Clem

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I bought my rabbit, Clem, eight years ago from a thin, springy woman who ran a rabbit rescue from her large house in the country. Upon entering, I remember a sharp, rusty odor, but there was not a wad of fur or dropping to be found. Her house was immaculate for someone with animals living in every pore; rabbits munched and frolicked in their cages in the garage and living room. She even had a “private stash” in her bedroom that weren’t for sale.

I found this woman slightly unhinged. Little did I know, I would soon understand her need to cut across four lanes of traffic and throttle her car to the side of the road to retrieve an unventilated box of abandoned kits.

Clem was not my love at first sight. Nay, I had my heart set on a four-year-old Rex that looked just like the Velveteen Rabbit, one of my favorite fictional critters as a kid. My boyfriend, Sean, adored him too, but convinced me that it wasn’t such a good idea, since he had a large tumor on his hind leg. This would be our first pet as a fairly new couple, so I agreed to move on, reluctantly.

Clem flopped around a cage with a litter of rabbits that were indistinguishable from each other. They each had shiny black coats and stubby ears. We knew he was “the one” when he plopped right in front of us and shoved his nose into my hand. For 20 bucks, he was ours. On the ride home he nuzzled my waist, poking me with his whiskers and every now and then stretching his neck and sniffing the air. We named him Clementine; I didn’t learn that he was a male until a year later, when we went to get him neutered. I remember correcting the vet, who then schooled me by showing me my rabbit’s testicles.

Rabbits are not rodents; they’re lagomorphs, which is something I always threw into my father’s face. He assumed that rodents were less than those of the canine and feline families, and called Clem a “chew toy.” But I’m here to tell you rabbits are as sassy and conspiring as cats and as athletic as dogs. Did you know that rabbits can do kick flips with their hind legs? That they can throw cardboard boxes across the room? Pretty badass for a chew toy.

Clem has his own special brand of sassery. When I would study for college exams, I’d arrange all my books and notebooks across the floor and work, and Clem would come bounding across the carpet then nudge my hand. I happily mirrored his affection, but I’d have to shoo him away after the third or fourth round of pets in order to get any work done. Clem detested being shooed, so he’d devise a plan out of spite. He’d stare at me while threatening to chew through my lamp’s power cord. I’d sternly tell him NO and he would inch closer and closer to the cord anyway until I launched from the floor. The fluffy-tailed bastard would bolt underneath my dresser.

His favorite game to play with me though was the one where he’d rip a page from my notebook and flee with it into his cage. So fun. And everyone knew that once he was in his cage, he was untouchable; one could likely lose a finger in a single instant of reaching into his highly protected turf.

In literature, rabbits have always been depicted as tricksters, and I believe that every rabbit has a little of that witty, conniving Bugs Bunny in him. I believe Clem receives great pleasure when I bumble around the room to catch him. He is after all prey, and maybe he wants to be true to his nature by making his large, dim-witted oppressor hustle.

Clem lives for yogurt drops, his preciouses. All I have to do is rattle the bag of Yogies to get him to emerge from his dark tunnels. He rips them right out from my hand without a thank you. I was curious to know why he’s so hooked and decided to test them for myself. It turns out that the tart, artificial strawberry isn’t half bad. Hell, I prefer them to Smarties. Clem also saws down at least a quarter of a bag of hay a day. His mouth is constantly at work, rolling around in little circles.

A rabbit’s chow-down is much more complicated than it looks. They chew in sequences, first chiseling hay like a paper shredder, then grinding it down between the molars on one side of the mouth at a time, then pumping their intricate jaws to bring food to the back of the throat. They have a total of 28 teeth, including their trademark front incisors. Rabbits are delicate creatures; their skulls are not solid bone, rather they are thin and fenestrated, resembling a lace-like fabric.

There came a point when I felt guilty about Clem being alone all day, so I bought him a rabbit friend, whom we named Dexter. He’s cotton swab white with black rims around his eyes, which makes it look like he wears glasses like Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory. Dexter and Clem hit it off right away. They cuddled together so tight that they looked like one rising and falling ball of yin and yang.

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Around the time Dexter hit his teenage rabbit years, the love spell wore off. Dexter grew impatient with Clem’s dominance, his insistence that Dexter should clean his fur whenever he commanded. He was smaller than Clem, but faster, and growing into himself. He didn’t like to be bossed around and thumped in protest. I noticed they started sleeping on different levels in the cage. Dexter took the top bunk, and Clem huddled in the bottom one. It was a tragic observation. They were supposed to be brothers for life.

One day I was doing laundry in the basement, I heard a loud clamor coming from the ceiling. I slammed the laundry basket on the floor and heaved myself up the stairs. When I opened my bedroom door, Clem and Dexter were one again, except this time a tangled tumbleweed rolling around on the carpet. Patches of Clem’s fur were scattered across the floor in between small red dots of blood. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there deciding which finger I could afford to lose. I had a feeling this was an ultimate death match to decide who would be the alpha once and for all. Finally, Clem staggered, so I scooped him up, saving him and his dignity. Dexter’s tail was raised, and he was still grunting heavily. This fluffy bunny wasn’t fucking around.

In the end, Sean and I bought another cage and split them down the middle. It was devastating for us to watch. Their brief and passionate love was no more. I’m going to be honest with you; I felt a little resentment toward Dexter, even though I knew he was transforming into a man rabbit who wanted his space and independence. Clem couldn’t handle that. To him, he and Dexter needed to share one beating heart — one that beats 180 beats per minute (at rest). Was Clem’s affection too big, too suffocating for Dexter? Clem handled their breakup fairly well, though, in the time he spent chasing Dexter around the apartment, he made up for in eating. The poor bastard put on a couple of ounces.

It’s interesting how much value you can get out of 20 dollars, and also how much work. I guess most pet owners stumble over these crossroads.

The brushing of a rabbit is serious manual labor that you have to keep on top of. There was one year I was up to my eyeballs in jobs and homework. I vividly remember the messy hair buns and basketball shorts, the Monster Energy drink-induced nights where I was trying to decipher the Canterbury Tales, the braille of English. I slipped. I couldn’t keep up with Clem’s high-maintenance fur. What happens when you don’t brush a domestic rabbit? Well, they start to ingest their fur, which does startling things to their digestive tracks. Anyway, Clem ate so much of his own fur that it formed a web-like weave around his shit. The result was solid, golf ball size turds that Sean and I had to chop off with a pair of designated scissors.

Let me just say that rabbits aren’t as cute with solid rock turds hanging from their butts. Or when they’re yawing. Or when they’re eating their poop, which is pretty standard for most animals.

I thought we almost lost Clem. He wasn’t eating for a couple days so I rushed him over to a pet clinic near me. They turned me away because apparently Clem is considered “exotic,” which blows my mind. Clem, exotic? Give me a break. Exotic basically means risky, specialized, not to mention expensive, in veterinary terms.

So I drove Clem 45 minutes to a pet emergency center that was open 24 hours. I couldn’t locate his carrier so I sat him in my front seat, draping my cardigan over his head so he could hide, which he seemed to appreciate.

“We’re almost, there, Clem. Hang in there, old chap!” I told him. I turned my wheel gently, as opposed to cranking it. I didn’t want to freak him out even more than he already was with his wet, black eyes maniacally jutting out of their sockets.

I shoved my rabbit underneath my armpit, and we entered the emergency room. The receptionist, a young man with messy hair, jeans and a slight lisp, escorted us to our room and left us. I began to pace. I texted my friends about Clem’s updated status even if they didn’t ask. I let Clem sit underneath my chair as we waited for the vet.

About 30 minutes later I asked the receptionist how much longer until we were seen. Just as he was about to respond, a loud screeching alarm blasted through the hallway, bouncing off walls. Dogs began to bark, and two women in blue scrubs hustled past me with carriers with whiskers protruding from them.

“There was a gas leak. We all need to evacuate,” they told me. Clem was statuesque in his spot on the floor where scooped him up.

Rain pelted the street and cars. People huddled with their pets under umbrellas or scurried to their cars for shelter. Clem buried his head in my lap.

This was it. I thought chopping a poop ball off my rabbit’s ass had officially made me a crazy bunny lady, but I think the moldy cherry on top was waiting out the rain in my car with my supposedly dying rabbit until the firemen fixed the gas leak and told everyone to go inside.

The firemen waved everyone back in. We sat in the lobby waiting to be resituated, dripping in our chairs. A sick pitbull rested his head on his owner’s lap. The woman stroked the spot around his half-shut eye. A vet tech who was holding a cat in its carrier dozed off against a wall and dropped the cat’s fluids bag on the floor. Everyone in the waiting room peered at it on the floor until the tech noticed and snatched it up. Clem and I had a staredown contest with an overweight Yorkie who looked unamused with the entire situation.

Finally, Clem and I were herded into a room again where I began to pace back and forth, anxious to hear my rabbit’s fate. A vet tech popped her head in. She was pretty and looked slightly older than me. I stared at the infinity symbol strung on a chain around her neck when she spoke to me. I stared at it some more when she told me the final bill to keep Clem over night and administer medications. 1,200 dollars minimum.

“Lady, I love him, but he’s a rabbit. Give me a break, huh? I suppose you don’t do payment plans?” I laughed.

“No, but we take credit cards,” she said. Not a drop of sympathy in her clear, blue eyes.

“Ah, I figured as much. I think I’m gonna just take him home then. I mean, I just don’t have that kind of money. Is there any way I can just give him the meds on my own?”

“Well … I will check back with the doctor and see what I can do.”

She was tired. Clem and I were tired too. I took a peek at him. He was trailing off in my arms, but not really, as rabbits only sleep when it’s safe, which isn’t often for an animal born into fear.

We nursed Clem like he was a newborn. Five different medications, including one you have to mix into a green sludge. We’d take turns wrapping Clem burrito-like into a towel and shoving syringes past his two teeth. He jerked and sneezed as we force fed him the green sludge and spit it up if we gave him too much too quickly. Why is love always such a messy operation?

In two weeks, Clem was in perfect health. He rejoiced, kicking his hind legs, and all my began innards began to frolic.

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Bath water

I take more baths than I ever did
even with a lack of rubber ducks,
practice breast strokes, homemade rain.

Now, when I breathe into porcelain skin
of a full tub, quiet currents take me.

This is the closest I come to clean slate.

To notice my two fleshy peaks rise
and fall, is to know my own body,

I listen to what’s submerged, to water
slipping down drains that belch
low croaks between lily pads of soap.

It’s a subtle sound of swallowing
a lost song, of dead poets whispering.

I’ve ignored poets for most of my life
because I couldn’t bear to face their sense,
but I sensed them, especially in old libraries.

Did you know if you press your ears to walls,
you can hear pipes clearing their throats?

The gurgle in my ears is intergalactic.

No one will ever find this place on a map,
and it’s a crying, hell, it’s a sobbing shame
because the fizzle of salt is good for your skins.

My toes look ancient under these dim lights,
and the curtain has a pattern of tight curls
that look like a doodle of a loose brain.
I could have drawn that, I start to think,
see, and there’s that pesky “I” again.

When does the self become so persistent?

What if when I go low, beneath the bath’s bowels,
I reach the highest heights I’ll ever know?

That’s enough indulgence for one day.

When I pull the stopper, a miniature tornado
surges between my legs, and time begins to drain.

In loving memory of my grandmother, DA BOSS

Scan 6

My dad calls me while I’m in the middle of a sketch. I’m drawing a bird with a top hat. It’s just a bird that I wanted to be a little more entertaining. Entertaining to no one in particular. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never figure out the elusive audience question. I keep drawing.

“Can you bring your grandmother a blanket?” my dad asks over the phone.

“A blanket?”

“Yes, a blanket,” he says.

“It’s no problem,” I say. “Hey, you holding up okay?”

“Don’t even get me started,” he laughs, and then it’s silent. I think the line goes dead, until he clears his throat and tells me goodbye.

I took off work the day after I found out my grandmother was dying from pancreatic cancer. I visited her but managed to say few words. It’s hard to see a busy body restless in a hospital bed. My grandmother, was a caretaker for her children and her children’s children — my siblings and cousins — at various points of our lives.

I shade the bird’s top hat, trying not to lean into the dark parts and smear the drawing with my fists. My coonhound, Maya, sleeps on the ground next to my feet. She kicks her legs, and I place my hand on her side, calming her in her eventful dreams. Getting a puppy a few months ago came in handy. After visiting my grandmother in the hospital, Maya curled up next to me in bed while I rolled myself into layers and blankets like a packed piece of sushi.

My grandmother scared me growing up. I thought we annoyed her. She  signed strict notes as “DA BOSS” and left them on the furniture. “SHOES OFF IN THE HOUSE.” “DON’T TOUCH THIS BUTTON.” “CASSEROLE IN FRIDGE.” She used to leave these notes in her absence when she went to bingo. She wanted to give us a lot of time with our grandfather, who had an unearthly amount of patience with children.

We’d be hunched over a TV dinner tray, polishing off a triple-decker turkey sandwich and watching All That or CatDog when she’d return. The first thing she did when she walked into the house would be to heat up some soup or lay out a bowl of fruit for everyone.

She was not a notoriously warm woman. Very critical at times. She complained about our clothing, spending habits, tattoos, loudness, long hair that got all over the carpet. She hated the sound of me picking my fingers and told me so.

She showed her affection in nonverbal ways. Food and things to remember her by. Like her spirit lies in the golden candlestick holders that belonged to her mother. It took me a while to understand. She wore practicality like armor. She helped my sister open her first checking account. She introduced me to her gynecologist.

Don’t get me started on her meatballs. The secret ingredient was veal, which bothered me a little because of the baby cow thing, but I cared more about having a relationship with my grandmother than eating ethically.

We ate on trays in her living room and watched black and white films together or Nickelodeon. And yes, you could eat food off her immaculate floor. Her home was always warm, and there were blankets that smelled like her folded in a basket next to the couch. Pictures of Italians lined the walls. The Sicilian side of the family had dark skin and were frowning in their photos. My grandmother was a young bride with a round face and a modern tea length length dress. This was my favorite picture on the wall. She looked like a glass doll. This is why everyone called her “Dolly.” Her real name was Santa. Yes, like Santa Claus.

After my grandfather’s passing, my grandmother and I grew closer. She texted me a lot. She still sent me coupons and birthday cards, even when they were for other people. When I visited her we’d watch Family Feud together. She thought Steve Harvey was a great host.

Sometimes she texted me late at night because she had a hard time sleeping. It must have been hard sleeping in a home without the man who lived with her for 63 years. They slept in separate rooms. Not because they grew distant from each other, but because my grandfather’s snores rattled the walls.

I walk into her hospital room, and she’s ordering tilapia off a menu. She’s wearing her glasses on the edge of her nose. Her hair is matted in the back, and she’s sitting up in bed. Her color is good. Her cheeks are sunken and pink. She wants mashed potatoes. She asks if they have any gravy, the brown kind. She asks for tea. She reminds the person on the phone that she has ice cream in the freezer my dad got her (Ben and Jerry’s vanilla) that she’s saving for later.

In between our conversation a nurse joins us. She has thick bangs and big eyes. She bows low like a well-trained dog, and all I can see are her bangs. She talks really slow to my grandmother.

“Santa. Would. You. Like. Me. To. Raise. This. Table? she asks. The nurse raises her arms as if to show that she is not full of sudden movements.

Another nurse comes in. She’s thin and fidgety. Her hair is tied into a fishtail braid.

“If you’re giving me another one of those pills, I don’t want it. They make me gassy,” my grandmother tells her.

The nurse laughs when my grandmother refuses the Ensure shake on her tray, which she says tastes like chalk and asks for her ice cream instead. Then fishtail nurse helps her to the bathroom. She compliments my grandmother’s cane, which has butterflies on it. My grandmother closes the back of her gown, embarrassed. I’ve never seen this much of her skin before.

I show my grandmother a post on Facebook that my sister Cassie wrote. My grandmother begins to cry when she reads the post. It says that my grandparents practically raised her and that it was a hard thing to do. My grandmother says, “Yeah we raised her like she was our own kid,” and she sniffs loudly.

My dad appears in the doorway. His work jeans are stained and torn at the knees. He’s wearing a Cubs hat that’s not all the way on his head. He looks worried. He brushes his eyebrows the wrong way and stares off into the distance. He seems happy to see me with his mom. He puts a hand on my shoulder.

“How are you doing, Bear?” he asks me.

My dad sinks into the chair opposite of my grandmother. We’re all silent for a while until my dad recounts the story about how his mother made him get a vasectomy after my brother was born.

“Ma grabbed me by the ear and took me to ‘Dr. Snip Snip.'” My dad sucks in his spit, making the sound of snipping. He uses his fingers like they’re scissors, slicing the air.

“Yeah the doctor who performed the surgery asked me if I had played a lot of sports growing up. Because there was a lot of damaged tissue. They had to dig it all out,” he laughs.

“Dad, no offense, but I’m not interested in hearing more about your vasectomy,” I say.

My grandmother chimes in. “I remember your grandfather’s vasectomy. He was so worried that his thing no longer worked,” she smiles devilishly. “It worked just fine when we tested it out. He gave me the ‘twinkle eyes,’ and I knew we were good to go.”

My stomach hurts. No one ever cares about being appropriate in my family.

I show my grandmother the magazine I put together. She is proud. So is my dad. He asks if he could keep the magazine. I’ve lost track of the amount of these things I’ve helped put together, and this is the first time I’ve shown anyone in my family my work.

I suddenly want to show them all the things. I show them a picture of the bird drawing. I show them pictures of my dog. They respect that I’m taking care of something. It’s not a kid, but it’s just as good, they both assure me. It surprises me how accepting they are. I’m not sure why I think my family won’t accept me.

My grandmother asks me, “Is there anything you can’t do?”

I want to ask my grandmother questions. Little does she know I’ve put together a little Q&A for her. It’s hiding on a sheet of paper in the magazine I brought. I write Q&As for work all the time. Company profiles. Chats with the president of such and such company. Sometimes I’m lazy and ask the same questions instead of coming up with new ones.

“Hey Grandma, can I ask you questions about your life?” I’m afraid of her reaction. She is mostly a private person.

“I don’t see why the hell not. I’m gonna be dead soon anyway,” she tells me.

Q: What made you most happy?

A: Being married to your grandfather. His support, love, passion, understanding, and humor made my life full and happy. There wasn’t a selfish bone in his body.

Q: When you get down on yourself or are in a funk, what do you do or tell yourself to make yourself feel better?

A: I tell myself to be strong. Face whatever.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: No regrets. Though, I do wish I would have been better with money. But then again, your grandfather and I enjoyed ourselves.

Q: If you could have told your parents anything while you growing up, what would it be?

A: I would tell them to be more understanding and supportive of me.

You have to remember my mother was very young when she had me. She was unhappy when she moved from some little hick town in Sicily and came to the U.S.

My grandfather had been in the U.S. for 12 years before he sent for his family. My grandfather was very mean to my mom. She couldn’t wait to get out of the house, and she rushed into a marriage with my father. My father was a cold man. I can’t remember many times when my parents weren’t arguing. Always arguing. My father couldn’t handle my mother. She had a nervous breakdown at one point. She was very sick. She wasn’t the nicest to me either. She stabbed me with a fork, even bit me once. She got better with age, though, and we eventually became closer.

I used to watch my sister, who was 12 years younger than I was. I was like a parent to her, practically raised her. I almost hated her for it. At 17 years old, I had to take my kid sister with me on dates with your grandfather. But he was understanding. On Saturdays he would wait patiently for me to clean the entire house, and then we’d go out.

Q: What did you like to do for fun growing up?
A: I played on a volleyball team for two years. And then I loved roller skating. I went two to three times a week. That was therapy to me.

I liked to travel. I worked at a travel agency and had a great time doing it. My favorite place I visited was Aruba. I liked the entertainment, the live shows. The gowns, dancing, and music.

I met my friend Lari on a plane going to Mexico. We had a blast. I was thin and blonde then.

This one guy came up to me and said, “Hey Seniorita, I want to show you a good time.”

I told him I had someone waiting for me back home. I told him no thank you.

He said: “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

I told him: “No, YOU don’t know what you’re missing.”

I used to love going out with your grandfather. I was happy no matter where we went.

I didn’t like our trip to St. Louis though. We got really bad sunburn, and there were snakes in the water. It was terrible.

Q: What were your hopes and dreams as a child?

A: That’s hard. I think for a while I wanted to conquer my inferiority complex. I thought I was inferior because of my disability. I lost my hearing in my ear when I was three years old. I was in the hospital for a month with a really bad kidney infection. The doctors thought that was the cause of the hearing loss. My parents treated me like I was stupid. I was a loner.

I started going to a school for the mute, deaf, and dumb. I spent one class a day learning how to read lips, which I didn’t take seriously because I was embarrassed. There were really smart students at my school, though. This one chick was completely deaf, and she was a truly gifted ballerina. She used a phonograph to feel the beat.

I didn’t know how bad my hearing was. I didn’t get a hearing aid until I was in my 60s. My kids begged me for years to get one. Finally, I did. The one I have now is an amazing piece of technology. My otolaryngologist did great work.

Q: What three words would you use to describe yourself?

A: Stubborn, private, and strong.

Q: What advice do you have for me and other young people growing up during such dark times?

A: I feel so bad for you guys. What a mess. So much anger right now.

Life is not fruit. Take a piece of it anyway. See if you can salvage it, make it better. Also limit who is in your life. Keep the people you know who care close to you. For the most part people like to gossip about each other. This always bored me. That’s why I didn’t hang downstairs with the rest of the folks in the bingo area. That’s all they like to do –talk about people who aren’t there.

Q: What brings you comfort?

A: When things are going good with the family. That was the same with your grandfather. He always worried about the family. When something went wrong, someone got hurt, he wished it happened to him instead. When Steven got sick, it crushed him. He was the softie, I was the bitch. He loved his grandkids. Being with them was his favorite. I’m glad my grandkids loved me even though I was a bitch.

“Grandma, the world needs bitches.”

Q: Are you worried about anything right now?

A: Not too much. I was worried about my credit card, but nothing is happening with it. It just drops off. And then I’m worried about the pain from the cancer. I mean I’ve gotten through plenty of surgeries (my kids don’t even know about half the surgeries I’ve had) but this is different. I hope I can hack it.

Q: What about after you die? Are you worried about that?

A: Well, I’m trying to pray, but it hasn’t been working. All throughout my life, I had faith without practicing any religion. I tried going to church with your grandfather for a while, but I disagreed with so many things. I felt like a hypocrite all the time too. Your grandfather respected my choice not to go. He always told me that I made up for it in strong values and a good heart.

I don’t know if my grandmother made her peace with God, but I know she’s at peace.

“I’m ready to be with your grandfather. I am 86. My mother was 84 when she died. My grandmother was 94.”

 

 

 

The loudest way to survive

So you didn’t get the knobby
shoulders you needed.
That’s a lot of us,
and I sympathize with relativity.
But let me let you
lean in on my secret:

my big-mouthery is
my own, but it’s also
cavewoman survival.

I did what I could
with sticks and stones.
But tried my best not
to break any bones
because I recognized
their malnourishment.

Children who have been
pushed down rivers
in baskets please
cry, cry, cry
as loud as you can.

Your cries will give way
to words, which you will use
as an armor of testament,
of existence, of proclamation
that you belong here,
that we’ve not yet
occupied Mars.

Don’t press so much on
the bruises, which
are designed or not
designed, depending
on how you look at it,
to fascinate and distract
you from what tickles
your insides and makes
you sneeze at the flower
raised in front of your face.

And if you can see it
don’t pluck the petals
just yet. Love me nots
are not yet in your equation.

This is your cliche to own.
These are your metaphors
to mix and match.

So lasso love.

Sling what you
did not receive.

When you pull it
from the earth,
rock it back and forth.

Then put it back
in the river you
remember floating
down so clearly.

Feed what will cleanse you.

What we saw of Regina from Chicago Theater’s ‘cheap seats’

Cheap seats or not,  what a soul-wrenching show I would like to rewind over and over.

I was an hour early in picking up Alexa, a big deal because I’m always bumbling into her life at least 10 minutes late. We petted her dog Bubba and had a drink with her boyfriend and his dad. They sat on benches on the porch, and I stood and paced until the beer kicked in. We talked about photography, social media uh-ohs, bumblebees, bee stings, and the shifty neighbors across the street. Alexa wore a choker and a long double necklace. She had a single braid in her hair. I was sporting a long skirt with suns and moons, sandals, and a jean jacket. We looked mighty fine this Friday evening. The boys, who were buzzing and enjoying the warm weather, asked if we were excited for our concert, and we shrugged.

It was bumper to bumper traffic to the city like always; good thing we had the extra time, I kept gloating to Alexa. We listened to a few Regina Spektor songs along the way as well as this one by Lorde that reminds me of our friendship. I couldn’t find the song with the one line about friends sleeping in the same bed, which reminds me of when Alexa and I had sleepovers on Friday nights at her house. I joked, “We weren’t kids; we were kind of young adults in college,” to which she said “Yeah, but we were making up for lost time.”

Sometimes I feel like I have to hide my unfiltered, gushing affection for Alexa. First, it tends to put her on the spot. It’s like I’m constantly pointing out that she has whiskers or elephant tusks on her face, and they’re indeed beautiful. That and it oftentimes comes off as alienating to others on the outside. But it’s a wee bit hard not to share this particular kind of love. The older people get, the less time we have for others, and the more scratchy layers we throw on, which can get in the way of enjoying a person. With us, we’ve been throwing off layers left and right. We could walk around in winter in tank tops if we had to. Our friendship has muddled past the deepest defenses and insecurities. I’m beyond blessed for this rarity, and I hope that others can find and work on a relationship like this because it looks good on everyone.

As we continued to inch forward in traffic, Alexa shared with me some of her comments on some writing I asked her to take a look at. She ran out of printer paper, so she printed out my story and poem on fancy stationary. The paper was thick and worn-looking and depicted a turtle wading in water between some reeds. She read her comments aloud. I was grateful for the suggestions she had for this story I’ve been sweating over. She wanted a little more reflection on the narrator’s walk home and thought I should add more detail about a particular prop by reusing it in another spot. It was a pretty thoughtful comment. She gets darn comfortable in a scene. A fellow writer and one of the best readers I know.

She had to pee and apologized about her bladder profusely, and I pounced on the first exit off the expressway. I told her to stop apologizing for something her body couldn’t control. We both apologize a lot for lame things. It was Alexa’s turn this week.

We parked in a garage on Kedzie. Only 12 dollars for the night (what a freaking snag). We walked the few blocks to the theater, using our phones’ GPS because we are two dopey deer that wandered a little too far from the suburbs.

Alexa and I joined the line wrapped around state street. It was a diverse crowd, and there were a lot more dudes than we both imagined. Everyone looked squeaky clean and dressed for the occasion. Two older women stood in front of us. They both wore comfortable shoes, short haircuts, and small silver hoops. They giggled and talked into each other’s shoulders. The woman directly in front of me had drooping blue eyes that hung onto every word coming out from the woman standing in front of Alexa. I was projecting when I said, “That’s us in the future,” but I didn’t care.

A man in a tattered flannel asked Alexa if she had any money to spare, and she rifled into her purse for a dollar to give to him. She said, “Who cares what he spends it on,” as if openly confronted.

It was colder than it was earlier, and I shivered in my jean jacket. A man carrying takeout and walking in the opposite direction of the line stopped next to me on the sidewalk. He asked me, “Excuse me, Miss, but do fries go with that shake?” I looked at the man closer, incredulously. He casually waited while I came up with an answer. I think I was most offended  about the polite commonplaceness of the comment. I mean if you’re going to harass someone, at least have some goddamn originality. I awkwardly pointed to the burger joint right behind the man, and said I bet they had some good shakes in there if he needed one. Alexa had a different take, probably the more accurate one. She said, “Excuse me, but you can’t talk to her like that.” After he scurried away, she told me I had to be more assertive, and I felt like I had failed her and all of womanhood. But if the shoe were on my foot, I would have bitched out the man as well, so I knew where she was coming from.

Finally it was time for Regina. Alexa and I found our seats in the balcony. On the stage was a single light resting on a glossy piano. We snapped photos and double fisted our drinks. One beer and a cocktail. Not the best idea for a show without an intermission. Alexa and I swapped drinks because her Jack and Coke was a little too strong. I couldn’t even taste the Jack, and insisted she take my margarita.

Regina took the stage, and Alexa and I perked up in our seats. From where we sat, she looked like a tiny mime in her lacy black top, black flats, and black skinny jeans with holes exposing her knees. Undone wavy hair sat along her neckline. Her black clothes blended into the black stage, but her small, white face glowed under all the lights. She introduced herself to Chicago in a mousey voice then got comfortable in a large leather chair at the piano. What came soaring out of the piano and her mouth was the opposite of the initial perceived smallness.

Regina started off a little rushed. Her first two songs were effortless, but some of their usual longer notes blended together. By the third song though, she sank her hands into the bellowing elongated notes. Her voice clung to the rollercoaster chords. She has a signature playfulness that feels like you’re watching someone walk across a tightrope or you’re on a beach batting around an inflatable ball. I felt like a ball bouncing around in my seat between Alexa and this other woman. At one point, I told this woman that the current performance was “my version of football,” and she laughed.

Then Regina played some of her more moving, stomach-churners. She sang an entire power ballad in Russian, which she dedicated to an elderly friend of hers who used to visit her backstage every time she came to Chicago. This friend recently passed away. Regina is an artist who is completely engrained in her homeland. You feel her ebbing and longing when she speaks in her native language. I felt myself leaning into an understanding without a translation that Regina herself said we could “Google” if wanted. No translation necessary for me, thanks. I believe you.

She also sang Après Moi, which is in English and Russian. And it’s one of my favorites. I like militancy of the song and the way she seems to toggle back and forth between voices. It’s as if there are two people singing in this song, answering each other, building each other up. “I must go on standing,” is a takeaway line of this song, and you feel the full force of it.

Regina also said a few things that really stuck with me, as I’m sure others. Two of my favorite lines were: “This theater is so fancy. I feel like I want to swear in it … Fuck fuck fucking fuck.” And then there was the speech she made right before her more politically charged songs. She discussed what it was like to come to America as a refugee and her beginning journey as “a hungry, dirty artist sleeping on people’s couches.” She mourned our current political situation, but ended hopefully by saying, “Here’s to better days and better people to represent us.” Her song “Trapper and the Furrier” was menacing and relevant. Regina hunched over the piano all creature-like and banged on the keys, “What a strange world we live in,” she said. “Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given more, more, more, more.” MORE was the emphasis here. “More” was the word that hit the listener in the stomach like a dead-on punch. Perfect targeting.

A drummer and cellist also played on stage. They were equally moving, graceful, and effective, but complemented Regina in a way that reminded everyone that she is an ethereal one woman circus.

Regina kept giving, and the crowd extended its arms and ate her up, as they tend to do in the face of pure musical love and talent. Some people screamed, “We love you,” and she acknowledged each and every clear interruption. I payed attention to Alexa’s reactions. She wiped a tear away during the deeply sorrowful song “Blue Lips,” which explains that “blue is the most human color.” I choked back tears during two of her new babies, “Bleeding Heart” and “Tornadoland.” Lately, I have felt myself in a whirlwind of internal criticism and rejection. My thoughts have been racing so much faster than my words, and I feel like a slave trying to keep up. Excuse my analogy, but sometimes it feels like artistic constipation. So much force, with so little output. All anyone wants to be is heard in the form they’re most comfortable with. Regina established this with eloquence.

“Bleeding Heart” was a saving song, a reminder to be yourself. The light show soared around the crowd, singling people out. Lights moved around in tune with the song and landed on individuals who laughed and blushed at the song’s important reminder.

She was so damn charming. At one point, she forgot the words to one of her songs, and someone had to shout them to her. She stood up a few times and swayed like her body was a Styrofoam noodle. Alexa appreciated that she was an “awkward mover,” and I agreed.

The encore was long, but her show was far from over. We clapped until our hands stung. Finally, she skipped back onto stage. She sang four more songs after the encore. Her voice hit her self-made spectrum of light, torpedoing notes and heavy, low, bellowing notes. At some points, I just couldn’t believe her humanity, and at others, I felt like she knew me on a soul to soul basis.

When Regina said, “I really do believe in friendship, love, and art…” I looked at Alexa and said, “Huh. So do we.”

Library trippin’

Those trips to the library on Sunday. Oh, ah, yes. I always come prepared with a list. Jump onto one of those old clunky computers and scroll through the online portal. Most of the ones I want are either at another location or are checked out. 5 copies of “Hillbilly Elegy” gone. Jeeze. Share with me, ya book hogs.

Yes, I know Kindles and Amazon exist, but I prefer to get lost, you know? I’m not one of those people who dims the lights and masturbates to my favorite Smell of Old Books candle; I have limitations, and I’d like to think I’m a sentimentalist for the right reasons. But I do like books that have I trek for and find myself. Tis a noble quest in my opinion.

This haul was not pre-established whatsoever. These are things I ran into, and here you will find my justifications:

  • “Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules,” edited and introduced by David Sedaris. This was my audiobook selection. I drive an hour to and from work every day, so I find it helpful to pop in a good read to prevent me from causing a rage-induced collision on Touhy Ave. I prefer things that make me laugh. I’ve been through all of David Sedaris’ books, which are especially funny in audiobook format because he reads his own material, and therefore knows exactly how to hit the high humor notes. This compilation is not Sedaris’ work, but they are some of his favorite writers who he deems to be essential to the short story canon. I am not an absolutist, but I trust his judgement that all of them will be good.
  • “Little Labors” poetry by Rivka Galchen. Saw this in the new poetry section. No real reason why I picked it up. Maybe because the cover was orange? I don’t know. From what I found out about Rivka is she’s from Canada, and she won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. I’ve never heard of this award, but it sounds legit enough.
  • “The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing” by Danell Jones. I wanted Virginia Woolf’s “Flush,” but I settled for a text that was written with her in mind. You know, it’s amazing that the library owns text after text of literary criticism for some folks, but not all of the texts that these folks actually wrote. Like Jesus, if you are going to have 40 books about Virginia Woolf, you should probably also house every single book she ever wrote. Just saying. I miss being in a writing group, so writing group exercises inspired by the dark lady sounds good to me.
  • “The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost” by Donna Freitas. I saw this on my way to the checkout counter. Seems relevant. And I’ve been spending way too much time on social media and feeling sorry for myself and the world while doing so, so I thought I’d read a book about why I might be so compelled to do so. I’ve already read the first chapter, and I’m already comforted by it. Social media is changing the cultural landscape as we speak, and it’s happening so fast that people don’t necessarily know how to process. In the meantime we’re building our usual weird human norms around it–what we can and cannot say, how much stock we put into our image, etc.
  • “Writing from Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing” by Bernard Selling. Creative nonfiction is my jam, but lately, I’ve been feeling this constant distancing. And also my psychotic, helicopter parent of an internal critic won’t let me say anything. I need some written reassurance that I can write about things that hurt. It gives plenty of tips and encouragement that I’m looking for right now.
  • “People I want to Punch in the Throat” by Jen Mann. This was one of those judge-a-book-by-its-cover finds. I started cackling in the 800s the second my brain registered the title. Like who says that? A man standing a few feet away from me quietly scooted over to the next aisle. I just had to have this book. What a title. And it hasn’t disappointed me. Such a sassafras of writer. I sat down for about an hour to read this book. I tried not to disturb the girl sitting at the table in front of me who was doing her chemistry homework or something. I don’t know if it was chemistry; I saw a lot of numbers and my eyes glazed over. She had red hair and spaces between her teeth, which I could see every time she stopped working on her equations to smile while reading a text on her phone underneath the table.

Welp, there you have it. Another Sunday in the books. It’s kind of sad really, the sight of me waddling up to the checkout line with a teetering pile of books. I will fully read maybe two of them. It’s 2017, and I have good intentions.

Good intentions lead to late fees. The second I stepped up to check out my books, the squirrely man behind the counter told me there was a hold on my account because I owed them 28 dollars and I had lost a book. I told the woman at the other counter that I knew for sure that I had returned Margaret Atwood’s “True Stories,” though I could imagine myself stealing the book because I liked it so much and footing the “lost item” fee of 5 dollars. The woman looked a little too relieved when I told her I’d go check the shelves myself for the book, and sure enough I found it.

I told the squirrely, shy guy behind the counter that I would be better this time. I would bring my books back when they are due, I assured him. I’m sure he could care less about this information.

Mangoes

Last week I ate a mango like an apple, forgoing the cutlery. The juice dripped down my chin and stuck between my fingers. I had no shame about the loud squelching and appreciated the fleshy eroticism of it. Why not? It was a Friday afternoon, and there were three people working who sit on the opposite side of the office from me. No one walked in on the carnal act, and I don’t think I would be so devastated if they did. Point is it was the most delicious mango I’ve ever sunk my teeth into.

And it was a steal too. Got a box of mangoes last week from Valli for 7 bucks. Say what? Did you know that mangoes are super heroes? They are cancer preventers, immune system boosters, cholesterol-lowering wildebeests, just to name a few of the street cred names they’ve obtained. They are also good for your eyes, skin, digestive tracts. Sweet deal.

Hey, did you also know the plural form of mango is both “mangoes” and “mangos”? Either or is fine as long as you’re consistent. English will never make up its mind. I’m going with “mangoes.” Why the hell not?

Today I started my morning with mangoes in cottage cheese with a piece of toast. I ate this while I finally did my taxes. I think I might go to the library and feed my brain with something packed with nutrients and life-enhancers. Gonna go feed my brain some mangoes.

 

Go home, you’re getting crazy

“Go home, you’re getting crazy.”

Oh, my sweet motorcycle riding, cat loving co-worker,
what if I’ve been there for as long as I’ve lived?

I don’t know what the other side looks like.
Probably just as crazy, huh?

Everything feels like the apocalypse.

I know. I know. The word is as loaded as a baked potato.

Just imagine flames and feelings that aren’t yet in the registry.

I see people begging or asking for donations on Higgins Road
on my way home from work.

There’s no rotation. It’s always a new person. I scrounge my car.

Here, take it.
This is everything on me.

No, keep the lollipop.
I don’t need any more sweets.

I always look the person deep in the eyes until mine burn.

Freaks of Nature

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The giant sequoias inhabited me, and I don’t want them to leave. These mutants — with their fire scars and boils protruding unapologetically on their red skin; with their unreachable branches, their impossible girth and height — are the impenetrable towers in command of the Giant Forest located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. One could only dream of climbing them. One could only dream of owning them, too. Many entranced settlers have tried, but have ultimately failed to claim ownership over the goliaths that long ago claimed themselves along with their mesmerizing, green kingdom.

To get to the big trees, we had to twist up the Generals Highway with its endless hairpin turns and rolling foothills covered in playful poppies and gangly lupines, which look like cornhusks with bright purple bulbs. The highway runs alongside the Central Valley, climbing toward the Sierra’s snowy peaks. We drove slow enough (or else!) to notice what was buried in some of the tight curves — slender streams of water spilling alongside jagged cliffs. Sean pointed out pine trees on some of the highest cliffs with tips slipping into the clouds. Once we had reached an elevation of 6,000 feet, I had to remind myself to exhale the large gulps of the thin mountain air I held in my lungs. I tried to read what I brought for the long drive (Patti Smith’s newest book, “M Train”) and managed to take in no more than two pages in my wordless marveling.

I remember the first one I spotted. Even in a forest filled to the brim with firs and pines, the Sierra giants are easily identifiable. I let out a big eek, like a child laying eyes on the Disney World castle for the first time. As trite as this sounds, seeing that first sequoia was a fairytale come true. It was enchanting, yet at the same time I invited its freakishness into my heart immediately, accepting its enormity. I grabbed for my phone and recorded the drive through the Giant Forest, trying to still the view, instead of shaking with excitement.

When we arrived at the Giant Forest Museum parking, I rocketed out of the rental car, but froze in my footsteps. There were three massive trees congregated together beside the lot. I stood there with my mouth hanging open. Sean urged me to hurry up so we could start a trail, as there would be plenty more trees to see. I couldn’t help but want to greet and study every single one, which was just as hideously beautiful as the next.

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Just outside the museum stands the ginormous Sentinel tree, which is “average” in height compared to others. The Sentinel is covered in barky boils. Carved into the right side of it, is a scar shaped like a church steeple.

The Giant Forest was named by John Muir, the famous Scottish-American explorer, writer, engineer, environmental philosopher, and early advocate of the American wilderness. He is known for his preservation efforts of Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other areas. Muir along with others, such as George Stewart, the editor of the Visalia Delta newspaper, who led the movement to create the national park — hell even the U.S. Calvary — have worked hard to protect the sequoias and the land they stand on.

I learned that many people have been bewitched by these beasts. Settlers into the 1890s set up shop and built hotels, stores, gas stations, among other facilities. Finally, the Sequoia National Park was created to protect the giants, ending all Sequoia logging activities. Still, it wasn’t until the 1970s people began to truly realize that their presence was affecting the trees’ ecology and beauty.

So many of the trees have names. Let’s see. There’s Clara Barton with her numerous craters. Presidents Lincoln and Washington. And the fallen Michigan tree.

And let’s not forget, General Sherman, the largest tree ON EARTH. General Sherman is estimated to be somewhere around 2,200 years old with a height of 279 feet and a weight of 2.7 million pounds. I couldn’t wrap my mind around General Sherman.

The giants have that way about them — of boggling minds. The first people to stumble across (and keep stumbling) the giant sequoias had to prove to the skeptics that these things actually existed. A number of trees were sacrificed, chopped into bits, and sent overseas to museums who even with proof had deemed them a “hoax.” What oddballs. What freaks.

Many of the trees in the Giant Forest as well as the 75 groves in total have sequoias with shimmering black bark and hollowed out trunks damaged by fire. General Grant is a tree with a massive fire scar. Sean took a picture of the pine tree located next to General Grant to reference just how large the scar is, and how staggering it is for something with that much damage to live on. However, I learned natural fires occur in national parks all the time, and actually, the giant sequoias depend on these fires. Like phoenixes, the sequoias that actually fall (more likely to fall from toppling as opposed to fire) recreate new life and live on through their offspring.

The museum offered a lot of information on the giant sequoias’ impenetrability. There was a John Muir quote on a wall near the exit that particularly stuck with me. “Everything in nature called destruction must be a creation — a change from beauty to beauty.”

I felt an electric surge down my spine as the trees’ profundity washed over me. Feelings of awe and respect called to all the little hairs on my arms. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my cheeks. Sean squeezed my shoulder. I cried the entire way from the museum to the car. I couldn’t stop.

I know what it’s like to have a piece of me destroyed by fire. Little do most people know, I lived in Southern California for a couple of years, and in 2003 my family’s home was taken from us in a wildfire. I remember the flames licking the mountains, the cold sweat that clung to my forehead. I remember shaking my mother awake, tearing through my clothes, grabbing for my photo albums. After weeks of living in Ramada hotels and camping on friends’ couches, we drove back. Trees with chard limbs haunted the landscape. When we sifted through our home in the dust and rubble, nothing stirred, and no one said a word.

We think clothes, pictures, cars, items of sentimental value define us. But in the end fire burns everything like it’s made of paper — scrolls unfurling and curling into themselves. And even though I knew this, I was still left reassessing who I was and what I was made of without my beloved earthly possessions.

These sequoias are naked to me. They’re defiant. I hardly know these trees, and I love them. And my love for them inspires me to be open and bruised and big.

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Garden of two goddesses

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Just us girls. Camping in the wilderness without the Seans. Two Seans. I have a Sean, and Alexa has a Sean. It just ended up that way. I told her when she was single that she didn’t necessarily need, but could use a Sean to keep her warm at night. It wasn’t hard to look. We all grew up in the same town a few miles away from each other on blocks named after trees. We’re good people. Or at least I like to think so.

But back to camping and rocking out in nature with our vags out. Not really. I mean, our vags are in our pants, but they’re as swampy as a bowl of French onion soup after hiking all day.

I built a fire for the first time ever, and we roasted seasoned vegetables over it. Mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, red peppers. Alexa used lemon and garlic powder to season the vegetables and slapped them down into a homemade tin foil bowl. She wrapped them up tight. She calls these things “hobo pockets,” which as a word is mildly offensive, but quite wonderful as a meal.

I feel full and toasted around the edges. My center is as mushy as the potatoes we gobbled up. We weren’t sure the potatoes were ever going to cook. But they turned out to be worth the wait.

I’m thinking about that phrase “having a friend at the end of the world.” I know there’s a movie with a similar title. But I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about Alexa and me. We’re two friends, and it’s not the end of the world, but if it was, I think I’d be okay on this melded, moss-freckled rock in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest.

Alexa came up with the idea to go camping without our doting, lovely boyfriends, so we hopped in her car and drove the five hours, just to say we set up camp and lived. And lived we did.

At first the ground was hard and refused our stakes. We forgot to bring a hammer. We used our hands, grunted with our entire bodies. Alexa used her car’s window scraper. And I used a wine bottle, which wasn’t the brightest idea. We dragged the tent farther into the campsite, and eventually we landed on a spot that would take.

Unfortunately, the only camp site that was available when we arrived was the one next to the outhouses. This is our luck. And so, the wind wafted the worst smell known to man, his own excrement, of course. Nothing hangs on the nose more than our own shit. It’s kind of funny, actually. Alexa and I like to think of ourselves as regular older poopers, and the campsite fits. And the thing about bad smells, as Alexa reminded me, is that you get used to them the longer you’re around them.

Alexa packed up a real feast: pita chips and hummus, buns, vegan sausages, and loads of vegetables. She bundled everything together in a basket like it was a Christmas package for us to unravel together. Complete the scene with an open fire.

I am overcome with gratitude and s’mores-layered love for my friend who always thinks ahead and crosses items off lists. This is a very true characteristic about her. She’s punctual, prepared, and sometimes a little anxious about how the future will play out.

As a whole, Alexa is one of those people who has a feeling but can’t quite put her finger on how genuinely beautiful of a person she is. She has had to grow up very fast in household with a single mother with severe untreated depression. In the beginning of our friendship, I recall a cynical, but loving Alexa who doted on her mother and her every whim.

Eventually, she loosened the string around such a tightly bound tangle. She, as an only child, did this much later than some. But like all of us, there comes a time when we have to let go of our parents’ hands for their sake and our own. I know this from Alexa and myself, and well, a lot of people.

I realize as we roam the Garden of the Gods wilderness — dry, dusty, and laundered in long, thick brush —  that I’m proud of my friend and myself for getting along in world we define as our own.

Last night, we ventured down the gravel road leading away from our campsite. We let our heavy heads sag from our necks as we surveyed the stars that were so close to our faces they could stick to our flesh. We were standing on the inside of a purple marble. The stars blinked. And some of the blinking stars turned out to be planes.

I peered into the pitch black road. I was suddenly cold and hyperaware of the darkness, but held onto the lantern, the stars and planes, and the length of time it took for me to realize that I couldn’t possibly die alone in that moment standing next to Alexa. She would be there to help testify the life I lived and the life she played a significant role in.

(Alexa. Wearing a checkered hoodie and green rain boots, about to walk her her golden retriever in the rain. It’s the image I’ve come to associate with her more than anything else.)

But this trip has given me so many more images to preserve like jam. There was a moment last night when we were talking. We had a bit of wine, and all of a sudden Alexa broke out in a sweat and laid her head on the picnic table. She told me she was scared she would pass out. I was overcome with a sick, frozen fear, and my mind raced. We were after all in the middle of nowhere and without cell phone service. How smart of us, I criticized in my head.

I ratcheted back and forth to conclusions. Food poisoning. Altitude sickness. Some wild bacteria. I finally reached the conclusion where I would be no where and nothing without her. I asked her if she needed me to run for help. But she assured me she just needed to rest her head for a while.

I thought maybe it had been my fault. I had been telling her about my family and struggles. Maybe it was too much to hear. That noise makes me dizzy too. Sometimes I feel I say too much and the weight of words fall on Alexa, who takes the brunt of my conscious fears and levels of distrust. I said nothing and wondered if I was too heavy of a friend, and then Alexa lifted her head, and said, “WHOO, I think I just needed a good sweat. I feel better.”

She felt better, and I felt drunken relief and sober joy.

In the morning, we finagled out of our tent and drank cold coffee. We decided to drive down to a gas station where we’d have service and could call our boyfriends to tell them we were alive. Alexa drove, and we kept cracking jokes to cover up the wrong turns. But soon enough, we both admitted to each other we were lost.

“I don’t remember that barn, do you?” we asked each other. We drove alongside rows and rows of Illinois’ finest fucking corn that started to look like a blurry sea.

Alexa and I have a habit of getting lost together. One time, we almost got locked in a forest preserve, another one in rural Illinois, past dark. We saw a deer on our wrong way back to the car. And Alexa couldn’t getting over me calling it “a total deer.” In most cases, our wrong turns tend to be worth it.

As suburb folk, so much of Illinois is beyond our reach. Barrels of hay, windmills, and busted down barns. Driveways that run deep into low hanging greenery. Dusty, desolate towns. Men on tractors and underneath cars, covered in the grime of work. Women sitting in lawn chairs, smoking. Kids waddling around in diapers. We drove through one town that was completely dedicated to something called “Mule Days.” Signs with mules are displayed on lawns across the town of Enfield, Illinois.

Alexa, a vegan, made quick, painful eye contact with the cows we passed in trucks. I could tell she was also getting nervous about being lost, and told her that we always find our way.

2 and a half hours later, we eventually found our way back. We didn’t waste any time on our embarrassment as we threw water and snacks into Alexa’s back pack. She let me carry the camera, and I let it dangle on its strap from my shoulder.

We climbed jagged steps and grabbed hold of tree trunks to help us along the trails. Our calves began to scream, and perspiration clung to our lower backs. The stones, which were formed millions of years ago, have lizard skin. The red and silver patterns swirl and twist and shine like molten lava. Some stones reminded me of layered paper flowers. The largest boulders could each be their own landmark. They sit on top of each other in clumsy, yet sturdy ways. Leaning, bowing, bending, rolling stones piled and piled one on top of the next.

I didn’t know what I was doing, really, but I snapped picture after picture. We ran into a group of people who were resting next to their horses. I asked to take a picture of this man and his horse. Alexa laughed and told me it was like I had never seen a horse before. I’m pretty much this way in every new setting. It’s all context.

A small creek kept us company while we ate lunch — peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I paced back and forth to prevent the flies from getting too cosy on me.

By the time we arrived to the campsite, we were stumbling underneath the weight of our exhaustion.

Right now we’re sitting next to each other on rocks and writing. I’m sipping wine from a coffee mug, drinking away my body’s aches. It’s getting darker, and after the taste of the stars last night, I’m hungry for more. They could be dessert.

This is the land of the gods, and we’re two awkward, but strong goddesses keeping a close eye on our steps.