town hovering in the despairing space between economic collapse and reconstruction, and even the ending leaves the audience unsure of the fate of the freckled girl. What made you decide to locate your story in so precarious a place, and how did you approach helping your characters navigate through it?
As I mentioned before, I’m drawn to precarious places, perhaps because I grew up and still live in an era defined by precariousness: it’s hard to find or keep a well-paid job; there is a widespread feeling that the younger generations will be worse off than the previous ones; moreover, climatologists predict a much more dreary future, a prediction that goes against all narratives of progress that have dominated Western culture for quite some time and that represent, I would say, an “unkept promise,” much like the theater in my story. In this regard, I guess I tend toward writing uncertain endings because they reflect the uncertain, hazardous nature of this era. On the other hand, though, my characters are teenagers who cultivate their own ambitions and dreams, which implies that, at least when it comes to their personal lives, they believe in the possibility of a future that will be better than the present. This is what helps them navigate the gloomy reality they inhabit. Their attachment to the theater is rooted, partly, in a delusion, though it also constitutes an act of resilience, if not of rebellion against those prophecies of doom, which is why I had them break the rules and trespass the construction site, so that they could make use of the theater and try to realize their aspirations in some way and keep dreaming against all odds. However, I also wanted to show their failure at seizing the opportunities that lie in front of their eyes, and for this reason I wrote about a love story that ends miserably before being given a chance to begin.
Growing up is a lot about carving out your own space in the world, and your story explores this quite a bit. Do you think teens nowadays tackle this problem in different ways from when you were a teen, or do you think there is a kind of universal route that we all take?
I think finding or creating your own space in the world involves a lot of exploring and experimenting and going against what you think is expected of you. This might be a more or less universal route most young people take, though of course in practice different kids from different times and places find their own specific ways of carving out their own space. What was already true when I was a teenager, and is even more true now, I suppose, is that the Internet offers alternative spaces for kids to experiment with their identities and be themselves when they lack such spaces in the physical world; besides, on the Internet, kids are exposed to plenty of diverse subcultures and ways of living, and this influences how young people come to define themselves and what they desire also outside of the Internet.
I particularly loved the way you touched on the theatricality of being a teenager. Oftentimes your characters seem to be performing for each other, or even themselves. Was this influenced by the setting of the theater, or did you choose the setting of the theater in order to showcase this teenage behavior?
I decided upon the setting early on in the outlining process, whereas it was only when I was actually writing the story that I found myself adding details pointing to the theatricality of being a teenager. Beside being a common teenage behavior, I also see it as a specific response to the characters’ peculiar condition: in a context in which young people’s desires and frustrations are invisible or neglected, it is somewhat empowering for the kids to give vent to the full intensity of their emotions or even to simply feel seen.
There’s a bit of a shocking turn that comes at the end of the story, which is colored by violence that disrupts the safe haven of the theater and ushers in a new reality for the teens. Do you think this is indicative of the way that their childhood ends (i.e. bluntly and without warning) or do you think the characters in your story still have a ways to go before they give up their youthful outlook?
A bit of both. I see the freckled girl as the most disillusioned kid, so at the end, when she falls and thinks that it’s a good thing, after all, that the theater will be demolished, to me this is indicative of how she’s now seeing the theater the way adults see it, that is, as something that has no future. Similarly, the American boy is confronted with a tragedy that definitely marks the end of a phase in his life. At the same time, however, I see the indigo girl as someone who wouldn’t give up her hopeful outlook entirely, despite being faced with the harsh reality. I like to think that after the story ends, she’ll become even more resolved on imagining and building toward a better world for herself and other young people like her.
Lastly, I have to ask—were you a theater kid growing up?
I took part in many school plays as a child, but then there was no drama club in my middle school and high school, so I stopped acting, unfortunately, and lost interest quite soon. Now that I’ve rediscovered my love for the theater and that I’ve been reading a lot about the experiences of American kids in drama clubs, I wish I’d had the chance to become a theater kid myself. I guess the kids in my story and I have that much in common!Continue reading
The Drama Club
If you’re looking for the kids, and it’s a Friday afternoon during the school term, look no further than the theater down Risorgimento Martyrs Street, close to the on-ramp to the highway leading to Rome. Rain or shine, ninety-four pages left to study for a biology test on Monday or not, they will be sitting in the orchestra anywhere between the first and the fifth row, and always at the center, of course, because that’s where they can get the best view of the stage, even though some of them will actually have their backs turned to it and their gaze directed toward their friends. After all, no play has ever been performed here, no actor has ever stepped onto this stage to enthrall an audience with his interpretation of Hamlet, so the five kids might as well watch the dramas unfolding among themselves. One day the girl with indigo streaks in her hair laments the tragic loss of her most beloved book to a leak in the ceiling, her voice sonorous, her gesticulation wild, while a ray of the setting sun spotlights the fierceness of her expression. Another day the boy with an American-sounding nickname remonstrates about the frequent (and never announced) cancellation of the buses heading to the capital, and his monologue is echoed by a chorus of “Yeah,” “I know, right?” and “Fuck this town” that fades out as the sunlight dims. Some days, instead, it’s a screen that captures their attention, and they all cluster around the kid holding the phone and laugh at a comedy sketch, saying “That’s you” every time a character acts just like one of them. The “you” chuckles the loudest and agrees. “That’s me.”
To be fair, the kids do not always remain sprawled on the tiers. There are afternoons when they climb over the brick parapet into the boxes like restless monkeys, others when they roam about the building in stunned silence, taking in the geometric pattern of the truss upholding the paneled roof, staring at the scaffolding towering at the back of the stage. Like foreign tourists visiting the Colosseum and trying to imagine what it looked like in the past, the kids try to imagine what the theater would look like in the future. Rows of velvet chairs, a purple curtain dropping from the ceiling to brush against the wooden floor of the stage, the walls painted gold and the pillars a veined white to look like marble columns—the kids’ vision is detailed, and faithful to the digital rendering of the theater, a masterwork of 3-D virtual design at which they marveled when the project was first announced. That was six years ago. The kids were only ten back then, yet they won’t forget what they were promised. Children never do.
Picture this: with a seating capacity of 426, the Lavinium Theater was set to be the largest venue in the whole province of Rome, Rome itself excluded. Companies would come from all over the country to perform Shakespeare, Pirandello, and their own original pieces on its brand-new stage, and the townspeople would have the privilege of being the first audience to see productions that would go on to win national acclaim. Moreover, the theater would open its doors to schoolchildren in the morning, and to teenagers in the afternoon, so that the youth of the town could have “a place to gather, to play, to make art.” Now, you must understand that the kids have watched dozens of American movies in their lives, and that these movies have led them to entertain the belief that anything can happen at a drama club. The high school jock discovers a burning passion for singing. The shy science nerd overcomes her fears and delivers a performance to remember. Two star-crossed lovers share their first kiss behind the backcloth on opening night, while even the most austere parents tear up with pride and jump from their seats clapping after the final act. So you can imagine the kids’ excitement at the prospect of a plot of uncultivated land being transformed into a framework of pillars and crossbeams, how that excitement simmered as the months passed and the building rose in front of their eyes, all while the kids’ bodies, too, transformed, getting taller by the day, and growing hairs and breasts where there once were only glabrous, flat surfaces. Glancing at the sign posted at the entrance to the construction site, the kids did the math: the works would be complete by the time they turned fourteen, just in time for them to live their high school years to the fullest. It was perfect. Almost too good to be true.
In fact, according to the kids’ parents, it was never true. Didn’t the kids know how things worked in Italy? The owner of the construction company must have been a friend of a friend of whoever allocated the money for the theater. Anyone who took the trouble to do a little digging would soon have found out that some guy high up in government had gotten himself a penthouse overlooking the Tiber before the ink of his signature had dried on the project approval document. The building was never meant to be finished. Only to be paid for. “Don’t hold your breath, kids, or you’ll choke.” For a while the parents groused at such squandering of public money, but one can harbor such an emotion for only so long before it becomes wearying and trite. Wasn’t there a hint of satisfaction in their voices when they said “I told you so” after the workers stopped coming to the construction yard? Yet the kids, being pigheaded, as kids are, didn’t believe them. They couldn’t fathom how the workers could simply walk out on a building they’d labored so hard to raise, how they could be so indifferent after they’d sweated off fat and health to lay the foundation, brick upon brick. Years have gone by, but the kids still await the workers’ return. In the meantime, they take what they can get and claim their seats in the closed-off construction site. After all, they technically own the place.
This is what the indigo girl said to the girl with freckles on the day they first contemplated breaking into the theater: “It’s technically ours, you know.” The freckled girl frowned. Though the sign clearly stated KEEP OUT, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, she knew that didn’t mean them. But the indigo girl has always had a flair for rhetoric, more so since they studied Aristotle at school. “Hear me out,” she said. The theater was paid for with public money. Public money comes from taxes. The kids’ parents pay taxes. What the kids’ parents pay for belongs to the parents. What belongs to the parents belongs to the kids. Therefore, the theater belongs to the kids. It was a simple syllogism, its conclusion as elementary to the indigo girl as the fact that being human makes us mortal. Without further dispute, the freckled girl followed the others inside. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else they could go anyway.
When they were younger, they had other places. They could spend time in one of the playgrounds scattered around town, but now the swings creak as soon as the kids rest their butts on the seats, and elementary school children pout and glower at them. Next to each playground, even the dogs have their own parks. The kids used to have a bar where they hung out, but it has gone out of business, while the other bars are thronged with retirees playing scala quaranta from morning till dusk. Nor do the kids wish to cross paths with the other dreamers in town, the middle-aged men and women who look up at the TV screen calling lottery numbers and have faith that the next time will be the one, just wait and see, can you imagine how many things you can buy with six million euros? “Play these numbers, Anto’, quick, only fifteen seconds left before the draw.”
What about the main square? you might ask. Sure, it would be the perfect place to hang out, if only people didn’t die every other day, and mourners didn’t pour out of the church into the square, drowning out the kids’ laughter with their weeping, shaming the girls’ shrill voices into silence with their muttered condolences. And the streets? A parade of shops that have succumbed to the economic crisis, closed shutters and empty windows everywhere, sidewalks like paths through a graveyard—you’ll agree that it makes a gloomy backdrop for a stroll. Can’t they just meet in one of the kids’ apartments, then? Where? In the bedrooms they share with their elder siblings, grumpy old men at the age of twenty-eight, their degrees gathering dust on the wall while they scrape together money with temporary nighttime jobs? Or do you mean in the living rooms, where their laid-off parents pretend to watch TV from the couch while eavesdropping on the kids’ every conversation, unfailingly offering unsolicited advice as a substitute for the allowance they don’t always pay? No, it won’t do, so let the kids embark on the little adventure of sneaking through the holes in the fence and working their way through the weeds. What’s the harm in it, really? Let them have this, at least.
Look at them, how skillfully and dauntlessly they climb the scaffolding to reach the highest point—you’d think they were five Quasimodos, grown up amid pillars as naked as fleshless bones, well versed in hiding their luminous pimply faces from people in the streets. Look how cozily they sit there on the tiers, feasting on barbecue potato chips and Coke, listening to Drake, Imagine Dragons, and De André from a Bluetooth speaker, confident that the music will be drowned out by the noise of passing cars. When the indigo girl is in charge of the soundtrack, you might hear Broadway cast recordings playing on repeat. Lately she’s gotten into Dear Evan Hansen, and she takes the stage to prove to the others that she’d be a perfect Zoe, given half a chance. “We only need three more people to have the full cast. We can rehearse here. Come on, it’ll be fun.” She’s bought a book about the show, with photos and interviews with the cast. She’s listened to the album countless times. She’s seen pictures and videos posted on the official Twitter and YouTube sites for the musical, and every morning at breakfast she watches the stories of the actors and understudies on Instagram. “Trust me, it’ll be as good as the real thing.” The “American” boy is intrigued. He wants to be a millionaire, and you’ve got to start somewhere. His rags-to-riches story might take off from playing the lead in an amateur production. Who knows? He can see the headlines already: FROM THE PROJECTS IN THE PONTINE MARSHES TO A SEVEN-BEDROOM VILLA IN HOLLYWOOD. Like Jim Carrey and Jessica Chastain. Like Emma Stone in La La Land. He wants to buy his parents a house, where his father will finally have a big kitchen with the one-thousand-euro food processor he’s always said he wants before he dies. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s do this, guys.”
Unlucky for them, not all the kids are moved by such lofty aspirations. The freckled girl has grown to like the theater well enough, but only in the most concrete sense of the word. She might concede that the building, seemingly stable and already roofed, does its job as a shelter from the rain. However, becoming a star is not in her plans, which involve studying environmental engineering and being a brain drainee in Australia. When it comes to the hulking boy and the girl with a henna tattoo, on the other hand, I guess you could call their ambitions “artistic” if you consider love to be a form of art. A painting or a poem is seldom interesting when it’s uncomplicated and its meaning transparent. Similarly, it would be too straightforward and easy for these two smitten kids to simply ask each other out, so instead they give each other fleeting glances and faint smiles, their lips quivering, their fingers itching to reach out and touch the other’s skin.
“Who the fuck did this shit?”
Clearly the indigo girl doesn’t like what she’s seeing today. And how could you blame her? On the parapet of the boxes, on the right side, some graffiti has cropped up, and nothing about it would lead them to think that the tagger might turn out to be the next Banksy. BITCHES CAN SUCK MY DICK, accompanied by an unambiguously phallic drawing. The hulking boy blushes and averts his eyes. The indigo girl is outraged at the desecration of the venue and googles “how to remove graffiti,” only to learn that she can’t simply scrub it off with bleach and water. The daub is there to stay. Gone is the confidence that when the workers come back, they will find everything exactly as they left it. The end has begun, thanks to what the indigo girl calls “a jerk with no regard for public property.” In her eyes, the graffiti counts as an act of self-sabotage. The freckled girl tells her not to fret too much about it. After all, isn’t this kind of like the beginning of In the Heights? (The musical was the indigo girl’s favorite a couple of months ago, and the kids all know the plot and the songs by heart at this point.) The indigo girl hesitates but eventually agrees, and as they walk home later tonight, the kids will feel a bit like the protagonists of In the Heights, torn between their yearning to leave this godforsaken town and their dogged determination to save it.
The henna girl already has a project in store, its blueprint mapped out down to the tiniest detail in her mind. She’s going to redeem what used to be their favorite bar by turning it into a board-game pub where a fusion of Italian food and Chinese, Romanian, Pakistani, and Ecuadoran dishes will be served. When someone expresses doubt that she’ll succeed, she says “Watch me” and smiles a knowing
smile. Little does she know, however, that she’ll be the first one to leave, and that her departure won’t be a glorious flight to Berlin or Shanghai or New York but merely a relocation to another lousy hole after her mother’s employer presents her with a simple choice: either she moves her whole family to the North or she loses her job. What good would it do the henna girl’s mother to say that it makes no difference where her ass is sitting—whether in the office here or in another branch in the North—since all she does at work is exchange emails with co-workers in India and Poland and oversee contracts negotiated on the Internet? She keeps quiet and holds on tight to the family’s only source of income. She agrees to go. The henna girl must go with her.
Farewell, native home. Farewell, ye mountains of trash at the side of the roads, ye school nicknamed Alcatraz, which now sounds like a term of endearment instilling tenderness in the girl’s heart. Farewell, hulking boy, who on the last day almost shies away from hugging the henna girl, though eventually they’re in each other’s arms, and the warmth of their bodies feeds their imagination about what they could have had: timid kisses in the privacy of the backstage, hands held in a mild PDA, and, who knows, perhaps even undressing to expose the flesh and find out what happens after a lovemaking scene fades to black. All they say before the henna girl leaves is “Let’s keep in touch.” But “touch” is a treacherous word, because touching is what they won’t be doing when they text and group-Skype, and the promises made online—”Of course I’ll come to visit you all!”—are never fulfilled, either because of the high price of the train tickets or because it is onerous to lead a double life, split between reality and what-ifs. And this is what the hulking boy’s reality will look like: though anatomy books will offer him some knowledge of women during his time in med school, he won’t be able to fathom how his own body could ever perform the biological functions that the books so accurately describe; he will never quite think of himself as a suitable protagonist for a rom-com, and even when he falls in love again at the age of twenty-seven, he will dawdle in the first act for far too long, held back by his fear of attachment, his fear of loss, the chance that his desires might never be satisfied.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The kids are still sixteen years old and still sitting in the orchestra, though there’s only three of them now. It’s been a few weeks since the last time the hulking boy joined them, and they already think of two months ago as “back in the old days,” which is what their grandparents say when they talk about the postwar years and the economic boom. None of them speaks of the theater being finished anymore. Perhaps they worry that they’d jinx their wishes if they voiced them, so instead they discuss what happened this morning at school, and to say “Fingers crossed that Mrs. Narducci won’t test me next week” is as much as they dare to hope out loud.
The theater is now littered with smashed beer bottles and cigarette butts. Graffiti has mushroomed all around the building, even in places where the kids haven’t been brave enough to venture. “Pigs,” the indigo girl mutters, booting a can of Red Bull and sending it bouncing down the tiers toward the stage. The freckled girl glances at it but doesn’t move. She used to pick up the trash, but lately it’s started to feel like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. Whatever, the workers will clean up. If they ever come back. In the meantime, the “pigs” serve the role of common enemy, which history has proved time and again to constitute the most resistant of social glues. The kids fantasize about catching the hooligans red-handed, as the saying goes, their hands in this case literally red with spray paint. The indigo girl imagines a scenario à la West Side Story, with the two gangs of kids glaring at one another, not foreseeing that it’ll be the American boy she’ll have to face one day to save this place from destruction.
When the day comes, she screams at him to stop while he punches the walls and kicks the pillars, as though he is trying to tear the building down with his blows. His knuckles are bleeding. His eyes are red from crying, and all they see now, when they look at the theater, is six million euros’ worth of waste. How many things can you buy with six million euros? Loads of food and clothes and infinite months of rent and bills. A man’s life—the American boy’s father’s, who three days ago hung himself outside of the factory where he used to work, because he couldn’t bear not being able to provide for his children, as any good father is supposed to do. How expensive hopes can be, and what’s the use of a half-finished theater, anyway? The American boy climbs the scaffolding in a fury, aiming for the top. The two girls go after him, terrified that he might decide to follow his father and jump off, but he only wants to feel the strength of his muscles, to make sure that a heart is still pounding in his ribcage. “Leave me alone!” he shouts when the indigo girl grabs him by the arm, and after he shoves her away, she falters backwards and bumps against the freckled girl, who slips off the platform and falls onto the stage.
Something cracks when she touches the ground. Perhaps a femur. Perhaps her spine. The freckled girl’s thoughts are too fuzzy to make an accurate assessment, though she can see with clarity that her friends are climbing down toward her, and when the indigo girl yells “I’m calling an ambulance!” she’s keenly aware of what this means. The town will find out that the kids have been trespassing on the construction site. Parents will worry that their foolhardy children will be the next to come back home with a fractured bone, or to not come back home at all. Concerned citizens will rally to demand the razing of the building, and in a few months, when municipal elections are held, the demolition of the Lavinium Theater will be among the campaign promises on every candidate’s leaflet, and perhaps the easiest one for the future mayor to keep. What an unhappy ending for the kids, right? And yet, if you look closely, you will see that the freckled girl is actually smiling. The demolition company her father works for has not been doing too well lately. He’ll be glad to hear that there’s business coming their way.Continue reading