For you non-GACers, Firethorne is the literary publication put out by Gustavus Adolphus College. It features art, poetry, essays, and fiction from the students on campus. I thought today, on this gray, cold, windy sort of day, I'd share a piece I wrote for Firethorne my senior year of college.
I don't care to share my writing--which I know sounds ridiculous because I blog every day but believe me when I say this is writing of a different sort. But this is already out there. So why should I not take a moment to re-read, reflect upon, and share it with the rest of the world?
My orgasm was lackluster. My orgasm was the emptiest, most fallible moment of sexual release that I have ever, ever, ever had. And it’s sad: I knew it wasn’t going to mean anything, the sex. Still, he had charm, poise, status—he was as much a package as you could pick out of the human post office. He was the one you wanted to sign for, checked your e-mail for, religiously refreshed the page for. He was the one that mattered then, matters now, and matters still.
But he wasn’t the one that fit.
Her hair is pressed tight against her skull, pushing the skin of her furrowed brow into the foreground of her brain. She is cooking scrambled eggs. They are yellow like the pee I find in the snow on our porch outside. Lucee, the retriever we rescued from an abusive cousin of ours—jail, now, I think—is too frightened to venture off the front step and just squats on the cement while her hot pee runs over the steps like a waterfall, the only waterfall in the world you don’t want to see up close or thrust your arm into. I never blame her. It’s so cold out there and I certainly wouldn’t want my privates sticking to the snow.
“That goddamned dog is never going to learn if we just keep letting her back in the house,” my dad shouts from the table, his paper ruffling in one rough hand while he drops Bailey’s liquor into a mug of coffee with his other. “She’s going to have stay out there one of these days and learn her goddamned lesson.”
Erick, marching Legos across the kitchen floor, makes his usual case with all of the wisdom of his five years: “She’s a good dog. She’s a good dog, Dad.”
“Good dogs do not pee on the goddamned porch. Now put down those goddamned toys and eat your goddamned cereal or you’ll end up just as scrawny as this one over here.”
He looks up and shakes his head in my direction and I say, “Goddamned bones just won’t get any bigger!” and he laughs like everything between us is fine. I cherish that part of our relationship. I like being able to curse at the breakfast table and make my dad smile before the WHAP of a spatula comes down across the back of my neck.
“You will watch your language in this house, Joshua.” My mother has a no-tolerance policy for swears. Truth be told, I don’t care for them much either; I just like the way my dad’s laughter tastes when it mixes in with my morning eggs. It is a promising taste. A taste that says: everything is just fine.
The after burn of the spatula on my neck is never that painful, and it never leaves me feeling ashamed or afraid or upset. Oddly, I find it comforting. Sometimes when I get up from the table, I go into my room and finish getting ready for school by rapping the back of my neck with pencils or hangers or the spines of small books. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. Really, it feels strange that no one else seems to experience the same feeling of calm as I do. When I ask around in class if my friends ever tried replicating the sting of a kitchen utensil on their cold, bare skin, most of them pretend to not have heard—they look away like something is uncomfortable and even stifle a laugh. Still: there is something about these mornings that feel perfect. Eggs, family, and WHAP(!), the pain of wooden spoon or a hot tong or fork fresh from the skillet. It’s soothing. It relaxes me. It makes me feel like I’m alive.
Yes, arousing. That’s the word.
= = =
What I struggle with now is this terrible feeling of guilt that accompanied that arousal. A guilt that feels so similar to this present vacancy as the two of us breathe heavily, waiting in silence for other to clean up or at least grab a towel. Sure, it’s my room, but I don’t mind falling back to sleep even in this mess. Actually, I would prefer it. I would like nothing more than to drift back to sleep and hide from this rift that’s tearing at the world between us. But I get up and I grab an old towel because he asks: “Can we clean up?” I don’t want to.
What I do want is for this piece of existence to fit into my life. I want to break the edges and force the interlocking pegs into another set of slots and persuade myself that it somehow goes there. That, for now, that piece is going to work just as well as any other. The tendency to bust the puzzle before really understanding the picture has always been the issue.
= = =
My mom is sitting on the leather couch in the living room, drinking from a steaming mug littered with Shakespearean quotes. Her face is red with heat as her lips press against “get thee to a nunnery” and sip away at the scalding beverage inside. There is something in the way her eyes narrow and direct beyond the steam that is simultaneously puzzling, frightening, and engaging. I wonder how she keeps them open for so long, how they manage to avoid shuttering themselves amidst that terrible, terrible heat.
“You’re staring, Joshua.” Despite the flood of hot liquid, her voice is frozen. “You know better than to stare. I’ve raised you better than that.”
“Sorry,” I reply. “It’s the tea. It just looks so hot. How do you drink it so quickly?”
“I’m hardly drinking it quickly at all. In fact, I am only sipping it.”
“I mean ‘How can you drink it when it’s just been poured into your mug?’ Doesn’t it burn your throat?”
“Sure,” she says, setting her mug down next to the needlepoint that lays face up on the table in front of her.
“Somehow, I don’t mind the pain. I think it even helps me focus, keeps me young.”
“Keeps you young?” I cock my head. Lucee walks over and licks my face from chin to eyebrows. “You don’t need to be young when you have me and Erick. Don’t you always say that we’re the ones that keep you young?”
“You boys do your part, but you’re only part of the puzzle.” She takes another sip, this time kissing “whether ‘tis nobler,” and sets the mug back down. “Life is a lot like a puzzle, Josh. There are cuts to be made, borders to be drawn, and—often when you least expect it—there’s a piece on the floor that you’ve been looking for all night.”
The last part keeps me quiet, keeps me in thought. I am nine and somehow there is nothing more interesting to me than this notion that things happen when you least expect them. How could we possibly go through life not knowing what to expect? Her answer: “You look at the box and try to match the picture as best as you can.”
= = =
When I go to grab the towel, I opt for a V-neck shirt instead because I think it might add the personal touch that was missing from the mess on my newly washed sheets. I wipe the shirt over my chest and stomach, desperately flexing my abdominals and pecs, trying to create some illusion of tone and definition. I give up almost instantly. I am naked, and it’s hard to create something out of nothing, to sculpt without clay, to paint without a brush. It’s even harder to impress the permanently skeptical, the infinitely proud. But I still try.
“Here, I hope you don’t mind using a shirt. It’s mine. I can wash it quicker than I can wash a towel.”
He nods and grabs the simple, gray cotton from the air as it passes in front of him. He doesn’t so much as say ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Great!’ or even a sarcastic ‘Finally!’ Instead, he rubs down the bedspread and then cleans off his stomach, careful to wipe out his bellybutton with a little extra vigor.
“Wouldn’t want to find anything in there later,” I deadpan.
He looks up, meets my eyes, blinks. “I have to get back. I have a busy day.”
“Yeah. Well.” I stop and the moment of silence presses into my back and my neck is suddenly very, very hot. “Can we talk about last night? Can we give this a try?”
“Okay?” The fire begins to creep across the base of my hairline and prickle through my shoulders and the tops of my ears. “Is that an ‘Okay, can we go now?’ or an ‘Okay, I’d like that’?”
He steps up from my bed and stretches his sweatshirt out and over his arms, his head, and pulls it down over his chest and lower torso. He turns away from sad, inquisitive eyes and walks to the door. I hear the knob turn, the lock click up and out of place as he replies, “Both.”
“Yeah,” he says, taking a few steps up the staircase. “I don’t see how they’re mutually exclusive.”
I reach up to give him jumper cables, to make him laugh, to make him smile, to crack the frosty veneer that’s making these stairs an unbearable exercise in tension relief.
He stops dead, three stairs from the top: “Don’t.”
= = =
When Erick flits around my room, energized by the same sugar that gave him seizures when he was four, I roll my eyes and walk out into the hall that leads to the kitchen. I let Lucee out when she scratches at the door, and encourage her to take a step off the entryway so that dad might be able to see she doesn’t just pee on everyone else’s walking space.
“Go on, Lu,” I prod. “Just a little further, just a few more steps.” She never leaves unless I too take a step onto the frozen cement. And even if she does, I feel guilty because I am forcing her to dip herself into the snow and freeze her privates to the ground. I always crack myself up a little bit with this thought. I picture her stuck to the snow covered yard and then myself rushing inside to call the fire department just like if one of my classmates had stuck their tongue to the pole that the swings hang from. I put it in headlines in my brain: “LOCAL DOG STUCK BY PRIVATES!”
And then I realize that nothing like that ever happens to anyone in real life. That sort of stuff is better suited for movies, for books, for make-believe. It’s better suited for photographs, for pictures— for the pictures on the puzzle boxes that are stacked up inside the hallway closet.
= = =
It’s cold, and there is nothing worse than a silent winter morning after you’ve emptied your being into an experience that is, in itself, a sad and quiet vacuum. A door opens, shuts, and another door follows suit. A car starts up and pulls away from the curb of snow and ice, and its wheels crawl up a hill as the sun climbs higher through the silver-lined sky. The radio plays, but there are no words for this moment, there are no lyrics that describe the disquiet that exists in silence. The air is heavy with thoughts and you can tell they are there because they smother the sounds of an angry engine that does not want to work this hard in the frigid morning.
The breaks are pushed down and there is a kiss.
One door opens, shuts, and I try to say goodbye. But he doesn’t look back and, really, there is no reason for him to do so.
The car finds its way back to my driveway.
The music has shut off, though I do not notice the change. Instead, the back of my neck flares up and my ears begin to ring. I do not look up into my kitchen windows just in case my roommates are watching me through the glass.
One door opens, shuts, and I step out onto the driveway, and I have not said goodbye. I can’t help but look back over the hill and into the sun-lit, monotonous sky.
I hop from one scattered pile of snow to another on my way to the front door, keeping my head down in search of something in the chilly banks. If I look hard enough, I might just find the jigsaw piece I’ve left somewhere on the ground.