What Could Happen to Them/ What Has Happened
by Claire Fallon
Runestone, volume 4
JACKIE / MICHIGAN/ OUR CHILDREN / OUR FOOD
She is a disciplined woman. She fills her notebooks before buying new ones and does not leave for the store without a list. She knows how to wear her hair up without a ponytail holder––standing before the mirror, she works a pile of dark, coarse curls into a knot and pushes a wooden hair pin through their center. She can make a roux without a recipe and taught me to add coffee into chocolate cake so that it would taste richer. In her kitchen in Grand Rapids, we made salad and peanut noodles while the sun’s golden curtain pulled itself across the room. My bare legs slid on a film of sweat against the plastic white bar chairs as I spread olive oil into the kale, mixed it with my bare hands in the bowl to “warm it up,” as she said.
“It doesn’t always start with men deciding that they’re not going to help around the house. It happens when they don’t get asked to clean up after Thanksgiving dinner, and when they still bring their laundry home to their moms even after they’re done with college.” She whisked vinegar and mustard into our dressing as she spoke. “They get into a habit of not knowing how to do things for themselves. Like, I’ve been teaching Joe to cook and there are so many simple things that you think just come to people naturally but they don’t, because until now he never thought he’d need to know how.” Joe, a close friend of hers, has surfaced in many of our discussions over the past few years. When I met him for the first time Jackie and I made pasta with homemade tomato sauce and a toasted garlic baguette, and we ate sitting on her living room floor, cross-legged and flushed in the leaden heat of Michigan July without air conditioning. At the time, she and Joe were seeing each other. He left the room to find a bottle opener and she grabbed my forearm urgently, leaning her face in close to mine.
“Do you like him? Be honest, you can tell me if you don’t. But do you like him?”
“He’s really cool,” I said. “I like him a lot.” She beamed in the glow of my approval; she knew how significant it was coming from me, notorious critic of boyfriends. And I did like him, for the slow warmth of a smile blooming on his face as he listened to her mess up the punch line of a joke, the earnestness of his questions when he asked her for her opinions. On my most recent visit to her, we helped him move into a new apartment and she and I gathered his things from the basement bedroom. As we carried boxes of Christmas lights and video games up the stairs, she paused to point to the third step up.
“We fucked there once.” My eyebrows shot up.
“Right on the stairs? Wasn’t that, like, uncomfortable?” She shook her head and smirked.
“No.” At the time of the move, though, they weren’t seeing each other. In her kitchen with the kale and vinegar it was just two women and the confusion we’d been left with; the paper cuts of being forced to compensate for the pits of lack men had left in our worlds formed into a larger, howling wound. I nodded my assent to her assessment, remembering my own mother’s fingertips puckered by their evenings spent submerged in sink water, scraping the fat out of baking pans.
“If I have a son he’s going to learn that shit early,” I said. For the five years before we’d set foot in this kitchen, when she still lived in Illinois, I’d seen the damage done to Jackie that formed into the dull resentment pulsing from her now. Bits of stale breadcrumbs and dust gathered on the soles of my feet and darkened them when I took my shoes off at her house. I watched her little brother and sister knock cups full of orange juice, plates of sliced hot dogs and macaroni and cheese into the floor as their father––her stepfather––eyed them without interest from the tattered blue recliner in the living room. The kitchen table was perpetually strewn with plates from half-eaten breakfast and cups gathering film over their evaporating water. Her mother always thanked me for scraping my scraps into the trash and setting my dishes into the sink, then kissed me goodnight before Jackie and I went upstairs to her room. This stepfather raised his voice just so he could hear the sound of it, to press his hand to the walls and feel its echo shake the house, perpetually threatening its collapse.
If I have a son, I will also tell him about the force of two women who love one another. Jackie and I took our food out to the porch with the paint peeling off in strips. We sat down in the cobwebbed lawn chairs with our bowls balanced on our chests, propped our feet up on the railing, and watched the world. I don’t know what we talked about. It could have been the new poets I’d been waiting to tell her about, the concert we had gone to a couple nights ago, or our wish that our mothers would divorce their husbands and move closer to us. Whatever the subject, I can say this: if I unroll the map of my heart, its raised mountain ranges are composed of the tall trees on either side of the porch and its oceans are the push and pull of the cicada buzz that vibrated beneath our speech.
JACKIE/ MOTHER/ ILLINOIS/ DEATH DANCE
Before I ever went to see her in Michigan, Jackie and I also had our winters together. Within hours of falling, the snow in our Chicago suburb bloated with soot and leaked oil. I spent the winter break of my last year in high school cursing at my mother for no reason and gaining Zoloft weight. Jackie, two years older than me, was home from school and I was imagining reasons to be angry with her: she didn’t see my text message in time to go to the movie I wanted to see, she was sleeping in too late like she always did, she knew that I was in an insufferable state and couldn’t stand to be around me. So I wandered through my house, tugging at the loose threads on my clothing and stacking books on my nightstand as if that was the equivalent of reading them. I refused my mother’s requests to join the family for dinner and took my plates to my room, dropping food into the sheets and brushing the debris to the floor as I wrote bad poems and sent them to boys that I didn’t care about.
I was obsessed with dying. Not in the sitting-in-a-friend’s-garage-smoking-weed way, but in the way that I lay immobilized at four in the morning, feeling nervous dampness gather on my palms as I wondered if I would somehow be able to feel it when I was being buried. On a train to downtown Chicago, I sat with my family who chatted happily about the Christmas lights we were going to see, saw the lines of the face of an old man beside us, and remembered that I would die. I sat in a movie theater beside my mother, hand poised over a bucket of popcorn, and felt myself slipping into icy waters as it occurred to me that an actor whose image we saw dancing and smiling on screen had died, though he appeared right before us in full lifeness. I was tired, scared, and taking it out on the women closest to me for no good reason.
So insignificant it must have been that I cannot remember the argument with my mother that was the tipping point of whatever it was we had been balancing on a ledge. We were in her bedroom and the image of it in my mind is one of photographic stillness; when I think of this moment now, I see her with a wild hand pointed into an arrow aimed straight for me. Puncturing each word with a jab of her finger toward my chest, what she said tattooed over everything else she had spoken that was loving and meant so much more: “You have done irreparable damage to our relationship.” When I think of her saying this now, in how dramatic it was it sounds almost comical to me. And then I remember how quickly I allowed it into my heart, how it lingers there still. I returned fire. Without any intention of doing so, I shrieked at her that I would commit suicide––a threat that had hardened into frequent ammunition against her. The shame of it cratered me.
I fled to my room and she followed on my heels. My cell phone was in my hand with Jackie’s number dialed, but before I could call my mother caught hold of me and the force of it hurled us both down on my bed––unmade and finely dusted with those crumbs of dinner I’d insisted upon eating alone. She clawed for the phone and nicked a crescent of skin from the top of my hand; a little white moon still shines there when I look at it now. I shoved her hard against her sternum, hard enough to bruise. The sound of the memory wails to me is like T.V. snow, distortion and senseless noise. She wrestled the phone away from me so again I ran from her back into the bedroom, punching in Jackie’s number again before she could reach me. She answered.
“You have to come get me,” I sputtered, crying pitifully in the way someone does when she knows she is wrong. “I can’t be here. I can’t be with my mom. I can’t be with her.” In the background, her brother and sister yelled for her attention. “I told her I wanted to kill myself and she cut my hand.” Jackie, my voice of cool, diamond reason, did not oblige.
“If I thought you weren’t safe there, I would get you in a heartbeat. You know I would. But I think you need to work it out with her.” Dumbfounded, I stood there with snot running into my mouth while my mother hovered, arms crossed and rigid, knowing that my scheme was failing. Whatever happened after I hung up, finally, has escaped me in the four years that have passed. I sat on the floor of my mother’s shower and used up all the hot water, and at some point in the days following she wrote me a letter that I still have in my bedroom at home and am unable to read again. I did not apologize to Jackie, and my hope that she would show up in my driveway that night to drive us to Denny’s for fries and a fudge sundae went unfulfilled. Now, she reminds me periodically that pain is nothing to regret, that I was a teenager like any other. When I moved to Minneapolis for school she would tell me every couple months how proud of me she was, how much she’d seen me grow. I thanked her each time, but wasn’t convinced that much had changed.
I imagined her in her room in Michigan, with the milk crate nightstand and the colorful glass bottles lined on her windowsill. I wondered if she sat down on the edge of her mattress with a towel wrapped around her after showering. Perhaps she too stared at her own hands, the smooth and narrow fingernails with chipping glitter polish, trying to picture how it would look when their skin decayed until they were only cold, white bone. Then she would lay on her back, stare at the faint brown watermarks on her ceiling, and fear for the deaths of her friends, the ragged, keening hole it would bore through her, how the entire world would curl up like a sheet of paper engulfed in flame. Or maybe that was just me.
CADAVER LAB WITH SERIOUS IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE
They rose from their baths of alcohol stretched across metal slabs; I was eighteen years old, they were unknown. We gathered around one of the men. His face remained covered with a white cloth, so instead our eyes wandered to his hands, the second signals of personhood. His fingers were puckered pale raisins, like my mother’s after an hour of peeling the shells off boiled eggs. The pathologist who spoke to us joked and I felt the need to shush him; they can hear you, I wanted to say. In a circle around the body, my classmates shuddered with skittish laughter.
The pathologist lifted a lung from the yawning mouth of the chest cavity and passed it to the closest student. Surely he spoke as we examined it––a broad heavy thing that weighed in my palms like a plum freshly plucked from the fridge drawer––but what I recall is the solemn passing of the man’s organ from blue-gloved hand to hand, total silence and awe upon contact with tissue that held the full reflection of our own faces in its moonish taupe surface. Eventually the lung was restored to its place in the body. We turned our backs on the room and boarded our school bus in the bleak white brilliance of March sunlight. In his sour liquid sleep, the man said nothing, breathed nothing, and wandered through the dreams of the daughter I imagined he had.
NEW FRIENDS / MINNESOTA / DEATH DANCE, WORSENING
If Illinois was gray, then Minnesota was blue. The first months of my life there were spent learning how to take up the empty space that I felt in Minneapolis. I caved inward and lay on the floor of my dormitory in the evenings, picking hairs from the unvacuumed carpet off my legs as they stuck to my bare skin. It was the first time that for weeks on end the only context I saw my parents in was their images in the photographs taped lopsidedly beneath my lofted bed. At one moment, fear of their deaths suddenly overtook the dread of mine. The world lost its spin for a while. Somehow, I found Hannah in the midst of this. She saw my pink in a sea of brunette, black, and blonde at a freshman orientation and decided I was the girl she’d talk to: “I like your hair. Can we sit together?” She was willowy and graceful––a dancer, I’d find out soon––and spoke excitedly about moving from a small town in Wisconsin to a big city. It was unbearably hot that day; the air ballooned with humidity and she pulled her sandy brown hair back from her face and fanned herself with an orientation packet held in her long, nimble fingers. We were herded into an auditorium of vertiginous height and depth to be subjected to an hour of speeches about our university and out-of-sync marching band performances. Hannah nudged me when a trumpet went sharp and we shook with silent laughter.
We spent nearly every night together along with the friends we made in the first week, some of whom dissolved away from the group without notice as the semester pressed on. We scheduled our days around shared meals in the dining hall and study sessions in the lounge on my floor. Hannah was studying psychology and had a sensibility about her that was familiarly and comfortingly like Jackie’s. On weekends she would announce that she needed to “tidy up her room” and she stayed an extra few minutes in the dorm laundry room to fold her clean clothes. As we came to know each other better, though, I she opened to reveal a vibrant brilliance beneath that practicality.
On a recent night, I arrived to a crowded theater to watch her final performance as president of a dance group that she joined when we were freshmen. I scanned the program for her name, which appeared an impressive amount of times as both a choreographer and a dancer. I wanted to turn to the stranger next to me and point to each appearance, tell him that I knew her. The lights dimmed and Karolina, the friend beside me, bumped me gently with her elbow and offered me an encouraging smile. I was crying.
Hannah towered above the other dancers on stage. Drenched in green light, during one of the numbers she contorted herself into angles I didn’t know the body could make. She lunged and spun in tight circles, held her face in a severe grimace as she and the women around her performed with an urgency that I had felt for my most of my life, one that I now saw written across their movements with a chaotic beauty that stopped my breath in my throat. Karolina and I whistled and cheered as they made their exit, and the brief darkness before the lights went up for the next song gave me a moment to look inward. As I balanced the bouquet of pink lilies and carnations we’d gotten for Hannah on my lap, I knew what it meant to be proud of another person without thinking of my own failures. When she came into the lobby after the show, Hannah embraced Karolina and me fiercely. “My best friends,” she said while swiping tears from her cheeks. “You guys are my best friends.”
In between the joy and the pride, though, something else still lingered. As freshmen, one evening we sat on the floor with Karolina with a glow-in-the-dark Ouija board gifted to me by my uncle, close enough that our knees were touching. We placed our fingertips on the planchette and began. Hannah always asked the first question. “Is there anyone here with us?” Usually, one of our arms would jerk in a nervous spasm and our giggles would cut the tension. That night we kept still and my ears rang in the silence that followed her summons. It felt like the pull of a magnet. Slowly, the planchette dragged across the board to YES. I let out a yelp and stumbled up from my seated position toward the light switch, flipping it on before the two of them could stop me.
“You’re scared already?” Karolina asked.
“Come on!” Hannah said, “We’re just getting started.” Cajoled, I turned the lights back off and allowed them to proceed. I make no claims of truth nor fiction in saying that as we went on, our agreement about what happened was that we contacted a little girl who died in a fire. What I do know is that ever so gently, that evening laid the stones across which Hannah and I would tread into conversations about how the dead linger around us, how we are paralyzed by the thought of sleeping forever, and how perhaps it is not so wrong to hope that those on the other side press against us every now and then. We lived together during our second year of school with Karolina and another friend, and Hannah moved in again with me during the summer before our senior year. We soon developed the nighttime couch routine. I sat on my customary side of the living room and waited for her and her current boyfriend, Nic, to come home from playing Dungeons and Dragons. When they arrived, they sat across from me on the red couch that on occasion smelled inexplicably like cat piss, and we began our interrogations of the world and death and what they implied for us.
Nic and I became quick friends. We met the previous November at a party at Hannah’s apartment, just a week after the two of them started dating. I loved his sincerity; when he asked about my day he was interested in the boring details and the routines of my life that I hadn’t thought were worth sharing. When the three of us played card games with our other friends and I made a good move he would smile brightly “Yes, Claire!” He said. “That was so smart.” I asked him and Hannah once how they would talk about me to other people, and I still often think of Hannah’s immediate response: “incredibly intelligent.” They looked at each other and nodded when she said that, and I’ve since tucked it close to me. When I saw Jackie on visits home I told her how they took me seriously, how Nic was the first man that I admired. Entirely missing from my relationship with him was the silence of men I was accustomed to. On pointless phone calls with my father I rattled off plans for the weekend, new bands I was listening to, books I was reading in my classes. Each statement was met with a dull “okay,” or an noncommittal “huh.” My uncles looked at me from the sides of their eyes, untrusting of a woman with so many strong convictions. Both of my grandfathers were dead. Nic listened when I spoke. He and Hannah understood.
“Don’t you think it’s weird that we’re never really seeing each other?” I said. They met my question with quizzical interest, draped across one another on the couch. I had read something before explaining that our perception mediates our vision of one another, and had let that idea carry me away. “Like, when I look at your guys’ faces I’m not really seeing them. I’m just seeing what I think they look like.” Nic nodded solemnly, his eyes wide blue lakes. Hannah laughed.
“I’m not sure that’s how it works,” she said, but then quieted down. Our half-baked, undergraduate philosophizing, superficial as it was and still is, pulled us back into ourselves and out of the animated mood we usually shared with one another. In the distance, a train horn sounded and echoed off houses and trees. I imagined sleeping squirrels stirring in their rest, turning an ear toward the industrial sound. When I was little, I decided that my face didn’t look like a human face and that this feature was immediately noticeable to everyone who had the misfortune of seeing me. In front of a mirror, it rearranged into the upside-down teardrop of a cartoon alien, the hideous disarray of a demon in a horror movie I turned on while my mother was talking on the phone in the kitchen. As we sat together, I wondered if my mouth looked a little bit off-center to them. Perhaps one eye was further from my nose than the other.
Hannah and I hosted a party at our house during the first semester of senior year. We spent the day cooking and tidying before guests arrived; Nic drove us to the grocery store for supplies and in the afternoon we laid our ingredients across the counter and dug out the bowls and pans. The day was gray and cool and we left the light off in the kitchen as we worked, sidling past one another with the unthinking grace of clock parts. Our skin grew damp with the heat from the stove but for once I didn’t feel like complaining about it; it was just warmth that we had made for ourselves being reflected back at us. Hannah and I bubbled with laughter when Nic started on the deviled eggs, peeling them after they’d been boiled and bragging to us about his special technique that consisted of making a tiny hole at the top and blowing into it until the shell parted from the egg in a big, smooth piece. He exploded shell after shell until the eggs were pulverized and white shards clung to his face. He scowled at us and continued his work while we elbowed each other and looked pointedly at one another after each burst.
It was the performance of a ritual. Hannah and I made the cookie dough together and shared the leftovers from the bowl. I swept the kitchen floor while she dusted the tables and countertops. I washed the dishes while she dried. When for a moment she and Nic took a rest on the couch I blushed at myself for my intensity as over and again I thought I am happy. It was knowing that every preceding moment had gathered and become this one, moments when I stared at my ceiling as a sixteen-year-old aghast at the impossibility of beautiful, shining people smiling at one another in my favorite movies. Moments when I picked at the quick of my nails in high school until pinpoints of blood sprung up as I went silent at lunch, listening to my friends speak and not knowing how to join in or turn their gaze away that I imagined staring at the bit of stomach hanging over my jeans, the swollen acne lining my jaw that was entirely absent from their own faces. Whatever they were, I was always their opposite. But in my kitchen that day, I was the middle of the world, glimmering as Hannah and Nic held me up to a light. I nodded toward the sixteen-year-old-girl I carried inside me, hoping she knew that her time would soon come.
TEXT MESSAGES WITH HANNAH
NOV 28 2017, 6:49 PM
Hannah: Just so you know I didn’t die, I’ll be home soon lol
NOV 28 2017, 6:50 PM
Claire: god you know me so well lmao
Claire: sounds good!!
FRIENDS & EVERYONE ELSE I LOVE/ IMPLICATIONS
The wind lashed along the long wall of First Avenue while we waited to get in one night, stabbing through their coats. Hannah and Nic’s figures were narrow enough that I could pull them into me, circle my arms around their backs and hold onto my own wrists. I became their enclosure. I blush at my own sentimentality, sometimes, when I think that these are the moments I will remember, not the time inside the clubs and bars and movie theaters, but the ones before and after––at a bus stop, in a line, close enough to feel each other breathing.
I see Nic and Hannah, entwining their limbs with one another and brushing past me as if to do so could ever be a minor thing. Over and again I startle from the trance of understanding that I could wake up on the morning of a day when they do not return home to me. To stumble into them, to cling to their bodies is to rehearse. In films the mother of a newly dead child flattens her palm against the glass of an examination room window, sees her daughter covered in the mud and leaves of the drowning river or coagulating with the blood of the car accident that until now always destroyed the body of someone else’s child. I cannot help but feel that glass beneath my own palm as I watch Hannah and Nic breathe clean smile dance cook read think and love me, love me so fully that the only thing more intense would be their departure, their slip out of my hold. I wait for us to be sunk in pools of alcohol. I wait for our lungs to be removed, examined by tremulous children who just now have started to see themselves.
There is something to be said for the moment when the knowledge of those you cannot live without as fallible people in a violent world begins to crystallize. Simultaneously as I bloomed toward Hannah and Nic, toward Jackie and my mother, the idea crept in that I loved them because they could be taken from me. At night, when I waited for Hannah and Nic to arrive, staring at the blank spots on the red couch where they would sit, I shivered with panic, going through my internal checklist of what could have gone wrong. The brakes on Nic’s car weren’t that good, and their car could be collapsed against the back of a semi truck on the highway. When they said they were stopping at a Walgreens for Hannah’s Hot Cheetos––on their way back through the parking lot, a faceless man could have leapt from the bushes and shot them, left them there on the asphalt. They teased me gently when I told them about these fears and for a moment I was calmed by my senselessness, the sheer unlikelihood of it all.
On a sleepless night I unplugged my phone from its charger and scrolled through Facebook. It was two in the morning, and at the top of my news feed there were headlines beginning to surface. I put my glasses on and read them, repeating them out loud to myself when they didn’t seem to register. Fifty-eight concertgoers were slaughtered in Las Vegas on October 1st, 2017.
They were people who had the audacity to be alive and sing and dance and love the way happiness settled over them like their best-fitting shirt. How weak the thread was between them and us. How fragile the difference was between our bodies as warmth and our bodies as targets. I cannot enter a movie theater without first determining which exit I could run to most quickly. I cannot go to a club without wondering if I could tense my muscles hard enough that I could live through being trampled when people begin running after the first shots are fired. Perhaps a young woman tying her shirt across the split-open torso of a friend remarked to herself as she worked: But we were just cutting mangos together in the kitchen. But our arms were just touching each other’s as we sat in the cab on the way here. But we just went to the Thai restaurant last night. But I love you, I love you, I love you.
University of Minnesota
Claire Fallon is a student at the University of Minnesota in her final year of English literature studies. Her poems have appeared in The University of Minnesota’s undergraduate art and literature journal, The Tower (formerly Ivory Tower), and Virginia Commonwealth University’s plain china. After she graduates, she hopes to continue on to graduate school and publish her first collection of poetry. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.