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Issue 5, April 2010

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The Feeling Is One of Relief
Jaime Warburton

    In a story, there is supposed to be a reason for everything and for everyone. For example, if I were telling a story about my girlfriend but the plot was about her and banana bread, I would have to be a man. This is because if I were not a man, and if I took the story to a writing workshop, someone with uneven sideburns might say, “But what is the reason that these people are lesbians? Does it change the story? If not, then the couple should just be straight. If the couple is not straight, people will spend their time thinking about how the couple is a lesbian couple, and that will detract from the banana bread.” And there is no reason for me to be a woman and my girlfriend to be a woman, except that I was born a woman and so was she, and we often have sex, and that is the way it is.
    She loves short stories; I do not. I like novels, the longer the better. I like to be in the same universe for as long as I can. Because of this, I am a re-reader: I will read books ten times, fifty times if I really like them. I will stop twenty pages before the end, maybe, and go back to the beginning, because I would prefer to feel like the time is suspended and the characters will never die of uterine cancer or get married, but will stay flirting and crying and nursing that vague stomachache forever. Short stories do not allow a reader to sustain that illusion of permanence. They do not let you pretend that your mother's hands don't look like your grandmother's did when you were a child. They don't let you float. In short stories, you meet someone and know him and then he cries over his son's body and there's an echo where the camera-pages pan up and focus back on milk swirling slowly in a cup of diesel coffee and you close the pages feeling empty like there was no point in being human in the first place. You are supposed to think that feeling is beautiful and it will inspire you to keep going. I find it the opposite.
    She laughs when I put the book down after reading one of her favorite short stories. The end describes a chimp who has been taught to sign by signing “baby, come, hug” over her dead child (if a chimp baby can be described as a child. I think it can.). This is a famous story. Perhaps you have read it, too. My girlfriend mimes pulling her heart out of her chest and stomping on it with her foot, but she is smiling. Her charade is not an original metaphor, but in life, we do not expect metaphors to be as original as we would prefer them in stories. I say, “But why would you want to do that with your heart?” (Her metaphor-heart.) She says, “Because it feels good.”
    This does not feel good to me. I feel guilty for thinking it, the same way I feel guilty when I catch myself using words without meanings (it them there) or making sentences without images (“I feel guilty.”). My metaphor-heart functions better when it is guarded carefully. I picture it nested in some of those styrofoam peanuts, not the newer kind that can be dissolved in a sink of running water, but the old-fashioned kind that you knew would still be at the bottom of a stream bed a hundred years after you'd died and stopped making your cat miserable by holding him like a child, a people-baby. There should also be some packing tape around these peanuts to hold them in a steady cylinder. A heart could beat without shaking things up too much that way.
    Knowing that my heart (my physical-heart) is beating can sometimes be distracting. When I lie in bed, it skips beats, as many people's hearts do: it will hold on to the lull between “lub” and “dub” until I feel rather breathless, although I am still breathing. Then, when it catches up with itself the feeling is one of relief. But you should know that I am not good at falling asleep. I never have been. When I was seven and eight, after my mother left me in my darkened room, I called out into the hall, “Don't go to sleep before I do.” I was terrified of being the only person left awake in that house. Our home was maybe 800 square feet, a compact red brick fortress, but to be the only person conscious in it in the dark, the only one aware that my mother was breathing, the only one to hold back fear, seemed too much. She promised, but she never pulled it off—always, I stayed awake, creeping to my door with my eyes shut so as to avoid my own shadowy form approaching me in the full length mirror that hung on its back, pulling at the knuckled glass doorknob, standing in the hall listening: the floor creaked and settled, the lions in the nearby zoo groaned, my parents breathed on the other side of their door. I would still make my mother promise the next night, but I knew, not that she was lying, but that she simply wouldn't know when I was sleeping, and that she didn't believe it could be so bad to be awake.
    I learned later that I was never really the only person awake, although maybe I had been within the bonds of the house. The world was my house or my block, but of course, the world is larger and contains things like China and Alcatraz. This is like math: numbers and the symbols we use with them are infinite and chaotic, words that have been overused in metaphor but that have a perfectly good reason for existing within math. And also within math, we can carve off little sets: real numbers, imaginary. All values of X greater than six. So within that set of my home I was awake alone, but in the set of my neighborhood, I probably had company. In the city around me, definitely there was company, but we had never been introduced, and I was frightened of them.
    When my girlfriend tells me to read a short story, I feel like I am in danger of waking up to an empty house. She will be sitting next to me, just like everyone is sitting next to everyone, but it won't be enough. It's never enough. “It's going to be so sad, and it's going to be so short,” I complain. (I am defensive.) “I know,” she says. “It will be. It's perfect.”
    Perhaps the best part of being alive is that your past is endless if you want it to be. The worst part is that it can be endless when you don't want it to be, too. But I like to skip the miscommunications and the funerals. The reason is that I am not given to emotional displays. I may have been, when I was a teenager, but I can't remember. Being a teenager is at least ten years in the past, and I think things like “I loved high school” when my journal said, “I hate high school.” Here is a story: in high school, I fell in love with a girl my parents wouldn't let me see. They sent me to a shrink to fix me and told all of my teachers. I did not cry or fight them. I threw up, instead. I threw up into my hands and into my mouth and into little plastic bags that I carried in my purse, in the middle of the night and in the school bathrooms. It was too hard to feel or say anything else. I did not remember that the world also contains China and Alcatraz. It seems like a whole novel, but it was only a year. I re-read it, so I can pull out all of the things I didn't have room to feel back then, like I’m making soup from bones. There was a day I could run my fingers up her tanned wrists and stop at the small scars. There was a day—no, more than one day—when we walked through back lots at dusk and saw bats swooping like madness. Certainly, there was madness. Once, though, it was May, and I'm telling you, it was something. When I remember first love, I remember vomiting. But I also remember lilacs. First love is the smell of lilacs. I don't care what you say.

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