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I’ve only been to Korea once, when I was young, maybe ten or eleven. I don’t remember anything about it except that we went to an amusement park called Lotte World, where my dad and I took a lot of selfies on our new iPad while waiting in line for rides. I can’t find those photos anywhere now. One of us broke the iPad a few years later, so they are probably lost somewhere in cyberspace.
This makes me sad because, like everyone else in the digital age, I remember my life through photographs. Last year, around the same time I decided I was a lesbian, I chopped off all my hair. Sometimes when I have trouble falling asleep now, I scroll through my phone and look at old photos of myself from when I had long hair. Not because I miss having long hair, but because the idea that I once looked like that feels so foreign to me that I find some odd fascination in being confronted with, as Roland Barthes says of the photograph, “a certainty that such a thing had existed.”
I thought a lot about Barthes recently after I saw Do Ho Suh’sThe Perfect Home II at the Brooklyn Museum. On the weekends they let you inside the installation for 5 minutes at a time, and so I waited in line on a Sunday for 45 minutes to walk through it. Made entirely of hand-sewn translucent fabric, the work is a full-scale replica of the first apartment Suh moved to in New York after completing his MFA at Yale in 1997.
Suh’s piece reminded me of how Barthes describes a Charles Clifford photograph of a house – “Alhambra” – in Camera Lucida. While looking at the photograph, Barthes is overcome by the uncanny feeling that he has been there before. He describes what he calls a “longing to inhabit” the photograph: “it is fantasmatic, deriving from a kind of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or carry me back to somewhere in myself…it is as if I were certain of having been there or of going there.”
The Perfect Home II strikes me as being about the longing to inhabit. While walking through the installation, I could not help but feel profoundly sad. Melancholia permeates the work’s formal qualities; the experience of being surrounded entirely by translucent fabric is ethereal, ghostly, haunting. I felt as if the walls would collapse around me if I even breathed too loudly. The work is a structure of feeling, in the most literal sense: systematic, atmospheric, everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Though Suh came up with the idea for this piece while still living in the apartment, the project didn’t become possible until 2016, when his landlord passed away and he was forced to vacate the space. After moving all of his belongings out, Suh began the long, painstaking process of what he has called “rubbing/loving”: rubbing every surface of the apartment first with colored pencil, then with pastel, and finally with his fingers. “I literally had to caress every surface with my fingertips, and I started to wear off my fingertips,” he describes. “I was actually giving up my own body to the architecture.”
The affection of Suh’s labor is rendered visible in the work’s detail; it is in the jaggedness of the edges, the slight variations in line lengths, the movement of Suh’s hand, where the work trembles most with longing. One cannot help but see him bent over an electrical socket, rubbing his fingers over the holes, trying desperately to engrain the memory of his home into his body.
This feeling of desperation stays with me. It makes me think about my girlfriend. Sometimes we play a game where I rub my nose furiously all over her body, from her ears down to her ankles. In this scenario, I am a puppy (she loves puppies), and the game ends with her laughing hysterically and me lying on top of her, fully out of breath. It is a sweet, silly game. But I often hope that if I rub hard enough, her body will press itself into my nose and leave a mark of some sort – a crease, a bump, an indentation, anything. And so the game, for me, is also a (failed) wish: that one day if my memory cannot conjure her touch, perhaps my body will. This is the despair of memory: we want it to leave a mark of certainty. But it rarely does.
We remember things because we have since lost them; we long for things because they remain out of our reach. I feel sad that Do Ho Suh will never be able to return to this home he has loved and labored for so deeply. Maybe somebody else lives there now, maybe it has undergone reconstruction, maybe it has been demolished and replaced with a luxury apartment building or a new coffee shop. Either way, I want to tell him: it loves you back.
I cried inside the installation; probably because Suh too is Korean, this work enacted for me a very Korean and diasporic kind of longing, a longing to inhabit that particular “home” where I cannot really be certain of having been, but nevertheless feel as if I were certain of having been there or of going there. I am not naive enough to believe anymore that Korea “loves me back”; diaspora’s inevitable wound is, of course, estrangement. But Korea remains that place I long desperately and impossibly to inhabit, that place I cannot help but return to when I think of Suh’s wok.
To long for something is to love knowing you will receive nothing in return. In this way, I think longing’s impossibility makes it the deepest kind of love. This is a masochist vision, perhaps. But in the face of impossibility, it feels good, I think, to love by longing for somewhere or someone at all.
Because the I
becomes a we
to be shared,
a voice to be heard
above the herd
bobbing like buoys
in the ferry’s wake
as they patrol
the water’s edge,
their ripples fine,
as your hand
in mine, ordinary
and transparent as glass—
is a door
to this place
is a given
The Appalachian Mountains are rich in hermit history and lore, most of which has been forgotten by scholars and historians. And this isn’t surprising, since hermits, due to their status as self-imposed exiles and social critics, often function as mere footnotes to the mainstreams of cultural narration. The Appalachian hermit tradition isn’t one of religious mysticism or Transcendentalism, nothing that can be encapsulated in a fancy term. It features no famous recluses like Henry David Thoreau, whose experiment at Walden Pond was short-lived and barely displaced from civic networks. It is, rather, a gritty folk tradition characterized by wild eccentricity and fantasy. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century travelogues and newspapers—typically in late chapters or in odd corners, such as obituary columns—are the primary conveyors of these historical fairy tales.
William Wilson as depicted in an early printing of The Pennsylvania Hermit, ca. 1838.
In 1786, The Vermont Journal published an account of a vegetarian hermit in an unknown part of the Allegheny Mountain frontier who claimed to have lived for 228 years on a diet of roots, acorns, and fruits. Similar to Rip Van Winkle, he had received no news of the budding nation called the United States. A hermit in West Virginia invented a revolutionary embalming fluid; an undertaker visited him to learn the secret, and found a collection of perfectly-preserved human and animal corpses like princesses in glass coffins, which the hermit claimed “he had obtained years ago.” 1 Another West Virginia “hermit scientist” abandoned civilization in the late 1890s to construct a flying machine. His machine, which had an internal system of muscles, was a kind of Batman suit with wings that spread like kites, allowing him to “soar” on the wind.2
Early American broadside: “Account of the Wonderful Old Hermit’s Death and Burial—Aged Two Hundred Twenty Eight Years,” 1788.
An obscure hermit from Maine squeezed himself into a wooden barrel during the winter months.3 And Maine, like West Virginia, produced a hermit scientist when Galileo appeared to the anchorite Samuel Fall in a vision sometime in the 1860s: “the philosopher’s ghost then promised to impart to Farmer Fall the long-sought secret [of perpetual motion] and then disappeared,” thus inspiring Fall to dedicate his life to the mechanical mystery.4 A cave-dwelling wild man from Tennessee was captured by two rogues intending to exhibit him in circuses across the nation. Oliver Elmore dug a hole in a hillside and lived there, hobbit-like, sharing his hole with animals. One Pennsylvanian hermit charmed birds. The obituary of another Pennsylvania recluse communicated no personal information—we only know he was eaten by rats. And in the Pennsylvania mountains a hermit claimed to be the nearly 2,000-year-old Wandering Jew who couldn’t die until Christ’s resurrection. Even the oldest pioneers that “penetrated the virgin forests” remembered him; he kept a cache of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and an expression of “unutterable sadness” never left his face. 5
The Hermit of Maine playing his unique instrument, combination of two organs and a piano, 1936.
The blend of fiction and nonfiction surrounding Appalachian hermits lends their stories the qualities of tall tales, reflecting the countless exaggerations of fact and scale in early American history, a time when many geographic spaces were mysteries in Euro-American minds. It was thought, for instance, that a “ledge of rocks [was] 12 miles high” in New Hampshire, that certain rivers ran so thick with fish one could walk across their backs, and that the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina held ten times more gold than they actually did.6
George Washington’s map, accompanying his “Journal to the Ohio,” 1754.
The majority of American hermits, real and imaginary, past and present, materialize in the mountains. The geographies of mountains are labyrinthine, like gothic castles with imposing obstacles, secret dungeons, and strange nooks (a trope that 18th-century novelists like Charles Brockden Brown made astonishing use of in his depiction of the Pennsylvania frontier). Hermits, so in touch with the land, molded themselves to the intricate folds of rock and forest. Some viewed themselves as kings of their particular mountain (and therefore offshoots of the imperialist legacy). Others adopted various Native American lifeways, or, being part-Cherokee or Catawba themselves, expressed environmental philosophies that were not a far cry from progressive eco-politics today.
Sign erected by the Hermit of Maine, 1936.
Scholars working within the field of Appalachian studies typically restrict their purview to the mountains south of the Mason-Dixon line or south of the Appalachian Regional Commission boundary in New York State; the justifications for this demarcation stem from perceived historical, cultural, and economic incoherences between the northern and southern mountain regions (and especially the strict regional logic reinforced by the Civil War and its aftermath). But the accounts of Appalachian hermits form one of the small links connecting the disparate histories of the Appalachian chain, from Alabama to Maine. Nineteenth-century documents show that southern Appalachian hermits varied in minor ways (if at all) from their northern counterparts. They tended to be less literate, to quote less poetry, but this wasn’t always the case. For example, a hermit from the Smoky Mountains, who was well-versed in Shakespeare, religion, mythology, philosophy, and geology, walked hundreds of miles to Atlanta to procure forty pounds of books and stopped in Macon, Georgia on his return journey, impressing the local elites with his extensive knowledge and oratorical prowess.7 Such stories undermine regional stereotypes of the time, which figured the southern backwoods population as foils to national intellectual ideals.
After reading dozens of hermit tales and obituaries, it’s hard to escape the impression that all these hermits are one hermit, or refractions of a single hermit prototype, protesting socio-cultural norms and offering alternatives to the mania for mass consumption, the subjugation of wage labor, and the proud aspirations of modernity.
1. “A Hermit’s Secret” in Mullica Hill Observer, April 1895.
2. “Has Learned to Fly: A Hermit Scientist Has Discovered the Secret of the Birds” in Pittsburg Commercial-Gazette, December 1892.
3. “A Hermit in Maine” in Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, August 1873.
4. “A Busy Hermit: Queer Maine Character Who Is Studying Perpetual Motion under the Tutelage of Galileo” in The Owyhee Avalanche, March 1899.
5. “Old Myth Recalled: A Pennsylvania Hermit Claims to Be the Wandering Jew” in The Atchison Daily Globe, July 1897.
6. Gorges, Thomas. The Letters of Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor of the Province of Maine, 1640-1643. Edited by Robert E. Moody. Portland, Maine: Portland Historical Society, 1978, p. 115.
7. G “Queer Old Hermit” in The Macon Telegraph, April 1897.
Nathan’s driving but it feels like falling, and in the fading day he sees nothing but the road, not the wooded hills or corn fields or farms or the nice new houses on the outskirts of town or the shabby houses at town’s edge, and even the road he barely sees, having driven it so many times years ago, the road between his small college town and her bigger small town, between his house and her smaller house, and as he approaches her Nixon-era ranch on a street of like ranches, he seems to float, a parachute spreading as he drifts to ground. Dead leaves, the same sapphire-gray as everything in the dimming light, layer the yard. The big oak. Shrubs. Decorative brick. His mother suddenly dead; his sudden trip home; his father telling the story—“I came home and . . .”—again and again; the excess of flowers and well-meaning people; the ludicrous God-talk from church-going locals; the absurd comforts from professors who believed nothing; the brand-new holiness of his mother’s piles of crap; the siege of all the ways he’d been a bad son: all leading here, always here, to Angie’s door.
He’s here. She can feel it. That opening in her throat; that perfect awareness of her mouth. Consumed by the need to consume. Keep washing. Bubbles sparkle. Sponge whispers against plate. When you wash dishes, wash dishes, Buddhists say.
Her sponsor said not to go to the service and she didn’t. Because she’s learned to be good and careful. Every fucking minute of the day. Plus, how much better that he came to her? Some part of her knew he would. The same part that’s been waiting six years for this, the same part that always wants a drink. Then again, she doesn’t really know he’s here. It could be—is probably—her wishful addict’s thinking. She should open the door and check. But her mother. Her daughter. Wash the dishes. Bubbles. Plate.
All those years, her mother had trusted her because it was less work to trust her and her mother already worked so hard. Before Nathan, Angie had stayed out of trouble, kept up in school. With boys, just kisses, not sex. If she ever fell in love, she’d thought, she would have so much sex. Sex was the opposite of being abandoned. Had her parents stopped having sex? Is that why her dad left? Her mother blamed the booze. It was easier than blaming herself. In that picture Angie had kept under her bed, her dad wore old jeans and a brown plaid shirt, a farm-boy cap, his feet a good yard apart, making a mountain out of his skinny self. His eyes are shadowed, his grin, huge. As if the grin itself is a joke. On the person behind the camera: her mom. On the viewer: her.
Now she’s an adult, so to speak; her mother doesn’t trust her anymore and she’s glad. Maybe if her mother had been a different sort of person, lazy, happy, unpragmatically less trusting, maybe if her mother had been the opposite of herself then she, Angie, would be the opposite of herself. Would be better.
Once he knocks, it’s over. Behind that door, the mud green carpet where, back in high school, while her mother worked, they learned about fucking: how best to do it, and what it could do. Back then, he wanted to be with her always. Even now, thinking about her tiny gasps and colossal moans, her juddering tits, her pleasure-warped face—though he’s gotten these things from other women, he wants hers back then, when sex was new and love inebriating and he’d leave her house transformed: no longer just a brainy kid with fighting parents and a wimpy wish to emulate his peers, boys with flat, happy features and violence in their eyes.
How they’d fought, though. Even back when only he drank, sometimes, at parties; she never touched the stuff. But then she started drinking, so much that she’d failed her classes and couldn’t graduate. He broke up with her when he left for college. But when he was home on break and his parents would start their inevitable sniping, he’d find himself driving by Angie’s. Driving turned into stopping and knocking. The next day she’d break up with a boyfriend, but “not because of him.” Then, of course, sex and professions of love, fighting and another breakup. After a particularly long separation, while in the dregs of his first grad school semester, he called her at two in the morning. and she deserted her man and quit her job and left Ohio to live with him in Colorado, where she not just fell but dove off the wagon and he started to hate her. He also still loved her, because he had to: if he didn’t, he was either a bad person who’d ruined her life or a lost soul who’d derailed his own or both. But he’d ended it anyway and hasn’t seen her since.
Surely her mother’s there. And her daughter (“a-dor-a-ble” was his mom’s painful report). A thirty-one-year-old single mom, still living at home. Jesus. Turn around!
“I’ll get it!” Angie shrieks.
Kayla’s in the living room with her stuffed-animal mob. How would Nathan be with Kayla? A few months after she’d moved to Colorado, they’d gone to a wedding in the mountains. She didn’t drink, but he did, and made a too-loud comment to his grad-school friends about the irony of weddings: how funny, he said, that such grand romantic displays lead to the banality of marriage. On the way back to their hotel, she asked to stop by the liquor store. He refused. She screamed at him about what “real men” do and don’t do, not because she cared about real men or what they were supposed to do, but because it was an easy way to hurt him. At the hotel, he brought a pillow and a blanket into the bathtub and she said just come to bed and he wouldn’t leave the tub so she turned the shower on him. When he jumped out of the tub, she tried to block his way; he pushed her aside, ramming her shoulder against the wall. “That was an accident,” he said drily. “So don’t call the police.” Then he apologized: “God, I sound like my dad.” She apologized, too. “I lost control,” she said. “And I wasn’t even drunk.” He didn’t laugh, but together, they found places for the wet pillow and blanket and clothes. “You are a real man,” she said, trying to make up for before. “You know how I know?” She reached for his cock.
He’d smiled. “And you,” he’d said lovingly, pushing her to the bed, “are a real bitch.”
The door opens. Angie. “Nathan,” she says. Her face looks tired and rumpled, but her cobalt eyes shine. The pink in her cheeks, her haphazard ponytail, her addled smile give her a windswept look, as if he’d met her on a Colorado mountain after a long, hard climb.
“Angie,” Nathan says, sticking his hands in the pockets of his unbuttoned trench. He’s still skinny, but heavier somehow, in the brow, the lips, the curls dipping against his forehead. His eyes are deep, dark pools, rimmed red.
“My mom died. Did you hear?” He’d meant for that “Did you hear” to have an edge, but it comes out plaintive.
“I’m so sorry, Nathan. Yes, I heard. I wanted to go to the service, but my sponsor thought I shouldn’t. I’ve stopped drinking,” she says. Words rush out before she can stop them. She forces herself to meet his eyes. “For good. I mean, I’m not supposed to think that way, because, you know, it sets up expectations and pressures. But I’ve been sober for almost two years.” Ugh.
“That’s great,” Nathan says—too heartily, he thinks.
“Angie,” calls Angie’s mom. “Show some manners. Invite the boy in.” She wants, Angie knows, to keep an eye on them.
“Nathan Feld,” her mom booms. “I heard about your mother. I’m so sorry. Come here.” She opens her arms. He hugs her hard. “I know,” Angie’s mom murmurs, stroking his back.
Angie wants to pull her mom off Nathan by the hair.
Finally, Nathan and her mother disengage.
Should she hug him? Not yet. “Kayla,” says Angie. “This is Nathan. Mommy’s old friend.”
Kayla looks like Angie, with wider cheeks and darker eyes. His coloring. But not. It hurts Nathan to think of Kayla’s dad. Even though “he’s not in the picture,” as his mother once breezily relayed.
“Hi,” Kayla says flatly. Angie pinches her face into a smile that she hopes looks like motherly pride. Maybe she never made it to college, but she made Kayla, who’s pretty great. Does Nathan see it?
“Hello,” says Nathan. Is he about to cry?
“Please,” says Angie’s mom, removing her paperback romance from the couch. “Sit down.”
Nathan sits on the brown-plaid couch where he and Angie had sex. Angie sits on the rust-orange chair where he and Angie had sex. Beside him sits Angie’s mom.
“You mind getting me a Diet Coke, Angie?” says Angie’s mom. “Nathan, what would you like?”
Angie wants to say, Get your own damn Coke. She says, “We don’t have much. No booze here, of course.” Her mom frowns. Angie can’t wait to drink her regular Coke. At least it has sugar. And caffeine.
When she comes back with the drinks, a silence, punctuated by clinking ice and Kayla’s chirps, grips the room.
“So you’re a professor now?” Angie finally says.
Ouch. He’s an adjunct writing instructor, teaching classes he doesn’t want to teach to students who don’t want to take them. Nathan’s mother always called him a professor, and he’d roll his eyes and correct her—if his father, the professor, didn’t do it first.
“I teach composition,” he says. “I hear you’re a nurse?”
“Not exactly,” says Angie. “I’m a certified nursing assistant. Less school, less pay.”
“And I’m not exactly a professor. I’m an instructor. At, like, three different places,” Nathan says. He grins at her, delighted, for the first time, by his lack of success. “Also less school and pay. And forget benefits and job security!”
“Speaking of jobs,” says Angie’s mom, “I’m sorry to say it’s our bedtime. I’ve got an early day tomorrow. Angie, too.”
“I’ll be okay, Mom,” says Angie. “You go ahead.”
“Well, it’s Kayla’s bedtime too. And I’m afraid that’s your job. I’ve done enough of that in my lifetime.” She chuckles. Angie wants to scream.
Nathan stands. “I should get going anyway. I just wanted to stop by and, you know, see how you all were doing, take a little break from the doom and gloom.”
Angie’s mom hugs Nathan again and says her goodbye. Angie forces back the dirty look she wants to flash her mom: it will reveal too much.
She goes to Nathan.
He’s afraid to touch her. Angie takes a sharp breath and reaches around his neck, like she would before a kiss, but her arms drop into a hug. Her head presses into his chest. He holds the middle of her back. He smells shampoo and a warmer, darker scent—her flesh. He pulls away.
“Bye,” says Nathan. But his eyes say something else.
Later that night, while Angie’s mom snores across the hall, Nathan taps Angie’s window. Angie’s wide awake, waiting for this tap. She sneaks to the front door and lets him in. They creep to her room. She locks the door. He moves to kiss her, but she pulls back. She takes off his coat, his shirt, his pants. Her eyes rake over his narrow body: collar bone, nipples, penis, hips, knees. He watches her, his eyes wet and soft. “Do you love me now?” she asks.
During the fight that had led to their last breakup, she’d demanded he say he didn’t love her.
“But that’s not true,” he’d said feebly. “I do love you. I always will.”
“You always will? Sounds like the kiss of death to me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t win.”
“Because you’re with me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“That’s exactly what you said. You’re always saying you didn’t say the things that you say. You think you’re being sneaky, but you’re not. I’m not as stupid as you think.” She cried, that unattractive honking she always released after holding it in for too long. “Say you don’t love me. Please.”
He sighed, the feigned impatience in his breath betraying real fear. What had she done? Don’t say it, she thought. He said it. He looked stunned, as if he’d just then realized it was true. He said it again.
Now, years later, plunked back in her childhood room, he says, “I love you. I really do.”
She sobs, those same stupid honks. “Where the fuck have you been?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I was confused.”
“You’re always confused.”
“I’m not. Not now.”
“I have a kid.”
Every part of him feels awake. Even his toenails want her. His liver. For the first time since his mom died, he laughs.
“What’s so funny?” she says.
“Nothing.” He brushes his hand across her chest. Her lovely sigh. He takes off her sweater. Her face has that wounded look it gets when she wants him. She unhooks her bra. They work together to remove her underwear and jeans. He lifts her onto him and holds her there. Her eyes and mouth open the way they always do when he enters her, as if it’s a great surprise. “Marry me,” he hears himself say. Her mouth opens wider. Before she can reply, he thrusts, hard.
After, she’s afraid to bring it up. Nathan lies across the width of her twin bed, staring at the ceiling, his feet on the floor. She’s nestled against him, studying his profile: the burdened brow, the grave downcurve of nose, the sad, sealed mouth—his resting face, even in good times. “I love you,” she says, a test to see how it feels, to see what he’ll do. She pictures Patricia, her sponsor, shaking her bleached blonde head at her across a restaurant booth.
Nathan turns, pecks her lips, pets her face. “You know what’s ironic?” he says. She braces herself, remembering the sadism often hidden in his love of ironies, the bitter glee. “I hated how my mother fed my father’s contempt, so I treated her with contempt. She made it so easy for him to hurt her: all he had to do was look at her wrong and she’d scream. When I got old enough to understand, I could feel compassion for her, but ten minutes with her on the phone—I couldn’t wait to hang up. And you know what? I knew, I knew I’d regret it later, not being kinder to her. And I’d try. But not hard enough. Why, Angie?” His voice cracks. “Do you know why?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Sometimes we just are the way we are.” Inside her rises a wave of sorrow. Feel it, she hears Patricia say. Face the truth. She hates it when Patricia says that. Which truth? The truth of how she feels now, let down, suspicious, quietly panicked? Or the truth of before, the salvation she felt when he knocked on the door? He who giveth taketh away. But he who taketh also giveth. Which truth, Patricia? And Patricia would say, The hardest truth. The truth that keeps you alive.
“You know what else is ironic?” Nathan says. “Right now, my dad’s the saddest fucker I’ve ever seen.”
“Nathan,” she says. She can barely get out his name, but she pushes on. “You should go.”
“No! I want to be here.” He can’t go yet, he thinks. That’s not how this works. More needs to happen first. “I’m sorry I brought up marriage. That was absurd. But, to be honest, I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”
“Me neither,” she says. She takes his hands. “But you have to go.”
“Is this your revenge on me for saying I don’t love you a million years ago?” He knows this isn’t her revenge. He sees it in her face, beneath the sadness and fear—something hard and final. “You made me say it,” he says.
“You say it. Say it now.” Don’t say it, he thinks. He sees their story before them, an unfurled scroll. Someone laughs at him: His dad? Your love isn’t the Torah, that someone says. Try a misleading travel brochure. He doesn’t care what it is. He wants it. He doesn’t know why or what to do with it. He knows there are worse problems than its loss and better pursuits than its gain. He knows that what he calls love might not even be love, but lust, immaturity, desperation, deceit. So be it. He’ll call it love.
“Say it,” he says again.
She looks up at him with a child’s eyes, her body curled into itself.
“You can’t say it, can you?”
Angie lunges. Sex? Violence? But then she’s squeezing him hard. A hug. She presses the crown of her head into his throat. “Nathan,” she rasps. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” Raquel walks into the room and Noah shuts the laptop. Anna would have jumped on that. “Hiding something?” she’d say, the jest in her voice a blade. Not Raquel. She comes up behind him and massages his neck. Then she kisses the top of his head, which makes him feel like a child and leaves an itch he resists scratching.
Good Raquel. Morning sickness around the clock and still a massage and a kiss for him. “How are you feeling?” he asks, an attempt to give something back.
“Shitty,” she says, her smile weak. “Always shitty.”
“Well, it’s not your fault. Not completely. And it’s for a good cause.”
Unlike the other good causes in Raquel’s life, this one has arrived by accident. “It was going to happen eventually,” Raquel said when she found out. “Right?”
For the briefest moment, Noah wondered if Raquel had tricked him, if her care with her diaphragm had been a charade. But he knew Raquel would never do such a thing. Why the stab of disappointment at her unshakeable virtue?
“Right,” Noah, chastened by his bad reaction, answered. They liked to joke that after four years together, they were practically married, the humor at once a dismissal of and a nod to actual marriage, as if only by avoiding it could they truly succeed at it. Raquel, whose parents had divorced when she was five, disliked the institution, and Noah, whose parents had stayed together unhappily, disliked the reality. But his dislike contained an ideal, a vision of how marriage should be. Perhaps it was that vision that had made him say, “Do you want to get married?”
And perhaps Raquel shared that vision too, because she’d beamed, her eyes watering, as if she hadn’t spent great chunks of her life pontificating against marriage and all it stood for, a stance Noah now suspected had been for his benefit, another fruit of her kindness. She reined in her smile and said, “Why not?”
This is why she’s in his office: The invitations. Her artist friend has drawn up a pretty pen-and-ink patch of Boulder Creek winding beside an entreaty to attend their wedding. If Noah likes it, Raquel’s friend who owns a copy shop will reproduce it at cost. Friends everywhere: he’d talked her down to fifty guests. They’ve rented a simple space east of town, less pricey, no Boulder Creek but pretty enough, with a view of the foothills. Her parents and their spouses have already reserved hotel rooms and bought plane tickets. His father too. Three months from now: by then, Raquel is sure, her first-trimester misery will have passed.
Noah examines the invitation, though he already knows what he’s going to say. “It’s perfect.”
Raquel sticks a finger in the air and flees the room. From down the hall, a retch. A flush. The hiss of the sink. She reappears. “Oh, good,” she says. “I’ll call Devi.”
As soon as she leaves, he opens his lap top. “Nathan,” she rasps. “Goodbye.” Now what? Nathan and Angie are supposed to get back together and ruin each other’s lives. Where’s the full-length story he needs for his book? More to the point: Is it really over? He and Anna? Of course it is.
But after all these years, why write about her now, of all times? Why open that door?
Save his lingering grief over his mom, he has a good life: He’s a lecturer at the university, with a three-year contract that makes him the envy of his less fortunate grad-school friends. He has a growing list of published stories. He meditates daily, writes regularly, takes his anti-depressants religiously. He hikes and camps and climbs rocks when he can. Pretty, smart, sweet Raquel: she makes his good life better, no? The baby will change some things, but not that. Maybe he’s a little too attached to some television shows. Maybe, even though on paper, he and Raquel don’t have cable because television just isn’t that important to them and it’s the opiate of the masses, etc., the real reason he doesn’t want cable is that if they had it he wouldn’t meditate, write, teach, remember his anti-depressants, or go outside. Because TV on Netflix is bad enough and sometimes all he can think about is that next episode of The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or The Wire or The Office or Bojack Horseman, or, God help him, Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy. And maybe sometimes he can’t wait for Raquel to go to bed so he can watch his show. And maybe he wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks about his show, and what’s great about it and what’s wrong with it and why he loves it anyway even though the best shows are nothing but the best-told lies and why his own stories are full of lies, about something that happened because of something that happened and look how well he tries to write about it and how the imposition of order and beauty on the stuff of life is an exquisite violence, and Anna, Anna Clark, how cruel he could be to her and how he will never love anyone like that again, with all that sweet desperation and raw, ugly need, and how every love thereafter became about not loving like that, about being a smarter, kinder person, about being less alive.
Still, when Noah’s mother died he didn’t think of Anna. He could contemplate nothing but his own sadness. Anna had come to the service. She stood in line and took her place in front of him, and it was like those movie scenes when someone awakens to a blur that becomes clear. Anna was softer and droopier than he remembered and wore a silver wedding band. He could tell she was nervous. Something fluttered in his stomach and then one of the pain-bricks that kept dropping down in him dropped and crushed the fluttering thing.
“Noah,” Anna said, her eyes filling. She hugged him. “I’m so sorry about your mom. I didn’t know if I should come.”
“No,” said Noah. “Thank you. I’m glad you did.” As soon as he said it, he knew it was true. The last time he saw her, she was sitting in his tiny, sinkless bathroom, threatening to kill herself with his nose-hair scissors. Not long before that, they’d been in bed, talking about baby names. She’d liked the name Agatha. “Agatha?” he’d said. A mean quip rolled into his mind. They’d been rolling into his mind, and sometimes off his lips, since she’d arrived in Colorado, since their big fight on her first night, since the manic “we-can-make-this-work” discussion after, since their pretend-mutual decision for her to get her own place, since she’d lost her own place and had to move in with him. The mean quip that just rolled into his mind was exceptionally mean. He knew what she wanted at that point in her life, and how it had conflated with him, her move out west a doomed mix of nostalgia and fresh start. He’d watched her fill out forms and delete them. He’d watched her fill out forms and submit them, only to find there were more forms to fill, more requirements yet to gain, always something missing. But before they’d started talking about baby names, she’d complained about the sex they’d just had. “It was boring,” she said. “Where were you?” He felt ashamed of the boring sex, which was boring because he was tired of her but couldn’t admit it because his belief they were “meant to be” was the closest thing to a religion he had. And so, though her dig at their sex hurt his feelings, he apologized and initiated a semi-honest analysis of why he’d been boring, sharing thoughts about how they could avoid boring sex in the..
“I can’t believe he’s gone. Who am I gonna dump all my internalized homophobia on now?”
These were the words uttered by Masc Tops everywhere, who were shocked by the sudden passing of Daniel’s Attraction to Cis Men late Monday evening. Some Masc Tops, upon hearing the news, took to social media to question the validity of Daniel’s Attraction to Cis Men’s passing: “Who would wanna stop getting banged by dudes?” some asked, while others suggested the possibility of foul play. However, it has since been confirmed that Daniel’s Attraction to Cis Men passed from natural causes, as his last words were apparently, “Fuck this shit, I’m out.”
Though lasting only 23 years, Daniel’s Attraction to Cis Men lived an exciting and fulfilling life when he wasn’t being treated as an outlet for men and their bad behavior. He enjoyed having his sexual and emotional boundaries honored, wearing floral sweaters, as well as rim jobs and Jenga. Daniel’s Attraction to Cis Men was preceded in death by his Willingness to Put Up with Cis Men’s Sweaty Testicles and Weird Penchant for Sending Unsolicited Dick Pics. He is survived by his family, a clusterfuck of memes on cis male fragility and his two dogs, Sparky and Rex.
Come celebrate Daniel’s Attraction to Cis Men and his once constant providing of emotional labor to endless man-children by donating to his Venmo, CashApp, or PayPal. Services will take place next Wednesday from 12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. at 363 Menertrasch Lane, south of the highway.
In lieu of flowers, please send butt plugs and lubricant.
Once, I wrote about being ancestrally from a desert
that drought made me restless
searching for a nourishing territory
Tonight I am on tour I am pierogis
Beer battered fish tacos and jalapeño corn
bread Aloe lavender face goops
Obsessively checking my bank balance
and vocal rest
that has a Sabarros, a pick n mix candy store, a Taco Bell AND Chipotle:
Proof that linear time is a gd sham
Shall I be a poem for you?
I mean, I used “shall” tbh
the human condition smdh
the bible lol
the library iykwim
No territory will ever satisfy me
Cousin dies, some overdose, and another cousin
has a daughter Incel man
into ppl w/a truck in Toronto mostly women
and there r something like 70 million
more men than women in China & India and
Roy SAYS HE HAS whoops says he has
a new metaphor, except it’s not
a metaphor A literal part of his
says the echocardiogram
he got before starting a new med
but it’s fine he just needs to eat more farty
salads and Mamihlapinatapai is the most precise
word according to linguists
from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego
It means something like when you leave a café bathroom and want to tell the next person in line it wasn’t you who took the smelliest dump in American history but you keep walking I mean it means well it’s more like when two ppl look
at each other and the look
is that they both
what the other shd do but neither
wants to initiate and Wilkes
after twalkin bout her non-invasive surgery
says John Krazinski is the shortest of three
brothers the others 6’8 and 6’9 and I start to
My back arches so hard I snap in half
on the Link Light Rail on the way to drop off my stuff at Rich’s in Cap Hill
b4 checking in w/Colleen b4 my reading at Mount Analogue
at ZZZ Space and IMAGINE BEING
THE MOZARELLA IN BTWN THAT FUCKING SLICE OF BAGUETTE R U KIDDING ME 6’8 and 6’9 I NEED TO BE IN A SMALL CLOSET IN A SHOE BOX APT IN THE CUT OF THE STICKS LIKE TOTALLY ALONE SUFFOCATING INTO A PAPER BAG and Jess texts
me she’s got a mass inside her the size
of an orange she’s going under next
week and I’m practicing
for when I officiate Becky’s wedding some kind
metaphor abt the golden
hour That light, that sliver of golden light, is light unlike any other light you’ll ever encounter—Nothing we’ve ever made can come close to that glow Not a filter not a software not a bulb A gathering of circumstances that produced the light of you right now in this moment & someone tells me “You shd wait
five yrs in btwn publishing
books like what’s
and I’m like did u not just read? My cousin died today
and he was only two years older
than me and it’s been this way my whole
life like biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinch
I would LOVE to imagine
being alive in five
years but I have these bones u know?
and just like that I’m writing
I am spinning on a carousel tied to the back of a wooden horse with its teeth maniacally bared.
I am falling through the heart of a dying star.
The gravity of the Earth suddenly doubles its strength, and it grabs me and pulls me down.
My stomach has been replaced with a small, angry porcupine trying to chew its way out.
My guts are lined with smoldering coals.
I grow painfully familiar with my hidden anatomy:
the ileum and jejunum pockmarked with lesions,
the defective diaphragm where my stomach presses through.
My skull is pierced by a thousand arrows.
Light becomes an enemy.
My brain leaves my body and floats a few feet above my head
in the form of a cumulonimbus, shimmering with lightning.
My arms and legs turn to stone.
I sleep for eons like a bewitched princess in a fairy tale,
but there is less romance to it than you might think.
This body aches from stillness,
these dreams take on the heaviness of quicksand.
My knees, hips, knuckles, and spine were strung by an amateur marionette maker.
They are stiff every morning, sore if I sit still,
tender if I try to write longhand or skin hazelnuts
or kneel down in the soft dirt to plant flowers.
My lungs are a toy accordion that a child is crushing under her feet.
I had to leave New York when I ran out of air.
Car exhaust, cigarettes, perfume, incense, shampoo, new carpets,
bleach, candles, wet paint, soap: almost all smells become suffocating.
I do not wax poetic to the doctors, because they will reply:
Maybe it is normal to be in pain every day.
Maybe you don’t really need that cane to walk.
Maybe you should stop worrying so much.
After all, your diseases are mild.
After all, you are a young, healthy woman.
After all, you are a woman.
Now I want to tell you about shifting dimensions / it happens mostly in childhood when everything happens / in your bed where other things happen / it happens at any time of a full day for it has nothing to do with time or it is out of time / it happens like this:
First your whole body goes a little numb like it has come under sleep / like all of your thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves tightening themselves at once / and you lay very still for fear of the pain of waking too soon
Second you close your eyes whether or not you are sleepy for the functioning of your eyelids has ceased and opening is an intentional act whereas closing is the true state of the eyes
Third the bed wobbles or your body does / the room spins or your body does / like everything is on a slight tilt / like a spun quarter nearly out of its spin / you dig your fingers into the bedsheets to steady yourself but the wobbling goes on for it is not of the bed nor of the world nor of anything physical / this is the moment of shifting
Fourth the other dimension whispers in unfamiliar multitudes / you don’t see them or touch them for the shifting of dimensions is not a shifting of the discernable body / for sound waves of any dimension are received through many points of reception and travel along many mediums and your body is one such medium / and you hear though you do not understand / you are an eavesdropper / an interloper / you’re at a door and you weren’t invited to cross the threshold / and you wait outside and listen to the voices on a tilt / to the language not yours / but the sound of it all is everywhere around you and you fall into it
Fifth you fall into it and then you fall away / your body still exists and your brain does too and your brain interrupts / it shouts stop / maybe the vocal multitudes hear this and they get quiet / or maybe the moment of conscious interjection is enough to tilt the earth rightways again / or maybe this is a limited power that begins and ends / no matter for the shift has reshifted and you live again inside your body
/ / /
It happens more and regularly until you are maybe ten / then it is sparing until you are sixteen and then it almost never happens / and between twenty and thirty it happens not once that you can remember / but then at thirty one it does happen again / just once / you don’t know why except that you ask to shift one more time and you ask to be opened up again / who did you ask—you don’t know / maybe your body / maybe the universe / maybe the multitudes of the fourth dimension / maybe you don’t care / maybe it doesn’t matter / for anyway you shift / lying there in your bed and in your body of thirty-one years / you are not afraid for you know what it is and you feel open again when you had been closed for so long
You call your mom in the morning and you tell her mom I have shifted dimensions / for you have never told her before / your mom listens and in her pause you hear recognition / you hear her settling herself into you and you are relieved / there is no incredulity or worry / your mom tells you that she did it too when she was a child
This is a revelation / how we inherit our bodies and our mothers / how the cells are a container for the habits and idiosyncrasies of the self / stored away and passed on—for our cells come from our mothers’ cells and our grandmothers’ and so on and so on / for the body is a mimicry and a memory of the many other bodies in our long familial lines—and how we must inherit our ancestral tragedies too / there are cellular containers for that too / and our bodies remember too those traumas of our grandmothers / every daughter continuing the work to heal the pain lines way back to her first mother / for we store every memory even if we don’t remember
Of course your mother would have escaped her traumas in the fourth dimension / of course
you would have inherited this shifting body / and what else have you inherited / what else comes down to you through your body / your body which is how the universe knows itself / how the divine knows itself through you
/ / /
Julian of Norwich in her thirty-first year was sick and in her mother’s house / everyone thought she was going to die but instead she was shown many visions of the universe that sometimes looked like Jesus Christ / and she heard the voice of the universe which is sometimes called the voice of god / and she sat at the lip of an opening of herself and slipped into the next dimension where she found a hazelnut in the palm of her hand / and in that hazelnut she saw the nature of love which is to say that if the hazelnut has been made it is loved / for the act of creation is also an act of love and if it is made it is worthy of its making and of its state of belovedness / for all made things are beloved / for the universe lives inside of the little thing of the hazelnut / and it is beloved and it is small / practically nothing / and both of these things can be true at the same time
If the hazelnut contains the universe then it must also contain black holes / and if the body is a conduit of the universe and there are holes of the body then where in the body is the event horizon / where in the body are we eradicated / Julian of Norwich went inside herself and talked to Jesus Christ for if nothing escapes a black hole then all things and all manner of thing live there and all manner of thing is well and shall be well as Julian of Norwich heard in her time of slipping
/ / /
In my birth there was a black hole of my body that sat at the base of my spine and this is called spina bifida / this small splitting / this sac of spinal fluid and nerve endings and cord that should be inside of the body but spilled outside of mine / doctors with their hands and their metal tools fused the vertebral bone and closed the hole / but before I was closed I was an opening with no escape / which is called a DEFECT and a CONGENITAL DISORDER / which requires repair and correction / which is a disruption and a deviation and a misbehavior of the body / which should always be closed and always whole at birth
My open spine was an invitation to the entering of death for we assume that inside of every black hole is the death of our bodies / for a hole reminds us that we are fragile and susceptible to a great crushing and collapse first and foremost / we must control the uncontrollable body to disinvite death but here is a problem: death is in the body anyway all of the time and there is no control for that
/ / /
What if a body of disability / a body that is open and uncontrollable / is also a slipping body / a body that shifts among many ways of knowing the universe / for there is not only one way to know the universe or the self in the universe
Spina bifida is an opening of the body’s spine but what if it is also a point of reception / one kind of receptacle and mode of revelation / a conduit and a connection / how many other bodies since the first body were opened / and are open now and knowing of these other ways / their bodies disabled or disordered / their bodies uncontrollable in many ways and each of these a way to receive the universe
/ / /
We assume that we would die inside of any black hole but what if we sometimes survive and what would we find there in the survival abyss
I survived my split spine for it was made to be closed but would I have survived a continual opening—
This is unanswerable / do not try
/ / /
Understand this—there has never been a time during which spina bifida has not existed / this opening has been open in at least one of one thousand babies throughout human history and prehistory—in the bones of the Taforalt caves in northern Morocco some ten thousand years ago / the bones of the Bahriyah Oasis in Egypt and the Olmec statues of southern Mexico some three or four or five thousand years ago / we have been open through spina bifida since maybe the first humans / maybe even in the first one thousand human babies there was one baby with a hole in her spine / and did that hole close up on its own or did someone puncture the sac to drain the fluid or remove the sac by severing or try to push back what they did not want to see come out
/ / /
When Nicolaas Tulp wrote his Observationes Medicae in the seventeenth century he dedicated all of chapter thirty to spina dorsi bifida / he described this opening better than anyone had before him: nerve branches so varied / scattered throughout the tumor
Doctors before him tried to correct the DEFECT by puncturing the sac with little holes to drain the fluid—always the baby would die this way / Doctor Tulp tried to remove the sac completely—this baby died too
In his sketch of spina bifida the baby’s gown is rolled up to expose the back / arms still clothed / a ruffle around the collar / the baby’s back is cut open from between the shoulder blades down to the tailbone / skin folded over / unfurled like an open tulip / the split of the spine visible where the sac would have been / the gap of almost-spine / we see only the round back of baby’s head / delicate hair / the right foot kicked up / small bend of the knee
Eventually Observationes Medicae will be called The Book of Monsters by future medical generations but never by Doctor Tulp / eventually too doctors will stop trying to correct the DEFECT through removal of the protruding sac of spinal elements / eventually they will learn to fill the hole and close it up / arrange the spine just so / just how it should be / this is a legacy of my body / an inheritance that reaches me from the earliest moments of spina bifida
/ / /
In the human body there are thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves / thirty-one pairs flanking either side of the spinal column / thirty-one living wires waiting to communicate their aliveness to the entirety of the body / when some nerves are quiet / when some do not speak / there is more space to listen / for in the quiet we may hear what would otherwise go unheard / how many quiets might any one person have / how often do our living nerves crack then buzz then fold themselves over to silence
In my body of spina bifida there are dead nerves / nerve endings that do not live and have nothing to say / I don’t know how many of my thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves are dead / I can only tell you about the places of my skin that do not feel / this is a way to section the body into function and dysfunction / not a whole body but parts of a body / never a body of completeness
Try to answer this: what has been spoken which you have not heard since you were not open / would you ever envy the way some bodies are open and receive the [ ] of a hole / would you ever accept the breaking of your own body so that you might also have an open body
If you touch me I will feel the pressure of you in the formation of muscles under my skin but I will not feel the sensation of you in the silence of these neural networks / if you touch me my body will speak to you but you will have to be open to a new kind of speaking and you will have to also open yourself and you will have to listen with care
/ / /
Julian of Norwich was in between dimensions when she talked to Jesus Christ and maybe I believe her / maybe in her sickness Julian of Norwich had a body that opened up or perhaps even collapsed in on itself and in the collapse of bodily architecture was revealed the plexus which connects the body to the nonbody / a cluster of nerves where the body feels the nonbody
I would like to say that spina bifida happens in the nonbody but that would not be true for spina bifida is a condition of the body full stop / there is no other place for spina bifida to occur and so the body in its opening must therefore be the center of communication between body and nonbody / Julian of Norwich did not have spina bifida as far as I know but she did have a bodily sickness and in her sickness she found an opening through which she glimpsed something other and she did not flee for she fell into the other and she saw it was beautiful and she called it love and she saw that the human body though fragile and corruptible was beloved for it was created and what is created is good enough
In her sickness Julian of Norwich suffered bodily and she remembered her suffering and she believed that suffering was a way to know the love of god for when we suffer god feels our suffering / but it is more than this / Julian of Norwich believed that when we suffer god also suffers with us and this is called divine love which is another way to say compassion / this is how we remember our union with god
But is there anyone who remembers the suffering of opened-up babies / does it always hurt when the body’s insides come out / is it suffering if a baby has nothing to compare to her open spine / has never known a closed spine / who can say if there is more suffering for those who dwell inside spina bifida or for those who witness the dwelling / if the root of suffering exists in attachment then is attachment a kind of closing and are we too attached to the closing of our structures even though we were so open when we were born / so untethered
/ / /
This is suffering and it is not suffering / this is painful and it is not painful / there is only suffering in what we make UNORDINARY / in the ABNORMAL / the DEFECT / there is only suffering in how it might be and how it could be if only it were like that or that or that / there is only suffering in the vacuum that exists around good enough where nothing but perfection may exist / if a DEFECT is real it is only real in that vacuum
I say this to you with my body which is defective / which has suffered and suffers still / which survives / which is whole / which is wholly ordinary and common unto me / which is alive whether or not it was ever meant to be
If the body wants to be open could you let it be open / could you let it be / for remember there is grace in letting a thing be itself / or would you revile the opening / would you shun or disgust or run from the widening hole
Or would you sit at the edge of the hole / sit and listen and not flee