fiction: Hannah Pass
I was teaching a class. Last day. Hands went up. My students had brought their respective, reincarnated lovers.
We are a funny bunch, all sitting together with our Dead.
“In another life,” I ask, “would you want to be his or her lover once again?”
“Of course!” my students chime. They certainly would. They adore their reincarnates no matter what. They sit themselves upright, sleeves rolled and eager, jackets hooked on the wall, their objects placed before them on the round table.
little breeze comes in through the window and rustles my hand-outs.
“But what if,” I say, “you’re not you? What if, instead, you’re a cat or a deer or a sheep? And your partner is a caterpillar? What then?”
purposefully single out Olive, who cups her Mason Jar. Little green Henry curled inside on a leaf.
“I’d love this caterpillar,” Olive says. “Even if I were a deer.”
“You sure?” I say. “You say that now, but think of the logistics. You’re big, he’s small. Interests clash.” I hold my hands up, weighing the options.
“Sure I’d still love him,” Olive says. She adjusts her cat-eye glasses, puckers her red lipsticked mouth. She peers into her jar, pokes the glass. Henry inches against her finger to the shape of a stove-top coil. “Besides,” Olive says. “Henry was fuzzy as a human and I loved him then!”
sip my coffee.
e all agree. It’s possible to love a caterpillar.
ut these kids—they do not get the picture. Communicating with your reincarnated can be a cinch, yet some folks cannot let go. They draw their objects into bed at night, sleep for days. I call it “Infant Syndrome.” It’s the first obstacle in getting over your Dead.
“But why linger on one person?” I say. “There isn’t only one person for everyone.” I throw the idea out there, taking pleasure in their passion, their contemplative glares toward the ceiling fan. I’ve never lost a boyfriend to death, but breakups certainly feel similar. I lost an aunt once in my twenties, skipped the funeral. My mother never let that one go. But in all honesty, who cares? I didn’t know my aunt. My aunt didn’t know me. There is no one who really knows me.
cast my eyes around the room. “Why not honor your lover and move on?”
“I’ve tried to move on,” Chris says. He’s in a button-up shirt. Plaid vest. A put together man with a side-part. He really is trying his darnedest. “I dated Karla for three months and it just wasn’t the same.”
“Should it be the same?” I glance at Fernando, the quiet one—smiling, cute, effortlessly. Then Olive raises her hand. Back in November Olive had a mild anxiety attack during our get-to-know-you activity: Two Truths and a Lie. She had second-guessed her “lie.” I think Olive and Chris would really hit it off. They have similar deep-set eyes, bushy brows. If it weren’t for the height difference they’d resemble twins. Chris’s wife, Megan, was reincarnated into a dove. He transports her around in a cat carrier.
“Yes, Olive?” I say, impatient, clutching my hair.
“I disagree,” she says.
“I think the passion should be pretty darn close!”
Twenty minutes in, I instruct my students on tone. Frequencies vary. Things can be easily misinterpreted between species, especially human to plant. I dim the lights, play my Yo Yo Ma vinyl, the flakes of static like a blizzard in my head.
y the time the song’s done, my students have relaxed into a deep meditation. And it’s great for me. Fernando looks incredibly handsome in a cozy daze. The better looking of the three—his red flannel compliments his stew-colored skin, his gelled hair has a zigzag of light. It’s a small class, but the suburbs never yield many woo-woo widows. I watch Fernando from behind, looming over his shoulder, wondering if his dear Sylvia still turned him on reincarnated as lichen.
f all things.
suppose I’m not one to discriminate. Me? I teach communication because I have to. It’s a good outlet for my supernatural gift. Plus, I live alone now and there’s rent. My last boyfriend snipped his toenails over carpet, talked cute. And in time I realized that if the little things bothered me in big ways, then the big things would eventually kill me.
“What if Henry doesn’t respond?” Olive says.
“Yes, Olive.” I clap my hands to shush her. “Resistance can happen. We may not get a response right away, but if we’re persistent, results will follow.” I walk over and pat her shoulder, cringing at her fruity perfume.
“What kind of results?” Chris asks. He obviously has disregarded the informational handouts.
“Acceptance and closure,” I say. On the chalkboard I write the words in large obvious letters:
After my students get reacquainted, I do some interpreting. Sylvia really is a beautiful scrap of lichen. The shape of Nevada. The color of frost. She spreads across her rock with delicate ambition. Yet, gazing at Fernando’s face I feel a bit bad. His is a very sorry story, involving a semi truck and a flock of sheep. Midnight, traveling home from Sylvia’s parents, his wife fell asleep at the wheel. She fell asleep, veered into oncoming lights, and flipped onto farmland. Then, following the funeral, Fernando found the lichen in the yard, on Sylvia’s favorite granite.
ow, standing beside Fernando and Sylvia I feel a strong sensation, a tingling rising up through my chest.
“Sylvia’s just connected,” I announce. “She’s just said, Hello. She’s just said, Good evening.”
“Hello Sylvia!” we sing.
wouldn’t call what I do lying. It’s communication through intuition. I decode the message and translate. “Go ahead, Fernando,” I say. “Tell Sylvia how you feel.”
ernando twiddles his thumbs. “I don’t know. I suppose I really miss her. I miss you, Sylvia.”
put my hand on Fernando, the other on the rock. “She misses you, too,” I say.
“I thought I would have to wait a lifetime for this.”
“Well, you don’t,” I say. “Not today. This is your moment, Fernando.”
“Ask Sylvia if she still loves me.”
ask in my gentlest voice.
allow myself a minute to look into Fernando’s eyes, just to see what it feels like. What it’s like to be Sylvia—not me. This is my favorite part about interpreting, stepping outside of myself for a moment. From Sylvia’s perspective, I love how she loves. I love the shape of Fernando’s face. I love the way his eyelids slant gradually downward from his nose. Most eyelids do this, but I love Fernando’s slant, Fernando’s nose.
close my eyes. Open. The duration, intense, like staring long at the sun. I wonder, could I be Fernando’s live-in interpreter? Could I wake up every morning to his burritos and eggs?
“What’d she say?” Fernando asks.
“She says you smell nice, like grass.”
“Well I just mowed the lawn.”
picture Fernando, shirt off, sweat glistening. Day one of our session, he smelled like firewood. Day two, beer. From then on, I looked forward to his masculine whiffs.
“Do you still love her?” I say.
“My feelings for Sylvia are enormous.”
“My feelings for you are enormous.”
rom across the table, Chris pokes Olive’s arm. Together they blush, their own little world.
“Do you remember that one time in Miami?” I interpret, feeling the sensation, Sylvia’s energy dancing with mine.
“Of course,” Fernando says. “How could I forget? The sunburn the shape of a piano.”
“You asked me to marry you,” I say.
“I was so nervous!”
“I’m glad you did. I’d been waiting all week.”
“I was afraid you’d say no.”
“You kidding? I dressed for the occasion. The blue dress with the classic sweetheart neckline.”
“I love you, Sylvia,” Fernando says.
“Hmm, interesting,” I say.
“Sylvia feels both embarrased and at ease.”
“Was that too much?” he says. “Should I back off?”
“Maybe try it one more time,” I say. “Just to reiterate.”
“I love you,” Fernando says.
“A tad louder,” I say. I don’t know what comes over me.
“I love you,” he says, and takes my hand.
“I love you, too.” I whisper, shocked, the one thing I’ve ever longed to say.
hen almost instantaneously, Fernando begins sobbing. He buries his face in my lap and I move his hair around until he sits up and all of his gelled strands hang like icicles. I focus on his quivering throat, the wetness of his lips. I generally get a few weepers but never a full on pour. Chris slides his water glass across the table. I hold it up to Fernando and he sips. It’s a tender moment—me, dabbing his cheek with my sleeve.
hen my phone alarm beeps, the hour up, and suddenly time is a factor.
“I hope to see you all next fall,” I say, scrambling to wrap up the session.
But Olive and Chris have already packed up and are out the door, blurting their thank-yous.
“Don’t forget your registration sheets!” I call after.
ftentimes you believe things are impossible until they happen. It’s like witnessing a bank robbery, or running into an old friend you dreamt of early that morning. Now alone in the room, I take Fernando in my arms. He is vulnerable. He is weak. His shoulders feel like the shoulders of bears.
is eyes slant downward.
kiss his shoulder. I kiss it again. His eyes wash over. He doesn’t flinch, but instead, picks me up and places me on the table next to Sylvia like a vase of flowers.
I am Sylvia, I think.
I am flowers.
he tingling sensation runs throughout my body.
ernando kisses my mouth. He kisses like an old flame. Open jaw. Slack tongue. A sort of déjà vu happens. He does this thing where he pinches my nipple a little.
“It’s okay,” I say, placing my hand on top his.
hen, carefully, Fernando unbuttons my pants, slides them off. He pulls the crotch of my underwear aside. I push Sylvia to the edge of the table with a light scrape against wood. I close my eyes and Fernando kisses the lids and I try to imagine us in a technicolor dream. Me in Sylvia’s blue dress, and Fernando in a tie. Yet, I have trouble picturing his face. His features all look faint and ghostly. I can no longer distinguish—he has the look of an ex-love, but they all look the same. θ
Last Wednesday, Jami borrowed floodlights from my neighbor, Mitch, and now she works at night, in a buzzing dome of luminescence so sharp that Mitch hung black curtains over his bedroom window. First, he tried sleeping with the heavy duty earmuffs that lumberjacks wear to cancel the noise of their chainsaws, but then Mitch realized he slept better if he could hear the constant whir of Jami’s power tools (which are not actually hers, they’re also borrowed, from sources unknown to me). “Have you ever imagined sleeping on the tits of the fifty foot woman? You know, that old horror flick from the drive-in? That’s how I sleep, now, when I can hear her working out there. I sleep like I’m sprawled out on the immense knockers of a giant woman.” He told me this in my front lawn. Mitch was wearing a striped business shirt with a red tie and I was in my underwear, rolling out the garbage. My eyes were black with sleeplessness and I wanted to uppercut the teeth out of Mitch’s relaxed grin. “It’s like being swallowed by a king-sized water bed filled with heavy cream.”
Jami works through the sunlight to sunset and dusk, and at night my backyard ignites into a globe of electricity and sweat. The moths congregate around her as though she is the goddess of their glowing temple. A few of the neighborhood’s older residents once put in enough phone calls to the police station that an officer came by to ask Jami to kill the lights and stop her table saw. “Gettin’ late, sweetie. Why don’t we call it a day?” But Jami’s best feature is the charm of her obsessions. She removed her safety goggles and earplugs and guided the inquiring officers on a tour of the boat’s construction. She displayed her blueprints and equations. She explained her philosophy, her fascination, what she will do when the boat is finished. She never asked for a helping hand, but she got it, until an emergency call came over the radio and drug the cops away from Jami and her boat. Now, the police come regularly with cups of steaming coffee and a bag of glazed donut holes and samosas from the 24-hour donut shop a few blocks south of my house. I think the place is called Sannihit Sarovar Bakery. It’s run by a very nice family from India. The police ask Jami about her progress. They try to hand her things, or to hold the tape measure. They want to get back into the building of the boat. From the patio I ask them about the city’s crime wave, the one I hear so much about on the news. They puff air through their noses and ignore me.
Jami works until she is exhausted, too exhausted to come into the house. She pulls the extension cords from their sockets and the dome of luminescence huddled over my backyard goes black and Jami falls to sleep on the bench seat I unhitched from the back of her pickup and put on the tiny cement patio, next to her boat. When the morning is tickling from gray into sunrise, the air seems to hang in the space, fermenting the dew on the woodwork and the metal tools and in the yellow foam peaking through holes worn into the fabric seat she sleeps on. I boil water on the stove and pour it over green tea leaves. I drink it on the red folding chair next to the empty can where Jami pitches her cigarette butts. I watch her legs twitch in her sleep, like a dog that dreams of chasing cars. Strings of sweat bead on the back of her neck and shoulders and I steal one of the cigarettes from her pack, even though I quit smoking 14 months ago. I put it in my lips and light it and watch over all the things that fill my backyard now. I squint at it and study it. My mouth twitches as I take a rough mental inventory, pointing the cigarette like a finger with each tick of wind change.
When Jami was four, her father died of a heart attack. Not at home. They found his body, sizzling on the roof of a house that he was hired to shingle. It was the middle of October and a rogue heat wave set in, an Indian summer, that’s what got him. Also, he was drinking a lot more malt liquor than he was water. When the funeral was over, Jami’s mother skipped the mourning process and immediately transplanted her life and family on a spiritual co-op living off a self-sustaining farm somewhere in rural Kansas. Jami was homeschooled in various forms of art, witchcraft, and agricultural sciences. They were vegetarians. A small, instable group. “I got out as fast as I could,” she says. People always ask for more details, but Jami will only tell them, “No. I’m over it now.” Her mother is still in Kansas. On the same farm, mystically tied to the man who promised her new age salvation and cosmic unity. When Jami and I were drunk in El Paso, she told me that he looked like Jesus. “However you picture Jesus in your mind,” she said. “That’s how my stepdad looked.”
What I love about Jami is not related to the boat at all. The first time I saw her, she spat and said, “Fuck it,” with the most beautiful fluidity of motion. But she won’t do that anymore. She just spits. She won’t say “fuck it.” And I think it’s supposed to mean something, like how important this goddamn boat is to her. She can’t say “fuck it” to the boat. Last summer, we were sitting at a picnic table in Montrose Park. There was an old man, who was probably homeless, drinking something from a paper bag. He told us the story of how he thought the world would be in the next five, ten, and 25 years. He said that Jami would one day disappear—that he and I would never see her again.
Jami takes a mallet and a chisel and carves the significant symbols from her life into the bow and the mast. I watch her meticulous mechanics melt the wood, like ice, into intricate intimacies. Her first kill, an eight point buck. She was eleven and the back strap was chicken fried and fed to the entire rural commune. Her pickup truck. The dogs she owned. The moon. Her bicycle and surfboard. The boat is being folded into a baroque narrative. I watch her muscles tan and tighten as Jami’s story unfolds. She keeps a perpetual cigarette in her teeth and drinks cheap beer from clear bottles with the label torn off. The sun soaks into the liquid and makes it warm, but with every gulp, she savors the satisfaction of her work as though it is ice cold and refreshing.
“Well,” she says, pausing her labor for a breath of air. “All rivers lead to the ocean.” Her nose twitches and she pushes a sticky mat of her hair off her forehead while taking a swig of her beer. “I think. No. I’m pretty sure that’s true.”
“First off, you have no experience of life on water. You’ve never even been on a sailboat. You will get seasick. At some point. You will. If the river runs too shallow, you are not strong enough to tow it across by yourself. I have just settled into my job at the customer call center and I don’t think becoming an assistant manager is totally out of the question yet. You have spent zero time testing the job market and so you do not know for certain that you are unqualified for the work force. I think you would make a damn fine dishwasher. I do. And I mean, a damn fine dishwasher. Don’t forget, you are prone to obsessing over new projects and never seeing them through. What about the hermit crab farm? Do you remember how their bodies shriveled and dehydrated? So, you can understand that there is a bit of speculation on my end as to how committed you actually are to this boat project and your plan to float it out the river and into the Pacific. Not to mention, I have just bought a new surfboard and I do not think it has been properly broken in. You have no experience with deep sea fishing or sustaining an appropriate diet in open water. I have not seen you even once open the books which I bought for you on Memorial Day, meaning you have no grounding in oceanography or the patterns of currents or the process of measuring nautical distances. My lease on the house is not up for another four and a half months. And what about your love of cheap beer and cigarettes? How will you satisfy that, Jami, for fuck’s sake? How are you just going to leave me like this?”
“These are the things,” she says. She says it again, trying out the words on her tongue like licking an ice cream cone. Longer. Slower. “These. Are the things. These are the things. These are all things. All of the things. These. Are. The things.” And then she goes back to working with the carpenter’s file.
When Jami disappears, I will open a small art gallery in the warehouse district. It will be called, The Museum of Jami’s Shit. The cops and Mitch and the Indian family that make the donuts and a few stray dogs and cats that were once fed by her, these people will come. They will walk into an open space where they will be invited to pick through all of Jami’s things and better know her. But mostly it will be for me. I will sleep there when the gallery closes. I will smell her toothbrush and shake up the pieces in her junk drawer, reading from the articles like a shaman reading spilt bones. I will feel the sharp teeth of the key to her pickup truck. I will wake up in a puddle of her novelty vacation T-shirts. And I will let the children and the lonely adults and the forgetful grandparents each take a thing with them until the space becomes empty and Jami is gone for good.