The spring of the dead birds, the one after the death of my mother, I knew a broken angel was going to come into my life. And not a moment too soon! For a while after the funeral people didn’t know what to say to me, and my presence made them uneasy, like a vaguely defective appliance they were afraid of breaking. People don’t like thinking about these things, and yet won’t believe you if you tell them that quite literally nothing they can say has any impact on the situation so it would be preferable all around for them to treat you normally without thinking about it all. Which is not to suggest normalcy is any kind of prize. I was working as an editorial assistant at a monthly culture magazine of some repute—working for the such and such, sufficiently inflating you in the eyes of others to divert you from the feeling of, on your better days, the triviality of your position and, on the average ones, an obscure but inexorable sense of doom. This, however, is why bars were invented: the carrot incentivizing you to lunch, and then happy hour, and, after the vice in your chest has finally relaxed, you’re just sitting there like everyone else, dumber and drunker and waiting for something new to happen. Then the season turned and the birds came back, and the third or fourth time I found one fallen on my stoop to or from work, head askew and legs sticking up like a stem with all the grapes picked off, I got the point: it was in the wind, everything was about to change.
I didn’t tell Mark. We were living together in a small walk-up on 126th Street and he was working at a corporate video-editing job worse than mine—at least I worked for the such and such—and he hated disruptions of the status quo. Like, for instance, a conversation about what had happened to his ambition to be a filmmaker, or how his fatalism had grown to the level that I would come home to find him miserable in a sweltering centrally heated apartment because he couldn’t summon the will to get up and open a window. Or how often I was falling asleep before ten, fully clothed, with wine-stained teeth. Or how long it had been since it had occurred to me to be anything but fully clothed around him. So there was no point in upsetting him until there was, or until he noticed I was hiding something. Which he wouldn’t. I’m being FEARLESS, this is the point of this whole exercise. It is the first step in abandoning someone I loved.
Or someone who loved me. Separating the two has never been my strong suit.
But you already know that.
Bear with me, baby. I am using my own words. The benevolent cult of which I am now a member encourages this approach, employing TACT and COMMON SENSE over its own potentially alienating jargon: one day at a time, Higher Power, hitting your knees. (Though I suspect you would have no objection to the last one, you autistic pervert.)
Then I got the letter informing me of my acceptance to Hogwarts. This was the very elite, prestigious, etc. graduate program in writing to which I’d applied. This had been an ambivalent decision. For starters, I could hardly think of four dumber words in the English language than “graduate program in writing.” In this life some people have a destiny and some don’t. It is as cruel and true as the inequality of love. And people with a destiny are not supposed to go to the Pharisees to learn it; the academy was not the sort of environment where the axe to break the frozen sea within us would be found. I believed as much as I believed anything that it was my destiny to be that axe. To the chagrin of copy editors, unfailingly spelling “axe” with an “e” was merely one proof of my literary seriousness!
But there were other considerations. The impossibility of things going on as they were, the impossibility of overcoming my fear of changing them by myself. There is a particular satisfaction THE REAL WORLD takes in reducing your formerly incandescent potential to a small set of numbingly proscribed paths. This process is a spectator sport in the rust belt city of which I am a native, and a familiar one to the recovering Catholic school pathological overachiever who could not repress the instinct to prove her worth, arm fluttering desperately with the RIGHT ANSWER, despite seeing in the sisters’ faces how keenly they awaited her comeuppance.
So while the acceptance to Hogwarts (as I had taken to referring to the program during the application process, its reduction to adolescent fantasy a preemptive strike against my own fear of rejection) was to my thinking nothing more than a mirage that led in any direction but here, it was no less imperative to follow. It is a received part of the Galvan family oral tradition that I was born with one foot in this world and one in the next, and a chorus of dead birds is nothing to sneeze at.
Mark was predictably rattled. It meant moving across the country, and to central Texas, which as anyone from the Northeast knows is not a real place. But nothing else would be required of him than to be there and contain whatever would happen if I was left alone too long. Both of us should have been more worried about his commitment to this role. At social gatherings during our last couple of weeks in the city he would say, “She’s the lightning and I’m the bottle.” There was pride in his voice when he said this.
We arrived in Texas in August. South of Waco we stopped at a rest area with sweat puddles in dark stains on the backs of our legs even with the air conditioning on high. We looked out at flats of grass as yellow a shade of green it seemed like a living thing could be and still be a living thing. I said the heat was like a theological argument. Mark said it was too hot to be clever. We moved into a bungalow in east Austin. At the time the east side was in the early phase of serious gentrification, consisting of a mix of poor black or Mexican families and grad students and young musicians whose dart landed here on the map instead of Portland or Brooklyn. There were hipster coffeehouses with year-round Christmas lights and competing piñata stores and the cicadas were a wall of sound that seemed like it would close in at any minute. It seemed like every old man came out of the same mold: comically skinny posterior, beer belly that tapered to a point. I bought boots from a store where the sales staff wore deputy badges as name tags, the smell of leather reminding me of trying on shoes from my mother’s closet as a young girl.
My first weeks were spent mostly alone. Mark had found a nearly identical job and though he could have deferred starting he said he wanted to dive into routine. Both of us knew this wasn’t the case: the trip down had occurred without emotional eruption from me and he didn’t want to test his luck. It had been so long since I’d had time to myself that I was at a loss over what to do with it. Of course, drinking, but like the ticking of a clock this was hardly separable from the passage of time itself. When I did not have time for my own work, I desired nothing more, and now that I had it, I spent it on dysmorphia. I started running five- and seven-mile loops on the trail around the river in the heavy, wet heat. By the end my clothes were soaked through as though I’d been caught in a rainstorm and my eyes stung from the salt. My heritage is substantially Sicilian peasant stock, so my frame is small and my hips are broad and muscle packed easily on my thighs. I would make Mark encircle them with his hands and flex proudly like men do with their biceps when they come back from the gym. One day on the trail I was caught in an actual rainstorm. I had never experienced anything like a storm in central Texas. Its advent was sudden and without warning and all around me water pounded the earth with a force that bordered on the erotic. I made my way to a portable toilet off the trail and waited inside. The sound of the rain on the plastic walls rattled my shinbones. Then, just as suddenly, it was over, and by the time I got home there was no black in the sky and the heat had sucked all the wetness off the pavement and there was no reasonable argument to be made that it had rained in the first place. I noticed an urgent fluttering of white, tissue-like paper in my path, though there was no breeze. I crouched. It was two butterflies on the sidewalk in a state as biblical as the storm. I was breathless at the defiant fragility of this coupling, which I could not believe any boot or atomic weapon could bring harm to. It was then that I realized the truth, that East Coast elitism had nothing to do with it: Texas was not a real place—like the heart it could be located in space and time, but its most essential coordinates could not. Living here was as like living inside a beautiful and melancholy and possibly fictitious memory as it was actually happening.
Then the term started and stillness gave way to a blur of orientations and receptions and introductions, introductions, introductions. Though I would have sooner swallowed hot coals than say so, I had been terrified of meeting the other students at Hogwarts. Its exceptional funding ensured its exclusivity, and on paper everyone was outrageously accomplished: Harvard and Yale grads, former Stegners and Fulbrights, a poet or two I had actually seen in respectable literary magazines. I imagined them looking at my BA from the not-quite-Ivy arts college that wore its mind-blowing pretentiousness and self-satisfaction to mask its secret shame as a safety school, and my position at the such and such, which they would be with it enough to understand the actual loserdom of, and my ears boiled. But reality disappointed, and everyone was nice enough.
What a moronic fraudulence. Everyone was certainly not NICE ENOUGH; this is the worst Pollyanna lie to evade the pulpy heartbreaking screaming person-ness of everyone around you at any moment, but all of this was a thousand years ago now when we were made of the ideas we had about ourselves and not the choices yet to be made and it is the simple and unbelievably lonely truth that almost all of the people around you at any moment are background actors. This isn’t about them. It’s about us, baby, and we are no more relevant to them, unimaginably.
Either way, there were two glaring exceptions. Take an academic situation based on the mutual assumption of our elevation over the base considerations of the MARKET, while not so secretly fueled by the crass desire for validation by the same, and this is the exact kind of brittle veneer it is irresistible for a certain kind of adolescent ego to shatter. These two egos were Harry and Jason, and I hated them both immediately. Harry was the worse offender. He was prone to sweeping assertions that symbolism had no place in the short story, or that he would never write anything with an iPhone in it. In addition, he had spent a decade working in advertising, giving him a messiah complex. He believed that his soul had undergone privations in corporate America that the rest of us could not be expected to understand, as well as a practical comprehension of THE REAL WORLD that he would communicate in disgruntled sighs when conversation took a turn for the naïve or theoretical, followed by a suitably masculine and condescending lecture on how things actually worked. His writing consisted of the hardscrabble sufferings of blue collar Idahoans, although he had grown up in this region a child of what he held in greatest contempt: the classroom. Both his parents had been professors more conversant in squabbles over parking spaces in the faculty lot than scavenging a house for copper wiring. He was heavily tattooed and had one cauliflower ear and was just below average height for a woman, which he compensated for with a caricaturesque musculature and by hating women, though he attempted to disguise the latter in the form of reductive and aphoristic humor. He considered himself Faulknerian in his understanding of people’s inner workings but never came to a more nuanced evaluation of gender politics than women be shoppin’.
Jason, his familiar, suffered from the same testosterone poisoning that led to the belief that crassness was the better part of valor, but his case was less straightforward because Jason was a child. Looking back, it is unbelievable to me what a child he was. At the first couple of functions I noticed him at I didn’t notice him at all, really, assuming he was some faculty brat exploiting the free sparkling wine. And despite my skepticism of Hogwarts as an institution, my response upon discovering he was a student was one of indignation: who let this child in here! This tedious golden child. He was a long, sandy blond Texan, baby-faced and blue-eyed in a thirties matinee idol sort of way as though to bludgeon the world with his favored genetic inheritance. He dressed in blue jeans and Lucchese pointed toe boots regardless of the heat, a boy rebelling against the boyishness of shorts. I was to discover he looked so young because he was; he had come into the program straight out of undergrad and had had the gall to finish undergrad early. To be sure, I have never been any sort of advocate for the cult of LIFE EXPERIENCE, only confirmed by meetings of my benevolent cult sitting on metal folding chairs in church fellowship halls listening to men and women who have lived hard, bad lives but possess no voice to tell about them outside of the most maudlin platitudes— but the fact of this child’s existence still rankled me. The biography of an artist is of interest only to an artist judging herself in comparison, and such is the myopia of competitive anonymity that relative youth seemed like a thing worth getting bent out of shape over. When, of course, there was only one relevant question that wasn’t openly discussed but nevertheless changed the molecules of the air like a high- tension wire. And this was: which of us would MAKE IT— while knowing that, statistically, most would not, and silently sizing up, envying, cursing, and praying about who among us were God’s Favorite Children.
Not even Harry and Jason were defiant enough to talk about this out in the open, but it was no surprise to me to later discover that they did so in private, with the kind of detail and morbidity that girls use to talk about their bodies—analyzing the self-defeating flaws in other people’s work/thought/character while using terms like data point and brand management. No epithet offended them more than “writer’s writer,” believing fame to be simply a form of attainable capital. Either your goal was to become famous or you were a liar. They liberally punctuated these conversations with quotes from man movies. “Coffee is for closers. Fuck you, pay me.” These were the qualities they believed separated them from the rest of Hogwarts, but the one that probably did so the most was that being here never made them feel safe: in what was intended as a place of artistic sanctuary they always felt like the wolves were at the door. But they were the wolves, two crude alpha wannabes who mistook their basest instincts for metaphysical assumptions about aristocracy.
A week or two into the term there was at a kickoff barbecue that was held at a small ranch house to the southwest of the city amid an expanse of hills of sage and cedar and prickly pear. I drank mint juleps and basked in the praise of professors who were on the admissions committee and happily answered questions about my “influences,” taking care to omit contemporary fiction. Though I had had misgivings about going back to school, I had always been good at it. It’s a sort of reversion to childhood when corresponding to a simple set of expectations results in being treated with the importance of a thoroughbred. My own childhood consisted of praying nightly that the cocktail of alcohol and benzos would hit my mother only after the lit cigarette had extinguished in her hand and not on the couch and carrying my asthma medication with me in my backpack so I didn’t have to fear one of her friends going through my things and stealing it—I flourished in the structure and predictability of school.
When I finally tired of Lisa Simpson–ing, I went inside the ranch house to have a moment to myself and have a snoop, two of my favorite things. I was admiring the skulls and antlers and furs (like my mother, I had an intense appreciation for the aesthetification of death) when I was joined by Harry and Jason, the disparity in their size and body type, a fire hydrant next to a parking meter, calling to mind a Depression-era pair of tramps. In fact I was not “joined,” I had been stalked. New females were objects of great interest at Hogwarts, and I had lost track at this point of the number of timid questions I had been asked about my CV or favorite This American Life episode by circling males. This was great fun, the most I’d had since having too much to drink at the magazine’s Christmas party last year—the pleasure of reminding yourself you are a sexual being without the risks of doing anything about it. These two were not so subtle in their approach.
“How old are you and how much do you weigh?” Harry asked.
“Did you focus group that one at Wieden and Kennedy?” I replied.
“No, I think I used it on the first woman I talked to after my divorce.”
“I can’t imagine why it didn’t work out.”
“She got tired of being the big spoon,” said Jason.
“Do you realize it’s ten million degrees out?” I said. “You may as well be wearing Crock-Pots on your feet.”
“Gotta pay the cost to be the boss,” he said.
“How old are you?” I said. “Did you get a reference letter from your pediatrician?”
This was met with an inevitable banality about receiving one from my mother. They were pleased with themselves, imaginary Norman Mailers and George Plimptons toasting their defiant political incorrectness. I mulled the benefits of shaming them with my mother’s death, but I was not interested in this becoming a real conversation.
“I’m underwhelmed, guys. I went to an arts college so I’ve seen the thing before where boys act like jerks because they think it makes them less gay. Side note: I know it’s hot out, but I really don’t think it’s healthy for a human being to produce that smell.”
The smell of Harry’s armpits was almost comically intrusive and rank—“bestial,” I would call it, if I didn’t know what satisfaction he would take in it—if you sat too close to him or if he put his arm around you, as was often the case if you were a female and he’d had more than half a drink.
Harry lifted an arm and inhaled deeply as if into a bouquet of flowers.
“You’re right, this is an unhealthy level of virility. But I have smelling salts in case you pass out.”
“If I pass out of anything it’s going to be boredom, but you probably get that from all the girls. What happened to your ear?”
“A bar fight,” said Harry.
“Real people don’t get into bar fights.” “They do when it’s a question of dignity.”
“How many times a day do you say that to Terry Gross inside your head?”
“I don’t even get around to it, honestly. I’m too busy waving smelling salts under her nose. ‘Damn these pythons, Terry! Why did I have to come in here on a full pump?’”
He flexed his arms in that way that heavily muscular men are looking for an excuse to do even under the auspices of joking.
“So what do you and Terry talk about after your first collection of Connecticut divorce fiction?” said Jason.
I poured my drink down the front of his shirt and left them to find another girl whose pigtails they could pull, but as I was walking out of the room I bumped into the evening’s host, a portly, soft-spoken popular Texas historian. The property was a university-sponsored writers residency and this man was the current occupant. My inner Lisa Simpson could not waste an opportunity to suck up, so soon afterward the three of us were listening to him discuss the biography he was working on of famed Texas Ranger John Coffee “Jack” Hays. It was news to me there was such a thing as a non-athlete “famed Texas Ranger,” but Harry was obviously excited for the opportunity to speak to a real author whose interests he didn’t consider hopelessly effeminate (also, apparently Hays, one of the state’s undisputed tough guys, was short). Harry demanded of the historian what guns he’d brought. The man said the residency had a strict no-gun policy. Harry scoffed, “bureaucrats,” then insisted the man level with him. To Harry, who had once proudly proclaimed that whenever someone began a conversation about “the novel” he started thinking about guns, a person surrounded by this much undisturbed wilderness with no armory was unthinkable. The historian shrugged and adjusted his glasses uncomfortably.
“Cocksucker!” said Harry. “I knew I should have brought my crossbow. I thought about it, but I didn’t. Goddamn it, any time you think you should bring your crossbow but you leave it at home you end up needing it!”
The historian agreed in polite bafflement.
“You can borrow mine if you want,” said Harry. “I could drop it off. And my chainsaw. Think about how much better that view would be if you cleared some of that cocksucking cedar.”
I fulfilled the obligation of my gender by gently steering the conversation into territory more congenial to our host, who did not suffer confusion as to the difference between his he-man subject matter and himself. I asked if his family missed him, it being such an inconvenient drive to the city.
“They’d probably be happier if I were in Fort Stockton!” he said with a chuckle.
Harry looked at me with disdain. He had been discussing matters of masculine interest and I had turned them to the domestic. I did not disagree with him; as much as the he-man act was like nails on a chalkboard for me, it made me feel small and womanly that I had made things more safe. But to annoy him even more I made my voice reedier and upturned and drew out the syllabllllles as I asked the historian more questions about his wife’s interior design firm and his daughter’s engagement and other things that the only person who could have cared less about than I did was Harry.
He tolerated this sullenly, eyes darting around the room in boredom, when uncontainable childlike exuberance overtook his face.
“Holy shit, do you know what this is?” he said.
He sprung to the mantle and picked up an object, a rusty old ranching tool that looked a little like a large nutcracker.
“This is called a Burdizzo tool. You put it around the scrotum and the jaws clamp down on the blood vessels,” he said. “It kills the balls.”
Harry advanced on Jason, jabbing the tool at his crotch and working the jaws.
“C’mere! C’mere, bwah!” said Harry.
Our host chuckled and shook his head in avuncular approval few men can resist of BOYS BEING BOYS.
“What a character,” he said to me, and once again I coursed with resentment and envy at a man like Harry’s continual ability to get away with being himself.
Later on, a few of us went out for a walk on one of the various trails. I wanted to pass; at this point I’d had a quite a few mint juleps and would have been far happier lying down for a nap in the shade, but it was too early in the term to be the uncharming drunk girl, and also Mark wanted to go and I knew he would not without me. When I’d rejoined him outside he already had that look of lost-child anxiety that he got when I left him alone too long at social functions. Of course Harry assumed role of scout leader: edifying us on the plant life we passed or the different bird cries, crouching to evaluate the freshness of a wild pig track (and once more cursing himself for not bringing a crossbow). He gestured at an expanse of hills.
“But this is nothing. There is a valley so wide in west Texas that if you yell ‘git up!’ and go to bed, eight hours later the echo will be your alarm,” he said, mugging.
Mark smiled, which annoyed me. But it had been years, college, probably, since he’d had male friends, or really any friends other than me. Don’t be that girl, he is allowed to smile at whatever he wants to, I told myself.
One intriguing takeaway from his lecture was Jason’s lack of participation. His attention drifted, presumably from familiarity with the material but also, I was to learn later, genuine lack of interest. I will unfailingly find the fault line if it exists and was pleased to discover this one: Jason, like the historian, was a product of suburban Texas, and his interest in manly things was entirely theoretical—any hands-on attraction to guns or tools or which berries were poisonous substantially less than reading about it. Jason’s distraction obviously caused Harry paternal disgruntlement, and this pleased me.
Is it possible Jason emerged so early as strategic terrain between Harry and me that could be manipulated? Maybe the facts that followed are inflecting what actually happened. But it is not impossible.
We reached a small collection of droppings on the trail. Harry crouched again to determine the species of origin. He took out his pocketknife and shaved off a sliver and with an intensely furrowed brow licked the blade.
I lay down on the trail and draped my arm over my eyes, unconcerned now about being the sloppy drunk girl. He was literally eating shit and I literally died.
“You probably don’t want to lie down there,” said Harry. I waved my arm dismissively. “You win at nature.
Congratulations. I’m having a nap.”
“You really need to get up,” said Mark.
I opened my eyes to glare at him, willing to be that girl in the face of this sedition. But I saw the genuine concern in his eyes before feeling a tingle on my bare legs, which shortly became a fiery stinging as I leapt up, wildly dancing and brushing off dozens of red ants.
As I write this now years later the sensation is no less vivid, not simply the pain of the stings but also the cool frisson that came just before, the numinous thrill of it.
From The Lights. Used with permission of A Barnacle Book | Rare Bird Books. Copyright © 2017 by Brian McGreevy.