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There are simply no words By Ellie Isenhart

Copyrighted Material  Copyright Š 2014 by Ellie Isenhart Except as provided by the Copyright Act [December 2011], no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved Back cover photo by Kimberly N. Appelson

  Dear Reader:  Welcome. The last four years have been tremendous. More than what will fill these pages. More than these stories will tell or probably even hint toward. But here. Please. Take this. Call on these pages when you feel alone, and remember that someone loves you. That someone might even be me.   Herein, you will find words and photographs, mostly written and captured by me. I will narrate you through vignettes; I will challenge you to ask questions and beg for your patience when I cannot answer them; I will give you words that look like poems—but I assure you, they are not poems. You will wonder whether this will matter. So will I.  I wrote this book because I had to. Because I needed something to hold to prove to myself that the last four years have happened. That I was there. That these moments continue to be real, though ephemeral. This is not a place in which I will ask for your pity or empathy or sorrow. This is not a place in which I will celebrate triumphs or overcoming. This is not a place that is meant to matter to you the way it matters to me. In fact, I hope it matters much differently to you.  Here, I mark down my grief. I wade through it like the mud of the Catfish Creek I grew up stomping, looking for great blue herons with my father. Here, I am etching the passage of days in a cell wall, counting down paper ringlets until next year.   For you, all I can hope is that you will see some of yourself in another person. That you will know you are not alone. The greatest gift I have received is the greatest gift I can ever hope to give: company. So please, dear reader. Take this. And do with it what you want, what you need, what you will. You have my blessing. And my warmest wishes.  Yours.

Dear Kim,  Anger is easier to live with than the gulf that has become mourning you. I find myself crying vocal tears at times you would have expected: contacting your friends (Jenna, Zach, Kaitlin), reading articles about the accident, correcting myself to refer to you in past tense. It’s the silent tears that sneak up on me: while washing dishes, walking the dog, standing in line at the post office (where I wish could go to send you something, anything). Sometimes, when my shoulder-length hair dances across the back of my neck in the breeze, I’m reminded of the way your long hair danced against my shoulders when we stood side-by-side on the Burlington Street bridge in Iowa City as the river below us reached up over its banks and cradled the streets in its powerful arms.    When I heard you were gone, I sought to fill your absence with anything I could: whiskey, Iowa City, hugs from Walt. Kristen and Kellen caught me crying several times, and they held me close with their small arms. I breathed in their smell of small children and exhaled despair. 

I hope you wouldn’t have minded, but I wrote your family two weeks after the accident. (The accident; your disappearance; what happened. I’ll use any words but Death to describe you.) I told them how much I love you and how much you blessed my life. I shared many memories with them, but I saved a few just for me. They are the memories I sit with when I can’t stop crying in public and am forced to find an abandoned bathroom where I can sob. They are the only way I know to calm myself when all I have is your absence.  You, I imagine, would be upset with me for continuing to mourn this way. Seven weeks, you would tell me, is more than enough to begin living again. But Kim, I never stopped living, and I hate that you did. As I told some of our friends in the letters I wrote to inform them of your passing, I am better for having known you and less for now living without you. I am less, but you are not gone. You are in my quietest moments, singing laughter into the pregnant silences that fill me. You are in every drop of water that has passed my lips, fallen from the sky, cleaned me (cleansed me), since your disappearance.    Anger began our friendship, but I don’t want it to be where we end. Truth is, I can’t stop mourning you because I don’t want us to end. Finality was never my strong suit, as you know—as you knew. Damnit, Kim. I miss you, but I swear I’ll keep my end of the deal just like you did.    Missing you in each eruption of laughter, in every cool mountain breeze.

Dublin, Ireland

We met on OkCupid. I’d found him by browsing my highest match percentages in the country. He saw me in his visitors log and sent a message about being sad that I didn’t live closer. Our conversation quickly moved from mutualmoping about miles to playful stories about a make-believe husky rescue we planned to open in Alaska.   I wish we were in Alaska together now.   Through our meandering fantasies, his real sadness became apparent. First, it was little things: his syntax would be drastically different if he wrote to me during daylight hours: tight, coarse, neat. If he wrote after sunset, when the Tucson heat began to quell and (presumably) after several Strongbows, his words seemed to come more easily. He would play and create games inside his puns and grammar.   I wish I still had these messages to share.   It wasn’t until after our messages had turned to Skype calls and plane tickets and nights spent holding each other that I’d realize the depth of this sadness. More than the man with quick wit and a knee-buckling smile, he was a man who stares at his glow-in-the-dark-star-covered ceiling at night because he can’t fathom the unlikelihood of his own existence.   I miss him.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Depending on who you ask, his life either began on his mother’s 26th birthday or not at all. Cell met cell and reproduced: cytoblast, zygote, never a full fetus. Never a heartbeat nor toes. No fingernails. No thumbs nor mouth to suck them.   Twenty-one days after his parents met. Twenty-one days after they fell into bed together. Twenty-one days after an awkward kiss goodbye and sobering search for empty condom wrappers. Twenty-one days after the hope of him began, he ended. She ended him. Chose a life without him.   His parents met once more, eight days after he began, and his mother spoke to his father for truly the first time. “Never,” she thought, “would I create a life with him.” But she already had. A life she didn’t know then that she was destined to end.    But she wouldn’t see it that way. She would see his end as nothing more than a road block, a bath tub plug, a dog finding the end of its leash with a hard tug. So here, November 6, his life met his block, his plug, the end of his leash. He would never play baseball, run through sand, marvel at the sound of seagulls. He would never breathe, love, or be loved. And his mother would never learn to love him, his high-boned smile, his blue eyes, or his seagull laughter. She would merely rue the cost and recovery of the procedure she chose instead of him.

Dublin, Ireland

When she first spoke the words that I’m certain will haunt me for the rest of my life, there’s no way she could have known. She wasn’t quite seven when we sat at my mother’s kitchen table using paintbrushes dipped in water to color some sort of cartoon characters on tear-away pages.  “Ya know what’s worse than a broken bone?” she asked me.   Looking up from my water-blotched dog, I told her I didn’t.   “Dying,” she said. “Especially if you’re young. Especially if you’re young and aren’t ready to be done with life yet.”

Somewhere in Eastern Missouri

 We’d been walking through the desert museum for the better part of three hours, passing families of flushed toddler cheeks and Ohio State University insignias. Camera out, I’d taken photos of javelinas, lizards, and the occasional cactussitting bird, but I couldn’t help but focus on the man-made aspects of the park: the emergency signs, informational bulletins, the many water fountains.   I wondered aloud whether this museum gave visitors an accurate understanding of the desert and its power, but what I really wondered was whether visitors truly respected the desert enough after traipsing these man-made trails. Our feet were protected by the man-made trails, our skin by the free sunscreen available in each restroom.    To protect ourselves is one thing, I thought. But to give in to the illusion that we understand is an entirely different danger altogether. 

Tucson, Arizona

Susan Isenhart was a warm, worn, blue blanket. She was baby powder and lilies of the valley. She was the warm steam coming off the dishes in the sink, and she was the light cascading in the kitchen window through hanging crystals. Susan Isenhart was the mud between the creases of your tennis shoes and the butter knife you used to get it out.  Susan was running vacuums, dusting plant leaves, and small surprises. She was the type of woman who made you think, “now why didn’t I think of that?” daily. She was the type of woman who made you want to do more: for yourself, for your friends, for the world. She was the type of woman who worked so hard she made you tired just by the sight of her. But she never looked tired. Her hands were never idle. She always looked alive with an energy no one else could capture, understand, fathom. She, herself, could not fathom it.    Susan was cappuccinos in the daytime. She was the perfect spring morning, the kind filled with open windows and lilac breezes. Susan was serine. She was calm. Susan was the still of twilight. But Susan was also early afternoon filled with coy smiles and knowing glances. She was breakfast for dinner. She was a woman who—if you got her laughing— would fill her eyes with tears, hold her hand to her chest and wheeze with joy. Susan herself was joy. 

Buena Vista, Colorado

When we decided to stop seeing each other.  When he decided to call our relationship.   When I had finally worked up the courage to ask whether he wanted to come to visit me in Tuscaloosa, it was my turn to do my best to blink back tears.    I think I should be sure by now, and I’m not.   “I understand,” I told him. And I meant it. I did understand what it was to want to want something. What it is to want to love someone or to wish we wanted to be something other than what we are.   “Thank you,” I told him. And I meant it. I explained to him that, while I tried not to let on while I was in Tucson, my trip to Colorado terrified me. And during the night friends and I rested along the river where Kim died—not 20 feet from the rock that took her life—I thought of him and our time together each time I began to cry. I didn’t want to wake Laura, who was sleeping next to me. I didn’t want her to know how much I still hurt.

Tucson, Arizona

 Dear Kim,  In your last months, I wasn’t sleeping. From November until April, I slept only a few hours a night. The little rest I did get was fraught with night terrors, causing me to wake gasping for breath the way I now imagine you searched for air in your last moments. I’d wake covered in sweat, reaching for something I still can’t name. The insomnia became too much when, one day, I found myself on my knees in my kitchen, furiously scrubbing the linoleum with Wetnaps. Depression, the counseling center said, and panic attacks. They put me on Lexapro and insisted I come every week for an hour-long session. It helped. I no longer wake gasping for breath or covered in fear-sweat. But the night terrors are returning.   Last night, I dreamed that my sister-in-law, sister, and nephew were all killed. First my sister-in-law. I was brokenhearted but carried on because I knew my nephew would need me. In my dream, I was his God mother and cared for him. I bought him school supplies and shoes, and I held him every night to chase away the monsters in his memory. Then my sister died. I was destroyed. I cried not because I missed her but because her death ended any chance of reconciliation with the depressed sister who, in real life, won’t speak to me because she thinks I steal our mother’s love from her. Then my nephew was gone. I failed him in this dream the same way I failed you in waking life. I was supposed to love and protect him, and I couldn’t; I didn’t. I was supposed to love and protect you, Kimmy, and I didn’t; I couldn’t.   The dreams are so vivid that, when I wake up, I often wonder whether they were real. Within as long as minutes, I realize they were, in fact, dreams. Then I think of you and my chest fills with acid ache. Losing you was not a dream. Losing you is a daily terror.   Come to my dreams, Kimmy. I miss your voice. Stand at the end of my bed and laugh with me. Run your soft-padded fingers through my hair and kiss my temples. Lie next to me, and let me hold you—my hand on the soft curve of your hip. Let me breathe your hair and have you close again.   Come to me tonight. I need you.

Tucson, Arizona

Ryan was a cabinet drawer dedicated to a single pair of glasses. He was overlooked outlets and recycled glass and the small lizard running from a cat that has never been named George.   For those who listened long enough, Ryan was sound effects matched perfectly to mannerisms, a keen set of platitudes, and a well rehearsed collection of phrases. A man who was markedly more intelligent than the majority of the world, he surrounded himself with the smartest and kindest people he could find. Rarely, though, could even these friends sustain a bout of wits. The intellectual isolation and loneliness borne of this disparity moved over him only in times of quiet, and broke his mother’s and his lovers’ hearts, but they never dared tell him because his heart unbuttoned readily, and the idea of hurting another living creature ached him in ways he could never find words to express.   In his greatest moments of happiness, Ryan lay next to a person he loved. Whether in bed, on a floor, or on the ground, he once said, he was always under the stars. But Ryan is among the stars now. His ashes were scattered in Mauna Kea, La Palma, Las Campanas, Mount Graham, and La Serena. For posterity, they were sent into orbit and dusted on Mount Lemmon by his friends. And they were given back to his beloved New Jersey grass.   He is survived by his love and the atoms and energy that created him.  

Old Capitol Brew Works & Public House

Iowa City, Iowa

Dear Kim,  I wonder if you remember touring the flood damage with me, Walt, and Sarah that early June afternoon. It was hot, humid, and heartbreaking. We decided to walk down Burlington to get a look at the dam and see if we could make our way across the river before they closed the last bridge. We made our way from Johnson Street (where Walt lived and you would live the next year in a house where you invited me to sleep but where I never did) to the downtown area, promising to come back to the bar when we were done seeing the sites.   I don’t remember for sure, but I think we first stopped at the parking ramp on top of the hill, so we could climb all the way up and see more of the growing divide. Yes, I think this was before we went across the bridge because my heart was racing when we ran into that photographer I used to date, and not because of him but because of the anticipation about riding the bridge.   Were you the one who told me what that means? To ride a bridge. I couldn’t imagine what you were talking about until I felt it pulse through the soles of my feet. With the water rising more than an inch a day, the undercurrent grew stronger and the reinforced bridge rose and fell with the upper current. Sarah let me hold her hand as you and Walt made your fearless way West. I never told you, but I remember saying to Sarah how much I envied your courage and abandon. You weren’t afraid to live, I told her.   Eventually, Sarah and I joined you, and when we had to make the inevitable trip back to the East side of the river, Sarah held my left hand, and you held my right—but only for a moment. Then you were off again, throwing laughter into the summer breeze.   I miss you with devastation.    

Photo credit: Michelle Heinz

Iowa City, Iowa

When I met the man I thought I would love forever, I was 19 and living in a dorm suite in Iowa City, Iowa. He wore basketball shorts and a scraggly goatee, and when I called my mother to tell her, all I could manage was, “I met him.”  The following summer, when I stretched my legs from a long ride to Denver, I again called my mother to tell her of the recent rains and green desert grass that defied everything I knew to be true about life and love and ecology, and I told her, “I found the place where I belong.”   Years passed, and the man I thought I would love forever did not love Denver the way he loved me, so we went our separate ways, and I ended up farther from the mountains than even him. But at 28, I found myself in Denver, once again calling my mother to tell her that my heart bled and that I knew where I belonged—though this time I knew the feeling would last only days, so I told her that at least I had gotten myself here to feel it.   Time and time again, she sang her loving words to me: listen to that heart, El. Just be still and listen.

Photo credit: Walt McFadden

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Dear Kim,  I wrote to Jenna tonight, asking her to talk to me about you. She knew you better than anyone, and she seems like the best way to be close to you again. I want to ask her so many questions about your life over the last several months. Your last several months. I will ask her all the questions I’d been planning to ask you when we finally stopped playing phone tag. When I finally remembered to pick up the phone at all.   A few days after I found out, I was driving to Mercy Hospital in Dubuque to drop off some insurance information for my nephew. I hadn’t been alone the entire day, and the tears rushed from me in heaving pulses. In what were like indistinguishable, guttural sounds, I cried to you. I begged you to return. I begged you to never get on that raft. I begged you to forgive me. Desperate to hear you, I dialed your number.   It rang once, and your voicemail picked up: Hi, you’ve reached Kim Appelson. I’m not able to get to my phone right now, but if you leave a message I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. It was your phone voice—your prim and proper, job interview voice. It was not the Kim at the bar. It was not the Kim telling the story about making out with her TA or the Kim who made relentless fun of my serial monogamy. It wasn’t even the Kim who complained about the margarita pizza that was, in no way, margarita. The Kim I knew was gone.   Just come back already.

Six days after Kim’s death 

Eastern Colorado

Laura and Jenna were Kim’s two best friends during college. She often bragged to me about them, and I was actually nervous the first time she introduced me to Jenna. I wonder how terrified I’d have been that night if I had known how important to me Jenna would someday be.  When we spread Kim’s ashes the day before Thanksgiving 2010, I flew to O’Hare from Alabama and spent a night with Laura’s family outside Chicago in Wheaton. We slept in her childhood bedroom: two double beds on either side of the room, like a 1950’s dream. That night, I woke in tears again and again, and one of those times I could hear Laura crying softly, too. How I longed to crawl into her bed and cry with her, forehead to forehead. But I didn’t.    Instead, I did what I always do: I tried to calm myself as to not disturb her.  

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

In my early 20’s, I could not understand why people wanted to have children: they are expensive of money and time; our world struggles with sustainability; so many children already needed homes. I thought progeny was the ultimate selfishness.  In my mid 20’s, I lost my home to a tornado and my boyfriend to the aftermath. In the heat of an afternoon some months later, I found myself sitting at a red light and watching then-tall grass bend to the wind when I realized that grass had grown where a home I’d once imagined living had stood. In that moment, I wished I had a child to whom I could explain gravity.   In my late 20’s, my uterus began to dance at the sight of children. It truly moved inside my body each time a small child waved or spoke to me, and I nicknamed this dancing organ Chernobyl because of its dangerous radiation. I realize now that I too am selfish.

Washington, District of Columbia

Erin was green lily pads, dotted with water droplets from the toes of jumping frogs. She floated across the pond, skimming the water, riding the rain-tide and reaching deep beneath the surface to hold fast to the ground far below her. From the shore, she appeared to be free, and only she knew better: she was tethered to something unseen, something more.    Like mint tea on a cloudy, cold autumn morning, Erin was the comfort her friends and family sought in times of darkness. She was the small spoon that secretly gave strength to the one holding her, and she was the constant reassurance of already-known truths.   Erin is survived by her mother, father, and litany of admirers. Each will mourn her in his own way, and each will forever be marked by Erin’s fervor and patience. In her memory, her friends and family ask that you dance once, for Erin, along the side of a pool or in a dank bar on a makeshift dance floor.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

   Dear Kim,  Do you remember the essay I wrote for Brian’s class about Peter Jennings and people’s voices? Well, not much has changed in the last four years: the only way I feel connected to people is to hear their voices. I found myself missing you again in a quiet apartment, so I called your voicemail.    When we lived in Iowa City, your phone would ring and ring before you’d notice or find it at the bottom of your bag—it wouldn’t be fair to call the shoulder-strapping hippie weave where you kept your belongings a purse—and the rare occasion you’d catch the phone before it went to voicemail, you’d greet me with a warm and excited, “What up, Dude?” It never failed to make me laugh.    Since you’ve been gone, one ring and your voicemail would greet me. Hi, You’ve reached Kim Appelson… but this time, no. No rings. An automated voice. The number you have dialed has been disconnected.   Disconnected. We’ve been disconnected.   For nearly an hour, I cried quiet tears into salt-soft palms before calming myself with a small realization: I’ll never hear your voice again, save in your friends. When I call Jenna tomorrow, I can search for you in her lilt and laughter. I know you’ll be there.   Until then.  

Red Rocks, Colorado

 Dear Kim,   Even now, nearly two months after the accident, I still wake up crying sometimes. Two nights ago, I woke up asking, “where was I when you needed me, Kim?” J.D.—the now six-month-old puppy you never got to meet—stirred as I began to sob. “Why couldn’t I have been there, Kimmy? Where the fuck was I?”   I was in Eldridge, Iowa. I was eating taco pizza at Happy Joe’s. I was making conversation with a former roommate and her husband. I was playing skeeball. I was taking photos with my cell phone. I was riding shotgun in a Mustang. I was playing with someone else’s three-year-old nephew. I was 1,000 miles away.   I’m so goddamned sorry I failed you.    

Arizona-Sonoma Desert Museum

Tucson, Arizona

this is not a poem   on top of me  Please stop.  accordion chest   his wet mouth  Hand on face, fingers splayed   thick smoke breath fumbling fingers   my fleshy hips break like shells

the wall    slacks at knees

 how did I get here?  stumble, reach he grunts  hand on face accordion chest fingers splayed   the wall     his wet mouth  

 torn button-up he speaks

Kilmainham Goal

Dublin, Ireland

 When he drove me to the airport in Tucson before dawn, he held my hand between gear shifts and tried to blink away the welling in his eyes. The night before, he’d kissed me while I slept—not realizing he’d woken me—and whispered into the darkness I’ll miss you. He never told Waking Me, but Sleeping Me still hears it sometimes, despite the months and miles since then.  That morning, I flew to Denver from where I would begin a week-long trip to see friends and to visit the place near Buena Vista where Kim had drown three years earlier. During that week – the one I had ignored was coming – I spent my time altitude sick and steeling myself for the sound of Arkansas rushing downstream.

Dublin, Ireland

  Dear Kim,  Last night, I lay in Walter’s bed in Iowa City—in a house he moved to after you died—and I said it. For the first time in four days of Iowa City, I said it: “It’s so hard to be here without you, Kim.” Iowa City is a place that reminds me of everything. Of my first college boyfriend—Chris, of classes, of dogs and ultimate games, of catch and drunkenly passing out on the steps of the old capitol building. It’s full of things that make me smile, but it’s also full of you. When you were still alive, these moments of you were passing joys. Our bar, the street where you lived, the building where we met, the river—the flood that caused so much damage that the University is still fixing it. It’s still fixing something that happened before you died. Something that happened when you still lived there. You’ve been gone such a short time.   I cried so many times while I was in town that I lost count, but I didn’t say those words until last night as I lay awake wondering if morning would ever come. But I said the words, and I fell to sleep. There, you spoke with me. I cried to you, apologized. You consoled me and wished me well. You told me you forgive me for everything. You said I don’t need forgiving. You hugged me, and I felt your arms around me. I felt the soft press of your breasts against mine. I smelled your hair and skin. I breathed your laughter.   You told me again and again, “It’s okay, dude. It’s okay.” I told you of my plans to name a daughter after you. You told me not to, but you gave me a different name You gave me a different name to give the daughter who I hope will live like you did—with love and abandon. When I woke, I remembered the dream, that there was a name, everything but what the name was. I want it back so badly. I want you back so badly.   Kim, it’s been four months. Four fucking months. It seems like everyone has moved on, and I’m still crying. I’m finding myself wondering if I’m making up our friendship. It had been so long since we talked when you died, but no. I know you were home to me, and I know you found a home in me. 

Biosphere 2

Tucson, Arizona

In the moments after she fell from the raft, I was eating pizza with an old friend and her husband. In the hours that followed, I was driving windy hills in eastern Iowa, making my way back to my parents’ house to sleep.  -  In July, when no one is on the road but dusk, roll the windows down and listen to the screaming of wheels on the pavement and the groaning of the miles of growing corn. Along the edges—between you and the calls of pulling silk and husk—in the ditches of long-grown grass, fireflies will call to one another with their night-glow songs.    -  While my friends were across the country, calling to one another in grief, I watched a fog cuddle up with the fields for the night: a blanket of sky and safety, weaving itself into the fabric of the soy and corn.   It’s so beautiful I thought. It’s too beautiful.   

Feast of Saint Patrick Parade  Dublin, Ireland  2012

Sometimes, when I close my eyes the tightest, in that liminal space between wake and sleep when all I can feel is the cool of the pillow and the wrap of my fingers around my blanket, I see his face, I feel his terror.

Arizona-Sonoma Desert Museum

Tucson, Arizona

  My most darling, Kim. I held you in my hand last week. The day before Thanksgiving at Lake Herrick near your hometown of Naperville, I held your ash in my right hand. I cried with your family, with Jenna and Laura. I sobbed into Walter’s arms, and I held you in my hand. You were the most beautiful grey. The color of the soon-storm sky, the color of contentment. You were soft, grey ash. I walked away from the group, the small circle of us who loved you— maybe most, and I stood by a tree with leaves that made a comforter of autumn colors around its trunk. I knelt, so when I brushed you, bit by bit, from my hand, you would not scatter far from me.  The smooth curve of your hip, I thought, is here in my hand. The gentle lips you kissed me with, the bluest eyes, the laughter. You, my loving friend, were with me once again. I choked on my breath when I tried to recall the last time I’d held you this close. When was it? Were you there that night? Was it the same night we danced and danced at The Mill to Public Property, relishing the horns and shots of Three Wise Men? Was it the night on your porch when a boy—I can’t even remember who—sat across from me as I wanted him to sit closer. The truth is, Kim, that I don’t know. I don’t know the last time I saw you, the last time I held you close. All I do know is that I loved you, and I still do.   When it came time to let you go, to release your ash from my hand, I couldn’t. My fingers wrapped tightly unto themselves, trapping you inside, as I spilled tears over my clenched fist. God damnit, Kim, I breathed too loudly. God damn you for leaving me. When I rolled my fingers open, you stood in the form of my clenched fist, fingerprints imbedded in your grey-and-bone. This was the final impression I was to leave on you, Kimmy. One of fingerprints and tears. So, slowly, gently, I dusted you from my hand, and when all that was left was a soft, smooth coating of your sheen, I kissed you from my skin.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Babygirl  We lay on the hostel floor, wooden and dusty and drunk, and we tell each other stories we’ve never told anyone else.   Her long, blonde hair and skirt fan parallel to wooden slats. My black flat in the space that’s left in my jeans.   She tells me it happened twice, that she feels a second shame, like she should’ve known (better) that he would always repeat.    The next summer, I tell her, I returned, and woke in his roommate’s room. My toe was broken and bloodied, my anus was torn the same.       Babygirl she calls me always Babygirl, is all she says

April 27, 2013

Alberta City, Tuscaloosa, Alabama


rape, as defined in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, is the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Attempts or assaults to commit rape by force or threat of force Forcible

are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded.

Arizona-Sonoma Desert Museum

Tucson, Arizona

      Dear Kim,  In the months after you died, I found myself desperate to reach out to you. I had nothing of yours to clutch as I cried, and I had only a few photos of us together—oh how you hated photos. (I never understood why you disliked posing for the camera, Kim. You were so beautiful and photogenic. Your smile always lit the frame.) After your final service the day before Thanksgiving, Jenna offered to send me a few of your things to hold on to, and I jumped at the chance to hold something of yours.   When I first moved to Tuscaloosa, just three weeks after your death, I often fantasized about trekking to the post office to mail you something—a letter, a card, an Alabama t-shirt. I was frantic for any way to feel connected. Today, I waited in line at this same post office, so I could collect the package of your things that Jenna sent. The box was lighter than I expected, but it contained everything promised: a pair of your earrings, a necklace, your digital camera, your backpack, your knife, copies of the final photos you ever took—just two days before your death. I was in shock. It was not until I returned to John’s apartment later that day until I truly saw what I’d been sent.  In your bag, I found more than your jewelry and photos, more even than the note that Jenna so graciously included. I also found parts of you: a sucker-stick, panty-liners, bobby-pins.    

Tucson, Arizona

      Dear Kim,  Happy birthday, sweet friend. It’s raining here in Alabama, and I’m wondering where you are. Not your scattered ashes, but you. (Your ashes are surely blowing in the coming Midwestern blizzard, which I imagine you’d relish—you always loved the snow.) You’ve been gone more than six months now, but I’ve just started reading about grief and loss. It teaches me that grief can last for years, although the cyclical nature will slow. My profound sadness that used to switch to anger like blade now creeps in like morning light—so slowly that I often don’t realize it’s coming until it arrives. In my mind, this cycle looks like a spiral, and the further I get from the center—the moment I lost you—the easier breath comes to my chest. But it doesn’t always come easily.   It’s been one year since I last wrote you in your breathing life. I wished you a happy birthday and told you that I miss you. You were living in Montana, about to move to Colorado. I was in Indiana, preparing for a move to Alabama. I had no idea I’d never see you again, Kimmy. When you wrote me back three days later, I made a mental note to call when I caught up with work—when school was less crazy. We never spoke again.  But I talk to you all the time now. I write you these letters, and I whisper your name in quiet moments when I’m not sure what to do. This is one of those times, Kim. I’m not sure what to do. What happens after now is where I falter.

Photo credit: Ryan Kane

Frog Rock, Buena Vista, Colorado

   Dear Kim,  For nearly as long as you had been gone, I wondered whether I would ever see the place where you died. The July three years after you passed, I did. Kim, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was more difficult than the day I found out you were gone, and it was harder than the day we spread your ashes. Kim, it was worse than my rape and every day recounting it; it was worse than walking through the rubble of my neighborhood an hour after a tornado came through: women and sirens wailing.    At one point, Laura asked a question I’d never been asked outside a counseling center: what are you feeling? I tried to stop crying and gather myself enough to speak. I thought for what felt like a long while, trying to identify the feeling that continues to well in my chest.   “Anger,” I told her. When she asked why, I told her that your death could’ve been prevented: something that was more apparent to me in that moment than ever before. If only the state of Colorado had done something after any one of the people before you had died. If they had done anything, maybe you would still be laughing in the mountains.   Anger wasn’t really what I was feeling though, what I’m feeling now. Anguish, is really it. As I write to you from Tuscaloosa so many years later, an anguish like a willow tree fills me. This feeling cascades all around the other feelings I have. It billows up and around when the wind blows just right. It, like a willow, is not deciduous. It does not come to maturity. It does not change with the seasons. It does not ever leave.    Please do not think me unhappy though, Kim. I am perhaps the happiest I have been since our time together in Iowa City. Imagine it as my beating heart umbrellaed in this enormous willow. I can see between her branches, and I have made a happy home here. It’s just that without your hair on my shoulders, I’m never quite sure which way the wind is about to blow. 

Iowa City, Iowa

Wine bottles from now-closed cafes, romantic dates with friends to fill the space that a woman I love once kept warm with the curl of her hair and the curve of her hip. The cool chill you gifted me with when I returned from spreading her ashes in a place that was never my home, the place where I kissed her from my fingers one last time.  Tiny pixie girls giving pixie kisses to my now-naked temples; guitar-callused fingertips that once ran the length of my hip-resting arm; lovers who built clouds and lifted heavy weights from the floor and my shame. And even a history professor who cries at the sight of broken-down train bridges and the dust of Richard Yates’ black-mold bungalow that was once inhabited by friends and lizards and ever-living cats. Thank you for the nights lying down, looking up, in the middle of your courts. We danced barefoot to folk music on record players, skinny dipped under moonlight, and called our love deep into the night from the yard of a man named Hudson.   Take me to church. Give me another shot of that cinnamon whiskey, touch me down, and tell me the truth about sex and god and love and loss. Give me my becoming. Be my lover one last time before I go. Let me take you with me. Pack yourself into my small car and wrap yourself inside me like a moonflower. Come in my heart’s tow. Pull along with me like the wake of a barge in the Black Warrior, in the Mississippi, in the Catfish Creek of our life together. Let me take you home to meet my mother, romance my father. Let me show you my home’s long grass and knee-high corn stalks. Let her teach you what autumn is because now is our winter, and it’s come time for me to let you go.   But hold tight to me one last time, Babygirl. Give me always the brokenness of your streets. Sing to me from the recesses of kudzu and fireflies, from the hallways of my too-big two-bedroom, from the doorways of Foster Auditorium and sorority row. Know that you are more than the confluence of who you are and what they do to you. You are a living, beating creature full of love and loss meeting the standards set for you by far-way places.   You are beautiful, Tuscaloosa. You are beautiful when your streets are full of drunken frat boys, and you are beautiful when your air wreaks of natural gas and pine: a yuletide of loss and fear. You are forever chainsaws making way for ambulances that will never come. You are neighbors calling names and clearing debris for weeks. You are a call from a student when I stand in the freezer section of the Food World, and you are the awakening that brings me to my knees: she is okay. She is alive.    You, Tuscaloosa, gave me this. You made me okay. You brought me back to life. And you, my darling, will always be mine. 

Acknowledgements  Many thanks to my thesis committee: Joel Brouwer, Yolanda Manora, Jason DeCaro, and especially my director, Kellie Wells. Please know what joy you gave when you agreed to take this journey with me, and please know how honored I am to know each of you. You have each played a role in my healing over the last four years. Joel – I will always be grateful for meetings under your fruit tree and at your kitchen table, where everything felt manageable for the first time. Yolanda – sometimes, when the silence of Kim’s absence is the most deafening, I sing to myself girl, girl, girlgirlgirl, and I think of you and that December meeting in your office. You made me feel understood and gave me hope that someday I could breathe again. Jason – thank you for doing the important work you do. Simply knowing that someone studies how people and groups respond to things like these matters to me as a person in ways I cannot possibly explain. And Kellie – your undying patience, understanding, and compassion have been the rudder for my Tuscaloosa years. Without you to direct and redirect me when my world was spinning, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to finish the program, let alone enjoy the happiness I have finally found.  Thank you to my family: Sue, Bob, Aaron, Danelle, Kristin, Kellen, and Anna, for teaching me loyalty and showing me forgiveness. I love you. Thank you, too, to Josh Harris, Krystin Gollihue, Sara Beth Riddle, and Erin Gurley for always showing up; never putting on airs; and for every porch beer, banjo song, and jukebox dollar. You are everything I will miss about the Southland. To Lynn DuSault, who was the first person who made me feel safe enough to speak the words, who cried with me on dirty New Orleans floors, who reminds me what it means to say yes. Warm thanks Bob Weatherly and Egan’s Bar, especially Billa, Austin, Sides, and Skinner. When no place in Tuscaloosa felt like home— not even my own apartment—you gave me a place to feel safe and not alone. And to Walter. Because always.  This book is dedicated in loving memory of Kimberly Appelson, who lost her life at Frog Rock Rapid in the Arkansas River, near Buena Vista, Colorado on July 11, 2010. It is also dedicated to two of her best friends who continue to keep her memory alive each and every day: Jenna Mountain and Laura Kinkley. Without you, I would have had to mourn Kim alone, a thought almost as unbearable as having lost her at all. Also to Sarah Ann Clark, Paul Mountain, Ryan Kane, Jill Ewing, and Ryan Tombleson. Thank you for making that night in July 2013 possible. And finally, thank you to the Appelson family who graciously allowed me to attend Kim’s final memorial service in Naperville. There are simply no words.  P.S. PDX, I’m coming home. I’m coming home to you.

In loving memory of Kim Appelson

There simply are no words  

The Program in Creative Writing The University of Alabama M.F.A. Thesis Ellie Isenhart Spring 2014