In Black and White A Compendium of Graduate Liberal Studies Writings In honor of Anne Greene
About This volume celebrates sixty years of Graduate Liberal Studies at Wesleyan University, and was compiled in honor of Anne Greene. The cover art, Kavad of a Sacred Geometer – sketch detail, was graciously contributed by Suzanne Wind Gaskell. Anne Greene (B.A. Radcliffe College, M.A. Brandeis University) is adjunct professor of English, director of writing programs, and director of the Wesleyan Writers Conference. She was awarded the 2006 Binswanger prize for excellence in teaching. Professor Greene’s contributions to writing at Wesleyan University are remarkable, and her commitment to ensuring the continuity of quality Graduate Liberal Studies writing has spanned more than three decades, and benefitted countless students. Graduate Liberal Studies at Wesleyan University, established in 1953, is the oldest program of its kind. The students, alumni, faculty and staff of Graduate Liberal Studies comprise a vibrant community of learners and educators, whose commitment to the University, lifelong learning, and the community is exceptional among its peers. Alumni and students of the program continually make significant contributions to our world, including in the fields of literature, architecture, entrepreneurship, theater, human rights, law, and, most significantly, education. Wesleyan’s Graduate Liberal Studies graduates are unparalleled thought leaders in education at all levels, both public and private, domestically and internationally. Wesleyan University, located in Middletown, CT, was founded in 1831 and is dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.
Table of Contents Group Therapy Mary Barnett
Leaving Eden (selection) Donna Bishop-Seaton
Elliot’s Song Timothy Dyke
Luminous Forms Michael Felberbaum
The Lowest Price Diana Ip
A Blue Parka Diana Keyes
The Photograph Howard Luxenberg
Seduction and Revenge in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (selection) Susan McNamara
Fishing Story Beth Richards
GROUP THERAPY Mary Barnett The psychologist’s small perfectly square office reminds me of my freshman dorm room back at The Plex, at Connecticut College, where I go to school. The Plex. That dorm nobody wants because the windows won’t open and nothing sticks to the walls. So they’ve put me in this group. I've just been evaluated by the staff psychologist and now we've come up front to meet the others. She swings open a heavy door on our right letting me pass ahead of her into a large, stale-smelling room. "I think you'll add a unique perspective to our group,” she says, not looking at me, folding herself back up against the wall, like a tweed umbrella. "Aren’t you coming?" I say hesitating, looking back at this woman I’ve just met, who suddenly seems so familiar and almost important, like some assistant professor in a class I don’t like, back at school. "Oh no,” she says, “this is what we call a peer group." The women are drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes. One looks permanently sunk into the faux leather couch, her legs tucked up into her sweatshirt, kneecaps punching out the top, like new breasts. A woman in an oversized parka, hood up, is absent-mindedly kicking the underside of the coffee table with her boot, watching a glowing ash disappear deep into the orange pile carpet. Nobody looks up when I come in. There are six of us. We are the Survivor's group and I’m looking around and thinking that's a fucking broad category. This is the Tuesday night Rape and Incest survivor group of greater New London County. The fact that this is the Tuesday night group means that there is also a Thursday night group and when it turns out that every single one of these women did it or something like it or something worse with their father or their uncle Bob or their brother Seward or Gramps, spread out on some old carpet just like this one, sticky and orange and stained, in the way back of the family van, I want a transfer. We are supposed to be supporting each other. We are supposed to be supporting each other because we have the same issues. We are supposed to be supporting each other because we have the same issues so we can heal. “Uh. My name is Polly," I say the next week. "I go to Conn. I mean Connecticut College." I'm about to graduate and want to say I'm going to be an ex-Conn, but I realize no one will think this is funny. These are not college students. Susan looks at Danielle. Susan has brown curly hair and is wearing something purple that fits. With jewelry. Everyone else looks unemployed. This makes me think that
Susan is the leader and is being paid but I can't tell. Danielle introduces herself and hugs Susan. Danielle is wearing brown corduroys and a big sweater and is blond. Then Susan hugs Taryn. Taryn is wearing blue jeans and a big sweater and is fat. I'm sitting next to Taryn. I don't want her to hug me. I particularly don't want her to hug me because she is fat. I'm new and I look out the window at just the right moment and she doesn't. Toneesha and Caprice sit by themselves. They're black. I think they are trying to light the carpet on fire. Susan says she accepts being a Survivor with pride. It's who she is. Danielle and Taryn applaud. "I come here to be with people who understand," Susan says and starts to cry. Maybe she isn't being paid, I think. We are what my psychology textbook refers to as a cohort. I do not like my cohort and I do not want my cohort to understand this right away. Caprice and Toneesha obviously think the whole thing is a joke. They know they aren't going to survive. "Okay, um…I was raped," I say the next week. I’m having a hard time with the word. It just isn’t a very good word. Rape. Not capable of conveying the specificity of what occurred. Although everyone assumes they know what it means. "It was Halloween but I didn’t do anything. Fun, I mean. I stayed home. I was reading. I live off campus. I have my own apartment.” They don’t seem impressed. “I was in my house. Alone. I was asleep. I woke up. But I was asleep." I don't say it was my first apartment. That I made my own bed out of plywood and cinderblocks. That I’d sewn two floral sheets together to make a mattress cover so it could double as a couch in the daytime. A sort of if you could see me now nod to my doit-yourself ex-boyfriend. Only boyfriend. Actually. Ever. We had broken up 6 months before and I was done in. I was slowly stitching my life back together again now. Starting with the sheets. But the police had taken all that down to the police station: my sheets, my Lanz nightgown, my stuffed dog. Maybe everything is still down at some police station in a box in a back room with my name on it. "Did you know him?" Susan asks me and everyone perks up. They're ready to accept me. Of course not, I want to say. "No," I say and breathe in and they breathe out and sit back, bored. My night of terror feels insignificant in this room. Pulp fiction. Something unpleasant and invasive, but finite, like having your purse snatched. Something only a college student would mind. "Well," says Susan "you've come to the right place," and she shifts slightly in her chair. Her perfume, something sharp and sweet, releases from an intimate fold. I look down at my green suede hiking boots. Fabianos. I wear them to feel strong but I haven't been hiking since I was a kid. I'm afraid of twisting an ankle. I'm a senior dance major at Connecticut College, majoring in dance because I want to feel my body, make it say what I want it to say. Make it say yes.
Susan's perfume slides in next to me. She smiles, pats my knee and then sits back, crossing her arms and folding her hands up under her large breasts. It's Danielle's turn. She slams the table hard and I jump and she screams. “That fucking asshole!" and Susan is saying, "Let it out," and looping her cigarette in giant circles for emphasis like some guy conducting Barbra Streisand on TV. If I stay here, I'm going to have to start smoking, I think. Nobody’s talking now and the smoke clears and I’m thinking about my mother. The one listed in the Boston Social Register. I called her the next morning. The morning after. The morning after spending all night in the over-lit emergency room at the Lawrence and Memorial hospital being poked, prodded, combed and flushed. I told her I needed to tell her something but couldn’t do it over the phone. She was wary, afraid of being manipulated but agreed to me meet half way. I picked Dunkin’ Donuts. A place she’d never been. Halfway to Providence. "Mom," I start. And the word sits small and round and funny on my tongue. Like a lozenge. Anachronistic already. From my life before. When we were wholesome. "Mom …Someone broke into my apartment last night." Some bitterly familiar part of me hopes she'll feel guilty for not driving the whole way. "I was raped." And my voice loses its footing there among the donuts. "Oh, Pols," she says and steps back. She is pressed up against the soda case. Her ten year old, over stuffed, LL Bean parka, good to 45 degrees below zero, is backlit with tiny plastic bottles of OJ. "That's the worst thing that can happen to a woman." "May I help you?" the donut girl says My mother looks up, surprised to find herself at a counter. But she smiles quickly and her big eyes widen. Aware of the public. “And what would you recommend?” my mother says brightly, as if ordering a specialty roast from her favorite butcher at our neighborhood market. "What a perfectly aw-ful smell," my mother says a few minutes later as I follow her outside. Her Brahmin accent is broad and dramatic. I can't help myself. I love listening to her. "But that glazed thing was positively scr-rumptious!" Then she stops suddenly, sucking in the cold sweet air. I bump into her. "Oh…" she breathes in. "Thank God, it wasn't your sister.” "I don't think I belong here,” I say the next week to Taryn and Susan and Toneesha and now there’s Lauren. She’s about my age and has three kids under three at home. She’s getting a restraining order against her husband.
I am remembering now how I went to private school and how there were only thirteen kids in my eighth grade class and if you were in the A group, you were smart and you got to read e.e. cummings and study Bob Dylan as if he were a real poet. I mean it might not even have been a person, I am thinking. Maybe it was a goat. Maybe some rabid goat broke lose from some reject farm down on Route 32. "We are here to support you," Susan says sympathetically. “We think perhaps you are in denial. We think perhaps something like this happened to you before.” …Maybe in the kind of place you are from, I'm thinking, where people have sex with animals when their kids aren't available and that goat just fucking had to have me, I'm thinking. Then I remembered his hands around my throat. I was screaming and then they got tighter and I couldn't scream. I had stopped breathing and a minute went by and I still hadn't said anything. Susan was still looking at me. I decided I needed another approach. "Okay, maybe I'm angry," I say the next week. I'll say anything never to see this carpet again. There is smoke rising from between Toneesha's knees. His arm looked dark against the fluorescent white of his T-shirt, the way everything looks dark when you can't see anything. The way everything looks black when you can't see anything. I never go back to the house, except once, with my parents, to pick up my stuff. I throw everything out, except my books. That afternoon, my mother, trying in her own way to be helpful, uses her prodigious head, the one that went to Bennington. "Oh Pols," she says with feeling, “Blacks have been subjected to such violence and degradation historically. Do you think rape could be their way of striking back?" and she waits expectantly for my response as if she were the host of an NPR talk show. "You really should have gone to Bennington,” she says later that night, over dinner at Chuck's Steakhouse in New London. "This would never have happened in Vermont." Susan is still looking at me. Was he black? I don't know but I think so. It was how he spoke. Can I say that? That he sounded black? Some of these women are black. He was inside me but I couldn't feel anything. Sometimes I still can't feel anything. Susan stands and hugs me. I can't breathe. "I want your pussy," he said. I remember how I got lower and slid down off the bed and onto the floor. Lower, I thought. Like those times when my brothers wouldn’t stop tickling me and it went on too long and I couldn’t breathe and finally I slid onto the floor so they’d lose interest.
Pipe down my mother would yell up the stairs. Don’t egg them on. Boys will be boys! My parents hated being disturbed. They were watching Nova and it was a really good one about genetics and intelligence. When I finally go downstairs, sure he is gone, I see he has peed in my toilet before he left. And I am embarrassed. Sick and afraid and gone boneless with anger and embarrassed because I realize he wasn’t afraid of me at all. He whispers again. Say Uncle, my brother says. And my voice gets sweet and soft and pleading like honey warming up on the stove, slowly clawing its way up the sides of the pan. Susan is telling me what I need to do in order to be healed. "But you have to want it," she says. “Uncle,” I say softly. Very slowly I am standing. Very slowly, I am standing up and walking towards the door. Be polite. No sudden moves. "I think I need individual treatment," I say. "You've all been a big help, really. Thanks." Toneesha looks up just as I close the door. She's blowing smoke rings out her nose.
a selection from Leaving
Donna Bishop-Seaton I was a product of wide-open secluded spaces and the move to Port of Spain, hot, crowded and noisy, was difficult. My entomologist father had been transferred to the city from his country post to take care of the Savannah and Botanical Gardens. Life in “town” provided unfamiliar challenges. In the country, a child might have had the freedom to choose between danger and safety simply by virtue of the physical space at her disposal. In the open spaces, hiding places were limitless, and I had developed a keen intuition about when hiding might be in my best interests. Town living with its noisy, ever-present neighbors, chain link fences, and its houses packed too tightly together, necessitates a certain amount of conspiratorial denial. This is the code that allows towndwellers to live with each other, more or less harmoniously. The next-door bank manager (ours in that case), who beats his wife on the weekend, knows full well that his neighbor sitting before him in the bank on Monday morning needing a loan has heard the screams and the breaking glass of the night before. The two are polite, maybe even friendly, secure in the knowledge that the subject will never arise, and that an equal amount of discretion on the part of the banker might one day be necessary for an equally condemning reason. In the city, life became a confusing jumble of the things that I knew and the things that I was not allowed to acknowledge. Town life required of me an almost schizophrenic dissociation if I was to be able to mingle freely with the people on all sides of me about whom I knew too much. Our new house was situated in a neighborhood, built into the crest of a large hill, and was a disappointment. It was different from the image I had been carrying in my head for months based on a quick drive-by in my parents’ car one Sunday afternoon. “There it is,” they had said without stopping. The new house of my imagination had been majestic, constructed of an unusual grey stone, with a large octagonal window whose white trim stood out against the grey background at the front. I had been excited at the prospect of moving there; I had thought of it as an emigration. In my final days at school in the country, I announced, to some fanfare, that my family would be moving to North America and it was this fleeting image of our foreign-looking house on the hill that had allowed me to half-believe, in that fervent way of pointlessly hopeful children, that I was special. This hope had allowed me to stand up to allegations of storytelling leveled against me by my classmates. I was sure that none of them had ever lived in such a house. Certainly, I had never lived in such a house and my tales of emigration increased my popularity in the final days at school. The other two houses in which I had lived had been standard, government-issue houses in the country. Typically, the living quarters were built on an elevated level supported by a raised foundation that consisted of a series of sturdy concrete pillars. This was a common design among country houses for practical reasons. It was not uncommon
for the plains to flood during the rainy season, and building the house off the ground ensured that the main floor was secure against floods. The front and back doors were accessed by long staircases. Their wooden balustrades were full of splinters that became embedded in our hands and had to be dug out with a heated needle. Underneath the house was a large paved area that provided a garage and a place for hanging washing and storing outside toys. Usually, there was one room in a corner on this downstairs level that served as the maid’s quarters, although our maids lived elsewhere. Instead, we used this locked room for valuable tools and anything else that we did not want to risk being stolen. In both of our other houses, there had been a team of caretakers, from women who did the ironing, to maids and yard boys, to the watchmen whom my parents blamed the moment things went missing. I was seven when, in one of these underneath areas, I learned first-hand about the treacherousness of nature. I had come upon a stray cat that had taken shelter beneath the stairs leading up to the back door. I had heard the first cries of her babies and on investigating I had found the cat and her kittens dug into a sandy patch. I ran upstairs to make my announcement. My parents were seated at the enamel kitchen table chasing breakfast with Anchor Brand cigarettes. I broke the news of my find to them but they were not as enthusiastic as I had hoped. “Do you want to come and see them?” “Not now,” said my mother fixing herself another cup of coffee. “We’re still eating breakfast. And don’t encourage those cats to come up the stairs. Do you hear me?” Yes. I had heard her. I wondered what it was that allowed her to know exactly what I had been thinking. “What about if we opened up the storeroom?” “What about it?” asked my mother. “Maybe we could put them in there.” “No,” she said. “We’re not taking in any stray cats.” Once she had said no, it was useless to try and change her mind. No meant no, as we were often reminded. “Could I at least take some milk for them?” My mother sucked her cheeks in against her teeth, a typically West Indian gesture that, for generations of children, has meant that the back of a hand is about to make contact with some part of a face. “The mother won’t let you come close,” my father warned. “If you do she will move the kittens and hide them.” “Let her learn the hard way, Allen,” said my mother. I understood that this was her way of giving permission about the milk. “Can I get them some?” I asked. They watched as I went to the fridge that, somehow, always managed to shock me and only me, when I pulled on the handle. I did not dare to ask either of them for help and as my hand hit the metal I felt the expected jolt.
“Don’t use my good saucers,” said my mother. I poured some milk into a cracked saucer and stepping further into the house, I called out for Michael. “Come quick and see what I found,” I said to Michael. He looked up from the funnies. “What?” he said. He sounded bored. He followed me down the stairs and peered in as I pointed out the cat and her three kittens. “We shouldn’t try to touch them or she’ll move them,” I said echoing my father in an attempt to assert my authority in this circumstance. “They’re probably crawling with fleas,” he said. Despite his nonchalance, I knew that he was interested. He watched me place the saucer within sight of the mother cat and headed back up the stairs. “They’re mangy, they’ll die anyway,” he said. I brought the mother cat her saucer of milk every day. She watched me but did not come to take it until I was out of sight. As she grew more trusting, I grew bolder and soon I was able to come close enough to touch her although I heeded my father’s warning. I did not want to be responsible for forcing her to move. The kittens had started to move around a great deal and their eyes were opened. I kept up a running commentary on the development of the kittens but my parents were not cat people. “Is that so,” they said without the slightest interest. “The kittens, this, the kittens, that,” said Michael. A week or more into my discovery, I came down with the saucer one morning and found that the kittens were really beginning to crawl around. If they grew used to my presence, maybe they would come close enough to let me touch them. Maybe I could convince my parents to let me keep one if it was tame enough. I set the saucer on the stairs and leaned into the den. There was no sign of the cats. The hollowed- out spot in the dusty red soil bore few signs that it had ever been inhabited. I knew that I must be responsible for their disappearance somehow. Maybe in my desire to get close, I had scared the mother into relocating her babies. I poked into dark corners and into the overgrown mint bushes that clustered around the base of the drainpipe, listening closely for sounds of mewling. I looked under my mother’s little white Anglia, parked under the house and dripping oil onto the rough cement. I came across the first decapitated kitten lying near the twin gas cylinders that fuelled the kitchen stove and a few steps from that one lay another kitten, fully intact but lifeless. Something had attacked them; maybe a dog had strayed in from somewhere and found them in the nest. For an instant my mind pondered the impossible. Maybe Michael had done something. He and I had both thrown stones large enough to do real damage to the stray dogs that wandered into the yard from time to time and that our parents said were riddled with mange.
“Got one!” we would claim triumphantly when they yelped in pain and hightailed it out of the yard. Together, we had watched the vicious ant wars that he orchestrated in his kingdom. I knew that our parents did not approve of the cat and had wondered, out loud, about what to do with the mother and her three kittens living under the back stairs, breeding fleas and ticks, and, eventually, trying to steal food from off the kitchen counters. Afraid of what I would find, I abandoned my search for the missing kitten and took the stairs two at a time, heedless of the splinters I was gathering along the way. “Come quick,” I shouted running in to the house. “Something killed the kittens!” My father put down his newspaper and followed me outside. Together we came upon the scene of the carnage. I was panting for breath. “Look!” I said, pointing out the first kitten. He looked at me, and then back at the dead cat, and nodded sagely. “A tom,” he said, “I thought it might be that.” He explained that it was nature’s way of keeping the balance. If the offspring were those of a rival male, he would kill them to make sure that he remained the ruler of his territory and that he was the only cat around that could father kittens. This explanation brought little solace. I knew that animals had enemies, that cats hated dogs and mongooses hated snakes. I understood at a very basic level the animosity that one species held towards another, but it had not occurred to me to think that the enemy could come from among your own number. Life in the country was one of a terrifying freedom that I was loath to experience alone. Michael, on the other hand, knew every square foot of the vast acreage of open nut-grass fields that made up our back yard and that extended as far as the eye could see. He roamed the plains, daring and unafraid, hunting butterflies and adventure. I was content to wander to the end of the gravel driveway with my baby doll, Sara, wrapped up and securely tucked in to the rusty red pram that had been left out in the rain one time too many. Sara and I squeaked and bumped our way to and fro past the razor grass that lined the narrow pathway, or, played in between the washing hung out to dry beneath the house. Now and again, I ventured out on to the back fields making sure to keep the house within sight. I wondered what it would be like to be gone for hours at a time like Michael, only returning to the house in time for meals. I found out one Sunday afternoon while my parents took their habitual rest after a late lunch. I was reading the Sunday funnies—in color. During the week funnies only came in black and white. “Want to go down to the lake?” he asked. I was taken by surprise. I had been accustomed to Michael doing his best to shake me off at every opportunity. I nodded yes. “Go and ask Mummy and Daddy then.” I knocked on their bedroom door tentatively. “Can I go down to the lake with Michael?” I asked.
“Come back by five,” my mother said. The lake was, in fact, not a lake, but a large pond located some distance away from the house. From the car, we could see the bulrushes wave their funny brown pods at us. Sometimes, our father would take us for walks past this lake, stopping to point out the lilies and other water plants that grew there. Someone had left an old rowboat to rot on the mud bank. I would have paid scant attention to the rowboat, but our father had expressly forbidden us to get into it. I wanted to go down to the lake, I loved the dragonflies with their lacy, transparent wings and jewel-coloured bodies. I loved the deep sounds of the bullfrogs although I was afraid to touch them. I associated them with the smell of decay that lingered in the air around the innumerable frogs run over by cars, or killed by other animals and left to rot in the tropical heat. In the shallows, tadpoles wriggled by the hundred. My father let me pluck the cylindrical pods of the bulrushes if they were close enough to the bank that I did not have to step into the water, and taught me how to open them and how to release their feathery seeds into the wind. The banks of the lake were made up of a muddy clay which, on closer inspection, was streaked with pink and ochre and silvery mica and which had to be scraped from under fingernails before we could sit at the dining table. These features of the lake paled in comparison to the logs that floated, partly submerged, on the surface of the water. On one of our supervised visits to the pond, our father had thrown a stone at one of the logs and we watched in horrified fascination as it sprung into life and became an alligator. I struggled to keep up with Michael as we walked towards the lake. I circled the lake and, in a while, sat to pull off the sweethearts, which had chosen me as their means of dispersal. It was impossible to walk through the fields without having to detach these sticky seeds by the hundred. Despite the continual annoyance of having to pick sweethearts off our clothes, I liked them, because they were, in fact, heart shaped and about the size and color of a brown lentil, just the right size for a child’s fingers. But more than that, I loved the notion of something that wanted to be with you so much that they would cling until they needed to be pried loose. “Lanie,” Michael called. “Come over here.” He was standing in front of the abandoned rowboat. I went over and together we peered in at the water that had collected at the bottom. The rotten wood smelled like urine and I said so. “That’s just the wood. That’s what rotten wood smells like, Dummy.” He reached into the boat and pulled out what was left of an oar. “Take this.” I took the oar from him pulling it before he had completely released it and felt splinters in my fingers. I dropped the oar and struggled to hold back tears. “I got splinters,” I said, clutching the fingers of my right hand. I could not hold back the tears although I did not want him to see me cry. “Don’t be such a baby,” he said. He came over to me and pinched my index finger where the largest splinter had lodged. He pulled it out carefully and examined my hand. He pulled out a couple of splinters that had not lodged too deeply into the palm. “We’ll have to do the rest later,” he said. “Now, help me.”
He began to edge the boat with both hands off the muddy bank and into the water. My heart beat in my throat. I knew what he was about to suggest and I was torn between concerns for my own safety, the wrath of my parents and the scorn of Michael. “Let’s take it out,” he said. “We’re not allowed,” I said. “Who’s going to tell? I knew I shouldn’t have brought you in the first place.” He looked at me. “You don’t want to? Then go back home by yourself.” He shoved the boat, grunting with the effort. He knew that I was afraid of the wide-open spaces that he ruled. The boat slid into the water and remained stuck in the bulrushes. Michael picked up the oar and I could hear the thudding noises that it made against the sides as he used the oar to bring the boat closer in to the bank. Michael expressly ignored me. It was the way things were between us. For him, it seemed, I could cease to exist, but for me Michael was the way in which I defined my place in the world. I had never known a world that did not include Michael, whereas Michael had navigated life for five years before I had entered his. I imagined him out in the middle of the lake sinking with the waterlogged boats. I imagined the alligators. I imagined myself having to make the trek back home across the fields by myself all alone. “Wait,” I said. “I’ll come.” Something like relief crossed his face. “Get over here and get in then,” he said. Michael threw the oar in and climbed into the rowboat ahead of me. Water sloshed around in the bottom of the boat. He climbed over the wooden bench and sat down, facing the rear. He reached down between his legs and came up with a metal bucket, some parts of which had rusted away completely. “We can use this to bail out some of the water,” he said. “What if we sink?” “We’re not going to sink. Just keep baling the water out with the bucket and we’ll be okay.” He steadied the boat thrusting the oar into the mud to anchor the boat as I climbed in. I sat on the bench beside him and the water rose near my ankles, soaking my shoes and socks. I had not yet thought of how I would explain the wetness to my mother. Michael pushed off and the boat cleared the bank completely, the back low in the water. “Bail!” I was convinced that our survival depended on my ability to keep the boat afloat with the use of a hole-filled bucket. I bailed while Michael dug in with the oar on the left side of the boat. The boat circled and made its way back towards the bank. Michael rowed on the right side and we turned back to the center of the pond and the water sloshed around our ankles and, despite my frenzied efforts, began to rise. Mosquitoes swarmed as we struggled to stay afloat with Michael determined to get to the middle. He pulled the oar up and laid it on the bench beside him. “I wish we had an anchor,” he said. “Let’s go back,” I said. “I’m scared we’re going to drown.”
“I know how to swim,” he said folding his arms across his chest. He watched the anxiety grow on my face but did not acknowledge it. “Look,” he said casually. “Is that a log?” “Where?” “There,” he said pointing to a spot about ten feet from where we were sitting. “Or maybe it’s an alligator. He seemed unconcerned and despite the fact I knew that he was teasing me, I began to cry. “Let’s go back,” I said. “It’s time to go home.” “Cry-cry baby,” he said. “Look, it’s just a log.” He dipped the oar back into the water and brought us a little closer. The log bobbed on the surface. “See? He jeered. “You’re afraid of a log.” I stopped what I was doing to look. “Bail,” he said.
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Elliot’s Song Timothy Dyke 31. My dad bought a new tire swing rope two weeks ago, but that is not what I am using. 30. This is not a story that will, as part of its declared purpose, provide factual information about maple trees. This is not a newspaper article, nor is it an investigation of cultural trends or phenomena. This is not a story about skin. This may not even be a story about stories. This could be a song if there were music for maple trees. This could be wind if I wanted to wax poetic, but I do understand the dangers of waxing poetic, so this is not a wind song. This might be Elliot’s song. 29. My dad said it was the time of year to buy a new rope for the tire swing. In our big back yard, off and on, for as long as I remember, we’ve had a really great swing in this maple tree. I used to have to do leaf identification for Webelos, and I used to know what kind of maple tree this was. I forget now. It is not Red or Canadian, but it might be Sycamore. 28. Generally I back away from tragic gay teen characters in my own fiction. I don’t really need to be convinced that the world’s collective consciousness already seems crammed full of stereotypes. It has never been my intention to add to that dubious literary legacy. The Children’s Hour, Tea and Sympathy, even some Tennessee Williams: they all give you sensitively rendered pictures of perfectly pathetic men and women, boys and girls, who prefer the nobility of a self-inflicted death to the reality of living every day alive, aware, accepting – or actively not accepting – the way others perceive them. I didn’t want to write stories about gay teen suicide, and yet here I am. I can’t help it. It’s 2013, the middle of the Obama era in American life, and teenaged queer kids are still hanging themselves from trees in their backyards. Just today I read about a 13-year-old in Alaska who shot himself in the head. Why shouldn’t I write about this? Shouldn’t everyone be writing about this? 27. I don’t want to make it sound like I talk to The Maple Tree for real, but I have been pretending that I am. I think I might be talking to him now.
26. Leaves turn orange. Leaves turn brown and brittle. Leaves are stuffed in bags, carried away. The Maple Tree knows how much Elliot weighed when he first slipped his legs through the hole in the tire swing. The tree measures weight by the bending. 25. Religion for me is mostly metaphor, and lately I have begun to accept that I have inside me a goddess within. This is just a figurative way of describing a feminine and muse-like conception of consciousness. It works for me. I like my goddess within. Her name is Angela. She was abused as a teenager. Angela keeps her head shaved. She tells me to think of butterflies often. Lately she has suggested that I pay attention to the foliage in my stories. 24. The hard part was learning how to make this noose. 23. I am pretty sure my dad hates me now. I know that sounds like teen-angst drama, and maybe it is, but I have never been spanked before like the way I was spanked last night. When it was over, I never saw someone as frozen and cold as my dad. I would say he couldn’t look at me, but what made it so bad is he looked right at me after he said all those things and belted me like that. He used the buckle a couple of times. He made me pull down my pants. I stopped counting at 31. Thirty-one is 13 backwards. My dad thinks it’s not abuse if you deserve it. There is a whole story behind the magazines. I have a friend who got them from a friend of his. My friend knows a lot of boys at all the high schools around here. His name is Jammer. Everyone thinks that’s a joke. At school they call him Rammer or Jammer The Ass-Hammer or just faggot, but his parents are Filipino, and they didn’t know what kind of name they were giving their son. They thought it was a blessing. Jammer stands for Jesus and Mary, J-a-M. 22. The Maple Tree can’t remember, but he can grow, and he can know when things stop growing, and as this sixteen-year-old sits on a sturdy branch – it’s mid-afternoon; that might be a noose – The Maple Tree intuits there is something to be done. 21. I know my parents love me, but I am not the son they thought they were raising. I am not even sure my dad loves me.
20. The Maple Tree can’t do what he cannot do. He cannot cradle the boy in his branches. He cannot console the boy who is crying and whispering. All the Maple Tree can do is receive carbon, convert it to oxygen, refuse to refuse. 19. Once I got inside the house this whole thing has taken me about fifteen minutes. First I took the ladder out of the garage. Well, first I talked to The Maple Tree. I told him what I was doing, and he said that he didn’t want me to, but he wouldn’t stop me. I asked him if it would be okay if I let the ladder lean on the branch. The Maple Tree didn’t say that it wouldn’t be okay. I moved the ladder under the tree before I got the rope or anything. At first I was stupidly thinking I could tie the rope for the tire swing into a noose. That was dumb. The tire swing rope is too thick. My dad calls it a hawser. I think that might be a Navy word. The Maple Tree is the one who told me it would be okay to use clothesline. I could make the noose on the ground, climb up, tie it around the tree, and then kick the ladder away. The noose is around my neck right now. The noose connects me to The Maple Tree. I sit on the branch. The internet says hanging doesn’t hurt if you do it right, but I don’t know how any living person would know. I am going to be a man about it and hang myself sober. Alcohol usually makes me throw up. Jammer says I am a lightweight, but I don’t care. 18. My Angela muse has specifically asked me to remove her from any stories about dead gay teenagers. Angela comes as my goddess within. I tell her that this is more of a Maple Tree story then a dead boy story, and she tells me that I can call it whatever I want, but if I don’t remove her from this narrative right now, she is going to ruin things by doing something inappropriate and offensive. 17. My dad is convinced that Jammer and I have been screwing. I am not sure I want to screw Jammer. For now I just like kissing. After my dad whipped me, I put my pants back on and ran out of the house. I didn’t know where to go. I figured I could go to Jammer’s, but that kid has his own issues to deal with at night. I thought about killing myself right then. I thought about jumping off the Seventh Avenue Bridge, but there isn’t enough traffic at night to guarantee I would be dead. The worst life I can imagine is to be half dead in a wheelchair but not totally brain dead. I wonder if it would be worse to be in a wheelchair than to be gay. I used to pray to get cancer. I wanted to die of a disease that made people say how much they loved you.
16. It’s not even that cold right now. It could rain. I think it is pretty funny that I am thinking about the weather. It would be funny to be standing on this branch, ready to hang myself, and then all of a sudden lightning strikes and kills me. I have no idea if I am still religious. I would like to think that God is not mad at me. Then again fuck God. He might not even be listening anymore. This is why it makes sense to talk to The Maple Tree. I wouldn’t call this a prayer. I would call it thinking with The Maple Tree in mind. 15. This boy on the branch with a noose around his neck, Texas in September. The Maple Tree has watched this kid run in circles and fall down. The Maple Tree will stand sturdy. Is that the most supportive thing to be done here? The Maple Tree will feel a transfer of weight, a tug, a presence and then a vanishing. The Maple Tree will bear witness to the dead boy at the end of the rope. It might rain today. The Maple Tree provides shelter. 14. I have my suspicions that my mom has known for a while now. 13. Why couldn’t God just let me have brain cancer? People would call me a hero. After my dad beat me, he chased me into the closet downstairs, and I hid there, then I ran upstairs, and then I ran away. They didn’t even really stop me. My dad said he would forgive me if I promised to change. If I was strong enough, I think I might try to knock my own father out. I think I would like to put my father in a coma. 12. It isn’t that easy to get around on a bike in the dark in my neighborhood, and Jammer lives four and a half neighborhoods over, but I forgot to steal the car keys. I escaped from my home and made it to his house and threw a rock at his window. I didn’t have a phone. The rock went through and broke the glass, and this neighbor turned his light on, and I saw Jammer’s mom open the door, and I sped away. Maybe Jammer would come looking for me, but he never did. I think it’s pretty ironic. I am terrible at baseball, but last night I hit the window right in the bull’s eye, and it was a straight-arm throw, and fast. My dad coaches football, and this is Texas. Enough said. They like boys who can throw around here. 11. The Maple Tree has a gash on the side of his trunk where Elliot’s dad once tried to carve a heart. This was supposed to be a birthday present for Elliot’s mom, but when Elliot’s Dad, David McAndrews, stuck the knife in, The Maple Tree gasped. The Maple
Tree doesn’t know what people can hear, but David folded the knife back into his pocket and rubbed his thumb over the cut in the bark. 10. After I left Jammer’s I thought about going over to this girl Kimberly’s house. Her mom works at Food Town at night, and her dad is in a wheelchair. I shouldn’t have said that thing before about how I would rather be in a wheelchair. It is true though, that when people look at kids in wheelchairs, they don’t wonder if they are gay or straight. They just see them as crippled. Kimberly used to be a friend of mine, but three days ago I found out she was making fun of me on Facebook. 9. I hate Facebook. There is this thing going around on certain Facebook pages about me giving good blowjobs, but it isn’t true. Maybe one day it would be true if I lived that kind of life or if I lived at all. I have never given blowjobs, but I have talked about them with Jammer. This is what happened when I decided not to go to Kimberly’s. I don’t really like riding my bike at night, even when I haven’t had my ass whipped, so I walked all the way home. It took me a while. No one stopped me, and then when I got home, I went into the backyard where I am now. I sat underneath The Maple Tree. At first I thought I could be seen from the kitchen, but The Maple Tree told me I could sit on the side facing the bushes. The Maple Tree told me he would hide me. Basically I decided to kill myself after I decided I could never kill my father. I gathered my strength in the back yard, and then I walked in through the front door of the house. I wasn’t on drugs or anything, but my mom accused me of doing meth. My mom is stupid about sex and drugs. I would never do crystal meth. I have been drunk, and I have smoked weed, but I don’t like to be out of control. Last night, even though I wasn’t altered, I was out of control. I said fuck you right to their faces. It didn’t seem like I had any reason not to curse, so I said “Fuck You” to my own mother. It was after three in the morning. It didn’t even seem like I had any reason to be polite. I was just going to go to sleep, but my Dad was blocking the stairs, so I said, “Get the fuck out of the way,” but he didn’t move. So I pushed him. He didn’t have the belt in his hand, and I almost laughed. I looked in his face, and I tried as hard as I could to show him that I hated his fucking guts. There was no love in my father’s face at all. I stayed up all night figuring out the exact way to do what I knew I had to do. 8. The Maple Tree makes shadows in the boy’s room when moonlight comes in through the window. The Maple Tree makes triangles of light on the wall. Trees cannot communicate, but trees can bend and sway, and in the bending and the swaying there is a kind of wondering, maybe a listening. A listing. The Maple Tree lists, and shadows fall, and The Maple Tree listens to what the shadows might be saying. If The Maple Tree could wish, he would wish for a way to send a message, but The Maple Tree can’t wish. The
Maple Tree doesn’t really communicate, but he bends, and he blocks light, and in every beam of light there is a moment broken, a kind of stop-time, an epistle, a moon-shadow on a teenager’s wall. 7. I just stared at these triangles of light and figured out the plan. I am worthless at everything but tying nooses. 6. I asked The Maple Tree if he was ready. When the tree and the noose were ready, I went into the garage one last time because I didn’t want to make my parents clean up too much. Especially my mom. This is going to be hard on her, and I am sorry about that. I am so sorry about that. I found a rake and a soccer ball in the back yard, and I put them where they belonged in the garage. The soccer ball went on the third shelf, and there was this box of tapes up there too. Cassettes make me smile. I love the way they look, and the box wasn’t labeled, and then I found a small white sack marked Talking Heads and The Police. I didn’t open that one. I don’t like The Police or The Talking Heads all that much. I like City To City by Gerry Rafferty. My dad has it on vinyl, and I think it might be rare. I don’t know anyone who has ever even heard of that album. My dad said I could keep it if I took good care of it. I just now gave it back to him. Before I set up the gallows, or whatever you want to call it, I snuck into my parents’ room and put the City To City album on my dad’s pillow. When he finds my body hanging from the tree, he might think that Gerry Rafferty is my suicide note. He’ll probably listen to it backwards for secret, gay messages. Gerry Rafferty died about a year ago from cancer. So maybe my dad will see the album and jump to the conclusion that I have cancer. I am glad Gerry Rafferty did not die of AIDS. But why am I even talking about music? 5. I will tell this to The Maple Tree. The reason I am talking about music is I was looking in the box by the soccer ball, and I found this one cassette called “Elliot’s Song.” I knew exactly what it was. It was my handwriting. I remember the day we recorded it. My song was this thing I wrote after music class, and we had to build our own instruments out of PVC. I made a flute, but I couldn’t get any noise out of it, so then I made this thing like a kazoo. It was just a tube with a comb and tissue paper. I couldn’t get much sound out of it, but I figured out a way to play “Let It Be.” My sister asked me if that was my favorite song, and I said that it was. Then she asked me to write my own song. This was about six years ago. The song I wrote sounded a lot like “Let It Be,” but my mom said it was original and asked if she could record me playing it on my homemade kazoo. I am embarrassed to say that I remember what I was wearing. I got all dressed up. She called it a recording session. I was wearing the tweed coat I got as a hand-me-down from my cousin in Philadelphia. It was just an audiocassette, so it’s pretty funny that I cared about clothes.
4. I read an early draft of this story to some of my creative writing students at the university. They wanted to know if my story provided an example of an ambiguous ending. A young woman raised her hand. She announced that she didn’t think Elliot killed himself. She looked at me directly and said, “Tell me I’m right.” I asked my students where they had heard this notion of the ambiguous ending. I asked them what made them think my ending was unclear. 3. When I walked out of the garage for the last time, I was singing my kazoo song in my head. I was carrying the noose, but I left the tape in the box, and pushed it back on the shelf between the soccer ball and the tennis racquets. I was thinking at first that I would climb up the ladder, tie the noose to the branch, then kick away the ladder. The Maple Tree is the one who asked me to change my plan. The Maple Tree told me it would be okay to sit on his branch for a while before I hanged myself. The ladder is on the ground now. It fell backwards, a little toward the hill. I am glad I have sat here for a while. I think The Maple Tree has been trying to get me to calm down, but all I feel is really crazy. I don’t mean that I am actually crazy. I am clear-headed. I know what I have to do. All I have to do is jump or slide off the branch. Things are really fucked up right now. 2. The Maple Tree stood as monument to self-sufficiency. Roots and leaves and branches had come to belong only to trunk, stems and limbs. It would be easy to see this Maple as a symbol of something more, a sign of longevity or filial continuity, a literal family tree. While it may be stretching things to say that the tree had sentience, this particular Maple knew something about the ways nylon rubbed against layers of bark. Though it’s too much to ask a tree to speak of how to bear the weight of tire swings, this tree might want us to know certain truths about why a boy one September would play tag in its shade, why that same boy, some different September, would hang himself when he got home from school. 1. I am so fucked up right now. I consider saying goodbye out loud to The Maple Tree. The Maple Tree tells me he can hear me. The Maple Tree can’t exactly read my mind, but I am on his branch with the noose, and the ladder is on the ground, and he knows what I am going to do. He doesn’t like it, but The Maple Tree accepts it. I ask him what will happen if I jump and end up swinging here, dying slowly, struggling. He tells me that he won’t let me suffer. He tells me that if this is what I really want, then he will make sure that everything goes as planned. I kind of feel bad for The Maple Tree. My parents will probably blame him. I wouldn’t be surprised if a week from now he was
chopped up into firewood. Come to think of it, maybe that is why The Maple Tree doesn’t want me to die. Maybe The Maple Tree is being selfish and only wants to save me so he can save himself, but I don’t think so. The Maple Tree is simple. He cares about living things. The wind is blowing. Someone somewhere is grilling. I like fried chicken more than I like grilled chicken. We used to go to a place called the Golden Rule in Plano that had the best chicken and gravy. I heard someone got sick from e coli bacteria. They closed the place down. I like Italian food more than I like Mexican food. My sister is a vegetarian. This is going to hurt.
Luminous Forms Michael Felberbaum Wesleyan’s Graduate Program in Liberal Studies limits students to a maximum of three courses with the same professor. Knowing this, I decided to pocket a third course with Professor Anne Greene, the Director of Wesleyan’s renowned writing program, and save it as a swan song. It was to be the crowning achievement of my, well, long graduate career. My Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies will have taken me two years longer than it took my wife to earn her PhD in Molecular Biology. I thought: let’s just hope Anne and I live that long. Saving the final course with Anne was not just about “saving the best for last.” It was also self-protective. The second course, New Trends in Writing, reminded me even more forcefully than the first, Voices in Fiction and Non-Fiction, that my writing was not just a mess, it was also boring: it was stiffer and less interesting than a rake. You can do something with a rake. What was anyone doing with my writing? Not reading it. Don’t get the wrong idea. Anne never said: “Michael, your writing is a mess.” No, she did worse: she actually cared about me. She heard what I was trying to say. So, she told me all kinds of helpful things that meant I had to give up “Being an Author” and actually do the hard work of making something worth reading. Anne would urge me: “Michael, you need to learn how to move your pieces.” I was tempted to take the essay I had written, place it on the table, pick it up, and relocate it a foot to the left. I can be sufficiently literal when the situation demands it. However, to no one’s surprise, in the fall of 2012, well before I was ready for a swan song, I found myself signing up for a third course with Anne. You simply cannot expect someone who chose to get a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies to stick with the plan. The course was entitled Luminous Forms. When I told my wife, Rachael, about it, she said: “It sounds great, Mike, but I have no idea what a luminous form is.” “Me neither,” I said. “Maybe it’ll make sense after I take the class.” *** Anne started each night of Luminous Forms the same way she opened Voices and New Trends. Although the students had different names and faces, they were all basically the same: “I-don’t-know-what-to-write” was across the table from me, on the other side of the seminar room. “I’m-doing-a-memoir-that’s-really-a-confessional-andI’m-really-anxious-about-it” sat to my left. “I’m-really-struggling-to-say-somethingoriginal-and-deep” was playing out in my own mind, just like it was in Voices and New Trends.
Downey 100 would fall into a hush when Anne would walk in. She’d stride in with bluster, say a few general hellos and then seat herself at the head of the square table. In front of her, she’d unpack papers, shuffling them into small piles. And then she would brush back her thick black hair with her right hand, pull it to the side, lean on her hair and hand, and look out at the room, beaming. She always looked shocked to see a room full of students beaming back at her. Could we be the luminous forms? Then, she would begin: “How ARE you dear ones?” “I’m so glad to see you!” “You’re writing really is getting better!” “Tell me, what is going on with your pieces.” During class, Anne leads students through their own morass. For two and a half hours of class time everyone has the liberating and unsettling feeling that he is going to get there, but he’s not quite sure where there is. No one is left out. Anne empathizes with the creative struggle: “The thing you want to write is always vanishing. At noon it’s right here and now it’s all the way across the room.” She redirects wayward energy. “Let the reader have the realization while you make a mess all over the page.” She worries about morale. “You’re entitled to act like people who know how to write.” She encourages self-confidence. “You have to believe you have organization. How else do you walk across the room?” And it isn’t always easy. She demands specifics and offers abstractions. “Write what feels to you like its own world.” Huh? She gives instructions no one could follow. “Always have a narrator present.” She issues impossible assignments. “Write the second to last page of your piece now. You have 10 minutes.” And her critiques mystify. “Once you decide where you are in your piece you will have no trouble writing from that position.” For a woman who calls all her students “loves” and “dear ones” she pulls no punches. Two minutes alone with her and your self-deception is gone. “Michael, you tend to become enmeshed in abstract questions of having defined something sufficiently. Not all readers will care about that level of the question.” Really, Anne? Really. The final conference at the end of Luminous Forms began like all the others. I waited outside of Anne’s office while she met with another student who was talking excitedly about his final piece. I could hear her tell him to stay in touch. After he walked out, I walked in. Downey 207, Anne’s office, feels like you would expect an English Professor’s office to feel: cramped—you might kick over a pile of papers in crossing your leg; and, welcome—you sit in the warm glow of someone who loves what she does. Anne was in her usual position in her wooden armchair, head on her hand, eyes on me, excited. “Hi, Dear! Your writing has transformed! Have you noticed?”
I smiled. For the first time in a final conference with Anne, I felt I could relax. “What do you think has changed, Anne?” “Well, before it was like everyone was telling you to go left and you insisted on going right. I would tell you to make your ideas concrete, and you seemed to think I was telling you to write for the Ladies Home Journal.” I looked around her office at all the books, recalling how six years ago I desperately wanted to write my own. I thought of the ominous forms hanging on my office wall: publisher’s rejection letters that still haunt me. In my desperation for success, I would dash off a piece, print it out and read it to myself thinking that it was the best thing ever written. It all seemed so smart. Then, I would hand it in. Somehow, in that silent exchange with Anne, my enthusiasm for the piece would evaporate. Gone. I’d go home and reread the essay with dread: how could I ever think this was good? The next day I’d read it again, outraged. How could I write such crap? “It seems weird to me that I write so much crap,” I said. “It reminds me of drawing. I find it odd that I could be looking at a car and trying to draw it, and what comes out are a bunch of lines and random marks that look nothing like a car. Wouldn’t it make more sense if what I drew looked at least somewhat like what I see? It doesn’t seem to be a very intelligently designed system. I’m looking at a car, why am I drawing random shapes? Anyway, it seems the same with writing.” Anne just laughed. “Well, if you’re not completely sick of me by this point in time, and if the Program would allow it, would you consider being an advisor for an independent study before I graduate?” I asked. “Are you kidding? Gladly. We’re practically relatives at this point!” I left our conference, and Downey 207, without asking Anne what she meant by Luminous Forms. Of course I could ask her any time, but I prefer to wonder. Once, after my first class with Anne, she asked me to explain how I saw philosophy, which she knew I loved. I’m not sure what prompted her to ask, aside from the fact that, in the name of philosophy, I was handing in one impenetrable mess after another. We were standing near the blackboard in the front of the seminar room Downey 100 – all the other students had filtered out – and though I was still trying to explain how I saw philosophy, I gradually became aware of her standing in front of me, of myself talking, of the room, and felt a general sense of returning to earth. The words, which had been pouring from my mouth, started to slow to trickle. I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. However, I looked at Anne and saw the “Aha, I gotcha” look on her face. She said, “It’s like coat hangers.” Six years later I’m still wondering what she meant about coat hangers, and now, a month or so after completing Luminous Forms, I’m wondering what she meant by that. I’ll probably wonder about it for the rest of my life. It’ll be worth it.
THE LOWEST PRICE Diana Ip A dry hot summer brought an early fall, so even in new September the trees and grass in the nearby park began to show a yellow cast and the squirrels scrounged furiously. In the lines of rowhouses surrounding the park, parents brought home notebooks and pencils in preparation for the start of school, gardeners preserved the fruit left on their small trees, and children turned in earlier with autumn’s waning days. For Bernard Li, fall was usually a propitious time, when people preferred piping hot food with cooling temperatures. But this year, he met the change of season with an uneasiness that sallowed his skin and deepened the lines across his forehead. He slammed the door as he entered his take-out and trudged toward the back room where his wife, Mei Lin, sat wrapping wontons on a small clumsy stool of scrap wood, nearly squatting the stool was so low. She could tell by the way he entered that something was awry, so when he walked into the room, she was already staring straight at him. Bernard thrust his arms upward, his eyes following their trajectory to some point in the ceiling before finally settling on his wife. “It’s over,” he said. The next-door neighbor’s dog began to yelp. Mei Lin’s eyes and mouth widened into O’s. “Say it isn’t true!” The unmade wonton slipped from her hand. “I saw the words with my own eyes, ‘Four Seas Chinese Take-Out Coming Soon.’” Bernard yelled this though his wife sat less than two feet away. “When?” “Soon. I don’t know. Soon.” “What are we going to do?” “It’s over.” They barely said another word to each other that evening, glumly performing their tasks in the kitchen. Bernard eyed his customers suspiciously imagining each as a potential traitor who, in a week or two when the new take-out opened, might opt to go there instead. All summer long, they had been haunted by the empty store. For as long as they could remember, it had been a convenience store run by a Filipino family. One year ago, Joe and Melissa Santos did not want to believe that the new supermarket, several blocks north, could doom their business of fifteen years. First, Joe went to speak to the owner to strike a deal about who could sell what, but he found there was no owner to speak to, only a pursed-lip manager who said Joe would have to speak to a regional manager above him, a distribution manager above that, and Joe lost track of the others who were above the first two. The Santos’ lowered their prices to compete with the big store. When customers didn’t return, they attempted to fill their shelves with things the supermarket would not carry — short grain rice, adobo mix, miniature flashlights, ten varieties of
scratch-n-sniff stickers — but they were bound by what their wholesaler offered, and the wholesaler, beginning to feel the squeeze of so many groceries closing, had to limit its stock, too. One day, after throwing out yet another crate of rotten fruit and vegetables, the Filipino couple realized they were too deep in the red to turn things around. The Santoses went to the take-out to say good-bye. The Lis never saw them again. When they tore up the shelves, removed the refrigerators and freezers, the store became a dark hole. There were no remnants of the Santos’ fifteen years. At night, when Bernard and Mei Lin walked the six blocks from their take-out to their small apartment, they passed the empty store, and stood there looking in. Beyond his reflection on the glass, Bernard made out the faint lines leading to the back room, which the Santoses used as storage until the last days when they slept there to save on rent. The layout of the store was identical to the take-out, but something about the entryway to the back room — the dimmest light seeming to throb and flicker from within — reminded him of the old house he grew up in, of walking at night into the room where his mother laid dying, his sister fanning a small fire in the stove to heat their mother’s herbs. Bernard did not see his mother when she passed, he was already in America by then, working two dishwashing jobs while taking notes from a sixty-five year old arthritic on how to run a take-out. The image of the empty store stayed with him, keeping him up nights. The FOR RENT sign was intact for months, dust gathered in clumps on the floor. Then one morning in August, Bernard and Mei Lin saw butcher paper covering the storefront window and the FOR RENT sign gone. They peered through the tiny gaps between the sheets, but couldn’t make out what was forming inside. They speculated: a butcher shop because of the butcher paper, a florist because the neighborhood did not have one, a liquor store because a brand new one seemed to pop up every week, a shoe repair shop because Bernard needed such a place, the soles of his loafers wearing thin. The possibility of a Chinese take-out was always in the back of their minds, but neither wanted to make it true by speaking it. The space, while not tiny, was not big either, so only a one or two person-operation, like theirs, would fit comfortably. Each time a store in the neighborhood was up for rent, the Lis got nervous. The opening of another take-out would jeopardize their monopoly. The Chinese food they served was for those who did not know Chinese food. Neither were considered good cooks by their families, but here it didn’t matter. A white sauce covered half the dishes on the menu, a brown sauce the other half. Still, the Lis grew to enjoy cooking, and occasionally surprised themselves with small new discoveries to improve their dishes. They had hoped that no thinking person would decide to set up another Chinese take-out just two blocks away in a neighborhood with no Chinese – the Santoses were the closest they found, connected by skin color but little else. Every day, on their way to and from their take-out, Bernard and Mei Lin gauged the progress of the new place. One day they saw two men carrying a stove into the store. “Are you the owners?” Bernard asked with the sternest voice he could muster. “No,
we’re the contractors.” Bernard stepped back to make room for them to cross. The Lis looked through the open door after the men. Inside, the equipment gleamed. The men set the stove next to the woks, and a pair of stainless steel sinks sat opposite the stove. Bernard’s eyes watered up as he smelled the new paint, a heat expanded inside him filling up his stomach and throat. The take-out was ready for business. Two days later, the day they had been dreading for weeks finally arrived. During their morning walk to work, the Lis saw two people busily adjusting a sign inside the storefront window. It read, “Grand Opening!” in yellow and blue. Bernard froze, his eyes stuck on the sign, then on the two people fidgeting with it. They were an old couple, much older than Bernard and Mei Lin — the man with a visible hunch, the woman with an age-spotted face and eyes, magnified by thick glasses, resembling an owl — they looked like they could barely lift a wok. When the hunched man and owl-face woman saw the Lis, their initial response was a wide smile — a greeting — but as though Bernard’s frozen state told them all they needed to know, the old couple’s smiles transformed to glares. Mei Lin pulled Bernard from the window. He watched them watch him disappear into the distance. “Those people are scum,” Bernard started, “Those people.” “They’re probably Hakka people, the old working ‘til they get older, and the older working ‘til they get older still,” Mei Lin said. “Yes, you’re right. They must be Hakka.” Later, when his wife slid a paper-wrapped order across the counter to a customer, Bernard commanded, “Give them free fortune cookies.” Mei Lin did as her husband said because she thought it was a good idea, and because that customer was pleased, they offered free fortune cookies to every customer that day. The next morning they decided to take a detour to avoid the new take-out. “The sight of them makes me sick!” Mei Lin said as soon as she awoke. Bernard spat into the sink. The detour added ten minutes to the commute from their one-bedroom apartment to their take-out, forcing them to cross a small park where the paths were paved with pebbles that pushed up spitefully through Bernard’s thin-soled shoes. “I hate walking here,” he spat out each word. “I hate them for making me walk through here.” A few mornings later, he had a revelation: “We cannot allow them to make us live like this. We were here first!” So, the Lis took the path they had walked for twelve years. When they passed the new take-out, the hunched man and owl-face woman were peering out their window, from the very spots where they stood the last time. The couples stared at each other. Something like a growl came out of Bernard, and through the glass, it looked as though a similar response came from the other two. That day, a little boy came by and stuffed something through the Lis mailbox at the take-out. When Bernard picked up the flimsy yellow paper folded in half, he saw at
once that it was a menu from Four Seas. “How dare they!” He raised a fist, crushing the paper in his hand. When he stepped outside looking for the boy, he saw that all along the block, flimsy yellow menus were stuffed and partially inserted in mailboxes and door jams. Bernard quickly snatched the menus from every door. When he reached the end of his block, he saw the faint yellow dotting the following block. When he finished with that block, the yellow dotted the block after. Soon, he was out of breath, so with a stack of menus under his arm, he turned back. Mei Lin was restocking fortune cookies when Bernard returned. He slammed the stack on the table where she worked. The menus had been professionally printed. Secretly, they were in awe of the neat typeface and evenly spaced print. With just a few exceptions, the dishes and prices, even the hours, were identical to that of the Lis’ takeout. “There’s only one way to fight this now,” Bernard declared. “We will cut our prices by twenty-five cents.” “Twenty-five cents! But our prices are already so low,” Mei Lin said, but because she couldn’t think of another solution, she went along. The Lis stayed late that evening marking their menu with new prices. They taped a large sign on their window announcing, “New Low Prices.” The plan proved effective. A few more customers came in than usual, but to bring in the same money as before — which was not a large amount but enough to pay rent, put food on the table, keep the business running, and put away a little for sending to Bernard’s father still in China — the Lis had to serve many more customers. They decided to open an hour longer each day. Every morning, they maintained the ritual of walking by Four Seas and sneering at its owners, who were always there as though they waited for them. Bernard thought they looked like a pair of scrawny birds, perched in the same spot day in and day out protecting their nest. Though months passed, the “Grand Opening” sign still hung. One day, they noticed a yellow sign on the door: “New Lower Prices.” The hunched man and owl-face woman watched the Lis’ surprised reaction. Bernard thought he saw a smirk on the old hunchback’s face. Peering into the windows of Four Seas after hours, Bernard learned that they had cut prices ten cents below the Lis’ current “low” prices. “That’s thirty-five cents lower than our original. We can’t go any lower than that. How about we just make the prices the same and call it even?” Mei Lin’s back was beginning to ache. “Silly woman, what good would that do? We’ve got to run them out of here!” Bernard snatched the chalk they used for the menu. “We will go another ten cents below them, and watch them writhe with pain!” Mei Lin covered her face with her hands.
The Lis hung a new sign on their window: “New Lowest Prices.” Customers, who seldom registered more than boredom at the counter, were thrilled. An egg roll was now fifty-cents, a pint of pork fried rice only two dollars and a quarter. Word about the low prices spread, and from opening to closing the waiting room had a customer or two. But even so, the Lis still brought in less than before. To trim costs, Bernard took out a few light bulbs in the rooms and in the refrigerators, unplugged the television and radio, and though he wouldn’t admit it, ate less. Mei Lin suggested using less meat, more onion, lard instead of canola oil, but Bernard was reluctant to lose even one customer. On their way home at nights, the Lis peered into Four Seas. Their prices had not changed again. Bernard imagined the old hunchback and his owl-faced wife sitting in their empty take-out swatting flies. He couldn’t help but smile to himself. For some reason during the next several weeks, the Lis did not see the old couple. The store was dark except for a dim light from the back room. The light seemed to flicker like a candle when Bernard stared hard at it. Then next time they saw their rivals, something about the older couple was markedly different. First, the only light in the store was a dim flickering from the back room, so the older couple was illuminated in a ghostly manner, standing on the spot where they always stood. They looked skinnier, more tired, their wrinkles like deep crevasses. As the Lis passed, the old hunchback began to cough uncontrollably, his owlfaced wife reaching over to gently rub his back. The sight was pathetic, and the Lis had to turn away. Without a word, they walked swiftly to their own take-out, and found a note at their door. “My husband is very sick, and at such prices we cannot afford to get him better. Please return to your original prices, and we will do the same.” The note was signed by “Mrs. Wing” and was written on the back of a Four Seas menu. The Lis thought hard about this. Mei Lin wanted to concede: “So we all eat a little less, but we all get to eat.” But Bernard feared that by doing so would bring the demise of their own business. “There is no room for two take-outs,” he said, “one of us has to go.” Because they could not agree, they took a few days to decide, and during which the Lis took the detour each morning even though the soles of Bernard’s shoes had worn through by then and the walk was excruciating. One day when the temperature was unseasonably warm, the sun shone as though it were mid-summer, and Bernard’s sore feet could no longer be soothed with hot water, the Lis made a decision: they would agree to return to original prices if the Wing’s would change their menu to dishes which the Lis did not serve. “We’ll go over to negotiate tomorrow,” Bernard declared. The Lis got up earlier than usual the next morning. They practiced what they would say to the Wings, how they would respond to their questions, what they would
agree to and what they would not. Bernard put on a new shirt and Mei Lin put down her hair. When they approached Four Seas, they saw that an ambulance was doubleparked in front of the store and a crowd had formed. Bernard and Mei Lin could not see the source of commotion, so they asked a bystander what was happening. “There’s an old man on the stretcher,” the bystander said, and just then, a stretcher carried by two men, passed them. On the stretcher was the old hunchback, his eyes closed, mouth wide open. Trailing behind was the owl-faced wife who cried and cried and followed the men into the ambulance. Bernard and Mei Lin turned to each other, the gusto of that morning’s preparation suddenly melted, and they walked to their take-out silently. For weeks, Four Seas was closed. Bernard peered in searching for that flicker from the back, but every light was out and there was no trace of the old couple. The Lis proceeded with returning to original prices, taking down the “New Lowest Price” sign from the window. They also returned to original operating hours. Some customers didn’t welcome the change and didn’t return, but Mei Lin’s back stopped aching and Bernard was on his feet less. They wondered every day about the Wings. How is the old man? When would they return? The mail to Four Seas – mostly flyers and advertisements – piled up on the floor below the mail slot. Weeks went by and no signs or news of the Wings. Then one night, on their way home, the Lis saw that butcher paper covered the window again, and FOR RENT prominently displayed. Months went by and the store stood empty until one day, a new sign appeared: “Coming Soon: Panda Hut, America’s Favorite Chinese Food.” Bernard and Mei Lin sighed deeply when they read this. Over the course of two weeks, contractors installed bright lights, bold colored counters, scrubbed every surface to luster, and hung beautiful framed posters of Guilin, Three Gorges, and the Great Wall. The chain restaurant looked more inviting than every other business on the block. On opening day, they lit firecrackers and offered free samples to passersby. Glossy ads appeared in the local paper with a tempting coupon for a free drink and fortune cookies. Their prices were twenty-cents below the Lis’. The people who worked the counter were pimply teenagers and the cooks included up to five men – a different crew each day – who stir fried pre-measured packages, no knowledge required at all of the food they were cooking.
A BLUE PARKA Diana Keyes I forgot. I didn’t mean to cause your Dad to know that shock again. I was cold. Your jacket is the best—L.L. Bean—and the color you loved best—the autumn sky in the evening. It made you think of God—every autumn. But, then, spring and summer and winter made you think of God, too. You thought about God a lot—too much… What a lot of clothes you had. This was your winter jacket—down with a hood. In fact, you always called it a parka, explaining patiently to me that parkas are longer than jackets, that they cover your hips and keep you warmer in the wind. You never wore the hood but it was there just in case—for every kind of weather—almost… The sleeves were dirty so I took your parka to Ready Now to be cleaned. In the right pocket I found the ticket stubs from the Andre Watts concert two years ago. In the left pocket a wad of Kleenex and four Little Mermaid Band-Aids. You had the gentlest Daddy hand I ever saw… When I got the parka back on Friday, I noticed the label said DO NOT DRY CLEAN—but it didn’t seem to have hurt it. It’s so much cleaner now and it keeps me so much warmer than my old jacket. You wouldn’t have approved because it’s a MEN’s parka. “Go out and get something all your own,” you would say, “You deserve it.” Then you would kiss me. Then you would always say, “You know, I live to love you.” And I would hide my face in your great, warm panda chest and listen to the slow hopscotch of your heart, trying to hide my forever sad eyes and my forever disbelief. And you would hold me away and look at me and say, “You just don’t get it, do you?” And then you would hug me so hard that I thought I was going to disappear right into your heart… I forgot. Your father opened the front door of the house where you grew up and there was your parka with me in it—me—the late interloper into your calm predictable life— the life you hated. I filled your house with children and commotion and the unexpected. One day you shouted, “You make me crazy, but you’re so interesting!” We laughed and laughed… We never speak of you, your Dad and I. The wound of you is too deep… I miss you… I miss you… Now, I have lost your parka. I took the kids from my school on a ski outing and someone at the ski lodge took it. Who would know it was no ordinary blue parka? Who would want the ticket stubs for the Andre Watts concert two years ago or the Little Mermaid Band-Aids or the wad of Kleenex? Who could want more than I to snuggle into your warm parka, your embrace, the furnace of your devotion?
Some people say to watch out what you wish for. They are right. You thought about God too much. You wished God… One evening when the late summer sky was the color of autumn, God wished you, too.
The Photograph Howard Luxenberg First published in Tin House Magazine
It is a strange feeling to see yourself paired in a photograph with the deceased. The dead man is my late uncle, Jake. In the photo we are on the broad green lawn, by the arboretum, a trellis of wild roses serving as backdrop. I am in a tux with hound’s tooth tie and cummerbund; Uncle Jake is in a pale blue evening gown; a Dior, I believe. He has an arm draped over my shoulder in avuncular bonhomie. We are holding cigars and staring at the camera, mugging for it. One thin dark shadow creeps across the lawn at our feet. From the flagpole, I would guess. It’s late afternoon in the photograph. I can see the spot now, through the library windows. It's pretty much the same. The grass and the roses are paler in the sharp light of noon. The library is the only twostoried room in the house, so I'm sitting in the leather wing chair to compensate, I guess, for the vastness of this internal space. I like the library, but only if I'm in this chair. This is the room that most impresses guests. "I would kill for this room," a literary friend of Father's confessed once, and promptly fell into a thoughtful silence in which, I swear, she was working out exactly whom she would have to kill for this room to become hers. The wall facing the arboretum is mostly windows, twenty feet tall, and paned. The three remaining walls are books, each tunneled by a door, and, in one case a fireplace. (We once played Cask of Amontillado in that fireplace; I stood inside it while my brothers bricked me in with books until my screams brought Mother.) You'll want to know about Jake's evening gown and his death. I'll get to that. Right now I want to tell you, selfishly, about how I feel seeing myself in this photograph. "Strange" is too vague. I feel out of place, like I had worn the wrong clothes to a party. Dressed up, when everyone else was casual. Or maybe the reverse: I imagine death is a more formal place than this. Still, that's not quite it. The picture looks to me like one of those marvels of modern special effects, where some of the characters are live actors, and some are cartoons. I am the live actor, Jake is the cartoon. We're from two different worlds now. I can't quite explain it. Go find a picture of yourself with someone you love who's dead. You'll see what I mean. Jake is the youngest of my father's three brothers. In the picture, he is in his forties. He is wealthy, like my parents, like all his brothers. Balzac said that behind every great fortune is a crime. The crime behind ours is the Civil War. The Blue and the Grey: we outfitted the Blue. Millions of shoddy over-priced uniforms that lasted barely long enough for their owners to die in. Afterwards we could afford to make better uniforms, and price them fairly. We diversified into commercial uniforms: the grease monkey under your car is probably wearing one of our coveralls. That's all sold now, and invested. We live off the return.
On those occasions where he must dress up, Uncle Jake wears only women's clothes. No make-up, no wig. He doesn't shave his legs. I asked him why. "I like them. Besides it puts everyone else at their ease; makes them less defensive. See, Ty, everyone’s worst social fear is humiliation. They realize that any humiliation that befalls them will pale in comparison, and they are put at ease.” It was true; I never went to a bad party with Jake. I liked to hang around Jake at parties because he attracted women. The debs, burnished bronze by the sun, mouths full of perfect white teeth, faces flush with daiquiris and yearning. Or so I imagined. The bravest would leave her clutch and approach Jake, as if on a dare. "Hi, I'm Sandy." A hand offered at the end of a straight arm. Jake takes the hand, which is expecting to be shaken, and brings it to his lips. "I'm Jake. Pleased to meet you, Sandy." Then the inevitable compliment. (And why not? Sandy is beautiful, or at least pretty; charming and willing to be charmed, dressed so as to elicit an honest compliment.) "You look stunning. The earrings, the earrings are perfect." This creates a certain confusion in Sandy, who must, she feels, return the compliment. The self-possessed ones bring it off without a hitch: "You look perfect yourself." If she says this with a wry smile, and doesn't convulse into girlish laughter, I find myself smitten. The other debs walk over and Sandy introduces them. They are dying to ask. What? They don't know exactly. They want an explanation. If you are disfigured, or lacking a limb, people want to know why. You owe us an explanation. "This is Tyler." Most of us here are Tylers. But it's my given name as well. "Ty." I correct him. "Just Ty. Ty Tyler." Again the straight arm, dangling a hand, from Sandy. I shake it. I am not my uncle. "You're wondering, where do I shop?" Jake always meets their expectations obliquely. "The S_____ shop." (I can never remember the name, and besides, it changes.) "The first visit is always the most difficult. They have to be brought up to speed. 'What size? Who's it for?' the clerk asks. 'Size twelve. For me.' There's usually a stand-off at this point, although the better New York shops take it in stride. But in this case it's a first, because the clerk repeats herself. Brightens actually. 'Who's going to wear it?' I'm such a kidder, she thinks. "'I am. I'm going to wear it.' Now she's flustered. She's looking for a catch, a way out. She sees one. 'Are you from one of those TV shows?' She's looking over my shoulder for an accomplice. 'What is this?'
"'This is a man, attempting to buy a gown, to wear to his nephew's wedding. This doesn't happen very often, but it's happening now. It takes a little getting used to. The better shops offer their customers a little sherry. Perhaps you could join me in a glass.'" "Would you like a drink? Can I get you a drink?" Sandy wants a drink, or wants rather, to accept his offer of hospitality, but doesn't want to stop the story. I say: "I'll get drinks. Daiquiris okay?" Jake continues: "I say to the clerk, 'I do this all the time, but you don't. I'm discerning, but I won't waste your time. I'd like to spend about two grand, but if we see something extraordinary, more is okay. Okay?' Sometimes the mention of money helps ground them." Sandy's look says her gown cost considerably less than two grand. Jealousy or awe? I like Sandy. Let it be awe. I said I’d get drinks but I don’t. I stay to watch the rest of Sandy’s reactions. Look in vain for some defining instant that set Jake on his course of wearing dresses. Some childhood humiliation. Some adolescent misadventure. If you must have a reason, imagine this: Jake is thirteen, and is dressed as a girl for a costume party. The young lady of his current desire is disarmed by his sheep’s clothing; a brief and poignant sexual encounter ensues – well, you get the picture: dresses are lucky for Jake. It never happened. ******** We are at the funeral home, making the arrangements. The pressing issue is this: what is the corpse to wear? A dark funerary suit, of course. I was sent to Uncle's pied-a-terre to retrieve the mortuary togs. I wanted to loiter among his private papers. I didn't. I went straight to his closet, mindful of my purpose. Forget black: there wasn't a suit of any color. Nothing but dresses, not even a pantsuit such as a smart young female broker might wear to a weekend lunch with a client. I reported back the news. "Well, we'll close the coffin." Mother, ever the practical one, to the funeral director. "As you wish. But he still has to wear something." I was dying to ask why. I imagine the thought of being naked at his own funeral would have pleased Jake. Of course he would have wanted an open casket in that case. "We'll have a suit made." It fell to Mother to enforce the proprieties. She swam the English Channel as a younger woman; getting a suit made in a day for a dead man didn't seem like much of an obstacle. She was reduced, after a dozen calls, to complaining that nowadays there were a few things money couldn't buy. "Just put him in the Halston and close the damn casket." My Father.
The Halston cost four or five grand, and I knew mother intended to auction it for charity. She had always thought it needlessly extravagant and the auction was the chance to redeem it in her eyes. She wasn't about to stick it in the ground. "Not the Halston." "What then? Just panty hose and a bra?" "The Halston's a red herring. Face the issue: is he going to be buried as a man or a woman?" "He's a man. We can't do anything about that. The issue is his clothing." "Had he left instructions, he would have insisted on a dress. Probably the Halston." “We would have a judge vacate that request.” “Probably not.” My brother, one of several family lawyers, corrected Mother. The funeral parlor has recessed lighting, like an airplane’s. How appropriate. The funeral director is an unctuous man smelling of too much aftershave. Polo, in our honor. Jake would have called him on it. “May I make a suggestion?” The funeral director is addressing Mother. “No.” Then to me: “Get one of your suits.” “Won’t fit.” And not fitting. Mother glares at each of us in turn: me, my brother James (the lawyer of the unfavorable legal opinion), Father, Polo the Funeral Director. Finally at Jake. I had seen her give Jake this look before. It was Thanksgiving. The big dining room table groaning with food so perfect it looks lacquered. Pride of place goes to two huge turkeys, glazed to brown perfection. On their legs are these incredible lace doilies. I have no idea what they are called; you see them on rack of lamb. But these are more elaborate, they look like something you’d find in a Poultry Victoria’s Secret. This must be what Jake is thinking too, because when Mother hands him the carving knife and fork, and asks him to do the honors, he pauses. He stares at the turkey nearest him, draws our attention to it. He shakes his head. He puts the carving knife down. “I can’t do it.” Then he brightens. He grabs a leg in each hand and pulls them ever so gently apart. “But I’d love to take it upstairs and fuck the stuffing out of it.” Mother gives Jake a look of such withering contempt that it spawned its own name. After that Thanksgiving, whenever Mother got that look, we would caution each other: “Watch out for Mother: she’s got that fuck-the-turkey look in her eyes.” ******** “I want a girl.” Mother expressed her desires in simple imperative sentences, the desire and its anticipated fulfillment joined. Had she wanted light, she would have said simply “I want light,” in much the same tone as Jehovah’s,“Let there be light”. In either case, there would be light. I don’t mean she was spoiled or capricious, or that she expected to be waited on in her desires. “I want a girl,” meant that she was about to
embark on the process of adopting one; that she would overcome all obstacles with the firmness of her resolve and the resources at her disposal; and that her resolve and her resources were considerable. “A servant?” Father misunderstood. “No. Of course not. A girl of our own. A daughter.” “Oh.” “We’ll have to adopt. You don’t think I’m serious. I’ve thought about this.” “Okay.” I have seen Father adopt this strategy before. The quick acquiescence to something of enormous moment, so that the burden of raising the obvious objections falls suddenly on the proposer. Mother seemed not to have heard him. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little girl?” “Okay. Do it.” “Don’t you want to think about it?” “It’s okay. Go ahead.” “We’re talking about a person here. A change in our life.” “A daughter, to be specific. It’s okay.” “You’re bluffing. You don’t think I’m serious. You think this is some postmenopausal burp or something. I’m serious. Don’t pull that ‘it’s okay’ shit with me.” “What ‘shit’? You want to adopt a girl. We need a coxswain for the family shell. Just make sure she’s petite and not afraid of the water.” I didn’t exactly witness this scene, of course. I’m imagining it, based on what I know of my parents’ style of arguing. When we were growing up we used to Indian wrestle with Father. When we were very young, he would beat us by failing to counter our exertions, so that our own exuberance would throw us off balance. By the time we learned this stratagem we had moved on to other forms of competition. Mother insisted we all come to dinner, and there she broke the news. “You’re going to have a sister.” Unlike her desires, which were delivered in the imperative, her declarations always had a faint undertone of the interrogative. I said, “You’re pregnant? I thought...” Mother saved me. “I am. Past menopause. We’re adopting. Try to behave while we’re in the process. You’re the evidence that we’re capable parents.” “Better go black market in that case.” I don’t remember who said this; it doesn’t matter. We bantered about the unsuitableness of one or another of us as “evidence”. “Can’t any of you be serious? I’m talking about your sister.” Mother rose from the table at this point, as if she were going to propose a toast. “To sister.” I raised my glass. “To sister.” My brothers joined me. I think Father wanted to, but he knew better. Mother’s face congealed into the fuck-the-turkey look. She left the table and did not return with dessert. ********
Mother swam the Channel Calais to Dover, recapitulating a journey her ancestors had made shortly after 1066. They used boats. Six hundred years later a branch of her family crossed the Atlantic, starved, froze, endured and planted their family on New World soil. The family flourished: it sprouted farmers and ministers; then judges, statesmen, physicians, bankers and the occasional black sheep. It was a predominantly male line: some anomaly in the sperm or the conjugal habits yielded mostly men. I have three brothers. Father, as I've said, has three brothers. Father likes the idea of adopting a Vietnamese girl because the eight of us â€“ he and his brothers, me and mine â€“ could crew a family shell, but we lack a coxswain. A petite girl would be perfect. "We are adopting a child, not a part of a boat." Mother. But I see what my father sees: eight sturdy Tylers, two generations at the oars, average weight 205 pounds, ruddy with exertion, pulling together to the cadence called by a porcelain complexioned Asian girl, her black pony tail gathered in a silver clasp. He sees it like a picture, gilt framed, above the mantel, emblematic of everything he hopes we are. You would think it a simple thing for a wealthy, connected family to adopt a child. But my parents learn at the adoption agency that they are old. "How old are you?" Mother sees the trap: "Old enough to raise a child." She is not used to being a supplicant; she doesn't know the forms. The agency woman, young, heavy, frowns. "The ideal candidate is between thirty and forty. Studies show..." Mother waves her off, but the agency woman continues her theme. "Have you the energy to keep up with an active child. Most people think these children are docile, especially the girls, they've seen too many bad movies with that polite oriental stereotype. But children are children. Little children are particularly active." "Oh. I'm so glad you told me. I thought we'd just put her in the display case. It worked so well with my boys." Mother's anger is formidable. The mercy she generally shows the world ceases to flow; in its place a laser guided vitriol searches for its mark. "How many children have you raised?" "I have two kids." "That's not what I asked. How many have you raised? How many have reached adulthood." "What?" The agency woman does not understand. Mother presses: "How many? How many adults?" "My children are four and six." "Mine are twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty-seven and thirty. Adult, alive, healthy, courteous, responsible. When you can say the same, in twenty years, if at all, you can pass judgment on my fitness as a parent." Father is watching this with growing mortification. She's tipped the boat here. No coxswain will come of this exchange.
Later, in the privacy of the elevator, he says: "You certainly showed her." "Do you think she hates us because we're white?" "No, she hates us because we're rich." Father had repaired a few breaches in his day, and was assessing the damage. Mother's harangue, while sharp, was essentially defensive. She had made no accusations or disparagements. That was good. It would play well when repeated and the tone declawed. He was already imagining the conversation with the adoption worker's supervisor. Mother's anger would become upset â€“ not a calculated attack, but an overflowing from an internal wound. He was envisioning a hierarchy he would ascend, and with each step in that ascension his wife would become more the aggrieved party, until at the apex he would be face to face with someone as reasonable as he was. If not, at least then he would be free to lock horns with his adversary without feeling like a bully. ******** Mother took Jake's death stoically, but hard. "He was like a sister to me," she admitted in an unguarded moment. Mother was a middle child, sandwiched between two boys. When she left home to marry Father she merely exchanged one barracks for another. She so forgot herself with Jake that she had had a long confiding chat with him about her menopause. "I'm fine one moment, and the next I'm basting in my own juices." "Yes. It's hell on silk. It's never quite right after you've sweated it. They're old fashioned, but have you tried arm guards?" ******** Not fit? Not fit? You could look on a globe, any globe, a small cheap one and see the English Channel, a visible blue distance, and she had crossed it. Not fit? You could stand on the moon and see that separation from a quarter of a million miles away. Not fit indeed. We are not a family of athletes. Rather we are perseverance incarnate, and sometimes that takes the form of athletics. So we tend to run and to row and to swim, activities too boring for real athletes. Our perseverance may be the virtue we make of a certain dullness, the reassurance we find in repetition. Mother with her oars of flesh, sculling across the Channel; father, uncles, brothers, plying our wooden oars. Sisyphean sports. Unwatchable sports. Hardly Aphrodite. Mother standing in the foam at Dover. Her arms and thighs thick. A smile, but her eyes vague with fatigue. Her lips swollen and cracked. Splotches of crisco, all that remains of her coating. As ugly a picture as she has ever taken. The record of the event.
******** I won't take you through all the stations of the cross, which is how Father began to refer to the adoption process. We'll just fast forward to the meeting with the agency head. The crisis that morning was what to wear. Normally, this is not a problem; we are well versed in what is appropriate for all occasions. If you were visiting a self-important bureaucrat on official business you wore a conservative blue suit and a rep tie, something that would flatter his sense of solemn importance. Nothing too fancy, nothing Italian, nothing that would work against the phony seriousness of the occasion. But because we are wealthy, Father was afraid such a suit might take on an intimidating connotation. The sun was beginning to grill up a hot, unpleasant day. Father decided to wear the blue suit, but to carry the jacket and loosen the tie: proof that he could feel the heat just like the next man, suffer it in a democracy of men made equal by common sweat. Mother eschewed her jewelry for this occasion; not even a watch, since time as well as money was the enemy. The thought of dyeing her hair had crossed her mind; she quickly obliterated the thought. She wore the most sensible looking shoes she could find. The meeting was in one of those ponderous federal buildings. Its architecture matched its purpose: monolithic blocky concrete with some whimsical touches that were intended to signal a humanity it didn't possess and could only guess at. It had guessed wrong. The elevator hoisted them to their appointment. The Director of Adoption Services was a thin black woman with a military carriage. She wore a single strand of pearls, identical to the ones Mother had left at home. (According to Father, Mother had all she could do not to call home and make sure hers were still in the jewelry case.) Mrs. Starks did not offer to shake hands. She indicated they should sit in the two chairs facing her desk. There was nothing on her desk, not even a phone. An index card with the word "IN" on it was taped to the corner. Father was recalibrating his opening remarks. He decided to let Ms. Starks go first. "Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. Repeat after me: 'I am 56; Li is 2. When Li is twelve, I will be 66. When Li is eighteen, I will be 72.' You see the problem?" Father says: "I see the prejudice." The thing is, people don't wither under clever retorts, like they do in the movies. They just keep going. Father knows this; his remark escaped the usual vigilance he held over his speech. "'When Li is eighteen, I will be 72.' Just say it. I'm serious. Just say it." Mother said: "When Li is eighteen, I will be 72. When Li is 118, I'll be 172. I'm sorry. I understand your point. I just don't agree with it." "I'm sorry. I'm sorry you don't agree with it. Don't you want what's best for this child, even if what's best isn't you?" The meeting see-sawed back and forth, and grew less heated. Each side made small conciliatory gestures to the other's fundamental decency. They parted on decent terms, but without a child.
It was Jake who found May. "I got you a little girl. She needs a little work. She's four years old. May. May is her name." Mother was visiting him in the hospital, where he lay ravished by chemotherapy. Thin, without hair, he looked like a skull over which a nylon stocking had been stretched. Mother did not understand at first. "Her name is May. Your daughter." How had he managed this, when all her resources, all her perseverance, had failed. She said simply "How?" "I cheated, of course. Still, the adoption, when you and John sign the papers, will be legal." "How?" "A million dollars and a future draft pick." Later Mother would say he made some sort of deal with the devil. His arbitrageur of choice. ******** Mother summoned me and my brothers to a dinner, to meet May. Mother had prepared an elaborate Chinese meal, which I learned was actually Vietnamese. We ate in the formal dining room, which dwarfed the spring rolls and lemon chicken as it had never dwarfed the hams and turkeys. "May escaped Vietnam on a boat not much bigger than this table. And less sturdy." Mother intended by this remark to enlist our sympathy for our new sister. It wasn't necessary: we were long past the age of tormenting the newest family members. May's problem would come from the opposite direction: we were all old enough to be her father and she would be smothered in an avalanche of affection. ******** Jake died while I was away at college: my junior year abroad, in England. I meant to come home sooner. But we believe this of those we are fond of: they will last forever, or at least as long as we need them. I was old enough to know better and should have come sooner. I flew first class. Jake would have approved. "You're rich; that's the simple fact. You didn't earn it, so you don't have to apologize for it. You're just a winner in life's lottery. It's a state of grace; live gracefully. Do good if you see the opportunity, but include yourself. I can't stand these rich folks who ride around in Fords and fly tourist to prove that money hasn't spoiled them. Money spoils you. Bear it like a man." The stewardess was solicitous. People often ask the time of me, or directions. I have an approachable demeanor. It was Jake who pointed this out to me. We were in New York, walking down Fifth Avenue. A striking young lady stopped us. "Do you have the time?" Later I thought of a dozen clever responses; but I was surprised and answered honestly: "Yes." I looked at my wrist. "It's three-twenty." She paused, thanked me, and
was gone. Jake saw me puff up a bit – like I said, the woman was striking – and she had picked me to ask the time of. I was seventeen. Jake said "Easy Tiger. All she wanted was the time. And you look like the sort of decent guy who would give it to her without making her fish in your pants for a pocket watch." Seeing my wounded look, he added, "Sometimes the decent guys get the beautiful girls; it just takes them a little longer. This isn't the movies." The next day I received a package. A pocket watch and a note: "A more generous uncle, in a different century, would have sent you the girl." The stewardess had that British knack of serving without being the least bit servile. "Going home for the Holidays, Yank?" My drinking had made her familiar. It was curious. "No. A funeral." "So sorry." "Yeah. Me too." "Someone close?" "My favorite uncle. Taught me all the manly arts. Cards, pool, playing the horses, drinking, smoking." She patted my arm. The wine, and the drone of the flight, made me sleepy. I dozed. This is how Jake died: slowly, with frequent bouts of hope, from pancreatic cancer. There was nothing particularly meaningful about Jake dying from this, rather than living, or dying in some other fashion. The nurses adored him; it was like the debs all over again. He was witty to the very end, for them. To Mother, he said, in a lucid moment of despair, "Do you believe this shit?" He was referring to the accouterments of the final stage of his illness – the Levine tube, the catheter, the IV. ******** In the end, it was the Halston. You knew it would be. It fit poorly on his wasted body. We closed the casket. For Jake's sake, and for ours. He would not have wanted to be seen that way. He looked pathetic in it. But not everything that looks ridiculous is wrong. Father commissioned a portrait of the Tylers crewing their eight. It is, when you get down to it, a portrait of Jake. He isn't in it; his spot is empty; his oar is shipped. The painter has softened May somewhat; you have to look very hard to see the disfigurement. Her face is shaded by a baseball cap, her black hair spraying out the back. Mother has given it pride of place: it hangs over the mantel in the library.
An excerpt from
SEDUCTION AND REVENGE IN VIRGINIA WOOLF’S ORLANDO
Susan McNamara © The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2011, Vol. 80, No. 3, pp. 619-641, used by permission.
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was characterized by Nigel Nicolson as a “charming love letter” to his mother, Vita Sackville-West. The fictional biography was actually an attempt by Woolf to organize herself after the unbearable humiliation of Vita’s abandoning her for another woman. In imagining, writing, and publishing Orlando, Woolf turns her despair about Vita’s betrayal into a monument of revenge, defending against disorganizing feelings of humiliation, powerlessness, rage, and loss by creating her own scathing portrait of Vita. In the novel, Woolf also intermittently merges herself with Orlando/Vita to create a permanent tie to the woman who—like her mother and sister— excited and rejected her. Virginia Woolf’s closest intimate outside her immediate family was her friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, the subject of Orlando (Woolf 1928). Nigel Nicolson, Sackville-West’s son, described Orlando as the “longest and most charming love letter in literature” (N. Nicolson 1973, p. 202), a characterization many biographers and critics embrace. However, the novel was actually written in a jealous rage in retribution for Sackville-West’s abandonment of Woolf for another woman. It is a measure of Woolf’s brilliance that in Orlando, her first bestseller, she was able simultaneously to revenge herself on Sackville-West and to maintain a permanent tie with her, while staving off despair and giving narrative voice to her fury. When they met in December 1922, Vita intrigued Woolf (Woolf 1978a). They flirted by letter and in Woolf’s basement workroom. By December 1925, Woolf was infatuated with Vita and slept with her. Within the month, Vita left to join her husband in Persia. Woolf missed Vita terribly and wrote long, jealous letters. They maintained a relationship over the next two years as Vita traveled to Persia and back twice. But, shortly after returning from her travels, Vita became embroiled in an affair with Mary Campbell in the summer of 1927; immediately, Woolf suspected and confronted her. Vita persisted and in October 1927, arranged for Mary and her husband to move into a cottage on her property. Woolf felt betrayed by Vita, helpless in the face of the loss of Vita to a rival. This unbearable humiliation drove her to revenge. Five days later, she imagines Orlando, a fictional biography of Vita Sackville-West. Orlando is jokingly characterized and superficially structured by Woolf as a biography, but is actually an anti-novel about the fortunes of the nobleman Orlando, who midway through the book awakens changed into a woman. Woolf plays with the conventions of biography and the novel in many ways, including time and history:
Orlando’s life is followed over a 400-year span, starting during the reign of Elizabeth I when Orlando is sixteen and ending in real time in 1928, when she is in her thirties. In the novel, Queen Elizabeth falls in love with the young Orlando and brings him to her court, where he is showered with great favors, only to betray the queen. After falling in love with the Russian princess Sasha during the reign of King James—and being betrayed by her in turn—Orlando is sent to Constantinople as Ambassador during the seventeenth century. Earning high honors for his services to the Crown, Orlando, in the hinge of the book, turns into a woman and goes to live in the Turkish mountains with a tribe of androgynous gypsies. Soon longing for her ancestral estate, Orlando dons the petticoats of an English noblewoman and sails home. In Restoration England, Orlando dresses as a woman, then as a man, while having multiple adventures through the eighteenth century with writers, poets, and lovers, before bowing to the cultural pressure of Victorian times and marrying Shelmerdine, who is also of questionable gender. Woolf creates Orlando as a man, castrates him, and then uses the character to romp through fantasies of genre and gender. There is a multiplicity of discourse in Orlando, a play of forms that are doubled, redoubled, and redoubled yet again: self/other, love/hate, masculine/feminine, biography/novel, fantasy/reality, chaos/order, and delight/revenge. HUMILIATION AND THE DISRUPTION OF MEANING Although the theme of revenge was neglected for many years in the psychoanalytic literature, Lansky’s article on the impossibility of forgiveness in Euripides’ Medea brought attention to bear on shame fantasies as instigators of vengefulness. Lansky (2004) explores “Medea’s unfolding humiliation and helplessness” (p. 438) when her husband, Jason, abandons her for the princess of Corinth. Medea’s quest for revenge is set in motion by this betrayal by her husband—the loss of a loved one to a rival—as well as by her social isolation. She is no longer loved, sustaining a catastrophic narcissistic injury, and loses her place in the social order. Her “devastation and rage” (p. 438) propel Medea to murder the king and princess of Corinth and her own two sons. As the play closes, she taunts the now-devastated Jason, refusing to give him their children’s bodies for burial. Lansky argues that Medea’s situational shame escalates into anticipatory paranoid shame as she is “convinced she will be mocked by the community” (p. 452). But she is so attached to Jason that she cannot separate from him physically or emotionally; she cannot leave him. “Her humiliation has become utterly unbearable” (p. 451, italics in original), and this realization crystallizes her plan for revenge. After murdering their children and thus projecting her feelings of humiliation, helplessness, and desolation onto Jason, Medea is able to depart “in a state of self-sufficient omnipotent completeness, leaving her distressing mental states with him” (Lansky 2004, p. 460). LaFarge (2006) adds “another critical dimension” (p. 449) to the quest for revenge, characterizing it as
. . . the universal wish to maintain a sense of individual meaning, to pull together the threads of one’s life into a story, and, inextricably tied to this wish, the wish for the sense of an audience, an imagining other, by whom this story will be known and valued. [p. 449] The humiliation or injury is disorganizing, disrupting the avenger’s sense of self—not only her sense of her own meaning and value, but her sense that her story is heard or recognized by “those figures in internal and external reality whose recognition is felt to be of critical importance” (LaFarge 2006, p. 449). LaFarge links the fantasies of construction of meaning and audience to the avenger’s wishes and experiences with her earliest audience, the imagining parent. LaFarge also notes that in early revenge tragedies, “the avenger’s wish to make his story heard is often depicted as a motive as equally powerful as his wish to punish the perpetrator of his injury” (p. 450). Rosen masterfully delineates the psychic functions of revenge in his comprehensive article, “Revenge—The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name” (2007). He notes that revenge denies reality, dominating thought and impelling action despite real consequences or overarching questions of the morality of the act of revenge. Revenge then becomes the flip side of infatuation, with the avenger “falling in hate” (Rosen 2007, p. 605). Rosen cites Captain Ahab’s “wild vindictiveness against the whale” (Melville 1851, p. 226) in Moby Dick as the quintessential portrayal of “revenge-gone-mad” (p. 605). Ahab’s ship is shattered and sunk and his crew lost, and in his “mad quest for revenge,” he is “dragged to his death, fatally and inescapably attached to his white whale” (p. 606). In his rage, Ahab is unable to avert the cascade of events that inevitably leads to the destruction of his ship, his crew, and himself. According to Rosen, revenge also represents a “continuing tie to an exciting/rejecting object” (p. 608). This concept was advanced by Fairbairn and later elaborated by Armstrong-Perlman (1991). Armstrong-Perlman became aware of the traumatic impact of the loss of a relationship for some of the patients admitted to the psychiatric hospital where she worked. Patients arrived “complaining of fragmentation and often a fear of going mad” after such a loss, precipitating a “subjective experience of a disintegrating, beleaguered, overwhelmed self” (p. 344). When Armstrong-Perlman examined these relationships, she saw that “the other was incapable of reciprocating, or loving, or accepting them” in the way the patient desired; “they had been pursuing an alluring but rejecting object; an exciting yet frustrating object” (p. 345). This other was “essentially the elusive object of desire, seemingly there but just out of reach” (p. 345). Armstrong-Perlman relates this to Fairbairn’s theory in which the self develops in the context of its relationship with the parents and is affected by the actual relationship: Actual frustrations lead to the development of accentuated need and to further consequent frustration. Because of this frustration the infant develops an
ambivalent attitude to his objects and is then confronted with an ambivalent object that he finds both exciting and rejecting. It tantalizes and is thus exciting but in as much as it frustrates it is rejecting. [1991, p. 347] The mother then “represents both hope and hopelessness” (p. 347), leading to frustration, rage, and despair. This pattern is endlessly repeated in life and may manifest itself in vengeful hatred as a way of maintaining “our tie to an inner exciting/rejecting object” (Rosen 2007, p. 608). In imagining, writing, and publishing Orlando, Woolf turns her infatuation with Vita Sackville-West, and her rage and despair about Vita’s betrayal, into a permanent monument of revenge that is still in print in several editions. Woolf’s book in context serves a number of psychic functions of revenge. In organizing herself around the writing of Orlando, Woolf defends against her disrupted sense of self and feelings of powerlessness, rage, and loss by omnipotently creating her own version of Vita, and making that version known to Vita (her audience) in a way that could not be ignored. In Orlando, Woolf at times merges herself with Vita to create an eternal tie to the woman who, like her mother and her sister Vanessa, excited and rejected her. Woolf also extracts a sadistic pleasure from outing Vita as promiscuous, of ambiguous gender, and emotionally dead—at a time when Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) had just been banned in Britain. FIRST ENCOUNTERS They met at a dinner party in December 1922 and were instantly attracted to each other. The 40-year-old Woolf recorded in her diary that she had met “the lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville-West,” and wondered if as a “pronounced Sapphist” Vita had “an eye on me, old though I am” (Woolf 1978a, pp. 216, 235). For her part, Vita wrote to her husband, “I simply adore Virginia Woolf … I have quite lost my heart” (SackvilleWest 1985, p. 23). Woolf and Vita exchanged books and visits, and in March 1923, Vita invited Woolf to join the literary society, P.E.N. After initially saying yes, Woolf then declined, ostensibly because of the difficulty of belonging to a dinner club while living in Richmond, some distance from London; but in her diary, Woolf judged Vita and her husband as “incurably stupid” (Woolf 1978a, p. 239). Vita felt snubbed by Virginia’s refusal and the relationship foundered. A year later, in March 1924, Woolf moved to Tavistock Square in central London and within the week invited Vita to lunch. After this visit, Vita wrote, “It was the first time, I think, that I’d been alone with her for long. I went on … my head swimming with Virginia” (Woolf 1978b, p. 94). Vita was the better-selling and more popular author (Lee 1996). Woolf asked Vita if she would publish her next book with Hogarth Press, which Woolf owned with her husband. Vita agreed, and also took Woolf down to her magnificent ancestral estate of Knole to lunch with her father, Lord Sackville. Vita and her husband lived at Long Barn, a
few miles away, and Vita took Woolf there as well. Woolf noted, “All these ancestors & centuries, & silver & gold, have bred a perfect body. She is stag like, or race horse like” (Woolf 1978a, p. 306). Vita left for two weeks of vacation in July 1924, and while away wrote Seducers in Ecuador (Sackville-West 1924). Their letters reflect a growing intimacy, with Vita reiterating to Woolf that she would “rather go to Spain with you than with anyone” (Sackville-West 1985, p. 51), and Woolf rejoining that she enjoyed Vita’s intimate letter, despite its giving her “a great deal of pain—which is I’ve no doubt the first stage of intimacy” (Woolf 1978b, p. 125). Vita replied, “You know very well that I like you a fabulous lot” (Sackville-West 1985, p. 53). After Woolf received the manuscript of Seducers in Ecuador, she admitted to Vita that she was, “extremely proud and indeed touched, with my childlike dazzled affection for you, that you should dedicate it to me” (Woolf 1978b, p. 131). LOSS AND ABANDONMENT Virginia Woolf was born when her mother was thirty-six, the seventh child in the household and the third of the four children of Sir Leslie and Julia Stephen. Her mother ignored the infant, absorbed by caring for her demanding husband and large household, and a year later, the favorite, Adrian, was born. Virginia’s sole way of gaining approval from her mother was as chief writer and editor of the Stephen children’s newspaper, The Hyde Park Gate News; her only moment of her mother’s attention was each Monday morning when Julia read the paper and liked something Virginia had written (Dalsimer 2001). Julia Stephen died when Virginia was thirteen. Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, became completely self-absorbed in his grief. Woolf’s older half-sister and surrogate mother, Stella, died two years later. Her father died when Woolf was twenty-two. Her favorite brother, Thoby, died from typhoid two years later. Woolf was left with no loving family tie to anyone other than her remaining older sister, Vanessa, who was married and busy with her children. At the age of thirty, still struggling to finish her first novel, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, but made it clear that she did so for his dependability and companionship rather than any physical attraction. And over the years, he was indeed the watchful guardian rather than the lover (Lee 1996). Simultaneously with meeting Vita, Woolf lost her friend and rival, 34-year-old Katherine Mansfield, to an early death; Woolf noted feelings of “blankness & disappointment; then a depression” (Woolf 1978a, p. 226). Vita Sackville-West became Virginia Woolf’s first and perhaps only adult erotic love, a bulwark against felt abandonments. Woolf was forty years old and Vita was thirty.
THE LEGS In December 1924, Woolf described Vita to her friend Jacques Raverat as the “daughter of Lord Sackville, daughter of Knole, wife of Harold Nicolson, and novelist, but her real claim to consideration, is, if I may be so coarse, her legs” (Woolf 1978b, p. 150). Woolf also portrays Vita as being of “ravishing beauty, and commanding presence” (Woolf 1978b, p. 153), and in another letter to Raverat, refers to Vita’s elopement with her childhood friend Violet Trefusis, trailing both their husbands: “To tell you a secret, I want to incite my lady to elope with me next” (Woolf 1978b, p. 156). Woolf and Vita correspond frequently, and Woolf encourages Vita to visit her, despite Woolf’s collapse into illness in August 1925. Laid low with headaches and spending most of her time in bed, Woolf pines for Vita, who comes bearing flowers and fruit. Her illness intensifies Woolf’s growing erotic attachment to Vita. She writes long and increasingly explicit letters: I have a perfectly romantic and no doubt untrue vision of you in my mind— stamping out the hops in a great vat in Kent—stark naked, brown as a satyr, and very beautiful. Don’t tell me that this is all illusion. [Woolf 1978b, p. 198] Vita responded the next day, “I like extremely your corybantic picture of me … dancing in the vats… If ever you feel inclined, let me come and carry you off” (SackvilleWest 1985, pp. 61-62). Woolf was not yet well enough to visit Vita, but the two planned a stay together as soon as Leonard and the doctors would permit. Then Woolf was stunned by Vita’s news of October 1925: her husband, a British diplomat, had been posted to Teheran. Vita planned to leave for Persia in January 1926 and would be gone until May. Woolf immediately wrote Vita, “I am filled with envy and despair. Think of seeing Persia---think of never seeing you again” (Woolf 1978b, p. 217). In her diary, Woolf reflects on their relationship: She is doomed to go to Persia; & I minded the thought so much (thinking to lose sight of her for 5 years) that I conclude I am genuinely fond of her … Shall I stay with her? [Woolf 1980, p. 47] Vita is preoccupied with packing for her husband and ignores Woolf, who laments in her diary, “No letter. No visit. No invitation to Long Barn. She was up last week, & never came.” Woolf wonders, “Only if I do not see her now, I shall not---ever: for the moment for intimacy will be gone, next summer … Also I am vain” (Woolf 1980, pp. 48-49). Somewhat desperately, Woolf invited herself to Long Barn. Vita met her in London on December 17 and they drove down to Long Barn together. Woolf stayed three nights, the beginning of their affair (Woolf 1978b). For the next month, until Vita left for
Persia in mid-January 1926, Woolf was obsessed with her, writing Vita several letters imploring her to come visit at Tavistock Square. They met another six times before Vita left on January 20. Woolf’s diary of December 21, 1925, reveals her feelings about this new level of intimacy with Vita: I wound up this wounded and stricken year in great style. I like her & being with her, & the splendor---she shines in the grocers shop in Sevenoaks with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. That is the secret of her glamour, I suppose . . . . What is the effect of all this on me? Very mixed. There is her maturity & full-breastedness: her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down backwaters … But then she is aware of this, & so lavishes on me the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always most wished from everyone. [Woolf 1980, p. 52] Woolf writes several long letters to Vita while she is visiting her husband in Teheran, all variations on how much Woolf misses her and how melancholy she is without her. “But I’m faithful, and loving: and have met no one a patch on you—no one so comforting to be with” (Woolf 1978b, p. 239). And later: “Devil that you are, to vanish to Persia and leave me here!” (Woolf 1978b, p. 241). Ethel Sands asks Woolf to visit, which Woolf relays to Vita: “She says I am very attractive and asks me to stay with her. (I put that in to make you jealous—) … But oh yes—I should awfully like to see you” (Woolf 1978b, p. 242). As soon as Vita arrives back in London in May 1926, Woolf implores her, “Yes, yes, yes. Come at once … Lunch here at 1” (Woolf 1978b, p. 264, Woolf’s italics). Vita comes right away, still in her traveling clothes (Woolf 1980). Over the next year, Woolf publishes Vita’s Passenger to Teheran (1926a; Vita breaks her contract with another publisher to give the book to Hogarth Press), Vita wins the Hawthornden Prize (making Woolf jealous) for The Land (1926b), and the two see and write each other frequently (Lee 1996). Vita’s sons later reported that Woolf “was always there” (B. Nicolson 1970) when they came home on school holidays. Woolf worked on To the Lighthouse (1927), and Vita came and sat on the floor “in her velvet jacket & red striped silk shirt, I knotting her pearls into heaps of great lustrous eggs. She had come up to see me,” wrote Woolf, “—so we go on—a spirited, creditable affair, I think” (Woolf 1980, p. 117). Vita traveled to Persia again from January to May 1927, and in March, Woolf, piqued at not hearing from her, “annoyed sentimentally, & partly from vanity” (Woolf 1980, p. 131), fantasizes a new book, The Jessamy Brides, about two women living at the top of a house with Constantinople in view. “Sapphism is to be suggested … My own lyric vein is to be satirised. Everything mocked. And it is to end with three dots…so” (Woolf 1980, p. 131).
After Vita’s return from Persia, Woolf became terribly jealous of her undisguised entanglements with other women and told her so. Vita replied, “I like making you jealous; my darling, (and shall continue to do so,)” (Sackville-West 1985, p. 213). The same day Woolf responded, “You only be a careful dolphin in your gambolling, or you’ll find Virginia’s soft crevices lined with hooks. You’ll admit I’m mysterious—you don’t fathom me yet” (Woolf 1978b, p. 395). And a few days later, “For yours, you’d prefer oysters [a reference to a Vita conquest, Mary Hutchinson]. Bad Vita, bad wicked Vita” (Woolf 1978b, p. 396). “I forget what has happened since I let you out into the moonlight, to go whoring in Mayfair” (Woolf 1978b, p. 403). Oblivious to Woolf’s rage and pain, Vita had her new lover, Mary Campbell, and Mary’s husband Roy move into the gardener’s cottage at Long Barn on October 1, 1927. Woolf lost the glamorous, aristocratic Vita to another woman—a catastrophic narcissistic injury exacerbated by Vita’s ignoring Woolf’s clear warnings. It must have seemed to Woolf like Vita’s deliberate attempt to humiliate her. Woolf was struggling with writing a new book on fiction, and notes in her diary, “The mind is like a dog going round & round to make itself a bed” (Woolf 1980, p. 156). Woolf was at a creative and personal standstill. THE JOKE Woolf’s sense of hurt and shame escalated—she knew full well that Vita was preoccupied by Mary Campbell and immediately wrote, “Millions of things I want to say can’t be said. You know why. You know for what a price—walking the lanes with Campbell, you sold my love letters. Very well.” Woolf continues: Yesterday morning I was in despair … I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas … [Woolf then asks Vita if she minds.] But listen; suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and its all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell). [Woolf 1978b, pp. 428-429] In later years, Vita said this letter “startled me completely,” and described Orlando as Woolf’s “own strange conception of myself and my family, and Knole, my family home” (Sackville-West 1955). But at the time, Vita gives “thrilled and terrified” permission, with some trepidation about Woolf’s vengeful intentions: “Only I think that having drawn and quartered me, unwound and retwisted me, or whatever it is that you intend to do, you ought to dedicate it to your victim” (Sackville-West 1985, p. 238). Indeed, Orlando is inscribed “To V. SACKVILLE WEST.”
The novel became Woolf’s means of psychic survival in the face of Vita’s devastating betrayal, Woolf’s defense against disorganization, and her attempt to regain her own sense of meaning and value. Woolf wrote in her diary, “The relief of turning my mind that way about was such that I felt happier than for months; as if put in the sun, or laid on cushions” (Woolf 1980, pp. 161-162). She became obsessed with Orlando for the next six months. A few days after Vita’s reluctant consent, Woolf has used her new novel to organize herself and is “writing at great speed” (Woolf 1978b, p. 430), full of sarcastic questions about Vita and her relationships with men and other women. “The truth is I’m so engulfed in Orlando I can think of nothing else” (Woolf 1978b, p. 430). Enraged by Vita’s accusation of leaving her “unguarded,” Woolf engages in a marathon of brutal teasing: “If you’ve given yourself to Campbell, I’ll have no more to do with you, and so it shall be written, plainly, for all the world to read in Orlando” (Woolf 1978b, pp. 430431). Woolf quizzes Vita about Violet Trefusis, the woman Vita had eloped with to France: “Do give me some inkling of what sort of quarrels you had. Also, for what particular quality did she first choose you? Look here: I must come down and see you, if only to choose some pictures” (Woolf 1978b, p. 430). Continuing in the same letter, Woolf pricks Vita, telling her she wants to know “about your teeth now and your temper. Is it true you grind your teeth at night? Is it, true you love giving pain? What and when was your moment of greatest disillusionment?” (Woolf 1978b, p. 430). Woolf does not allow Vita to see the manuscript in process, keeping her dangling through a series of questions and demands. She had Vita translate dialogue into French (Woolf 1928). She made Vita take her to Knole later in October 1927 to choose portraits of the Sackville family to use as illustrations, for the book was to have, “all the trappings of Victorian biography: a preface, dates, photographs [of Sackville-West herself, and of some of the Knole portraits], and an index” (Raitt 1993, p. 19). Woolf arranged to have Vita photographed in various costumes (Woolf 1978b). Vita wrote her husband, “I was miserable, draped in an inadequate bit of pink satin with all my clothes slipping off, but V was delighted and kept diving under the black cloth of the camera to peep at the effect” (Lee 1996, pp. 505-506). This was an unhappy time for Vita, and Woolf knew it. Vita’s husband was away in Berlin. Vita’s father was dying, which meant she was about to lose Knole. Mary Campbell’s husband found out about their affair and went after Mary with a knife, threatening murder/suicide, then divorce. Vita came to Woolf with the tale; Woolf was jealous and critical, making Vita cry. Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, and her lover, artist Duncan Grant, photographed Vita again. She felt like an “unfortunate victim,” and “was made to sit inside a huge frame while they took endless photographs” (Lee 1996, p. 506). Woolf continues engaged yet provocative with Vita, writing: Remember Virginia. Forget everybody else. Should you say, if I rang you up to ask, that you were fond of me? If I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed
would you—I’m rather excited about Orlando tonight: have been lying by the fire and making up the last chapter. [Woolf 1978b, pp. 442-443] Woolf was known in her circle for her inquisitive and mocking interactions with friends and acquaintances (Woolf 1937). She approaches Orlando as a joke, as satire (Woolf 1980). But although there is humor and fancy and love in the story, there is also hatred and aggression (Raitt 1993). By writing a book in which the central joke is that Orlando/Vita changes sex, from male to female, Woolf exposes Vita’s ambiguous gender and sexuality at a time when gender and gender identity were binary, and lesbian relationships completely invisible. Ten years before, Vita had written Challenge (1923), a thinly disguised version of her affair with Violet Trefusis. Both Vita’s family and Violet’s family were horrified at the potential public exposure, and although the book was published in the United States in 1924, Vita withdrew Challenge from publication in England (Glendinning 1983). Orlando was published not quite three months after Radclyffe Hall’s controversial lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). In August 1928, the editor of the Sunday Express attacked Hall’s novel as morally poisonous, presumably in a scandalmongering attempt to sell newspapers. Hall’s English publisher stopped printing the novel and the British Home Secretary, an evangelical moralist, issued orders for the book to be seized. Woolf and other prominent British intellectuals protested the suppression of the book, but their defense of Hall was muted in the face of institutionalized homophobia, hostile governmental manipulation of the law, and their own awkwardness with the subject of same-sex relationships. Woolf attended the obscenity trial of The Well of Loneliness, prepared to be called as an expert witness on its literary merit. On November 16, 1928, Judge Chartres Biron of the Bow Street Magistrates Court banned The Well of Loneliness for obscenity and ordered it destroyed (Souhami 1999). Woolf was playing with fire in publishing Orlando in the midst of this public attack on lesbian literature, outing both Vita and herself. She was heedless of the possible consequences, hoping the tone of joking fantasy would hold off any legal or social repercussions. Woolf believed that their relationship would cease when Vita received her copy of Orlando: “11th Oct. sees the end of our romance” (Woolf 1978b, p. 515). On first reading Orlando, Vita wrote to Woolf, “I am completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted, under a spell,” and “shaken quite out of my wits.” She added a postscript, “You made me cry with your passages about Knole, you wretch” (Sackville-West 1985, pp. 288-289). Woolf quickly wrote back, “What an immense relief! I was half sick with fright till your telegram came. It struck me suddenly with horror that you’d be hurt or angry” (Woolf 1978b, p. 544). Vita’s private reaction to her husband was more reserved, and that letter is curiously left out of the compilation of their letters edited by their son, Nigel Nicolson (Sackville-West 1992). In her letter to Harold, Vita said that Woolf “slightly confused the issues in making Orlando 1) marry, 2) have a child. Shelmerdine does not really contribute
anything either to Orlando’s character or to the problems of the story” (Moore 1979, p. 349). Vita also criticized the end of the book: The more I think about it, the weaker I think the end is! I simply cannot make out what was in her mind. What does the wild goose stand for? Time? Love? Death? Marriage? Obviously a person of V’s intellect has had some object in view, but what was it? [Moore 1979, p. 349, italics in original; see also Briggs 2005; Glendinning 1983] Mary Campbell read Orlando and wrote Vita, “I hate the idea that you who are so hidden and secret and proud even with people you know best, should be suddenly presented so nakedly for anyone to read about” (Glendinning 1983, p. 205). Appalled, Vita’s mother wrote to Woolf, “You have written some beautiful phrases in Orlando, but probably you do not realize how cruel you have been” (Lee 1996, p. 513, italics in original). Vita’s mother went about bookstores in London hiding copies of Orlando under piles of other books, and wrote to various newspaper editors encouraging them not to review the novel. In her own copy of Orlando, she wrote on the flyleaf next to a picture of Woolf that she had glued there: “The awful face of a mad woman whose successful mad desire is to separate people who care for each other” (Glendinning 1983, p. 206). Woolf had successfully created her own lasting version of Vita. In Woolf’s revenge on Vita for humiliating and abandoning her, she omnipotently denied reality and ignored the social ramifications of publishing her novel of treachery, gender play, and sexual eroticism, taunting Vita and implicating them both. Woolf consciously conceived Orlando as a mockery, a joke, and it succeeded in this unconscious aggressive impulse (Raitt 1993). The story of betrayal also allowed the beleaguered Woolf to publicly proclaim her right to exist in the face of the disruption of her sense of her own value and meaning.
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Fishing Story Beth Richards This essay originally appeared in Fourth Genre Vol. 8, Iss. 1, pp. 1-8, published by Michigan State University Press.
My great-grandmother, I am told, raked her sandy, flat, northwest Florida yard every day, clearing it of blown-in oak leaves, twigs, moss, dogs, children and, particularly, anything that looked like grass. Blackberry eyes snapping under the shade of her bonnet, she’d tell anyone who’d listen that only trashy people grow grass in their yards. The only plant life she allowed anywhere near her house was a slender tea-rose bush, about ten feet from the corner of the wide front porch. Even in the lightest breeze, it scattered hundreds of tiny, unrakeable pink blossoms as far as the eye could see. The rose bush is still alive, still pink, more than 100 years after she planted it. The fence is gone, the corn and soybean fields converted to rows of slash pine that feed the Panhandle’s insatiable paper mills. The two-story barn has been torn down, no longer needed to house the solemn, hump-shouldered cows, sold long ago. But the old tin-roof house still stands, its timbers dry as matchsticks and weathered a soft, dove gray. And the trashy grass spreads tenacious fingers from the edge of the road all the way under the sagging porch. No one lives in great-grandma’s place now, but thirty yards away sits the compact house belonging to her oldest daughter, my grandmother. Bounded by fig trees and a tangled grape arbor, the house sits on a rise of land so gentle that no one knows it’s a hill until my grandmother points it out. “It’s called Rattlesnake Hill,” she’ll say, clearly enjoying visitors’ nervous, involuntary glances at the encroaching grass and weeds at their feet. My grandmother and I like to roam the expanse between the houses and catalogue the current state of moss draped on the trees, the piercing blue of summer sky, the number and otherworldly shape of new fire-ant beds, the strength of the sun and blanketing weight of humid air. But our favorite time on the hill has always been evening and full moon, when we sit quietly in the deep shadow of the screened porch and watch the armadillos trundle across the yard. They grunt softly as they dig next to the flowers in their relentless search for grubs. Later in the night, if I raise my bedroom window, there’s the incessant hum of countless insects, creaking of tree limbs as the breeze rises and subsides, the patter of small, wild feet. And on this visit, there is a new sound: a small, square baby monitor. The one in my room perches on the end of the ironing board that someone has set crookedly against the wall. The monitor’s mate resides on the oak table next to my grandmother’s bed. For months now, the family has tried to offset the effects of her failing memory: stacking the freezer with heat-n-eat meals, carefully counting her pills into the pill sorter’s
brightly labeled compartments. Those who live near her house create reasons to “drop by,” pick up the mail, and take her to her favorite lunch buffet. Those farther away call morning and evening. My aunts hire a housekeeper to come in three times a week and fix lunch. While there, she convinces my grandmother to change spattered clothes worn since the housekeeper’s last visit. No one can convince her to take a shower. The plan worked, more or less, until a few weeks ago, when she forgot to use her walking cane, took a false step, and fell. “Cracked hip, not broken,” we tell everyone, relieved. When she’s released from the hospital, we pack her and the walker and the instructions and the doctor’s answering service number. We drive her home, carefully settle her in bed, look at one another and say, “Now what?” The monitor hacks out an ambiguous code of buzzes and squawks. My grandmother remembers who we are, mostly. But not what day it is or what happened yesterday or even fifteen or five or two minutes ago. Last time I visited, we drove the ten miles into town to do errands. Spring leaves had just begun to emerge. As the first bright green live oak came into view, she said, “I just love the color of the new leaves.” Then she turned her head, saw another tree, and said the same thing. Every tree. For the two-hour outing. I thought about counting how many times she said it, but decided it really wasn’t something I wanted to know. At the hospital, she was certain that the nurses were talking about her (and not kindly). She swears that no one ever tells her the truth. Right now she believes that some “sorry so-and-so” comes in the middle of the night and steals her lawn chairs. It doesn’t matter how many times I remind her about the recent trip to the dump—at her request— to dispose of them. Some information disappears as if it had never existed. Other pieces submerge then reappear in strangely altered form. It’s almost impossible not to sound impatient when Granny asks the same question over and over. Sometimes I want to yell, “Just stop it!” when she says, every fifteen seconds, “What is today?” or spins out about lawn furniture kidnappers and other conspiracies. But we’re not really angry at her. We’re angry at it, whatever it is. Furious because we’re forced to watch her slow, relentless decline—and can’t do much more than that. The monitor screeches and creaks. Two sharp pops. She’s up. I cross the small living room and kitchen to my grandmother’s room and knock on the doorframe. She’s sitting gingerly on the edge of her bed. She says, “What is today?” “Tuesday. Let me get your walker.” “Do I have any choice?” “About the walker, no. About breakfast, yes.”
She talks to the walker as if it’s alive, accuses it of being part of the conspiracy that keeps trying to move her out of her home and into someone else’s house. But she leans heavily on the metal frame as she creeps into the kitchen. As she passes by me to get to her favorite chair, she stops, lets go of the walker just long enough to place one hand against my cheek. “Sleep good, baby?” Every time she rustled the bedclothes or murmured in her sleep, the monitor picked up, then amplified, the noise. “Slept like a log,” I lie. “You?” “Your Grandpa took me fishing last night,” she says. “That was a nice dream to have,” I say. “Who’s dreaming?” she replies. In the long months while my grandfather was dying, she said that she didn’t want to live alone, staring at his empty place at the kitchen table or the chair where he napped, their lemon-tabby cat stretched blissfully across his belly. But after the funeral, she announced, “I belong here. Like that tree Papa planted.” We all looked toward the massive, moss-bearded oak—roots big as a man’s waist—that stood outside. “And I want to stay near home.” Her finger indicated not the house she lives in now, but the other house, where my great-grandmother waged war on the grass. “I was just four years old when that house was built…” We all know this story well. The bedrooms and living room came first. Then the separate kitchen which, a few years later, was connected to the main house by a covered, slanting walkway. Vegetables and fish were prepared outdoors on a large plank at the edge of the porch. Dishwashing required heating water on the wood stove and then washing and rinsing in a series of white and gray enamel dishpans. There was a fireplace and, for many years, a hand pump at the large, shallow sink. In the corner, a square, screened pie safe held leftovers: salty, home-cured bacon fried crisp and brown. Biscuits made with buttermilk and bacon fat that came apart in creamy hunks to be dipped in caramel cane syrup. A dish of field peas, bathed in their own cooking juices. These are the memories my grandmother and I share. The thrumming of summer rain on the steep tin roof. Creak of the wooden-slat swing, suspended from the porch ceiling on thin chain links. Quick rasp of fish being scaled and cleaned. Succulent rustle of raw butterbeans, just shelled, being picked over and dropped in a pan. The sizzle of cornmeal “donuts” lowered into hot grease. And, after we’d eaten our fill, the thump and swish of dishes and dishwater, as my great aunts and grandmother stood in a line, laughing among themselves, stopping the flow of plates, iced tea glasses, forks, from one pan to another only to blot the sweat that made their eyeglasses slide down, to encourage a story with, “Well, I wish you’d listen.” It is a ghost house now, full of cobwebs, decaying furniture, the endless dirt of mice. Yet my grandmother is drawn to it like a moth to light. She doesn’t see a fallingdown house. She sees her mother, wiping small, brown hands on a flour sack apron or her father, hanging his hat on the peg by the door. Her three maiden aunts are visiting for
the day. They sit in the dogtrot, the covered breezeway that runs the depth of the house, front to back, and flutter small fans just below their chins. The fans, courtesy of the local undertaker, feature a cameo of Jesus, his eyes lifted to heaven, shoulder-length hair curling slightly around an almost girlish face. Even in the hard-fisted heat the aunts, as always, are impeccably dressed in full, layered petticoats and ankle-length broadcloth skirts. Their white muslin blouses are starched and pressed, with a dozen tiny buttons lined down the front. A few minutes after my grandmother informs me that she was out all night fishing with my dead grandfather, I serve her breakfast: small bowl of fruit, piece of toast, slice of bacon, juice, coffee. And her medicine, which she glares at, but takes, pointing out how cooperative she is being and reminding me of the doctor who told her that three cocktails a day are better than pills. I tell her that the doctor is probably right but it doesn’t mean she gets vodka and tonic for breakfast. I’m relieved when she says, “No flies on you, baby.” “No ma’am,” I reply. “They done shit and flew.” It’s our second favorite joke. “Done shit and flew, right, baby?” She laughs, repeats decisively to herself, “Shit. And. Flew.” She has already placed her nitro patch on her upper arm. After I secure the breakfast tray on her lap, I go back to her bathroom and stow the patches in the medicine cabinet, where she won’t notice them. Otherwise, she’ll put on a new patch each time she sees the box. Tabula rasa. She puts on a patch, takes a pill, has a drink of water or even a meal. And almost before the task is done, her recall of doing it is wiped clean. It is the mystery that comes with who and how she is now. She can tell me the pattern and color of the dress her mother wore, 89 years ago, on a spring morning when an itinerant photographer showed up at their doorstep and offered to take their picture. Her father, out in the field planting corn, was called to the house. The children watched, speechless, as their parents emerged in their Sunday clothes—in mid-week, an event that never happened unless someone had died—and waited patiently while the man set up his cumbersome gear: the metal tripod, the long black drape, the sinister-looking camera. Her memory of this is triggered by a news story, on the blaring television she keeps on “just for company,” about a man who photographs old water-powered mills. The details of my grandmother’s story are lodged somewhere in her brain and when her tape starts, she tells her story. Then she repeats it, almost verbatim, sometimes three or four times. We’ve tried changing the subject. Or telling her ever so gently that she just told us that story. She just smiles and continues talking until she is finished—and she is the only one who knows when that is. Over the past months we have trained ourselves to tune out until we hear the key word that signals the end. It’s seems rude, but it’s survival. And at some level we really are listening. Some of the stories are incredibly funny. Others are tragic. Most of them astound as they bear witness to a woman who raised six children on the edge of a
swamp using an unlikely combination of determination, luck, and her mother’s instructions for making gravy from practically anything. We compare notes about how the familiar stories have become conflated, with details changed or confused. Some days we’re glad to have a bit of variety. But we wonder if, one day, the stories will simply fade away, and with them, an irretrievable part of ourselves. And then there’s the fishing story. I heard it for the first time when I was a child, after my father, her oldest child, died. When she returned to her house after the funeral, she truly expected to see holes in the roof, furniture turned upside down, drapes in tatters—some tangible evidence of her grief—and was shocked to find everything untouched and in place. Every day after that, she came home from a long day of sewing at the drapery shop and crawled in bed. She turned off all the lights and pulled the covers over her head, so that she didn’t have to look at those unblemished, unfeeling walls. One Friday when she came home from work, Grandpa met her at the door. He handed her an old pair of shorts and a shirt, asked her please to put them on, and to meet him at the car. She found the car packed, a picnic cooler filled with sandwiches and snacks, and their small fishing boat in tow. They drove to their favorite lake and dozed in the car until dawn. Grandpa put the boat in the water, settled my grandmother in the bow, and pushed off. After a while he cut the motor, baited a cane pole, and passed it to her. There they stayed, silent except for the waves against the boat’s hull, the occasional stirring of the caught fish in the plastic bucket set between them. Throughout the day, he took the fish she caught and rebaited her hook. He passed her a sandwich or a cold drink. As the sun was setting, they put the boat ashore. He cleaned the fish and cooked them. They ate, slept in the car, and at dawn on Sunday got back in the boat and did the same thing all over again. During that weekend, they didn’t exchange more than ten words. The most he said was at dusk Sunday, when he gently touched her arm, “Time to go home.” And they silently secured the boat, drove home, showered, slept, and went to work the next morning. The next Friday afternoon, the boat was ready, the cooler packed, her clothes folded neatly on the end of the bed, waiting. As she told me the story, she didn’t remember how many times they went to the lake. But she did remember how, one day as she watched a fish spin desperately, futilely at the end of her line, she gave way to the grief she had held inside. They sat together in the middle of the tiny boat and cried, and Grandpa held her and said, “He’s gone. And it will never be the same.” It’s 6:00 p.m. Granny and I have had a challenging day. She is restless, jittery, confused. Even as she remarks how long the day is, she complains that she tires so easily and is ready for bed before dark. I remind her that pain takes a lot out of a girl. She says, “And nothing to do with me getting old.” “Not at all,” I say. “I need to take my pills.”
“It’s all done.” “I did?” “Promise.” As I help her get ready for bed, I ask her to tell me the fishing story again. I know every word but I want to hear her say it. She snuggles under the covers as she tells me, her eyes closed, an unreadable expression on her face. When she’s finished, I kiss her forehead, the tip of her nose, her lips, and finish tucking her in—not too tight around her feet. I put her box of tissues and a bottle of cool water on the table beside the bed. She is so tiny, every spare bit of flesh whittled away, that I sometimes think I can see right through her. I hug her and feel all her bones. They are too small. We talk about my father, how he still comes to both of us as we sleep. For months after he died, she was haunted by dreams in which she combed the tall grass beside a long, blank stretch of road, searching for his mangled body, terrified that she would never find him—even more terrified that she would. One night she realized that he was standing next to her. He was whole, burnished with sun, calm. He took her hand and gently said, “Mama, I’m not here. Go home.” I tell her of the time he led me through a vast house, full of winding passages that led to more passages, the last one opening onto a great, golden, sun-drenched field. I tried to follow but lost him in the brightness and woke, my heart pounding, to the smell of his aftershave, pungent and wondrous in the air around me. She nods as I tell her. “He still looks out for you.” “Like Grandpa looks after you.” “Yes.” I lean over, put the walker squarely on all its legs, then move it closer, within her reach. She squints at me. “If you need to get up,” I say. “I don’t get up at night.” She crosses her arms against her chest, thrusts her chin down. “It’s why I don’t need anybody to stay with me. I can take care of myself.” “Well,” I say, “maybe you’ll need to go fishing.” “You think I’m nuts,” she fires back. “You think I’ve gone around the bend.” I ease closer to her on the bed, put my arms around her, squeeze. “Well, you’ve always said that, in this family, it wouldn’t be a long trip.” Even as she glares at me, I can tell she is trying not to smile. She does, then laughs. “No,” she says, “we wouldn’t need to pack a lunch.” It is our favorite joke. The armadillos are out already, encouraged no doubt by the full moon, a flat silver disk that has edged above the horizon. It coats everything in its muted glow, the rose bush, the swinging moss, the determined grassy yard, the wobbling old house. And the two people in a small boat, the murmur of their voices blending with the scritch of crickets and frogs in the high grass at the lake’s edge. The moon rises higher in the sky. The monitor crackles and hums.
“In Black and White: A Compendium of Graduate Liberal Studies Writing” was produced through the efforts of an outstanding team of readers. While it was not possible to publish all the submissions that were received, the readers wish to acknowledge the following authors, and their pieces. The below writings are available on the Graduate Liberal Studies website, along with the contents of the compendium at http://www.wesleyan.edu/masters/60th/blackandwhite.html.
Honorable Mentions The Queen of the Silver Dollar on a Three Dog Night Carol Bonci Epistle from a Prize-Winner Tom DeBeauchamp On Saturday Mornings Suzanne Eisner Camera Lori Kase The Germans Steve Machuga Race Arms Christine Palm A Doubter's Comeuppance Emily Piacenza