Seeing it again makes me so homesick for the Colorado Plateau. And I always think of Calexico when I think of Out There. This dreamy little instrumental piece from “Feast of Wire” (still my favorite) drifts in and out of my mind.
‘You’d be a great candidate for Invisalign,’ chirps the new dentist, and this takes me by surprise. The part about the wear on my molars, I knew. The stress to which I’ve been subjecting my perma-clenched jaws. But it’s the first time I’ve heard this recommendation, based on my ‘deep bite’. Something is changing for the worse.
The receptionist runs the estimate, hands it over with a perceptible wince. I choke at the sight of the out-of-pocket cost: $5000 with my useless, toothless insurance. I sign a form acknowledging my understanding of the unattainable. My condemnation to the dentition of my grandmothers. My mother, with a premolar gap she can’t afford to fill.
My hands shake as I sign. There’s a pounding in my ears, and when I briefly close my eyes, my vision is a warm, inviting, arterial red. No. No. I muzzle the instinct to lunge at the innocent receptionist. She smiles sadly, deaf to the shredding of my inner skin. I leave before the bones pop and the howling rage begins. It requires no moon.
I find a solitary place to writhe. Eventually, my mayhem unspent, despair comes to smooth down all the bristles, grind down all the points. A rabbit rustles in pouncing distance. Finches flit within my swipe. Aware that my prey is something other – and elusive enough to drive one mad.
The throat that matches my bite spans multitudes. And not knowing where to begin, I starve.
A little something different to amuse my Cool Cousin on his birthday; as he knows, I get my bite from more than my mother’s side.
The mirror that is seen is almost useless, but I know the resemblances by heart, especially that querulous contortion of my eyes, misread so often as anger, that answers a question or a statement half-heard or unexpected. People, it’s nothing more than concern or curiosity, or a challenging of unclear language; a need to fix an unsatisfactory state of knowledge.
How many hours we clocked at the library, working on that never-ending quest together, I’ll never know, but I can’t help noticing my crib is still lined with books, mostly science fiction, science fact, and fantasy, novels whose caliber would meet even your exacting tastes; everyone knows you could teach college lit if not for a few pesky pieces of stiff paper.
But I’m guessing you’d hate that: your words on other people’s terms, at other people’s pace. “She keeps to herself” they may say about you but I know this is half a lie; after the parties, explosions of notions are the introvert’s gift. I miss the midnight dissections of Dickens, the quantum mechanical travels, but luckily I have your brain on speed-dial.
Where would half my worlds be without your verification that they’ve yet to be written, or my ego without your anticipation of sequels and movie rights; I’m glad you’re patient about that because my stories grow at the rate of gardens, which you’ve apparently added to your long list of artforms after pastels, drawings, wire figures, and Surrealist pipe-cleaner cat toys.
You’re restless and bored and I dig that; What other girl in the 70s had all her costumes sewn from inspirations in the Encyclopedia Britannica? What happened in the 80s I don’t want to talk about; what decade of teenage angst doesn’t strangle the tightest mother-daughter bond? Regardless, I blame Reagan. We’ve never ceased struggling, but at least we’re on the same side now.
Walking downtown I see ghostly overlays of past-on-present. Behind the shiny windows of apartments and offices, you and I eat burgers at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, see a movie at the Strand; it all went away before our eyes. I get worked up about who can afford to live there now (Reagan again), but at least when they built the new library, they were thinking of us.
If only our healthcare system were redesigned with such intelligence; every day you go to work you navigate the rubble of a profession deformed by greed. “Why”, even I used to ask, “doesn’t she look for another job? Anywhere would be better than that place.” But the residents know and so do I, your subversive compassion; if not for your defiance, who would even care?
Going back to both mirrors, I will confess to envying everything, really. My commitment to keeping it all together, being responsible, and not just running off to join the circus, has always needed improvement. And like everyone, I’ve wanted that long curly red hair, but at least after all this time I’ve learned to be happy making silk flowers for your braids, while my own sharp blondness bleaches in the sun.
But sooner or later you’ll say, “You know, kiddo, I’ve got enough flowers”, so I’ve crimped together instead this ode to all the scrappy habits I’ve learned from you, and to the fact that no one ever really knows what’s going on inside our scrunched-up foreheads. Like I said, it’s probably just that work-in-progress, some tasty new problem. Or we could really be angry, but man, that’s a whole other poem.
My offering for International Women’s Day. I wrote this and posted it on The Fairy of Disenchantment in 2015, and I’m happy to say that my mother has retired since then, and works for nobody but her muse. But she would totally run away and join the circus with me if I asked.
An unknown age of ice fractures, attenuates all patience, stretches to the perfect limit of pain, disintegrates like sugar on the tongue. March rushes under. It has never stopped.
The last two lines of this poem came as a surprise to me. Why? Because when winter comes, I always feel as if it’s never actually left, just lain dormant. Like it’s a return to reality. Summer for me has felt illusory for a long time. Ignus fatuus. (My grandfather loved that term, discovered in the giant encyclopedic dictionary that was his daily reading where another man — at another time, before the death of his second child — had once read the Bible. “Ignus fatuus,” he’d say to me, apropos of nothing sometimes. And I’d supply the rejoinder: “Will o’ the wisp.”) And I’ve realized over the last several years that this is a survival mechanism, because Messers (as I’ve come to call people with MS) largely dread the hot months as times of misery — a flare-up of every possible symptom. It helps to view summers as temporary things. Which goes so against my grain I could cry.
I was born on the summer solstice and am by nature a creature of the sun. I am rampant in the desert, or on a sole-scorching beach. Or I should be. Once was. Whatever. Spring, though… What was it, before? The thing I tolerated, before my season started.
It seems that’s altered, since. And on a good day, it’s March, not December, that feels dormant — eternal. The bubbling up of water under broken glass, pushing apart the shatter so gently, and yet with such force. I won’t say I welcome it more than October, because my shadow-loving nature will always keen towards Samhain. But the flip side, kindled at Imbolc, is definitely powerful. And that’s a good thing… growth, I’d say, to more than tolerate a time of burgeoning.
I always provide some accompaniment to my poems and stories, so here is a scene from Wings of Desire (one of my favorites of all time). I was thinking of the soundtrack (specifically “Der Himmel über Berlin”), when I first imagined my father’s hallucinations during a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia several years back. Part of me sometimes returns to St. Mary’s Hospital from two separate long, lonely stays there as a child, so, true story.
First: wow. What an age we live in, when a man can go into the hospital on Monday morning, have a third of his right lung removed by remotely operated robots, be discharged the very next afternoon, and be walking around like nothing happened a day later. (This would be my husband, who has just been declared cancer-free, huzzah!) I’m still sort of coping with the sudden relative normality of life after a month of constant anxiety… but I’m not complaining.
Second: I have to admit, anxiety has been good for the book. Anxiety and connection, with both of my romantic partners. Mortality has that effect, and ain’t none of us getting any younger or healthier. I will say that it’s a wonderful thing, when you’re writing about romance, to feel like you’ve got a firm grasp of what you’re writing about.
I have at least seven love arcs in my book, running all across the spectrum from friendship to erotic obsession. And I tend to stress over whether the relationships are as realistic as they can be. One thing I’m keen to avoid is “instalove.” When I workshopped the first chapter of this story a few years ago, I asked for help in fixing that with my central couple, and I got some game-changing advice: if you make them already in a relationship, you can track back for the development at a more leisurely pace. Seems like such a simple solution now, to the point where all of my arcs are actually already in play. I have a favorite one, but it took a long time to feel like I got it right.
Nix, the brother of my protagonist Chalcy, is demisexual and (like all my characters in this world) very comfortable with his nature as it reveals itself over time. His relationship with Najet, a musician in the band for which Chalcy was a songwriter and Nix played violin (and also sewed costumes), is the slow-burn romance of the book. But because I have so many characters with SO MUCH GOING ON, there’s a limit on the amount of time I can devote to their story. A challenge, and I may not actually be pulling it off, but this couple is super satisfying to write.
This is just a little excerpt of what happens when they’re reunited after half a year — an epoch when you’re newly in love, and during which time they’ve been exchanging letters while Nix is leading a revolutionary movement a few hundred miles away. You should probably also know that Nix usually suffers from serious haunting by his ancestors, who’ve pinned their family hopes on him now that his even more radical sister is clearly never coming back to tend the family business. Tonight, however, which happens to be the first time he’s experienced physical attraction to Najet, the ‘mothers’ are mysteriously absent. (FYI: this is a matrilineal society.) Oh, and some vocabulary: ‘svai’ means sexual compatibility; ‘yasvai’ is the lack thereof, or asexuality in general. Taravi is one of four official languages in this civilization including sign language; code-switching is a way of life.
Nix must concede, as he’s divesting her of her stage clothes, that The Swell’s new tailor is quite good.
“But not as good as me.”
“Jikaro,” Najet pronounces, mock-disapproving. Pride, in Taravi, generally means vanity. But there’s a reverence in the way she undresses him in turn, her fingers lovingly tracing seams that she knows were laid down by his own sewing machine.
The memory returns to her, not half as distant as it feels, of watching him at work, on a set break backstage, quickly mending a skirt she’d torn when the lacy hem was caught under the stand of her bass. Breaking off the thread with his teeth and tossing the garment at her with a blithe, mildly intoxicated Good as new! Even half-drunk, Nix was better at such things than she was dead sober. What a match he would make, she thought, hearing her mother’s voice in her head (because gods knew she was miserable at the family lathe). And what a fool she was for abandoning that thought when she’d realized, standing purposely close in her knickers while he worked, that there wasn’t the faintest glimmer of lust in his eyes when he looked at her. Even when he’d reached out and put his hand on her hip, moving her an inch to the side, his boyish smile apologetic: You’re in my light.
Now, as his eyes caress her in advance of every touch, she feels as if she is his light. Mothers be kind, she prays as they sink into her bed.
Nix, for his part, has decided his ancestors have nothing to do with this seeming miracle. Nothing feels more natural than his instincts at this moment, and he finds himself thinking of something Ferruzadi said to him the night they learned that he could know pleasure without desire… but that he preferred a good massage. Yasvai has its own spectrum, you know? Svai may arise with some requisite condition or conditions – or it may not at all. Either way, it’s beautiful. You are as Karst made you. And Karst, apparently, made him for Najet Turner.
The one thing he wishes, with what’s likely to be his last rational thought as Najet’s soft-downed thighs encircle him, is that he might have had a little warning. The last time he took contraceptive herbs was years ago – and though there are different herbs for women, no honorable Coruscarian male would expect his partner to attend to such things.
“Where are you with the moon?” he asks. “I didn’t prepare for this, but we can be careful.”
Najet’s languid gaze clears with a blink. It holds him with tenderness for a long time before she speaks, cautiously choosing her words.
“Must we? Be careful? I mean… I think I’d be so happy. In that event.”
An unspoken question hangs on her parted lips. And it stuns him, how little he must consider his answer. Such a responsibility, now, would be madness. But all he can feel is longing, and all he can see are the faces of the children who take lessons with him in Sphene – the daughters of his apartment concierge. The shy perfectionist who reminds him of Chalcy. The brash, so-called unteachable one who reminds him of himself.
“If there’s a child,” he tells her, “I’ll come home, Naya. And I’ll stay.”
There is something Najet urgently wants to say to this. But it’s a long time… hours, hours of love and heat… before she does.
To think I didn’t even know they’d end up together at first! I find them very sweet and refreshing to write, compared to my main couple (Chalcy and Mica) who are so intense. Hopefully I manage to make them all believable.
Oh and there’s a third thing! The Chamber Magazine was nice enough to publish a little interview with me, if you’re interested in writerly process type things. (And they’re still accepting submissions!)
Now let’s see, what is the perfect Nix and Najet song… Ah.
My poem, “Sonata No. 6 (for Julian Scriabin),” was just published at The Chamber Magazine (thanks again to Phil Slattery for accepting it). If you are a wordsmith with morbid tendencies, I encourage you to submit your work!
I recently posted a video of the titular sonata, but there’s some good background on the piece on Wikipedia. I don’t recall precisely when I discovered Alexander Scriabin but it was in my late teens and I loved Russian composers as much as I loved Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. When I heard No. 6 for the first time… it was a formative experience for a Goth girl. There was no Wikipedia then, but there were liner notes, and I was thrilled to discover that the piece scared the shit out of Scriabin too, and he rarely performed it.
It was many years later that I learned about Alexander’s son Julian, whose music you’ll probably never hear on NPR (though a few recordings are out there). Julian’s work, as you might expect from a composer who died when he was 11, bore many of his father’s hallmarks but was not without personality of its own. I have always wondered how it might have evolved if he had not died so tragically young in that “boating accident”…
If we wrote what we said, one might think it a code and so we seem already to outsiders, speaking in anacoluthons, clear enough to each other, mostly– this page, torn from an obscure imprint, is what I saved from that voyage of lost images, and I am overcome
by being there again, a ghost in Taos, looking up that ladder that led to nowhere, and into the red, weeping eyes of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, and listening to Blue Spruce Standing Deer’s memories of his grandfather, bringing us into so many worlds all at once.
This page from Gertrude Stein’s portrait of Mabel. There were more but I kept only this one — why? — and why these lines to spark just one poem of us, that code to speak our language which is also bent and alone and abandonment and not vanishing, letters cut
from some synchronicity, from one of our alternate eras; I still want them to find one day a trove of clues to our escape, that last great joke on civilization, that masterful plan we hatched in Glenwood Springs, that would with your luck and my art leave them wondering.
The image is of a souvenir from the 2016 exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the Westat the Harwood Museum in Taos. The poem is dedicated to my husband, Steve, who’s going in for surgery for lung cancer on Monday. A hospital is a terrible place for an alcoholic; I don’t envy what he’ll go through if he has a prolonged stay. But I also renounce the guilt of not having done enough to make the experience easier. I happen to believe in free will, for better or worse. He’s always said “That’s your luck” whenever anything good has ever happened to us, but he’s got to have plenty of his own to have made it this long as an unrepentant rocker. Here’s hoping it holds out a little longer. I’d like us to make it back to Taos one more time.
I have to thank Jennifer Patino for giving me just the form for this poem. I hadn’t known tricubes were a thing before, and you can’t ask for a more apt frame for an ode to polyamory.
I’ve always hated the word compersion, which is largely unknown outside the Poly community. It’s supposed to describe a feeling of vicarious happiness when your partner is enjoying time with someone else. But it’s a product of the late 20th century and as much as I agree that 1) we need a word for this feeling and 2) we need it to extend outside polyamory (as people have argued compersion should do), I just can’t get past its problematic origins. (A word rooted in colonialism, repurposed by a white male cult leader is just never going to sit well with me.)
Of all the alternatives that I’ve seen offered, only one really speaks to me: the Buddhist term mudita. It seems to better capture the feeling itself: “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being”. It’s often used to describe parents’ feelings for their children’s happiness or success. I would like to see this level of desexualized joy attached to non-monogamous relationships, which are too often stigmatized in the popular mind. There’s something about compersion that makes it sound closer to compulsion than compassion – a kind of aberrance. Mudita has a gentleness that discourages judgement.
I think about the borrowed words English has for emotions and find it unsettling that almost everybody knows what Schadenfreude is, but can’t come up with a similarly concise term for vicarious happiness. Considering its proto-Indo-European roots, English could really stand to give a lot more love to Sanskrit and Pali. Or take more love from it, as the case may be.
I’m happy to announce that my dark science fiction short story, “Mother of Sands” was published today in The Chamber Magazine. (Kind thanks to Phil Slattery for accepting two of my works this month. The poem I mentioned in my last post will appear next week; a little more background will be posted here at that time.)
Here is a subtle soundtrack for your reading:
By the way, writers of dark fiction and horror, The Chamber is open for submissions — I’d love to see the magazine build on its strong foundations so far!