The Scene Where It Is Summer, And I Say
our histories are fickle
our memories play loops
and have gaps
we must mind
It is 4 am and I am reading old newspapers again. I sit on the kitchen tile we used to rub with water and vinegar every second Sunday, and reach my hand carefully into the hole in the wall. The stories I pull out of this farmhouse are insulation for me, as well. I uncurl each crumpled ball carefully and find stripes of our stories, zebra-zagged with time. The paper is thin and brittle, like bacon left too long over heat.
It’s too early to be hungry, but thanks to England I know it is always a good time for tea. The kettle screams for black and I oblige with Earl Grey. Old habits die hard and I wonder: What to do with a past? This question is not private. Yet, even when you stayed here, you didn’t know of my morning insomnia in summer. Now I comb old pages for pieces of you and think: One day you will be the best- kept secret. Combing makes me think of honeybees, which helps me remember I have a garden and thus plants to keep alive in this heat. Vegetables remind me of your hair falling over your face as you lean into dirt. Carrot-top. If we still lived in Oxford they would call you Ginger. I call you a secret the same way some might call you a treasure. Maybe they mean the same.
This isn’t a story with an ending, you know, so you might wonder where we will end up. I, for one, usually find myself on the floor in the morning, asking questions to the air. How could living be a secret? How could a life not be? Maybe it was due to tea’s caffeine that I woke you so effortlessly, by laughing or sighing or running my fingers long along your thigh. Waking you every morning reminded me that this was not our only story.
Again and again, my hand reaches deeper between the old ribs of wall, grasping crisp paper already shaped into fists. The dates grow older – 1932, 1906, 1893, 74 B.C., – and the locations more distant, no longer single stars but places mapped like constellations. Oxford, Kampala, Mesopotamia, Berlin. I uncrumple these stories and find our first kiss. The plot grows thicker. There we are, bent over textbooks, learning the magic of microbes, of black holes and nuclei. We enter life in disguise. We become polar bears and coral reefs, Epicurus’ first female pupils, the lifespan of a Tsetse fly, and a lost disease. These are just the details. I piece these pages together and find us growing older and wiser and unwilling to settle. This is just conjecture. I read on and I wonder. How to title a life?
The page I now hold with both hands is not our life story, but the caption reminds me of how we began. I read, In the North Pole it Becomes Summer and We Start to Shed Fur. The page is resplendent with our photo, you and I, just two polar bears roaming the ice. For fun, you want to run at the photographer in the ridiculous orange coat, staring at us through the camera like a one-eyed pumpkin. Laughing, I forbid you. I am now Anouk of the North and thawing Queen of the Ice, and must therefore uphold my position of power. Instead, we decide to play-fight, not wanting anyone to think us just friends. I know better than to call you Pumpkin but I still like to call you Ginger. We both agree the nickname came from the auburn brown bears you got jealous of in that documentary screened at the Russian station last week.
The Arctic is thawing and this summer the Aurora Borealis fills us with light. Our white coats become striped with purple moonshine, wavy streaks of green. Shaggy and heavy, we swim in waters perforated by dots of full moon. Here, in the North Pole, we practice authenticity and strength. We drag seals onto ice with our paws and our teeth. Vermilion has never looked so good on white. We pay homage to the Seal Gods by relishing rubbing our noses on the slick skin of their sides. They are salt- and-pepper shades of spotted gray; water slides in our snouts as we bite. It is a fierce sort of prayer, one we chant with our tongues in their cheeks. I kissed you for the first time last night and you cried onto ice. Gratitude had never felt so raw.
Years earlier, our summer stories were set not in the North but the South. July and August were for Melville, for this inherited farmhouse you named White Privilege and loved by letting pigeons roost in the eves. Their songs sounded like mourning doves and still today I can’t distinguish their coos. I left the windows open to listen, although you didn’t like the insects flying in with their sounds. The Arctic had left you loving the pristine and, after Africa, you were scared of mosquitos and flies and windows without screens. Now, where I live, there are birds and bugs with different names. Pigeons, however, seem historic and ubiquitous. They are not a secret.
I touch another sheaf of paper and hope for an article on the repeal of DOMA. Instead I pull out a front page with no words and I sigh. I never wanted to be contained in the blank page of a missing story. It is no longer 1912 and lost love is so Titanic. But the truth, of course, is that I miss you. I miss you like all the stories I will never read in these old-man-old-time rags. In so many cases, we are the ones never given five lines or written about at all, because history is not a good place for women to live. History is not a good place for women to live. I miss you.
What I find next is small-town news, an article in The Melville Times detailing the engagement party of soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Curtis. A wild success, the article proclaims, replete with the saxophone debut of Mr. soon-to-be-somebody Matthew King. I remember the party well. Back in the 1920s, we wore red lipstick and short heels and danced with our hands parallel to the floor, held out below our hips. Your hair was still short but mine was pinned up and had curls. I suppose we didn’t say summer was for Melville because White Privilege wasn’t yet ours (although, of course, in the South, it always was). When we were younger and visited my grandparents in Greenville, we slept in stiff separate beds like cousins or twins. Now, we eschew old-fashioned morals and the cult of domesticity.
It is so damn hot in Louisiana, you say, your voice bored and casual as you take a drag of a stolen cigarette. You, too, seek refuge from the crowd below.
But isn’t it? I reply, dropping my party facade and leaning both arms on a white post. I’ve just redone my lipstick (red), but suddenly I feel worn-out. It’s only been two months, but I am already bored with Thomas. He stands now beside the baldcypress and the stream, chatting with your brother. His baggy plus fours seem ill-suited to this manicured backyard. He takes off his white boater to wipe the sweat off his brow, then turns around and smiles. Hi darling, he calls and waves towards the porch. I move two irritated fingers in response, wishing he wouldn’t call me darling. Ignoring his ongoing stare, I say to you instead, I feel like a clown. I can feel the blush running off in this heat.
Have you ever thought of running off? You ask, pretending to be light. You still haven’t looked at me, but I can tell. You are make-believing we are friends now, pretending the thumping inside both of our thin dresses comes from this backyard band and not because you touched my hip as you walked up from behind. I pause. I want to leave Louisiana, I say slowly, but I don’t know where I’d run off to. Besides, these heels are not quite ideal.I understand, you say seriously, not giving me the benefit of the joke. Smoke curls out between your lips as you look into the trees beyond the garden. The grass was cut this tightly just today, but, much to the host’s chagrin, wisps of it have remained layered on top. They rise up with the breeze before settling again in small gasps and sighs. You take another drag and finally look my way. Comfort is such a tricky act to follow, you say.–Now is too early for comfort food or running anywhere, already too hot for wrist watches, bracelets, or rubber bands. Every time I rest my elbows on my knees, sweat just tries to slip them away. You are not here but, if you were, you would say, Summer, just like that, and smile. I look out the window and wish there was wind. Missing you feels like being a tile on this kitchen floor. I am pale and varnished, all obtuse angles trying to form a diamond or something strong and whole. Although on the ground, I’m still meant to hold up utensils and the stove. Carrot-top. Ginger. Our favorite kind of soup.6 am and I still read these papers in my head. I write headlines of us for the articles without them. Then, detailing our old daily snapshots of life, I fill in dialogue for the stories torn in the middle and thus without end.
There is a fairy nesting in the hyacinth again.
In the 70s we played improv games you brought back from theatre class. Do you remember sitting on the subway and speaking in Russian accents and soft Polish lilts? Every conversation had a different color. Mouthing syllables of different flavors, we approached each other from a different angle every day. As our days became years, we oscillated between continents. The set changed from England’s rainy gloom to Africa’s rich soil-red. You grew taller, then fuller, and always more sad. I, too, have changed. Yet throughout all these years I have wanted to act beside you. Now is no different. As I play make-believe with memory (or is that what happens anyway?), I ask you to play, too. Come, I’ll set the stage and you can step into the center. Joyously, we’ll switch scenes at will, moving between a history no one else remembers and a future we do not yet recall.
Today I will read just a little bit longer until you come down the stairs.
By 7 am I am still patient, but ever-waiting for you to appear. I keep pulling out crumpled blank pages until I realize. Someday you will be the best-kept secret of all. Wherever you are, you don’t know this; this truth is the latent one coating the floors of our lives, in wistful abeyance as we walk. It hums around us like a refrigerator or the bees that buzz out back. We do not reach a point where we are a full story. We are our own chosen trajectory; memory plays loops and has gaps
we must mind.
One day, surely, I will find a headline pronouncing: The End. Yet, after I read it, I will turn around and you will smile. Surprise. You will turn the spotlights on and we both will know it’s time for another scene. My words will be your cue and I will swallow as I tell you. Ginger. Come back.
Now, although it is morning and summer and warm, the kitchen seems dim. These pages are full of so many cities and days. Newspapers surround me, and I no longer know where I fit within them. The only place I want to go is back to the beginning. Smiling, you shake your head and waggle one finger in warning. I know. You will always be the best-kept secret. I sigh as I stand to make us more tea.
I wish I could tell you. Someday I will find the right headline for our story.
By Evan Elise Easton-Calabria, Contributor
Evan Elise Easton-Calabria has found homes in Oxford, Kampala, Berlin, Rome, Krakow, and Seattle, and will soon be relocating to Dar es Salaam. She holds a Master’s in “Refugee and Forced Migration Studies” from the University of Oxford and is currently a research assistant within Oxford’s Department of International Development. This piece is excerpted from her novel, a current work-in-progress. She welcomes contact at email@example.com.
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