When did the apocalypse finally arrive? Was it April 2, by which time more than a million people globally had contracted COVID-19? Was it March 26, when the United States surpassed all other countries in its number of confirmed cases? Or January 21, when the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in the United States?
The truth is that by December 2019, the mood in this country was already firmly apocalyptic. Teenage activists were demanding that politicians act immediately to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the politicians were ignoring them. Fires were consuming the West on a yearly schedule. Far-right nationalist movements were spreading unabated worldwide. President Trump was running for reelection, and the likely Democratic candidate represented an uninspiring attempt to return to a more innocent time, a time that had never existed, remember that?
When the coronavirus reached the United States, the disruptions that had long simmered on the margins spread to the center. The government told lies in official press conferences and people who listened died. A quarter of employed Americans lost some or all of their jobs, while the personal net worth of Jeff Bezos continued its upward trajectory in the twelve digits. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others were killed, and citizens who marched in the streets to protest their murders were violently suppressed by the police. Journalists stopped talking about the climate.
Here it was, a changing of the world order. Though, for many of us, the apocalypse had arrived long ago—in 1619, in 1492—and we had kept on living.
For those of us who understood the stakes of living among other people, the viral pandemic presented only the most recent illustration. It reminded us that the lines between our bodies and the bodies of others are permeable, that harm done to one can spill over onto another. We had to acknowledge our connections with family, neighbors, strangers who shared our vulnerabilities. For those more deeply enmeshed in the American myth of self-determination, however, the pandemic was a challenge: how to lock down the borders of the self. Survival is a contest, after all, and it is played alone (at least on TV). To survive 2020 one need only a Zoom account, a fitness regimen, unobstructed access to the full range of consumer choice, and a personal firearm.
If only it were so easy! Survival, as the following writers tell us, is a group effort. It requires constant maintenance. It’s a process, a healing, a daily prayer. There is no winning—but nor is losing the inevitable outcome. Out of apocalyptic soil, new ways of existing will rise. To get us there, we rely on the same strategies we’ve always used to get us through the perpetual crisis of life.
“I’ve started a new project,” I tell Max over Houseparty, and bring a humongous jug of protein powder into the frame. Someone somewhere says we’re going to have a meat shortage or something. Sometimes on YouTube I do the Tracy Andersons. Sometimes the BodyFit by Amy. Sometimes the HASfit or the MadFfit or the one with the lady and the two-pound weights for four minutes that spaghettis my arms. In Zoom therapy I ask Dr. John why the panic hits hardest when I’m still. When I’m in bed. When I try to read. When I’m sitting down for dinner. (Dinnertime is anytime, because time is lol.) Dr. John says, “It’s a pandemic!” He says when we’re endangered, the lizard brain wants to run, but right now the higher brain knows there’s nowhere to go. On FaceTime, Jenny says she’s been using Pedialyte bottles as weights. In my “Houseparty Dolls” Houseparty group, Tazbah says she’s been using an app called Workout for Women. She likes it because it’s not a real person telling her what to do. Marcos says he should get on that. He says his double chin is getting a double chin. (He doesn’t have a double chin.) The label on the protein powder jug says to mix a scoop in with my favorite drink, but I don’t think they mean Black Cherry White Claw. Dr. John says my two brains aren’t galloping together. They’re out of step. Today I try the Bowflex Six-Minute Standing Ab Workout. “I don’t think I work my abs, but it’s good cardio!” I tell Niqui and Cat on our FaceTime art accountability call. None of us are making art right now. I ask my “Food 4 Thot” group chat if the girls are mixing protein powder with Diet Coke. I tell Dr. John I haven’t kept a workout routine like this since I was fifteen. He asks what happened when I was fifteen. I was a gay rez kid in a racist, homophobic high school forty miles from home. Every school day brought new horrors, new ways people said they were going to hurt me, and then did. In six months I went from 230 pounds to 140. (I’m six foot two.) Cat says she’s doing CrossFit through Plush Fitness. I go to the “Team Mashallah Poetry Eid” Zoom reading and see Kaveh, Angel, Safia, Fati, and Hanif read. I see Hieu, Jenna, and Shira in the audience. We are overwhelmed. We cry. I feel an ache in my shoulder. I panic. I am legit convinced I have the virus. It doesn’t once cross my mind that I’m sore from working out. I try the CBD muscle rub I got from Morgan, “for your sex injuries,” she told me. Last year, every time I had sex, something bad would happen to my body. A laceration. A broken toe. “Maybe quarantine is for the best,” Morgan texts. Survive. Vital. Vivid. Chantal has been strength training too. She says cardio is—she breaks up for a second—a lie. No matter how hard I stir, I can’t get the protein powder to dissolve smoothly into the water. Globs of it stick to the glass and my teeth. Joe has a special word for going for a run: he calls it a “run nut.” Everyone thinks it’s funny except Fran. Fran texts, “I’m finally getting a butt!” Working out is like a video game except the video game is my body. “HEATHER ROBINSON IS MY NEW QUEEN,” Sarah texts. Max says he’s been running in the middle of the street because there are no cars. I make a standing desk with books and board games and shelves from Bed Bath & Beyond. Dr. John posits that in the absence of control, I’m exerting control over the one thing I do have control over. It’s different now from in high school: I have learned to nourish my body instead of to deprive it. It takes me three listens of “Control” by Janet Jackson to walk to Morgan’s house. I’m sitting with Fati and SA and Morgan in Morgan’s yard. This is our pod. I no longer want to disappear. It’s a hot day but we’re in the shade. There’s a breeze. The dog is asleep. I close my eyes and I’m right here.
Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the author of the books IRL, Nature Poem, Junk, Feed, and myriad keen tweets including “sittin on the cock of the gay.” Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, he now splits his time between Los Angeles and Brooklyn. He cocurates the reading series Poets with Attitude, cohosts the podcasts Food 4 Thot and Scream, Queen! and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub.
When I tried to recall the difficult situations I’d had to push through relatively on my own, and not those that community and solidarity make bearable, I drew a blank. Yet perhaps that blank was precisely the proof of my having survived—I’d moved on, in other words. Even here, I catch myself doing something that’s often helped me: using thought as the vehicle to distance myself from the pain or the feeling of helplessness that would otherwise paralyze me, so I can see it from a different angle. Before hurt sucks up all my energy, I try to transfer it to meaningful analysis. This could be my poetics, except that it kicks in automatically, without my gaining control over it, and sometimes it can get out of hand, leading to an alienating disembodiment. And, of course, it’s not enough; it’s merely the first step toward a way out. The key at this stage of the process is to dismantle the old binary of thinking versus feeling and arrive at emotion through thought or at thought through emotion, depending on what pulls me first. Only then can action come.
As a preteen I developed a survival mechanism also related to the parallax effect that has ultimately become central to my self-conception. When I was about to turn thirteen, I was found to have severe scoliosis. Years earlier, my family and I had been in a car accident that affected some of us rather seriously. I was among those who were spared acute trauma, suffering only fractures of the left femur. A decade later, we discovered that, as a consequence, I’d grown up with one leg significantly shorter than the other, and that my spine had compensated for the difference by curving into a sideways S. My scoliosis was the risky kind—the curvature measured forty-nine degrees—and doing nothing was not an option. There was a chance I could avert surgery if I wore a brace while I was continuing to grow, to force my spine into alignment. My parents opted for that, and for every hour of the day, except for when I was showering or swimming, for more than three years during middle school and part of high school, I wore a back brace. Over the bulky contraption, I dressed in boxy, oversize clothing, like a teenage David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. This was the ’80s. Some of my classmates developed eating disorders in order to fit into Jordache jeans, while I tried to fit a little wedge into my left shoe and become one with my orthopedic device.
The brace had a visible stainless steel collar that fastened around my neck. Wearing it, I felt freakish, but I quickly discovered that embracing freakdom could be hugely liberating. I had been a good girl until then—responsible, docile, obedient. I became a rebel, “different,” to family members and classmates. The triviality of the aspirational concerns of the Mexican
middle-class, the grotesquerie of its political and economic elites, became ever clearer. Especially after the earthquake of 1985, my spine’s misalignment made vital my alignment with those seen as lesser than by the dominant culture. Nonconformists became my heroes: outspoken, independent women; activists and anti-imperialist singers such as Cuban trova musicians; bohemians, punks, artists, and poets assembling in Plaza de Coyoacán, which was then filled with bookstores. Wearing the brace reminded me of those things before I was able to fool myself into forgetting—being the daughter of a white, Connecticut-born mother and a Mexican father—that I would never fit in, and that normality was not normal.
At age seventeen, I was told that my back was finally straightened and I didn’t have to wear the brace any longer. It took my spine exactly six months to return to its original misshapenness. I got the surgery after all. That’s when I refined my taste for the absurd, in life and in letters. There’s a type of tragedy that not even humor can soften, and this wasn’t it. A cruel joke, yes, but I was free of the brace at last! Wearing it would have been an exercise in futility had it not been for what I learned while I endured it: mind is not bone, and ossification is deadly.
Mónica de la Torre works with and between languages. Her books include Repetition Nineteen, just out from Nightboat Books, and The Happy End/All Welcome, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. She teaches poetry at Brooklyn College. A recent photo-essay appears in Granta 151: Membranes.
I really don’t like games where you’re against someone. They bring out the worst in me. But as a fiction writer, I live by “what if,” and sometimes I play “what if there was a game called ‘Emotional Blackmail?’” The primary cards are archetypes: “Mother,” “Father,” “Sibling,” “Teacher,” “Lover,” “Boss,” “Neighbor.”There are “place” cards, too, like“Alley,” “Woods,” and “Public Transportation.” Pick a card and tell a story of your associated trauma. Your opponent must one-up you from their bank of life stories. Can you lie? What if it’s not the lie that tells the truth? Your group must determine what kind of Americans you are and decide.
The game comes from Julie, my constant companion in my first year of college. She was theatrical, and we both loved telling stories that would shock and bond. One night she said, “Let’s stay in tonight and drink this bottle of fancy gin my father gave me for a special occasion, let’s use these shot glasses, let’s sit on the pink carpet in my dorm room, and you can draw and erase things in the pile with your finger while I tell you about—” The story went: How the pain of her breakup flowed into the pain from her family, or her high school? It was about her pain. As she told the story of her pain, I thought of the way she had been trying on her clothes in the mirror before we started drinking, smoothing top after top over her body with her hands, not just putting
the top on and looking at it but putting it on and smoothing it by running her hands over her body and turning in the mirror. “This sweater does nothing for me, do you want it?” she said, gave it to me, and pow, my nicest sweater ever, sprawled right next to me on the carpet. Her family were big Democrats from Dallas. She lived on “the poor side of Highland Park,” and I had no idea what that meant but asked around, and it meant she was very rich and ashamed of it. As she got to the level of story where she was crying from revelation—me being an amazing listener for her the whole way there—her eyes began to shoot tears out at ninety degrees from her face.
Tears shooting right at me from her face. The pink carpet background. That’s the game.
Emotional blackmail—you trick someone into vulnerability—gun to the head with your story—your feelings—you dangle feelings and yank them back when your opponent rises to—you wield them and then you’ve got ’em by the feelings—I think that’s how it goes—my mom was masterful—
Because of my mother, some years of financial instability, and the toll of mental illness on my family, I’d have good stories for the game.
In the game, you either make each other feel shitty or you make each other feel close, but we’ve been imagining making the game for ten years now and have never worked out the blackmail part. What would we try to make people do? The we is me and my spouse. She’s a lawyer. I’m tenured. You lie by omission when you don’t account for the money. So we’re fine. We’re fine until they come for the queers and the Jews, she reminds me. Or the bougies, I remind her. You should see our place. We are SIP-ing our butts off like we were born for this. Our place is gorgeous.
Survival diary. Pier 1 closed during the first draft of this essay. Spouse and I enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude, drinking coffee in our king-size bed, looking out our window at the you-would-not-believe-the-view. Twin laptops on our knees. I do like to win, but I don’t like that I like to win. I feel in myself the desire to win in the way that, being white, I feel racism at work in me. I feel it as something that was done to me by being a person formed within the narratives of my culture. “But where will people go for wicker?” we joked. It was the first anniversary of my mother’s death. It was a hell of a death, it really was. A recent Mary Szybist poem starts: “My dead mother is more beautiful /than yours.”Mary—first, I adore you—and next, I will give you beautiful—you win on beauty. But my dead mother—wait till I tell you—I mean a hell of a death—the stories I could—
Survival: Call friend. Look at flower. Plant a plant. Walk in woods. Hug dog/kitten. Exercise. Meditate. Good food. Bad food. Sleep. If you need a pill to sleep, get a pill and sleep. Volunteer. Kindness to others. Access excellent mental and other health care through your existing health plan, which you can pay for, no problem. Smoke weed or go 12-step. Read books from childhood—all the Frog and Toads hold up. Sort photos. Go around your house looking at your things. Things you’ve known for years. There they are. Watch five seasons of Naked and Afraid. Write an essay about Naked and Afraid. Or don’t do it, just know you could and people would fuckin’ read it. Watch another season, seeing what housework you can do while balancing your laptop on your palm. Write an essay about the nonhuman as mental refuge. Write an essay about coming from a long line of whatever they are. Write an essay about writers as sages and what do I know? Write an essay about money. Like that time someone you love so much who has been going in and out of mental institutions finally stayed medicated and you were like, “What made you change your mind and stay on medications, was it that last hospital that helped you?” and she was like, “Fuck no, it was money.” Write about isolation and how writing is always still isolation. Write about Mom’s death, it was fuckin’ crazy and she was all about survival. I mean the shit she survived. But don’t write about it to show off. Pick two people you especially love and tell them everything that happened during her death, like writing in sand.
Write an essay about an imaginary card game you never finished imagining. Write about people named Julie. My friend Julie—different Julie—(should there be a Julies card, a Heathers card, a Karens card)—now teaches religious studies at the very college I went to with the earlier Julie. I visited her class—REL 361: The End of the World: Apocalyptic Arguments from Antiquity to the Present Day—on Zoom a couple of weeks into lockdown. The students were stunned, new facts of the situation, new facts about their bodies in relation to the arguments floating in real and virtual space. I said I suspected I wrote fiction in the way they might practice their faith. Like you go to it for solace and not entirely knowing why you believe in it, but you do, and it gives you joy and is immensely private and also feels connective, and you struggle and work hard on your relationship with it, but it’s just a given in your life, a core, a constant, your sense of who you are that is not a problem to solve but a thing to be, so even if you know that others question its worth, that doesn’t seem to be the point. You just have it, it’s yours, and you practice it because, because, well, it’s not reasonable, it’s faith.
You know what’s under a lot of stress in this country: fiction. We’re rightly shocked and mesmerized by facts crumbling off the cliff face of discourse, but look at how people are wielding fiction, what is being done to it, what people are making it do. People with power just making up shit that kills people. Gun to the head of the story.
The thing I’ve never been able to figure out, in all my years of writing fiction is how anyone doesn’t just die, I mean not survive, if they don’t make art. I picture them and picture them—these people I write about who do not make art, and the people in the world I am trying to understand by imagining the people in my fiction. I make them as real to me as possible, not being one of them, but I cannot figure out, for the life of me, how anyone who doesn’t make art can survive. There are people out there rioting right now—and I believe in riots. Those people aren’t sand. Why am I not rioting? Not to mention, I don’t even believe in essays—I believe in fiction—and look what’s happening to—what am I doing?
Lucy Corin is the author of four books of fiction, including the story collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s) and the forthcoming novel The Swank Hotel (Graywolf Press, 2021). She won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. She lives in Berkeley, California, and teaches at UC Davis.
We lived in a van. I was fourteen going on fifteen then. I can’t remember the sadness of that time. I remember the cold in my socks, and especially the rain. The sound of it on the van’s roof like heartbeats. Every window collected a million perfect little circles of water around me, and one would gather the other circles around it and drag itself out of sight, and another would do the same, until I fell asleep. I did my math homework in the passenger seat of the van, angling my notebook to catch the light from the streetlamp. I loved math. The certainty of it, its clarity of feeling. And the light. The light in someone’s warm home. We were only a few feet away, the person in the house and I. The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, I told myself, like a prayer. It was a fact, and that was a sure thing I had. I was born weighing two pounds in a refugee camp. Two pounds isn’t very heavy. It’s the size of a Coke can, my dad said once. A coat hanger usually takes care of that before it happens, but my mother wanted me, and so that is why I am here. To want something sounds simple. What my family wanted was not that big. We wanted a place to eat and sleep, a roof over our heads, a place to belong and call our own—to live. These are the small and simple things of a life. Unambitious things, some might say. That is, until you do not have them. When you come from people who just want to live and do what they can to get to the next minute, hour, day, year—well, you want to do it too. That want feels radical and big. It makes you courageous in ways you never thought you could be. You build a raft of bamboo to get where you need to go, though you’ve never built a thing before, because you want. You begin all over again in a country whose language you don’t know, in the home of strangers. When you get your papers, when you become a citizen, it doesn’t mean you belong now, or that you stop wanting. Once you feel that want, it never leaves. Thirty years later, when I’d lost all the money I’d ever made, the love I’d thought I had, my place in the world, I still held on to want. I took a night-shift job counting bags of cash five levels belowground. I had nowhere to go but to work. To sleep I crawled under my office desk. The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, I told myself. I can’t remember the sadness of that time. I remember my coworkers. They would come sit with me at the lunch table and give me a bit of their food, telling me they’d packed too much that day, could I help them finish the rest? They couldn’t possibly finish all of it, they said. What I know I have from this life is a brilliant and voluminous and ferocious heart that wants. And it beats against everything.
Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four poetry books. Her first story collection is How to Pronounce Knife (Little, Brown and Company, 2020). Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, Granta, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019.
I’m watching a tornado on loop. The video was taken yesterday, in Kansas, from a car. The funnel circles up, flashes its debris cloud, grows larger as the camera approaches, until the driver stops. “We’re too close,” someone calls out. The car’s right-side mirror snaps back. “There it goes,” someone says. The tornado crosses the road and comes to a standstill, rotating but unmoving. The camera seems transfixed. The tornado is red in the lightning.
René Leriche, a surgeon and author of The Surgery of Pain, likened the totalizing power of pain to a storm. When pain is present, he writes, “the patient is beside himself, quite beyond all capability of analyzing it, unless, on the contrary, he fixes his attention altogether on his suffering.”
The only kind of fix.
Today my head hurts. It hurts in a ceaseless sort of way. It tingles. My chest rotates slowly, the air in it rolling counterclockwise. The sensation is of an abandoned place, the copper stolen out of it. I want to behold it. I want to hold the sensation out in front of me like I’ve got an iPhone trained on a tornado in a field ahead. I badly want to be my body’s friend.
My mom and my grandma and I all have a degenerative genetic thing that affects our collagen and our joints. Our spines wag and we get dizzy. I feel permanently skewered, as if a steel rod extends from the base of my left foot and runs out the top of my head. There’s a sleepiness, a weight that hangs from the corners of my eyes and pulls me down. My joints bend too much, my vertebrae flag, my cervical spine is windy, my jaw loose. My neck doesn’t hold up well; it seems such a thin stake for my head, which isn’t hooked on right. I cut off blood vessels to my brain just by moving around.
Kat Stramara, a pain specialist I saw on YouTube, was, in her own description, “born with chronic pain.” She says, “I was born with bone deformities, and throughout my life, I just thought everybody else had pain, so I never said anything, growing up.”
Like Stramara, it took me years to realize that the sensations I’d always thought of as synonymous with “body” and “alive” are what other people call “pain.” I had no idea. There are so many stories about pain from people who have experienced a life before pain and a life after pain. The stories tell of lives cleaved in two. What I’m searching for is not an account of someone who learned to live with pain but an account of what it’s like to know it.
I’ve got a friend who describes herself as a hypochondriac. She reacts really big to hurting herself, like she’ll step on something sharp and scream. My response is also strong, a dad kind of strong, like, Oh, did that hurt. Let me show you something that really hurts. My stepdad used to play with us like this: He’d grab a stray finger and pretend to break it. He’d say, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, and then it’s a game to try and find the eye,” and we’d smile the whole time because the way he was talking was gentle.
David B. Morris, in The Culture of Pain, suggests that it’s easy to write long and slow about something we love—unlike pain, which provokes solitude and silence. Pain, he says, is “the expression of an otherness so alien that we have no words and no language with which to comprehend it.”
An experiment: What if I wrote as if I loved it?
There’s a feeling when I start puking that is a sort of fire and it turns into nausea and I’m ground up, suddenly, as if between teeth. The feeling often comes after I’m upright too long or I’m driving too late or I haven’t eaten enough. I love it. The only time it sucks is when I’m around other people and I can’t surrender.
I want to surrender. Before I had sex, I used to imagine that someone putting their fingers inside me would be electrified by the sensation that stalks around inside me. I imagined they would have their hand shot back out, would suck their finger and rock on the floor. I imagined the feeling as a shock, then heat.
I want someone, I always think. I want someone inside me for this.
I don’t know how else to share.
Emerson Whitney is the author of Heaven (McSweeney’s, 2020) and Ghost Box (Timeless Infinite Light, 2014). Emerson teaches in the BFA creative writing program at Goddard College and is a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at the University of Southern California.
You learn new words when you break your vagina. Like symphysis pubic dysfunction. You learn you have body parts you didn’t know about. Such as the symphysis, a creek of cartilage connecting the halves of your pubic bone. You learn that your pubic bone is not one bone but two. You learn that it loosens during pregnancy. You learn that it can split apart. You learn how to curse to yourself, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” while giving birth and to say, “I love you so much” to the husband you will divorce later. You learn that you should have been saying “fuck” to the husband and “I love you” to yourself.
The pain starts in the sixth month and the doctors tell you it is nothing. “Have you forgotten what it was like the first time?” they say. You gave birth three years ago. The pregnancy was simple. The birthing was easy. Any complications? Not a one. Any tearing? Nada. Your body was made for birthing, it seemed then. You wanted to do it ten more times.
They tell you everything is normal. But it doesn’t feel normal. It hurts like someone is taking meat scissors to your pussy. They tell you to take little steps, “like a Japanese,” one doctor says. She is some kind of Asian, so you think she is fucked-up for suggesting that “Japanese” is synonymous with dainty walking and wobbly shoes, but you say nothing. You take tiny steps. You sign up for physical therapy. They put electromagnetic stickers on your ass to see how hard you can Kegel. “Strong!” they say. Which feels embarrassing. You don’t want to be strong. You want to be lying in a bed with someone feeding you sushi and wine.
When you are giving birth, you feel the split. You push out the baby girl and know you are dying. Your very life is going at the moment your daughter is coming. Everything is breaking. Your body, your life, your marriage, your sanity. The room flickers dark and the lights flash in your eyes as though you had no eyes, as if your eyes had been ripped from their soft pockets and replaced by a white fire in your mind. The pain passes through you like a god’s fiery hand. You are sure you are dead. Then you hear your daughter shout her first shout. Your eyes are your eyes again. “I love you so much,” you say to your husband.
“She’s so white,” he says. “Are you sure she’s mine?” You realize he is serious. You feel pity for him. You have come back from the dead, and he is back in his small place, where he was when you first met him. Before you helped “save” him, his word. “She is ours,” you say, and kiss him.
The breaking apart of the symphysis begins a kind of grief because it is something you thought was once whole, like your body, like your marriage. You never knew that it was never one thing; it was always multiple. As all things always are. Yet when it ruptures it cannot heal. Like a divorce, it never leaves you.
Here is how you get over breaking your vagina during childbirth. You get pregnant again, a third time. You tell your OB that you cannot have this baby. But then you never go for the morning-after pill, or the abortion pill, or the D&C, or the D&E. You wonder if your marriage will end with this baby. Your husband knows you are worried about this. He tells you, “I feel like if we don’t have this baby it will be because our marriage can’t handle it. So we should have the baby to prove that our marriage can handle it.” He doesn’t mention your injury. He doesn’t remember the walker, the wheelchair. He doesn’t notice that you can walk only in tiny steps—long strides are for childless women.
You tell your OB that you will have an elective caesarean. But then your friends who have had cesareans explain some things to you: You won’t be able to walk up stairs. Your insides will feel like they’re jostling around, because they will be. You will have to keep watch for infected sutures. You will have to make sure your sutures don’t pop. You will need help. But there is no one who will come to help you. You do not have a mother or a father or a sister. Your mother-in-law may come, but she will help the baby, not you. You do not have the money for a nurse. Your husband—well.
Instead of the cesarean, you gather strength. You leg lift. You push up. You run. Your belly is huge, but you sign up for yoga classes. You meditate. You eat better than you can afford. You save money. You call old women friends to you. You make new women friends. You talk to your older children about their brother who is on the way, show them photos so they know they were once babies too. You go to therapy. You consider divorce.
When the morning comes, you can’t believe the agony. Your husband asks what to do, but you don’t know. On the drive to the hospital you roll down the window at each contraction, so that the cool March air hits your face full-on. At the hospital they say you are too far along for the epidural, but another doctor says, “She has symphysis disfunction. She needs the meds.” They give it to you and you cannot tell if it matters. You look at the floor in the delivery room. You wonder how hard you would have to fling yourself at the floor to knock yourself out. The pain is the pain of someone near death, but not near enough. Your husband is there, quieter than he was for the two previous births. You weep and beg and breathe. You feel the split.
It takes months, but you learn to walk again. You learn to walk, to stride, in heels. You wear them to meet your divorce attorneys. Meanwhile your baby learns to talk, to move, to swim. The ancient way children learned to swim was by going so deep into the water that the only options were to swim or not to swim. You can do it! I will call to my child someday. Or perhaps as someone called to me, long ago. Either way, we will understand that “swim” is a way to say, Do not die. Or there will be no words at all, just the child breaking through, her arms splitting the water.
Tiphanie Yanique is the author of the poetry collection Wife, which won the 2016 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Tiphanie is also the author of the novel Land of Love and Drowning, which won the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction. Her story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, won her a listing as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” She has won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright scholarship, and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Emory University.
I’ve only ever lived in the Sunshine State, specifically in Orlando. It’s a place where the air feeds your flesh. You’re saturated from the moment you step outdoors. Clothes damp. Skin wet. Your rugs mildew and rain drips through holes in your roof. As if there were no separation between your body, your home, and the surrounding swamp.
It’s the kind of place, too, that insists on announcing its presence. Rampant commercialism and consumerism. Bold weather. Murderous plants. It’s ants floating in your glass of wine. So many goddamn bugs.
I’ve never considered leaving. I’ve often said that if I took the Florida out of my stories, they wouldn’t be the same stories. I wouldn’t want the narratives to resemble. They’d be different tales entirely.
Why? Because Florida is its own microcosm. The palms, for one. Palms crown all our highways. They surround our apartment buildings, banks, theme parks, fast-food restaurants, and used-car lots. They’re in most of our yards. Tall ones alongside squat ones. The kind of vegetation that flourishes in smothering heat.
Life flourishes inside them, too, and death. Palms are home to all manner of insects, fungi, reptiles, birds, scurrying creatures. A single palm can hold thousands of organisms. The tree holds a bird’s nest full of hatching eggs, holds a black snake to eat those babies, holds a sleeping raccoon that awakens in the evening to eat the snake. There are bugs that eat those decaying remains. The same ones that burrow inside the tree to carve it up, hollow it out, until the palm is dead. When it eventually falls, it rots into a new shape and becomes another kind of home, for different animals: the gopher tortoise burrowing beneath its mucky soil, the snake rustling in the dew-dampened grass, searching for lizards. Each palm you see standing alone contains all these bodies within it.
Lately, when I drive past these palms on the highway, I’ve been wondering about the parts of Florida I no longer see. I am a third-generation Floridian. My grandparents were born in Central Florida and so were my parents. Most of my family still lives here. I am estranged from this family; I do not see or speak to these people—yet we continue to occupy the same landscape. We drive past the same palms. We eat at the same restaurants. We slap the same mosquitoes from our bare arms, arms that have the same freckles and musculature and skin tone. I am beginning to understand that when I say I cannot separate myself from the state I love, I mean I am unable to separate myself from the state I was born to.
This is how Florida holds me. Florida breathes, it sweats, it dies. It is myself and the other bodies around me. I survive by carrying it all inside me, holding good and bad alike within my chest, a bird nesting in the palm scrub of my heart.
Kristen Arnett is the New York Times best-selling author of the debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House), which was listed as one of that paper’s top books of 2019. She is a queer fiction and essay writer. Her story collection, Felt in the Jaw,was published by Split/Lip Press and was awarded the 2017 Coil Book Award. She is a spring 2020 Shearing Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada. Her next two books (a novel, Samson, and a short-story collection, With Foxes) will be published by Riverhead Books. You can find her on Twitter @Kristen_Arnett.