By Kasandra Solverson
I telephoned to play you a song. Lying in a bunk, surrounded by volunteers in New Orleans, you whispered hello from the breathing silence of the church on Dryads Street. I planned the call well ahead. The song I picked from the heart of songs. When you answered I thought you said, “I’m sleepy.” (You really said, “Sing to me.”) The lights went out in the church and everyone was asleep except you, suddenly alone on one end of a dropped line. I put my guitar back in its case and curled up in a cot in the cold, snowy North.
You didn’t call me back. I suppose that’s because we were old inside, which is a thing to be understood straight away. The song I did not play was played more beautifully by the possibility of music, and became unparalleled inside all the other sounds. You insisted on this—when, as the months passed, you refused to answer my calls, missing me so much that you did not want to hear me. No, you didn’t call me back, to hear the song, or for any other reason. I imagine you laid back into your pillow that night and dreamt a dream, which you remembered in the morning for a moment before anything else, before dressing, and then forgot as you drank your coffee. I imagine things continued in an ordinary way, except that now you were old inside, as I was, for putting the pulse of a night so deliberately away, wild beams of light in our ears.
As the summer approached I made plans quickly. I acquired an acre of soil from the farm I grew up on in Wisconsin and planted a small-scale vegetable farm. Five feet from the basil bed, I built a hut out of scrap materials and sod to live in, so close that some nights I stepped out and walked the black ground to scare deer away. The first night after planting corn, I lay awake in bed with Carl Sandburg’s poetry spilled across my chest, my hands keeping the shape of the hoe, listening to the dirt scrape the blade, feeling the give of the loose stuff and the stop of the old tobacco roots. I wrote to you about my field of sky, where I planted the sunlight and threshed the moon. Your words came back to me warm in the envelopes, shucking their timid husks every mile from the Gulf Coast to my field. Our signatures convinced me of something powerful, and I trusted it. In September the frost came. In October, you finished your volunteer term and returned to Minneapolis for school. I boarded up the windows on my hut and moved to the frosting metropolis to live with you, to save no money and belong to our rent.
I pinched my bus transfer between all of my fingers. Most everybody else did, too, out of cold desperation. It cost two dollars during rush hour to ride the bus, and it usually took more than one bus to get to the right place, so the transfer was for keeps and kept close, a person’s own sort of hallelujah ticket. I paid for mine every morning with twenty dimes from an old salsa jar I kept at home; that transfer got me to my job at the hardware store, and it took twenty more dimes at night to get home. It was an hour down Lake Street before my stop. Often, because it was winter, the things my mind woke up with—dreams, the objects of the morning—froze and became completely still. Sometimes I made my transfer in time, sometimes I didn’t. At 39th street I pulled the yellow cord and rose to the bright, alarming ding, watching my step as I pinned my name crookedly to my red shirt. I clocked in and took my place in the aisles of things, and a camera shutter closed around the hours.
As per the company’s employment philosophy, everybody learned how to do everybody’s job. I ended up a jack-of-all-departments. I worked hard because it felt busy, and while I did that I thought of our apartment, number four at the end of the hallway. I wrote letters to you on the receipts customers didn’t want, and on leftover sales ads from the previous week: “$29.99 Yellow Water Can Gerbera Daisy,” which read on its back, “I want to be your hard-headed woman.” When I greeted customers with “What can I help you with today?” there were fives and tens of sales advertisements in my pockets covered with pieces of “my dear,” “there are words,” “If I could tell you.” I wrote when the store wasn’t busy, no pipes to thread, ladders to climb. No one knew, not the store cameras, nor the customers staring at my name tag, asking for the price of things, things I could care less to buy, things you and I have never needed. We got by without these things.
March brought an early thaw. You got a job at St. Stephen’s shelter on Clinton Street and went to classes. Across the street from the shelter we rented a small garden plot and learned how to plant onions the Mexican way from Regino, the man fixing his bike on the sidewalk. One evening we wound up in the alley behind our house, washed by the midnight. A kiss in the rain, a few of your New Orleans stories, and then back into the apartment where it was warm, back to your school work and to my writing. We hurried into our clothes and caught buses in the mornings; I adjusted my nametag.
On an evening in May, I closed my e-mail and stared into the glow of your computer. Beans simmered on the stove, slowly becoming ready for you to arrive back home from the library. I thought of the books stacked around you there. I thought of the desperation of the city. Half listening for the sound of your key in the door, I typed “college in the woods” into Google, and clicked “search.”
Because it was a town with a University; because the manager of a food co-op agreed to interview me for a job; because the Minneapolis hardware business made my bones ache for beds to lie down in; because buses charioted me into redundancy; because apartment four became our cells unto ourselves; because the fountains of another city might rinse a person better, on a June afternoon I flew to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and you came with me, carrying a big red bag on your back. We made appointments to meet professors at Swarthmore College, agreed to consider the change of geography in our own individual ways. You put off your registration at the University of Minnesota for the next semester and I took off a few days from the hardware store. We changed our footing and stepped into the wind.
I knew no one who could pick us up in Pennsylvania at two in the morning, so we prepared to sleep in the airport until the trains started up again. I had never flown, never saw the lines of tired people. If it weren’t for Mrs. Payne, your friend’s mother, who agreed to pick us up, we would have slept in the terminal. We would have curled up on the floor behind some chairs; would have leaned vaguely against each other for a few hours, the plane engines in perpetual language, the baggage carts waxing us to sleep, the five a.m. train to Philadelphia pulling in like a piano crescendo, bells rung, seats filled. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have to, in the end, because on the way out of the airport we pointed out the spot we would have claimed until the sun rose on our faces.
She drove us to her home in Media, a few miles outside Swarthmore. You talked to her about volunteering with her daughter in the Gulf Coast; I had never been so far away from home. Mrs. Payne’s street was quiet. We followed her up the stairs to a room we could sleep in, and she showed us the bathroom: “We’re going to take out these yellow tiles and put down new ones,” she said, and then left us alone to quietly undress and fall asleep. I listened to you drift off.
I wanted to disappear before the sun came up. The room still dark, I woke up on my belly and stared at the clock on my phone, clicking the light back on, clicking it again. I didn’t have much time to learn about Swarthmore College, the co-op, the east coast. As the room filled up with soft, blue light, your eyes opened on me, and I recognized, even in Pennsylvania, the bold emergence of your body, and then the straightening of your long back—bendable stone, the statue I slept with, the long red hair like a flame. You yawned and said, “We should go, huh?” I nodded and went to the bathroom.
I sat on the edge of the tub as I brushed my teeth and spread my toes on the tiles of the family’s home, trying to push myself into the grain of it so that when I left and the tile was removed to make way for something new, I would feel the change in my bones. Sun washed my feet as I gripped, and you came in with a towel. We had an hour to catch the train to Swarthmore College to make our meetings on time.
The first plant I saw on Swarthmore’s campus lawn was labeled with its common and scientific name. Every plant was labeled. Swarthmore was three hundred acres of catalogued, studied vegetative life. As we walked, I read; as I read, I became lost. The names were unfamiliar to me, or I forgot them in the heat. I tried to rehearse everything I knew about plants, but things around me being so labeled and clear, I lost intrigue. You left me to find the Sociology Department, and I wandered the grass, receiving silence all around me.
When we separated, I stood in front of the big wooden doors of the Biology building and looked at the handles; I noted how heavily the door must rest on its hinges. A student pulled it open and sunk inside the academic fissure, and as the door came shut, I saw myself in the glass. Who wears bright green pants to meet a reputable professor, I thought, and then I thought, who sits there with her legs crossed in the office of a reputable professor pretending her pants are not bright green, but dark and serious brown? It was a mistake, coming here, assuming this role of risk-taker, wearing all the wrong clothes, not knowing the names of their plants.
Passing slowly by the doors of Biology professors, I read the cryptically meaningful sayings they’d posted for students to read. One of them, a handwritten excerpt from a J. D. Salinger book, roped my attention, and while I had expected it to be from Catcher in the Rye it was from Seymour, an Introduction: “Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?” I shifted my feet and stood shapelessly in Dr. Vollmer’s doorway.
I sat, she paced; her hands flailed as she talked about Microbiology. The back of my neck dewed. I forgot about my bright green pants. Goosebumps swallowed my body and my mouth opened, saying nothing initially, and then saying everything: Sustainable Agriculture, Dr. Vollmer. I described my farm, what I understood to be botany and the poetic intricacies. Tossing my bag on the floor, I leaned forward and tried to explain to her that absolutely everything was leaning on everything else. She leaned forward and said, “If you don’t wake up in the morning and yearn for textbook, you’ll stick out here like a sore thumb, because our students love to learn more than anything.” I couldn’t imagine. “You don't learn until you’re out of your comfort zone,” she said, and gave me her card.
In the basement I found a small room with a window looking out at a Japanese garden. Water stood still in a pool where fish lived, silvered and orange. I looked into the room painfully. Were I a student, I would stack my textbooks there, like sacred things, and pray to my homework. Down the hall I heard a group of people. I took my bag from my shoulders and sat at the table, touching the grain in its surface; sunlight cracked open the room, and satisfaction ran down my face. After a few moments, I left and found you in the rose garden, circling the flowers in such a way that said, “The Sociology Department failed to impress me.”
The manager of the Swarthmore Coop stacked goat cheese with one hand, holding coffee in the other. His name was Gerry. He poured me a coffee, and we sat outside on the patio, trading stories. I talked about my farm, and he told me about the meat deli he used to run upstate. The merchandise surprised me for an organic co-op: blue rows of Oreo cookies; Chiquita bananas; tomatoes from cheap labor farms; oh yes, and the tabloids. He asked me what I thought. I pointed out one of his employees scrubbing the produce bins with Windex, generously spraying the produce besides. I also pointed out the unusual placement of the produce, a small supply of vegetables and fruits shoved into the back of the store. “You’ll make an excellent lead for my produce department if you decide to move out here.”
I walked to the train station where I found you reading, looking sadly into a book like someone who had forgotten something important, waiting to see who would come first, the woman or the train. We caught the 4:30 back to Media and bought dinner.
We had been two people always. The tea orders came in pairs of cups, saucers, and spoons. We had sipped separately, cordially yours, I love you too, etcetera, etcetera. We were in Pennsylvania with each other’s strange foreign minds. The summer precipitated through my shirt and dampened yours; we walked to the rhythm of train departures, train arrivals.
After leaving Swarthmore, you phoned an old friend from New Orleans living outside Philly. He picked us up at a bookstore somewhere in Valley Forge, took us to his home, and fed us. You met him at the church on Dryads Street. Unlike most volunteers flocking to New Orleans, Scott went there alone. He was there for the first house you gutted for hurricane damage; he jogged along St. Charles Ave. and drove other volunteers around in his car so they could get out, see the city, walk the French Quarter.
After dinner, he gave us a ride into the heart of Philadelphia, and the three of us went for a midnight walk. You and I slipped into a theatrical pairing, pretending not to be intimate in order to remain private in the company of your friends and these new cities, with their dangerous capability to separate us forever. We walked unattached through the historic district as I admired Scott’s autonomous life, wishing I had met you gutting a house, wondering what our letters had meant, what music meant. I stared into all the famous windows as if the Declaration would be signed again, and Betsy Ross would stare back from an old wooden chair, stitching her flag. We passed some music bars and clubs. I bumped into a famous country singer outside a bar, and she didn’t look too great. I looked up at the oldest buildings in the city. I couldn’t look hard enough at every brick because I had never known anything like this.
What makes a person search for the antithesis of her own life? What I mean to say is, why do people long for the sea in the old ballads, and what makes us sing those ballads as if they were our own, as if those were our own boats bobbing on the oceans, like fools, like dying, unhappy poets and sailors and fry cooks and clowns? It was the possibility of a different life held tightly inside Philly’s grain. It was the fear of that possibility, and the nerve to consider it at the expense of a life that was already good.
My mind fell asleep in the aesthetic of nightclubs and lamplight, and we started to walk in circles. Even with the attention to detail; even though the humidity focused my eyes on everything in front of me; even with your body beside me; even in the calmness beside that black iron gate around Benjamin Franklin’s grave, his body wrapped and covered in stone, folded deep in the ground with his wife; even though the clean, white sheets at Scott’s house waited like an altar to host our blessed forms; even despite the hours until then, the hours after—I could not for your sake or mine find a way into our happiness.
We went up the stairs to a bed. I asked you if I could sleep in it with you, and it was a question meant to tell you that I was disappearing into the locations, getting used to the changes in the skyline. I crawled into the sheets and wished I had lain down somewhere else so that I wouldn’t invade your dreams as I slowly slipped out of them. Neon lights flickered me to sleep as I recalled them in bed, the bright, glowing “Bank Street Hostel” burned in the muscles behind my dreams. Your arms made a circle around me, and I pulled away because my ribcage was a glowing crescent. The moon emptied itself into the room and illuminated the gesture of my pulling out and your pulling-in.
In the morning, I forgot where we were, and my hands found you under the sheets. When you reached for me, I remembered our discontent and faced the window. I thought to myself that we had been walking for three days in the pastures of Pennsylvania, boarding the sidewalks of our lives, and had grown too exhausted to function properly. For a moment before I turned a delicate sort of happiness picked me up and held me so close I could hear the hole in its heart. I pinched the edge of the bed, letting a bus transfer fall away. An exquisite fear filled me, and I thought I would ask you to leave your school and move; but then I turned and saw the throbbing moon inside your mouth, “Are we on your terms?” I dressed and couldn’t hear all of your words as you explained the pain I’d given you; they went through my ears, and I opened the window to let the world in. You rearranged your bag to make it fit your dirty clothes, took out the educational pamphlets you got from Swarthmore College, and flipped through them. You would not go to that school; you could not live in that town.
I sat across the table from you on Samson Street, drawing you into my notebook. You thought the streets looked European there, in University City, Philly. Your figure proved difficult to render as you sat quietly in the chair across from me with your tea, telling me about the cities in Germany, Scotland, and Ireland, about the time you pretended to be a student at the University in Galway. I drank some cold water and tried not to think. Your lips curled and your eyebrows bent in disgust as the group of professors next to us criticized all the Quakers at Swarthmore College, the people we had met the few days before. I wanted to fix my drawing, because now it was wrong, now that you had rearranged the graces in your face.
We didn’t smell good anymore. The sun fell on the city and heated up the urine people could not seem to keep off the sidewalks, corners, streets, sculptures. As we walked through the city, I looked but could not find a holy ground to step on. The moonlight had dried away and left a hardness. You kept your eye on the clock so we wouldn’t miss our train to the airport, and we wandered more, hungry but stubbornly not spending money. We lay in the grass in Rittenhouse Square, lay with the hundred others, and imagined our lives to ourselves. I saw myself in an apartment by the Liberty Bell, propped up in bed, writing, engulfed by my books. In the context of those moments, while we waited for our train, words seemed so much more possible, my hands so much more capable, my heart peeled open. You looked at your clock. I closed my eyes. In the context of autonomy, my Philadelphia apartment was in the corner of an old building and got all the afternoon sun.
I was in Philly with you, and the letters I wrote to you in my mind didn’t leave with us on the train. “I threw them into the river,” I want to say, but I didn’t. They are flung somewhere else, tucked into something different. My own discontent gave me the words to ruin us, and I put them quietly away. The east coast opened up its ground and groaned. Possibilities screamed in the air like birds and perched in the archways of universities. Strangers pissed on the city and did not explain, while the torrents of urine polished your face and polished mine.
What belongs to me in Philadelphia lies there on the ground, in the grass, incomplete and abandoned. I did that for love—I chiseled the torso of our broken togetherness and left the stone in the University lawn to sink and be eaten by the wind. We waited two hours for our train and left Pennsylvania.