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In the spring, the dogs stopped barking. By then our windows were held open with tomato cans or washed-out jars of jelly. In the dark of the kitchen, we sat barefoot and halved grapefruits, looking toward the window with the pulp between our fingers, licking the tart from our teeth, and longing for the sound. The rooms in our house were hot and silent and sticky. We drank seltzer over ice and sometimes said nothing, squeezing the juice from limes into our glasses, listening instead to the freight whistles from the north. the dishes rattling in the cupboard, the dirty ones in the sink.
The windows of our house faced other houses and parked cars and power lines. From the bathroom in the back of the house, you could climb to the roof above the mudroom, where I used to go in my sandals and listen to the foghorns and watch the tops of barges, passing silently like old ships. In the streets came traffic sounds, some boys I used to know, some girls, the way they laughed and kissed and tossed beer bottles by the necks toward the sewer grates and under the tires of cars.
In the shed below, my mother soaked combs and scissors in a jar by the window and waited for me to sweep the clippings of hair, which I always did after she had gone to sleep. There was only one stylist chair and a sink near a pasta bowl from which to fill warm water and rinse men’s razors, running your thumb along the blades. I’d never seen her cut my father’s hair, but sometimes the way her fingers would float across a man’s scalp, touching, trimming, the way she concentrated or squinted or smiled, it was so heartbreaking that I had to sit down.
When she went into the house, I knew she’d use her toothbrush and still place it in the cup next to his, next to mine. When the rooms were turned down and the lights all shut but for the lamp in the front window, just in case anyone came home, she might feel along the walls, coming toward my room. Her knees might find the pocket of my knees and later we would sleep with the fans turning the humid air and no breezes coming in through the screen.
Alone I liked to kick the soot from old shingles and watch the lights in Mrs. Otto’s house turn on and then off and then on again. I liked to braid my hair or touch my ankle and try to see stars and think about the way Gabe’s hands were nicked and red, from what, I didn’t know, not then. I imagined curled wood shavings on the floor by his work boots, the sharp teeth of a table saw. Toward the river, the summer nights smelled like motor oil, like clay. There was always the distant sound of traffic from the south-bound cars along the gypsum plant where the plumes of smoke came and the lights blinking all night long, there was always a door closing, a shuffle in the leaves, the smell of something sugary, something raw, something sweet.
Alissa Riccardelli holds an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and a BA in English from Manhattanville College. Her work has appeared in Nano Fiction, Stumble Magazine, The New Orleans Review, and others. She lives in Queens, NY.
This week’s Tin House Reels feature, Cactus Flower, portrays a love between two men whose relationship seems defined by a settling mutual calm. Seungha Yoo uses no dialogue in his film but casts mood changes with the smallest interruptions of daily life: a coffee maker percolating, the scratch of a television set, the ocean at the shore. Despite his protagonists’ consistent emotional stillness, Yoo’s film is affecting. Like the work of Maira Kalman, Yoo’s animation finds meaning in the mundane acts of city life.
“There is no enthusiastic expression of their love in this piece,” Yoo told us. “But I think this is also one form of love…a couple who are so natural for each other so they don’t even have to express their love loudly.”
Yoo drew the characters in Photoshop, painted background textures with watercolor and acrylics, and compiled it all in Photoshop and AfterEffects.
Seungah Yoo is an animator and illustrator from Seoul, Korea. He has produced work for SBS TV, the CalArts Winter Institute, and the WOW Film Festival.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to email@example.com. You may also send us a file directly.
Courtney Maum and I met in 2011 at a reading we were taking part in for Slice Magazine. I remember being pulled into her work (about a fetus nonetheless), the way a person is magnetized by sounds new to him—how her style traversed terrains of seriousness, levity, humor, and unabashed honesty. Maum’s debut novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You tells the story of British-born artist Richard Haddon, who is reevaluating his career, his flapping marriage, and memories of his American mistress while living and working in Paris. When “The Blue Bear,” a painting Haddon had made out of pure love and anticipation for his child miraculously sells, these reevaluations conjure Richard into a rebirth of sorts, and Maum parses them with shockingly original intellect, humor, and wit.
Maum has been doing ‘writerly’ advice columns for Tin House for almost three years now, among them “6 Ways Reading Series Can Improve Your Writing” and “How Not To Hate Your Friends,” examples of her sensible approach to uprightness in others and her own writing. And, as if to give herself a playful pat on the back, Maum is responsible for the hilarious “Celebrity Book Review” series on Electric Literature, a refreshing, often mocking imagining of celebrities writing book reviews–my favorite is John Malkovich.
Maum and I shared words over email, and I was gratified by her openness and frankness with which she sees fiction and real life.
Matthew Daddona: In Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain, the narrator Pierre Pain describes a movie to us as he is sitting in the theater—the characters, plot, motivations, lighting. How much of your narrator’s art did you feel was worthy of describing while writing? Were there bigger descriptions of pieces that you tossed away?
Courtney Maum: Thank you for asking me a question that starts off with a Bolaño reference. I feel like we should be sharing a pisco sour now. I did get rid of a huge chunk in the beginning where Richard goes into great detail about his “key series” of paintings that feature former lovers. It hit way too early in the novel, and plus, Richard’s already told the reader that he’s been having an affair, so I didn’t think it was necessary to belabor the fact that he’s had LOTS AND LOTS OF SEX.
MD: Your narrator, Richard Haddon, is a likeable fellow, albeit one harboring remorse, guilt, and misplaced love. How hard was it to center these myriad of emotions? Given that he is your narrator, how were you able to balance what Richard tells us and the subconscious traits we pick up from him?
CM: I think that a lot of us have likeable assholes in our lives, but they’re so much easier to tolerate off the page than they are in writing. It was really hard to get the balance right with Richard. In the first draft of this book (which I wrote ten years ago), I failed: Richard was funny, but he didn’t have any remorse for his actions and thus it was impossible for a reader to feel any empathy for him. I feel like the published version is almost written in real time in that we are taking this journey with a man who goes from feeling proud of his wrongdoings to terrified of them and their ramifications.
MD: I love this line describing Lisa Bishop, your narrator’s mistress: “Lisa Bishop, evil colonizer of Englishmen’s hearts.” Your Paris setting automatically elicits a romantic feel–you say, “Paris at night is a street show of a hundred moments you might have lived.” Does Paris make it easier to write a love story? Or are there conventions you have had to rail against?
CM: The biggest convention I had to rail against was of the American in Paris. I think, subconsciously, that that is why I chose to make Richard Haddon British, so I could still take digs at the French and the Americans without the narrator having to identify with one of those camps. But I agree with you: Paris simply being Paris automatically imbibes the page with a certain romance, so I’m grateful to the city for doing some of my hard work for me.
MD: Work means a lot to your characters, especially, I think, to Richard’s wife Anne, whose reliance upon her husband’s success, opinion of himself, and happiness informs how she thinks her family is holding up. How do art and “work” inform one another?
CM: I want to answer your question with a question: why the quotation marks around “work?” I think of work as something you are paid to do, and I think of art as a passion. Rare and fortunate are the few who get to have these two realms overlap—and Richard Haddon does. But the thing about art—whether it’s visual arts, literature, film, or another genre entirely—is that art in itself is unreliable as an income generator. Tastes change. Trends change. And desires change within the artist himself. We see this in Richard who becomes disgusted by his most commercially successful work. Many artists have an internal gag reflex that goes off when their work starts to earn them money. We want to be successful, of course, but there is a certain cachet that comes from being the underdog.
MD: Your writing is sharply perceptive, and often very funny. When does Courtney Maum say, ‘Okay, now it’s time to write a funny line or scene, and now it’s time to sit up straight and be serious?’
CM: The readiness for a shift change is actually ruled by my ear. I think of writing as a musical composition, and the former pianist inside of me can feel when it is time for a piece to get lighter or darker. That being said, I’ve put two jesters in this novel: Dan and Dave. The minute they arrive you know you’re in for a little comic relief.
MD: You were living in France for a number of years, correct? Were you always researching? Or did you have to go back once you found your story and undergo a new research process?
CM: I lived in France for five years in my twenties, and go back every year because, being a clever girl, I went and got myself a nice, French husband. I didn’t research at all for this book the first time I wrote it. Back then, in 2003, I wasn’t professional about my writing: I didn’t research, I didn’t outline, I didn’t stress. I was very romantic and naïve about the process—I would wait until a mood hit me, and then I’d just start writing. But you can’t pay your mortgage by being verbally romantic! So now, I write like a goddamn professional. I research, I outline, I stress. When I returned to this project in 2013, I had to do a lot of research about the Iraq War because I know things about the conflict that Richard wouldn’t have—the story takes place in 2002, right before the war breaks out.
MD: The gallery owner, Julien, is a fascinating character. His riffs and rants and exhortations blow off the page with such speed and delight and, in many ways, he’s like a watchdog between Richard and his work, and Richard and his marriage. How did you conceive this character? How important is he to the novel?
CM: I think Julien is very important. Richard only admits to this once, but in addition to being his gallerist, Julien is his best friend. He’s his confidant, his ally, but he’s also his business partner, and that means that he gets to be unflinchingly honest when he thinks that Richard is making the wrong decisions in both his art and his life. To a certain extent, he’s Richard’s conscience.
MD: References are abound in your novel: literary ones like T.S. Eliot or Watership Down, current events like the Gulf War, and many cultural ones pop in and out. Were these items you were reading and watching or thinking about while writing?
CM: I am so grateful to have this opportunity to call attention to my little known and little understood college major: Comparative Literature. Studying how literature was affected by the art and film and architecture of the same time period trained me to always be thinking in terms of comparisons. I like using comparisons and references in communication—I think it brings us closer. For example, if I tell you that I had a weird Saturday night, that doesn’t mean much. But if I tell you that my Saturday night was like a French fry with no ketchup, a picture is painted.
MD: Is there a place you always have wished you could write about, but feared doing so?
CM: I’m obsessed with Mexico, and about the reasons why North Americans travel there. I started writing about this obsession in my chapbook, “Notes from Mexico” but just barely scratched the surface. I deeply, deeply want to live in Mexico City one day. But what are you going to do, you know? I’m thirty-five. I have a daughter now. I have this whole life. And what the hell do I know about what is really going on? It’s a naivety born of privilege to think that I can just go there with my computer and observe people and write. I don’t know anything about the real Mexico, the one tourists don’t see. So I have an attraction-repulsion thing going on with both the country and the feelings it stirs up inside of me.
MD: Would Americans and Parisians read I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You differently? How so? How did this inform your detail-writing?
CM: I honestly have no idea how French people would read I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. French literature is elegant and quiet, and even humorous writers, like Anna Gavalda and Michel Houellebecq, manage to be funny in very discreet ways. This book is loud. It’s the difference between someone at a dinner party who is entertaining the whole table with a slightly drunken story and the person at the end of the table who is telling a very strange but funny tale to just one person to her right. My hope with this book is that Americans like it, and that the French end up liking it because Americans like it—which is how things have worked out for hamburgers and craft beer in Paris, so maybe I have a chance, too.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. The humor columnist behind the “Celebrity Book Review” series on Electric Literature, a frequent contributor to The Rumpus, and an advice columnist for Tin House, she splits her time between the Massachusetts Berkshires and New York City. She’s also the author of the chapbook “Notes from Mexico” from The Cupboard Press.
She is also largely responsible for the (now famous) karaoke night at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Matthew Daddona is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer based in New York City. He is a founding member of FLASHPOINT and is editor of the Tottenville Review. His most recent writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gigantic, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Imagine the quintessential fresh-from-the-land Midwestern bounty of my Mennonite childhood and you might also imagine the quintessential spread this sort of landscape suggests. Yes, there were Mason jars with halved peaches nestled in perfect stacks, bushels of sweet corn sheared from the cob then packed in juices sweeter than honey. There were braids of onions hung in the carport and a basket of soft pears sitting by the front door, ready to eat.
But, let me tell you, there was also The More-With-Less Cookbook and this, the Bible of Mennonite gastronomy, would be the undoing of the Yoder Family kitchen and of, no doubt, countless other Mennonite kitchens across the heartland formerly full-up with lards and butters, refined flours and sugars, heartbreakingly delicious cheeses, and let’s not forget gravy. But this one book, first published in 1976 and now in its 47th printing, ended an Eden I can only now conjure by imaging what non-Mennonite folks must think our diets are like, that long table of creamy casseroles, clouds of buttery mashed potatoes, whipped creams that invoke heaven itself, pie, pie, pie.
Instead consider this: millet.
Consider: legumes out the wazoo.
Consider: ubiquitous bran, whole wheat flour everything, non-fat dry milk powder as substitute, and liver, all items on the Economical Sources of Protein Index found at the front of The More-With-Less Cookbook, subtitle: suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.
In the foreword to my 25th anniversary copy, a pleasantly delusional woman named Mary Beth Lind claims that the recipes contained within the consecrated pages of this book will “help recapture the joy of preparing and eating adequate and appropriate food,” but for me, all this sort of cooking has ever done is fill me with a feral drive to find and devour anything within the Little Debbie family of snack foods.
As Doris Janzen Longacre, the author of the cookbook, writes in the preface to More-With-Less, “Our interaction with food will express our faith.” The concept of “more with less” is not only frugal; it’s holy. And my mother, with aspirations of becoming the most righteous of all Mennonite cooks, took this message to heart, her copy of the good book stained with tomato sauce and oiled with melted margarine.
But here’s the thing: sometimes she went off-recipe, sometimes even off-book. Sometimes my mother went off-earth into full outer space floating around up there oxygen-deprived in the deep black hole of frugal oblivion and it’s here, at the furthest reaches of space and time, that we encounter her most diabolical-yet-probably-nonetheless-ordained-by-God-Himself creation.
It was called The Soup Container.
She kept it in the freezer.
It was a faded cottage cheese container with a piece of vaguely sticky masking tape on the lid that innocently read “Soup” in my her perfect cursive.
If ever there were two tablespoons of yellow juice left over in the Corningware dish used to cook green beans, this slurp’s-worth of liquid was still too much for the compost bucket. One single bite of tater tot casserole? A half ladle of spaghetti sauce? Juice from the venison roast? None of it could be wasted.
I stood in the darkened kitchen contemplating what to do. Could I ever-so-silently pour the bean juice down the drain? Might I be able to very quietly feed the last tot to the cat?
Instead, from her post at the empty dinner table, as she crocheted a fussy little angel from delicate threads, my mother read my thoughts. This was a power granted her by God. Without looking up from the tiny halo she was forming in her hands, she commanded, “Rachel. Put that in the soup container.”
And so I retrieved the soup container from the freezer and pried off the lid. Inside a solid chunk of corn kernels huddled in a layer of mixed broths that was marbled with opaque wisps of creamed something or other. I dumped in the next layer—chop suey or lentil soup or cooked squash—and silently returned the sacred vessel to the icy depths.
Dread. Nausea. Raw fear. These are what accompanied Saturday “leftovers” lunches, when my mother cleaned out the week’s remnants from the fridge and, once every month or two, retrieved the soup container, sometimes even two soup containers, from the freezer and dumped it in a stainless steel cauldron.
I was supposed to feel I relieving world hunger, helping starving children, being a responsible and kind global citizen. Yet still I watched hopelessly as the soup chunk slowly melted into a ripe swill of every meal we’d mostly consumed over the last thirty days.
At the table, as we prayed, heads engulfed in the sacred steams wafting from our full bowls, I asked God to please help me to get through my bowl of soup, to make it taste ok, to keep me from thinking of vomit. But the smell… a note of fish, a note of Chef Boyardee, a note of compost-pile vegetable. And then, as we opened our eyes from prayer, the soup itself, pale off-brown green, bean sprouts and lima beans festering in the broth, ground hamburger and sweet potatoes waterlogged at the bottom.
“Fucking gross,” my teenaged sister said, after which she was banished to her room without lunch.
I hated her.
I smiled at my parents and touched the spoon to my tongue. I would be their favorite child. I would be a model Mennonite.
I would go to heaven.
Rachel Yoder edits draft: the journal of process which publishes first and final drafts of short stories, essays, and poetry along with author interviews about the creative process. Her writing most recently appears in The American Reader and Blue Mesa Review and is forthcoming in The Normal School and The Chicago Tribune. She lives in Iowa City.
On nights when there would be a cultural house dance, the brothers would leave for the village early, hitch a ride beyond the dom kultura to the abandoned land where, long ago, for one near-orphaned year—their father drowned, their mother lost to grief—they had lived as boys, slept in the straw inside their uncle’s izba, sharing the farmhouse with his nesting hens, woke mornings to the scent of fresh-laid eggs, the crackle of kindling catching, Dyadya Avya huffing the stove into heat, smiling at them through the smoke. All around the there had stretched the vast collective versts of the kolkhoz. All day they had worked the fields beside the kolkhozniki. Farmers who were now gone as their dead dyadya, fields overgrown as Avya’s grave.
Now, getting off whatever truck or tractor they had ridden out, Dima and Yarik would stand in the receding rumble, the thrum of crickets in the chest-high grass, the swallows chattering in the empty barn, sometimes their uncle’s old Yurlov rooster belting out a call. They would let it finish—such crowing: so long, so lonesome, its brood all gone—before they crossed the road into the Cowbane-choked field. Side by side the brothers would push through the knapweed blooms, the high seedheads of Cagongrass, towards the forest, into the trees, until all around them the world was made of birches. Above: the canopy of small leaves stirring. Down from it dropped trunks so white they seemed a thousand beams of sunlight piercing to the forest floor. And the brothers walked among them, the shrushing so synchronous someone listening from afar would have thought it was one man, walked until they came to the place they had always known as theirs.
Once, it might have been a hunting cottage, its walls collapsed in dark log piles now, or perhaps some eremitic chapel reverberating with the mumbles of a wild-eyed recluse. When they first found it, there seemed a steeple engulfed by caved-in roof, a bulbous dome subsided into rot, a door decayed as if to invite them in. And in they had burrowed, hauling at rocks, digging a tunnel, two small boys with bruised arms and faces blackened but inside a hideaway just big enough for them. Through it tree trunks grew, their bark rough as rooster legs, their roots spread out like talons and, lying in the soil-scented dark, the brothers had named it Baba Yaga’s after the fabled hut atop its two hen’s feet, whispered stories of the witch beneath a forest floor abloom with mushrooms. On the mound above hundreds of them grew—purple blewits and golden chanterelles, ox tongues stiff and red, milk-caps and pheasants backs and puff balls huge and white—spread bright as a quilt beneath the trees. Each time the boys left they picked it apart, filled their baskets. And each time they returned to it regrown.
Even now. Through, full grown themselves, their adult eyes recognized the remains of a bench, the bowl of a ladle, a stone stove fit with a metal basin filled with rocks, and they knew it was just some old banya, a bathhouse peasant farmers might once have used before the State took over and let it rot. Still, the darkness stirred their dreams. Lying beside each other, they would talk of the day they’d buy back their uncle’s izba, move together out to the farm, spend the rest of their lives working side by side, live out their years just them alone, out here, together.
Down in the mushroom scented dark, their voices would drift into silence, their breathing into sleep, falling in synch until it seemed slow and heavy as the huffing of some hibernating bear. Sometimes they’d wake to the wo-hoo, woho-uhwo-ho of Ural Owl calling to its mate. Sometimes they’d hear the distant keening of a kolyosnaya lira, sometimes a burst of laughter on the breeze. And if they slept until the dancing had already started, it would come to them across the field like the dom kultura’s pulse, a throbbing that, when they crawled out from their warren, would seem to shake the stars.
In the field they’d join the flickering flashlight beams of all the others swarming, follow the tractors and trucks that crammed the road, feel the bonfire on their faces as all around everyone would clamber through the doorway into the hall. Inside, the air would be all smoke and wet-wool waft and heat of the crowd, alive with thuds of mud-matted boots as they all surged upon the dance floor, laughter in their eyes, vodka in their cheeks, whoops and cries and the guitar’s sudden strumming, the plucking of the gusli, the fiddler bending to his bow. Hands on hips and waists, boots banging down, the crowd would begin to dance. Barinyas and troikas, kamarinskayas and khorovods. The brothers wading in. Dima with his high-kneed stomps, Yarik’s horse-in-harness prancing. Until the musicians would break, the crowd would clear, the clapping would begin: the Cossack competition. Always, if the brothers were there, they danced it. And if they danced it, they won.
He mounts the shaking platform, lays the weight of his fingers on the delicate wings. No more Red-eye. No more stand-by or baggage or weight restrictions. From now on he will go wherever he wants whenever he wants and take along whatever he wishes to, one carry-on bag or ten, one suitcase or a thousand. And he will remain airborne to his long heart’s content. For his best ideas come to him 40,000 feet above ground while strapped in an aisle seat with a cup of coffee steaming up from the slim rectangle of his tray table and strings of cloud framed in a little square of window. Frequent flyer. Always on the go.
When he was seven years old, his grandmother told him the story of the Flying Africans, the earliest known Transatlantic Flight, causing him to understand aerodynamics as a thing to live by. He began to thread his way through passages of Leonardo, Newton, and Liang, mull over the treatises of Cayley, Francesco Lana de Terzi, and Werner von Braun, review and improve the schematics of the Montgolfier and Wright Brothers, Zeppelin, and Langley, putting their thoughts into his own language, a tireless record stretching across several decades and filling twenty notebooks the size of folios.
Heading out into the world, he examined firsthand ancient instrument panels unearthed in the jungles of Peru, surveyed pre-colonial airfields in the Congo, and catalogued magical carpets on three continents. Gazed through the slot of his diver’s helmet (his own personal pressurized cockpit) into inky ocean depths to chart the crash sites of downed fighter jets.
Many such exploratory missions, necessary groundwork for the numerous vehicles he has engineered over the years: a kite sliced from linoleum, a mobile pieced together from flypaper and Popsicle sticks, a crude dirigible ballasted from condoms (latex more preferable than rubber), a helicopter spun from wire and string, a glider constructed of mangrove, bamboo, and banana leaf (an object lesson in objects), and his singular achievement, a prototype for a single-person flying apparatus.
Bearing his history, he checks his gauges, adjusts his belts and straps, and takes to the sky, already thinking ahead to his next flight in a craft indistinguishable from air, made of air itself.
Born and raised in Chicago, Jeffery Renard Allen is a Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and an instructor in the graduate Writing Program at The New School and the low residency MFA writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Allen is the author of five books, most recently the novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press, 2104), which is loosely based on the life of Thomas Greene Wiggins, Blind Tom, a nineteenth century African American piano virtuoso and composer who performed under the stage name Blind Tom and who was the first African American to perform at The White House. The novel was featured as the front-page review of both The New York Times Book Review and The San Francisco Chronicle. Allen is the author of two other works of fiction, the celebrated novel Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), which won The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the short story collection Holding Pattern (Graywolf Press, 2008), which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. As well, he has published two volumes of poetry Harbors and Spirits (Moyer Bell, 1999) and Stellar Places (Moyer Bell 2007). And his work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Bomb, The Chicago Tribune, StoryQuarterly, Callaloo, Ploughshares, Writer’s Digest, Black Renaissance Noire, Poets & Writers, Triquarterly, Kweli Journal, St. Petersburg Review, Buzzfeed, and The Nervous Breakdown. Allen has received numerous accolades and awards, including a fellowship at The Dorothy L. and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and a grant in Innovative Literature from Creative Capital. He is represented by Jodi Solomon Speakers bureau and the Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency.
Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly sore I treat myself to a massage. I always consider this carefully since I don’t have much cash to throw around. How much am I hurting today? Will a massage be worth the few tips I’ll make during a slow lunch shift, five hours of my life spent scooping out melted votives and prepping drink garnishes for customers who inevitably push them aside? More often I decide against it and get by with my husband’s well-intentioned but brief backrubs. Occasionally I see a friend who knows to hug me tightly so that a couple vertebrae crack beatifically in his embrace. But when the e-mails requiring a professional-voiced response amass in my inbox and double shifts at the restaurant keep me from settling into my writing, I turn to skilled help.
My massage parlor sits on the edge of Nolita, a neighborhood known for its tony boutiques and the perfectly accessorized crowds that stroll its small streets. But beyond the parlor’s basement-level entry, all signs of the area’s swank disappear. There are no aromatherapy candles or scented oils on the premises, or a receptionist in a thoughtfully spare waiting room to offer kombucha to clients. At Spring Wellness Tui Na, the overhead fluorescence illuminates the dirt stains on the waiting room’s worn carpet. The densely packed fish tank common in Chinese establishments buzzes in the corner with its own artificial light.
On the few occasions I’ve visited, my arrival has interrupted the employees on lunch break pushing rice noodles into their mouths. It’s not the most tranquil scene, but I don’t kid myself: I go here to save money. But more than that, I seek the firm touch, the golden fingers of these rigorous women. Usually the masseuses are resting on the black pleather loveseat meant for clients, but one of them always sets down her Styrofoam container and leads me into the darkened adjacent room.
A double row of cots lines the interior of a space more suggestive of an infirmary than a sanctuary of holistic pleasure. The hospital-style curtains, too narrow to fully surround any one bed, offer passersby a peek of you struggling with your jeans or diving for the bed to hide your naked torso just as the masseuse jerks the curtain open with a brusque Ready? My favorite pair of hands belongs to a petite woman with permed hair and fading blue tattooed eyebrows. She punches my forty-five minutes into the small digital timer as I sink my head into the bed’s cutout, lined with fresh sheets of Bounty. Around me, various timers sound off. With each series of cruel beeps signaling the dismissal of one client after another, I dread the conclusion of my own pampering.
Well before this necessary reprieve from daily stress, my pleasure in the rejuvenating power of touch began in college. But as always, before anything there was my mother. In spirit similar to settlers who put their children to work on the family farm, she seemed to have birthed my siblings and me so we could honor her body, or at least take part in its upkeep and well being. When he wasn’t in his room with his basketball cards, my older brother was usually on the living room couch pounding my mother’s legs with his teenaged fists, his eyes vigilantly following The Simpsons or the Celtics onscreen. At the height of her work as a housekeeper when she and my father were cleaning four or five houses a day in the old monied towns of south shore Massachusetts, my mother longed regularly for this brute force to stun the ache in her joints.
As my sister spent more time with her friends, I took over the task of tweezing my mother’s armpit hairs. Except for a few coarse strands, my mother didn’t have much underarm fuzz, and yet as soon as I announced I was finished, she’d arch her arm higher alongside her head and insist I scan the two-by-two inch slab again, more carefully. She always knew when my mind wandered because I would absentmindedly clip her flesh between the tweezer prongs. She’d yelp; I’d giggle and apologize but inside I still sulked, certain that no one I knew suffered through a chore so strangely intimate. She didn’t even offer remuneration—allowances didn’t exist in our family. It was as though she were getting even with us for the burden of carrying us in her womb, for misshaping her once taut, youthful body, for the turmoil and headaches she endured for and because of us.
I escaped this bitter chore by leaving for college. I roomed my first year with a high-spirited, charismatic blonde from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. We had some serious issues, SZ and me; she was a Leo and I am a Scorpio. On the one hand, we drove each other mad—my lonely freshman depression dampened her pep and her odd combination of passive aggression and possessive craze incensed me in all kinds of ways. SZ was the kind of person who would say Wouldn’t it feel nice if the fan was on because she was too lazy herself to get up. Once she rang my phone while standing outside our window and threw a fit as she watched me ignore the call. Still, we cared about each other a great deal, which is probably why we had so much trouble.
Turbulence aside, we had fun that year. To de-stress we treated ourselves to dance nights: lamps dimmed with scarves, sticky weed in SZ’s glass pipe, Enigma’s Trilogy album. From her trunk of belly dance costumes that she lugged from Tennessee with photos of her dance troupe—tanned blonde girls wrapped in bright veils—taped to the inside of the heavy lid, we pulled midriff-baring tops with billowy sleeves and silk harem pants. We tied coin scarves to our hips that jangled when we moved. When the room felt small, we ran through the dorm corridors to the spacious stairwell landing in front of the window and practiced head slides and rib circles, oblivious to the crowd of people watching and clapping from the dark lawn below.
That was the year I existed outside myself. I spent most of my time in a private study room at the library, slumped over asleep in a chair with the books I always fooled myself into carrying pushed aside on the desk. When the library closed for the night, I’d return to my dorm room and crawl into bed. Sleep was the only thing that came easily, though each time I woke up I seemed more awkward and inarticulate than the day before.
I wanted to flee the familiarity of myself, to make noise and to shatter out of the tiny, confining space I felt I just barely took up. But I was also desperate to hold onto other intimacies, things that were once recognizable but suddenly were not. I knew when I applied to college that I would study fiction but realized once I got there how little I knew about something that once seemed innate. I could read it and talk about it, maybe, but writing it was something else. With belly dance there was no shame in not knowing, or an impulse to claim to know. It was freeing. SZ taught me the steps, and I followed gladly. Her self-possession and confidence were so close—just beyond my reach—that I felt I could soon inhabit myself again.
To end we’d climb into her bed that she regularly dusted with a perfumed white powder and take turns massaging each other. SZ’s strong hands intuitively sought out the stones in my neck and shoulders. She rubbed them until their hardness shrank. My returns? They were lame, my feeble fingers merely pushing and pulling her skin into different directions. I could feel frustration in her restless shifting and when she could no longer bear my efforts, she suggested I practice the belly dance hand exercises she’d taught me.
Alternately she turned to a short, bald Bosnian guy everyone called Mini-Vin because he looked like the actor Vin Diesel minus about three feet. While at Sarah Lawrence, Mini-Vin’s interests ranged from fashion to opera to some book that taught men how to trick women into sleeping with them. He’d allegedly dug mass graves in Kosovo. In the beginning of the spring term he dabbled in acupuncture and massage, keeping a pack of needles he’d ordered online in his backpack and visiting girls in their dorm rooms. I’d return to our room after class to find him straddling SZ on the floor, kneading her oil-slicked back or sliding his thin, long needles into her skin, not understanding why his shirt was off. In a moment of weakness, I gave in to what would turn out to be magic paws; Mini-Vin would baste my own back like a pig for roast with Mazola corn oil laced with drops of tea tree.
Over time, my hands developed their own power and sensitivity to the arrangement of SZ’s musculature, and I was finally able to reciprocate properly. This was the link missing on our nights and now I felt the richness of releasing my friend’s body from kink and pain. I could make it feel cared for just as she did mine. This discovery of connecting with another human being—not through forced, mangled words or ambiguous social cues—but through the simple physicality of touch relieved me.
I returned home that spring break stronger. I’d recovered from the initial shock of living and learning with different people. I’d packed my second semester with dance and movement classes, and I was in the best shape I’d ever been. More importantly, the focused rigor of dance forced me out of my head and helped me begin to look people in the eye again. In my mother’s room, when she demurred at my command for her to strip, I pulled her pants down, sat across her lumbar, and gave her the massage of my life.
“Where did you learn to do this?” my mother asked, craning to stare at me.
For the beginning dancer, the necessary foundational exercises that develop strength and mobility may seem repetitive and simplistic. It will be difficult to understand fundamental skills such as balance, weight transference, and efficient frame alignment. Through exercise, the dancer gains experience and a willingness to reassess physical habits. Locating and feeling skeletal relationships will become habitual when she builds muscle strength. She will begin to negotiate her relationship with gravity.
Whatever the tradition or school, I was not a good dancer. Though I could always get down on the dance floor at parties, once there was any kind of formal instruction or choreography I’d trip up, always lagging three or four beats in middle and high school musical numbers. On top of that, my college body, still gravid with sleep in morning classes, protested against my commands for it to move. But it was mostly my mind that got in the way. I’d fixate so intensely on a movement’s technicality that when I considered a simple concept like opposition in walking, my body would revolt and paralyze the act. By thinking too much about walking, the alternation unraveled: my right leg began to move with my right arm, my left leg with the left arm, like a drunken robot.
Although it may look relaxed, the contained subtle movements of belly dance take great muscle control. The focus in this dance, unlike most Western dance forms, is on natural isolations of the torso muscles rather than sweeping paths of extremities. There is one important connection between modern and belly dance: feet. In both styles, the dancer’s feet are planted to the ground. A useful modern dance exercise involves spreading the toes as far apart as possible, the weight evenly distributed across the entire foot. I liked imagining that the bottoms of my feet, callused and tough, had sprouted roots to the earth.
With all the bodies around in dance class, it’s difficult not to pick up on the various things you both love and find flawed about your own. Feelings of envy and inadequacy aren’t uncommon. But you get past this. You begin to understand that people dance to express themselves, or to simply feel good. For women especially, it’s a celebration of the body that we learn from an early age to protect and keep hidden. Women have always been most beautiful to me in motion. Whether it’s ratty Hanes or bright Lululemon, our lines are best emphasized through soft cotton and stretch nylon. Without judgment or shame, we jut our asses into the air, push ourselves into planks, submit into child’s pose. We bicycle our legs—long, plump, short, skinny, chicken, bowed—into the air.
With SZ I continued informal belly dance lessons. We snuck into darkened campus studios after hours. One weekend we rented a car and headed to New Jersey with two other girls for a belly dance convention. In a concrete building directly off the turnpike, thousands of women in coin jewelry flocked to watch Suhaila Salimpour, a gorgeous olive-skinned woman from California, with thick hips break down hip lifts and snake arms. I remember the exuberance in hearing my wavering ululation, not yet tested outside our dorm room, join the high-pitched howls of the women around me as we watched a tribe of women flawlessly execute a cymbal dance with chiming zills strapped to their strong, elegant fingers.
At one point I looked around that convention hall, noticing that except for my friend Sheila—a curvy Persian girl who was also by far the most natural and experienced dancer of our little college crew—we were surrounded by hundreds of the mostly white faces of middle-aged women, their eyes rimmed with Wet ‘n Wild kohl. Everyone wore Middle Eastern costume, some more elaborate than others. And I, in SZ’s ankle-length amethyst skirt and ivory crepe choli, a chain of polished, jade-like stones I’d just bought at the fair encircling my hips, stood among them, celebrating an art form so blatantly appropriated. My shame began to pound in rhythm with the loud Arabic music playing overhead.
Although most people think of belly dance as a dance for male viewing pleasure, it’s most often performed among, with, and for women. A few years later in Paris I watched women dance for each other in the city’s many Middle Eastern dance clubs. It was celebratory and playful, sisterly and sexy. But above all, it was powerful. I watched women bring rowdy audiences to silence with the lift of an arm.
Whatever the origins and evolution of this dance, I felt then that it had the ability to break down the social programming telling women what our bodies should look like and what to do with them. I needed this inclusive spirit, its invitation for contact and community. Women of all different ages, shapes, and histories undulated their torsos and isolated their chests. To participate, I only had to learn. It didn’t require mutilating my feet for years to raise en pointe, and it didn’t make me starve myself to fit the form’s aesthetic. In fact, I wished pretty hard for more flesh on my boyish hips for a more substantial shimmy.
For years after, I studied different kinds of movement and dance. I choreographed a piece for performance in Paris, and there, too, I took incredible West African dance classes. Every week I clapped and leapt until I gasped for breath. During breaks, I sucked on crystallized ginger pieces the instructor brought to class in a clean, linen satchel. I became versed in the physical language of each style I took up. I studied the vocabulary and articulations that live within and through each gesture.
I’m not sure that I would attend that belly dance festival today. I’m as open to the physicality of the dance as I used to be, but I’m not sure if I’ve let go of all of the old judgment I felt for myself and my belly dance sisters for taking pleasure in a tradition that didn’t belong to us. But who would I be hurting if I did?
That weekend in Somerset, New Jersey, I learned how to use shoulder accents to punctuate a beat; exploded into laughter with my friends as I tried to pull off bouncing ‘earthquake’ shimmies, tripped on traveling steps, and snake-armed until my biceps were sore. I low-kicked one after another, played with tossing my head, then stepped back to watch more experienced dancers tilt and circle and loop their hips into infinities.
How do I explain the severity of a hard floor, how its refusal to receive your body can feel like a cold stranger, or worse, an angry, withdrawn lover? How do I explain the devastation over this disconnect, as though the floor were a living, rebuking being, and the relief of feeling your body finally sink against its surface only after a series of small, repetitive movements, a sacred offering of gestures? Ten light drags of the knuckles, ten flicks of each wrist and hand. Ten slow turns of the head, left to right and left again, all against that worn, blonde wood floor. Then, suddenly—assent. Euphoric gratitude.
It took that first year of college, of being both still and in motion, to make me feel like myself again while accepting I’d changed. Simultaneously I learned how to feel my own and other bodies through movement—simple and radical—and when I wasn’t dancing, I was in stasis. Touching or being touched. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?
Late one summer night before I’d left for college, I came into the living room to find my mother power walking on the treadmill. Soft flesh and hazy lighting filled the television screen. Laughing, I said, “Mom, what are you watching?”
Her frank act of watching porn—girl-on-girl, not a male phallus in sight—embarrassed me. But she was simply enjoying the female bodies. If I could do it over again I wouldn’t have laughed. It shouldn’t have surprised me; my mother used to watch the Spanish soaps on Telemundo for those glamorous actresses with full lips and big hair though she understood nothing they said. She didn’t need to understand; she watched for their beauty. I envy my mother’s freedom to ignore story. I’m mostly so locked into words that physical communication—not of mind or mouth—is hugely affecting and appealing.
At art exhibitions I tend to read curatorial statements and wall texts before looking at artworks. I’ll catch myself relying on the descriptions to understand the art, rather than allowing myself to feel it before rationalizing. With dance I’m usually not thrown a lifeline for context. I’m driven to feel, not interpret. I wonder if my mother’s choice to forgo narrative is not so much a choice. Her lack of language skills pushes her to cultivate that appreciation of beauty, or pain, or fear without explanation or words.
From the other side of the curtain, the male masseuse at Spring Wellness burps. He follows up with a guttural cough, then sneezes expansively. I imagine a spray of saliva misting the back of his client. But she’s kinder than I am: she offers a quiet bless you.
So there it is: I can easily find men vulgar through actions like these, however involuntary. What is acceptable to this male masseuse—grungy flip-flops, lunch breath, and an onslaught of bodily emissions—strikes me as inconsiderate and gross. Is it because I believe a woman wouldn’t behave this way? Is it a cultural difference?
Even in this dank cavern of massage, I recognize that the women here are more focused and empathetic to my needs. My pleasure is not the male masseuse’s priority: the pressure he applies is decent but never in the right place. His mind wanders, just as mine did when I stooped over my mother’s armpit years ago.
When the female masseuse rubs me, it is an extension of herself, a projection of how she wants and needs to be touched. This is the understanding. Her cool, light hands run down my neck, my back, locating my pain and anxiety. The coaxing, the slow kneading, fist rolling over the reef of my spine, skilled digs behind a shoulder blade. Little sighs and grunts escape from me and those around me. And from the masseuses in the room, suppressed giggles—because, as I recently discovered upon raising myself up to gather my hair, the minute I tuck my head into that cutout and close my eyes, that curtain gets pulled right back open. The masseuses communicate with each other as they work on our bodies through knowing glances and private smiles.
Eventually, that little timer above my head goes off. My time is up, but for several minutes after the beep, my lady gives me a few extra squeezes on my shoulders, presses her fingers into the hollows behind my ears and the back of my skull. For you, her gestures say, and I know that by my deep, even breathing and the way my body has fully sunken into the bed, she feels my gratitude radiating for her gifts.
Titi Nguyen’s essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The New York Times, Paris Review Daily, Witness, and elsewhere. She will be a tuition scholar at this summer’s Bread Loaf conference in Vermont. Find her work at titinguyen.net.
A couple weeks ago I got into a cab (grey 2008 Toyota, three hubcaps, broken air conditioning) and the radio was on and it was the World Cup match between Germany and Portugal and the commentators were commenting as fast as they could in French about the defense strategy of the Germans when, twelve minutes into the first half, forward Thomas Müller scored a penalty against Portugal’s goalkeeper Rui Patricio and the cab veered toward the sidewalk (to the right like Müller’s penalty kick) and I told the cabbie where I had to go, (“Don’t know it. You sure?” he said. “Can you check?”), but there was nothing to check, I knew the address was right and he was talking in a low voice to himself and “grumpy” wasn’t really strong enough to describe what he was acting like and I said, “So who’s the favorite?” And he looked up in the rearview mirror at me like, “Really, lady?” and I knew (thought I knew?) that these two teams were from what had been called by some the “Group of Death” along with the US and Ghana who were playing later tonight and so far between me and the cabbie it had just been a couple words but he could see that I was serious, but maybe what he couldn’t see was that I knew who was favored and what some of the odds were, that the German lineup included Khedira and Boateng and Lahm, but the cabbie was riveted to the voices of the commentators in a way that wasn’t “grumpy” at all but more enchanted and he said, “Germany’s favored, Germany,” and we were rolling (barreling?) through the streets placedelaBastilleruedelaRoquette dodging pedestrians (pedestrians dodging us?) because there had been some train strikes and plane delays and then a taxi strike (yesterday? tomorrow?) and construction work going in all directions, that starts in the summer here, like every summer in France.
During the summer of 2006, with the World Cup in Germany, almost anywhere you went in Paris (café, bistro, friend’s apartment) the TV was on with the games or someone was covering the daily routine of les Bleus at their camp at the Schlosshotel Münchausen (sixteenth-century castle, renovated), or covering the coverage of a team that France would be playing. There was a lot of excitement after the stunning 1998 French win in the World Cup against Brazil (3-0, Man of the Match Zinedine Zidane with first goal in the first half at 27 minutes, the next at 45+1). Although no one had mistaken me for a sports fan before in my life, that July I started watching the games and haven’t stopped since.
The cabbie was thoroughly knocked out by soccer. He’d been a second division goalkeeper for years, he told me, on a team in a suburbs not far from here, as he drove (careened?) through the streets, he said, “Looky in there,” inside a Chinese restaurant with the doors wide open on the streets. People eating? Someone slicing lemons at the bar? “No,” he said, “over there,” and pointed to the back wall of the restaurant right by the mural of the painted tigers (three of them, stylized orange and black stripes, mouths cracked back, some idea of “roaring,”) where a screen displayed the deep green gem that was the field, the two goals at either end of the field like netted shores, a tangle of players knotting and unknotting themselves in the late afternoon Brazilian sunlight. He didn’t see the street for the soccer in his eyes. “Tu vois?” the cabbie said, “you see?”
His teams were, he said, In This Order: 1) France, 2) Italy (this was before their elimination by Uruguay and the game where striker Luis Suarez took a bite out of the shoulder of Italy’s defender Giorgio Chiellini, 3) Holland (a distant third for him and third place didn’t matter so much he said, but whatever, you gotta give a third place, it’s like some sort of balance you know?, but remember, he told me, you block Robben, you solved some math on the field”). I asked about the US team. “Hey there,” he said, only he said, bahh, alors, “you’ve got Klinsmann for a coach and he’ll take you far,” and then he said that the US team was strong this year, and good, very good, but that they play differently than the European teams. “A different way to approach the ball.” He hoped the very best for them, he really did (though he couldn’t get it out of his mind that attacker Landon Donovan hadn’t been picked for the team, “he’s got a beautiful game, he really does,” he said) and he hoped they’d do good, “real good” against Ghana later that night. (The US won 2-1).
He started talking about the other teams and strategies and offense lineups and specifics of statistics that were as vast and minute and perfect as a chemical equation (I’d never been mistaken as a fan of math or chemical science either) and right then you didn’t know who was driving what where and fostering any team spirit in the backseat was hard. “Goalies are the key to the game,” he said. “Gigi Buffon, Čech, Neuer. Strikers are one thing, they’re real good things, but goalkeepers are kings. The kings of the kings on the field,” he said, only he said, les rois des rois sur le terrain because all of this was still happening in French and there was velocity in what he was saying even more than there was in the way he was driving. He was definitely going “out of his way” to tell me things. There were lots of dark and difficult things about soccer, “lots,” he said. “Tu vois? You see?” The cabbie had retired from soccer a few years ago and now his kingdom reached the length of the dashboard and the ends of one-way streets with their blasts of red lights and the horns clacking like cheers bursting from fans. He was the goalkeeper of late nights, the keeper of doors and dented cars.
Tremors When The Patient’s Hands Are Held Out
They have grown into each other like two sun-exhausted creepers; a combination of indistinct markings. An outsider might wonder if these are the original patterns, or if there has been some constant irritation to produce this blurring together of striation.
Once they were young and strong enough to stand with stiff shoulders. They never looked at one another except to grieve that the other was still there. You, their eyes said as they snapped themselves apart like press-studs.
Their children have gone into other lives. Tarani, now forty-one, is living in Boston. Sunila is relieved; at least it’s not India. Until this year, when Tarani became pregnant, Arjun didn’t speak to her much. He knew she disliked him when she was growing up, but she seems to like him now. Maybe the anxiety of a late pregnancy has softened her. Arjun believes that a lot of people dislike him for reasons he will never understand. He lets his small hesitancies drop here and there, like elderly rose petals.
Murad left England for Cairns, Australia, to work as a tourist guide. He is now forty-four. Just imagine, Sunila with her palm to her cheek. A grown man, slightly more than middle-aged, even. He owns a kayaking shop, whatever that is. His accent changed: a gradual lengthening of vowels as though he stretched into another culture. It takes some adjustment of the ears to speak to him on the phone when he calls from this other world. They marvel at their once silent child’s business acumen suddenly flowering in a strange, hot place where they have Wollemi pines, tea trees, mud crabs and something called a queenfish.
They show their visitors the map of Australia in the World Atlas. Cairns is an orange smudge on page seventy-six and the sea next to it is a rich, deep blue. The visitors admire the colour combination and note the Great Barrier Reef. Arjun and Sunila nod proudly as though Murad owns the Great Barrier Reef too.
They feel they ought to be more entertaining, but have lost the energy. They look about as if the energy might be lying under sofa cushions, or snagged on curtain hooks.
They talk about their children much more now that they are gone. It is the way of parents. They argue with barely enough energy to contradict each other. Sunila osing touch 133 remembers Tarani’s hair was long. Arjun recalls it was short. He knows this is so since it shocked him. He had not thought she would ever get her hair cut so short. He shakes his head wonderingly; it was as though she had suddenly changed sex. When she visits, he marvels at how it’s grown long again.
Even now they fight each other with their exhaustion. Arjun wills himself to wake at six, to crumble into clothes as fast as his disobedient hands will let him. He can do very little alone. Soon he will do less and Sunila will be forced to bathe him, take him to the toilet. She will wonder how long she can keep it up, this attendance on every little thing he wants.
The early spring sun shows petulantly behind breaking clouds as they walk slowly to the local shops; Arjun with his walking frame, Sunila with the pull-along bag. His walking frame catches on the smallest pebble, the tiniest crack. A dog ambles by and stops to sniff his shoes. He is delighted with the insult. ‘See this fellow? He has no respect. Get along with you, you old tramp.’ His voice is fond over this attention. The dog salutes him with a cocky glance and a half-laugh, coral tongue dragging out of the left side of its mouth. It trots off, its liver and white markings jogging under the deep green of the privet hedges flanking the road.
Even now they fight each other with their exhaustion. Arjun wills himself to wake at six, to crumble into clothes as fast as his disobedient hands will let him. He can do very little alone. Soon he will do less and Sunila will be forced to bathe him, take him to the toilet. She will wonder how long she can keep it up, this attendance on every little thing he wants.
I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked termenvox. He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox−the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.
I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, mouthpiece of the universe.
That mouthpiece is now atop the sea, aboard a ship, in a rectangular cabin the size of an en suite bathroom at New York’s Plaza Hotel, the hotel that was once my home. This vessel is called the Stary Bolshevik. The walls are made of steel and painted eggshell blue. There is a cot in the corner, a frayed gray rug on the floor, and I sit in a folding chair before a desk that is also made of steel, also painted eggshell blue. The bare lightbulb glows. When the weather is rough, as it is now, I am as sick as a dog. I clutch my sides and listen to the drawer beside my bed sliding open and slamming shut and sliding open. The room rocks. I go to the toilet in a tiny closet, and then I come back and stare at what I have written. Rows of symbols−qwe asd zxc, the the the, lt, cr, lt, cr (((((((((&. I wonder who will see these pages. Will I send them away, like a letter? Will I keep them in a safe? Will they drown one night, in seawater?
On the other side of the hall there is another room like this one, lit by its own incandescent bulb. It is filled with my equipment. Some of this equipment is delicate and easily damaged. When the waves heave, it would be reassuring to go across and unfasten the cases’ clasps, check that all the wires are coiled, the batteries capped, the tubes intact. Check that my theremins still sing. For the last seventeen years, a day has rarely passed that I did not hear their sound. From Archangelsk to New Haven, in palaces and shacks, I traveled and taught, performed for longshoremen and lords, and almost every night I was able to reach across the room and find the electrical field of one of my humble theremins, coaxing current into sound.
But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key. Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down now, in solitude, as the distance widens between us.
When I was fourteen years old, one of my teachers at the Gymnasium introduced the class to Geisslers−glass cylinders, vacuum tubes. They came in wooden crates, wrapped individually, like wineglasses. I say like wineglasses but really to me they were like intricate conch shells, the kind of treasures that wash up on a beach.
Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind’s eye it was an emerald. At home I experimented with wires and Fahnestock clips, spark coils, and the new lamp beside Grandmother’s bed. While my parents thought I was practicing piano and violin I was crouched over a wooden board, assembling circuits with brass screws. I knew to be careful: I had been tinkering with machines for years, phonographs and an old wireless set, Father’s camera. At the end of the break I wrote Professor Vasilyev a long letter proposing a demonstration at the upcoming Family Day. I delivered the letter together with the vacuum tube−intact, undamaged−into his hands. He took more than a week to answer. I remember it was a Friday. He called me aside after class, drummed his fingers on the desktop, stared at me from under patchy eyebrows. “All right, Lev,” he said.
On Family Day there were displays by the wrestling squad, the botanical club, one of the choirs, and a class recited parts of “Ilya Muromets” from memory. Vova Ivanov sang a song about seagulls. After this, Professor Vasilyev clambered onto the stage. In his gentle voice he explained to the audience that some of his students were about to distribute Geissler vacuum tubes. We were lined up and down the Gymnasium aisles, crates of tubes at every corner. We passed them hand to hand as though we were building something together. Soon all of the parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents had Geissler tubes in their laps. They turned them over and over, like wineglasses, like seashells, like emeralds. Then Professor Vasilyev asked everyone to look up at the ceiling. What they saw were the sagging lines of fourteen crisscrossing copper wires. I had pinned them up myself as Professor Vasilyev held the ladder. We had hidden the induction coils in a broom closet.
The ceiling wires now flowed with electric current.
They made no sound.
“Please raise your Geissler tubes,” said Professor Vasilyev.
One after another, they lifted their little glass tubes. They held them up with their fingertips. The feeling I had was the feeling you get as you pass through a gate and into a walled garden. As each vacuum tube entered the electrical field of my lacework of wires, one by one, the Geisslers began to glow.
I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity, the conducting metals and skipping electrons, the tubes and wires and fundamental principles; standing with hands in pockets you forget these things and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.
This is the hubris of the inventor. It is a monster that has devoured many scientists. I have strived to keep it at bay. Even in America, among ten thousand flatterers, I tried to concentrate on my machines, not their maker.
Perhaps if I had been prouder, this story would have turned out differently. Perhaps I would not be here, in a ship, plunging from New York back to Russia. Perhaps we would be together. If I were more of a showman. If I had told the right tale.
But Lev Sergeyvich Termen is not the voice of the ether. He is not the principle that turned glass into firefly. I am an instrument. I am a sound being sounded, music being made, blood, salt, and water manipulated in air. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Ellen Bass charmed the socks off me when she read “At The Padre Hotel In Bakersfield, California” at the Writers @ Work conference in Alta, Utah. I loved its slyness and honesty, its willingness to walk right up to the real stuff of this world. I immediately bought Bass’s collection Like a Beggar and read it in happy fits and starts on the plane ride home, then the subway going to and from work, meting it out carefully poem by poem so as not to slurp it down too greedily. Bass’s poems in this book all have that same charm of “At the Padre.” They take pleasure in engaging with the thingness of living—zippers, planets, peaches, telephones for transacting affairs, feet—without any preciousness, with smarts and grace. Totally recommended to cure you of things you didn’t even know were ailing you.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Nameless New York pot dealer with kind eyes makes house calls to bougie New York clients. That’s the through-line of the web series High Maintenance, but if it’s thin, it’s also elastic enough to fit more genuine pathos and humor and surprise into five minutes than most TV shows can develop with season-long arcs and sacks full of cash. Each episode revolves around one of the guy’s clients, but how substantial a roll he himself plays varies—along with the running-time, tone, style, and just about everything else. Creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (who also plays the affable dealer) have given themselves just enough scaffolding to make the whole thing feel cohesive, to make you compulsively click that next arrow until you’ve exhausted Vimeo’s supply, but they leave themselves the freedom to reinvent the show each time around. (Tip: Don’t sleep on the credit sequences.)
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): ↑ \o/
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Martha Baillie’s novel The Incident Report is structured as brief reports written by Miriam, a librarian in Toronto. The plot involves romance and mystery, but so far the most compelling bits are Miriam’s descriptions of the library’s odd patrons, which remind me (for better or worse) of my twelve years as a clerk in a small-town bookstore. [Editor's Note: Matha Baillie's upcoming novel The Search for Heinrich Schlogel will be published by Tin House in September, 2104, alongside an ebook of The Incident Report.]
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I love a nonlinear narrative told from multiple points of view that interweaves the lives of characters who, on the surface, seem unconnected to one another. I also love a fictional retelling of a historical figure or event. And, of course, I love beautiful prose. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Colum McCann is one of my favorite authors. McCann’s most recent novel, Transatlantic, is all of these things. It’s the story of Frederick Douglass’s trip to Ireland in the 1840s to promote his book and gather support for abolition. It’s the story of Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, the first two pilots to cross the Atlantic. It’s the story of Senator George Mitchell and his role in the Good Friday Agreement. And it’s the story of an Irish woman who has lost her son to the Troubles. But most importantly, it’s the story of how all of these people are connected and it’s a reminder of how our actions and decisions can affect those who come after us, even those who live thousands of miles away and hundreds of years later. The scope of McCann’s work doesn’t prohibit the intimacy he creates in his portrayal of each of these lives and the sensitivity with which he handles them.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): In his 1934 song “Volver,” King of the Tango Carlos Gardel sings, “Veinte años no es nada,” “Twenty years is nothing,” and given the popularity of and affection for his music over the decades, Gardel was spot on. His tangos are full of swing and longing and syncopated rhythms and for early (or late) summer evenings, his “Adios Muchachos,” “Por Un Cabeza” or “Mano a Mano” are serene and spirited and sound even better with a little glass of something cool to drink. Kick off your shoes, find a makeshift dance floor and a partner, and dance to some tunes by the Brunette Boy from Abasto.
He told me to mute the Taxi TV. He told me I should meet his eyes in the rearview mirror. The better to hear him; the better to see him. He was cruising in the slowest lane. He was in no hurry. He had some things to say. He asked, did I know why they call it The Big Apple? He would tell me: It was a long time ago. There was the apple tree, and the snake hanging around. Did I remember? The snake, he gave an apple to Eve; he said, here is a delicious fruit, ripe fruit. And what happened with that? They started to find out who they were. When you come to New York, it is like eating a piece of the apple. You find out who you are. What is inside people comes out. You can see your friends change. It might be better, or it might be worse.
He told me, men are turning gay because women work too much. They want careers, they come home late and tired, they’re all business. Men go to the bars and they don’t come back.
He asked, would I like to take Atlantic Ave. or the BQE? It was my choice. I was in charge.
He told me people in America should speak English. If you want to keep your old traditions, no problem, you can keep 20-30%. When he lived in Virginia, he spoke more English. In Virginia, he told me, life was better. Slower. On the West Coast, life is better. Here, you are always working, and for what? You get old, and then you die. He would like to live in California. Maybe San Diego. Not L.A. This city is corrupt, he told me.
He told me he doesn’t remember his dreams. He would like to, but he wakes up with nothing.
He asked me, do you have a husband? Do you have a boyfriend? I lied: yes.
He told me he makes dumplings by hand, from scratch. To save time and money. In the evening, watching a movie, he makes 200, 300. Easy. He freezes them. They’re good for two weeks, a month. When he’s hungry, they’re there. He can boil them, fry them, eat them in a soup.
He told me he could teach me. Would I like to learn? He told me, sooner or later you will be a mother and this will be a good thing to know. Children, they eat so much.
He told me, there are two times when men cry: when somebody dies, and for big love. One time he cried for love. Not anymore. He loves his wife, sure, but he’s not going to be crazy the way he was. He’s learned his lesson.
He asked, who did I think was in charge of the world? He told me, women are. Men, they can’t live without women. A beautiful woman? The way she walks? Did I see what he was saying? She has a lot of power. That’s the reason they burned girls at the stake. Witches.
He told me, a long time ago there was a man who was the king, and a woman next to him. You think he ruled the world? No. She did. Why? At night, when it came time to —— she told him what to do, how to be. Her words came from his mouth.
He told me, you and your boyfriend, you will not be equal. There is no equal. One is supposed to be on the top and one on the bottom. It doesn’t matter, man or woman. He told me, you girls are supposed to have a gentleman next to you. To make you feel like a woman.
He asked me, didn’t I agree?
He’s been in this life many years, he told me. He likes rock music, but his wife prefers jazz. With her, he listens to what she likes. He wants her to be happy. She’s a cosmetologist, he told me. She makes her own soaps and creams. Maybe she’ll start a business. I asked him whether they have any children. Yes, he told me, of course. Why else would he have a wife? Two children, a boy and a girl—a daddy’s girl. She studies well. He tells her, the most important thing you can have in this life is an education.
He asked me, Court Street or Henry? He told me my neighborhood is a good one. He told me he stops at Starbucks every morning before his shift. Four shots of espresso, with steamed milk. Sure, sometimes his heart hurts him, but it’s okay. He’s still strong. Four shots will keep you awake.
He told me, the tomatoes he found at a roadside stand in North Carolina were so delicious. They smelled like home. He bought a whole case of them, still green. When he wanted one to turn red, he would put it in the sun. It only took a few hours, it was so hot. He doesn’t even like tomatoes, but these he would just eat, like an apple.
Kate Brittain lives in Brooklyn. Her writing can be found at Vol. 1 Brooklyn and The Paris Review Daily.
Orland Nutt makes short films that are intended to “transport the viewer to somewhere no one else can take them.” Drawing inspiration from poets, dancers, TV personalities, and other experimental filmmakers, Nutt creates something new and wonderfully bizarre.For this week’s Tin House Reels, we’re happy to share Nutt’s short I am Into Your Fire, which is a collaboration with actress Amanda Riley and composer Matt Marble. Riffing off part III of the poem “Aisles of Eden” by James Broughton, a mountain woman tells of her passionate love, while diving through and igniting what Nutt calls a “psychedelic mountainscape.”
On using poems as the backbone of his shorts, Nutt says, “A great poem doesn’t really need a video made from it. When I choose to make a video from a poem, it’s because I think there is something there that I can strongly relate to and because I think I can add a new spin on it, offering a new meaning or interpretation. I don’t want to change the meaning of the poems I work with, but to change the context, and the world that they reflect upon.”
“I tried to take a very lusty love poem that sounds very intimate and intense, and set it up as a wild woman’s call into a desolate landscape,” he says. “I tried to create a persona that is unfamiliar, a little bit frightening, and yet exciting and intriguing, a kind of gleeful mountain witch.”
To create the ethereal landscape that serves as the film’s backdrop, Nutt combined live footage shot in the Colombia Gorge with After Effects-altered desert landscapes, the likes of which call to mind the surreal set design of early Star Trek episodes.
Riley’s performance, which incredibly pulls off the melding of a mountainscape and heroine, was inspired by various beastly women in films like The Profound Desire of the Gods by Shohei Imamura and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees by Masahiro Shinoda.
Through these disparate influences, Nutt has created a video filled with the kind of majestic intensity one often associates with a shaman. And like those fabled mediums, Nutt has tapped into that sacred space between the visible world and an invisible spirit world, albeit with a knowing wink.
For Portland readers: the Northwest Film Center will be holding “An Evening with Orland Nutt” at the Whitsell Auditorium on July 10th at 7 PM. Nutt will be present to introduce several of his films, including the premiere of his newest work “Bear of Heaven.”
Orland Nutt is an experimental filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He works at Bent Image Lab, a stop-motion and CG animation production house, as a compositor on international ad campaigns, feature films, music videos for bands such as Radiohead and Modest Mouse, and television series.
Alison Pezanoski-Browne is an editorial intern at Tin House. She is a writer and producer, focusing on music, documentary, and experimental media. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Critical Theory and Creative Research at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send us a file directly.
During yesterday’s fourth straight loss for the New York Yankees, we were reminded of this David Shields poem, from Issue 43, Games People Play. May the “gorgeous dream” never die . . .
THE SADNESS OF THE YANKEES FAN
of the Yankees fan
in his knowledge
that his gorgeous dream
is made of money.
This is America, though:
capital of capitalism.
I was once
wildly in lust
with a girl
fond of saying
it’s not the bulge in front;
it’s the bulge in back.
I’ve lived my life for art,
which I know
is not immemorial.
Illusion, baby, illusion—
whatever the cost.
David Shields is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen books, including Salinger (co-written by Shane Salerno); How Literature Saved My Life; Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead; Black Planet; Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
I first met Kate Zambreno on the page. When I was the editrix of Chiasmus Press, the editors selected five manuscripts as finalists for our experimental novel contest. I read the last five. The names had been removed. I was completely torn in my decision, because two of the manuscripts literally ravaged me. The writing in both was intelligent, fierce, brave, original. What to do? So I brought my decision to the other editors, who happily informed me that I needn’t struggle with choosing. They had both been penned by Kate Zambreno. My next struggle was simply deciding WHICH astonishing manuscript to publish; we published O Fallen Angel, a book that remains unparalleled in my opinion.
My next meetings with Kate happened over the territory of language, writing, ideas, chaos, mess, monsterhood, psychosis. We discovered we had equal interest (though a better word would be obsessions) with Dora/Ida Bauer, the heroine of Freud’s failed Hysteria case study. We also found a mutual drool over the paintings of Francis Bacon, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigges, the face of Falconetti, the suspended violence of desire in Hiroshima Mon Amour, blondes, monsters, Laughing Medusas, much more. I’m no longer surprised by the women and men I meet inside the territory of language, writing, ideas. I’m no longer surprised that we find our way to one another. I am fascinated by how deep the “relationships” between writers can be, inside words, those tiny intimate galaxies. In Kate’s books readers will rediscover what it means to be a reader–for her writing will both dismember and remember you–and how writing can still “happen” to you.
“Sometimes after work she takes a bath and watches herself in it. Sometimes she forces herself under water. She pretends she’s dead. She pretends she has drowned…After her bath she gazes at herself in the mirror. Is this what I look like? She marvels at the stranger in the mirror. The stranger looks so solemn, so serious. She smiles. The stranger smiles back.
I too study her, a curious object. Like a prickly piece of fruit. I experience horror at my former self. Is that me? Can’t be me. Can’t be. I was never that young… She is dead. Dead and gone. Dead and gone. Gone. Gone. She is gone. I have mourned her. I have murdered her.
Later, when we look back at ourselves, we marvel at our emptiness, our youth. The shiny surface. We forget the confused upheaval stirring deep within back then, a revolution that we stifled daily.”— Green Girl
Lidia Yuknavitch: This moment in Green Girl captures for me something vital about both the story, but also about other women you have written about or created as characters in Heroines and O Fallen Angel. This moment is like a hummingbird’s motion to me. A glimpse. A rapture. A catching of a girl becoming. There is even a moment captured between character and narrator and author, as if three women were simultaneously present on the page, briefly. Nathalie Saurraute called them emotional intensities, micro-movements, in Tropisms... Can you talk a little about what moments of becoming—or whatever you would call them, mean to you artistically and personally?
Kate Zambreno: I like that. I definitely think of all of my writing as working through emotional intensities, both in terms of style and embodiment…something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I want my books to be like nervous systems, thinking of Deleuze’s description of the paintings of Francis Bacon. (That’s our first point of contact, Bacon, the ecstatic letters your Dora writes to Francis Bacon.) For inspiration to try to get myself to write I’ve been reading David Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon, and he talks about how he’s influenced by photography, like Muybridge’s serials of wrestlers, but that he doesn’t want to paint from the photograph, instead he wants to deform a feeling. That’s what I wish. To deform the photographic. To write a feeling.
So, my portraits that I write, all coming in some way from a memoiristic impulse (while using framing, style, fiction, for distancing), are about the swirl, the chaos—the deformed feeling. The girls or women never become, or other characters, like Malachi in O Fallen Angel, my version of Septimus Smith, my Woolf-man. They are often in process, deformed, intimate and tender grotesques. They are always becoming yet not allowed to become, and agitating against a dominant narrative. Some like Maggie in OFA are stuck, suicides. Others like Ruth, the narrators in Heroines and Book of Mutter have more movement, hopefully insight, as to their lack of freedom. There’s a cruelty I think always to the portraiture, a furious intensity, even when directed towards myself—hopefully also an empathy.
2. Voice and Silence
If I have communicated anything to you I hope it is the absolute urgency to write yourself, your body, your own experience. The absolute necessity for you to write yourself in order to understand yourself, in order to become yourself. I ask you to fight against your own disappearance. –Heroines
LY: I read Heroines as part reclamation story, and part authorial discovery story. Who is a woman writer. Who was she. Is it me. Embedded within those braided stories is a violent litany of all the ways in which women and girls are silenced or disappeared. What is at stake in the creation of voice, body, story for women writers now? And is it necessary to read the voices that came before us, as you did, to relocate and even dislocate the women writers of the past in order to forge a language of our experience and design a space for our stories to exist?
KZ: You’ve quoted from the last two pages of Heroines, which ends in a sort of crescendo manifesto, inspired partly by Cixous’ “Laugh of a Medusa” and its invocation to write the self, the true bodied text that the institutionalized patriarchal world dislikes. The “you” I am speaking to here is anyone who feels illegitimate, who feels dismissed and marginalized, but who desperately wants to write, who cannot publish, or publishes to very small audiences, to write anyway, to write as a form of becoming, to keep diaries, to refuse to be silenced. I think I am saying here, write your own specific experience and subjectivity.
I am very glad that this ending spoke to so many, many who write me to tell me just that. Although I do think in some ways it’s a departure from the rest of the book, which is mostly exploring in fragmented anecdotes this one, heightened, nervous consciousness, an unnamed narrator who feels herself haunted by and acting out all of these ghosts, inhabited like a dybbuk, these souls of former suicides, and feels pushed to tell these stories, of a few wives and mistresses of the great men of modernism who either had difficulty writing or didn’t write and exploring all the ways they were silenced in their contemporary and dismissed in historical memory.
But, ultimately, I can’t and don’t want to speak for all women writers. I think the danger of this contemporary conversation about women writing is how commodified and institutionalized it’s become, how dangerously mainstreamed. Not only that, but even this conversation around counting omits so many crucial factors in terms of visibility and difference, I think what’s really at stake is so complex in terms of power and capitalism and identities and bodies that it cannot be answered in a panel or an interview, but the real nuanced conversations aren’t happening, not really. I think there’s all kinds of dismissals still, all kinds of dumb commodity boxes, so I think ultimately looking at literature in terms of identity politics in this mainstream conversation—like ever since I’ve moved to NYC all I’m ever asked to be on is a panel on women writing, to only do events with other women writers, or to do readings because it’s Women’s History Month—I think that can be quite limiting, and actually repeats and reinforces these problems. Also that these events as they’re proposed to me rarely feature women of color, queer writers, trans writers, i.e. the great majority of these events trying to engage with the problem of women writers feature women writers whose stories are pretty mainstreamed, as well as their aesthetics and politics.
For me to make a space for myself as a writer, I had to give myself permission to become a writer, in secret, on days I was not working, at night—but that permission didn’t come from big publishing houses, that agency cannot come from having an agent. It didn’t come from small presses either—I was rejected for years from the majority of the small press, as well as from every agent I applied to, Green Girl was rejected at least 100 times (an existential postmodern 300-page novel about working retail, turns out: not really publishable), Book of Mutter almost that much, mostly because I had fewer places to send it. Eventually after I wrote and rewrote and finally published I have achieved some level of institutional acceptance and material success (still really earning money only through teaching), but it might go away, because I will always write what I want to write, and afterwards, if it all goes to shit, I’ll still be reading and writing.
My mom did most of the cooking—fried chicken, meatloaf, pot roast—but my dad fed me. The first Saturday morning after payday, he got me up before 10 to accompany him on his monthly grocery shopping trip. Our destination? Bakers, Safeway, and Piggly Wiggly—three big-box, chain stores within a mile of our house on the edge of the suburbs. Armed with sale ads and cut coupons, we’d fill our cart with the best deals in the neighborhood.
Grocery shopping was high entertainment for me, like a carnival. You’d think I came from the other side of the world the way I marveled at the avocados and the variety of pasta sauces. Company representatives lined the aisles serving samples. My dad and I ate our way through—bits of hot dogs baked in crescent rolls, corn chips with cheesy jalapeno dip, Dixie Cups of Pepsi-Cola, mini vanilla wafers. We’d start where most grocery stores have you start, in the fresh produce. Then we’d move up and down the aisles methodically one by one, find the dairy in the back, the bakery on the far side opposite the freezers with the frozen pizza and popsicles.
My dad sent me on investigation missions to save time, although we took all the time in the world. Were the bananas ripe? Did this store have Oreos on sale? Or he’d have me help him find the best prices. If a 12 oz. can of orange juice concentrate made 48 ozs. of juice and cost $1.00, was it better than paying $1.20 for a 58 oz. bottle of premade juice?
We always saved the best shopping for last, Schlotzsky’s Deli, where they specially cut whatever we wanted to try—liverwurst, ham salad, havarti cheese, rollepolse. I’d eat anything except the blood sausage and head cheese. We’d go home not needing lunch.
My dad My dad grew up during WWII, a pastor’s son in Osakis, Minnesota, where he was always hungry and always happy to devour any leftovers set on his back porch by the church women after Ladies Aid meetings and Bible studies. The Midwest was just discovering pineapple and pimentos. He learned to love bite-sized cucumber on rye sandwiches, green olives on toothpicks, and egg salad on crackers, anything abandoned by more discerning and better-fed eaters. My grandma, who survived polio, arthritis, two miscarriages, and cancer in both breasts, was a health nut before there were health nuts. She showed my dad pictures of starving rats to let him know what would happen if he refused to eat his vegetables. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill anyone off with her underdone chicken, cooked rare to avoid destroying the vitamins.
“I vowed my children would never go hungry,” my dad told me once on the way to the grocery store. He’d buy me anything I wanted—Froot Loops, Hostess CupCakes, strawberry swirl ice cream. We lived on sandwiches of Spam/Velveta Cheese/Hormel Chili on soft, white buns broiled open-faced in the oven. We rotated meals of La Choy Chow Mein, tuna noodle casserole, and SpaghettiOs. Sunday night was reserved for frozen dinners and I’d stand in front of the giant upright store freezer for ages, debating between Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, peas, and cherry cobbler and cheese enchiladas with Spanish rice, corn, and a brownie. I knew my bologna’s first name was o, s, c, a, r, and I ate it for lunch with a slice of American cheese, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a smear of mayo on Wonder Bread, accompanied by a tall glass of cherry Kool-Aid.
After our huge grocery shop, we’d indulge for a week before the treats ran out. Once the goodies were gone, I’d play one of my favorite games at lunch. I’d sit on a blanket in the backyard and pretend I was Heidi living in the Swiss Alps with my grandpa and my goats. I’d rip hunks of hard brown rye bread straight off the loaf and heartily bite chunks of what I instinctively called “real” cheese, unsliced rounds of Wisconsin cheddar. This was the best meal, a slight tang to the bread and a saltiness to the cheese, mixed with the fresh smell of cut grass and dandelion stems. I washed it all down with a gulp of cold, clear water.
Rebecca Idstrom lives in the Bluff Country of Northeast Iowa, where she eats produce from her organic garden and refuses to buy her children anything made with artificial food coloring. She does occasionally enjoy a bag of Lays potato chips.
It’s twenty degrees and my toddler Iona’s parka is so stiff she’s liable to fall, so I carry her up the steps onto the green metro bus. She squirms until I put her down, then stomps her boots and grins at her freedom while I pay the fare. She’s happy when she can get what she wants, frustrated when she can’t.
“Da-da,” she says, pointing at the metro employee, because she hasn’t yet learned words like bus driver. He’s not paying attention, so I don’t have to explain she doesn’t actually think he’s her father.
Today the only seats available are those ones in the front that face each other, made for folks who have difficulty getting around, which in a way includes us. We could just as easily have taken the sedan, but I want Iona to be around people other than just me. She needs so much affection, and I have so little to spare. Crowds fill that void and help me to lighten up, so the bus has become part of our daily routine.
We sit down and the airbrakes release. A few passengers smile. I imagine they picture a home life full of games and discoveries and tickling and laughter. They’d be right. Iona’s also a good sleeper, giving me time to think, something I used to covet.
She’s now eyeballing a young couple across from us dressed in the drab colors of winter—I say young but really they’re probably a year or two younger than me, if that. The two of them look tired but satisfied, like embers still smoking the morning after a bonfire. Then again, maybe they’re just poor sleepers. In the months before Iona was born, my wife rustled around all night. Books, television, Internet—anything to feed her obsession over not just the pregnancy, but the myriad dangers our daughter would face in the future. She was concerned for Iona while I got eight hours. These days, I’m the one up at three in the morning, trying to be interested in some magazine but really perseverating over whether three years form now the kids at school will treat Iona right. Sometimes I think the worry is my wife possessing me. In a way, it’s comforting.
Iona points at the woman across from us and asks, “Ma-ma?”
The couple laughs, embarrassed.
I say, “Don’t worry, she calls all women mama,” not realizing until after that I should have added that in a week she’ll know more words. But they’re already whispering and it doesn’t take much to guess all their guesses. I smile, tussle Iona’s hair, and pretend to be oblivious.
Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears in Shenandoah, PANK, Passages North, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. He’s the recipient of a 2013-14 Made at Hugo House Fellowship and lives in Seattle.
This week’s feature from Tin House Reels, A Field Guide to Salmon, is the sort of collaboration between visual and verbal artists that we get excited about—a playful interaction between words and pictures that changes the spirit of both.
Looking to collaborate with a painter, poet Abigail Warren found Scout Cuomo at an art show: “Scout and I went to Smith College 15 years apart, but we both live and work in Northampton, home to Smith College. Scout loves fish, and all things under water. She did a series of paintings of underwater scenes, which I saw at a show she did. We were both competitive swimmers growing up; when I saw her water paintings, I thought, she’s got it, she really understands it—i.e., being under water. I went up to her and said we have got to make a video about a poem I have about the life of salmon.”
Their collaboration followed through a series of charcoal drawings: “[Cuomo] focused the video into sections, following the three stanzas of the poem: sunlight, laying eggs, growing light, swimming downstream, the return, and the final stanza that draws in the human element. She sent me various versions over several months. I went to her studio and she demonstrated the process, a Zen-like progression in which a new picture needs to be created as soon as the last is done.”
“I gave feedback,” Warren said. “We pulled in a soundtrack person for the underwater sounds we both thought were needed. We played around as to when my voice should come into play in the video. We negotiated where each stanza in the video needed breathing space.”
The result is a mobile sequence full of feeling.
Abigail Warren has a BA in English and Philosophy and an M.Ed. from Smith college and teaches at Cambridge College. She is a recipient of the Rosemary Thomas Poetry award.
Scout Cuomo was born in 1984 in Dallas, Texas, has a BFA from Smith college, and paints in Northhampton.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work email@example.com. You may also send us a file directly.
The month before I turned nineteen, I traveled to Sydney, Australia for a semester-long study abroad trip that I was convinced would be the first of many adventures. Beside me on the flight sat a fellow sophomore named Robby, someone I didn’t know but recognized from campus, where he’d breeze by on a skateboard to class, chin-length blonde hair flying, or meander down the sidewalk, entwined with his girlfriend, a petite, pretty brunette named Natalie. He talked warmly about her, showed me a stone she’d given him to remember her by, and then the conversation turned to the books we were reading, sights we intended to explore in the months ahead. Beyond the surfer-boy appearance, he was pensive and polite, and thoughtful when he spoke. I liked him immediately.
I was a writer then, but wasn’t writing. For the last two years, I hadn’t been, although I didn’t find this unnerving—on the contrary, the recess felt right. At the time I didn’t understand why. Now I recognize that I had fully flung myself into the experiences of youth so that I might soak them up and draw upon them later. The impulse for conjuring fiction simply wasn’t there; I did, however, diligently keep a journal. Long gone, those carefully scrawled accounts, but no matter. I couldn’t have foreseen how a few months in that distant corner of the earth would etch not only upon my heart forever, but my imagination.
In Sydney, Robby and I became fast friends. We sat next to one another in every class, grabbed lunch and hung out in between. At day’s end we rode home to the suburbs where we lived with host families, an easy, joyful feeling welling inside me whenever we were together, whether talking or sharing music or in silence. I had fallen in love. But what could I do about it? Could it be possible he was feeling the same way, for as much as he talked about his girlfriend back in Florida? I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. We kept hanging out, ducked into pubs with our friends, the two of us doubled-over in laughter at some silly, private joke, brushing and bumping into each other, the sexual tension palpable. Our friends on the trip exchanged glances, and the two girls I roomed with teased me, urged me to wait it out.
Inside, though, I felt like I was being tortured. Weeks passed, and I waited for Robby to make a move. He didn’t though, and halfway into the semester, dejected and determined to have some kind of romantic fling during my Australian escapade, I hastily went after another young man, one who was nothing like Robby except that he, too, had a passion for surfing and traveling. But we didn’t care very much for each other, and fell into a casual exchange that was only about sex. Initially the fling proved a welcome distraction, but by semester’s end left me feeling empty and hurt, and worse, still pining for Robby. On outings he and I still gravitated towards one another, but there was a sense that we’d made some grievous error, the two of us too naïve and nervous to ever bring it up.
A rather gloomy spring day here in Portland has us going back to an essential question, last asked by Dorianne Laux in Issue 42.
Who Needs Us?
The quiet, the bitter, the bereaved,
the going forth of us, the coming home,
the drag and pull of us, the tome and teem
and tensile greed of us, the opening
and closing of us, our eyes, in sleep,
our crematorium dreams?
The brush of us one against another,
the crumple on the couch of us,
the spring in our step, the sequestered dance
in front of the cracked mirrors of us,
our savage suffering, our wobbly ladders
of despair, the drenched seaweed green
of our tipped wineglass hearts, our wheels
and guitars, white spider bites blooming
on our many-colored skins, the din
of our nerves, our pearl onion toes
and orangey fingers, our effigies
and empty bellies, plazas
of ache and despair, our dusky faces
round as dinner plates, our bald pates,
our doubt, our clout, our bold mistakes?
Who needs the footprints of us,
the glimpse of us in a corridor of stars,
who sees the globes of our breath
before us in winter, the angels
we make in the stiff snow,
the hack and ice of us, the glide
and gleam and busted puzzle of us,
the myth and math of us,
the blue bruise and excuse of us,
who will know the magnified
magnificence of us, could there be
too many of us, the clutch and strum
and feral singing, the hush of us,
who will hear the whisker of silence
we will leave in our wake?
Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon, and she has co-authored a handbook on writing, The Poet’s Companion. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke. Recent poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Cerise Press, Margie, The Seattle Review, Tin House and Orion Magazine. Laux teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.
On the first day of Live Oak Daycare, all the children are given shovels and a small bag of dirt. “We encourage the children—even the babies, especially the babies—to work hard, imaginatively.” Miss Birdy, my son’s teacher, winks. She sits my baby boy in the middle of the floor with his shovel and dirt. He is not even a year old. I look around. The babies are happy. I have never seen such happy babies. Chewing on their shovels. Spreading around their dirt. Miss Birdy gives me a hug. I wave goodbye to my boy, but he doesn’t see me. “Go, go,” says Miss Birdy. “He’s in good hands.” She shows me her hands. They remind me, for some reason, of my hands.
Three hours later, I come to pick up my boy. He is wearing a bright orange poncho that does not belong to him. He crawls towards me, like a searchlight.
“Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a phenomenon.” I blush. “Oh, thank you. We too think he is very special,” I say. I want to ask about the poncho, but Miss Birdy goes on. “I mean, your child is a mana mana,” says Miss Birdy. “What I mean to say is that your child is a real man.” Miss Birdy softly pinches her tongue and pulls out a long white hair. “Oh, that’s better,” she says. “I mean, a ma.” She makes little, tiny spits. “I mean, a no one. Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a real no one. No, no. That’s not it either.” Miss Birdy smoothes her stiff cotton skirt. It’s pink with tiny red cherries on it. “What I mean to say, most of all,” says Miss Birdy, “is that I love not being dead.” “Me too,” I say. “Oh, good! says Miss Birdy. Here’s his bottle. He drank all his milk and then cried and cried and cried for more.
In the hallway, I pass a mother covered in daughters. I count approximately five. I hold up my bundled son, like a form of identification. Like he will provide me safe passage across the border. “No daughters?” she asks. “No,” I say. “No daughters.” “How come?” she asks. She seems to be blaming me, unfairly. “By the time they arrived,” I explain, “the daughters had turned.” “Rotten?” she asks. “Not exactly rotten but gigantic.” I hand her my boy so I can spread my arms wide. To show her how big. I take my boy back. “Gigantic,” I repeat. “And mealy. I sent the whole bin back. The whole bin of daughters back. The brave thing would’ve been to keep them, I know, but they seemed so impossible to name.” The mother nods. She still seems to disapprove, but before I can be certain her daughters lift her up, hungrily, and carry her away.
The strange thing about being a mother is how often I’m interrupted. Like something is happening and then something else is happening. It is difficult to get a good grasp on things.
The next day Miss Birdy is peeling vegetables. The babies are watching, transfixed. I have come early to pick up my boy, but I don’t see my boy. Miss Birdy points to a child the color of chicken broth. “Yours?” she asks. “Definitely not mine,” I say. She points to another and another, as if I lost my ticket for the coat check. I don’t see my boy. It is becoming difficult to breathe and I am suddenly freezing cold. The floor opens up beneath me and just as I begin to fall through my boy crawls out from underneath a bassinet. In his fist is a tiny book. On the cover is a picture of a plain brown mouse. He holds it up. “MOUSE,” he says. This is his first real word. “MY MOUSE,” he says. I am amazed. I am relieved. His pronunciation is perfect. I want to pick him up. Reward him with kisses. Hold him and never let him go. But Miss Birdy stops me. “No, no,” she says. She softly wags a finger at my boy. “That’s not your mouse. That’s no one’s mouse.” Her voice slows. “That mouse.” Miss Birdy coughs. “That mouse,” she says, “is alone in this world, and barely…” Miss Birdy stops. “What was that?” she asks. “What was what?” I say. “That sound,” says Miss Birdy. “I don’t know,” I say. “What did it sound like?” “It was a sound that sounded like a sound,” says Miss Birdy. “Like a sound a sound would make. Never mind. Where was I?” “You were with the mouse.” “Oh, the mouse! Do you know him?” “No,” I say. “Unless you mean…” “Neither do I,” says Miss Birdy. “And this is my point. That mouse…” Miss Birdy is now looking at my boy. “That mouse is alone in this world and barely…” Miss Birdy sucks in one long, beautiful breath. “Exists,” says Miss Birdy, triumphantly. “That mouse is not unlike you.” She is still looking at my boy. “When I call out for that mouse in the dark does the mouse come? No, the mouse does not. Do you? So far not even once.” My baby puts his whole hand in Miss Birdy’s mouth, and leaves it there for what seems like days.
On Monday Miss Birdy’s bright pink blouse is fluttering with excitement. “Your boy wrote his name today all by himself!” She hands me a piece of construction paper. Someone, not my baby, has written on it S H R E D S. I hand the paper back. “That is not his name.” “Oh,” says Miss Birdy. She looks at the paper and her face crumples. “I am sorry,” says Miss Birdy. “I don’t know how this happened.” “I don’t know how anything happens,” I say. We hold hands. “I’m so lonely,” says Miss Birdy. “I’m so lonely too,” I say. “I thought you were my hiding place,” says Miss Birdy. I picture her skull. “I thought you were mine,” I say. Miss Birdy ties a yellow scarf around her head. “Stop picturing my skull,” says Miss Birdy. She is clearly upset. Her lips are cracked, and begin to bleed a little. She looks at the construction paper, and traces each letter with her thumb. “If this isn’t his name, then whose name is it?” She sorts through the other babies. She pats me down as if searching for something. She touches me on the thigh. She feels like she’s about to snow.
The next day, there’s a message from Miss Birdy. “We cannot give your boy his bottle. The milk you left was wild. Please bring better milk.”
I rush to Live Oak. I have no better milk. This is the only milk I have. I point to each breast. Miss Birdy is holding my baby. He is shivering and hungry. Miss Birdy is snowing. Hard. I try to walk towards her but there is a great wind and I can barely see through the big, white flakes. “THIS IS THE ONLY MILK I HAVE.” I am calling to Miss Birdy and my boy through the snowstorm. My arms are outstretched. “Come to mama,” I cry. I say my baby’s name. It sounds smaller and flatter than I ever imagined it. I can’t get to him. Miss Birdy is a blizzard that could last all winter. “I AM SORRY.” I am shouting. Miss Birdy has my baby and she is snowing. It is all my fault. I should never have left him. I AM SORRY I AM SORRY I AM SORRY. I am punching at the snow. I am fighting against nature when I know I have no choice but to wait until spring. The mother covered in daughters kneels beside me. This time I count approximately fifteen. “Climb on,” she says. “I am so sorry,” I say. “It is the only milk I have.” “Of course it is,” she says. “Is there room?” I ask. “Around my neck,” she says. I climb around it, loosely. The mother covered in daughters is warm and I am so tired. “Go to sleep,” says the mother. “I will wake you up when it’s time to go.” But the mother never does wake me up. Which is how you know this story is true.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Her poems and stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, B O D Y, The Believer, The Collagist, Black Warrior Review, and in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. She lives in Athens, Georgia with her husband, Reginald McKnight, and their two sons.
Curtis Moore (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): I’m back to reading Dune. I was spurred to finally reading this after seeing that Jodorowsky’s Dune is playing in town and realizing I have heard so much about this book over the years, yet have no idea what is actually between its covers. What I’ve discovered, 100 pages in, is Herbert’s preternatural ability to keep me hooked despite an almost near lack of “action.” Oh, yes, people are training with knives and dodging drone assassins and traveling across the epic vastness of space, but mostly they’re talking and, more, thinking. There’s this sense of an authorial fascination with how the thinking mind interacts with the world around it, primarily through speech, through conversation. So the surprise for me as a reader is that what I came looking for—wild, imaginative landscapes and fantastical sci fi tech—pleasingly takes a backseat to an investigation into the dynamics of discourse and how fragile an endeavor speaking to another person can be.
Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I am diving into Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, a novel published in the US as The War of Dreams in 1972. In it, a super-villain wages war against an unnamed Latin American city by distorting reality. Needless to say, it is a highly theoretical novel, steeped in post-modernism, post-colonialism, and feminism. Carter possesses a unique ability to stage complex theoretical questions without losing sight of her story, her imagery, or her language. Theory aside, I’ve been delighting in her turns of phrase, lines like (on page 5) “[A]nyone could see that I myself was a man like an unmade bed.” The landscape is surreal and so richly imaginative and realistically conveyed I feel like it is distorting my own reality as I make my way through this bizarre world.
Colin Houghton (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): I heard about Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time a few years ago in a New Yorker article by James Wood. He mentions that the friend of his, who recommended Petterson’s novels, had typed out the entire I Curse the River of Time manuscript just to see what it felt like. This seemed to me an insane thing to do, but like most American readers, I haven’t read much translated work, especially anything contemporary, so it seemed fitting. Not to mention, I convinced myself that based on the amazing title, I would undoubtedly love the book. And I did… I sprinted through it, slowing down only briefly to make sure I was savoring the wonderfully crafted sentences that Petterson seems to do so well. Bottom line, read it.
Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I can’t say my repertoire of comic books/graphic novels is very extensive, but a copy of Julia Gfrörer’s Black Is the Color made it into my hands recently. Gfrörer manages an exquisite balance between heavy plot and slight instances of snarky humor. The limited dialogue allows the illustrations to speak for themselves: they are strikingly full of movement and depth. Though the characters use words sparingly they are accessible and relatable. This is a world full of bleakness, yet Gfrörer manages to illustrate a persisting (although perhaps deluded) faith in love and companionship. A must read for comic book appreciators and those new to the genre.
Miles Jochem (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): You know you’re in for a doozy when the most famous literary appraisal of a book ends with the warning, “There are the Alps, / fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble.” These lines, written by Basil Bunting, are about Ezra Pound’s Cantos, one of the pillars of Modernism. Pound ranks among the most controversial of writers, not least due to his open sympathy for anti-Semitic fascists. In fact, the US government charged him with treason in 1945 and he spent years in captivity, first in an outdoor cage in Italy, then in an insane asylum in the States. But if we judged writers by their personal failings there wouldn’t be much left of the literary canon. The book itself is a behemoth – 120-odd sections comprising a modern epic in the tradition of Dante, but borrowing material from countless sources spanning global recorded history. You need help with this, unless you are a polyglot with an encyclopedic knowledge of economic, political, and literary history (not me). For example, the first canto is Pound’s translation of a 16th century Latin translation of part of Homer’s Odyssey, written in Pound’s take on ancient Anglo-Saxon poetic meter. Confused yet? I still am, but William Cookson’s excellent guide to the poem is helping me limp, slowly, through the dark forest of Modernist pretention. I’m still in the beginning cantos, but with any luck I will catch a glimpse of what the poet himself described as “the marrow of wisdom” contained within the words.
Mariela waited for the American boy in his bedroom. The bedroom had been Mariela’s once—hers and Hector’s—before Hector died. She could hear the boy playing cards down the hall in the miners’ room. She liked how sweet his face was, like a painting in the church; his skin was so white, it was almost blue.
The night before, he’d been studying Spanish verbs after dinner as she washed the dishes, and when he smiled shyly up at her, she imagined, for the first time in many years, what it’d be like for a man to touch her.
Mariela wasn’t sure the boy desired her, but she would make it up to him. In the mirror, the red lace slip protested the girth of her hips, and her breasts threatened to flop sideways. She adjusted the small triangles of the lingerie’s top to cover her nipples, but as she did this, the spandex retreated over her hips to expose her ass again. She examined her profile and gave the slip’s hem another tug. It was useless. She decided to wait for him on the bed where things might stay put.
When the American boy had passed the open door of the miners’ room, they’d called him in: Hey, American, do you play cards?
The miners staying in Mariela’s boarding house—Luis, Mateo, and Alejandro—were proud of their Johnny Walker bottle, and Luis, the oldest one with the crossed teeth, made a little show of pouring the boy a glass. The boy was twenty-two and had been in South America for several months then. The week before, a British girl told him that tourists could visit the silver mines in Bolivia, that tourists brought the miners gifts of alcohol and cigarettes. She’d seen pictures, she’d said. But because the miners were drunk, there were often accidents. She refused to go down there, she told him, for moral reasons.
Luis said they liked it at Mariela’s, even though she was so strict. She made them leave the kitchen after dinner each night, so they had to drink in the room. But, Luis knocked on the card table, she did surprise them with this little table.
Mateo stared at the boy as the cards were shuffled, which made the boy uneasy, and finally, Mateo said, You have this face. Mateo brought his hand up to his own face like a mask. Like a baby angel.
The miners laughed when the boy blushed.
Do you have girlfriends in America? Alejandro asked.
He said, she doesn’t love me anymore.
The boy was surprised he admitted this to the miners, but the men took his admission seriously, nodding.
Mateo asked, is that why you look so sad all the time?
That’s just the way I look.
By the time Mateo had emptied the bottle between their cups, the boy had lost several rounds of poker. But he didn’t care because they were just playing with centavos. They all felt very friendly with one another. Alejandro re-counted his winnings. Luis threw his cards down with a sense of finality.
The boy stretched his arms overhead. All right, he said.
All right? Luis asked.
Yeah, it means, like, entiendo.
All right, Luis said.
They all shook hands. There was a lot of feeling in those goodbyes, a firmness in the handshakes. The boy felt much drunker when he stood, and he had to trace the wall toward his room with his hand to keep upright.
There was no moonlight that night. The boy didn’t notice Mariela at first. In the dark, he searched the walls for the standing lamp. Mariela watched him from the bed as he fumbled along the wall. He knocked the lamp over, and she laughed.
He gasped. I’m sorry, he said. I’m lost. I’m so sorry.
She made a gesture that he took to mean, forget it, and she extended her arms up to him. He looked to the door and then to his backpack leaning in the corner. He sat down on the bed, his back to her knees, and she stroked his arm. He felt like he’d stepped off a spinning top. She pulled him down next to her and worked on his back. She pressed her thumbs under the wings of his shoulders. The boy’s leaden hands kneaded her thigh and up to her hip.
Okay, he said, and then he turned to face her.
Some time after the boy had left Bolivia, Mateo asked Mariela, what ever happened with the American boy?
Normally, she served them as if they were ghosts at the table. But instead she said, I taught that boy all he needs to know about making love.
Alejandro shot up from his chair. Let’s have a drink!
She didn’t usually let them drink at her table, but she consented, and as they drank, Mariela told them the old wives’ tales for restoring virility, some of Hector’s stories, just the funny ones, and even about the schoolboy with a slanted-eye who had loved her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked like that. It didn’t matter that she had lied, that after the boy had had a hand under her slip, his face changed, and she’d had to guide him to the bathroom, where he vomited. She held his head over the toilet, pulling his blond hair out of his face, which she’d done years before, for her husband.
When she’d put the boy to bed, he’d started to cry, and told her about a little girlfriend named Katy. He said he loved Katy too late. Mariela wanted to comfort him, but she still thought of Hector. We could have had fun, she thought. There were many things Hector was not, but he had been a light-hearted man. She couldn’t remember when she began to punish him for it. Even his expression, the mischief in his face as he’d offered the lingerie between a thumb and forefinger, had angered her. Hector juggling dishes. Hector casting cat food in the yard. Hector, eyes glazed, pulling her onto his lap outside. Hector who’d look down before he answered her, as if the answer was in the earth.
Joselyn Takacs grew up in Virginia Beach and holds a BA in creative writing, French, and film studies from Virginia Tech, and an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine a Story of the Week and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art as their 50th Issue Fiction Winner. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.
I am sick of listening to and reading the words of men like George F. Will, a pulitzer-prize winning journalist currently writing for The Washington Post. His most recent piece, published this past Friday, sets out to mock academic institutions that have found themselves embroiled in Title IX suits over allegations of misconduct related to the treatment of sexual assault on college campuses. If these institutions eventually find that federal oversight “diminishes their autonomy, resources, prestige and comity”, Will argues, it “serves them right. They have asked for this.”
I am sick of men like George F. Will, who can deploy this brand of rhetoric used by rape apologists — “she was asking for it” — without consequences. The misogyny and implied violence in that particular statement isn’t even the most offensive thing about this column. The most offensive thing about this column isn’t calling rape a form of “micro-aggression” or even the way he throws around the terms “victim”, “victimization” and “victimhood”, as if they mean the same thing.
Men like George F. Will use the word “victim” as a slur, and I take that personally. On July 5, 2000, a man I knew — a man I had once loved and trusted — held a taser to my throat and took over the use of my car; he drove me to a basement apartment he had rented for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. He said he would kill me if I didn’t have sex with him, if I didn’t make love to him and make him believe it was real. In the police reports regarding that case, I am identified as Lacy Johnson, VICTIM. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t try to shirk that label. I hold my head up high. I work at my job. I shower my children with kisses. I shop and walk in the street.
What is most offensive, most sickening, about the recent column by George F. Will is how he positions himself as an authority on the experience of a woman he’s never met. He quotes at length an article from Philadelphia magazine about Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts institution enrolling less than 2,000 students, where there has been a recent upsurge in complaints of sexual misconduct. Of the many complaints and allegations the original article reports — by women who have been pinned to beds, or against walls, or to the ground, women who can’t recount these stories without tears — George F. Will singles out one woman, who was in her room one night in 2013 with a former sexual partner:
“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped. . . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’”
Will’s comments about this account are brief: “Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped. Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims.”
It is clear that Will has chosen this woman’s story because he believes this is not, in fact, an account of rape, but of the “supposed campus epidemic of rape”, not of sexual assault but “sexual assault.” According to Will, the woman is not a victim, but “hypersensitive, even delusional,” a “survivor” not of trauma but of her own persistent victimhood.
Will apparently shares this view with the administrator to which the woman reported the assault in 2013, six weeks after it had occurred. Will’s column doesn’t quote this section of the article, but the woman goes on to recount how the administrator told her she must be mistaken because the student she accused was “such a good guy.” Why is it that men in positions of authority, like this college administrator, like George F. Will, would rather believe their own distant social impressions than the word of a woman asking for help?
In recent weeks there have been fervent — sometimes bitter, sometimes transcendent — discussions about sexual violence in the United States. I hope these discussions will continue, in both public and private ways. But what concerns me is that we haven’t yet found a way to address what’s at the root of this violence. Whatever it is, it’s not uncommon. Days after George F. Will expressed his everlasting apathy toward the experience of young women, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson co-argued that young women would be raped less if they simply got married to men who could protect them from rapists. Originally titled “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married”, the article suffers from the same sickening indication of the misogynist beliefs far too many people hold: the body of a woman, especially a sexually active woman, can belong to anyone but herself.
I want to make one thing abundantly clear to men like George F. Will: any time a woman is forced or coerced into having sex, she doesn’t become a victim by reporting it. She doesn’t gain anything: no protection, no “special privileges,” no “coveted status.” In fact, she often puts herself at tremendous risk: maybe the man will seek some kind of violent retribution, maybe she’ll be shunned or ostracized, or asked degrading questions by a college administrator. Maybe a so-called journalist will gaslight her in the pages of The Washington Post, where he will judge her, will put her experience in scare quotes.
The fact is, it doesn’t matter if a woman has been “hooking up with that guy for three months” or even if she hooked up with him that same day. If a woman says no, and a man has sex with her anyway, it is rape. If she reports it, she’s not delusional, or hypersensitive. She’s brave.
Lacy M. Johnson is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.
Today, the Library of Congress names Charles Wright as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. In honor of Charles’ well-deserved title, here are two of his poems from Issue 39, Appetites.
ONLY THE I CHING HEXAGRAMS ARE LACKING
Unlike despair, happiness knows no ﬁnal answer.
As one who has carried discontent
Like car keys,
why should I silence the music of their ping and jingle?
I turn to the Master of No Speech
And seek his counsel.
In the dye-glare of Zattere waters,
He opens his hands: ﬁve elements and the ten celestial stems.
“ON THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE”
The older I become, the more the landscape resembles me.
All morning a misty rain,
All afternoon the sun uncovered and covered by cloud snares.
At night, in the evergreens,
The moonlight slides off the wind-weary branches, and will not stick.
No movement, the dark forest.