from THE GRIP OF IT (FSG 2017)
by Jac Jemc
(Originally appeared in Black Candies: See Through)
Illustration by Laura Gwynne
Some people have such long lives. Some people have lives they don’t even realize will end. Some people live a whole lifetime preparing for time they’ll never see. If you put your eye up to a water glass, there are so many angles to consider. Four edges of curved glass, water’s opinions: everything is a lens, but more often than not, you can’t see through it.
I’ve forced points of view down into my belly. I’ve pretended not to hide when it was clear to everyone else that’s what I was doing. When I was a child, I would climb into the trees and watch, until the other children started doing it too, and we all forgot where to look.
My mother would forget to cut the cantaloupe until it was too late, until the whole house smelled like something wrong and full of questions. The incorrectness would spread itself on the obliques of the melon and we’d politely pick around the soft parts, aiming our forks at the pieces edged in green, hoping there was science to getting a bite more ripened than rot.
Maybe we moved in and we didn’t hear the intonation for a few days, or maybe we heard it as soon as we unlocked the door, or maybe we made eye contact with the elderly neighbor next door who was watching through his window as the moving truck pulled up. Maybe we decided we would try to like the noise and find comfort in it, but maybe an idea is easier than an action. Maybe my foot broke through a plank on the front porch when I stepped outside to phone my mother to let her know we’d arrived okay, or maybe the board broke months later when we were having a glass of mid-afternoon lemonade. Maybe we fixed it right away or maybe we ignored it for a few months, trying to convince ourselves that we should get settled before worrying about any repairs, and maybe I made the room in the basement—the one you could access by spinning that panel of wall—into my darkroom, and maybe I started taking photographs of everything: of the stain on the wall and of Julie putting all of the mismatched dishes away in the cupboard, smiling, and of the neighbor when he went out to retrieve stray branches from his pristine lawn and throw them onto our lawn which was another thing we hadn’t gotten around to yet. Maybe it was the neighbor children who rang the doorbell that night or maybe it was just some faulty wiring or maybe that faint ring we heard was something else entirely: a thing we would only recognize later. Or maybe there was a reason to fear something as simple as a doorbell ring and we were foolish to stay calm for as long as we did. Maybe we should have remembered our fear of the undercurrent when we went to the beach or maybe we should have stayed inside and told each other stories that were farther from the truth or maybe we should have told some true stories for once.
I wring each towel dry and then shake out the wrinkles before I hang them on the line outside. I think of being a child out by the river that feeds into the ocean with my mother, watching her use polished stones to scrub out stains. I remember worrying about the fabric thinning. I stopped getting dirty. I stopped playing outside. I stopped sitting on the floors and started to learn the joy of the limited landscape of my bed. I started having little moods that I tried to keep secret.
I’ve never been good at forgetting. How can you forget when you never gain enough distance to lose sight of something? I know people who have to tie their memories in knots around their fingers to keep track of them. I know people whose instinct is to speed away from the past. The memories run down my chin. In just a moment they compound and add up: mealy apples, honey rubbed on my face to cure acne, the bee stings, candles smoking as the night grew late, the space between the rail ties where my foot fit perfectly, green ink, eyelashes full of pollen, and the silent sound of my brother falling from the tree as I watched from the attic window.
Maybe I find a body and it’s hard as diamonds or maybe I find the body and it’s just a pile of soft bones and teeth or maybe it’s a body whose nails have screamed themselves free of absent fingers. What will a rat eat first?
Or maybe there’s no body and I just dream that there’s an answer to the low moaning we hear, and the stains that grow and shrink on our walls and bodies, and the secrets we uncover behind secrets.
Maybe I tell James or maybe he tells me or maybe we keep our knowledge private so long that the reasons get forgotten. Maybe we forget if we told the other person or not and we end up not speaking about it, because that’s the way to avoid having to talk about it. Maybe we finally get a neighbor to talk to us or maybe we find a journal hidden in a space that tells a story or maybe we get the real estate agent to tell stories he isn’t even certain are true.
Maybe a metallic taste rises under my tongue and I start to worry about the epithelial membrane severing itself because I’ve been screaming so loud for so long that my tongue has stretched itself beyond where it should stretch.
Maybe I think James is peculiar for not being more curious, or maybe we’re both curious, but we think the other one isn’t, or maybe neither of us cares but we’re looking for something to share with each other. Maybe all I need in the world is for James to be there if I find something, but he keeps wandering away, and when I tell him what I need is for him to be there, he doesn’t understand how he isn’t. Maybe his definition of being there is different than mine, and how do you make a person understand that?
Maybe our relationship deserves more attention or less attention or maybe we’re so full of ourselves that we think we’re full of each other, but the trick of the light is that we’re full of our concept of the other, and that gap can feel downright unbridgeable.
When I get home from work, I talk James into walking with me in the woods, to the beach. The trees house the strangest birds in this neighborhood. Birds I never see fly with hips and lips. I stuff cotton in my ears to muffle their calls and when James talks to me, it’s hard to hear. He asks what the matter is, but he can’t see the cotton because I’ve tucked it into my ear canals, delicately, tamping it in with the end of a Q-tip I reuse each day because it’s just cotton on cotton. I try to make James exciting again by letting his muffled words become something else. It’s like he’s speaking another language, and I must examine him carefully to gather his meanings. James saying, “Should we walk out to the beach and then turn around or do you want to go farther?” and me hearing, “Would ewoks ant who the peach and dens burn a wound in her rueful run-to coat closet?” and I smile and respond to that gibberish happy to have a new language to learn.
Maybe James knows I’m seeing things in my imagination that I’m hiding from him or maybe he knows they’re real but he knows that if he sees them too, he’ll have to devote energy to belief and solving a mystery.
“James, maybe we should go on vacation,” I say and he tells me we can’t afford it. We decided to set down roots instead of flying away, and I understand, but the things that suddenly feel absolutely necessary flash with unpredictability.
Maybe one night I sharpen each of my fingernails into claws and pose in front of the mirror testing how much force it takes to break the skin of my collarbone, and maybe James walks into the bathroom without knocking and sees the stripes of nearly broken skin on my chest and asks what it is I think I’m doing, and he says that if I’ve developed some new mutilation habit, well, then he doesn’t even know me anymore, and I insist that that’s not it. I have urges to try things that’ve never interested me before, and one of those things is becoming an animal.
The house is over a hundred years old, but if you asked the people who’d lived there first, it was once much bigger. If they returned to stroll through now, they’d wonder why everything seemed so small. They’d round a corner and bump into walls that were never there. They’d say, “There used to be a pantry here,” where there is now nothing. “The woods are closer than they were when we lived here,” they would say, and things like that can be true and logical. Forests seed and grow out. If they went to the beach, they’d say the shore was narrower, too. “The water seems to be approaching us,” they’d say, but we’d just tell them it’s just the tide.
Jac Jemc lives in Chicago. Her novel, The Grip of It, is forthcoming from FSG Originals in spring of 2017. Jemc is also the author of My Only Wife (Dzanc Books), named a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award; A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books), named one of Amazon’s Best Story Collections of 2014; and a chapbook of stories, This Stranger She’d Invited In (Greying Ghost Press). Jac’s nonfiction has been featured on the long list for Best American Essays and her story “Women in Wells” was featured in the 2010 Best of the Web anthology. Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at The Danish Center for Writers and Translators, Ragdale, the Vermont Studio Center, Thicket, The Rensing Center, and VCCA. She has been the recipient of two Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grants, and in 2014 she was named as one of 25 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex and one of New City’s Lit 50 in Chicago. She recently completed a stint as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Notre Dame and currently teaches at Northeastern Illinois University and Story Studio Chicago, as well as online at Writers & Books and The Loft Literary Center. She currently serves as the web nonfiction editor for Hobart.
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