ON THE ONE HAND, IN THE OTHER
Sometimes when you are born from an abundance of love
you, yourself, do not know the proper ways in which to love.
Your house guests are always at odds with your house ghosts.
The stairwell constantly littered with tin cans and lynched cats.
Obvious death threats, but from the guests or the ghosts
you have yet to determine. Soon the people in your life
will become too real to write about. Making poetry a suitable
space only for your strangers. The woman at the cemetery
missed by seconds, whose lipstick kisses are still fresh
on the marble stone next to your grandfather’s. The girl
met in group therapy whose dealer, named Temple, blesses every
batch of shrooms he sells. You’ve folded these phantoms into
talismans, time and time again. Still, each year presents itself
like a small tight coin. A fountain of fish you’ve mistaken for silver.
Here is the beautiful lie: there is nothing ugly about surviving.
This life will ask you more than once to make the choice
between starfish or worm. One animal growing
back what was lost, the other learning to live without.
Seconds before the storm, and all
that’s left outside are the horses
tied to their posts. When the floods
recede will we line up the dead
in neat rows, the way we did
in Ypres? The last children
are leaving their homes now.
Soon only loose fur, aglets without
laces, shores of nothing more
than the dismantled spines
of jellyfish. Riddance swelling
among the barren fruit flies, their
kingdom of peels and pits.
The girls will swat, no use. Pierce
their tongues instead. Their fathers
well toward retiring now, if only
those jack asses in office. It is
now legal to hunt boar by hot air
balloon so it should reason we too
were once abused animals
scratching at doors while
water rose over us. Haven’t
we all hid from the rainbow
giant in the sky who wants us
dead by rifle. Who’s to say
any one of us hasn’t already died,
isn’t right now covered
by white linens, puddles of Stallions
with the whole weight of ourselves
piled atop our own limbs, leaving
cracks in the metal soles. It is natural
for disasters to beget more disaster.
If you haven’t already, set fire
to something while it’s raining.
The juxtaposition will feel
like an orgasm followed by a small
god, as you watch the flames meet
each drop. Not sure, when you inhale
if you are breathing in smoke or steam.
True, it’s always difficult to have a body. But think of all
the nice things we can wear. That yeast can develop
in the mouth, is no reason to stop inching ourselves
away from death. Toward fancy tailored suits. Mints
on the pillow. No need to be anything but, the comedian
at the fashion show, if you can’t say anything nice, say
“I’m not convinced you exist. But there’s a lovely
fragrance in the air.” So what you can’t give blood
because of mad cow, you don’t even have it. Just exposed
once. The mad came close, you took a tennis racket
to its face. Country-club-finest. How about a real world
example of pain that doesn’t belong to you? How about
the depth of a lake unmoved by the presence of stones? Ample
evidence suggests that nothing sans dark can do
good. Gandhi would sleep naked side by side his niece.
A test of temptation. He never was, tempted.
You wonder about the girl. Was she able to sleep any
of those nights? All your bruises happen without you noticing.
If your spouse kills you, do the caretakers know better
than to bury you in your wedding ring? This doesn’t apply
to your bruises specifically, but you feel it should still be asked.
Back in the body, they are cleaning the church bells.
How else to sound the angels, how else to prepare fear
for a feast? Chiffon on every guest, iced over every cake.
More than once, your throat has become a funhouse
tunnel where the ground stays still but the walls spin
and spin. This too will pass. You wonder about the girl.
Never mind the girl. She doesn’t belong to you.
I’ve crawled in the deep
grooves of man’s thumbprint –
My crescent roll smile peaking
up over their canyon begging
to be devoured. Be nice
Mama said, be welcoming –
His hand up my skirt,
he wore me
like a secret trophy
behind the glass case
of his pupils. I scrape
my remains into a velvet abyss
of another plane to exist,
to hide from how he grabbed me
too, how men imprint on all of us
invisible ink –
A finger here, a thumb between
our lips, whole hands
over our whole face. Pull out
the black light and watch
our bodies glow. We are the sea
of fireflies you ignore by day
but when we float in the heavy night air
you grab your mason jar, scoop up our light,
close the lid, and screw it on tight.
ON BEING EMPTY
I am a cicada husk clinging
crisp & dry & stuck
in his bed,
his heaving chest
on my back –
A silhouette of a body
with meat inside. My pumping
pulse must find a new skin to reside
in. Between finger and thumb
I am weightless. I am the lack
of friction found in still legs,
void of desire I crumble
in his palm, my chirp in the night
chorus is over,
the song of my limbs
a cadence for the coming light –
I am the moment you miss
when you blink. I am silent.
I watch him escape.
No can’t you hear
I can hear your brothers in the hall
tennis shoes on linoleum
your tongue a pillow
Suffocating me now
No I was waiting the water
stain on your ceiling is a
mushroom cloud I dive in to
and you’re out of me and pulling my straps
up after you tell me
I can go now
bare feet on linoleum
Laughter is close, even if it’s
just the schadenfreude
of middle-school girls,
their juicy, eye-rolling, malicious
down the street (like a tiny pink slug
in a pigeon’s beak), hotting up
the air—why pretend
you can’t hear? Laughter,
the only eternity
that’s real. Laughter
and its toothy
lift off, even
when toxic. “Save me”
is what’s written
on the faces of so many
“save me” & “fuck you.”
So the ancient Tibetan masters
teach, focused as they are
both by the attar of sage burning
and the wailing of toddlers
by a septic tank—
a thousand years dead,
but still dreaming
they’re fast asleep
in their boyhood beds.
~for Will Brown
because you were beautiful and black with lips like pin cushions
and just as soft because you were made to be pierced
to be torn apart to be a mooring for desire and how else
could I touch you could I unwrap your figure pull the meat
from parchment how else could I devour
christ how could I help but love and want you
want you begging at my feet want you bound splayed for pleasure
who wouldn’t want to pleasure you and if not pleasure
then provoke and if not provoke then to watch you writhe
watch you dance at the stake my wanton messiah my sweet
and tender love how could I look on the curve of your neck
the muscles’ ripple the veins’ throb beneath the skin
without itching for the noose and because I wanted
to be near you and the world demanded I give in return
and because I couldn’t give you joy and it’d hurt too much to give you peace
and because all I had for you was a wound a love mark dark
as the valleys of the moon and because who wouldn’t give anything
to be near you to watch the sweat gather and glisten like diamonds
to study the pink of your gums as you cry out for mercy
to watch you swell and open to bathe in the heat radiating from your bones
like the halo of a long suffering saint how could I not breathe
you in your flesh fast becoming incense becoming a thick holy smoke
how could I not pass across your form almost daring
to lean down to kiss
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
TWO POEMS by Kerrin McCadden
LAUGHTER IS CLOSE by David Rivard
THREE POEMS by Alyssa Beckitt
THREE POEMS by Jessica Hincapie
THINGS THAT FOLD by Karisma Price
SUMMONS by Jess Smith
TO MY CHILD BEFORE SHE ARRIVES by Brian Simoneau
LAMENT FOR SOME OTHER SAIGON by Sarah Audsley
AS THE FOG ROLLS IN, NIGHT FINDS ITS FOOTING by Luther Hughes
Contributing Editor Vievee Francis talks with the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“IN FOREST PRIMEVAL, winner of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Vievee Francis summons a wilderness — equal parts the wilderness of America and the wilderness of the interior — that takes us off center. I know and love that particular North Carolina wild that Vievee has described, having lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains myself for a stint, too. Vievee and I have both since left those mountains, and during our conversation, which took place during her weeklong residency at Claremont Graduate University, we laughed about living in a place where there might be snakes on the porch or stinkbugs nestled in the curtains. That is, a place where that wild thing in the world and in the self feels nakedly present and abundant; one has to face it. And it is so, in this book: a segue from Vievee’s vivid persona poems, those extraordinary masks, into an articulation of her own personhood — a speaking of the black female body, this marvelous, terrified, joyful assertion of her name in a broken country that would otherwise un-speak it.”
Read at LARB.
Miss Iraq, the first crowned
in forty years of foreign meddling,
means it when she wishes for world peace—
her cousins’ deaths
both tallied by sectarian violence in her
war-quilted, war-torn nation.
She is aware
the pageantry— pinup smiles and stiff,
cupped hands (their rotational gesture)
—will not beckon peace. Salvation
may have functioned
such ways in old, dog-eared eras. There’s evidence:
all our parched frescos or pocked statues
depicting one or another stoic god,
its crimped hand raised,
signaling for peace like a captain calling a play.
Run peace, they might have said,
or run samsara or run godhead
if peace is too transparent a trick
name for an offensive set. In Saddam City,
today, broken men train to play
the beautiful game, to execute levity
with their feet. Under Hussein’s boot,
losses on the pitch often translated
into torture—forty degrees Celsius
sessions training to kick molded concrete
futbols or hours
spent begging deliverance from within
an iron maiden’s spiked void. Those years
we call “the dark era”—when Saddam’s son,
Mr. Uday, was the face
of Iraq’s Olympic committee,
before he would become the ace of hearts
in the most-wanted card decks
coalition troops carried in their fatigues.
“Clearly recognisable” —how the Guardian
would describe Uday
Hussein in U.S.-released glamour shots—
“despite having a thick beard
and a wound that had destroyed
part of his nose and upper lip.”
On this side
of that suffering, five years since
Iraqi Freedom’s end,
Ms. Qasim will wear the red,
green and black sash,
and the U-23 team will play
for Olympic glory, despite the death
threats that may bloom into dying.
Authority’s lens abhors
beauty—its saturation in this world,
its disregard for the vacuums
men slaughter each other to create.
THE ECONOMY OF SWALLOWED KNIVES
I warn an auditorium full of children,
Do not try this at home. Then I begin
ingesting skewers. Unintentionally,
I enlist their youthful volition
into the war against waiting to grow up.
On the drive home, they pelt their parents
with salvos of Can I and Please, while fathers
being fathers, retort, When you’re grown,
paying your own bills for your own roof,
you’ll be free to live as foolhardily as your heart
desires. There: the moment of escalation—
suddenly their every waking hour becomes
a struggle to buy back their right to self-
destruction. Lemonade stands and lawn
mowing. Frozen meat pucks flipped
under sallowed arches, endless refolding
of denim. The children sprout acne and fuzz
as their piggy banks pudge. Their minds
have long since forgotten the death-defying
blade sleight that followed my disclaimer
They are teenagers. Everywhere
something else shouts This could kill you,
and, achingly, they answer Yes. They can
taste it: tattoos, cigarettes and sex—
any form of flirting with mortality.
Beneath youth’s aegis, they believe
themselves mighty, no matter how poor,
but soon enough they are adults renting
efficiencies and driving jalopies—stretching
dimes for the privilege of being grown.
See how this economy needed no help
in tailoring their malaise. What next?
Heat assignments for the middle-class
scramble to obfuscate death.
Then kids of their own. Then the rest.
I want to be a boy, you tell the man
who analyzes you. Free of desire.
He nods, light flashing
off his thin gold spectacles.
No one called the singing boys
castrati to their face. So evirato,
meaning one unmanned,
musico: one making music.
Boys aren’t free
of desire, of course—
Though not by ordinary means—
fingers pressing keyboard, lips
against a cold silver mouthpiece.
No, the singer’s body turned
to supple balsam, stretched
over the years until it forms
that frame beloved by engineers—
strength, endurance, range—
You uncross your legs, recross:
left over right. Beneath you
the vintage leather cushion sinks.
It’s the idea that they aren’t
until those clear, adolescent ribs
ascend like arches in a nave, not merely
the idea of being holy, no—
* * *
the blood and the meat. Only then
is the sacrifice complete.
Out the window a crane lifts;
the man says, waving—
all this construction.
It seems appropriate, you say.
Only then will the whole frame sing.
Become a building large enough
to contain the singer’s longing—
all his longing, all our own—
But no, what you told him
what you want
is to feel everything, desire
as the scarlet tape beneath
the plastic, what you want is
not the package unwrapped,
solid in your hands, but
pleasure in the pulling, gently
ripping off the plastic.
enough to let us watch him
grow transparent: liquid, dim
in the dusk as a cool glass bowl.
And who are we to question, we
who bend our ears to listen?
* * *
Violare, you tell the man
who analyzes you,
is a beautiful word
despite its meaning.
Unlike victim, unlike vulnerable.
Castration was never, strictly speaking, desirable. Or legal. But beauty made the mutilation worthwhile, vital even, since God couldn’t exactly sing to Himself. Money made it prudent. So castrati trained to sing like angels performed His masses, played the parts of both men and women—lovers, heroes, villains—in the candelabraed courts of kings and queens. Got rich like rock stars. Were beloved.
I fell in love with the castrato known only as “the boy” (“Il Ragazzo”) at first, then as Farinelli, when I fell in love with the music of his friend” Domenico Scarlatti. A late sonata, I remember, recorded on piano: needle-like precision, needle-brilliant colors in the hoop. What I can tell you is it jumped. He jumped. Off the tracks into unrelenting dirt, showing us a glimpse of his mind, that private dark plummet of the mind we hide from
ourselves, from others, every day. Then up again: into perfect sun, the remorseless summer green of trees.
* * *
You’ve been abused, he says slowly,
taking care to look into your eyes.
Mind (your mind)
jumps, a slapped animal. Blink,
I hate that word,
I don’t want to think of myself
as a victim. A tight smile.
* * *
Snap as the bridge
slips from its perfect,
upright posture, tumbling
through the empty
wooden torso, little dowel
whose only duty is
to echo (are we doomed
to echo?) every wave that
slaps it through your hungry violin—
one thing making
another sing, because there is
no music without violence,
no sound without a chain.
And when the tumbling stops?
In your hands a newly
An endless loop, each slim sonata—split in half, a repeat at the double bar. You return to the beginning, but not näively, there’s no return without an echo of the first time. Older, sweeter sometimes, a darkening wooden cask.
* * *
[ Farinelli, born Carlo Broschi, a child in Naples,
city of cathedrals, opera, castrati ]
No one speaks the words. Silent at the table,
four of us now, a new boy clearing dishes,
first the plates—the ones Father bought in London—
then the knives and forks. The big clock strikes ten,
still Mother doesn’t say, Carlo, time for bed.
Riccardo at the head of the table—
barely a week since Father passed away—
sitting high and black as a graveyard gate,
Sofie twisting day-old daisies in her lap.
The estate, Riccardo says. Decisions.
Mother creasing her black lace handkerchief.
A pair of bankers, he begins slowly,
Brothers. They have heard of Carlo’s talents.
The large fruit bowl remains on the table,
Father’s favorite—a pair of ladies dancing,
fingers hidden in their fluttering sleeves—
two oranges huddled inside it, mute.
They believe his debut would be brilliant.
At the origin of Narrative,
Roland Barthes writes in S/Z,
Sometimes you hear the frozen river split
and yet you step onto the ice—I ask,
When can it be done, this thing? Can it be soon?
Mother staring deep into her handkerchief,
as if there is an answer there, a stitch
she can unravel with the needle’s tip.
No one makes us plunge into the river:
we walk because there is no standing still.
Then Riccardo, O you whom I adore,
how you turned to me and, smiling, said:
Little brother, let it be as you wish.
I will call on the brothers Farinello.
* * *
Desire in the text
beneath the text—
Barthes writes about a tale by Balzac,
a castrato singer parading
as a woman, baffling
as the object of desire.
(You can only tell
this tale through indirection.)
Rain. Rain. A few drops cling to the window,
drop without a sound to the sill. Wet wind
blowing in: it barely touches me. Please,
let no one touch me. Just this bed, this bandage
wrapped around my shattered mast like a sail,
the nightshirt I refuse to let them change.
Mother’s footsteps in the hall. Then her head
bent over like the Virgin. Prayers. A candle.
We’re sailing, I’m sure of it—I’m seasick,
gagging again and again into a basin—
a hand wipes my head with a cold wet towel.
* * *
To produce narrative, however,
desire must vary, must enter into a system
of equivalents and metonymies. . .
I am winding through a stonewalled garden.
Someone mowed the grass. The clover’s headless,
dew soaks my feet, my night shirt is too thin—
If only I can find the door I’ll find him
sitting on the bench he loved, composing,
whole again: Father in the shade of a tree.
A ritornello, son. You will sing it soon.
He lifts up the manuscript, freshly inked—
a simple tune, andante. Just a scale
branching out like a tree designed to branch,
until it doesn’t, snapped without a reason.
Silence in the cooling air. Now it’s dusk.
Father looking up at me from shadows:
Son, what are you holding in your fist?
You’re used to thinking of yourself
as strong. Sit-ups, pull-ups, runs—
discipline your muscles, rid
your body of itself.
In the mirror everything looks the same.
One lock of hair, still damp, slides down my head.
Push it back. We must be perfect, he and I,
perfectly natural, calm, and gracious.
I move my lips: he smiles back instantly,
as if he’s worried I will find him out,
crying and clinging to the post of his bed.
Everything looks the same, I whisper to him.
My voice. Nothing will happen to my voice.
He is silent. In the glassy depths of his eyes
a flash—something silver twitching—a fish?
Tiny, iridescent. Fire in the pool.
* * *
You have always wanted
to be strong—
not one who needs.
Twilight: Mother spoons honey in my tea.
Alone in my room, one window open.
You’re just a boy, she says.
Though we both know
that’s the point—this hole we’ll never speak of,
my softness like a fruit. When all the other
glass bells smash, only I will stay unbroken.
A boy. Always a boy. Il Ragazzo.
Vitula. Viol. Violino.
Violare. Violentus. Violentia.
Origin and History of Violence, reads the header.
You’ve visited this page 3 times.
* * *
Last night you dreamed again
about your father—
You had him by the wrists:
above your head, the way you’d catch
a snake, one hand beneath his
fighting hard to not get bitten (you’ve worked so hard to not get bitten), other hand wrestling with the slick, elusive tail— Violins: Violence No shared root for these words,but isn’t it interesting that the Japanese counter (cho) for violins includes scissors, oargun and rickshaw? As in, give me a cho of violins. And some guns.
* * *Vitulare—to sing or rejoice—is related to
vitula, deity of victory and thanksgiving and Roman festivals, giving us the root for
both fiddle and violin. Vitula (also calf), because calf guts were used for violin strings.Morning: he has left the bed. Your chest feels likebatting in a pillow, no upholstery,no fringe. Behind the wall,water splashes the bathtub tiles,
your husband’s whistling— Mahler-something, each spacebetween his cheerfully constructednotes absolute. Yes,your father hurt you. Loved,in fact, to hurt youso all the hurt could flee the burningforests in his body, slither out toenter yours, renewed—he could see for a moment thenshapes he couldn’t bear to watch alone,a man bending down in the dark toblow out a crown of birthday candlesThen everything would be sweet again.You could eat the cake because sweet is what your body craved.What you couldn’t hold, you didn’t.
* * *Violare sounds a lot like vitulare, but it means to violate, to wrong. In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includesviolations of pre-existing duty, that loss includes claims for liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.Standing in the shower, you feel a lumpon your scalp, behind the ear.How did it get there? Can’t remember, but that feeling—something swollen, buriedbeneath your dripping hair—is familiar. Almost comforting.Like a picture that you’ve seena thousand times on a billboard appearing on your phone screen—crisp, so crisp. You remember little things: his white Hanes undershirt, fingers small and meticulous, working the potato peeler— swivel of those long, jack-o’-lantern-orange strips
* * *he scraped from the carrot falling, julienned, on the open paper.
How they soaked the newsprint.Shit-like offspring—that was his favorite curse for you in Korean.It had a satisfying ring:dactyl plus a trochee; five hard consonants.Some days it was dog offspring. When he was feeling, say,less creative, just bad offspring. Done trying whatever names he had for you, he’d pick up the bleeding newspaper, dump the peels into the trashcan— tap tap against the molded plastic. Flick the last few strips with his pearly nail tip.
* * *Quote from Marcus Aurelius, Book II of the Meditations:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I will deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like thisbecause they can’t tell good from evil.”Tell yourself what curesis the power of discrimination: spotting colors in the dark, singing in the shower.If you know you were wronged, who was wrong,well, shouldn’t you be okay? Sound from a violin (what we call music) is the product of a chain of fine aggressions and reactions: draw the bow slung with stiff white horsehair (only horses that have lived in cold weather countries) across four strings (sheep-gut core wound in silver or aluminum), start a tremor in the bridge carved from unbleached maple beneath the strings, sending ripples to the soundpost (spruce) lodged upright inside the belly—
* * *You feel fat and sad. Is this because of him, what he did to you (to you)? Is that the right preposition? You want to smash something. Thumbnail digging into nail bed, your hands slack on the wheel. What have you smashed, ever?Standing over you: he. The hand (or is it fist?)slamming the side of (whyare you recalling this?) the head. Yours.Face turned. There is no clarity,I’m done with you! no single instant—
* * *only reel, only the girl going down, getting up, go-ing down: endless loop, bad audio.A few seconds. —Make the soundpost ring. That’s what it’s built for: flood on flood of quick vibrations. Make it tremble, make it echo every note you play, transmit like a good little messenger every wave to the silent forests of the body, out again through two holes in the belly’s surface, called f-holes. As in the italic letter f, since only holes release music from an instrument. As in forte, fine, fuck.
* * *Do you remember how many times he did that to you? Through you. There was a thin blue tarp. Or you wished it—between (protecting, screening, shielding) him and you. He against, on top of (only a minute, only a few times, he probably didn’t mean it) you. Wished for something more than air.Don’t you feel mad at him? (You remember
feeling plastic.)There was no penetration there wasa tarp, thank God, it was you holding upa sky made of plastic.
* * *You want to smash something. Instead, you sing along to the radio— On the long way down,
Oh oh oh, oh oh oh— feel the seizing in your gut, how it tightens then lets go. Stop for the school bus flashing red. Tick-tock, tick-tock.Marcus continues: “But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognizedthat the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but thesame mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.” (Emphasis added)
* * *O beauty of the bathroom, patience of the door that shields her from the brittle house of him. O mirror in the cabinet never filled with medicine, bulbs in the fixture always electric. O head a ball of playdough abandoned on the blacktop in the pouring summer rain, water in the holes dug by a pencil. O trace for which she searches half in horror, half in vain, of her father’s latest handprint—proof of what the fire did, what beams of the cathedral look like burned. O camera, are you getting this? Take the roof off this house, spot the hallway to the narrow master bathroom where he sits. Show us the newspaper: pages falling open on his knees with a sound like a fan clicking shut or clicking open, sooty wings of an angel neither good nor evil, just a messenger. O beauty of believing in the sweet independence of things: coldness of the washcloth lifted to her head, water in the sink, pacing of her mother in the kitchen. O sanity in thinking even she (little weakling thing) could at this moment, if she chose to, simply hate him. I won my appeal.
When I read reversed,
I jumped up in my empty office, yelling “Suck it, Judge ________!”
I rejoiced and sang, I’d never felt so victorious.
* * *“No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.” O Marcus.
My English teacher said yesterday there’s no gift that doesn’t come with chains. No one was listening because she’s always spouting stupid crap but she, right at that exact second, started giving me her sharp-eye and I wrote it down and she smiled this tight way that prickled me. I think she knows who my father is, how he’s exactly the third most powerful man in Washington, not according to anyone but according to the Constitution.
Now I type what she said into the phone, curious to see who said it before her, because maybe that will be worth knowing. “Gifts with” I type, which fills in to “gifts with whips” and there’s S&M and porn and if only I could text to someone who’d laugh. I want someone listed under “favorite,” someone a favorite for real.
The water’s off and steam fogs half the mirror so I don’t see my face, which is like victory because here’s the reason my bathroom’s the best room: it’s the Snapchat of the house, like, go here and poof, vaporize.
Obviously I get my teacher meant “metaphorical” chains so I type those words into Google. My dad who pays for it all meaning everything– bills, credit cards, groceries, birthday gifts–meaning he gets to escape living here with me—that man, he hates Siri, so even she’s not hanging around on the phone he bought me for my last birthday. What comes up for “metaphorical chains” is a gob of college papers for sale that sound extraordinarily stupid and boring and what, like are little kids somewhere going, “When I grow up, I wanna write papers that lazy college drunks buy for fifty bucks.”
I never find what I want on this stupid phone.
The mirror’s all the way fogged up now, top to bottom, and a wet haze bulks the air, and the counter’s slick with condensation. More science happening here than any class. I trace my one finger on the misty-white mirror glass, I write letters like I’m a kid, I print: HELP ME. I look hard enough and spot the identical ghost words already up there in the mirror, leftovers from before, a message right where my face should be.
In her early 20s, she left the Midwest for Los Angeles, thereby startling her parents, who’d assumed that once her schooling was over she’d settle into her adult life as a schoolteacher in Indiana, find a husband, and raise some children.
But her time at the University of Michigan had broadened her sense of life’s potential. She’d met people from all over the country. Her roommate, for one, hailed from exotic Long Island. Francie had dark hair and a strong accent. She came to college knowing everything—Samantha realized on the spot—she herself wanted to know. How do you look good in tight jeans? How do you wear dark lipstick? How do you talk to guys in bars and not seem shy? How do you drink but not get drunk?
Francie made Samantha a pet project without making her a pet. Lazing on her bed before they went out, she’d offer advice: tight jeans, yes—especially with Samantha’s slender figure—but stand up straight and wear a heel. Samantha was too fair for dark lipstick, but creamy apricots on her eyelids and cheeks would bring out what Francie called her “corn coloring.” Blonde hair, milky skin, small pink lips. Later, while holding gin and tonics, there was more to discuss. The trick with drinking was to sip slowly but always have the straw near your lips so you appeared to be drinking more. The trick with men was for them to see the straw near your lips. “Suggestive,” Francie said, “without being crude.”
Francie had lots of tricks for persuading men, but here’s where Sam stalled, grew shy. She settled for a farm boy from northern Michigan, and while Lester was sweet, he was also shy and overly deferential. Samantha felt they were little more than companions given that their main activities were studying and watching movies. Sex was tepid and slow to happen and she thought how people made such fuss over nothing. But Francie, who remained her roommate all four years, had an array of men who came into her bedroom and Samantha could hear them together, dark and rugged and filled with sweat, which was nothing she could fully imagine.
Francie’s breakups were also tumultuous affairs. Sam would return to their apartment to find Francie prone on the living room couch, staring at the ceiling with red puffy eyes. Cyrus Bailey had made out with Sarah Park at the homecoming tailgate. George Atkinson had forgotten her birthday and, when told he had, had shrugged and suggested he buy her a make-up beer. Sam would bring Francie popsicles or ice-cream bars as she recounted her woes—something sweet and cool to temper all that heat.
Lester proposed right before graduation. He and Sam were on the couch, a bowl of popcorn between them. She was highlighting important passages in her child psychology textbook when Lester got up only to drop to one knee, his brow sweating as he held out the open ring box. She was so surprised she kicked out her leg, knocking the bowl of popcorn off the couch, where it landed a flutter of salted kernels all over the rug.
“Lester!” He still held out the ring beseechingly, but now surrounded by popcorn, he’d turned a mottled red. “Lester!” She began laughing, unable to stop, and pointed at the popcorn.
“Will you marry me?” His knee had begun to tremble.
“Less, I don’t think this is right for us. We’re so young, and we have our entire lives ahead—”
“OK.” He stood, shutting the ring box with a velvet-lined thump, shoving it in his pocket. Walking backwards, he crushed popcorn kernels with his shoes. “Alright.”
Hearing about this, Francie laughed until she cried. “Oh, thank God! Sam, dear heart, I’ve always said that boy is all wrong for you.” She started giggling afresh. “I love that you spilled the popcorn.”
Samantha had mainly felt shame: to have been so long with someone she didn’t love.
Graduation came. Francie decided to move to Los Angeles to try her hand at screenwriting. Samantha moved back home. She was still in shock from her breakup, and returning from whence she came was her parents’ hope anyway, so nothing felt out of place.
Her hometown in southern Indiana had a population of 10,000. She got a job at her old elementary school, moving into a small apartment a few miles from her parents. Every Sunday night she had dinner with them and they gave her good-hearted grief about breaking up with Lester (she never told anyone but Francie about the proposal) and said it was time she found herself a robust Indiana farmer.
Teaching 6th graders is only so preoccupying when you feel trapped in your own life. The cornfields—which she’d always thought of as luxuriating in the wind, rippling in raw, pleasurable ways—now seemed tedious.
She wrote to Francie, saying she was bored. Francie sent her a postcard of the Hollywood sign, white in muted green hills: “Come out here! There are pink buildings and movie stars and lots and lots of ocean!”
An October afternoon Sam emerged from school, walking across the parking lot. Wind cast maple leaves along the asphalt, twisting them into small, fitful tornadoes. Her life would contain only churlish 11-year olds, dead leaves, leaden skies, and unrelenting cornfields. But there was time yet for something fresh. She was just 23. That night she called Francie, asking her if she wanted a roommate.
Francie was delighted. Sam’s parents were horrified. “L.A.?” they asked as if she’d announced a new life of hedonism and crime.
“Yes,” she said at the dinner table. Heavily vexed, they passed the bread basket.
Her certainty her decision was correct collapsed almost as fast as it had erected itself. She watched patches of green and brown land grow fainter and fainter. There went her life, which she’d abandoned for no good reason.
The drive from LAX: the neon, the bright store fronts, the pollution-suffused night sky. Francie was driving them to Santa Monica, where she lived. Where Sam would live now, too.
Francie announced that she’d found a job as a marketing assistant at company in Venice, and that she’d finagled Sam a position. “How’d you manage that?” Sam asked. By then, they were in the tiny apartment, a celebratory bottle of wine before them on the coffee table. Marketing. She’d been thinking of getting a job as a teacher, of course.
“I’m sleeping with the boss.” Francie clinked her glass with Sam’s. “Cheers.”
The sky was hot blue, and the streets had palms. Some neighborhoods were spacious, composed: mansions pale cream and white. Smog hung like dirty wool in the sky. On certain blocks the store windows had iron bars over them. On others, stores with two-story high windows shimmered as they displayed crocodile purses and fabulous dresses, sequins and silk. There were gangs; there was Rodeo Drive.
They worked a little ways from the ocean—close to the Santa Monica Pier, with its Ferris wheel and seedy carnival vibe—in an industrial office all shades of steel and slate. She sat in a cubicle, dreaming up marketing schemes. After work, they went as an office to dimly lit places with polished floors and sipped drinks mixed with egg whites and basil and peach. People displayed a glamour borne of correct clothes and constant nonchalance. If Samantha hadn’t had Francie to act as cultural ambassador, she might have turned around and gone right back to Indiana.
One day a few months in, Francie said, “We don’t even have a Lester for you.” She was still thickly involved in her affair—the boss, it turned out, was married—and unfazed by its intimations of despair. “It’s not like Joe is really married,” had been her explanation. “He’s on the cusp of getting a divorce. And he’s only 33.”
There is a wife, Samantha wanted to say. She exists. And why be part of something that could crush another? But during the week, Joe was professional. And on weekends, he’d come over and look at Francie with such happy eager eyes. Sometimes they’d head to the Santa Monica farmers’ market and return with bags of carrots, baskets of cherry tomatoes, small bundles of dill and thyme. Or, they’d sit listening to music, Francie’s head against Joe’s shoulder. Perhaps, Sam thought, there was love between them. And maybe that justified it. Of course, Francie knew when he’d arrive—he claimed he was playing golf these weekend mornings—but never how long he’d stay. It was just temporary, she told Sam—just until Joe got things sorted out.
Perhaps having to let his life—and its dicey parameters—dictate hers was wearing on her. It might explain her newly fierce need to find Sam a boyfriend.
“Let’s ask out Chris,” Francie said. “For you.”
“I’m not ready,” Sam said.
Francie threw a pillow at her. “Enough. Lester was the biggest nobody ever. I’ll make sure Chris is sitting next to you when we get drinks on Friday.”
In Samantha’s defense: most of her energy had been spent acclimating to this sprawled metropolis frenzied with freeways. Once, trying to get across the city to a restaurant in Los Feliz, she missed her exit, and when she finally did pull off, ending up in some shady section of downtown, near Union Station, where yellow billboards offered the services of bonds bailsmen, she shook with frustration. She wanted to be where a Main Street was at the center of things, where roads only fattened to two lanes. Where cornfields—forget tedium—signified the ease of open space. Where the sky was not hazy with dirt.
That which also took getting used to: urbanity and beauty. One Sunday afternoon Francie took Samantha the Getty, and she decided that if the universe had conceived of itself in miniature it would’ve orchestrated itself thus: high on a hill, with tangles of fuchsia bougainvillea surrounding white marble. Gardens with lily ponds, slim green disks and liquid white blossoms.
If she had a lot to contend with, it was for her own betterment, and she had Francie to thank for that. So when Friday came, she sat near Chris, smiling and letting her eyes linger on his. Even though he came from foggy San Francisco, he had a beach bum’s tawny coloring—dark blonde hair, gold skin. He wore tortoise-shell glasses and seemed, for all he talked about being a double major at Berkeley in political science and math—quiet. She told him about studying child psychology, her childhood in Indiana, and felt he perceived her shyness not as naivety, but as a slow approach to knowing another. Oh, she liked him! What luck that Francie, in her schemings, had decided upon a delightful man.
Francie, pretending to flirt with an accountant, glanced over—no knowingness, no winks. She’d not botch it by being obvious. Moreover, all-around neutrality was required: Joe’s wife, who rarely showed up these Friday evenings, was tonight exercising her right to be beautiful and charming by her husband’s side. Silver chopsticks pinning back her hair glinted as she leaned forward to listen to a VP regaling her with some raucous story. She struck Samantha as regal. Joe didn’t display eager affection toward her as he did Francie, but his arm around her was proprietary: she was his. Or they were each other’s.
The accountant started twirling his hands as if mimicking a helicopter and Francie clapped a hand over her mouth, giggling. The VP lifted his beer in toast, Joe and his wife clinking glasses with him. Did she wonder at her husband’s continual absences? Joe ignored Francie, who ignored him in return. And Sam displayed a boldness not her own but appropriated on orders from her college roommate. Around them, shining glasses, flushed cheeks, erupting laughter: a moment suffused with charm and deceit. Perhaps this, then, was the origin of sophistication: you learned to be good at being false.
As the evening waned, Chris asked Sam if she’d like to get drinks at some point, and she said she’d love to. Already she realized longing was rising diffuse and heady in her.
After waving goodnight to the crowd outside the bar, she and Francie walked back to Francie’s car. “You were right,” Samantha said as they passed a food truck scenting the air with the sweetness of frying peppers. “About Chris. I like him, Francie. We’re going to go get drinks next week.”
“That’s great.” But she walked hunched. They turned the corner for the parking garage, taking the elevator up.
“You’re upset his wife was there?”
“His wife is pregnant, three months along.” The elevator doors opened, and they walked to the car, Sam waiting for the outburst sure to come.
As Francie fed a ticket into a yellow machine, she said, “she ordered a glass of wine, but didn’t touch it. Very savvy of her, calling less attention to herself than if she’d not ordered a drink. He told me after work they’re going to announce it soon and felt I had a right to know.”
“That’s bullshit. Didn’t you have a right to know three months ago?”
“I have no rights. I’m just the young thing he’s having an affair with.”
Sam was sure, as they pulled into their apartment complex and went upstairs, that Francie would cry. But she just went to her room, Sam following and lingering in her doorframe.
“Let me go get some ice cream.”
Francie shook her head. “He betrayed her, now he’s betrayed me. I was wrong to get involved with him. With so much wrongness?” She shrugged, hanging her coat in her closet. She came to Samantha, running her hand down her arm as if Samantha were the one needing comfort, then closed her door.
Samantha and Chris went to the Hollywood Bowl to see a concert and be among thousands. Marvelous to be in such a crowd. And afterwards, she’d gone to his place. Marvelous, then, it was just them.
“Details!” Francie demanded later that evening. It was midnight and Francie lounged on the couch in a pink bathrobe, her toenails gleaming a fresh crimson. She did not appear to have been crying. For over a week now, Samantha had been waiting for that fitful burst of catharsis that would let her friend begin fresh.
Sam felt the nervousness that comes from watching someone close be inscrutable. Plus, to proclaim happiness in front of someone so bruised was bad form. Chris and she had sat on his couch holding tumblers of gin and tonics neither of them drank. Dim lamplight made the glasses shine, the tonic fizzing and bright, the lime wedges at the rim brightly acidic. Beyond the lamplight, Chris’ apartment dissolved into dark, a thick languor, and finally he put down his drink and put out his hand. She leaned in, his cologne smelling of forests. A slow kiss, which was like melting. Not wanting to trivialize it, she answered, “It was the best.”
“Bah.” Francie pretended to wave her away. “You and your circumspection. It’s all on your face, anyway.”
“We’re going to see each other again after I get back.” Sam’s father’s birthday was the following week, and he’d requested his daughter come home for a few days.
“Off to the land of milk and honey,” Francie said. “You shouldn’t leave me alone to my own devices.”
Sam sat next to her on the couch, lay her head against her friend’s shoulder. “In no time,” she said, “you’ll be out there again breaking hearts.”
In the airport, she ran into her parents’ hugs. But on the drive home the landscape seemed blurred. Seeing the muted blue sky marbled with clouds made her consider the dirty cerulean shimmer of LA at noon. Returning to her family’s elm-lined street, the old gray branches towering above rooftops, intricately sagging arms just budded with green, she thought of the jasmine in her new neighborhood, waxy dark bushes thick with white flowers that opened at night, perfuming the streets.
Her parents ushered her into the kitchen, and they shared molasses cookies her mother had made that morning. They brimmed with questions, which she answered carefully. Verboten to discuss Venice as a pastel circus steeped in patchouli and grit, sometimes even crime. She’d seen along the backs of buildings seedy, huddled men in thin windbreakers, which she later asked her colleagues about. Drug deals, they told her, glad to be matter-of-fact to her scandalized. She also diminished the existence of pretensions: art galleries hanging splattered canvases, overpriced eateries dousing everything with truffle oil. The same went with her job: she liked working on projects, she told them—being among people her own age or older was a pleasure. She didn’t speak of Joe because she wasn’t sure she could keep judgment out of her voice. All these semi-narrations, these just-about truths: lately, she’d been thinking of this kind of obfuscation as adult, the correct means of handling the world.
But given that her new life bewildered them, they were looking for more than a superficial understanding of it. They even took what was for them a bold step: gentle criticism. Her father broke his cookie into careful bits, already regretful over what he was about to say: they were concerned she’d forsaken teaching.
Oh, no, she didn’t think she had; she was just exploring something new. “I have time,” she told them, “to figure it out.” Her mother pursed her lips.
“I’ve just been on a wonderful date.” Samantha realized she was trying to reassure them. People their age didn’t flit about the country, they didn’t test out careers, they didn’t break up with their college sweethearts. She told them about Chris’ double major at Berkeley, his good looks, his quiet charm, and less cookies got crumbled.
The week passed pleasantly. She went shopping with her mother, saying hello to everyone they met at the grocery store, nodding while they exclaimed, “California!” She helped her mother prepare her father’s enormous birthday meal—turnips and roasted squash, a baked ham—and to finish a three-tired chocolate cake with white icing. She also fantasized about the things she and Chris would do together once she returned. He’d mentioned being a soccer fan and she thought they could go to a Galaxy game together. She wanted to suggest a sushi place off LaBrea that was delicious and cheap. She imagined if that kiss had gone further and then further still, and something brewed in her, steeping like tea, turning her warm and dark. Also, she worried about Francie, who’d been quiet over email, not keeping up with her usual bright patter.
When Francie picked her up, this time—while not jolted by cityscape, not shocked by back-lit palm fronds and midnight traffic—she still felt home’s pull. The delicate Indiana spring, the dissolving pockets of snow, the front-yard daffodils just emerging made Los Angeles a phantom of itself. Change was not some clean sweep. Even when you wanted it, it left you muddled.
“Time with the old folks was wholesome and good?” Francie asked.
“It was.” Sam sighed, watching traffic hurtle past in the gray dark, finding some elation in the speed and clamor. “We ate molasses cookies. How was your week?”
“Downtime was good?”
“Everything is fine. I’ve gotten my mind off Joe, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“There’s no need to be defensive,” Sam said. “I’m just concerned.”
Samantha, tired and not wanting to push Francie’s bad mood any further, pretended to doze the rest of the way.
The week began as a mildly jet-lagged blur, as if she were watching everything through glass. Joe maintained equanimity. Francie was cheerful with everyone. Chris was timid around her—smiling when she came past but looking at her with disengaged eyes. She had to quell the impulse to step backwards. That kiss? The smell of limes? But maybe he was just establishing a proper work dynamic. Not wanting to seem overly concerned, she decided not to bring up their next date until Friday after work, when everyone would congregate for drinks.
She wished she could ask Francie for advice—but to burden her friend with relationship anxiety would be selfish. Plus, Francie continued to be surly. The last few nights they’d watched movies together in silence, after which Francie would retreat to her room. Was this how Francie’s unhappiness manifested if left to fester? Samantha felt punished.
Everything funneled down to Friday night. She’d ask out Chris, reestablishing what they’d begun. And she’d coax Francie into doing something fun—maybe a return trip to the Getty—which would help resurrect their natural dynamic.
Returning from the bar with her gin and tonic—a symbolic nod, she hoped, to them both—she sat at the long table’s end, taking a small sip through her straw, which she then let linger too long near her lips to see if Francie would laugh. Francie sat to her right, Chris to her left. Each talked to the person one over from them. The accountant was at Francie’s side again, and she indulged him with her laughter. The receptionist sat near Chris, a thin redhead with a diamond nose stud, the tattoo of an owl on her wrist that she was explaining she’d got done at Sunset Strip Tattoos in Hollywood. Samantha wished that Chris didn’t lean in to her as she talked.
She sipped her drink—faster than she should’ve, unhappy to be so close to the glamorous fray and yet not part of it. She ran her finger along her glass’ rim. “How’d you choose that tattoo parlor?” she asked and both Chris and the receptionist raised their heads in her direction. She’d heard her mother in the question: slightly off topic, a few steps behind.
“Well, it’s famous,” she said.
“Sure,” Samantha said, not knowing that.
But at least Chris looked her way. She smiled and he smiled back—but the wrong kind of smile, without promise. And then he said, “Hey, Francie.” She looked over. “Would you pass me that napkin?”
Francie reached for the cocktail napkin and handing it to him—just for an instant—she screwed up her face, her lips tight, her eyes scrunched. Go away, that assembly of features said. Sam didn’t understand—the asking for the napkin, the exasperation—and then she did. She looked down, not wanting to stare at them so unabashedly, and saw under the table Chris’ foot rubbing the back of Francie’s calf, slow and languorous.
Her stomach dropped, her neck went cold. She’d been crushingly naïve.
“What’s wrong?” Francie said.
“Nothing.” She looked up, studying the ceiling.
“You sure?” The audacity of her concern. All eyes on her now.
“Excuse me,” Samantha said, getting up. She’d gotten to the small hallway, about to go into the bathroom, when Francie, who’d followed, put a hand on her shoulder. No fortitude at all in her. All she could think was how she wanted to go home.
“You slept with him.” She turned, feeling ridiculous and awful and so angry.
“So?” Francie’s face was stony.
“So? How could you, Francie?”
“It just happened.” A woman gave them a sidelong look and slipped into the bathroom.
“It did not! You went after him. And you knew I liked him!”
“I do not,” Francie said, flush to her cheeks, “know what the fuck I did that was so wrong. You went on one date with him, Sam. You weren’t exactly married.”
As if water were rising around her, a viscous cold swell. “Like that even matters to you!” Now she was crying, never the one to give in to histrionics.
Francie actually reached out and pulled Sam’s hair. “Stop it! Don’t you dare criticize me. You sit and wait for happiness to come to you. You liked him so much? Bullshit. You went out with him because I told you to. You joined this firm because I told you to. You came out here because I told you to.”
Sam was passive, yes—she wanted to lie on the floor right now, her hands over her ears. Water sucking her under and she wanted to go down. Still.
“Your self-absorption makes you cruel.”
“Fuck you! Grow up! Just go on some more dates and you’ll see this isn’t a big deal.”
Samantha walked away, Francie did not follow.
“You wish you were more like me!” Francie cried after her. “You always have!”
Chris was watching for them to come back, apprehension on his face. As she approached, he broke off the conversation he’d resumed with the receptionist.
“You can have her,” she whispered, tears at the bridge of her nose as she gathered her stuff. She couldn’t maintain any equilibrium, and everyone looking at her—Samantha that soft failure of a girl, that rube, that silly thing. The one who makes public scenes when everyone else stays cool.
Outside, the palms were fringed shadows, streetlights cast the sidewalks a dirty halogen orange. Everywhere storefront neon, the stink of grease. Couples passed her, teenagers in low jeans—a man in rags, who grinned, his teeth straight, beautiful. “Konnichiwa,” he called and gave a guttural laugh. A few pigeons pecked at a discarded hamburger bun, a muddled green shimmer to their extending necks. She could not think to go right or left, and then realized there were no cabs—never cabs in L.A. unless you called one ahead.
Sam scanned her phone for the names of taxi services. She should’ve known Francie would’ve done this. She’d seen this from her for years, she’d just never been a player in the scenes. A pigeon blinked its moist dull eyes her way, then fluttered into the street. She was who she was, too, she thought. But she didn’t know where that left her, or where she would go.