Listen, don’t ever talk to strangers. If a stranger approaches you, run the other way and scream at the top of your lungs. Dios, I couldn’t live with myself if you were ever kidnapped. Sorry, Manuelito, no trick-or-treating this year. But Mom, we’ll have adults chaperoning and… I don’t care who’s doing what. You shouldn’t be outside at night, in the dark where it’s easier to kidnap someone. Look at poor Jimmy Ryce, the authorities still haven’t found him. He was walking home in broad daylight when he was taken. That could have been you. You’re both the same age. Oh, stop rolling your eyes at me. Forget about going to the movies—fasten yourself on the sofa and read those Goosebumps books you like so much. I don’t wanna read, Mom. I wanna go out and play hide-n-seek. You can’t. Armando, you’re his stepfather: tell Manuelito he can’t go to no sleepover. What am I gonna tell him that he doesn’t already know? There’s been talk of attempted kidnappings, the whole county is having a panic attack. Anyway, there’s no reason to go out. Oh, no, Dios. Armando, didn’t you hear? They found Jimmy; he was raped, his body mutilated with a bush hook, the parts buried inside planters, encased in cement. A Cuban balsero did it. I heard about it on La Cubanisima radio program. Do you know what this means, Armando? Yes, I do. Remember I’m a balsero, too. Now they’ll point a finger at us hardworking immigrants. They’ll tell us to go back from where we came. That we’re all rapists and murderers. That we don’t belong here. They’ve done it before. That man has left a scorch mark on us all. This never would have happened in Cuba, communism or no communism. Mom, that’ll never happen to me. But it can happen to you, Manuelito; you can be kidnapped and killed and buried inside planters. Mom, I need to go to school. I can homeschool you. What about my friends? You don’t need friends: they’re a distraction. Armando, tell him his friends are a distraction. Let the boy go out, willya? Ah! You’re no use. Manuelito, stay home and eat all the helado you want. Go on, read your little Goosebumps book—I’m never reading Goosebumps again! Jimmy Ryce never would have died if he was a character in a Goosebumps book. Stop screaming. Now, where is that boy hiding—? Oye, Armando! Where’s my son? I can’t find him. Call the police! He’s been kidnapped. Espera, wait, we don’t know that yet. Maybe he’s with un amigo? He’s dead, buried God knows where. Breathe, mija, breathe. Let’s look for him. Miralo, here he is, hiding under the kitchen cabinet. Manuelito, coño, why are you hiding? Stop crying. All I wanna do is play with my friends. Please, let me go! But there’s evil in every corner. Go out through the front door, and it smacks you like a strong gust of wind. Sit down on the sofa, stay home. You’re safe here, you’ll always be safe with me.
Joe and I make refried beans on a Saturday morning while our four-month-old sits in a bouncer and gums his hands. We follow the recipe I’ve learned by watching my mom for years: heat oil in a deep pan, fold each white corn tortilla into four triangles, and toast them in the oil until they are brown and crisp. Joe always reminds me to flip the tortillas and remove them just when they are crispy, not a second later. I’ve burned dozens of tortillas in our two years of marriage, their pockmarked surfaces forming black bubbles. It’s always because I’m in a hurry, turning the heat up too high, or because I’m trying to get something else done at the same time—fry the rice, chop the cilantro. I return to smoking oil and charred chips. I’ve learned that the secret to this meal of refried beans, as with most Mexican food, is taking your time and giving it your attention.
When my parents were dating, my dad told my mom he had always wanted to marry a woman who cooked as good as his mom. They were sharing a meal my mom had made for him after a long day of work.
“You better be careful,” Mom said. “Someone might mistake that as a proposal.”
Dad, the story goes, blushed. “You never know—it might have been.”
Returning the jest, Mom smiled casually. “Well, you never know I might have said yes.”
Later that evening, he proposed to her on the San Antonio River Walk. He had no ring, no plan, really. I believe it was the only spur-of-the-moment decision he ever made in his adult life—my father the planner, the deliberator, the one I’m said to take after in my notorious cynicism.
I try to imagine what it was that overpowered him that day he proposed to Mom: love that disregarded fear and obstacles, a love effusive and daring, the kind of emotion I’ve rarely seen my practical, serious father express in words. A midwestern farm boy, he wasn’t raised to express feelings that way. Sometimes, when I think of Dad as a young man falling in love over food, I think also of the little boy finding comfort—love, safety, and home—in his mother’s cooking. I imagine meals were often my stoic grandmother’s only means of showing tenderness to her children. To say he wanted to marry a woman who cooked as good as his mom was to say he wanted a woman to share a home with.
On a Sunday morning, when I was having brunch at my parents’ house, Dad told me that beans and hot sauce have replaced mashed potatoes and gravy in his diet. I laughed, because I know how much Dad loves mashed potatoes and how much Mom hates them. She didn’t grow up with them and finds their texture unappetizing. I think of how Dad—born in Chicago, raised on a farm in Iowa—never ate a breakfast taco until he met Mom, born in Guadalajara and raised in San Antonio. Now he eats chorizo, eggs, beans, and jalapenos every morning for breakfast.
After I remove the tortilla chips, we let the oil cool a few minutes. I learned the need for this the hard way, too, from the time I poured an entire can of beans into the bubbling oil and ended up with a sprinkle of burns across my arm. When I told Mom, she scolded me in that strange way we get mad at people we love for hurting themselves.
“You have to wait,” she told me, a step I hadn’t remembered ever seeing her take. I simply assumed she’d learned the art of pouring beans into scalding oil without burning herself.
I’ve since made it Joe’s job to pour the beans into the pan, regardless of how cooled the oil is. This morning, we use a fifty-three-ounce can of Bush’s Pinto Beans, with their liquid. Joe and I joke that we have a problem, making too much for only two people.
“It was the smallest can I could find,” I say, but Joe is happy we’ll have leftovers for tacos later in the week.
Mom has used Bush’s for as long as I can remember, though she talks of a time she used to wash and boil her own beans.
“It takes too long,” she says now, “and Bush’s taste just as good.” On the rare occasions she makes frijoles borrachos, I’ve seen just how long it takes to prepare beans from scratch. She lays them out on a towel, their speckly, wiggly forms smooth as she runs her fingers over each one, feeling for bumps and sprouts. She throws out the misshapen ones, rearranges the remaining ones. Then she lets the beans soak in a cold-water bath overnight before boiling them until they’re soft, like butter, then adds tomatoes, cilantro, bacon, and a bottle of Corona beer to the broth. I asked her once if the bumpy beans are bad to eat.
“No,” she said. “I just want the pretty ones.”
She told me once that her dad, my Tito, used to carry out this bean ritual weekly, often recruiting her from backyard play or homework to help. She says there was always a pot of beans on the stove in her childhood home. Her family ate beans and rice almost every day.
“We were poor,” Mom says, which is a statement I realize I can’t understand, not the way she does. Beans and rice have never been the main dish at a family dinner I can remember. My grandparents both owned their own businesses, trades brought over from Mexico. My Tito was, and is, a shoe repairman; my Tita, a seamstress and a sculptor. But with five children, a language barrier, and dying trades, there were times when their hard work barely paid the bills. If they came to this country with the usual hopes of immigrants, their grandchildren even more than their children are the ones who have seen those hopes to fruition.
I think of the disparity between their lives and mine, of how much of who I am I’ve inherited from them and the world they came from. Some of those things are simple: the shape of my eyes, my ability to roll my “r’s,” my love for their simple, delicious food. Some of those things are more complex, specific to Mom’s family: a history of brokenness, abuse, and betrayal; a propensity for the dramatic, for storytelling. And yet, though I claim my Latina heritage, I only really know that world through Mom’s stories and recipes.
As Joe fries onions and corn tortillas for migas, another dish I’ve learned from Mom, I wait for the beans to heat back up. I watch as they turn frothy and bubbling, then take a potato masher and smash them into their broth. Once, Joe tried to mash them before they started to boil, and the masher made awkward chunks of the still too-hard beans. We learned that you have to wait until they’re soft, so that when you’re done smashing, the beans look almost like gravy.
I heat flour tortillas as I wait for the beans to cook. Joe laughs when I insist that the first tortilla, hot off the pan, go to testing the beans. It’s Mom’s tradition: standing in front of the hot stove, tortillas on a cast iron skillet, she’d rip the edge of one—her fingers moving quickly—and scoop the beans in their broth and hand it to me to taste. If it was too hot in my mouth, we knew they were ready. I do the same for Joe now, and he fits the whole piece of tortilla in his mouth in one bite.
“So good,” he says, and I smile, because he never ate refried beans for breakfast until he met me.
Mom tells me that, when I was born, she and Dad couldn’t afford to take pictures of me. With two children and Dad in grad school, film was an expense they couldn’t spare. Meanwhile, I scroll through the hundreds of pictures I’ve taken of my son on my iPhone, every snap as effortless and cheap as a can of beans.
I don’t remember those seasons of hardship, the years of hand-me-downs and one family car, when dinner at the Kentucky Fried Chicken counted as my parents’ date night. But I know their toll. I remember, even when we could afford new cars and a custom-built home, the nights when family dinners were disrupted by arguments so bitter they turned the food cold on our plates. Dad’s anger that Mom couldn’t keep to a budget. The stress of a job that kept him away on nights and weekends. The time his anger was so violent that he sent his fist into the drywall, and my brothers and I cried as a pot of Mexican rice sat untouched on the kitchen table. The time I asked Mom why they didn’t think their fighting hurt my brothers and me. If only I knew then how much she already knew that it did.
Years later, at my wedding, Dad whispered to me, “I pray Joseph is a better husband to you than I’ve been to your mom.” He was crying, that rare expressiveness surfacing, a vulnerability that told me that he knew, too, that my brothers and I felt the weight of his spousal mistakes, that we would carry them into our own marriages and families.
Joe asks if I want anything else with breakfast, and I add a handful of strawberries to the table of fried, Mexican food.
“Are you really going to eat those?” he asks, not because there’s anything wrong with the strawberries, but because I’m notorious for taking out strawberries and not eating them, leaving them to turn crusty and brown in a ceramic bowl all day.
“Yes,” I say, which will become a lie. The strawberries are there to make me feel healthy, though I will feel guilty later when I throw them away. Joe, who was not raised to calculate the cost of every item of wasted food, accepts my habit with patience.
Some weeks later, when he leaves a pot roast out overnight, forgetting to cover it and put it in the fridge, I’m the one who can’t contain her anger, refusing to speak to him for half the day. Because the roast was expensive, time consuming, the time and the money we don’t have now with a baby. It’s only the sight of him bouncing our son, making him laugh, that reminds me of all the times I wished my parents had weighed their marriage against their anger. A pot roast is pretty light in the scale.
When Mom got breast cancer six years ago, Dad blamed it on food, on the milk from cows treated with hormones, on the grill her parents didn’t scrape clean of charcoal carcinogens. He began to research with all the zeal of the academic he had been before three kids. Diet, he decided, was at the heart of health. He told Mom to buy organic, unprocessed food. He decided to turn the hobby farm he’d had since we were kids into a business, even though raising pigs and cows and chickens is exhausting in any climate, but especially in the heat of Texas summers.
Now, he sells farm-raised beef, pastured pork, and free-range eggs in an effort to teach people about sustainable farming and healthy living. But I know the deeper reason, even if he won’t say it, even if his fear for Mom turns into scolding when she doesn’t drink bone broth or cook with the right oils. I know there is love, duty, vigilance, even in his anger.
When I was pregnant, he told me I shouldn’t eat corn flakes because they might be tainted with Roundup. I started crying. Hormones aside, my tears were the realization of how deep his fear went. Food has become protection from cancer, from diseases without known cause. Food is how he can protect his family. When he and Mom tell us to read ingredients, to make baby food from scratch, Joe and I complain that they’re being paranoid. We remind them that we can’t afford to buy all organic food. But we also know that food has become their shelter against things beyond their control. We can’t blame them for wanting to build it over us.
Joe and I eat the entire pan of migas and nearly half of the beans; we serve them with a side of Herdez green salsa. I like to remind Joe that I know something about Mexican cuisine, especially when we go to his family’s house for dinners and they serve things like pre-packaged guacamole and cold tortillas. But there is always the part of me that feels like an imposter, like I’m trying to claim something that barely is mine. I use canned beans and store-bought tortillas. If Mom does the same, it’s because she’s trying to save time, and not because she doesn’t know how to make them from scratch. Still, there are dishes she won’t make because she says my Tito makes them better.
“Plus, they take way too long,” she says, and I can’t tell if that’s the real reason or the excuse for why I’ve never had her tamales or her menudo. I’ve never made salsa, or chile relleno, or mole from her recipes for the same reasons, and because of the part of me that feels those recipes aren’t mine to make. It is the same feeling that washes over me when I hear someone speaking in Spanish, those sounds and syllables that echoed through my childhood when Mom spoke over the phone to her parents or when she drilled me on conjugation and tense, lessons I can barely recall. I can’t speak Spanish, and yet its cadence feels like home. Like a home I’ve inherited, but I can’t find the key.
When people ask me why I can’t speak Spanish, I usually blame my parents: Mom didn’t speak it often enough at home because Dad couldn’t understand it. But if I’m honest, I know that I was the one who stopped practicing, who was too embarrassed by an accent that didn’t flow as smoothly as my mother’s. When it comes to my Mexican heritage, is it only half-known because Mom didn’t share enough with me, or because I am too afraid to enter the discomfort of my unknowing?
After our son was born, Mom drove the five hours to visit us twice over three weeks. She brought meat from Dad’s freezers and filled ours with meals from my childhood. Enchiladas, taco meat, Mexican rice. She spent all day cooking or holding our son while we napped or took short walks, tried to regain a semblance of normalcy in those first, volatile weeks.
I don’t remember very much from those sleep-deprived days, except for this feeling that everything was on the verge of breaking. My body. This tiny, hungry person who needed me constantly. Everything about life that Joe and I knew before he came. Everyone talks about the joy of newborns. Few talk about the fear—of failing, of death—that comes with them.
But when Mom was there, I felt my fears recede, a sense of reassurance in her cooking and her smile. The sense that the walls of our little apartment would hold up through all the sleepless nights and the strange, repetitive days filled with nothing and everything. Wrestling squirming legs into infant diapers, staring at the rise and fall of his chest as though all our lungs were encased by that tiny rib cage. And even when Mom left and we sat at our table with the reheated food she’d made for us, there was a wholeness created by a family dinner, a comfort in tastes we knew.
As we finish breakfast, our son begins to fuss, so Joe picks him up and sits him on his lap, lets him sit at the table and look at the empty plates and thickening beans.
“In a few months, you can try these,” I tell him as I scrape the spoon across the pan, because I know that beans were among my own first tries at solid foods. I wonder to myself if he’ll like them, because I know that both of my brothers aren’t fans of the dish. I wonder if doctors recommend feeding babies beans, or if it’s one of those things my parents did that experts now swear have a hundred health risks, like giving your baby a stuffed animal to sleep with or using baby sunblock. I decide I’ll follow Mom’s example with this one. Our son sticks his tongue out when he smiles, and I notice again that his eyes are Joe’s, but his nose is like mine.
Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri
Dzanc Books, 2019
Paperback, 197 pages, $17.00
Nino Cipri’s debut story collection is a wonderful exploration of the meaning of home, and what it means when we find it, if we ever do. Throughout each of these stories, characters are asked to relate to a new and changing reality, whether that be finding new life after divorce or rumbling with a mother’s rejection after telling her about being transgender. Cipri, a queer and trans/non-binary writer, explores many LGBTQ+ narratives through wonderful, often magical, speculative stories. Each story ponders on what family and reality look like, especially when others have turned their back on you.
The speculative aspects of this collection are done so well that it doesn’t matter how weird the plot might become, the reader is ready to roll with the surreality. In “Let Down, Set Free,” Melissa finds a floating tree on her neighbor’s yard and rides it into her future. In “A Silly Love Story,” Jeremy has a nectarine-loving poltergeist in his closet. In “Presque Vu,” Clay is haunted by keys magically appearing in his throat. These elements, wonderfully executed, allow the narrative to speak on a deeper-than-just-weird level. The reader physically experiences Melissa being uprooted and lifted off to another reality. Jeremy learns about his love-interest only after they bond over the poltergeist. Clay, not knowing what the keys physically unlock, has to wait for the other haunts to find out his future. Each of these characters has a tangible element to help ground the narrative, even if all the trees aren’t similarly rooted.
Other stories find their strength in form. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl ™ Are You?” the reader takes a Buzzfeed style quiz to find out which murdered girl they are. Through this imaginative form, the story contemplates what it would be like to be one of these little dead girls—how you’d live on after death, how you’d stay the same age, how you’d be different. In this fun yet harrowing story, Cipri creates a superhero-like adventure for the strong, spunky, and doomed girls who met their end too soon.
“Dead Air” is another story with experimentation in form. The entire story is told through a translation of recorded material, which makes the story ninety-nine percent dialogue. Nita, the person with a recorder, crafts an art project by recording interviews with her lovers. Because of the form, we fall in love with Maddie along with Nita, and we feel just as confused when trying to understand Maddie’s past in her small hometown. The mystery that holds people in the town, that eventually kills them, is still hidden from Nita and the reader, but we believe Maddie when she says we have to get out before it’s too late.
The heartbreaking “The Shape of My Name” is a hallmark example of this collection’s theme of changing reality. The narrator, a transgender person, wrestles with their mother’s rejection after their coming out. This story, like the others, is speculative in nature. The family has the ability to time travel, though that travel is limited to the years 1905 to 2321. This story effectively bends the view of reality within the narrator. They’ve lived in multiple timelines, gone back in time to see their mother, to come out to her while she was still young. The most heartbreaking moment of the story happens when Heron, as the narrator has chosen to be called, shows up to their mother’s stoop and sees their younger self playing in the background. The mother questions having a son, and they tell her she already has one. She pushes her child away, so the child can’t see their future self, and closes the door on Heron. “The Shape of My Name” gives us a character who has not only lost their mother because of her rejection but has also lost her to time.
Whereas “The Shape of My Name” is about a family torn apart, “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff” focuses on a family mending. This final story of the collection, the pivotal story, follows three ex-colleagues and ex-friends—Damian, Lin, and Ray—as they work on a documentary about their discovery of the ossicarminis, an extinct weasel-wolverine animal that had supposed sentience. This story plays with form by being in all three points of view and by having section breaks that are sound bites from their interviews with the documentary crew. These sections allow each character to have a voice and a perspective throughout this narrative. When you reach the end, there’s never a question about what each character thought or what they felt in the moment.
The close proximity of the documentary allows Damian, Lin, and Ray to hash out their past to help rebuild their future. Damian, who wrote a book on the ossicarminis, finds his friends resent him for not including them and taking all of the money for himself. Lin, a PhD candidate, has the bones of the creature in her apartment while writing her dissertation and is caught not protecting them the way she should. Ray questions the dig and wonders about the ethics of not only monetizing the destruction of a type of sentient being, but also removing them from their final resting place. The dig has previously torn apart the group’s work relationship, as well as their friendship, because of their difference in perspective on the same event. This story showcases the blending of personal and professional relationships and how even ones that have been cut off for years can be mended with a little digging. When we see this trio drive off happily into the distance, we hope that the other characters in this collection can someday do the same.
Homesick successfully confronts changing (and challenging) realities and gives hope that no matter what today looks like, there’s always hope that tomorrow will be better, and that there’s always a place for you out there—you just have to find it.
I begin with near-silence,
the droning refrigerator,
a dog barking far off.
You’ve just fallen asleep
as morning splinters
through the blinds.
He kicks off his boots,
braces himself on the dresser,
pulls at the leg of his jeans.
Something wakes you—
a knocked over jar of change,
a picture frame falling flat.
You must miss the feeling
of waking in the night
knowing exactly where
you are, hearing only
your brothers’ muffled voices
through the wall. Years later,
nights when my friends and I
stay up until dawn,
you’ll wake this way again
to laughter resonating
down the hall. One night,
to meet our girlfriends,
J. T. and I will sneak
to Arroyo Vista Park.
You’ll wedge a drumstick
in the window-track and wait
for our knock at the door.
After sending J. T. home,
you’ll say When it’s quiet, I know
somethin’ aint right. Because
this all feels close enough
to the truth, and because I have
no evidence I was made
the usual way—not even a picture
of you and my father together—
I’ve made this:
In splinters of
morning, you pull me from
his open mouth while he sleeps,
piece me together from handfuls
of his running breath, the small
sound of whitewater.
The fact is I was made
from what Whitman called
“father-stuff,” from a current
of you and from being held.
This—the raw physiology of it—
may explain why most fathers
think only of pushing their sons
into the world and most mothers
only of keeping them from it.
But the facts only tell us
half of every story, and never
the half we need. I have
a photograph taken just weeks
after I was born. I was
sleeping on your bare chest.
You were slouched in an armchair
with your fingers laced like rivulets
under my feet. These are facts—
even if you forgot, and even if all
I remember from being with you
before Arizona is the smell of
shop grease and dipping tobacco,
you once held me the way
a riverbed wants to hold a river.
You were the one whiteboy who came over to visit a house where usually there were only blackfolk. You were friends with Kevin—my boyfriend—his former co-worker at the nursing home. You extended your hand not to give me dap, or to pull me into a bro hug, or even to change the shape of your hand for a fist bump, but to clasp my palm, as in a transaction.
You didn’t say wassup or what it do, but nice to meet you.
Your name was Riley, and you were tall with dirty blond hair, blue eyes, a chipped tooth, and some might say you were cute.
You drank Natural Light, smoked cigarettes, and weed if it was passed your way.
You were addicted to opioids, but you’d been trying to quit, especially after your girlfriend quit you; she was a CNA where you and Kevin worked, but after dating you a while and you wouldn’t let the pills go, she let you go. You left the nursing home not long after that.
One day, three years later, when I was home on spring break from graduate school in Iowa City, I watched you overdose.
It happened on a Friday afternoon, when you were supposed to be cutting the backyard, even though the sky was gray and steadily darkening with threats of a rainstorm.
I had plans to spend the day with Kevin on the couch binge-watching Netflix, but company kept arriving.
Benita was the first, announcing herself popping her Double Bubble gum.
You came in right after her, pulling a lawnmower behind you like a wagon, holding to the handle with one hand while jostling a can of Natural Light in the other. By the time you made it to the dining room—where Benita and I were sitting—you’d left a trail of beer that foamed on the hardwood floor.
You better clean that shit up before Kevin sees it, Benita said.
You looked back at the spillage and mouthed fuck.
Get the mop dude, she said when you stood there gaping at the mess you’d made. The way she exaggerated the u made it seem as if what she’d really said was: get the mop you dumb, triflin ass, muthafucka. Benita was harsh and, if you didn’t know it already, you got on her nerves. Why didn’t he just take the lawnmower around the side of the house? she said to me after you’d gone into the kitchen. But you didn’t go for a mop, you went for paper towels, which we could hear you tearing off in sheets. The mop, dude, get the mop, she yelled. You wasting paper towels.
You were shrug-shouldered with humiliation when you returned with a mop to clean up the mess. Did you wet it? You gotta wet it, Benita said and watched you slink off to the kitchen again.
At least you had the floor cleaned by the time Kevin came back inside.
You and I would often joke about Kevin’s idea of what constituted clean and orderly—how he liked his place mats arranged on the dining room table with the corners touching so the center of the table was a framed rectangle; how his condiment bottles on the countertop must be in rows by height with labels facing out; how the chairs should be tucked beneath the table when not in use so they weren’t in people’s way when they moved around the room.
Kevin didn’t comment on the wet streaks slowly fading away. He’d decided to put some meat on the grill and went into the spare bedroom where he kept a bag of charcoal in the closet and dragged it through the kitchen to take outdoors. I asked him if it might rain, which was my way of saying don’t cook out because it might rain. Kevin answered by asking me to season the burgers and boneless chicken breasts. I did not season the burgers and boneless chicken breasts.
Terry was the last to show up, talking on his cell phone. I told Kevin to ask him to season the burgers and boneless chicken breasts. Hearing his name, Terry waved me off then secluded himself in the living room, where blackout curtains created a dark alcove for him to hide in, but not to muffle the conversation he was having with his soon-to-be ex-wife, whom he’d recently begun to refer to as his baby mama.
I heard him pop the tab on a tall boy of Bud Ice (the only beer he and Kevin drank) and loudly slurp the spillover. Kevin had told me several times during our nightly, long-distance phone calls how Terry regretted that his marriage was breaking up and he didn’t care anymore that his wife had gotten pregnant with another man’s child. Of course, the fact that he, too, might father a child with another woman may have given him this perspective; he might have rationalized their mutual infidelities as a mutual cancelling out of wrongs: they’d both fucked up so couldn’t they just get past the drama to be parents to the one child they’d created together? He’d be by to pick her up later, I heard him say, and then his voice lowered in pitch, as if he’d cupped a hand around the mouthpiece. Come on, he said, crooning to her like an ’80s balladeer in what he could never deny wasn’t an attempt to please, baby, let me hit that, he said.
You’d taken the lawnmower to the backyard and returned to the dining room with another 12 oz. can of Natural Light. You popped the tab and set the can on the table beside Benita. Without taking a sip, you lingered briefly in the middle of the room and mumbled to yourself, or to Benita or to me, neither of us could tell, then took off again. You returned with a leaf blower, a gas can, which you carried beneath one arm, and another Natural Light. You opened it and placed it this time on the mantel and took the leaf blower and gas can to the backyard. Never once did you sip from either beer.
Benita looked up from a game she’d been playing on her cell phone to watch you leave the room and come back. Her hair, slicked down with grease, was pulled tight into a ponytail that lashed the air each time she whipped her head to follow you back and forth, a snarl stiffening her upper lip like a pinched fold of dough. Her expressiveness portrayed a three-dimensional annoyance that reminded me of the look on people’s faces after they’d made a petty comment about some petty thing.
When she heard Kevin in the kitchen, she went to him to ask what was wrong with you.
Kevin told her you were on one, entering the dining room seasoning a plate of boneless chicken breasts. He set the plate on the table to light a Black & Mild, then continued to lightly dust the meat with seasonings.
Benita asked what you were on.
Through an exhale of smoke, Kevin told her he didn’t know. Probably roxys, he said, two fifteens. He clenched the tip of the plastic filter between his teeth, his right eye cinched tight to avoid the smoke, and let the tip rest in the corner of his mouth.
Two fifteens my ass, Benita said.
As if on cue, you walked in tilting a can of Natural Light. You’d forgotten the other open, untouched cans still in their places on the table, the mantel. You tried to take a sip but missed your mouth when you stumbled, lifting your foot too high, as if you were prepared to step up and had come down thinking a landing was closer than it was, so gravity pulled you forward, which threw you off balance. You pretended to play it off with a bit of footwork you said you’d learned from watching Childish Gambino.
You need to sitdown, dude, Kevin said, laughing.
You fucked up, ain’t you? Benita said simultaneously.
I’m awright, you said, and as if to prove this you shook your arms and legs vigorously in the air. You seemed agitated. Your eyes were wet and tired, the rim of your lower lids puffy, pink like an albino rabbit’s eyes. Your eyes wanted sleep, but your body was fueled, apparently, by thirty milligrams of pills to keep you sleepless. When you disappeared outside again, Benita told Kevin that she heard that you crushed your pills. Kevin said yes, you did, and that you snorted the powder. Benita shook her head, her mouth pursed. She didn’t snort her pills, nor anything else for that matter. Unlike you, she took pills because she had sickle cell anemia. Yes, sometimes, she’d said many time before, when her sickle cell flared up and she could barely get out of bed, she had to call around to see if she could buy extra pills; she needed always to be in constant supply of pills to keep the symptoms of her sickle cell in check.
I gotta get this meat on the grill, Kevin said and grabbed the plate of boneless chicken breasts and headed outside. Terry came in just then and the two of them stopped just short of colliding. My bad, Terry said. He had been in the backyard and came to tell us you just fuckin threw up in the trash can.
Puttin shit up your nose. That’s what happens, Benita said.
Terry said you were outside sweaty and red in the face.
Would you put shit up your nose? Benita asked me.
Nah, I said, to imply hell no! as if I’d never dared to do something like that, ever, not ever had I smoked crack cocaine, nor did I once, when so fucked up, attempt to snort through the lit end of a cigarette. Obviously, Benita had forgotten I’d told her about my past drug use, about those very incidences. I searched her face for the recognition that told me she remembered, but her own eyes were glazed over with what could be either the weariness of being fed up with other people’s shit or this was the settling in of her own high. She tapped a cigarette out of her pack and proceeded to strike a series of sparks with her lighter. Your lighter’s out of fluid, Benita, I told her, but she kept trying.
Who knows why people do what they do, she said, her head beginning to loll.
When I finally went outside, the coals were lit and the grill was smoking. Kevin paced nervously as the skirt of his black bib apron fluttered in the slight breeze, clapping a pair of tongs together like pincers in one hand and taking frequent swigs from his beer with the other. Terry leaned against one of the posts on the small porch, giving me the side-eye when he saw me, shaking his head. It’s not looking too good, he said, nodding toward something past me. I followed his gaze to where you sat in a patio chair a few feet away from the grill. I hadn’t noticed you, but probably because I wasn’t expecting to see you sitting with your legs shoulder-width apart, each of your arms resting along the arms of the chair, your head hanging so your chin barely touched your chest, your mouth languishing partly open with drool stretching a silvery strand down into your lap.
Kevin and Terry alternated turns calling your name. Kevin tilted up your head, only for it to fall forward with a slight bob; he said you needed milk. Terry directed our attention to the dog, Kevin’s pit bull, who circled you in your chair then stopped to lie down. She whined, half-barked, then she was up again, letting loose a high-pitched squeal; she pawed at the dirt and grass, digging with her nails and sending a fretwork of dust into the air that formed a cloud around you.
Kevin came back without any milk but with Benita smoking her cigarette. Oh gawd, she said, her eyes now wide open when she saw you. She said she had to leave because you were fucked up. You were a whiteboy, she said, and if one of us had to call 911, she didn’t want any part in what happened when they got there.
I didn’t pay Benita any attention. I watched you, wondering how many sad clowns were packed inside that tiny car.
Kevin, too, paid Benita no mind because he thought you were just passing out, which was good, he said, because you needed to sleep it off.
I wasn’t so sure. I went inside.
I heard Benita’s thick-heeled boots not soon after, clomping into the dining room where I’d distracted myself on the computer.
Benita stuttered directions for me to look up on the internet the signs of an overdose. I did and listed a few symptoms to her: dilated pupils, severe difficulty or shallow breathing, gurgling sounds, blue lips or fingers, nausea or vomiting, unresponsiveness … a person didn’t need to exhibit all the symptoms to indicate an overdose. Benita rushed outside, yelling to Kevin and Terry: vomiting, something about the pupils, gurgling in the throat, breathing with blue lips …
It had been roughly thirty minutes since you unloaded your car with all the tools you needed to cut Kevin’s backyard, since you danced your way out of a stumble and Kevin and I laughed, since you popped open three cans of beer, two of which you abandoned untouched, and then you suddenly began vomiting in the garbage can and were placed in that chair. But, if you had done so, how long had it been since you snorted those pills?
Benita rushed back through the house gathering her purse and cellphone off the table, and waved goodbye. See ya. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. I’m going to get my nails done.
I set the laptop aside, feeling uneasy. I needed to see for myself how bad it had gotten for Benita to leave the way she did.
I felt as if I were about to open a door into a past that often haunted me, entering a room to lift a sheet covering a body that lay cold on a slab. Was it me?
I became a visitor in a place I hadn’t been to in a while. Even though I recognized those familiar surroundings, I felt like a stranger, and it was possible that you, too, felt like a stranger inside your own body.
I’m coming, I’m coming was the reluctant way I walked through the rooms to get outdoors.
I heard music that wasn’t playing before as I approached the backyard, smelled mesquite smoke mixed with charred chicken flesh and seasonings that didn’t waft on the subtle breeze before, and, through the window, I saw the opaque clouds billowing from the grill that before was a cloud of dust the dog had kicked up, but this new cloud blocked you from my view.
This was the moment I pretended that I didn’t wait too long to follow my intuition; that I didn’t need to suspect a bad situation even when your slack-jawed mouth drooled with so much silvery, silken strands of spit; that you weren’t propped up like a mannequin to model normalcy; that you weren’t trying to convince us that you were only having a bad trip (but nothing you couldn’t shake off); that this was you just playing possum.
Kevin used his cell phone to record you while he and Terry kept calling your name. But you couldn’t answer them.
Your arms had gone limp, no longer resting on the chair; your hands were likewise motionless between your thighs. You breathed, but your breathing was labored, shallow gasps as if the air inside was trapped so deep inside your chest that when it reached my ears it was the echo of your efforts to breathe that I heard, your lungs taking in breath but sending back the faint noise of rattling cans.
You were in tremors as if from shocks of low-voltage electricity, as if your body was a city of dimming lights from a series of rolling brownouts.
You were shutting down.
Your face was blue with the encroachment of more blue—your lips blue, your cheeks besieged with blue, an armada of blue storming toward the north theater of your face, capillaries carrying the blue until the totality of your face would be subsumed by blue, and Terry and Kevin acted as if they didn’t know whether to continue to barbeque, to wait and see what happened, or to do as I said and fucking call 911.
I couldn’t stop looking at you. I wouldn’t blink; if I didn’t blink, you’d be fine; you’d be fine because I was fine; because I was proof that rock bottom didn’t need to mean death.
I’d come down off the pipe once and struggled through the night shivering, and no amount of blanketing would qualm, and nothing could distract me from believing that as I lay in a bed demonized by crack cocaine, I felt elsewhere the heels of so many people walking back and forth across the future site of my grave.
I had to believe that Terry didn’t want to call 911 because he was a felon who didn’t want cops swarming with their detective work.
Kevin was afraid that he might be wrong about you having a bad trip, and that you were dying while he drank beer, recording you while he made sure the boneless chicken breasts were neither overcooked nor raw in the middle. He was afraid, the way we all were, that this wan’t the movies where the blue in your face was special effects makeup and magic.
We heard sirens coming from of St. Mary’s Hospital, a few blocks away. Within minutes, three paramedics in a fire truck climbed out and, together, walked casually to the backyard.
Back here? one said, pointing.
Yes, back here, I said, swinging my arm like a propeller to rush them.
The first paramedic knelt beside you, took his fist and rubbed circles over your heart. The second asked us your name. When we told him, he asked you if you could hear him. What’d you take today? he asked. Your response carried the same low gurgling you’d been making since Kevin dialed 911. Shaking his head, the paramedic repeated the question.
The third paramedic started an IV and gave your vitals to the second, who wrote them down on his gloved hand. The glove was blue, and I worried the ink wouldn’t show. I came closer when the first paramedic shone his tiny flashlight into your eyes to check your pupils. They were small as pinpoints. The whites of your eyes waxy.
Two cops arrived and immediately began gathering details. The first cop took information from one of the paramedics, while the second spoke with Kevin. He told the cop that you admitted taking two fifteens of roxys, but Kevin believed you took more than that, or you took something else with it. The first paramedic stopped rubbing your chest to interrupt their conversation. He agreed with Kevin, so the cop asked if you were ever in the house. First, Kevin said no, then he backtracked, and said instead that you had been unloading the lawnmower from your truck and started to bring it through the house before he stopped you and asked that you bring the lawnmower around the house to the backyard. I worried he was implicating himself too much because he was so desperate for you not to be in the house in his version of events. He didn’t want to give the cops probable cause to search the house.
Terry had been quiet, shrinking back, his eyes suspiciously watching the cops. He saw me looking for him and when our eyes locked, he mouthed that’s the cop. It took him a few times mouthing and gesturing at the cop for me to understand what he said, but then I understood. Terry had been in a minor car accident just around the corner from Kevin’s house a few weeks earlier. But Terry didn’t have a driver’s license. The cop wrote him a ticket and that seemed to be the end of it. But seeing him now, at the house, was too much of a coincidence. It incited a nervous fear within Terry that showed on his face.
I walked over to tell Terry I didn’t think the cop recognized him. He was too busy explaining to Kevin how people would sometimes ask to use the bathroom so they could take drugs. That’s why he wanted to know if you were in the house. He needed a timeline of events. But everyone’s conversations were put on hold when suddenly you leaned forward so abruptly in your chair you nearly fell out of it. Two of the paramedics had to catch you and press you back into the chair. Easy, easy Riley, they said.
You shook your head, looked around to familiarize yourself, and as if none of this ever happened, responding to a barrage of questions, you verified your name, spelled your last name that had earlier given Kevin trouble; you gave your address, and, finally, because you were cold you asked for a blanket.
In a minute, a paramedic said.
Curiously, though, no one asked you what you’d taken. They loaded you onto a gurney with a blue blanket. You wrapped it around yourself, including your head. Your muffled voice asked what hospital they were taking you to.
It’s wherever you want to go, a paramedic said.
You said St. Mary’s since it was closest to your house.
As they wheeled you away, Kevin closed the lid on the grill to suffocate the still red-hot coals. I took the chair you sat in and stacked it with the others. A smear of blood on the armrest had to be wiped away. Terry wanted to leave but was afraid to get in his car and drive home. Across the street, where you’d parked your car, the two original police officers were joined by two more squad cars and a K-9 unit. It had grown dark by then. Flashlights lit the interior of your car while a German shepherd was taken by the leash to sniff around and eventually inside your vehicle. They had your car keys, I’d forgotten. After you were taken away, Kevin found them, which must have fallen from your pocket at some point, hidden in the high grass. One of the police officers asked to take them.
You came back to the house a few hours later. Kevin and I were playing a game of spades with some friends—the JJs, Jay and Jalisa—who arrived shortly after the cops had put away their flashlights and left. Kevin showed them the video he’d taken of you earlier in the chair. Jalisa had been rolling a blunt and Jay smoking a cigarette, and both of them watched with their mouths agape at the blue, drooling face gurgling ceaselessly before the camera.
As they watched the video, I replayed that sudden intake of breath that brought you back to seemingly full vitality. Narcan, I was told, was what the paramedic administered through the IV. They said it took about two minutes to revive you. Two more minutes without it, you might have been dead.
You had come back to ask Kevin to let you keep your lawn equipment in his backyard, to tell him privately that you’d taken heroin earlier that day, and to thank him for calling 911. Kevin must have told you I was the one who told him to. You said thank you, Darius, on your way out, avoiding my eyes, though you briefly squeezed my shoulder. Kevin walked you to the door and returned quickly to the table to deal the cards for another hand. We beat the JJs that night, but probably because they’d gotten too high smoking the blunt to pay attention.
The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade
Noctuary Press, 2019
Paperback, 270 pp., $16.00
The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose brings together the voices of poets Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade whose harmonizing take the reader across a spectrum of topics—marriage, divorce, body image, motherhood, queerness, and womanhood. Duhamel and Wade’s use of the lyric essay format, propelling the reader by associative leaps and thematic recurrence rather than causal narratives, allows them to zoom in on individual words and concepts in order to peel back their associations layer by layer. This elasticity of the conversation between the two women pulls the reader into the conversation with them in a unique way. The authors are writing from different perspectives, Duhamel almost a generation apart in age from Wade, yet their assemblage of experience blends in such a way that it becomes a kind of Everywoman experience. The sisterhood cadence throughout is undeniable and takes us places we might not expect to go. One can imagine sitting on a sofa, late into the night, listening to an intimate conversation with two women as they compare their lives’ experiences and explore the challenges of womanhood from a generational standpoint—this is the intrinsic quality of The Unrhymables.
The book is constructed with thirteen thematically linked essays created by micro-memoirs, some of which are sub-titled, from both Duhamel and Wade, moving the conversation back and forth in a fluid motion within each essay. The most challenging aspect for the reader, but evidence of a discernible synergy between the two authors, is the fact that their voices are indistinguishable at times—only separated by inferences to their sexual orientation, coming of age experiences, and their childhood—which are filled with societal and cultural references that invariably reveal the particular author. In the essay “Pink,” Wade learns about the Nazi downward facing “pink triangle” used to identify homosexual Jews, and Duhamel responds with her experiences in New York City during the AIDS crisis and how the Silence=Death slogan’s logo “turned that pink triangle right-side-up.” Both authors experience the same kind of emotions, only years apart in different contexts. This kind of navigational point occurs frequently throughout the prose and directs the conversations. Should the reader not know some of the more intimate details of the authors’ lives, nor have read other works by Duhamel and Wade, one could conceivably read the text without knowing exactly which one is speaking.
However, the hybrid nature of this collection is what takes The Unrhymables to new heights. From writing about colors—“White,” “Pink,” “Red,” “Blue,” “Green,” and “Black”—and exploring their personal, historical, and cultural associations, to constructing a Scrabble edition including tandem essays “N1E1A 1R1” and “E1 R1 A1 S1,” both of which deal with homosexual acceptance in society, Duhamel and Wade take every opportunity to speak through other poets and writers or mention their work. In fact, the book has no less than 188 references. In an especially powerful and poignant moment, Wade recites Orlando poet Stephen Mills’s poem “The History of Blood” to weave into the narrative her fears about gay violence, “Another gay boy got bashed in Miami this week, nearly beaten / to death on his way home from a club. The man’s fist / smashed the boy’s glittered face, like my glittered face dancing / at the gay bar every weekend.”
The essay “S1A1L1T1” sings with Wade’s inattentional-blindness, referencing the poet Elizabeth Bishop without explanation to the audience. The reference is subtle to an average reader—probably missed by most—but familiar to poetry readers. Wade points out in the opening lines of the essay, “If this were chess, I’d choose the bishop and call her Elizabeth. I’d praise her for her smooth slants, her incomparable zigs and zags—never straightforward, never straight back. ‘Elizabeth is a queen’s name’ someone would say. Only poets would understand.” She follows this with “For years I read ‘In the Waiting Room’ in waiting rooms.” Then, a paragraph later, she does it again as she talks about ordering an omelet for breakfast while in Colorado and how she is chastised by her order-taker for expecting the waitress to associate a Denver omelet with a Western omelet, “But when the fluffed eggs appeared, folded sideways and smothered with sharp cheese, it was ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’—another Bishop poem.” All of this to explain the “extra-textual juxtaposition” of bringing art and life together in a literal fashion. It’s this sideways slide found in Wade’s work that makes her such a joy to read.
Nonfiction prose is a departure from Duhamel’s award-winning poetry, but experimentation within her work is not. She is known for playing with pantoums, villanelles, and forms of her own invention such as “porn poetry.” And it’s not the first time she has paid homage to her women forebearers or engaged with feminism in her work. Readers will not find the whimsical poet of “Rated R” in the pages of this collection, but they will find Duhamel’s candid approach as she brings to life the times in our history when our mothers and grandmothers faced much tougher times in terms of equality, racism, and sexism. On occasion, the poet does emerge and takes the reader on a delicious ride, as in “Kaboom,” the sub-titled essay within “Word Problems,” where she writes about wonky words such as boondoggle and conundrum. She even thanks Edgar Allen Poe for tintinnabulation. Readers will appreciate her simple and subversive delivery as she tackles difficult subjects, bringing wisdom to the page. Her details of the sixties and seventies, where many of her experiences resonate with an older generation of readers, also offer deep insight as her gaze is juxtaposed against Wade’s younger perspective.
The final culmination of the dual voices—and the voices even beyond their own two—comes in a glossary at the end of the book akin to Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker’s Fabulas Feminae; Duhamel and Wade’s version includes more than a hundred women and girls from the authors’ personal lives as well as public figures, from past and present, literary figures, and fictional characters. It’s really an homage to the wonderful mixture of women—the scholars, the feminists, the divas, the poets, the victims, the comedians, the fashionistas, the heroines, the goddesses, the icons, the red-heads, the singers, the writers, the sirens, the childhood friends, the movie stars, the classmates, and yes, even the grandmas—who inspired or influenced Duhamel and Wade specifically, but all of us really, in some way.
The book feels like a fresh approach to collaboration. While the authors each take turns giving their thoughts on the same subjects, I didn’t find an established order as I read. In other words, I might read two essays written by Duhamel, followed by one of Wade’s. As in a conversation, one person might have more to say than the other, and this is what makes their collaboration so fluid and natural. By placing their voices side by side, they allow the reader to gain insight into what has or hasn’t changed from one generation to the next. More importantly, I believe the prose embodies the voices of all women, past and present, as influencers of Duhamel and Wade.
After reading The Unrhymables, I have to ponder the idea of the collaboration as a hybrid in addition to the body of work. It’s that sideways slide again: the idea of the offspring from two varieties, composed of different elements, produced through human manipulation for a specific genetic characteristic. The result is a consonant cluster of sorts—Dwade, I call it—each of their notes produced simultaneously to create a particularly savory tone.
Riverside Park, Lynchburg
At Riverside Park off Rivermont Avenue,
Katy and I sit on a boulder viewing
the overcast valley where classmates
from the 200-foot train trestle.
Every day my body betrays itself into
believing it’s dying, believing the pastor’s
words that homosexual boys
are destined for death.
Katy lights a cigarette as a canopy of leaves protects
us from the rain, says, “I wonder what it feels like to know
you’re going to die.” The train whistles
in the distance.
My mom pretended to die for attention
after she left me. For once I don’t feel her
absence in my body. For once
I feel kind of okay, like I won’t walk
up and down a foggy
Court Street at three a.m. in front of the Episcopal church,
crying and begging
God to make me straight so my father
doesn’t leave me too.
We walk back toward the car in the rain,
listening to the train chug pass in the distance
along the riverbank.
In the clearing between the path and the forest
a gathering of fireflies twinkles in the twilight, my prayers
burning in the trees.
My arms around Katy who, after smoking,
smells like my mom plummeting to earth
on a meteor.
A tear carves down the tracks of skin and leaps off
my jawline. My body simmers to smoke,
this figure of ash.
[Driving away from Lynchburg]
Driving away from Lynchburg, realizing
the Blue Ridge is my home but not
where I’m meant to live,
a tiger swallowtail smears across
my windshield in powder yellow.
I too have wished to feel the painless
end, but a windshield
nebula requires a life, brittle
as the swallowtail’s chitin wings,
one the mountains can’t afford to lose.
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne
Oxford University Press, 2017/2019
Hardcover/Paperback, 368 pp., $27.95/$14.95
“He is like a dog that barks around women,” my (male) colleague told me. He was referring to the irrational and apparently unaccountable behavior of our male, academic-department head, who had responded with strange aggression to some suggestions I had made at a department meeting. My colleague explained, plainly, that the aggressiveness I had witnessed—that I had withstood—was not atypical; other women had received similar treatment. But in his view, this “barking” at women was to be dismissed as a basically harmless peculiarity. To extend his analogy, the department head (an academic star) was a good, beloved, and valued dog, though a bit snappish, and just as you might keep small children away from a snappish dog, it was best to keep women colleagues away from him. Another male colleague offered a different sort of explanation: the barking department head was troubled by women because he was raised by a dominant mother, a professional woman, and this had somehow messed him up. More than one male colleague advised me to “soften” my speech, to be more casual and “less professional” in my email correspondence, not to “brag” about my publications, and not to act like I deserved the successes I had in fact achieved, lest I come across as uppity. (It is not incidental to observe here that analytic philosophers, my professional cohort, do not succeed by being soft, imprecise, modest, or deferential.)
It will be helpful to summarize and separate the components of the above incident like the analytical philosopher I am. According to my male colleagues, then,
1) I had been treated unprofessionally because I was a woman;
2) my mistreatment was due entirely to the personal idiosyncrasy of one man, the proverbial “bad apple” or, here, barking dog;
3) his difficulty with women was ultimately the fault of a woman, his mother;
4) the best response was for me to steer clear of him;
5) and insofar as I had to interact with him, I should present myself in ways that expressed feminine subservience even at the expense of giving the impression of lesser competence or attainment.
Thus, the whole incident could be characterized as an unfortunate interpersonal problem, and it was incumbent upon me to change in order to avoid future unpleasantness.
There are two remarkable facets to this small story (more on its smallness later). The first is that my colleagues were able to discern that I had been treated unprofessionally because I was a woman. So often, even this fact remains out of focus or inaccessible. And, indeed, as I continued to work among these men for many years, during which time various forms of hostility, exclusion, silencing, and devaluation multiplied, the idea that this was a pattern of mistreatment based on gender became less and less accessible to my colleagues. I also will return to this point later.
The second remarkable facet of this story is, paradoxically, just how unremarkable it is: Such experiences of misogyny are so commonplace that they are often taken to be normal operating procedure—just, you know, the way it is. It barely rises to the level of consideration. My story could be any woman’s story. Shrug.
It is the project of Kate Manne’s incisive book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny to get past that shrug. Chapter by chapter, she offers a compelling analysis of the concept of misogyny and its workings in Anglo-American society. This analytical work is conceptually connected to respected, mainline arguments in moral philosophy not known for addressing gender. Thus, one of Manne’s achievements is almost a side-effect: her work breathes new life and new potential into an area of philosophy that too often leads to dead-end abstractions. Yet, Manne’s style is open to readers completely unfamiliar with contemporary philosophical discourse. Though there are a few passages that may feel prickly to such readers, it would be a shame if that were a deterrent. Manne vigorously employs the first-person (often considered out-of-line in analytic philosophy) and humor, giving the book a sense of personality and wit in addition to intellect. Importantly, her analysis of misogyny is accompanied by compelling examples of national and international significance. She shares research and insights regarding the misogyny directed at political figures, including Hillary Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She examines the disputed misogyny of the 2014 killing spree undertaken by Elliot Rodger at the University of California Santa Barbara in Isla Vista, California. She dissects the speech of conservative radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh. She scrutinizes the Gamergate imbroglio, in which a female video game creator was subject to online abuse, doxing, and death threats. She probes the terrible effect of threatened masculinity in the violence of family annihilators (men who kill their wives and children rather than allow them to witness their own bankruptcy or social demise). She offers examples drawn from the headlines of domestic violence and police brutality against black women. She also uses fictional examples (including Gone Girl, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the TV adaptation of Fargo) to highlight cultural tropes and illustrate particular concepts. With so many points of application, Manne’s philosophical analysis never detaches from the real world; on every page, her analysis remains relevant and accessible to readers outside academic philosophy. In fact, Manne adduces so much evidence to support her analysis that the text risks subjecting the reader to emotional fatigue because misogyny is everywhere, and it’s worse than you think.
I imagine that some readers may feel overwhelmed by all the bad news, by the litany of ways in which women are routinely harmed, physically and sexually assaulted or killed, discredited, denounced, and defamed. (Some of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in The Mother of All Questions and Men Explain Things to Me is similarly freighted by the evidence of misogyny’s ubiquity.) It is hard to read about these facts without feeling your stomach tighten into a knot. But Manne’s intelligence, clarity, and courage come through with such force that I found the reading exhilarating, and I suspect that many readers, if they venture into a book of (feminist) philosophy, will likewise feel that they have found a source of light and intellectual leadership. With Manne’s insights in hand, our pervasively gendered experience of the world makes more sense. And with so much confusion in public discourse, a book of philosophy that makes more sense of any aspect of social life provides a balm.
In case “logic” conjures up painful memories of college exams, it may be a welcome preventative to know that Manne’s subtitle The Logic of Misogyny refers to a cultural logic—a set of interlocking social phenomena that function to sustain certain social institutions, norms, and roles. A cultural logic is not a rational system, nor a structure designed to achieve certain ends, nor a deliberate policy enacted by those with authority (though some such ends and policies may in fact be fabricated in order to sustain the cultural logic). Rather, a cultural logic captures something about the kinds of attitudes, expectations, and norms that govern our social interactions even when we are not aware of them and which allow us to interpret the behaviors and events of social life. Thus, a logic of misogyny must take us beyond what Manne calls the “naïve conception,” according to which misogyny is “primarily a property of individual agents (typically, although not necessarily, men) who are prone to feel hatred, hostility, or other similar emotions toward any and every woman, or at least women generally, simply because they are women.” Misogyny, on her analysis, is not reducible to the feelings or attitudes of individuals.
To see why this might be important, let’s return to my story, summarized in five points above. As I’ve said, it is remarkable that something like misogyny was volunteered by my male colleagues as an explanation for the department head’s behavior. They could see that gender was a salient factor. That takes us as far as (1). But in order for the charge of misogyny to stick, according to the naïve conception, we would have to be able to show that the department head had feelings of hatred or hostility toward me. Support for (2)—the idea that this misogyny rests in the individual’s psyche alone, that he is the bad apple in an otherwise non-misogynist social environment—would come in the form of psychological or biographical facts about this particular man. That might explain why one colleague resorted to (3) as evidence: there must be some personal, psychological explanation for his bad reaction to women, and perhaps it could be found in his relationship to his mother. But the idea that the department head felt hatred or hostility toward me struck even me, the target of his bad behavior, as psychologically unrealistic. We simply had not had enough interaction (and none outside of the workplace) to engender strong feelings of any kind toward me. His barking wasn’t hatred per se.
To make matters even more challenging, in order to make the charge of misogyny stick—and I’m talking about getting it to stick as a matter of everyday explanation, not as a legal finding—we would have to be able to show that such feelings of hatred were directed at me simply because I am a woman, which would seem to imply that he would have such feelings of hatred toward all other women, or at least toward all those with whom he interacted, simply because they are women—and he did not. In fact, he seemed to express great affection for his wife and for at least one woman colleague. So, even though (2) casts the department head as a “barking dog,” who reacts with hostility to women, the naïve conception of misogyny would spare him the label misogynist. He didn’t hate me, let alone all women.
Since reacting so negatively to (some) women, on account of their being women, is plainly misogynist, the naïve conception of misogyny cannot be adequate. It also seems implausible on the face of it that any man could harbor feelings of hatred toward all women: it would be too exhausting for one thing, since half the human population is female. And even the most perverse psychopaths generally retain love for at least one woman, often their mothers. It looks like the naïve conception sets a standard for misogyny that has no real-life exemplars. Manne argues that we need to reconceptualize what misogyny is in order to be able to see it in operation. And we need to be able to see it in operation because it has tremendous explanatory value.
Manne argues persuasively that misogyny “should be understood as the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology.” Misogyny can be recognized not by peering into the hidden depths of the individual psyches of men or probing their personal life histories for clues that would underpin a conscious or unconscious hatred of women, but by examining the kinds of hostility faced by women and girls in particular social environments. Attention shifts from the psyche of the alleged misogynist to the effects of certain behaviors on the women and girls who are the targets of misogyny. This shift allows that both men and women can perpetrate misogynist hostility and that misogyny is sustained by attitudes that extend well beyond hatred.
The logic here is actually pretty straightforward: The patriarchal order is sustained by an ideology of gender norms that mandates particular roles and social functions for men and different ones for women. Misogyny surfaces when women attempt to step outside of their appointed roles and functions in the patriarchal order. Manne argues that women who veer from the normative gender roles will be subject to “punitive, deterrent, or warning” measures that constitute misogyny’s mechanisms for keeping women in their place. Manne remarks on the varieties of misogynist hostility, which include “infantilizing and belittling” as well as “ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as sexualizing, or alternatively desexualizing, silencing, shunning, shaming, blaming, patronizing, condescending,” and threatening, and violence. The particular tactics that comprise misogyny will vary with the circumstances, and often enough, multiple tactics will be deployed, especially if the targeted woman or girl does not quickly or readily step back into line and conform to her appointed gender role. Accordingly, the department head’s “barking” could be characterized as an attempt to humiliate or silence me precisely because my professional competence and assertiveness seemed threatening. Women colleagues can be tolerated, even welcomed, so long as they behave in ways that affirm masculine prerogatives to succeed and to lead.
Manne elaborates on the relative positions of men and women in our patriarchal society. Patriarchy, she argues, consists in the “uneven, gendered economy of giving and taking moral-cum-social goods and services.” Roughly, in this gendered economy, women owe (men) emotional and social labor, reproductive service, domestic service, sexual access, affection, love, and respect. Much of what women can provide are genuinely valuable social goods: it really is good to give and to receive love and respect, for example. But if women owe men these goods, then men must be entitled to them, and women who refuse to provide them will be the targets of misogynist attack. To take one of Manne’s most stark examples, Elliot Rodger decided to kill sorority women at UCSB, women with whom he had never even spoken, because he believed he was owed their sexual and romantic attention and had not gotten it. The same misogynist logic inspires the men who call themselves “involuntary celibates” and who see Rodger as a hero. Less gruesome examples of this logic abound. Women who do not volunteer to perform kinds of service traditionally associated with feminine roles—social planning, catering, making coffee, cleaning up, mentoring students—may be deemed uncooperative and receive lower job-performance evaluations, even as their male colleagues who likewise decline to volunteer for such tasks see no negative impact on their evaluations.
Men’s social goods consist in such things as “leadership, authority, influence, money, and other forms of power, as well as social status, prestige, [and] rank.” As Manne observes, the masculine goods tend to be in limited supply and acquired through competition. Women who attempt to partake of these masculine-coded goods constitute threats to the gendered order and will be subject, again, to misogynist backlash. Likewise, for women who challenge particular men’s claims to power, status, or authority. These challenges may be informal and low-stakes—such as questioning a boss’s decision or even just entering a conversation as if one were a peer—or very formal with high-stakes, such as a bid for the presidency. Patriarchy divvies up the social goods along gendered lines. Misogyny is the response when women refuse to give what’s expected of them or break rank and try to get what they are not culturally entitled to have.
Manne’s account of misogyny is superior to the naïve conception for several reasons. It avoids the need to scrutinize a man’s psyche; instead we can look to how a person’s behavior functions to keep women in their place in a social environment. It also allows us to look beyond a single emotional or motivational state, hatred, to acknowledge that misogyny wears many guises and that what it looks like will depend upon the specific gender norms in play in a particular social environment. Manne’s account explains why some women will be targeted (they step out of line) while others will be spared or even rewarded (they conform to the relevant gender norms). Further, Manne’s account allows us to see how misogyny, even when enacted by one person, gets its grip because of larger social dynamics. It reveals how misogyny is ultimately never a matter of purely individual attitudes or feelings, but always embedded in social norms and group responses.
To take up this last point, consider my male colleagues’ advice in (4) that I steer clear of the barking department head. It should be obvious that this was not actually a possible response for me. As department head, he was someone I would encounter at department meetings and committee meetings, and who would have authority over my annual performance reviews, determine my salary raises, and sit in judgment over my promotion. In numerous ways, he served as gatekeeper to my professional opportunities. Avoiding him could only be interpreted as non-collegial or uncooperative. Sensing, I guess, the necessity of my interacting with him, my colleagues suggested (5): cleave to postures of feminine subservience. I have to admit, this is a strategy that I, like many women, have had to resort to so many times that I have developed a scar from biting my tongue so often! (I have also come to loathe exclamation points, which must be used in every email to “soften” what might otherwise look too serious and severe, too masculine, without them: Good work! Great to see you! Thanks!!) But I also have to admit that I am by temperament not very good at playing the part of the docile woman. In fact, many of the skills that make me a good philosopher (argumentatively adroit, verbally adept, assertive, opinionated, perceptive, ambitious) make me a bad woman, which is to say, a woman who breaks with feminine gender norms. Regardless of my own temperament, or the actual strategic value of following my colleagues’ advice, the important point is that the advice itself recapitulates misogyny. In effect, my colleagues said to me, “down girl,” even though it was the department head who was the misbehaving dog. They participated in sustaining the very gender norms that make misogyny possible in this social context. An individual man’s behavior was a precipitating factor, but without reference to well-established gender norms, upheld by other men and women, his misogyny could not have had the effects it did. Misogyny begets more misogyny, as men (and sometimes women) coalesce in reinforcing the gendered expectations and penalizing deviance from them. To the extent that I failed to display the appropriate “down girl” behaviors—to the extent that I refused to heel, I exacerbated the misogynist climate. My defenses became more evidence of my being out of line. Good girls don’t resist their subjugation.
What my male colleagues might have done was challenge the department head, calling him out for his unprofessionalism and misogynistic hostility. They might have done it publicly or in private. They might have reported it to higher administration. They might have voted to remove him from his position of leadership. Or instead of drawing attention to the misogyny, they might have tried to compensate for it by making openings for me in conversations or meetings, recommending me for positions of leadership, publicly crediting my initiatives and ideas, or “bragging” for me about my professional accomplishments so as to sustain my value in the department. They did not. Their silence and reticence in the face of what they themselves acknowledged to be gender-based mistreatment constituted complicity in the patriarchal order. And this, too, is part of the logic of misogyny. Men who appear to be siding with women who are being subject to misogynist backlash may find themselves on the receiving end of the hostility; they risk losing status, that masculine-coded social good, if they break the alliance of men through their recognition of misogyny as an injustice. Over my many years of work among these men, this was perhaps the most painful realization for me—that men who spoke to me in private about the sexism and misogyny of the department would not defend this view publicly and, when push came to shove, even contributed to undermining my credibility. One senior man expressed to me his outrage over my mistreatment, but worried that if he spoke up, he’d lose his favored teaching schedule. Meanwhile, my entire career was on the line.
I said above that my story is a small story. And so it is. What I suffered, over many years, was small in comparison to the brutal violence and psychological abuse that many women experience in misogynistic environments. Small as it is, it is the story of a large stretch of my adult life that has ramified through my professional life and my personal life. Small as it is, it is a story that so many women attempting to succeed in a man’s world can relate to. Like many women, I have been loath to speak publicly about my experiences. I do not do so here out of a desire to aggrandize myself. Rather, it is the very ordinariness of my experience that drives me to insert it here for Manne’s book emphasizes misogyny as it is visible in the lives of public figures, like Clinton and Gillard, and in dramatic or tragic, headline-grabbing events. But the logic of misogyny writ large in these cases is also writ in the fine print of the lives of millions of ordinary women like me. Small as such stories are, the toll in the lives of women is large.
Though I have never met her, Manne is, like me, a professor of philosophy, a field that is approximately 80 percent male, a figure that hasn’t changed much in several decades. Manne’s book would have suffered an excess of scrutiny had she focused on her own experiences of misogyny (which have been expressed in interviews subsequent to publication of her book). Her conceptual acumen, careful research, and steady argumentation would no doubt have been eclipsed by the skepticism that accompanies any woman’s public representation of her experiences of misogyny. (Even as I write this, I am bracing for the possible backlash myself.) She was wise to focus on public examples in order to avoid this problem, and also because exposing the misogyny that operates at the highest reaches of politics and media reveals the extent to which our supposedly enlightened, gender-egalitarian society is still shaped by punitive attitudes toward women.
I observed above that while, initially, my male colleagues could perceive that I was being mistreated on account of being a woman, they seemed to be less able to perceive it as the years passed, even as the hostility increased and spread beyond the one bad apple. I’ve already suggested one reason this might happen: Over time, men may themselves become overtaxed by the risks associated with supporting a woman who is targeted by misogynist hostility. To ally oneself with a vulnerable party is to make oneself more vulnerable to attack. Another reason is that my redoubled efforts to prove my professionalism and competence only worked against me, when these were among the very things that proved threatening in the first place.
But Manne’s analysis supports another sort of explanation. When women lodge complaints against men in positions of power or authority, even when those men are widely acknowledged to be guilty, they often find themselves witness to a bizarre turn-around: the man guilty of abuse, or rape, or harassment becomes the recipient of empathy, while the woman victimized by his behavior is villainized. Manne calls the phenomenon “himpathy.” The accusatory question that women who speak up must face is, “Why do you want to ruin his life (or reputation)?” The questioner summons concern for the well-being of the guilty party rather than the well-being of the woman. The idea that women are entitled to justice, for themselves as well as on behalf of other actual or potential victims, seems to lie hidden behind another layer of misogyny—the assumption that women are devious, manipulative, untrustworthy, lying, or calculating whenever they challenge male power or status. Moreover, as Manne notes, misogynistic crimes against women are also, ipso facto, crimes against society. A just society would not question the legitimacy of calling to account a guilty man.
There is yet another reason why people may find it difficult to perceive the misogyny that limits and damages women in their midst: It is always (yes, always) possible to point to seemingly plausible alternative explanations of the social dynamics, which lay the blame on the woman. This is best known as “victim-blaming,” with the most well-known example being blaming a rape victim for her violent assault because she wore a short skirt, drank beer, or traveled unaccompanied to a nightclub. As Manne carefully explains, there is no such thing as a perfectly innocent victim, so it will always be possible to point to some aspect of her behavior and to suggest that she herself is the cause of her misogynistic treatment.
In workplace environments like mine, especially where one works among the same people for many years, there are bound to be substantive disputes and disagreements, minor failures, occasional screw-ups—on the part of all employees. There are also going to be the exigencies of life outside the office—relationship woes, family demands, illness, financial strain—that generate emotional twists and turns. And there is going to be the social fabric of friendships, romances, and sexual dalliances that forms a kind of unwieldy skein interlaced through the organizational hierarchy of the workplace. In other words, the social environment is exceedingly complex and each of the persons in it has a robust, distinctive personality and array of motives, feelings, and relationships. It will always be possible to point to the woman targeted by misogyny and say of her that she is the problem. “Personality conflict” is one euphemism that often substitutes for, and displaces, recognition of misogyny. She is—I have heard said of so many women colleagues, including myself—crazy. Or, a bitch. Or, difficult. Or, a slut. Or, worthless. Or, stupid.
If a woman persists in her non-conforming behavior (not giving or taking the appropriate, gendered social goods, as described above), she will likely be subject to more misogynist retaliation. The more she leans in, the more men will push back. And as this dynamic persists, she will come to be seen, quite reasonably, as the common denominator. It is (only) when she is around that things seem difficult. Better to keep her away. (And, to be on the safe side, better not to hire any more women, or at least not any with strong personalities or ambitions.)
It is my observation that the more time one spends working in a misogynist social environment, the less likely one will be able to make the misogyny perspicuous to others because the more complicating social factors there are. Here, too, Manne’s framework for understanding misogyny proves helpful. She argues that misogyny does not deny women’s basic humanity. Rather, it depends upon recognizing it. Seeing women as fully human and enmeshed in complex social relationships, allows men (and sometimes women) to cast women in human social roles, including “rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer.” Women who step out of line become subject to the responses such labels inspire: they must be put in their place, destroyed, defeated, undermined, or punished. Thus, when women are accused of insubordination or betrayal, or reduced to epithets, we should not see such “explanations” for their being subject to attack as inconsistent with the logic of misogyny; often enough, these “personality conflicts” are simply a manifestation of misogyny. Part of what makes it so tricky to expose misogyny is that, as Manne astutely comments, it is a self-masking phenomenon.
Sadly, after nearly three-hundred pages of careful analysis, Manne observes that while researching and writing the book, she “became less optimistic about the prospects of getting people to take misogyny seriously [. . . .] The fact that misogyny is killing girls and women, literally and metaphorically, clearly isn’t enough to grip that many people.” Many people will shrug. Or, like people who are busily constructing their counterarguments rather than actually listening to what you have to say, many will simply reinvest in their denial of misogyny. As a society, we have a long way to go to position people to understand gender, equality, and respect. Manne’s efforts in this book are, to my mind, monumental, which makes her concluding observations especially heartbreaking. Heartbreak is a strange reaction to a book of moral philosophy, but one that proves the book’s importance.
My beloved spoke, and said unto me:
‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.’
—from “The Song of Songs,” attributed to King Solomon, circa 950 BCE
This planet may host a thousand worlds, or maybe millions: worlds within worlds, each nation a deck of cards, each citizen a new deal. But as certain as Gregory might be that many worlds must exist, he knew that he had claims in only two. He could live in the world which contained Sylvie, or he could live in the world which did not. He had a secret name for the world with Sylvie. He called it the Bright Forest.
Sometimes she could draw him into that world merely by speaking his name on the telephone. “Gregory?” she would begin uncertainly, and then pause. The uncertainty itself seemed to undo the normal world. It was like a fairy-call, and in that brief silence Gregory would be drawn, sometimes against his will, into the forest ruled by the misrule of Sylvie: a fairy queen, dark, with the serious expression of a girl, not of a woman. In the forest, she was at times openly a child, but no less the author of the tale. Much later, when he lived in the other world full time, the world without Sylvie, the Big World as he called it, he liked to say that he once knew someone who had thought about growing up but had thought better of it. People would smile when they heard this kind of thing, would joke about Peter Pan, but later, privately, he felt bad. Privately, he said, “What if innocence matters?” And he admitted to himself that when young with Sylvie he had looked up into windy sunlit birch trees and they had both seen the leaves flash in great numbers. And only when together! This was tantamount to a confession of faith by a fallen child, and it tore at him so much that sometimes long later he would pick up his phone and call her, and begin, uncertainly: “Sylvie…” then pause for the fairy-call in return and say, again like a child himself: “Oh Sylvie, today I turned forty-one.”
As a boy, Gregory was pale, with pale eyes that you could look straight through without interest. Drive into the suburbs and you might see dozens like him—boys with bikes and the pettiest temptations. He had gone to college as a studious lad without a clue on how to make friends or find a lover. He wrote to his parents: “Dear Mom and Dad: All is well. It looks like I have made peace with my Econ 12 T.A. and have been to the beach three times. I should be able to make your check last until February.” When it rained outside his dormitory, however, he opened his window for the wet smell. And sometimes, like a premonition, he would walk out into a night of crickets and feel a largeness in the sky—but nothing much more than that until he met Sylvie.
They met as freshmen in English Lit 221: The Romantics, where they were in the same section, and Sylvie was the only one who really cared about Byron, who she called an elitist pig. He just thought Byron a bore, though there was something to some of that stuff by Keats. She loved Keats and Shelley, too, but hardly bothered to turn in assignments. Sylvie was no “college girl,” but merely “in college” the way an animal wanders into a serious place, an office or a classroom, sniffs, and wanders out again. She told him seriously that professors murdered all poetry. That poets were in fact real people who really cared about what they were writing, and not in the least what stupid college students or professors said about it. That poets had actually seen the magic in the world and tried to communicate it, and that he should try reading their stuff under a tree without looking for the fucking underlying themes. “Seriously, Gregory. Tonight.” And she took him out at ten p.m. with his book and a flashlight and a jar of peanut butter in case they got hungry.
Of course they kissed, and her hands roamed, and they fell in love.
In love! There came a day when he walked into a city park in the full knowledge of being in love—looking at the other people in wonder, as if they must know. Of sharing secret amazements in the eyes of other young people, who must be, like himself, in love. If only he had known that it was all true, all along, all of it. Neither Gregory nor Sylvie were handsome people, but love does not require physical beauty, it only requires an alliance with beauty. So the two of them forgot about literature and sought beauty together everywhere—parks, houses, restaurants, bed.
In the face of this alliance with beauty, other things fell away. And so there came another amazing day when Gregory walked down the main street of the college town in full knowledge of Sylvie failing in all her classes. Not just one, but all. This information overwhelmed his previous knowledge of how the world operated. He saw how provisional and fraudulent the Big World was, and he ran into a store to buy champagne and potato chips to bring them back to her for a celebration of freedom. In the right light, this was a magnificent act, the act of a prince to his princess—and of course, after that, there was nothing for it but to fail along with her. He wrote to his parents, announcing his decision to drop out of college: “Dear Mom and Dad, I am finally taking responsibility for my own life. I think I’m about to discover a great truth, but I’m not sure what it is.”
He was, of course, about to discover the deepest extents of the Bright Forest, a world where anything might become beautiful. In the Bright Forest were green bottles and mossy curbsides, wet iron railings, bits of colored paper caught in the trees. A world like a fine photograph. He could see roads leading to dilapidated gas stations, sudden rocky overhangs, rows of maple, the gathering places of strangers. In the Bright Forest no one read newspapers on trains; they ran their fingers across the cold windowpanes, drawing circles. Later, at the station, people did not speak of schedules, they huddled against each other on benches and whispered. Or played guitars. Sometimes these same men and women would walk into the alleyways behind restaurants or lie naked together behind the hedges in a public park. In the Bright Forest, goals did not matter, only each step mattered, each momentary act—each meal of crackers and cheese, each raindrop in wintertime, each glance, each motion of the hand before the eyes. Sylvie and Gregory rented a shabby room together, got low-paying jobs, and before long the Bright Forest was everywhere: painted on the vinyl cushions of diner booths and tall against the blank stares of cars in parking lots. Each object in the natural world was but a marker for a potent force in the Bright Forest, each work along its paths a work of gods. In the distance, somewhere, was a lazy conductor beating a slow baton: Now you will sleep, will sleep, now you will make love. They would listen and lie together on long afternoons, would lose jobs for lying together on long afternoons.
Months passed effortlessly and grandly. Gregory let his head grow foggy and warm for whole weeks at a time. Sunlight would cross dusty rooms, grow weak with winter, strong with summer. He was for a long time a kind of prince, and in these, which he considered his finest hours, he was capable of the most royal actions: a quarter to a bum, a long night holding Sylvie when her father died. Prince Gregory could open his eyes to the near and the far and see them both as his dominion. Up close was Sylvie, her face, her hands, her frequent illnesses, her fears. In the distance were palaces: deeper glens, sea cliffs. Each palace they must find, or each palace would never be found by humankind, for there seemed to be no sight but their own. One afternoon in the year he was twenty would remain with Gregory for the rest of his life, a moment of greatness few people in this world can claim: the two of them standing on a small, grassy hill in a public park. A breeze was blowing, and hand in hand, the whole earth was telescoped into the power of Sylvie and Gregory, young and in love and owning it, just owning it all. Looking out, Gregory felt benevolence toward the scene, felt benevolence and generosity of spirit, as would any great man.
Over the course of four years, however, Sylvie and Gregory changed from eighteen to twenty, and then to twenty-two. Despite the best efforts of the forest, Sylvie discovered that Gregory retained ambitions. He found that she could sometimes look strong and serious. One night he brought a lamp up close to her face and declared that she had become a woman.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really,” he said.
She had no secrets from him, of course, and they began to talk about children. Carelessly, but they talked. “Imagine me having a baby,” Sylvie would say, squatting and pretending to pull a baby from her womb. “It would just come out, like this.” She did not know his secret term for their relationship, the “Bright Forest,” but she knew that theirs would be the first baby of some amazing world. This baby would walk with them hand in hand among its trees. They would found a dynasty born in the poverty of the Bright Forest. A dynasty!
Nevertheless, talk of a child triggered an ancient male fear which lay dormant but deep inside Gregory. Time, he saw, was hotting up. Conversations such as the following began to occur:
Gregory (condescendingly): “I don’t understand how you could have lost your fucking keys again. Look, I keep mine on this nail by the door. They’re always there and I can always find them.”
Sylvie (in tears): “What does it matter, Gregory? What does it fucking matter?”
Though such scenes became common, a greater threat arose. For the Bright Forest had a determined enemy, and his name was “Morning.” All was well when they slept in and kept the shades drawn, but sometimes Gregory would awake early with a curious restlessness, and, leaving Sylvie in the humid bedroom, he would walk out into the Morning. At Morning he heard the brass of trucks and streetcars, the cries of work and doing, could smell the clean hard smell of dew evaporating from the Big World, see mailmen. Eventually, Morning became a kind of religion with him. “Sylvie just doesn’t understand this,” he told himself, observing the early people and secretly smiling at their purpose. “These people understand something she just does not understand at all.” And when he returned to find Sylvie still asleep, the bedclothes warm to the touch and the shades peeking pinpricks of sunlight, when he touched the damp shine of sleep on her forehead and smelled the smell of long untidy human habitation, he began to be repelled.
Frightened, he’d close the door and go into the kitchen to make coffee. Once, he even called his parents for advice.
Sylvie began to sense a change in Gregory, and it became an uncomfortable joke between them that he was never home when she awoke. “I want to wake up together,” she would say. “We can open our eyes at the very same instant and then just lie there for a while before going to work or whatever.” And often, after his new routine of newspaper and coffee, Gregory would return to the bedroom, and, consciously steeling himself against—what, he didn’t know—he would crawl back into bed, and awaken her with much charm and grace. But this effort became deception and acting.
Gregory began to ask: was the Bright Forest merely a stepping stone to another, even finer world? And once that question had been asked, Morning was no longer enough. The idea of a baby born in the Bright Forest became more and more a threat. The Big World seemed more and more a release.
One day, Gregory got a real job downtown, to which he went at the appointed hours and worked not just for cash, but advancement. Such joy he took in arriving at a cold office in a gray a.m. would be hard to describe, but there he’d be, beaming inwardly to himself as he wrote things in files and passed messages to people in well-chosen clothing. At lunchtime, he would walk into the hustle of the city with a serious smile, and he would rejoice in the wind that tunneled through the office buildings and set the pant legs of busy men to flapping. The wind! Puzzling movements! Men themselves! The Big World held less beauty than the Bright Forest, but he found it strangely satisfying. He began to look collegiate again, tall and thin, with round glasses and a preppie vest. In the office he became liked, for he had a way of fixing his eyes on a person with an innocent concentration which brought him much good will.
His parents rejoiced that he had finally made a job last more than a few months. Hey, maybe he’d go back to school.
When Gregory told Sylvie that he enjoyed “this cycle of coming and going each day, being away from you and then with you again,” she at first believed him. She was too naive, perhaps, to realize what was going on. After all, what could really threaten the beauty of the Bright Forest? When he came home each day, she would throw herself around his neck and try to drag him into bed, but he would demur, would say he was tired, and again she would believe him. She didn’t realize that he had brought the Big World in with him, and that she, in her old sweater and sneakers, and with all that undisguised love in her eyes, looked merely out of place. Little by little, Gregory grew impatient with “her” cheap restaurants and “her” back roads, and he began to be repelled by sex. Seriously: a certain American Puritanism rose up in him against a life of pleasure. Worse, he now saw not a determined “poetry-in-real-life,” but a kind of desperate quality to all his days with Sylvie, an excess of beauty which might well appear ugly to the outsider. To people, for example, from his office.
At night, lying awake by Sylvie’s side, keeping a precious inch between himself and her flesh, Gregory would actually wonder how he could have given himself to this woman who was like none of the women he knew in his other, Big World of men and ideas. She, for example, could not keep facts straight and ask the right questions when taking a message over the phone. Just now, she was, for heaven’s sake, working in an organic food collective. She had no shine of rapid plans in her eyes, she wore no masculine jackets, and touched no colored shadows to her eyes.
“You should throw out that shirt,” he’d say. “It’s falling apart.”
“You look like a college boy in that jacket,” she would reply, as a joke. “Do they laugh at you at work?”
But he did not smile.
Late at night, he could hear the wind curl around the edges of the apartment building like a kind of warning, and sometimes, rising noiselessly, he would walk out onto the balcony and feel a kind of tremendous and lonely power in the darkness. At such times, even though it was not Morning, he would let a strength come into his limbs which thrilled him, which reminded him that he was young and might do anything. For a short time, at least, young.
In such a manner, little by little, Gregory became utterly alone from Sylvie, and entirely left the Bright Forest for the Big World. This should be no surprise: a new world is all we ever ask, and for the second time in his life, counting the moment he quit college, he felt mighty and free.
The final separation came in the worst way, when Sylvie was out of town, visiting her mother. Indeed, a whole month passed without a visit to the Bright Forest. Under the circumstances, far too long for it to survive.
During that month, Gregory relaxed visibly and worked late hours. So little did he think about Sylvie that he imagined that she did not think of him either. When he finally wrote his letter, on actual paper with a pen, he was sure it would come as no real surprise: “Dearest Sylvie, I’m sorry to write you a letter, but it must be done in a letter, if it is to be done at all. If you would find your own true strength, I know that you must leave me for a time. I am holding you back every moment we are together. We once said that the present should never destroy the beauty of the past, and in that spirit, I say that it has all been so beautiful that I am brought only to joy in looking back. You know what you have taught me, and I only hope the world can teach you what I cannot as time goes by. Write to me. Gregory.”
Lying face down on her childhood bed, Sylvie could only think of that word “strength.” Strength? What did strength have to fucking do with it? Either you stick with someone or you don’t. The letter had come at a dark moment with her mother, when she was hoping for a word from Gregory to cheer her, and now she thought the world had come to an end. Who was this jerk masquerading as Gregory, who had signed such a letter? A letter so full of ugliness and distrust? She reviewed the few weeks before their parting and could not remember having met this other Gregory, though looking back, she could see the signs that he had been growing inside her true Gregory.
“Now I am alone,” she thought, correctly.
This other Gregory grew a moustache, moved halfway across the country, enrolled at a new university—and after a few months he was no longer a child in the Bright Forest, but an adult in the Big World. City streets began to lose their shine and glimmer. He completed a tax return. He graduated. He obtained a job in a sales statistics firm. He fixed his own lunch to bring to work, and he began looking at advertisements for cameras and stereo systems and folding couches. In time he forgot the smell of women, or rather the women around him were so clean that he could not smell them through their blouses and sinless colognes.
About a third of the way into the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, there’s a curious moment when the chorus pauses for the orchestra to play a theme like a little brass band—a brief, bouncy military march, revving up for another grand entrance. Gregory whistled that little tune to himself almost every Morning. If he thought back to his time with Sylvie, he would say things like this to himself:
“Is it only the first moments of any new enterprise that set the whole image and beauty for what is to come? Surely everything that happened in that first moment beneath the oak when Sylvie’s hands roamed created everything that occurred in the next four years.”
Again and again he recalled specific moments of joy in the Bright Forest, but always he heard himself describing his former love to his new friends in disparaging terms: “Those were awful days after I left school, just floundering around. There was this girl who flunked out and took me with her. She, like, never grew up.”
But Gregory found no new woman in the Big World. And sure enough, six years further on, when he was nearing thirty, he began to dream again of making love to Sylvie. The dream of her would arise against his will around him in the night like a close and familiar room. He began to telephone her in Phoenix or Boulder or wherever she had moved that month and found himself talking to her in the small, childlike voice of his previous love.
Sylvie was at first hesitant and kept her distance over the phone. Gregory took this as a sign of strength, and in his mind, judging by the new tone of her voice, his heart began to dress her in sleek, adult working jackets and straight slacks; he pictured her wearing makeup and staring him directly in the eye. Then she began to call, too. “Gregory,” would come the call. Each time, after they spoke, he would walk out into the city with new eyes and look briefly down graffiti-laden alleyways and into the beautiful shadows of the trees, revisiting the Bright Forest. But safely.
At last, one long holiday weekend, Gregory boarded a plane and met Sylvie in her latest town. Over the course of those six years, she had known many men and many jobs. Gregory had become the poet who was her first love, and her best, but who had abandoned her in some vague, artistic confusion. She lost her anger and told herself they had had to part in order to grow up. She could now speak in a more direct manner, dress in well-kept skirts (though not sleek adult jackets), own a car, make plans in advance, offend people less often, and generally pass as a citizen of the Big World.
When Gregory arrived, therefore, he was at first perfectly enchanted. He felt his fondest wish had come true. Sylvie had gained all the strength he had spoken of in his heartless letter! They went out to dinner without even holding hands, and Gregory was magnificent with charming talk and generous public behavior. He had learned how to smoke cigarettes, and he displayed this new talent with bravado, blowing smoke into a warm summer night. Sylvie, in her turn, acted witty, and she looked at him with the indulgence of a former lover, now grown mature, gently hinting at the secrets they had in the past, and laughing indulgently at the right moments.
Like in a movie made by the Big World.
No one in the restaurant looked at them oddly or suspected them to be refugees from another world altogether. And back at her apartment, they went about the business of getting ready for bed with coy efficiency. When the lights went out, Gregory crawled into Sylvie’s bed with confidence, eager to make love like men do to women in the Big World.
On the second day, however, Sylvie didn’t bother to comb her hair as carefully. Gregory overslept.
On the third day, spent idly at a beach, they didn’t walk as they’d both intended, with pants rolled and shoes held discreetly, but instead sprawled in the sand, making a mess with sandwich wrappers. Sylvie forgot to mention the plans she had for Gregory to meet her new friends—annoying and confusing him.
And by the end of the fourth day, when he awoke dreamy and lost, and looked deeply into the waxy magnolia leaves that rattled outside Sylvie’s window, he lost sight of Morning. He saw only that the Bright Forest had sprung up lush and fantastic from the ground all around them, once again. All day they slept and woke, slept and woke, missing the appointment to meet her friends. It wasn’t their fault, Gregory thought. When they got together, everything just went to hell.
As anyone will tell you, much is changed in one’s life merely by having a regular job. And so, even though he delayed his return flight until late into the night, Gregory did eventually drag himself to the airport.
For a time, as they sat together waiting for his flight to depart, it’s true that everyone else looked like a stranger.
Only after their final kiss, and when he found himself alone on the airplane, did Gregory begin to think about how to organize the next day. He checked his messages. His calendar. A few minutes later, he felt the vast cool relief of flying into the Big World forever.