by Leigh Phillips
I was twenty then and we were pushing a Subaru through the clouds that hung low over the waistline of Southern Pennsylvania, and South we dipped, our constellations were heavy and the headphones hugged my head. Bass notes dragged me deeper into the groove of hour, collapsing on hour; you smelled like my dreams. White-knuckled stomach-sick on Dramamine and coffee dregs, I was twenty then, new and scared and in love with someone else’s fingertips.
1999 then, and my parents complained through windshield wipers as we hydroplaned over several states. I was someone else, then. In the backseat, I smelled someone else’s skin on someone else’s sweater and no one knew I was crying then when I was twenty in 1999. It was August. The sky rinsed itself, a dirty rag of sunset, spilling its spine to clean.
It is 2008 and I don’t want to forget this. There is a road, four hands, two spines, some speech, some silence, some liquor, a porch, a trailer, some poetry, the glide body over body (never reaching body), a series of movements and constellations and waiting, a dance where one girl stops dancing, where one girl still sits at twenty, while she’s 29, smoking cigarettes on a park bench outside a gas station, though she doesn’t smoke or work in gas stations, and the gas station’s long been sold, she is waiting there, and she is waiting here.
Winter now, but I remember heat. That August was pointing stars of cigarette scars and lighters tangled in sheets. They made me pry you, finger by finger off the ledge of my limbs. You washed the water off me when we rained; I’m raining you. Southern Virginia was a stretch away from the gas stations I knew, and the trailer in which we touched and I, a working class hero, about to be shit-shocked out of the stories and poems I thought were good, the mind I thought was mine as much as my skin.
I was in love then, and we were pushing past a summer’s drought and into fall again. This was the first time I was ever new. “You want to go to a Women’s College? Why? Don’t become a bulldyke.” Old friends asked, and laughed and laughed. “The writing program,” I told you the first night we worked together. “Are you sure you don’t mind doing register while I restock the beverages?” You were what happened when a question asked itself right out of the gait of my evasions. “Boys,” I bragged. “Hundreds of them.” And stared down into a box of toothbrushes to be priced, marked and sold to customers and their one night stands. I imagined their limbs locked in those impossible provinces of longing, and went into the freezer to ask myself how, and why, to run my fingers over my lips, never kissed, reminding myself “art is why” my hair had never been run through by hands. I undressed a pack of cigarettes, declared “I’m not a virgin” and exhaled.
College was grease over an art history text; the nights were a careful, long burning. “Weak people fall in love. You’re not committed to your art,” I admonished Scott in 1998. That summer, I sat in a freezer, trying to remember who I was before I worked in a gas station. “Are you gay?” She asked, from behind the counter. “No!” I shouted, spilling a series of Styrofoam cups all over the floor. “It’s okay if you are. A lot of my friends are gay.”
And I remember this.
And this, a story that nobody cares about.
And another love letter to self is never seen.
This might be about the body.
“I don’t know why, I just like hanging around gay men all the time.”
“Maybe because they’re a lot like women.”
I dropped my cigarette, calmly picked it up, ground it out, walked away.
That summer, I kept a journal and endlessly defined vocabulary words out of a self-imposed reading list. On off days, I’d sit in the sun and chastize myself for not knowing everything. That summer, I stopped spending days-off in the lawn chair with the dictionary. I started spending time in cars, smoking out windows, singing songs, sipping moons off car hoods, out of bottles of 40s, smoking blunts in Homestead Village trailer park and telling you my life in a series of half deranged couplets, I didn’t know why.
You read everything I ever wrote. I wrote in my journal, “I wish she were a boy.” And you, “you’re my soul mate of friends. Here is a song that reminds me of you. And another song. This shirt looked like you. I got you this bear, don’t forget me when you’re gone, don’t forget me…”
And then, the traveling. And the bear, a child, I hugged it and wept and smelled skin all over it. And we arrived in Roanoke, and I, weeping into a plate of homefries. Call from a payphone. Begging, how did you happen to me?
You said, have you ever known lesbians? I said, I’ve never known a lesbian. You said, lesbians always like me. I said, that’s an odd thing, isn’t it. I’m not a lesbian. I never said you were a lesbian. That’s a good thing, because I’m not one. Okay. Okay. What time is it? Four twelve. We have to work at noon! I’m not tired. Are you tired?
I’m not tired, either.
Do you think he likes you? Yes, he asked me out. Did you say yes? I haven’t said anything yet. I have to get back to work. Enjoy your day off. Past the register and racks of powerade and Poland Spring and into the freezer, shaking hands ripping boxes into half, thirds, tiny shreds and crying. The crying is freezing all over my face. I don’t know why I’m crying. Leigh. Leigh. Why are you crying? What are you doing here? I didn’t say yes.
I’m not tired at all.
“I thought you were beautiful the first time I saw you.”
I’d like to stay out a bit longer. I don’t know any lesbians. I dropped my cigarette. I didn’t say yes. Don’t become a bulldyke. In 2007, I don’t want to forget this. They’re a lot like women. I’m not a virgin. Boys. Do you think he likes you? I’m not tired. Where are we going? I’ll take another glass. You’re a really good writer. I’m not sure if I’m in love with them, or if I want to be them. Don’t go. This is a song. This is a song for you. I’ve mailed it to Roanoke. I’ve mailed it to you. Soul mate of friends. This is for you. This is a letter for you. It’s a bit intense. Too intense? There’s no such thing as too intense? They are all looking at you, these boys. But what they don’t know, is that you’re mine. Mine? What does that mean? I’m not…I think…I might…shhh. Don’t speak. Price check. Did you clock out? There’s never a time I don’t want to be in your life. I want to always be in your life. Do you mind doing register while I restock the beverages? I thought you were beautiful the first time I saw you.
And I’m waiting on the bench, smoking cigarettes like I’m twenty, like I don’t have lines on my face.
Like I’ve never been fucked. Like I’ve never had someone press into me, rock into me, wrap around their back and stare to the ceiling of you.
“I don’t know what I am. I’m sleeping with someone.”
“I’m jealous of her.”
“I’m in love with you.”
“I’m in love with you, too.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know where I am.”
Are you listening?
“She knows you in a way I never will.”
Is anybody listening?
And I went to Roanoke.
“Someday, someone will see you.”
And I let a woman peel me of my “I am not” until the body, a live wire, sparked ‘yes’.
“What is this desire, to be seen?”
And she is gone now.
And I’ve learned to stop telling those types of stories. Now, I hug the insides of my knees and wonder where they’ve walked to get this way.
Almost ten years later, I’m in a town called “Learning to Live Without.” Walking into classrooms, pulling trench coats tight around my bones like a war, I face the class. I’m not looking out at a Roanoke sunset, four gas pumps or moon from the view of a trailer court.
The hours are tired of being themselves; my mouth, full of the syllables of a future something. I’m in a bathrobe, in an age where the liquor’s turned to tea. I stop myself in front of every mirror and live these latitudes of longing, if only now.
It’s a long walk back to Virginia.Leigh Phillips, Line Drawing, Lyric Non-Fiction, Marissa Paternoster