I. It was halfway through LIT 201: INTRO TO AMERICAN LITERATURE that I realized I hated American literature. Every book we read ended the same way: our plucky main character gets on a train and thinks wistfully to the past, then brightly to the future. It’s a cheap metaphor, the train, a symbol for progress, forward movement, Westward expansion, rfonwards & upwards, etc. And American stories are just like that, straight lines, like train tracks, flat, giving the illusion that you ended up somewhere different, further ahead, than when you started. Me personally, I prefer stories that close up in a nice little circle, like a snake eating its own tail. Everything is a cycle and everything repeats. Stories that convince you otherwise are liars.*
* I have only a liberal arts degree from a barely accredited college to back up literary huffing-puffing, so do take this with a grain of salt.
II. It was also in LIT 201: INTRO TO AMERICAN LITERATURE that I realized I was a lesbian. My love for women, as well as other gender identities who identified with lesbianism, was long-confirmed. It was the distaste for men I had trouble accepting. Lady-crushes had blown up and popped all over my life like pearly soap bubbles, and I held out hope that perhaps, one day, a nice fellow would make me feel the same way. There was a promising prospect at college even, a boygenius, chess-master extraordinaire, nearly-professional badminton player. Sad cow eyes, gangly hands forever awkwardly arranged, a pleasant smile glowing incandescent from inside -- really, he had potential. And he was so so nice. “Sweet” was the adjective thrown most his way. He was soft, a dandelion, but that’s the thing with men, beneath that niceness is either something hard and lumpy or else the cesspool of an unformed, childlike psyche absolutely horrified by adulthood and looking for a mommy-substitute. Boygenius was the latter, what a shame. And then LIT 201 asphyxiated away any last breath of hope for me & men. The books we read written by men were all so judgemental & self-assured. Man-authors think they know exactly how women work, how other men work, how life ought to be lived, so on. Every one of them thinks they’ve found The Answer and will defend it red-faced and turkey-jowled, shaking and yelling and slobbering to their little literary grace. And these were the man-geniuses who’d made it on a college syllabus, the best of the bunch, the smartest males our species had to offer, and still, such a disappointment. What chance did the common man stand to win my love?
III. I got into the business of love quite young. It started when I was maybe six and excruciatingly aware that I would eventually die. I don’t know if people are born with this knowledge and then kind of forget as the alphabet and 1-2-3 crowd out infant brain-space and I just failed to forget, or if it’s a fact I wove together from loose bits of reality (the dead robin on the sidewalk, hushed whispers of some relative’s funeral, a superhero blasted with cartoon bullets). Either way, it was horrible, and it hung heavy between my ears. I suddenly stopped wanting to do anything. My parents were busy -- careers, etc -- and it took them a few days to realize I was nearing catatonia. It’s like when you have a pet fish and stop by its tank for the first time all week and peer through the aquarium-wall-algae and think oh no it’s just kind of lying there on its rock and oh shit, I don’t think I’ve fed in a week. Not that my parents didn’t feed me for a week. They just did it a bit absentmindedly, is all. They realized they’d fucked up leaving me with old people for so long, and their immediate solution to glue together the shattered bits of my psyche was lots and lots of time spent with kids my own age. What better place for that than boarding school? That was where I met my first and most enduring love, Ariadna.
IV. Yes, her name really was Ariadna, and yes my lesbianism did sprout in an all-girls boarding school, the same way a dried bean shyly releases its roots atop a wet paper towel, and yes, my initial assessment of Ariadna as a perfectly flawless creature had been absolutely correct. In my 20 years of knowing her, I have discovered only one pertinent flaw in her character: Ariadna is irredeemably, irrevocably heterosexual. But that first day, we were both maybe six, and we didn’t know each other yet. I stepped squinting onto the playground, eyes watering beneath a merciless sun. My first recess carried such gravity, it made my chest hurt. Which kids would I align myself with? Those on the play-structues, on metal twisted into rocketships and pyramids? Space was limited at the top, and you had to earn your place. I watched one girl grab the metal bars, swing herself over and down, a windmill, her bloodied, calloused hands earning small, subtle, approving nods from the others perched like guardian crows. My stomach contracted into a fist. There was no way I would make it with them. The other alternative was the sandbox full of dead-eyed kids sitting still, scared, drowsy, like fish lying on ice at the supermarket. They seemed to be awaiting instruction. You didn’t want to look at them directly, or their whole hunger would bore into you, the tiny crumb of attention hitting their salivary glands. It was horrifying, realizing you probably had more in common with them than the hawks flying on the play-structures. I resigned myself to sand. Better accept defeat immediately than be pummeled to submission. One girl in the sandbox, however, did not look up. She was aflutter, tiny hands assembling, breaking things apart, moving moving moving. This was Ariadna. I eased into the sand beside her. Her tangled head shot up, her eyes locked on mine. She held up something squirmy between her thumb and pointer finger and asked dare me to eat it? As if I would be taking the greater risk by putting the dare upon her. Um. Is that a caterpillar? and of course it was a caterpillar, and she stuffed the whole fat green sausage of it into her mouth before I could authorize a dare.
V. It was a K-12 boarding school, and we spent all thirteen years there, squishing the manicured wet grass of our campus with progressively larger Mary-Janes. I’ll spare the disgustingly sappy details but yes I slowly fell in love with her and never told her and though it was probably pretty obvious, it was relegated to the things-we-don’t-address basement every friendship houses.
VI. We went to different colleges, and we stayed in touch but of course it wasn’t the same. We ended up in the same town in upstate New York after graduation, a horrible little coincidence. She called me every few months to try and schedule a catch-up-over-coffee, but I conveniently always happened to have my phone on silent.
VII. It was also by coincidence that my grandma lived in that upstate New York town. I moved back in with her, the same grandma that raised me from ages 2-6, the same grandma whose constant creaky complaints about deteriorating teeth and hair and joints probably stitched together my early comprehension of death, and around the same time, I found out Ariadna was dating boygenius, who no longer played badminton but was still very much into chess.
VIII. The morning I decided to become a writer, it snowed. The two things were of course unrelated, but still, it seemed like a sign. Ariadna had announced her engagement to boygenius a few weeks before, and it was in those few weeks that I had fallen more still than ever. These things were also unrelated. My grandmother’s slippered feet shuffled around me, a slow carousel, bringing and taking away cups of water, meals, old magazines I left untouched. I just didn’t see much of a reason to leave. Love had been the one reason, love and coffee. But I got Grandma a Mr. Coffee for Christmas, and we brewed our own coffee now in the cheap, plastic, toy-looking machine, and every attempt at love seemed to land my heart in a meatgrinder. Why bother looking with interest into the eyes of a passerby on the street, why bother feeling “!?” inside when they look back, “!!!” if they smile, if everything landed “__” and blank and empty and painful the way an empty stomach feels. But maybe I just artistically sensitive and maybe it was a good idea to monetize that sensitivity, let the world soak in through my pores, wreck its damage on my organs and convert that into text, maybe even a novel. If it was any good, I could restore balance in America’s LIT 201 syllabuses, fix the lesbian-to-man-genius ratio.
IX. The morning it snowed, my grandmother said my, you’re up early, which I wasn’t, it was 1 in the afternoon, but nature had decided it was time to move on from autumn’s decay, and I couldn’t agree more. I pried myself out of bed, snapping its linen chains, brushing stray crumbs of countless meals off my sheets. In my burst of inspiration, I even threw my sheets in the laundry hamper, promising myself I’d wash them later -- my first time in weeks. I told Grandma I’m going to Starbucks and she said Why? We have coffee at home and I told her no, it wasn’t the same, I needed Atmosphere And Ambiance for my writing. Be careful, she said, it’s snowing out there. And I said, I know Grandma, and she replied it’s snowing much too early this year, it’s only October and I said I know, Grandma, it’s climate change. And she concluded with make sure you get on the right bus and I finished with of course I will.
X. I didn’t get on the right bus. I ended up near Target instead. At least the snow had melted by then, liquidated by a bright, clear, harsh sun.
XI. The parking lot of the Kingston Target is the weirdest place on Earth. A swatch of dirty civilization, an asphalt pad littered with broken glass and cigarette butts, placed neatly in the Catskill Mountains, which circle it like the edges of a bowl, blue and hazy and soft with autumn foliage. A train toots, thud-thudding over ancient train tracks. It’s far away, but the sound carries, so it sounds like it’s right there in your ear. It’s a reminder of a bygone time, when New York was first growing fat and industrial off infant commerce, when fancy ladies with fancy last names cruised the trains for weekend getaways in Upstate estates, when hungry advertisers commuted every morning to Manhattan, seeking glory in Times Square billboards. There’s seagulls in the parking lot too, laughing in their little bird way. Their calls seem misplaced -- you’re supposed to hear them relaxing on the beach, not pushing a grocery cart. But the Hudson River stretches wide and blue and sparkling under the Kingston bridge, and perhaps it’s enough of an ocean for them.
XII. The bus wouldn’t come for another hour. I felt hot and stupid, my face sweating against my mask, my scarf. I looked like a child with overeager parents, so bundled up against a cold that had since passed -- it was no longer snowing. I thought about going into Target, but its spell is powerful, you never leave without an armful of products you don’t really need, and I worried about missing the bus when it came back again. So I deposited myself onto a red bench -- what better time to write? I balanced the laptop on my knees. And then I was looking at a blank screen.
XIII. A car honked. Parking lot squabbles, I assumed, but the minivan was right in front of me, and the man in the passenger seat was staring at me, directly at me, and I thought it was an angry consumerist couple who could not stand a beggar setting camp up before their beloved red-and-white tower. But the man was familiar. Boygenius’ hairless arm dangled limp from the window. Which meant that behind the driver’s wheel was
XIV. Ohmigod hi! Ariadna’s clear bell of a voice rang out. What are you doing here? I told her I was buying coffee for my grandmother at Target. We just got a Mr. Coffee I explained and my grandma loves it. Ariadna called me sweet. Like a soldier ant releasing its acids straight into my heart. Do you need a ride? she asked and my brain said no no no but my mouth said sure, why not? And then I was in the backseat, brushing aside granola crumbs, feeling as small and uncomfortable as a child squeezed in their parents’ backseat. We paused at a red light, and Ariadna whipped around towards me, cheery, fresh, a cherry plucked right from the bag, and asked Would you by any chance want to come with us? and I realized she’d been chattering away, happy as the parking lot seagulls the whole time we drove out and into the street and at the stoplight, explaining exactly where she and Boygenius were heading, exactly. I had to get back to my grandmother, she would be nervous, and my writing career! It waited like a stern, patient mother waits in the kitchen for her teeanager who’s breaking curfew. Um yeah sure I’ll come with you guys, insisted my unruly mouth.
XV. Ariadna was never one to miss a season. In school, she made garlands from dried leaves and yarn for autumn, paper snowflakes for Christmas. I was never too good at cutting the latter. You’re supposed to just fold eight times and cut triangles “wherever you feel like it” but I lacked cutting-intuition and mine came out like pizzas left outside and shredded by racoons. Ariadna’s were beautiful though. I usually preferred to just help her out. Halloween now still meant she was driving Boygenius and I to a pumpkin patch.
XVI. Ariadna was talking talking talking, and Boygenius didn’t respond but to say let’s make sure we get there fast, it’s gonna storm soon. I said it must be the leftover rain from that hurricane down south, and Boygenius said yep and I said isn’t it weird it’s called Hurricane Zeta? Aren’t they usually called with human names? and Boygenius responded yep they have a certain number of names set aside each year but there’s been so many hurricanes already that they went through all of them and I said dang it must be global warming and he said yep.
XVII. We wandered the pumpkin patch, them holding hands, me trailing behind. I try not to stare, but I see how weak Boygenius’ grip is around Ariadna’s hand. She told me she likes her hand being held tight enough to squeeze out all the blood. It’s heartbreaking, when someone has precisely the one and only thing you want, and then takes such bad care of it. Like being a kid who wants a dog and seeing someone drag their poodle by the leash, walking too fast for the poor animal, distracted by their phone. The pumpkins seemed to grin at me, ripe and orange and finding something terribly funny. I kicked one, when no one was looking.
XVIII. There was corn looming ominous, dry, rustling like old fingers on all sides. The skies were growing gray, the storm was coming soon. I never knew quite what to do with myself at a pumpkin patch.
XIX. There were food vendors at the pumpkin patch, searing funnel cakes, twisting spokes of hot kebabs. The smell greased my nostrils. After Ariadna picked out a tiny, hamster-sized pumpkin for herself, we walked around, just looking. An old man sold crickets. Fried, pickled, frozen in lollipops, barbeque-flavored, mixed with pistachios. Boygenius’ face drained absolutely of color. I cannot believe people eat bugs, he whispers. That is so disgusting. I can’t believe it. If I saw someone do that, I think I’d vomit. I wanted to tell him how, funnily enough, if he could believe it, when Ariadna and I met, dot dot dot, but she looked quite alarmed, as if she knew exactly what I was thinking, and in her wide eyes I saw it said, their relationship was new, where tiny things were still being sorted out, where a small thing like eatings caterpillars as a child for fun could ruin it, and please don’t say anything. The inside of my head felt itchy. I needed to say it. I needed to say it! But that would be betrayal. Ariadna’s face was twisted in a painful bow. I quieted my unruly mouth. Her secret would be safe with me.
XX. There were other attractions too, a slide built atop a hill of hay, a petting zoo with mottled goats. But Ariadna’s eyes fell to the little train, a rickety contraption, with each cabin built to accommodate a toddler and not much more. The first mad raindrops pummeled its tin roof as she and I and Boygenius squeezed in, them in the cabin ahead of me, me bent in the one behind them. As the train groaned along its humble railroad, a track circling the pumpkin patch, I watched him massage the back of her neck. It was unbearable. I looked out, at the horrifying storm clouds rolling in. They would make a lovely symbol for my next story.