Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence In Ecstasy (Unnamed Press), was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017 and has been published or is forthcoming in Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Turkey, and Romania. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com and @JessieLChaffee.
Florence In Ecstasy follows Hannah, a young American in Florence who is recovering from an eating disorder that has severely affected her emotional and physical health. Determined to defeat the disorder, Hannah joins a rowing club, propelling her into the vibrant and tight-knit community of Florence. However, Florence’s mystical history and art, particularly as it pertains to the saints –– women who starved themselves in the name of God –– is seductive, triggering in Hannah a desire to return and reclaim her disorder. Throughout the novel, Hannah asks herself the questions we all must eventually ask ourselves: “Who was I?”, “Who am I?”, and, “Who will I become?”
FWR: To begin, I want to ask you about the origin story of the novel. Did you always know you were going to place Hannah’s story in Florence or was it a discovery along the way?
Jessie Chaffee: The origin was really two things. One was that I was in graduate school and I was reading a lot of books about women on the fringes. And around the time when I started this book, I read the full canon of Jean Rhys, and in particular, her book Good Morning, Midnight, which is amazing. Good Morning, Midnight is about a woman who is descending into alcoholism in Paris and her rendering of that mental state –– which is really hard to do, I think, to capture altered states and addiction believably –– and what is really a love affair with alcohol was so powerful. I wanted to know how to do that.
Almost a decade earlier, I’d had an experience with an eating disorder in my early 20’s, which was less extreme than Hannah’s. I hadn’t written about it and hadn’t been able to write about it, but it left me with questions, and questions are always a good place to start a book. I hadn’t seen an eating disorder written about in the same way that I had experienced it and really Jean Rhys’s account of alcoholism came closest.
FWR: That’s interesting that you say that you hadn’t seen eating disorders written about the way you experienced it. So often I feel that eating disorders are written through tropes and act as warning stories. Like, these characters are the consequence of low self-esteem, or women who have experienced major traumas and destroy their bodies as a result. Much of Hannah’s experience with her eating disorder is wrapped up in art. While so much of her experience seems to come from a search for meaning, especially towards the end of the novel, it also comes from this desire for ownership. She describes the disorder as creating, carving, and sculpting. Can you say something about Hannah’s relationship to art and her disorder?
JC: Thank you. That’s a great question. So, her background in the book is in art and it is how she understands the world and sees the world. And one of the reasons that I wanted to set the book in Florence was because I wanted to put this woman in a place where she would be alone, but also not alone. Florence operates like a small town, so inevitably she can’t remain anonymous forever. But also because Florence is full of art and history –– it’s everywhere –– it made sense to me that she would go there looking for answers, so to speak.
In terms of the artistic creation, one of the things that I wanted to capture about the disorder was the high of it. When I began the book, the saints weren’t a part of it. It was in the writing that they emerged. Reading their accounts of ecstasy and about their very sensual, fulfilling, but ultimately painful relationship with God, I found their experiences resonated with somebody who’s caught up in an addiction. To the outside world, of course, it looks like Hannah is simply starving herself and abusing herself. But the reason that the disorder is so hard for her to get out of is because it’s seductive. It gives her a high. Because there is something about it that makes her feel as though she’s creating herself in this really powerful way. So, I think that’s where the connection to art comes in. She feels as if she’s creating herself. And it is not about beauty. It’s not really about how she looks. It’s about what happens internally when she’s in the process of doing that that drives her.
FWR: Yes! I realized that you’re exploring this idea, especially with Hannah and the saints, of erasure as a way to create. Hannah and the saints are making space by erasing what is already there, in order to create. For the saints, it’s more of a spiritual creation. But for Hannah, it’s a kind of knowledge of the self through the erasure of the physical self, which seems both counterintuitive but also so clearly what we’re often doing as artists–– clearing the space to actually create. Even when you’re filling the page, you’re removing the initial space, you’re changing the actual platform. When you’re painting, you remove the color or the absence of color, and sculpture is also a removal of physical parts. Especially in writing, so much of the work is actually erasing so much of what you put on the page in the first place. There is something in Hannah’s experience that rings so true about the agonizing but also amazing experience of being an artist, just creating and erasing, creating and erasing.
JC: Absolutely! And you’re also trying to erase the self. The best writing for me, and the best moments of writing, are when I disappear, when I feel like I’m no longer in it. I think there really is that kind of total self-erasure where you hit whatever it is that you’re reaching for. It doesn’t happen most of the time, but when you get there, it is almost like this ecstatic state. It is, I think, what can make artistic creation addictive and make you come back to it. And in those moments, I feel like I’m really gone.
FWR: And that brings me back to this theme of ownership. There’s a moment in the book where the reader thinks Hannah’s going to be alright, she’s in a relationship, she’s eating, she has a job at this library full of rare books. But then she steals all these old manuscripts of first-hand accounts of women saints’ spiritual ecstasies, and their experiences trigger her addiction, sending her into a downward spiral. While this is happening she starts talking directly about the disorder, and she’s saying that she “loved it,” that she “clung to it,” but also that it was hers. There’s this real desire for ownership, but she also says that she belongs to it. So then, it seems to me, the big question the novel begins to ask is one of ownership, whether it’s ownership of the self, or art, or history, or the body.
JC: Yeah, that’s great. Hannah does repeat throughout the book this idea that whatever this thing was, it was hers. She states directly, “It was mine.” You know, that’s not necessarily said with pride but is said with a recognition that this relationship is so intimate that it is necessarily a part of her. It’s not just something that is being done to her. And she’s also a part of it. That’s the tricky thing about any addiction, I think, that getting out of it is so difficult because you’re not just letting go of the thing but you’re letting go of a part of yourself. You’re letting go of a version of yourself that is yours. With the saints, I was really interested in their desire to erase, both their individual identities, and also their physical selves through starvation, other kinds of self-mortification, or other behaviors to deny the body. Because their purported goal is to totally erase themselves, right? To give themselves over completely to God, to erase their physical bodies, to be fully in the Spirit, to be completely pulled away from all things earthly and all things of the flesh. However, when they’re practicing this extreme behavior, they’re actually creating these very powerful identities that were long-lasting. And so they were creating the exact opposite of erasure. They were creating a legacy for themselves. And I think there’s real ownership in that. I’ve mentioned it in the book, but the fact that there are all these accounts that begin with “I, Angela”, “I, Catherine”, “I, Claire”. That kind of “I-ness” of the saints is really about the legacy they’re creating through the stories they’re telling about their experiences.
FWR: You do such a good job telling their stories through Hannah’s experiences and growing obsession with the saints. But what I found so interesting is that while she, and the saints, are wanting to erase, so much of Hannah’s experience with them, and with Italy, is physical. You’ve got all these relics, and she goes to see Saint Catherine’s head, and she’s got all these old books that she hauls home. And she’s also in Florence, and is physically experiencing Florence, and joining a rowing club. So much of her identity, in Florence, then, is developed through the physical, and through physical intimacy and pleasure with Luca, as well as pain, like the saints. Can you talk a little bit about how the book is looking at the relationship between the physical and visible and the spiritual and intangible?
JC: I think the saints are so fascinating because their descriptions are so physical. Even though, supposedly, it is about erasure, they have these incredible visceral descriptions. They are very much in their bodies. Even the mortification of the self is really about being in the body and the pain inflicted on it. And I think for Hannah, part of the struggle is to come back into her body. I purposefully set the book after she has really lived in the depths of the disorder because I didn’t want to romanticize that. You see glimpses of it because the reader has to understand her experience, but she comes to Florence to live. She’s trying to live and she’s trying to be back in her body, and so I think she comes to a place that really forces her to be present. Her relationship with Luca forces her to be present, too, and to be present in her body, and so does the rowing. You can’t row without a body. You can’t row with a weak body. You can’t do that if you’re starving yourself. So I think the physical ends up being important to her and that ultimately, even though she’s bumping into all of these remnants of the saints and recognizing the power of their ecstasies and also their mortifications and the behaviors they practice to gain their independence, and to gain their voice, that part of her becoming a body again, is rejecting some of that.
FWR: You said you didn’t want to romanticize the actual disorder addiction. I think one of the ways that you achieve that is actually showing not only her wrestling with it but also the physical pain that she’s experiencing. For example, there’s that scene where she runs and shoves saltines down her throat and drinks a bunch of water, but instead of reducing the pain, she becomes more uncomfortable. It’s not that you are giving the reader these grotesque images of it, but it’s just very real. It’s a very real kind of desperation. Also, what I loved is that you don’t give an origin story or blame the disorder on a huge trauma that happened to her. It seems really important that it is just a state of being that Hannah struggles with, in relation to her status as a woman, not only now, but throughout history.
JC: Yeah, it’s an old story.
FWR: Totally! And you seem to be hitting on a larger societal ill in relation to feminine subjugation. Could you talk a little bit more about what you were thinking as you were developing Hannah’s addiction, but also her intellectual experience of it, because the reader is so much in her head.
JC: A lot of what she’s trying to figure out in the book is: why did this happen to me and where did it start? Thinking about structures and things that you get rid of in books further along, when I started the book, any flashbacks where distinctly set off in italics, and they all began with the line: “This is where it starts.” And it was all sort of an indicator of her searching for the origin of how she ended up in this place where she really lost herself. I appreciate that you say that I don’t give an origin story because I didn’t want there to be an easy answer for “this is why this happens.” And I think that makes some people uncomfortable. I’ve certainly had people ask me, “Why did it happen to Hannah?” And I don’t know if you would get that question when it comes to other addictions, right? Why does somebody become an alcoholic? I mean, you start engaging in a behavior that becomes addictive. Certainly with not eating, there’s this initial positive response. There are so many women of all ages who are at war with their bodies and have negative relationships with food. Hannah is on one extreme end of an eating disorder, but when you think about the spectrum of people’s relationship with food and their bodies, women and men have really disordered behavior all the time. I didn’t want to give a single reason for why this is happening. Also, I was less interested in the reason that it was happening than why somebody would get caught up in it, and what would make it hard for them to get out of it. I also was hoping that people reading the book would be able to relate to it so that whatever kind of addiction or abusive relationship anyone has experienced, they might be able to find some of that in Hannah, rather than saying, well, I didn’t experience this trauma so I don’t relate to this.
FWR: I don’t think you need to have experienced a major trauma or addiction to be able to connect with Hannah. She’s simply struggling between the desire for control and the desire to let go, which is innately human. Yes, Hannah is an extreme version of that, especially in today’s world. But these desires were also experienced by the women saints. Their ecstasies are about control and fulfillment, right? And meaning. So many of the saints’ lives are interpreted historically as a way to escape a strict patriarchal system that limited their agency. Saint Catherine didn’t want to get married. Saint Bernadette also wanted to avoid being forced into a relationship with a man, and so many other female saints experienced ecstasies or visions in order to remove themselves from the society that wanted to control them. But they also wanted to remove the feminine connected with that society, maybe perhaps in order to have control over their own selves. And with Hannah, she has this conversation with Luca about not eating, and Luca asks her if it’s because she wants to be skinny, as if it has to do with being sexy or attractive, and she immediately rejects this idea. And it reminds me of all these conversations I’ve had with friends and essays I’ve read about wanting to hide the body, to avoid being seen as sexy and feminine, and instead attempting to hide the self through baggy clothes, or boyish looks, or anything that might help make the feminine part of the body disappear.
JC: Right. Wanting to not go into the world body first, which is what happens for girls as soon as they hit adolescence. Your body is no longer yours once it begins to be seen and noticed. Throughout the book, Hannah has this sense that she’s being watched all the time. There is this desire in her to disappear, which in a certain sense is a removal of the feminine. But that ultimately isolates her and her ability to connect intimately with other people. And I do think a part of her actions throughout the novel are about wanting to disappear. The disorder is certainly not about her wanting to be beautiful, but it’s about something different. Part of that does become about erasing herself. But part of it too, and this is the hard thing about any addiction, is that it starts as one thing, and then it becomes something else. So it begins as maybe a control, or self-erasure, or the desire for something that she hasn’t found, and it becomes a place of meaning. You know, it becomes a kind of philosophy. It’s great to find meaning and it’s great to find your philosophy if it’s in a place that’s healthy, but often we find those things in places that are unhealthy and that makes it really hard.
FWR: One of the things I think the book is doing so well is that it makes some really interesting statements about what it means to form identity, and what are the consequences and risks of claiming, creating, or denying identity. And so much of Hannah’s eventual reclaiming of her identity is dealing with those consequences. She goes to Florence, she starts rowing, she becomes romantically involved with a man, and so much of the trajectory could just move towards this idea of the runaway love affair that will save her, but then you take an entirely different turn. And, without giving too much away, so much of Hannah’s reckoning with her own identity is dealing with the world she’s run away from.
JC: Much of that was very conscious. Many of my favorite books are incredibly dark, where things don’t end well. And I didn’t want to write a book that had this easy, unrealistic, happy ending, but because I was writing about something that I’ve experienced and I know a lot of people experience, I didn’t feel like I could leave the book in a totally dark place. There had to be some hope. I feel hopeful for Hannah and her ability to not necessarily get out of things, but to live with things and survive. It’s not something that can be answered and fixed by somebody else loving and accepting her. So, I always felt like she had to go home because part of actually taking ownership of her life is dealing with her life. Part of being an agent in her life is facing it and dealing with it. That doesn’t mean her relationship with Italy and with Luca isn’t meaningful. It is meaningful. But just because it’s meaningful doesn’t mean it’s the answer.
An excerpt from Florence In Ecstasy
I wake the next morning to rain that doesn’t let up. At the club, everyone will be indoors—all bodies crowding in, all sounds echoing loud, all the older men clustered in the bar instead of on the embankment, all eyes and voices. I avoid it. I should open my laptop, look for work, but I avoid that, too.
I visit San Frediano in Cestello on the other side of the river, the Oltrarno. Luca was right—the church is beautiful. A small plaque on the wall outside announces that the mystic, Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, lived and died in the adjacent convent. Inside, there is a chapel dedicated to her with a painting of the saint in ecstasy, and in the chapel’s belled ceiling she welcomes souls into Heaven with sweeping arms. This is why he sent me here. There is nothing more, though—not in the little brochure I was handed and not in my guidebook—and the gates leading to the convent beside the church are locked.
I find a small café not far from the church, glowing warm on this gray day. I stop for a coffee, but the place seeps in, holds me there, and I stay from early afternoon into evening, alternately reading and watching people battle the rain through the wide window. I return the next day and the day after that. The waitstaff has no qualms about my making the transition from a coffee and salad to a glass of wine when the café empties and they have their staff dinner, scraping at plates and laughing, while I watch the gray light stretch across the tables in shifting bands and catch in my glass.
I’m still reading about St. Catherine. As a teenager, she pleaded to join the Mantellate, a group of older widows cloistered in the Basilica of San Domenico, but her parents refused—she was not old and was not a widow. She would be married. Until she grew ill, so ill that even when her father took her to the thermals baths, the boiling waters had no effect. Her illness was a sign from God, she said, and so her parents acquiesced, allowing her to join the widows in prayer, and Catherine was healed.
Her career began with a movement inward, with visions and ecstasies. When in a trance, she did not wince at the needles that disbelievers jabbed into her feet. This and her vision of a mystical marriage to Christ secured her celebrity. As she grew older, she looked outward beyond San Domenico. She cured the lame, drew poison, and drank pus from the sores of the sick. She learned to read and became politically active, composing letters of criticism to the pope.
And she made herself empty for prayer. By age eight, she was slipping meat onto her brother’s plate. By sixteen, she ate only fruits and vegetables, then used instruments—a stalk of fennel, a quill—to throw them back up.
As another steaming dish arrives nearby, the thick, smoky smell drifting my way, my stomach turns over—with desire, then revulsion—and in this, I understand the saint’s denial. I remember well when my days became punctuated by sharp sensations:
Sunlight too bright.
Counting. And with the counting came praise and with the praise came questions. How do you do it? Claudia asked, one of a chorus when I began losing flesh, December into January into February. There was admiration in their voices, and I knew what they were asking: How do you cut so close to the bone? By the time Catherine joined the Mantellate, she had stopped eating almost entirely. This body of mine remains without any food, without even a drop of water: in such sweet physical tortures as I never at any time endured. She was empty, open. I’d like to think that she belonged to no one but herself, that the sweetness of the pain was hers alone. But she writes, My body is Yours.
Love. Her letters are filled with the word. The soul cannot live without loving… The soul always unites itself with that which it loves, and is transformed by it. I envy her ecstasies, emptied of everything. Is that love? All that emptiness and the trance that follows? Love is a tunneling, I think. An envisioning and then a tunneling of vision, the edges disappearing until all that remains is the beloved. I had hoped that I would feel that with Julian, that with him I might escape the mornings when I woke tamped down and pressed myself back into dreams that did not soothe. But he was no match for the other solace I found. He fell away with all the rest.
By the second day of my residency at the café I’m almost all the way through Catherine’s life. The soul is always sorrowful, she writes, and cannot endure itself. Outside, people are hurrying through the rain to the evening service. The bells begin to clang furiously, ricocheting off one another as one of the staff appears.
“Un altro bicchiere?” he asks, lifting my glass.
“Sì,” I say, wanting him to leave me to listen to the bells. They are playing a hymn. It is familiar to me and I feel a rush of happiness, uninterrupted. Even in this gray light it grows, and I’m afraid of the moment when I’ll slip over the peak and feel it dissipate. I close my eyes and the bells continue. They are asking a question: Are you searching for? Are you searching for?
Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, is about love, loss, and the art of running. Late Air (Little A) hit bookstores November 13th. Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University. She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf and Tin House Writers’ Conference, and her work has appeared in Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub, among others.
Four Way Review sat down with her recently over coffee, and eventually cocktails and ice cream, to discuss her writing, grief, and what it means generally to be a human being
FWR: Okay, I figured we could start with the basics, which is essentially asking you about the genesis of this story, and how you actually began approaching your first novel. So, what is the origin of this story and when did you realize that it was actually a novel more than a short story?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Well, originally I just wanted to tell the story of this accident that came to me out of the blue. I was running along the Bronx River Parkway, and I had this horrible thought: what if a stray golf ball hit me on the golf course? I trained on a golf course [while running at Yale] without really being afraid of that happening, but something about looking at it from a present vantage point made me look at the risks differently. It suddenly seemed really dangerous! So I started writing this short story about a coach dealing with a golf ball hitting his star runner. It was a world that I knew really well, so I decided to set this opening scene on the course where I could really ground my imagination and my senses and kind of observe the possibilities.
When I’d finished a draft, I gave it to a friend in my MFA program, and she was like, “My God, this is so compelling. You have to keep writing it!” So that gave me the courage to see it to some kind of finished point. Then I submitted it as a story that took place in a couple of weeks, and was only about Murray, the coach, trying to deal with the accident, but in a much more sympathetic way than the novel seeks to portray him. But after I had finished writing the story, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t providing enough conflict or enough understory to really to make it something that felt real. So I went deeper. I didn’t want to hide behind this really sad and pathetic character who’d had this horrible thing happen. I had to really figure out what his life was before this event and what were all of the ramifications of that past into the present.
So that led to a lot of layering in order to develop his moral ambiguity and place around this event. And later that summer, after I’d written the story, I tried out writing from whole other point of view, which became Nancy, Murray’s estranged wife, and this became an interesting way to look at Murray’s past. Once I started exploring all of her memories and ideas about marriage, I started to conceive how these two timelines might intervene in the present. I started looking for as many potential echoes as possible between the two. I was really interested in how the associative echoes that are happening with Murray’s psyche and his consciousness in the present and how there might be these points of correspondence with the past and what Nancy remembered. I drew from a lot of colors and essential images that re-emerge throughout the story to create parallels in the narratives, constantly bouncing off Murray, trying to force him to confront this repressed past. I guess the genesis of the story really came by trying to imagine what this man’s mind like, what are all the different timeframes that might be operating in it, and pushing the story to be more about him.
FWR: What did you want the story to be about, then?
JG: I really wanted to write about a marriage, which meant I had to develop Nancy. So the revision process really became about Nancy not just being in the service of her husband’s story and past, but about a woman’s journey that in many ways is opposite to Murray’s. It’s through that counter narrative that I could explore the ways we grieve. Once I realized this was really a story about the process of grief, I was able to shape this vision into a more realized story about finding truth or recognizing shared pain.
FWR: You just said something really interesting. You said you were running and you suddenly had this imagined fear of something that could have potentially happened in the past. But you never had that fear during the actual time you were running on golf courses.
FWR: Which is interesting because I think a lot of the book is about not having fear in the present but then actually reflecting on the events of the past, which creates a fear for the present. When the characters are together, they are in the moment, and they actually don’t have fear. But when they are later separated and the trauma has occurred, they seem to be incapable of being in the present. In particular, Nancy, envisions not only the fears from the past, but that fear invades her present. She becomes kind of obsessive in her own feelings and the things that could go wrong from the vantage point of looking back. Do you think that there’s anything in there that you were examining in terms of how we perceive our past or how we establish fears based on the examination of the past and past trauma?
JG: I don’t think I could have seen that in the writing process because I think I was just reacting to my own fears. But I think that this book is capturing what posttraumatic stress is like. As I was writing this book, I was confronted with my own traumas, especially during college. I didn’t necessarily know that was a traumatic time in my life because I had never really given voice to admitting that it was traumatic. I just thought I was very stressed. When I was in college, I actually remember not feeling very much at all. Like I was just so programmed to achieve these prescribed goals. It felt like this insurmountable thing and I didn’t really even know what it was that I needed to achieve. I was so terrified of failing that it consumed my daily operating systems so much so that I couldn’t even pinpoint what I was so afraid of.
I think maybe that’s why something about the ball literally coming out of left field was so jarring, because it was asking me to look at that time and for me to recognize that that was a painful time. Maybe that’s also why I could relate to Murray’s character so much– he’s clinging to these systems for order and control through running, which has always been my go to since I was young. That was how I made sense of my world when it felt chaotic. But it also has blinded me to the fact of that trauma, because it was like, “oh, I’m always muscling through this thing”.
I’ve come to believe that when things are really incomprehensible and painful, you can’t possibly know how you’re going to feel until much later, after the event. The story feels born out of that because Murray and Nancy couldn’t have known that their child was going to die, the suddenness of that. And I felt like I did experience a sudden trauma in college. So I think I was drawing from the suddenness of something that I would have really wanted to be able to prevent, but that I really had no possible way of preventing and fixing once it was over.
FWR: But there’s also something so fearless about Nancy and Murray’s characters when they first meet. That first initial meeting in Paris, there’s something almost risky in their leaps of faith in each other. They’re willing to rush into this love. They’re willing to take these risks that allow them to take each other in, both physically and emotionally. Then, even before the trauma, that risk begins to erode when life become settled. It’s similar to what you were saying about your own personal experiences as a young person running on the course: you had no fear. But looking back on the experience, and reflecting as an older person, you recognize that a danger or a potential danger was always there. So there’s almost something being said about evolving and growth and not only the pros of maturity, but also the cons, like what we sacrifice. When we agree to be mature, when we agree to be adults, we sacrifice a kind of fearlessness that allows us initially to be creators, whether it’s a baby or a book.
JG: There’s always this inherent risk in everything you do. I think what I was really looking at through these characters, especially in their past, is idealism. I think it’s at heart of everything. As much as it is about perfectionism, it’s also about idealism. This search for this idea of perfect love or the idea of being the perfect parent, or appearing one way on the outside. Like you really have everything that you could possibly want. It’s really about attaining an ideal, like a dream. And these Ivy League institutions breed a kind of mindset that ignores and tries to hide what’s really going on behind the scenes or how corroded that dream could be.
And if you’re in a place as romantic as Paris – and I’m also really fascinated by Paris as this place built on this nostalgic dream and I think that’s really one of the big reasons why Giovanni’s Room plays a big role for me in thinking about Nancy’s character. For me, [James] Baldwin is writing about this idea of Paris after he leaves America and is looking at the unrest from the Civil Rights Movement from a distance, but Paris isn’t really real and there’s a denial built in. You don’t know that when you’re reading Giovanni’s Room until eventually it all crumbles.
I think that’s what I was trying to achieve—the kind of stories we tell ourselves when we take these risks and build these ideas and dreams around what we think we want and what love is and what marriage is, when in reality it’s all a constant imperfect test.
FWR: Your prose is just so vivid and alive, and so for the most part I was just enthralled and caught up in the narrative, but now that we are talking, I realize how much of the story is about reflection. It’s not really about the initial experience, it’s about reflecting on that experience and placing meaning on it after it’s happened.
JG: One of the things I was trying to think about was tense. I couldn’t really write the whole thing in past perfect, but that’s kind of how you could read Nancy’s section because, like you said, so much of this is comparing the past to the present, and so much of Nancy’s story is in the past, and a lot of it is thinking about things that could have been, but even that could have been has passed. So the future, present, and past are all in the same stream. I had to be really careful about my tenses and figure out how to artfully break the rules of time so I could get Nancy to a moment where she’s got to break that dream mentality of what could have been and just deal with the reality of grief.
FWR: Much of his book is centered on a marriage, but it’s not really about a marriage as much as it is the collapse of a marriage because of the inability to communicate grief and pain. So much of that pain — even before the grief occurs — is centered on the physical, but in very different ways for each character. In what ways does the book examine the physical manifestations of grief and how and why do they differ in each character?
JG: That’s really at the heart of the story. A lot of these manifestations are really interwoven in the characters’ identities. So a lot of the expressions of grief are really about survival of the self. But on the other side, there’s a whole subconscious narrative because there isn’t a voice for that pain because it’s so unspeakable and impossible to sit with. So even though the characters are doing all these things that make them think they are feeling the pain, they aren’t really, because the real pain necessary to heal is so deep and so real and so beyond the rituals of the physical. So there is a lot of running away instead of running towards, but eventually you have to run directly towards it, or at least hopefully that’s what happens.
Jaclyn Gilbert was interviewed by Jessica Denzer for Four Way Review. Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her BA in English Literature from Fordham University and her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, painstakingly trying to make the writing magic happen.
From Late Air
Late August, Monday
“Remember our goals,” Coach Murray said. He and his number one runner, Becky Sanders, were in his car headed to the campus golf course. Through the darkness, the empty streets, Murray relied on his headlights. He tuned the radio to a clear station: the Doors.
“We’re aiming for 5:00–5:10 pace,” he said.
“Okay.” Becky was peeling a small blood orange, one long sheath unfurling on her lap. At 5′2″ and ninety-five pounds, she reminded him of his two-time cross-country All-American Sarah Lloyd. As a senior, Sarah had set a course record of 16:23.14 in the 5K. Becky was only a sophomore, but Murray believed she had even greater potential than Sarah; he saw Becky winning Nationals this year, maybe even competing in the Olympics one day.
Murray hadn’t showered or shaved in three days. It was humid in the car, and the gray stubble around his long mustache felt damp.
He hadn’t always had a mustache. In his youth, Murray was clean-shaven, but he’d worn his blond hair a little long through his own college running days. He’d run on full scholarship for the University of Scranton. Growing up in Luzerne County, he’d gone by his first name, Samuel, but on Scranton’s track, the chant Mur-ray had sounded best—especially at the age of twenty-three, when he’d qualified for the ’80 Summer Olympics in the 10,000-meter run.
Now, almost three decades later, Murray was sixty-two and no longer ran. His two knee replacements made walking so difficult that at the golf course, he’d have to use a cart to get around. He couldn’t miss a split.
At a red light, Murray noticed as Becky carefully removed two strings of pulp from the orange, then divided out the first quarter section. She raised a sliver to her lips and bit in slowly.
Murray’s breakfast sandwich still lay warm on his lap. No cheese, just ketchup and egg. He smelled oil and toasted bread, and then the juice misting the air as Becky’s thumbs pressed down.
He’d grown accustomed to their prolonged silences. In fact, he’d come to welcome them. Becky never challenged his insistence on their two-a-day practices, the first of which always happened in the morning, and the second later in the afternoon, when he held practice for the whole team. Murray had started his precedent in ’01, when he’d been named head coach—the year after Sarah Lloyd had joined his ranks—and he had groomed at least a dozen other phenoms since then, each as hungry as the last to qualify for Regionals, then Nationals, to earn the elite status Murray had tasted in college too. Every record Murray set had depended on running before daylight, the darkness an ideal time for finding focus, this protected space where he could demand only the best from his girls.
Becky warmed up at the fairway of the first hole. She did some form drills: high-knees, butt kicks, some rabbit hops. The sun had partially risen, mist clouding the first hill a soft, dusty green. Becky’s father, Doug, was an ardent golfer, and he had met Murray for eighteen holes the summer he’d started recruiting Becky. It was then that Murray had told Doug about his recruiting plan to help earn Becky’s admission to Yale, given her slightly subpar grades and test scores. In the end, she’d chosen him over all the other coaches vying, even those offering full scholarships. The pressure for her to keep up academically remained high, but he felt assured by her 3.6 average last year, when she was still a freshman.
He marked a tall elm as the start line and read her target splits from there. He told her to focus on her foot strike, keeping her weight centered. She’d have two minutes of rest between sets. “Four of them,” he said.
Becky rolled her neck around. She jounced her knees. When she readied her stance, he began his three-second countdown, stopwatch tight by his thumb. He clicked hard, and she bounded forward, her stride chiseling the mist. Her tan calves parted as they pushed into the fairway grass. Her thin, muscular arms sliced the breeze.
To Murray, Becky would always be like a Belgian warmblood, this magnificent breed he’d once bet on as a child, with his father, at the Erdenheim Steeplechase. The horse had a pinwheel brand on its left thigh. Becky had a scar, too, but on her right shoulder.
Last year, Becky had placed third at Regionals. Murray had taken her to a diner for a pancake breakfast to celebrate. It was there, her fork circling tiny slivers of pancake, that she told him how she’d been burned by someone’s still-lit cigarette. She’d been walking with Doug on Atlantic City’s crowded boardwalk when someone brushed her hard. She hadn’t really eaten any breakfast that morning, so Murray had finished the pancakes for her, a heaviness in his stomach he’d disliked; it was the hunger he longed for, the exertion that earned it.
Murray watched Becky in the distance as she hooked around the first bend, the quarter-mile mark.
Her forward lean looked good, legs kicking back nicely. Gravity was taking her, he thought. She let gravity take her.
He lumbered over to his golf cart but had a difficult time lifting his right leg and stepping in; even more cumbersome was crouching down into the seat.
Just two minutes to get to the finish at the base of the fairway on the second hole. He turned the key and floored it. He kept one hand steady on the wheel, the other over his notepad. A breeze cooled his face and the sweat that had gathered along the back of his neck. He focused on the bluish grass unspooling beneath him.
At the finish point, he pushed hard on the brake. He checked his watch: 4:55.16. He squinted his eyes, waited for a sign. Checked again: 5:10.39. Where is she?
5:25.16. He slammed hard on the pedal and careened up a side path. He called her name several times, but nothing came back.
It wasn’t until several minutes later, in the distance, that he saw the white of her T-shirt, shapeless and crumpled. The closer he approached, the more he could discern of her body: fetal, motionless. He checked his stopwatch—10:23.57—and clicked stop. Frantically, he thrust his body forward, shoulders jerking unevenly to make up for his wobbly stride. He bent over where she lay in the grass. A dark purple bruise marred her right temple. He squeezed two fingers together and touched the side of her neck. A pulse. He lowered to his belly, met her at eye level. With a middle finger and thumb, he peeled the right lid open. It was dilated. He leaned in toward her mouth, careful not to move her head. A difficult angle, so he had to drag his cheek over the grass. Her warm breath emanated, but it was ragged and shallow: one deep inhale followed by two seconds of apnea.
“Becky.” He spoke close to her ear. “Blink if you can hear me.” When there was no movement, he shouted, “Please, Becky! Blink!” He waited three more seconds, close to her mouth, monitoring the warmth, and then he was fumbling for his cell phone, fingers pressing for 911; he was shaking. He heard himself on the phone, specifying Becky’s head trauma as severe, maybe a level 6 if he went by his years of sports medicine training. A first responder asked him to keep close watch of the time, to note any changes in her vital signs. He reminded Murray to stay calm and—above all—not to touch her neck. Estimated wait was seven minutes.
Murray dropped his phone into his pocket.
Last night he’d called ahead to the clubhouse; no golfers had been scheduled. They were on a slope by the woods. Could the ball have rolled? He thought he saw a shadow moving from behind a tree. He called out, asking if anyone was there. But no one answered: there was just his own voice resounding, and then the deadening silence after that.
Becky’s hands were curled tight and close to her chest. Like an infant—silent, spine tucked into her mother’s womb. He thought he sensed a blue light passing overhead, lucid and wavering, then this slow ascension of her body.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
The sky is at the feeder again.
I mean the indigo bunting
with no bearings for home.
A man pulls into the driveway
after work—crunching stones,
hallooing up the stairs—
wanting to know about my day.
All the days are wranglers,
I say. I am not able to cite
my sources, but I make a list.
A woman at lunch said we do not
plan to live two hundred years,
and so I think to tell him
—well, I do not plan to live
two hundred years! In my hands,
pillowcases I bought, embroidery
floss. Everywhere I go I think
about what is impossible.
Can homing pigeons carry
their nth letter and still get lost?
My job is to build a home,
I tell this man I have already built
a home with. My job is to do
something with my hands.
In a handful of seasons,
water and cold dirt
In a handful of seasons,
water and cold dirt
When I was at Andy’s house he looked at me and said, “I want to stone that place to the ground.” We were getting high on the basement couch, and he was behind a thin mist of smoke. He was talking about the tobacco warehouse his dad inherited, now dilapidated. Or, his dad called it a warehouse, and so did the granddad before him. Giving it that title was generous though. A joke, really. It was more like a shack. Andy tapped his foot up and down in saggy sweats like he was going to jump out of himself, waiting for a response. I was pretty sure he was looking to me and not my friend, Nick next to me. Nick was silent because I could tell he was hardly paying attention. I heard every word and was silent because I kept noticing the scar creased above Andy’s mouth, which I wanted to kiss since before he knew me.
“Let’s do it,” I said to impress him.
“Come on,” he said and got up, which meant we needed to follow.
He led me upstairs. Nick trailed behind Andy, and I trailed behind Nick. I creaked through the house, careful of the floorboard squeaks my feet could ignite. This was a hushed thrill for me, something covert I didn’t know the consequences of. Andy strutted ahead, taking us past the living room where his dad was in a Wild Turkey pass out, with no care of waking him. I caught some flickering light from the TV emitting onto Andy. He wore his pants down low, and so did Nick: Andy imitating music video rappers, Nick imitating Andy, me in my coupon purchased Penny jeans from a shopping trip with my mom. I was the tagalong.
“Oh shit, look at those tits,” Nick said and halted in front of me so quickly I almost ran into him. He was peering into the living room where Andy’s dad had on a porno. Andy was in the kitchen now, and I would lose him if we didn’t continue.
“Hey, be quiet,” I said.
“The old man’s out cold. Geez. When did you get to be such a pussy?” Nick had never called me that before and began using it recently since we started hanging out with Andy. I had been friends with Nick since middle school because in middle school you needed to call someone a friend. His face was drenched in freckles that hadn’t faded with ears his head hadn’t caught up with: puppet-mouthed – a ventriloquist dummy. I tried to imagine this face more clearly in the dark, sneering at me, assessing me based on our three years of friendship in which we couldn’t have really known each other. It was hard to pity him, because he was the reason I was there in the first place. He had somehow made friends with Andy. He could make that initiation of friendship I couldn’t – if friendship was what you wanted to call it. He had started buying weed from Andy, probably because he was desperate for a sense of rebellion, and desperate to distance himself from me. He was there to get high. I was there because it was Andy.
“Let’s go. Come on. You can fuckin’ watch porn anytime,” I said and passed him.
Andy was already outside, and the footsteps in the sparkly dusting of snow tracked him to the middle of the farm behind the house. I began running to catch up, placing my feet in his indentions on the wasted land, hopscotch jumping to match his stride. The Oldsmobile was parked a yard away from the house, looking abandoned. Andy picked me up in it earlier with a supped up sound system rattling out any words I thought to say to him. His dad lived in the boonies, and I forgot where this tobacco shack was. I knew it was on the outskirts of a tree patch people in town called a forest. I also knew it was right before Mike Kilroy’s land – an eighty year-old legend who owned part of the long-gone farm with Andy’s granddad. Kids called him Ol’ Kil because rumors went around about him on a constant stake-out for anyone trying to cross the wire fencing onto his acreage. He’d shoot you down or sick his Rottweiler depending on whose story it was. A week ago, the last time I was at Andy’s, we stepped over and smoked right in the middle of Ol’ Kil’s yard.
I looked behind me and couldn’t see the house anymore. It was either out of sight or the dark and snow mixed with its white chipped paneling and three lopsided black shutters. Ahead of me, Andy had stopped. The only reason I could see him was from the flood light’s faulty bulb, flashing him like a signal. He was standing in front of the shack.
“So, this is it, huh?” I said and immediately regretted it. Obviously, it was.
Andy shoved his hands in his jacket pockets with head cocked up like he was trying to solve a complex puzzle. I tried to match his line of vision instead of looking directly at him. His newly buzzed head was caught in the wind chill. “Do you want this?” I said and held out an extra cap.
“No, man. I’m good.”
“So, what now?” I asked.
Nick was finally crunching his way to where we were. “It’s freezing out here,” he said while sniffing a runny nose
“I told you,” Andy said. “Find as many rocks around here as you can and throw all of them at this place.” The shack was ash covered from a previous fire and stood on black molded wood. If any tobacco residue was left, it was rotting like algae – dead and sickening. I could smell it from where I stood next to Andy – in the right radius to catch both the faintness of decay and his drugstore cologne masking body odor. He picked up a stone, tossing it from one hand to the other in a single juggle and then launched it against the building. Ash grafted off and hit the snow as it shook. He ran closer and found another rock, larger this time, and threw it against the wood, the sound making the cry he couldn’t, in place for his silence. “Like this,” he said to me. “Come on, Patrick. Let’s see how hard you can throw. Help me take it down.”
About a month ago when I had told my dad where Nick and I were going, he said, “You’re not going around that kid.” It was a Friday night when he was behind the local paper over a chicken fried steak dinner.
“Why?” I asked.
“Not over to that house. Not around that dad of his.”
“Why?” I asked again.
“No good trash is why,” he said, a man indignant that Andy’s dad loused around all day on inherited tobacco money and let the land stay ruined. “A damn shame,” he had said. Andy’s mom had been part of the town rumor mill since I had known – took up with some man she had been cheating with who worked at my dad’s construction site. She worked at the drive thru Dairy Dip, and some girls from my school used to go through and make fun of her, and wives in town made jokes about how their husbands weren’t allowed to go there if she was working. I also knew his dad was probably squandering the granddad’s money, and it had an expiration date. “I don’t want you around a good for nothing shit,” my dad said.
“But Andy’s not his dad,” I had said.
I overturned rocks, trying to find the right size. I threw one, and it made a pathetic smack, hardly moving anything. “Give me a break,” Andy said. “That was a pebble. Get a big one and get some heat on it.” He launched another that pelted a snap into the air. A few boards fell. He was laughing, almost manically. “Or like this,” he said, and he hauled out a huge rock from a ditch. He cradled it with both arms, swinging it to get momentum, counting to himself. I saw how big this one was, and I looked at the shack.
“Andy, wait. Are you sure you want to do this?” I said. He pretended not to hear me the same way I pretended not to know about the bruises on his side, bruises I saw a few weeks ago when his shirt lifted as he leaned into his dad’s fridge to get me my first beer, bruises I wanted to curl inside of and absorb so I could make them better. The rock hit the shack, taking it out. All of the boards on the left gave way and caved in on themselves. I crouched for cover, and Andy towered over the debris as it fell.
All that remained was a frame against a thumbnail moon, and after a distant dog bark, quiet. Nick kept saying “Holy shit,” surveying the damage. Andy paced like he didn’t know what to do. I looked toward the house to see a porch light turned on. There was no way Andy’s dad heard. Not with how drunk he was. Not with how far away we were. Or was it that far away? Or was he really out cold like Nick said? There was no way to know. I didn’t want to imagine what Andy’s dad would do to him – not tonight or the next day.
“We need to get out of here,” I said to him.
His face was still. “Where?”
“Come on,” I said and started toward the trees.
Andy was following me now, and we came to an enclosed area. I was panting, and he was barely out of breath. He leaned against a trunk. “Damn,” he said. “That was great.”
“Yeah, for sure,” I said and sat down on a stump. Andy put one foot against the tree with his thigh flexed out like he wanted me to see it. I allowed myself and then looked up to him.
“Why do you always do that?”
“What?” I asked, scared.
“Look at me, like, I don’t know. Like you know something I don’t.” Back before all of this, back before Andy dropped out of high school, we had a class together. I sat three rows back from him. He used to slink his feet into the front desk’s book cage and coast, sometimes giving one word or smartass answers to the teacher, bragging each month about a new girlfriend, or cocky about a move he made on the JV basketball team he eventually got kicked off of. He was the kind of guy who was all confidence but didn’t know how beautiful he was. He was looking at me pointedly now like maybe he knew I noticed.
“I don’t know anything,” I said.
He squinted at me. “You’re all right, Patrick.” He pulled out a joint, which is what he did when he didn’t want to confront something. We passed it back and forth until he said, “Hey, come here and shot gun with me.” I didn’t know what that was, and he explained. He had the thin strip in the gap of his teeth, and he said to get closer, so I stepped forward with my lips inches from his and pretended to suck in the smoke correctly. The diamond studs he wore seemed to be carved out of the frozen stream ahead of us and pinpricked into his cold-red ears. I exhaled and kissed him. He let out a moan like I should stop or continue or both, so I let him decide, and we kept going. When I put myself against his upper body, the material of his jacket swished, and I imagined what he looked like underneath. He pulled me in closer, our torsos touching, bodies pulsing to shed our clothes, but the cold contained them. I felt him hard against my leg like he wanted me to.
I pulled back. He looked at me with a mouth raw in chapped flakes. Time to say something. Time to acknowledge what he maybe didn’t want to acknowledge. I put my hands on his sides, trying to keep him warm. “Do you want me to…” I said, trailing off, and I squatted down.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said and started undoing his pants. “But hey,” he said among belt buckle chimes. “This doesn’t mean anything.” I took him into my mouth, and it was like the wind stopped from the wet heat. I wanted to take in all of him: his stained sweatpants, the waffled long johns underneath, the musky sweat clinging to them, his wife beater, his stomach hair. Somewhere in the distance Nick was shouting about where we were. Somewhere Andy’s dad was either raging in anger or still asleep. Somewhere was what I thought I was protecting Andy from. Somewhere was the collapsed wreckage of everything I helped him leave behind.
The first time I met Andy’s dad, their house was a mansion by my standards, because it had two stories and was bigger than a shotgun. Andy pulled up in the driveway and led me and Nick past the full porch. A swing was to the right with half the chain broken off, so it sat on the ground lopsided. Next to it were metal chairs with tarnished rust eating the spray paint. Miller cans lined the handrails like targets at a shooting range. Andy took me and Nick hot-boxing through town, and it felt like I was treadmill walking – feet moving but in one place, and Andy’s house was shifting around me.
Andy introduced me to his dad in the living room, who got up from a recliner, his recliner, that didn’t want to let him go. He shook my hand tighter than a bear trap and said, “You Frank’s boy, aren’t you?” My hands were probably still grazed in yellow dust from Dorito scarfing in the car. He let go and wiped his hand on his cutoffs.
“Yeah, that’s my dad,” I said.
“Runs firsts and thirds at Lester’s Construction. Right?”
I nodded, and he eyed me, then sipped from his Bourbon tumbler, the ice clanking his teeth, his finger-squeezing gold ring clanking the glass. The guy his wife ran off with – the guy who worked at my dad’s company – his name was either Gus or Russ or it may have been a different guy now.
When Andy’s dad pulled his drink away from his mouth, he sucked his front teeth against his lips in a lemon pucker – a ferret squinched face. “What’s wrong? Can’t speak to me?” he said.
“Dad, come on. Leave him alone,” Andy said.
Taxidermy animal heads ran along the paneled walls, and Andy’s dad was in the middle of them. He looked Andy over for a long time, examining, sizing up. “Boys, can you go into the kitchen for a minute?” he said, which was pointless because we could hear everything from there. He gave me another once over and didn’t acknowledge Nick.
In the kitchen, Nick and I sat at a table with congealed Dinty Moore Stew and stacks of unopened bills. We listened to Andy’s dad booming, berating. I only caught pieces like snippets of hunting entrails. “Why are you such a worthless fuck up? I told you to have that cleared from the back yard today.” I could see sharp hunks of hardwood through a window. They were wrapped in frayed tarp. I learned later of half-ass plans to build a new toolshed. Even if Andy had brought in that hardwood like his dad asked, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the wood had set outside too long and was damaged by rain and rot. “What have you done all day?” Andy’s dad said, which was bull, because he hadn’t done much himself other than recline and drink. “You’re a goddamn good-for-nothing,” he added. I thought of the bruises. They were purpled like a gooey plum smeared on concrete, patched into Andy’s skin. Fragile. I heard his dad say, “A useless condom rip, and you know it.” One time Andy told me his mom probably wasn’t his mom. He thought maybe his aunt but wasn’t sure.
I dared to lean around the corner and saw Andy’s head hung low and belittled. Beneath that though, below a blushed face was a smirk, or a slight resemblance to a smirk, as much of one as he could give standing in front of his dad. And, he said, “Right,” like he was agreeing because he had to but was really saying, Just you wait, and I will get you back. For all the pain. Whatever way he decided to do it, I wanted to be there.
I sat with Nick while Andy hauled the pile of wood from outside and into the basement. He had to do it by himself. His dad’s orders. At one point, I looked to Nick like we should help, but he didn’t want to say anything to me. It took Andy an hour. Nick sighed but was only annoyed because this was preventing him from getting stoned, ruining his fun. I watched Andy follow his dad’s instructions piece by piece.
When he was finished, Nick and I made our way into the living room with him. His dad was snoring with gasps like the gurgling of a clogged drain, inhaling deeply like he was about to suffocate. Andy sat in the chair next to him, and I sat on the couch. The deer and raccoon heads loomed over us, petrified with mouths that would drip slobber if they were alive. Dead things filling empty space. Andy pulled the lounger’s handle and went back with legs in the air, resting, aligned with his dad. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily in a slow rhythm. His face was skeletal and defeated, hollowed out like he wasn’t his own person. Just like me.
ELEGY FOR FALLEN PALMS
–after Hurricane Irma
I learn the facts about what we’ve lost:
palm trees don’t form annual rings.
You’d find their age in the Bible or Quran, old as Oil
Palm, Fan Palm, or Windmill Palm:
I learn these descendants of a common line.
Assyrians believed the sign of eternal life
was a palm beside a stream, but what if the men
who poison rivers are always the last to drink?
Yellowed fronds mean too much rain.
It’s hard to start over after a great change,
but if they’re not cut for tables or sold as seeds,
palms can outlive a home. And I’m so tired
of Midwesterners in boat shoes
who tweet, Why would anyone live there?
from their Puritanical woods that expire
in annual gray. Because people who reside
in paradise deserve to suffer sometimes—
oh, but they’ll vacation here! It’s unnatural for you to live
where you’re supposed to unwind. Queen Palm,
Wild Date Palm, Sugar Palm or Wine:
I learn the five hands of palmistry.
My hand is a Wood Hand, its knuckles thick
and fingers long, my mind stubborn and heart
often wrong. What scares me most is the idea
of deep time, or everwhen—which is a breath
away from evergreen—though not at all the same.
The Earth remembers our sins, for time is not
a tree trunk pushing forward but the wheel
within that churns and scars,
like how when I was thirteen the junior high
librarian stopped me in the hallway and insisted,
But your family was in the basement once the tornado hit
your house, and I had to shake my head, no.
How teens drove to my neighborhood, parked
next to the Red Cross. They wanted to see roots
gutted from soil, brick chimney that smashed a car.
They brought popcorn for themselves.
And I’m not easy to move to tears, but still I cried
for the maples and oaks that fell in my backyard.
What I mean is, trees take the wind
to spare the walls. Bottle Palm, Spindle Palm—
in a garden on Mauritius there grows
the Loneliest Palm, single specimen
of a single species, most solitary of any kingdom.
It’s enclosed in a box of metal wire,
a dot on a dot on a map of the world that’s strewn
with broken palms. I learn flowers once glowed
on this last palm in the colors of white
and cream. Humans tried to intervene.
It hasn’t bloomed in years.
I ALWAYS WANTED TO SAVE THE RAINFOREST
but now I live in a rainforest
and the thing I can’t save
is me. Let’s get to that later on.
A rainforest should be studied
in fours: emergent layer, canopy,
understory, forest floor. Self-watering.
Oldest ecosystem. My doctor explains
that the brain speaks to gland hormones
which speak to the ovaries
which speak to the uterus—or something
along those lines. I try to write
it down as fast as my hand can move.
An osprey flies above me with a fish
caught in its talons. The fish still looks
me in the eye. What is it they say
about a bird of prey overhead?
I’m afraid to Google my fortune.
I know I sound paranoid, but the rainforest
is a cutthroat environment.
One must innovate
in order to survive. They tell me
nine vials of blood is less
than it seems, but if my bad
numbers are from stress, I plan
to sue Paul Ryan for damages.
Just don’t write about
climate change! The word
cervix is polarizing, and no one wants
to hear about your pelvic floor,
complex though it may be.
What is it they say about women
and our bodies? Sometimes we feel
an unconscious reflex to guard
ourselves against a world hell-
bent on taking everything away.
And sometimes when I sleep
I wake up to teeth
that no longer fit in my jaw
or hips that ache from aggressive
curling into a creature of the soil.
The forest floor is the most intricate
layer of the four. Light can’t reach
me forever. What is it they say
about sympathetic overload? I have
my students write a research paper
in which there’s a solution
for every problem. I ask them why
did I structure the assignment
this way, and they don’t know
enough about despair to answer.
I could list all those who poison
and seize, but the rainforest works
to rebalance the numbers. My God.
Do women and rainforests
have to do everything?
I don’t live in a real rainforest.
It’s just a forest that’s humid,
dark, and tropical, so dense
I could find my way inside
and you might never see me return.
“Teo, Teo, Teo,” Álvaro sings into the phone. “You’re not going to believe what I did today. Even after I tell you you’re still not going to believe it.” His voice is all keyed up, like he’s calling to tell me it’s my turn to collect on la tanda.
Chingao, I think. Now what?
“You remember Lupe? Chick with the green eyes, used to live over on Flamenco?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You think so, güey? Don’t even try that shit with me, Tadeo! You know exactly who I’m talking about. You lusted after her for literally years of your life.”
“So what about her, güey?”
“What about her? What about her? Just that she lives in Campestre. And her hijo de papi husband had a new dishwasher delivered this morning. And because he was at work and couldn’t let the delivery guy in himself, he left the key at the guardhouse Left it, as a matter of fact, in the filthy brown hand of one Álvaro Hernán Rodriguez Mendoza.”
“How come you’re just now telling me she lives in Campestre, culero?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“What is the point?”
“The poooint,” he says slowly and emphatically, like Father Juan when he’s about to crack a joke and wants to make sure the congregation’s listening, “is that right at this moment I happen to be holding a copy of your girl Lupe’s patio key that nobody but you and me even knows exists. Sometimes,” he finishes expansively, “life is too beautiful to be believed.” He takes a hard drag off his cigarette, then adds, “You’re welcome.”
“Piss off,” I say. I imagine him sitting in the guardhouse, the white shirt of his uniform all wilted in the heat, greasy smudges around his lips, and his fingertips stained Dorito-orange. Then, because these are our last few weeks together, I add, “And thanks,” before I hang up.
In point of fact, Álvaro was wrong about one thing. It was never lust with Lupe. It went deeper than that, so deep that when she married her rich lawyer and got the hell out of Tepeyac, I was glad. I felt nothing but happiness for her. You don’t envy the angels.
Later, when Álvaro brings over the key, I pat him on the head and tell him what a good boy he’s been.
“Chinga tu madre,” he grins, his silver tooth gleaming under the naked lightbulb.
“Sit down,” I tell him. “Want a cheve?” I’ve already bought the beers; they’re waiting, cold and golden, in the fridge.
“Need you ask?”
I spit through the bars of the rusty front gate into the patch of sand where the sidewalk’s broken. My chair creaks grudgingly when I stand up. One day, I think, this thing is going to fall to pieces when someone sits on it. I step onto the cement block and through the open doorway of the kitchen.
By the time the beer’s converted itself into a humming tingle that stretches its way outward from my stomach to my limbs, I’ve got it all worked out: what the key means, why fate brought it to me. Muñeca watches, her ears up, eyes shifting from me to Álvaro. I swear, sometimes it’s like she’s reading my mind. I look away.
When we’re alone again I turn off the patio light and slide down onto the cool concrete floor beside her. For an instant an image leaps into my mind: the bloody, moaning ball of fur I pulled from a tangle of barbed wire up at the goat farm. You saved her life, the vet said, once he’d finished sewing her back together.
“Muñeca,” I whisper, my eyes closed. I push my face against her neck and breathe in the close, doggy smell of her flesh. “It’s our lucky day, chica.”
For two weeks I wear the key on a red string around my neck, right over my heart. Then, on October 28th, I light a candle for Saint Jude and call Álvaro.
“Today,” I tell him.
It’s like slicing warm butter: Álvaro in his uniform, official, unassailable. The silent house and patio. We’re in and out before you can say Campestre. In Tepeyac there would have been forty witnesses, but los riquillos like their space. They want to feel like they live in the middle of a fucking forest.
When it’s over, Álvaro throws an arm around my shoulder and pats his wallet pocket. “I got the cheves tonight, güey.”
I want to say something, to thank him—for this, and for everything—but my throat’s too tight to speak.
I wait two more weeks, then, when I know she’ll be home alone, I put on my best pair of jeans and stuff my curls under a cap. Not a baseball cap, mind you, a golf cap—I found the thing for thirty pesos in el mercado, probably once belonged to a rich old gringo. It’s like a limp animal on top of my head, but at least I don’t look like me. I even put on Tío Eugenio’s reading glasses, but the ground tilts under me, so I take them back off. Not that Lupe would know me if I went as myself. Those luscious green eyes have never lit on me, even for a split second. But I figure it’s better not to take chances.
I take out the sheet I typed up at the ciber on Avenida Cinco de Mayo last night. I’ve got it on an old clipboard of Tío Eugenio’s, with a clean manila folder stuck behind to cover the mess of stray ink marks and Wite-Out.
“Buenos días, señorita,” I say in a crisp, professional voice when she comes to the door. “I’m with the Purina company, research division, and I’d like to ask you a few questions this morning, for marketing purposes. It won’t take two minutes of your time.”
She looks hesitant but pulls the door shut behind her and comes down the stone steps. She’s plumper now than when I saw her last, but it becomes her, like a rounding off of sharp corners. She moistens her lips with her tongue and I get a glimpse of her straight white teeth, so perfect it hurts me. The only thing between us now are the wrought-iron bars of the gate. Her cool green eyes rest on me, expectant.
I clear my throat. “Do you have any pets?” I read from the paper.
“One dog,” I repeat as I write. “Age?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “We’ve only had her a couple of weeks.”
I look up. “Is that right?”
“Did you buy or adopt from the perrera?”
“Neither,” she says, and I can see that it’s a story she’s told before, a story she enjoys telling. “She came to us. I came home one afternoon and here she was, in the patio. It was the strangest thing. She’s too big to fit through the bars, and I don’t see how anyone could have lowered her in over the wall. The neighbors didn’t see anyone. It was like, a miracle.”
“A miracle,” I repeat. I have to fight the temptation to reach through the bars and rub my hand along the milky skin of her jawline.
“Well, I had just been telling my husband that I wanted a dog.”
“No kidding,” I laugh.
“And it was the feast day of Saint Jude.”
“Saint Jude, huh? Hopeless cases.” I scratch the back of my head, under the cap. “Maybe the dog needed you.”
“That’s what I think, too,” she says, and the look she gives me is something I’d like to hang on a red string and keep next to my heart until I die.
“Well, I only have one more question. Are you familiar with these?” I pull a bag of dog treats from my backpack. Muñeca’s favorites.
I pass the bag to her through the bars. “Here’s a free sample for you. I think your dog—what’s her name?”
“I think Gema will love them.”
“Thanks.” She stretches her hand out, so close to me that I can make out every pale star in the constellation of freckles on her arm.
“No problem,” I say.
It’s the big bag, the 70 peso one. She sets it down at her feet.
“So… that’s it,” I tell her, slipping the clipboard into my backpack. “As a matter of fact, you’re my last survey… ever. In a couple of days I’m leaving for el norte, going to make my way in the big wide world.”
“That sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale,” she says.
“Yeah, it does.” Then I laugh. “I guess that makes me one of the pigs.”
She laughs too. “Well, you’d better build your house out of bricks then.”
“I’ll do that,” I tell her. “Good luck to you and Gema.”
I walk the long way back, along the malecón, where the water’s so clear and rippled it looks pixelated. When I get home I’ll empty my backpack and pack a couple of changes of clothes and my birth certificate, sealed in a zip-loc bag so it won’t get wet. I’ll write a letter to the great-uncle who gave me a home after my mother died, and a second one, to Álvaro—things I could never say in person. Finally, I’ll count out the money for the coyote who’s going to take me, like old Charon in reverse, to a new life. I’ll be like Lupe, who made it from Tepeyac to Campestre. She’s a border-crosser too.
“Gema,” I say aloud, savoring the feel of the syllables in my mouth. Gema. Lupe’s gem. With a sudden whoop, I snatch off the golf cap and throw it, frisbee-like, into the malecón. For as long as I can see it, it floats there, on top of the water, as if that was exactly what it was made to do.