I return to the water like the hand of a clock returns to the same number, a dusty substance. “Of the 85,146 miles of stream and rivers that have been tested, 25,468 miles failed to meet standards for water supplies,” reports an assessment of local pollution. A third of the water in Pennsylvania is undrinkable. It is like saying that a third of the body is poisoned, a statement which fails to consider the porous relationship between bodies and liquids.
When I was a girl, mom said I could swim in the water so long as I didn’t “put my head under.” As in baptism, the belief was that water couldn’t transform the body unless it touched the face.
“The river is everywhere,” writes Herman Hesse in Siddhartha, which is true. The dusty water evaporates into dusty air, the same exhumed from the coal plant, one of three casting shadows across the county. There is no escaping the dust.
A levy would be nice. A stone barrier like a grave indicating where the old dust ends. “Here lies Quinton Compson,” wrote Faulkner of his suicidal hero, “Drowned in the fading of Honeysuckle.” Drowned in the fading. In the fading. The present participle implies a continuum. He is not drowned. He is drowning. Still. Faulkner’s line is a key I access when I need to be honest with myself about the slippery skin of grief. It is a line acknowledging the porous relationship between bodies and liquids.
The river bends like an oxbow. Ghosts of boats and birds, of people and voices, sing into dusk. Frog song buoys ghost song. Ghost song rises and converges with the rain. When I visit the rickety picnic table, wooden legs sunk in cat tails, I remember Springsteen’s lyrical river question: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse? The question was always rhetorical, a gesture towards—regretfully, with whatever grace can be scraped from the bottom of a truck bed— letting go. “The radical of poetry lies not in the resolution of doubts but in their proliferation,” wrote C.D. Wright in her American Poetry Vigil. And so Springsteen’s question mark like a fishhook catches the lip of a leviathan.
Once a lover held me in the water, which in turn held my body weight, so his embrace felt effortless, ghosteen. “You look like Bettie Paige,” he said.
It was my first time hearing of the sex symbol. When my lover explained who she was—a woman famous for winking at the camera—I was surprised to find myself accepting the compliment. Like many who grow up in a small church town, I was raised to feel ashamed of my sexual agency. Shame rendered me what my aunt, ashing her Virginia Slim, called “a good girl, for now.” I spent my teenage years pushing away hands. At age 20, I was still inexperienced; I had seen the movies, read the novels, it was the banal practice of patience, that pesky maturity I struggled with. To be held by a man as inexperienced as I shifted me into sexual awakening. When I was around him, my voice felt caught on a fishhook. His clothes smelled of cherry red smoke. He sung Leonard Cohen songs on his porch and picked up stray cats, held them to his chest. In the lake, his body was wet and hard and of the world.
“You can fuck anyone,” writes the poet Ilya Kaminsky, threading his own fishhook question: “—but with whom can you sit in water?”
For a while, I sat with a man in water, watched fireflies wink into dusk. They flashed a few times before fading back into tall grass. This man and I, we enjoyed our nights together but ran into a problem: he was patient and I was eager to get out of town. We went our separate ways.
A few months later, he passed away. At the time of his death, I was living in Cardiff, Wales, a port city surrounded by mist, the static of lapping waves. I couldn’t afford to travel back to the funeral; besides, we never had a romance verified by our families, our friends, or a social media site. We had a summer swarm where I straddled him on a stained couch in a red house.
When he was no longer a man, was a body at the center of ring of people, I did not mark his passing with a ritual. Perhaps I should have. In dreams I imaged the body sinking. The body sunk and there was no end to its sinking. The body was a perpetual fall. A dip in temperature. The body is never gone; it is always vanishing, fading in honeysuckle.
I don’t think an unfulfilled dream is a lie. I think it is a ghost, an entity incomparable to a lie because it is categorically distinct. A lie decays under floorboards, bloats in the dark. A ghost dwells in doorways, haunts in possibility. Ghosts don’t tell lies, or truths; they don’t tell. They show, sensuously, one dream, one future, one parallel universe caught on a fishhook. When a dream dies, it becomes a ghost, lingers like the smell of water.
When applied to the subject of relationships, the sunk cost fallacy can be defined as the mistaken belief that a long and demanding romance is worth saving simply because it is long and demanding. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana, played by Harrison Ford, dangles over a deep chasm. With one hand, he holds the slippery palm of his father Henry, played by Sean Connery.
“Give me your other hand.” Sweat pearls Henry’s gray stubble. “I can’t hold on.”
But Indiana can’t stop reaching for the holy grail, the dead, gold cup tipping over the chasm’s far edge.
“I can almost reach it.” They had come all this way, hadn’t they? Braved poison darts, high-speed boat chases, and the algebra of Nazis to achieve their goal, which now lingered just out of reach.
“Indiana,” says Henry, with a gentleness that surprised me, coming as it did from Connery’s chapped lips, “let it go.”
Below Indiana’s eye, a muscle twitches, then relaxes as he accepts the ultimatum: he must save his dream or save himself. Lifting his other hand, he allows himself to be dragged to safety. The grail falls into the chasm.
Like the grail, my dream of a long-lived romance was hard to relinquish. When my on-and-off again relationship ended with a resounding off, I struggled with the sunk cost fallacy: I had come all this way, hadn’t I? Did I not brave everything? Cook raw steak? Buy coffee and flowers? Wear lingerie? Go to therapy? I did this and still—still—could not dispel the misery of two people living fundamentally different stories.
“You are always making some big story,” my ex told me. “You look at a bar full of old drunks and see a grand narrative. Sometimes a shithole’s just a shithole.”
He wasn’t wrong. But something in me told me he wasn’t right, either. We had been discussing the book House of Leaves. “I used to love it like you, get emotional” he continued. “But I was being stupid. A house isn’t all that. It’s not haunted. It’s not your childhood. Look up your parents’ house on Zillow. You’ll see how the world sees it. How I see it.”
Here, my silence would have been wise. Mature. Healthy. But, as with many experiences in my life, my relationship was complicated by my principle failure to let it go. This wasn’t his fault. I could take some caviler cynicism, but not when applied to the subject of my parents’ house, which is, in the end, the subject of family, of class, of childhood, the ever-blooming wound. Had I let him know me better, he would have known better. But by then, as Yates said, our “ceremony of innocence” had drowned. Things fell apart. I needed to be alone.
In therapy, I constructed a self-narrative. The goal was to integrate the parts of my life that suicide, grief, and violence had attempted to annihilate. I drew a timeline of my life and marked with Xs the dates I struggled to accept as part of my story: the year I overdosed at age 19, the year my lover died at 20, the night I was raped at 24. Then, over the Xed out years, I recorded the memories of joy that had occurred at the same time: At 19 I followed a fox through the tall grass in Rossilli Bay. At 20 a man held me in water. At 24 I photographed an international music festival, laughed with friends on the edge of the bayou as fireworks bloomed, exhumed smoke from air. For me, this was not Romanization, but expansion: why shouldn’t a shithole also contain a jukebox, one person singing in the dark? Why shouldn’t a “damaged” woman be capable of love?
In the end, I needed someone to expand with me towards a common dream, or else I’d fall after the grail into the chasm. And once I fell, I wouldn’t stop falling. What my ex interpreted as disingenuous, I interpreted as sincerity. We had been having the same argument for years, and like a belief in God or one’s perception of the color blue, the way we made meaning of the world and of each other was not going to change to accommodate the relationship.
Though often exhaustive, my narrative disposition is not a plot to avoid the truth ; it is an effort to survive it. In an Interview with The Paris Review, Joan Didion described the art of memoir a way of moving past “the blank terror.” Narrative is not my fantasy. It is my structure, the hand pulling me out of the chasm.
After the relationship ended, my friend asked me what had kept me going back all those years.
All I could say was, “it was familiar.”
The word nostalgia comes from the Greek “nostos ”, a return to the wound. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, ” writes Fitzgerald in his famous gilded novel. Similarly, Springsteen’s river character returns to the water despite its absence : I go down to the river, though I know the river is dry. I always hoped the dream I envisioned with my ex would resurrect , spring out from the dusty earth, and carry us away. If I had tried harder, sacrificed—perhaps a fairer word is “compromised”— my story for his, perhaps it would have.
But, “maturity, ” Danielewski writes in House of Leaves, “has everything to do with the acceptance of not knowing.”
J dedicated her life to accepting mystery. She is a retired nun; that is, she is a woman who swore a vow, then wrote the pope for permission to break it. Her life is a master class in endings. Beginnings, too. Her endings and beginnings comprise one river, a tributary artery. The sunk cost fallacy is fallacy because money metaphors can’t describe human life. Years spent in devotion to a relationship are not wasted because the relationship ends. Love isn’t money, but a kind of water; even after it evaporates, it’s still up in the air, transforming.
Every Easter, J sends a letter. Most recently, she wrote a timeline outlining her shape-shifting interpretation of the phrase “Good Friday.” She begins in 1957:
“I think of a picture of a pure white horse named Good Friday jumping through a ring of fire.” J types her letters in Lucida handwriting, a signature font of her 2002 Desktop. “No matter how many times I saw that picture of a horse and rider in a ring of fire, it would never cease to amaze me.” Good Friday was ridden by Jimmy Rainwater, who owned Clearbrook Stables where J , age 11, rode her first horse.
I observed in J’s letter a sense of Object Permanence, the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen. A term coined by developmental psychologist Jean Pieget, it describes the stage, usually between six and ten months, when a baby discerns absence from abandonment. At this point, peek-a-boo ceases to be a game of thrilling devastation. The baby learns trust, what some people call faith.
Outside of photographs, J didn’t see the white horse and the ring of fire. She didn’t see God or the future, either. But she trusted that these things existed and could be experienced. In a way, the story of Christ is the ultimate allegory of object permanence: The god body leaves, the god body returns. Peek-a-boo.
The god body is a common subject of Renaissance art. In Matthius Grünewald’s The Crucifixion, the head of Jesus slumps against his chest (this is how crucifixion kills, the body choked on its own weight). Blood startles his thin, asphyxiated skin. One nail pins both feet. Flesh swells against splinters. His hands, like rooster claws, grasp at a black sky.
In The Crucifixion, one gets the impression that, by telling the story of violence to the body, Grünewald hoped to render the god more real. Perhaps this is why Biblical art shows this scene more than any other, the protruding ribs, the bulbous joints, the weeping scalp, the image like a challenge to the god: Try coming back from this, fucker.
“Dying is an art,” writes Plath in “Lady Lazarus”, “I do it so it feels real.” But death is not the only common human experience. When I marked my timeline with Xs, my bitter endings, I found it necessary to expand the narrative into the air of my joy. If I hadn’t, my spirit, as in crucifixion, would have suffocated on its own weight. “Tenderness at times must be written in,” attests Katie Ford in “A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus.” Peek-a-boo. My thrawn life rises like an abrupt face.
Of the three Xs marked on my timeline—overdose, grief, rape—rape was the singular annihilation. I could, and did, come back from the wet, putty world of pain killers. The hospital wormed tubes through my mouth and nose. I went to an in-patient program with fluorescent lights, recited mantras for gratefulness, and messily grew past my desire to fade away.
I could, and did, come back after the death of a lover. Death, it turns out, happens to everyone. It happens to men and to women, the beautiful and the ugly, the rich and the poor, the sick and the well, the presidents and the prisoners. Death is never apolitical, but because death happens to the privileged, there exists a socially acceptable protocol. Often, we are given a day off for a funeral—provided we supply paperwork.
We cannot take a day off after rape. Usually, there is no paperwork. If there is, it sits in a box unread, where it is forgotten by detectives, doctors, and police officers. The experience becomes an unmarked fossil in the basement of a museum of X, a cross on the collective timeline.
I struggled coming back after rape. It was the ever-opening door to oblivion, Hugo’s “ triggering town”, the scarlet letter I never deserved, yet felt I deserved, deeply, on the level of a parasite, a rippling vein under skin. I couldn’t concentrate. Each day, I was startled by social media pings: Brock Turner. Harvey Weinstein. Brett Kavanaugh. Then, there were pings from my own communities, an oceanic sputter of names I wished to forget so—just once—I could remember those who survived them. In America, to heal from sexual trauma is to endure a storm in a canoe, only, the canoe has a hole, and the only way to patch the hole is with your skin, which you must scrape off with a sprig of splintered canoe. From this struggle, only God can save you, also, he doesn’t exist.
“The river is everywhere,” writes Hesse.
Ghosts present a problem for object permanence. They come back , but not in their bodies. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse? Enter Springsteen’s river echo, the unfulfilled dream, the verb haunt. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was accompanied by an album named Haunted written by the author’s sister, Anne Decatur Danielewski. The siblings were inspired by the discovery of a box of audio recordings left after the death of their father, the film director Tad Danielewski. So loss constructs a labyrinth, hides a ghost—one version of love—like a minotaur at the center. Remembering how my ex and I argued about House of Leaves, I understand we perceived the book differently: him as a pretentious narrative, I as a monument to grief.
To be a writer is to make peace with the fact that people will misunderstand you. But who’s to say, in the context of that relationship, if we’re misunderstood or speaking different languages? Perhaps we speak with some readers fluently, while others shrug at our gibberish. A universal audience is never possible. One person’s grief is another’s pretentious dad narrative.
This is mine:
The summer of 1998 releases an oppressive heat. Sweating in the backseat, gnawing on the stem of a grape lollipop, I learn the meaning of absence. My dad is leaving for one of his frequent, 6-month work trips, and my mom is driving us all to the Johnstown station. The city follows the river at the bottom of a valley. Here, vines bust through windows in abandoned houses, plywood Xs shutter store fronts, and the gas station radio plays Faith Hill: I don’t need another turn to cry. Faith Hill. Her name sounds like a joke our youth pastor would tell. The local station can’t get enough of her.
Across the street, a man commands his German Shepherd to sit before tossing him a scrap of venison jerky. The dog lolls his tongue, with wild love looks up at the man, raises a paw to his chest. To outsiders, Johnstown is a post-industrial ghost town. But no ghost is without history. In 1889, a flood destroyed the city. Trees were ripped up and thrust into buildings, trains thrown from tracks. Whole houses caught fire as they collided with bridges. The flood was an unnatural disaster, caused when Lake Conemaugh burst through the South Fork Dam. The structure had been neglected by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, the mountain retreat of Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick, the wealthiest men to torch landscape with industry—as well as the most union-busting, cigar-ashing, bootstrap-cutting shoddyocracies to exploit fortune from labor. While manicuring the lake, the club had lowered the dam by three feet. When a storm hit, it released a wave 40 feet high, and as wide as the Mississippi River.
The Johnstown flood killed 2,209 people, 400 of them children. “The blood of children ran through the streets / simply, like the blood of children,” writes Neruda of another needless death toll in another country. When flood victims tried bringing the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club to justice, the barons dodged accountability. They called the flood “an act of God.”
Johnstown is full of ghosts. Ghosts of children. Ghosts of shuttered industries. Ghosts of ghosts. They built the train station into the side of the mountain. To get to the platform, we must first walk through an underground tunnel. “Hurry.” Dad quickens his step. Under the mountain, sound carries. Echoes bounce from the low ceiling, and the air smells of water. Ascending the stairs at the end of the tunnel, we follow dad up to the light.
Dad was a fast walker, which I then interpreted as an eagerness to leave, but now understand as a fettered anxiety about missing the train to his job, what he used to pay for our yellow house, our spaghetti dinners, and our thrift store denim. On the platform, violets sprouted from cigarette-stuffed cracks in concrete. Beyond the tracks, the metal roof of an abandoned factory turned a flaming mirror to the sunrise.
For those who struggle with object permanence, I suggest saying goodbye to those you love on a train. In airports, we can’t walk our loved ones to the gate, observe them as they leave. When we watch them board a train, we see them enter the metallic doorway. The conductor assists with their baggage. The process seems concrete, the objects heavy and rectangular. Often, we watch as a window seat is selected, a coat shed, a hand raised in parting. We watch their face turn as the train pulls away, it’s length diminishing cart by cart around the mountain. We keep watching the people we love, never really sure if they’ll come back.
Clare Welsh is a poet and photographer based in Pittsburgh. Her poems have been nominated for Best New Poets and Pushcart anthologies
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.