Henry Alley is a Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon. He has four novels, Through Glass (Iris Press, 1979), The Lattice (Ariadne Press, 1986), Umbrella of Glass (Breitenbush Books, 1988), and Precincts of Light (Inkwater Press, 2010), which is about the Measure Nine crisis in Oregon. His Leonardo and I was winner of the Gertrude Press 2006 Fiction Chapbook Award. His stories have been published over the past forty years in such journals as Seattle Review, Outerbridge, Virginia Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Gertrude, Harrington Gay Men’s Quarterly Fiction, and Off the Rocks 15. He has finished a new novel, People Who Work, about a woman living in Seattle in the late 1960s who finds a new vocation and freedom from her alcoholic home.
AW Barnes is a writer, critic, queer theorist, college administrator, and student. He has published his creative nonfiction in Sheepshead Review, The Brooklyner, and If and Only If. His blog, outsidethegaze.blogspot.com, tackles issues of sex, gender, and sexuality in contemporary society. In addition to his work in creative nonfiction, AW has published academic essays in journals such as English Literary Review and Textual Cultures. His monograph, Post-Closet Masculinities, was published in 2009 by Bucknell University Press. He has a PhD in English literature, and is currently pursuing an MFA in writing at Bennington College. AW Barnes is the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He lives with his husband and dogs in upstate New York.
Stacy Brewster’s short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Madison Review, The Santa Fe Literary Review, qu.ee/r Magazine, and The Summerset Review, among other journals. He co-founded the Full Frontal Writing Collective in Portland, Oregon, and runs writing workshops for Write Around Portland, a non-profit that provides free 10-week workshops for those without access to writing in the community because of income, disability, or other barriers. You can find him at stacybrewster.com.
Lindsay Cameron, since completing majors in creative writing and journalism, has taught high school English in Ohio. She aspires to write young adult novels, though she does not limit herself to any one genre and, in the future, hopes to attend seminary or an MFA program for creative writing...or both. Her other loves include music, percussion, photography, and volleyball, and have given her the belief that poetry and stories, if written well, should not only be musical and visual, but should also knock us to the ground.
Maureen Daniels grew up in England and Northern California. She has a BA from CUNY Hunter College and an MFA in Creative Writing from CUNY City College. She is the winner of the Jerome Lowell Demur Award in Poetry, The Stark Short Fiction Award, The Audre Lorde Award in Poetry, and others. Her poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as Lambda Literary, Global City Review, Puckerbrush Review, Scapegoat Review, and The Poet’s Haven. She currently lives in New York with her daughter and teaches English at Berkeley College.
Aaron DeLee received his MFA in poetry from Northwestern University. Previous work of his has appeared in Court Green, Assaracus, Mad Hatter’s Review, and various others. He lives in Chicago, Illionois; but, he can also be found online at aarondelee.wordpress.com/.
Jeffrey Lee Dieter Jr. studied creative writing at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. In April 2015, he placed 2nd in The Bethesda Literary Festival Poetry Contest judged by Stanley Plumly. He is currently leading a creative writing workshop at an assisted living facility near his home in Baltimore.
Alexa Doran is a poet who recently graduated from the UNCW MFA poetry program. She has recently been featured or is forthcoming in Ekphrasis, Petrichor Review, So to Speak, Thin Air, The James Franco Review, Cactus Heart, and CALYX literary magazines. Her poems were finalists in the 2014 Third Coast Poetry Contest, the 2014 Puerto del Sol Contest, and the 2014 Fairy Tale Review Contest and for the 2015 Nancy Hargrove Editor’s Prize.
Gabe Flores is an artist and curator living in Portland, Oregon. His work often deals with reflections on identity-based ideologies and personal narrative. Flores’ artistic practice is relationally based; he thinks of his projects as exploration of sociology and political theory. He was the curator and director of Place, a 4000 sq. ft. installation-based gallery on the top floor of Pioneer Place Mall. Place ran from June 2010 to March 2014. Currently Flores directs Surplus Space, a gallery project utilizing each room of a small Northeast Portland home.
Katherine Frain is a queer nineteen-year-old student at Princeton. Her work can be found in BOXCAR and The Journal, and at the moment she is the managing editor for The Blueshift Journal.
Courtney Gillette’s essays and stories have appeared in the Lambda Award winning anthology The Full Spectrum (Knopf, 2006), as well as Truth and Dare (Running Press Kids, 2011). In 2013, she was chosen by AM Homes for the The Masters Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Most recently she served as a judge for the 26th Annual Lambda Literary Awards. She lives in Brooklyn, holds an MFA from Lesley University, and bakes a mean apple pie.
Tyler Gobble is the host of Everything Is Bigger, a reading series in Austin, Texas. He is currently a poetry fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. He has plopped out a chunk of chapbooks, most recently Collected Feelings with Layne Ransom (Forklift INK). His first full-length collection, MORE WRECK MORE WRECK, is available from Coconut Books. He likes disc golf, porches, and bacon. Learn more at tylergobble.com.
Aidan Grennell is a radical queer, and kinky, polyamorous writer with a bachelor’s in science in mathematics from Western Carolina University. His love of both mathematics and writing is an unusual combination of interests that interact with growing intersectionality, and he loves exploring how they continue to complement one another. Aidan’s passion is creative non-fiction, and he seeks to capture the stories of his life with truth, clarity, and integrity in a way that makes them accessible to people, regardless of their experiences. Aidan currently lives in Baltimore with his partner and is considering graduate school in mathematical biology.
Courtney Hartnett earned an MFA in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2015. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2013 with a BA in interdisciplinary writing, and her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Journal, storySouth, Blood Lotus, Bombay Gin, Dew on the Kudzu, and elsewhere. Courtney was a finalist for the Crab Orchard Review’s 2014 Allison Joseph Poetry Award.
Marissa Higgins is a lesbian writer based in Washington, DC. Her personal essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Guernica, Salon, and The Huffington Post. Her creative nonfiction generally explores LGBTQ and women’s issues.
Wes Jamison’s work appears or is forthcoming in 1913: A Journal of Forms, Columbia Poetry Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Gone Lawn, and pamphLIT. “The Secret Garden,” winner of South Loop Review’s 2011 Essay Contest, was selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2013.
Chelsey Johnson is from northern Minnesota but currently lives in Richmond, Virginia and teaches at the College of William & Mary. She received an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, and NPR’s Selected Shorts. A collection and a novel are in the works.
Kristin LaCroix’s poetry and fiction have appeared in various literary magazines including The Southeast Review, Third Coast, and Stone Canoe. She was a finalist in the 2014 The World’s Best Short Short Story contest.
Serafima Mintz is a 27-year-old transgender woman living in Lake Worth, Florida. She graduated from University of Florida in 2014, where she won the Kitty Oliver Prize for Undergraduate Writing. She writes a zine called Even Noisy Sparrows.
Megan Murphy is reveling in her life as a lesbian graduate student at NYU where she is studying psychotherapy. Her first career was as a professional ballet dancer in New York City before moving to California to raise her family. She is also a certified personal coach, practicing writer, spiritual seeker, and eternal beginner.
Joseph O’Connor is a proud alum of the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he studied literature and gender studies. He is a member of the 2015 Teach for America corps and a secondary English Language Arts teacher in Miami, Florida.
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Osiris, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, free e-books, and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities” please visit his website at simonperchik.com.
DR Simonds is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
James AH White is an emerging gay writer currently completing an MFA in poetry at Florida Atlantic University. He is a winner of the 2014 AWP Intro Journals Project Award in Poetry and 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee. His work is featured in the Colorado Review, JMWW, and DIAGRAM, among others.
Art Editor J.M. Jansen discusses Issue 22's featured artist, Gabe Flores:
As a child, Gabe Flores’ first exposure to visual art occurred when he visited a local gallery. His mother gave him an imaginary $300 to spend on any piece of artwork in the space. Many children are told to quietly observe artwork in a gallery or museum setting without touching it or having an authentic interaction with it at all. Armed with his imaginary $300, Gabe was empowered by his inventive mother to make an aesthetic choice about the works on view. This early positive experience made Gabe feel safe in a gallery space, a place that can be intimidating to children and adults alike. This influential first encounter with art has had a lasting impact as Gabe continues to bring an open, approachable attitude into all of his current art-world interactions.
Many other experiences have shaped Gabe into the artist and individual he is today. These events have greatly impacted his artwork and the exploration of the construction of identity. Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness in McMinnville, Oregon, is one of the most impactful of these happenings. At the age of twenty, Gabe was disfellowshipped from this fundamentalist religion for being gay. He and another male member of their community entered into a relationship, and as a result they were both ostracized by everyone they had known and loved since childhood. No one in the congregation outside of Gabe’s immediate family was allowed to associate with him.
Not wanting stringent restrictions placed upon him and his loved ones, Gabe began the lengthy process of being reinstated as a Jehovah’s Witness. For an entire year he attended the five mandatory weekly church services as an invisible member of a community that shunned him. After fulfilling all the necessary obligations to be reinstated, Gabe realized he could never return to a community that rejected him on so many levels. During the ceremony that intended to welcome him back into the religious fold, Gabe simply walked out.
In 2004 Gabe experienced what he describes as a psychotic breakdown, which was largely fueled by the harsh treatment he received during his disfellowship. He began to hear voices, feel electrical pulses run through his body, and see transparent figures in the distance. At one point he counted hearing 110 distinct voices of friends, family members, professors, and members of the Jehovah’s Witness community. The voices started as congratulatory but quickly deteriorated into a constant negative barrage that focused on Gabe’s flaws.
He also felt as if he were living in a virtual reality, believing that his body was “in the future hooked up to a machine participating in some sort of experience that was common for the time.” He says, “I felt that in about 30–40 years it would be possible for a person to relive a part of his life and play a game with himself while doing it. The narrative of the experience focused on my older self playing ‘Wouldn’t it be funny?’ on my current self, but through a virtual experience.”
This debilitating psychotic breakdown shifted what was at the center of Gabe’s life. At the time he was an undergraduate student studying sociology, history, and political science. He was planning on applying to graduate school in a sociology program. After his breakdown, these plans were disrupted; instead of applying to graduate school he began creating artwork in response to his mental state. He also turned to alcohol to help cope with the lack of peace he experienced on a daily basis.
Realizing he had a drinking problem, in 2008 Gabe entered into nine weeks of rehab at a residential treatment facility. Using only materials he found around him on the grounds of the facility, Gabe created artwork that enhanced the treatment process. He titled this body of work I’m Calling It a Retreat.
After leaving the treatment facility, Gabe knew he wanted to find a way to participate more fully in the world. He developed the piece Gabe Flores in the Arts: A Five-Year Project as an acknowledgement to the five painful years he had just lived through. For this project, Gabe created a complex set of rules to live by to “jump-start” his engagement in the art world. Gabe had no formal education in the arts, so he taught himself what he needed to know as he went along. Gabe began to treat the arts as a forty-hour per week job and spent his time either attending gallery openings or creating artwork. The first piece he exhibited after developing Gabe Flores in the Arts: A Five Year Project was Greener than You?, an immersive installation that examined environmentalism as an identity.
Greener than You? was part of a group show entitled Manor of Art. Another artist participating in this show was Gary Wiseman, a long-standing member of Portland’s art community. Gabe and Gary entered into several collaborations, the most prominent being the creation of Place, a 4,000-square-foot gallery located in Pioneer Place Mall. According to Gabe, the intention of the gallery was to “give the mall audience something most had never experienced, contemporary installation and performance.” Eventually Gary Wiseman and another collaborator, Palma Corral, could no longer commit to helping run Place, so Gabe directed the gallery with the help of several dedicated volunteers. He also ran Store, an exhibition space committed to working with art students from Pacific Northwest College of Art and Portland State University.
Gabe exhibited his piece Intimate Historical Fictions at Place in 2011. He intended the piece to be a “coming out” to the Portland art community explaining his belief that he was living in a virtual reality. The piece explored the idea of his personal history and how he feels disconnected from much of it. He also expressed how eventually “we turn our backs on our precious events and become more intrigued by the residue/remainder.” Unexpectedly, Place was shut down by Pioneer Place Mall’s management in March 2014 due to the content of the exhibition. The three shows happening at that time were Paul Clay’s Parking Lot Dance, John Dougherty’s Shit Balloons, and Michael Reinsch’s A High Improbability of Death: A Celebration of Suicide. Paul Clay’s Parking Lot Dance was a critique of consumer culture, while the other two were offensive to the management simply because of their titles.
Gabe attempted to argue that the show was appropriate for a mall setting by sending an email with images showing how other shops in the mall used expletives on merchandise, sold a variety of shit-related toys, and depicted graphic violence. He even found one videogame for sale in the mall that required a player to commit suicide within the game to play. The mall responded to this email with an eviction notice. When Gabe met with the general manager to try to secure the gallery’s spaces, the manager confirmed Place’s lease had been terminated and kept reiterating, “You can’t ride the bus for free forever.”
Needing to explain what happened, Place sent a press release with the correspondence between the gallery and mall management. There were several articles written chiming in on whether an art space should be held to a different standard of appropriateness than the other shops, especially since Place received an in-kind donation from the mall in the form of discounted rent. “Being able to exit in a way that sparked so much debate was an ideal way to leave,” says Gabe. Place decided to name its closing event “You Can’t Ride the Bus For Free Forever” and invited various performance artists to help say good-bye. T-shirts, buttons, and zines were made to commemorate the event.
Currently, Gabe directs Surplus Space, an alternative art space located in a small home in Northeast Portland. Surplus Space was co-founded by Gabe and Travis Nikolai; it opened three days before Place closed for good. According to Gabe, “Surplus Space offers interdisciplinary artists an opportunity to produce and show work that is in direct dialogue with current unfolding issues of social and political significance.” The gallery received a Precipice Award from Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in 2014.
The house in which Surplus Space exists was completely dilapidated before Gabe and his team of volunteers revitalized it. In another interesting twist, Gabe currently lives in the gallery space, so in a way his life is also on exhibition along with the artwork. For another phase of this exciting project, Surplus Space selected three individuals who applied to Surplus’ Neighborhood Gallery Grant to develop an alternative exhibition space in each grantee’s own home. Surplus Space will both physically and financially help the people they have selected realize this goal, spreading independent artistic love throughout the city.
Gabe Flores is refreshingly unpretentious and inclusive of all people. If he could, he would give everyone an imaginary $300 to spend on a piece of artwork, as his mother did with him. Gabe believes that “hope comes from loss. Art gives us a way of seeing our experiences and realizing we are not alone.”
On the drive to Tennessee, the mood inside the car had soured and I could already feel that our trip was a mistake. We were driving to the Great Smoky Mountains with our friends Alison and Jane, city people going to revel in fresh air. My girlfriend, Morgan, sat in the passenger seat and I sat behind her, trying to dissect her distant mood. Outside, the mountains rose up around us, sunlight drifting through the clouds to illuminate a lake here, a valley there. It was Morgan’s idea for us to go to Tennessee, but now regret seemed to radiate from her decision.
She was from a town in Tennessee fabricated to be the production site for the Manhattan Project. It wasn’t until the bomb was dropped in Japan that the residents were even told what they’d created. Morgan was writing a novel about the atom bomb, drawn to the hot magnet of her hometown’s dilemma: the sentiment for a productive time that was tied to destruction. Everyone did and did not want to remember the bomb. They were proud and guilty, one of those American contradictions ripe for the picking. Her apartment was littered with neat piles of paraphernalia of a place nicknamed The Atomic City.
I loved her love for the bomb.
An atom bomb, I would come to learn, derived its destructive power from the rapid release of nuclear energy. The energy came from the atoms splitting apart.
Before Tennessee, before I knew anything about atom bomb construction or the fallacy of memory, before she and I were trapped in a car on a trip that would become the beginning of the end, Morgan and I did the dance of dating. Like so many doomed love stories, it began in a bar. One summer night I’d gone out with friends and saw her across the room. The truth was that we had met once ten years ago, background characters in each other’s lives. She had a mop of curly red hair and a few tattoos and charmed me right away. That summer night, I smiled as she approached, my mind trying to place her. She stood close to me and said, with a handsome smirk, “I think I’ve met you before.”
For one of our early dates, I asked if she wanted to come over and bake an apple pie together. She emailed back saying yes but that I should know she wasn’t a very good baker.
That’s okay, I wrote. I’ve never made a pie before.
It was September but autumn’s cool hadn’t arrived yet. My top floor apartment was thick with humidity. As we sliced apples, my glasses kept slipping down my nose and my face became sticky with flour from pushing them into place with dirty hands. I was so nervous that this would be a disaster, but Morgan was good natured, rolling up the sleeves of her button down, asking for a glass of water. The nutmeg scent of pie bloomed in the apartment as it baked. When we took it out of the oven, I grabbed for a knife.
“I think you’re supposed to wait,” she said.
I had already slumped a gooey, steaming slab of pie onto a plate. “I’m bad at waiting,” I said.
We ate half the pie in hot, eager bites before falling onto the couch, hands under shirts, sighs on necks. I always knew this feeling was the best, the most tender, the most heightened of any feeling on the spectrum of love, but it was so hard to remember. When we woke up in the morning, the pie was still on the stovetop, better tasting than the night before. We ate it standing and naked, straight from the dish, grinning at each other.
After a few weeks of sleeping together, I asked what we were doing. Morgan looked away, or maybe we weren’t looking at each other at all. We were naked in her apartment, lying on the floor after we’d fucked on her desk, Atomic papers strewn, chair pushed aside. The Lykke Li album everyone was listening to that year echoed off the walls in the other room.
“I don’t want a relationship right now,” she said. “And I’m seeing other people.”
I pretended not to hear her.
If she didn’t want a relationship, then I would just have to be charming to the point of changing her mind, nonchalant to the point of seeming like I didn’t want what I wanted so badly. Seeing other people—I convinced myself I never heard her say it, or that if I had heard it, maybe she hadn’t said it in present tense. I lived in fiction so fiercely and thought that if my fiction were precise enough, then she would come live in it, too. As if the story could outweigh the truth. She had an inkwell tattoo on her arm where I had a typewriter tattoo on mine. It was such a good story, and I wanted it to mean everything.
Tina was the one voted among my friends to call and tell me Morgan had another girlfriend. In the stubborn pit of my gut, I knew what she was going to say even before she said it. My fiction was on stilts. My fiction was loose carbon copy dust on a page, waiting for a bump or a breeze to take it away.
“We saw them at The Raincoats show last night,” Tina said.
“I was supposed to go to that show!” I cried. These were the unhelpful facts I got caught on. “What’s her name?”
“The other girl!”
“Oh,” Tina said. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s Anna.”
I wrote Morgan an email with an even keeled admission of my own faults. When you said that you were seeing other people, I wrote, I chose not to believe you. I told her that I didn’t think we should sleep together anymore.
She wrote back immediately to ask if she could call.
I sat on my bed, phone pressed to my ear, as we tried to have a conversation a few neighborhoods apart that we couldn’t manage to have when in the same room. She was full of apology. “I just assumed you were seeing other people, too,” she said.
“I’m not,” I scoffed, both prideful that I wasn’t and hurt that I hadn’t even thought of it. It felt decadent to sleep with two people in the same time period. A tiny part of me burned with righteousness—you had a responsibility to clearly tell people you had multiple sexual partners! What if this Anna person had something? What if I had something? What if Morgan had something? We were all of that caste of queer women who thought ourselves above safe sex, unwilling to tangle with dental dams and latex gloves. We talked good sexual politics then felt exhausted at the prospect of pausing to find the wad of latex gloves in the top of a nightstand. We were dumb.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said. “I almost told you last weekend when we were coming home from the reading, but then it wasn’t a good time.”
My mind rolled back to that night. When would she have told me? How many blocks from the train would we have been? That night, I was wearing a dress, and when we got upstairs I’d gone to the bathroom to slip off my underwear before we made out. She pushed me back on the bed just like I wanted her to. We didn’t take my dress off. I remember it was half unbuttoned, enough that she could suck on my breasts and reach underneath, the fabric strained against my skin.
When would she have told me about the other girl?
“I really like you,” Morgan said, and even in that moment I thought, how did we get to this part of adulthood and still have such a stunted vocabulary with which to talk about love? Maybe love is always my assumption. Maybe it’s this assumption that gets me into trouble.
A few weeks later, I woke up one morning to find Morgan’s name on the screen of my phone, a text message sent late the night before. It said that she missed me and wanted to know if we could talk.
We got coffee. I picked a table by the window, like I needed a witness for this. My goal was to be shiny and aloof. I didn’t want to swoon at the sight of her shy smile, familiar tote bag, tattoos peeking out from under her sleeve.
“How’re you?” I asked brightly.
“I changed my mind,” she said.
I sat still, surprised to be hearing what I wanted to hear. She said that she did want a relationship and that she wanted to be with me. That the other girl was out of the picture. That she missed me.
I didn’t know if I should be suspicious or thrilled. A few moments ticked by.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s try this.”
We tumbled into love, floating through the winter, the spring, and the summer, until one warm evening when everything was beautiful and we decided, with her friends Alison and Jane, that we should all take a trip to Tennessee. Someone Morgan knew owned a mountain chalet we could all stay in nearby. I had never heard the word chalet, much less the term used earnestly in a statement of ownership, until that evening. I had to Google it later.
I hadn’t realized how conflicted Morgan would be to visit her home state with us, the people she had befriended and loved in New York, until the car ballooned with awkwardness as we made our way down I-81. I wanted her to share anecdotes, point out landmarks, but she was quiet. When we stopped at a grocery store near the house, the cashier asked where we were from, his question in the pitched vowels of eastern Tennessee.
“New York,” I smiled, then tipped my head at Morgan, “but she’s from here.” Morgan’s face burned. She gave a forced smile to the cashier as she picked up the plastic bags of groceries. Walking back to the car, our friends trailed us at a cautious distance.
“I don’t want you to tell people that,” she said, her face still red.
“But why not?” I asked. Here is my selfish ignorance, like a character in our relationship. I was more intimate with my ideal of Morgan than with Morgan herself. I can’t remember what she said to that question. My memory is tainted by the fact that this was the beginning of the end.
The house was a huge A-frame on the side of a steep, forested mountain, with a deck that pitched out over the vistas. There was a master bedroom upstairs and a smaller bedroom downstairs, along with a rec room, complete with kitsch tin cut outs of popcorn and film reels attached to the wall. The back room featured a stocked bar and a pool table and opened onto a second deck that boasted a hot tub with a view of the decadent treetops and unencumbered sky.
The hot tub was my favorite detail. The hot tub was all I talked about when friends asked where we were going. It was an enthusiastic joke—You can find me in the hot tub!—until suddenly it wasn’t. When I brought it up on our drive down, Morgan twisted her face in frustration.
“It’s August,” she scoffed. “It’s going to be eighty degrees out. Getting in a hot tub is gross.”
“But not at night,” I countered, eager to find the enthusiasm with which we had just been laughing about our trip, before we got in the car and drove south. I had pictured us together in the hot tub. “It’ll be cooler out, and we’ll have the view of the mountains.”
In my memory, she doesn’t respond.
An atom bomb’s potential destruction is complex. The pressure in the air changes, weakening structures that are then blown apart by blast winds. Thermal heat can burn and ignite firestorms. Sand can fuse into glass. The bright light causes temporary blindness. The bomb is something I never considered before I met Morgan, but is something that remains fascinating long after we are done.
The radiation of regret that began in the car bloomed during our vacation. Morgan and I bickered. Our friends shifted nervous glances between us. Back in New York, she would break up with me the day after we returned, citing that she didn’t want a relationship after all. But I couldn’t hear the whistle of the bomb. At some point, I thought maybe the distance between her and me could be solved with sex. So one afternoon when our friends were out, I asked her to go down on me. She laid on the bed while I straddled her, holding onto the headboard and forcing myself to look out at the dangerous slope of the mountain through the glass doors. I remember thinking, This should be special, and as soon as I wanted it to be special, I was filled with shame. Morgan said maybe she was depressed, and my compass to reconnect us spun wildly, trying to assure her that I could love and understand her depression, too. I picked up all the wrong tools. I wanted to fix the thing I didn’t know was broken.
Something I always forget about this trip is that I met Morgan’s mother. We drove to a family-style restaurant where her mother met us for lunch. You could tell Morgan’s mother was thrilled to see her daughter. She was tall and thin like Morgan, her accent something gentle. I had been introduced as Courtney, as in, “This is Jane and this is Alison and this is Courtney.” I jumped into the part of ambiguous friend as enthusiastically as possible, shaking hands, smiling widely.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s so good to meet you.”
Morgan later told me that her mother knew who I was. That was it. A statement: she knew who I was. I can only speculate if that meant her mother knew we were dating or if that meant Morgan had casually mentioned me or if that meant that Morgan loved me casually—all this speculation is a testament to how miserably we communicated that whole damn time. One of my good friends was an older woman from Louisiana, her accent so thick it slid off her sentences. “It seems to me,” she said once, “that you and her don’t ever talk.”
“We talk all the time,” I said defensively, but those small hours of conversation in which, yes, maybe a little bit, we acknowledged what we did and did not want, it wasn’t really talking. We could say I love you, and we could say we were happy. We could say, I’m tired of eating at that cafe, or we could say, Do you want to go to Nitehawk? We could say, I just need to focus on this paper right now, or we could say, Can I get you anything from the store? We could say, I want to fuck you up against the wall, or we could say, turn around, or we could say nothing and she could push me onto the kitchen table, sliding a hand under my skirt, my breasts smashed against the thin wood, all of my wanting thrilled to be so well known, while outside the window were rooftops and street lamps and the Empire State Building, a twinkling stick not so far away.
Nothing true was said.
Before we left Tennessee, I followed the handwritten instructions that had been left in a binder for guests and turned on the hot tub. You had to fill it up, you had to add a chemical, you had to let it sit uncovered for a bit before you covered it again. It was dark out, and no one else was interested, but I put on a swimsuit and let the whirring gurgle interrupt the quiet forest and got into the hot tub. I liked things that told you to relax. I liked the pantomime of relaxation. It cushioned all of my denial so that I could be somebody who thought to themselves, Isn’t this nice? Even if you wanted to believe you were full of self-awareness and years of good therapy, you still sunk into a hot tub during a dismal vacation with someone you loved who probably didn’t love you back and just thought, This feels nice.
After a few minutes, I heard the sliding glass door swish open and clatter shut. Morgan came and sat on the edge of the hot tub. My head and shoulders bobbed above the water. The steam had gotten to my glasses, so I’d taken them off. Without them, Morgan was a shape. I knew it was her by the silhouette of curly hair. I imagined a small smile on her face. Or maybe it was a forced smile. I couldn’t see well and I’ll certainly never know.
“How is it?” she asked.
“It’s phenomenal,” I lied.
We said more, on that dark porch, but the words are just ghosts; it’s the idea of a conversation. It would’ve been convenient to say something meaningful, to admit our own faults, but I doubt that it happened that way. It would be easy to revise the story of us and tell you that in that moment we forgave one another for our shortcomings, that we were conscious of what was wrong and able to let it go. But it’s so far from the truth, which is just that we were fallible. In my memory of that night in the hot tub, I can see our mouths moving. I can see us trying. I can’t remember what we wanted to say.