I. You might even know me. I am instantly recognizable by the way my eyes light up when someone (a man, say) in their mid-forties works the death of Kurt Cobain into casual conversation. Note to self – the word nevermind has implications when uttered in a bar after dark. “He was taken from us much too soon,” they say, as if the Nirvana frontman was beamed up by the grunge extraterrestrials who were good enough to loan him out. I mumble that he shot himself in the head the day before I turned four months old. A chill runs up my spine, and for the briefest moment, I am aware that I have the look of a fatherless daughter. They’re embarrassed for that raw part they touch, but still the praise teems forth: “It’s actually rock and roll, how his art is the truest expression of his anguish.” My laugh is choked with a sob. I say, “No one talks like this about apartheid.”
It doesn’t occur to this person that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president the same year Cobain sealed his fate, so it sounds like I’ve just said something culturally insensitive for the heck of it. My point was death is not a creative experience. Death is the thing most of us try to avoid for as long as possible. The point is moot, though. The futility of an unstylish death goes without saying. It is the conscious rejection of life that makes dying important. My college education tells me so.
You lack what it takes to say my name out loud. There are people around who would hear you and know who was meant by it. When you see me in the half-light of neon and laminated photo I.D.s, a cycle begins in which I lie down before it is asked of me. And if my smile is the prettiest of me, you take it before it is given. Watching my regard stray to you, the ego of the flannel-clad MTV purist sags. I am left alone. It’s better that way. I’m easier that way. Come here. Closer. That’s right. Here we are now, entertained and feeling stupid.
First, I stop shaving. It is the reclamation of my vagina and all that makes me woman. I am very busy willing you out of existence, self-actualizing, and expounding on the value of dirt. Here is the richness of the soil, the extent of my languor: that for you and him and him and her I removed my one natural protection. And I never heard a thank you. And I was unaccustomed to the cold on my skin. Here is the fertility. No, not down there, goofball. But here, where you touch me to hold me just under the right armpit. Then the left. How I am suspended. Where the hair grows prolifically. Stamp that on a white T-shirt in dull red print—WHERE THE HAIR GROWS PROLIFICALLY. I am becoming a vine. Far as the eye can see, all growth and nothing sustainable.
It is a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Please don’t be so vain as to think it has anything to do with you. I fancy myself a kind of modern-day Dust Bowl farmer. Maybe that’s arrogant, I don’t know. What I know is that I have deep lines in my face and I’m not old. And I know that hunger dissipates after so long. I know my body is not the used thing you would make it, but I see it crumbling in my bed in my parents’ house in a position that avows flatly, “She is a stranger in a familiar land.” How readily I return to ash. As my father slips socks then braces then shoes on my feet, he can’t help but grimace at the blond hairs covering my legs.
“What are you proving?” he says.
Whadda you got? is on the tip of my tongue, and that is where it will stay.
Driving through Virginia, I sit beside my father as he says, “Jesus Jesus” prayerfully and under his breath. He was chewing me out not half an hour ago about the value of an original idea, so I suppose the whispering is an improvement. The last of that temperate, summer breeze blows through what has been affectionately dubbed The Blue Bus. And I’m a little disappointed at how familiar this state feels, despite my never being here before. Southern pines line the highway. Every three or so miles, a historical marker commemorates a battle or the threat of battle. When the designated hour for a bathroom break is nigh upon us, we take an exit to a ghost town. Plastic bags whip through the air like a tribute to America’s post-industrial age. The storefront windows are all boarded up. From the backseat, my mother says, “Even the gas station is dead.” And it’s true. The doors are locked. The pumps are labeled, OUT OF ORDER. In my boredom, I think it’s oh-so deep. “It’s the world that’s out of order,” I say to the bug guts on the windshield. I know I won’t be the voice of my generation, but neither was J.M. Barrie, and he turned out okay.
A leather-bound edition of Peter Pan is upside down on my lap, open to a sketch of the eternal boy hovering in a London window. Or is he falling through it? I wonder how the cosmos would be thrown into disarray if Wendy was the one to first spy Peter. Imagine the girl’s command over his affections. Peter is steadfast and sincere, yet Wendy is too full of wanderlust to be tempted by the smallness of a thimble. Wendy is stunted by her need to have it all. Peter refuses to grow up without her. He jumps—no; it’s been done and overdone. The pair is too young to be sexualized. Disability, however, is not subject to age restrictions. So make them disabled. Give them hands that don’t work and legs that won’t move. Let them sit side by side, just looking, forever and ever. Amen.
That’s how I’d make it anyway, simultaneously edgy and dull. I’d write you in as the town pervert and call it my autobiography.
I’ll tell you exactly how it happened.
You decide we need to sit on the couch; to relax on the couch is how you put it. There’s a coffee mug with a straw in it on a TV tray. The liquid inside has an amber hue. It looks like tea, tastes like whiskey. You continue to hold it in front of my face, so I continue to drink. When you reach your arm around my waist, I breathe in pine needles and I think I could be home for good. According to you, I am as pretty as a picture. No one, aside from church-going women with feathers in their caps, says junk like that to me. I know better, but I don’t correct you just then. I don’t know why. And I blush too noticeably; that’s my misfortune. You are playing that dumb videogame that looks an awful lot like Pong, but has a name like Death Maze Twelve. At first, I mistake your hand for my own. It presses against my left hipbone. That seems like a place my hand would fall, but the fingers are groping. My mouth opens to complain. The words won’t form. I’m crying, and I don’t remember when I began. “Hush now, little one,” you say. “How ‘bout another sip?” The alcohol runs out of my mouth and down my T-shirt. I feel grungy. You smile. I’m thinking, Is this how you treat little ones? The television screen goes black. I lean my head on your shoulder, and my eyes close. You are touching my chest. I don’t know how I know, but you are touching my chest. I hear, “Every little thing gonna be all right,” followed by nothing.
Bob Marley is staring at me. His red, green, and gold poster covers most of the ceiling. My legs are tangled in a mess of white sheets. I smell bad, like sweat and piss. The overhead light is on, and I see so is my shirt. This is your bedroom, your bed. My pants are neatly folded on the pillow next to me. In my humdrum life, being naked with other people in the room is business as usual. Other people are necessary when you can’t dress yourself. This is not my humdrum life. Something hurts; I can’t say what, but it’s low and expansive. And I know it’s because of you. You: sitting at the foot of the bed, your back turned to me and your head in your hands. I’m talking to you. I say, “Why this?” You shrug and move to put my clothes back on. I’ve never felt less able. You’ve made me an honorary member of the lost generation. Well played, sick boy. We both know I’m too young when I ask to leave, and for a blanket, and for my daddy.
And don’t worry about what I write. No one reads anymore.