WHERE IS THE WORD FOR WHAT I WANT
By Kara McMullen
I was right in the middle of turning around and around, left and then left again, spinning in rapid circles with my chin on my shoulder, trying to look at my butt, when I was interrupted by Shane. If it was anyone else I would die being caught looking so undignified and like such a dog, but with Shane I didn’t care at all. Like, checking out his own butt is the most normal thing he’s ever done. The mirror had shattered earlier so I was relying on other cues to tell me how I looked from behind, like the cues my eyes got from that weird angle but also from the movement of the air in the room and the shape my body made arcing through it. I was currently clad in my most tight fitting dress, a design that started as a Herve Leger but then was ripped off a million times and when it got to me it was Target (I only knew about the Herve Leger part because Juanita reads Vogue all the time and so she knows stuff like that, easy, she can rattle off a thousand facts about Alexander Wang), and I had to know that everything looked okay back there. I thought it did but I couldn’t be sure, so I asked Shane. “Shane, does everything look OK back there?”
Issue #121 soundtrack: Magnetic Poetry "Be Like Wind"
I’d recently lost a bunch of weight, like two or three hundred pounds. By "OK" I mostly meant, “Have I unwittingly lived through a period of time that I have no memory of where I put all the weight back on?” I’d gone to Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults last year, and most of the knowledge they’d imparted had stuck. Stuff about losing weight and what is portion control and how to motivate yourself to exercise and learning to avoid ranch dressing because it can’t fill the gaps that are inside of you. But there’s an unfortunate side effect of Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults: you have two versions of yourself with you wherever you go. The smaller version of you that everyone now sees is encased in a larger husk that you’re positive is just waiting for you to eat a barrel of cheese puffs in order to appear and be the real you.
“Looks alright to me,” Shane said.
“What do you mean alright? If I wasn’t me, would you check me out?”
“Gross. You’re my sister.”
“Whatever, Shane, you’re the grossest person that’s ever lived in Alaska. Just tell me if I can show my face and my butt outside and I’m out of here.”
“Yeah, you look fine. Tell Juanita I said hi. Dance your pants off.” I took the smallest bit of information from that sentence that was helpful, fine, and left the rest alone. Only Shane would be boogery enough to say something like that and mean it–and he earnestly, truly meant “Dance your pants off.” That’s just the kind of person he is. There was also no way I was telling Juanita hi from him. He can tell her hi himself if he ever gets it up enough to talk to her again. He had sex with her at a party at her house and then walked out of there the next morning, leaving without a word to get coffee and not bringing her back any either. He knows she likes Frappucinos.
I had to bundle up to leave the house because it was December and it was as cold as a dermatologist’s soul outside. Specifically, the dermatologist I’d seen two years ago, who had been no help whatsoever and who had had a condescending attitude that I did not appreciate. It was in the days before Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults, and I did not know how to speak my truth yet. If I ever see him again I will give him this look, and he’ll know this look means that I am speaking the truth in my soul. My truth will silently be saying “You missed your chance to cure my adult acne. You should regret this like you regret nothing else in your life, not even your wasted youth.”
I covered up my cute bandage dress, encasing myself in a shapeless puffy black jacket, black rain boots that would look totally basic except they have these awesome laces that just make you look at me twice even though I’m only wearing rain boots, and a black beanie. Juanita calls my new style “former fat hot goth in Hermione Granger’s body.” I guess the Hermione Granger part is mostly because Juanita is obsessed with Harry Potter, still, even though we’re 31 and she should be over that phase, like years over it by now, and partly because on top of my head is not normal hair, but hair that is so bushy and angry that it resembles a small but powerful separate entity. It’s even bigger in the winter, when in Anchorage we have this freezing humidity that feels like you’re inside the coldest steam room on earth, the steam room in the locker room of the gym in the place that’s the opposite of hell.
“Don’t wait up!” I hollered this as I slammed the door behind me. Not that Shane would ever spend his precious time worrying about me– he had better things to do, like watch porn and smoke grass– but I couldn’t help myself. Shane and I have lived together our whole lives, minus the year at the very beginning when he existed and I didn’t, minus the two years when I lived in Idaho at our aunt Brenda’s house to go to community college, and minus the three months I was at Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults. We’re pretty used to each other by now. I pretend that I don’t notice how he never does anything with his life apart from going back and forth between home and the auto parts store where he works part time, and he pretends he doesn’t notice my anger management problems. I’m working on those, although I’d forgotten all about my mindfulness and deep breathing exercises a few hours earlier and punched out the mirror. Mostly I’m doing okay.
I trundled off towards Juanita’s house. You have to drive everywhere in Anchorage, especially in the winter, but Juanita has lived three houses down and one over for as long as I can remember. In middle school we didn’t talk to each other for a year because I was best friends with Stacy and busy playing the clarinet, and she was best friends with Lori and busy making out on the baseball diamond. But aside from that we’ve shared everything important in our lives. We’re just about the most constant thing each other has; we’ve held hands at funerals and coordinated costumes on Halloween and gossiped about a lot of boys. Or men, I should say now. I am working on embracing the fact that I am a grown woman, and, as such, I am romantically interested in adult men. I learned about using a different vocabulary and how that has the power to revitalize my life at Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults.
Things have, of course, been a little different since the runt arrived. We have less time to talk about fashion, which is Juanita’s main interest, or figuring out what my main interest should be, which is my main interest. The runt is Juanita’s kid with some guy named Brian, who is sort of still around but even Juanita isn’t sure if they’re dating anymore. They do have sex and he does buy her presents, but he is also a jerk and this Christmas the present was a bag of peanut M&M’s, unwrapped. Juanita’s allergic to peanuts. She’s one of those people that will absolutely and totally die if she’s like even five feet away from a nut or something. We’re still not sure if he was trying to snuff her out or if it was a bad joke or if Brian just went all lights off for five minutes and forgot a very important detail about the woman he has a child with. Also, I don’t let on to Juanita that I call her precious baby Silas “the runt.” She’d be hurt, and more to the point for me, she’d be pissed, and then we’d have to have a big fight scene and then cry and then hug, distantly at first as though we had that balloon between us, and then more tenderly, our belly buttons touching and our tears mingling. Then we would make up. I just don’t have the energy for that kind of showdown over the runt, so I coo those two stupid syllables, “Si” and “las,” at him whenever I see him. Which is much more often than I’d like if I was in charge.
If I was in charge I would see Silas once a year, on his birthday for example, and I would pass on all the things I’ve learned about being a human in the world. Then, years would go by and he would walk past a small old lady on the street, an old lady you feel for in your heart immediately, but also you’re afraid of her, and her nail polish is immaculate and of an indeterminate mauve-y red color, and you’re pretty sure she understands things about the universe, things that even one of those famous televised astronomers doesn’t know. Silas would experience the smallest flicker of recognition, a tiny ping like he had a new unread email in his brain, and then he would all of a sudden remember who I was and how I’d changed his life one day a year on his birthday. He would chase after me, yelling “Amber! Amber, is that you?” And I would turn back, my gray hair in an elegant old lady bob swinging and my eyes aglow, and I would whisper, delicately yet also forcefully, “It’s me” into the air and disappear into the nearest donut shop. He would never see me again.
When I get to her door I don’t even knock or anything; I just walk in like I own the place. I helped Juanita pay for rent one time three years ago, so I figure I deserve it.
"Hey, girl, I’m here!” I yell this loudly to compete with the other yelling going on in the house. Technically Juanita lives alone ever since her parents retired-- to Florida, which is so ridiculous if you’ve lived in Alaska your whole life, but ridiculous in a way that makes a lot of sense because then you don’t have to deal with dark cold winters anymore-- but there’s always someone visiting. That’s one of the reasons I like coming over here; with just me and Shane at home it can get too quiet sometimes. Most of the time when it’s too quiet I put on David Bowie or Fleetwood Mac or America, something old and wise and loud, and make myself feel better by thinking about all the things that have gone right for me. It’s a pretty long list when I think about it: burritos, plus I’ve made it to the age 31 without a single STD-- well, OK, actually, I do have one, HPV, but everyone in the world has that so I don’t even count it-- and when you space out through a window and look out at the sky, you can just imagine the whole entire world and all the people doing things everywhere where there are people to do anything. Seeing all those people living their lives like that, that’s a thing that counts as something going right.
Today when it was quiet I just sat there like a sad lump, and I felt sad for myself for being sad, and sadder for myself for sitting there like a lump. But I just kept doing it. I sat there for hours. That’s why I needed to get out and just dance. Usually I’m not one of those people who needs to just dance, but today, after being that close to the dark hole that is the chaos underpinning everything you see, even the exposed filament light bulbs that are aesthetically attractive and at all cool restaurants, even here in Anchorage, I’d become one. If I’d learned anything from Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults, it was to avoid the black holes of life.
Juanita looked down from the second story over the bannister, not ready to dance at all. She was wearing the fluffy pink bathrobe I’d seen her in a million times. I’d grown so used to it that I didn’t even notice how worn out and non-fluffy it was anymore. She loved that thing, like, loved it and I don’t think it ever occurred to her to replace it. It was sort of her adult security blanket, which for me used to be cheese puffs. More recently, since last year, it’s my cat Gilbert. Like today, when I was sitting around like a lump for hours? Gilbert was on my lap the whole entire time, a cat baby with shining green eyes. Once, when I was getting too depressing even for me, I perched Gilbert on my shoulder and walked around the house aimlessly. He looked around interestedly and purred as if to say, “Where are we going and how do we know when we get there?” I made a low throaty sound back at him as if to say, “Even I don’t know the answer to every question.”
Last time I’d seen Juanita’s pink bathrobe was when we’d recovered from the stomach flu together three weeks ago. Once our bodies had stopped rejecting any idea we sent their way, subtle or otherwise, we’d toured the city in the manner of hungry people recovering from great illnesses. We ate anything we could get our hands on. At Wendy’s I’d come up with my favorite band name yet, FRSTY, no vowel, to capitalize on the no-vowels-in-band-names trend, which is mainstream enough to not be too intimidating, but interesting enough to get people talking about. When I went home and told Shane, he was not impressed, but I think he was just trying to avoid the fact that I’m better at this than he is. We have an ongoing thing about trying out band names on each other, which feels less important now that Shane isn’t doing so much music anymore. I can’t get out of the habit, though.
“What are you doing not dressed yet?” I said.
“I can’t figure out what to wear,” Juanita said.
“You? You always know exactly what to wear.” It was one of the things I was jealous of her for.
“Yeah, but all my clothes are starting to look ridiculous on me. Like, I can’t get one good selfie.” That maybe would have sounded vapid coming from anyone else, but from Juanita it was real and it meant something. It meant she was feeling some seriously strong negative self-image emotions right now.
She looked at me critically, noticing my outfit for the first time. “Look at you. You look hot right now. No one would deny it. But you got that dress at Target. Target! We’re thirty! When are we going to move on to pearls and trench coats?”
“Do we even want pearls and trench coats?” If this was a big cultural marker, a milestone on the road to being the person I was trying to figure out how to be, I’d missed it.
“No. No! But do we want to want them?”
I couldn’t handle another emotional breakdown today. I’d already had my own, Gilbert wasn’t here, and besides, I heard the runt making noise somewhere in the house. That sound always put my teeth on edge. Was he starting to get fussy? If he was starting to get fussy, I’d have to reevaluate things real quick. I picked at my new tattoo on my wrist– “luminous being” in script. I almost got a #, which I thought was so meta–like, I’m the thing I’m hashtagging. But then I realized I may not remember what hashtags are when I’m 80 and decided to play it safe. Then again, maybe when I’m 80 I won’t even know what a tattoo is and none of this stuff that I worry about so much will even matter-- like that woman who I read about on the internet that started a really successful company when she was younger than I am now, and why aren’t I an executive or something and living in a very fancy but understated and minimal apartment in New York or London, and why do I always fall for the “today on the blog” bait and waste 20 minutes of my life learning how to reupholster a lawn chair, and why don’t I have a husband or even a boyfriend, and why didn’t that person on Twitter like my retweet of their tweet?-- and maybe I’ll be free.
It’s bad to pick at new tattoos so to channel my anxiety I picked up a nearby candle and examined it, really looked at it, like I’d learn so much invaluable information from it. The label on the bottom read: Keep away from children and pets. Keep away from other open flames. Supervise burning at all times. Keep free from debris. Only burn with adult supervision. Jar is hot! Although helpful, this did not provide enough information for me to know how to move forward given my context. I wished there were more helpful words, like first: Determine correct life path by consulting the occult forces. Invest in a Roth IRA. Move up in a company until retirement, which will be filled with days of painting watercolor landscapes and which will occur after extreme career fulfillment. Botox twice a year every year after the age of 37. Marry attractive man and together have two dogs and a cat and perhaps a child. Life is hot!
There it was, it was that simple, and that candle had shown me the way. I decided what we needed to do. “Juanita, we’re not going dancing anymore. We’re going to a psychic.”
Juanita looked at me blankly. But then a change came over her face, and it was like watching someone eating a delicious and important food item, like pizza or something, for the very first time. Her eyes were saying “yes,” and then her mouth said, “Yes!”
I’d done it. In a flash, I’d made a decision that would affect my entire life for the better. I didn’t know what to do, how to make a living, how to overcome my rage and live peacefully with myself? A psychic would solve all these problems by telling me about my life, hugging me, wrapping me with pillows, and then releasing me onto the soft but supportive mattress of my future.
“You know Kim, Kim from work who you met at Thanksgiving?” Huh? Juanita wanted an answer. I’d progressed into the fantasy of my future, which definitely involved plenty of champagne in dimly-lit restaurants and a satisfying and stimulating social life, with people who aren’t famous famous, but who are better than famous because they could become so at any instant and I had known them before. It maybe also involved some sort of tribulation, just so I wouldn’t get a big head, and I’d definitely be successful enough that I somehow changed the world, but not so successful that I didn’t remember the little people. I hadn’t been listening to Juanita very well.
“Oh, yeah. Why?”
“What’s up with you? I was saying, she just went to a psychic and really liked the chick. I’ll text her to find out who it was.”
“Cool. Yeah, that’d be great.” I was disoriented, stuck in my thoughts like my brain was the sticky material and I was the fly. I needed to clear my head.
I walked through the living room into the kitchen, which had those gross but environmentally important LED bulbs in a big panel of light overhead. Combined with the flickering they were doing, the effect was institutional. I reached into the fridge to grab a Diet Coke, glancing at the calendar that was filled with playdates and preschool for Silas. It was some free thing that Juanita had gotten in the mail, and the photo for December was of a baby elephant. The picture was really zoomed in on the little guy–you could tell that he was surrounded by lots of other bigger elephants because it was like he was standing in a forest of gray wrinkly trees, but there were no other elephant faces in the picture at all.
He was looking straight into the camera. I stared into his wizened new face and into his dark brown eyeball. He was so alive and so present, and he somehow held the knowledge of a thousand heartbreaks and a million joys in that baby brain. I couldn’t look away–it was like I was grasping at something that existed past everything I could see–past the Diet Coke and the depressing light and past the linoleum countertops and past the house and past Anchorage. Past all of the material to the immaterial, to the place where that little elephant and I lived together in perfect harmony, us and every other soul, no more distinctions between you and me. This is what Revitalize Your Life Camp for Adults was trying to teach me and never had, really. They should have just showed us all a giant picture of a baby elephant, making sure that you could see his eyeball, and had us sit there and stare at it, day after day, until we were broken and stitched up again into something less perfect but more whole.
I didn’t really care about the psychic anymore, but I didn’t tell Juanita that. I’d found the psychic inside me who knew that things are hard but the future would be perfect. I could go somewhere else, to someone else, with a neon sign of maybe a hand holding a rose, and it would be something that Juanita and I would do together and it would be a good story, but she'd just tell me what I already know. She’d look at my hand or at her crystal ball or at her tarot cards and tell me that I’m already perfect and soon I will be famous for this perfection. I felt the rage receding from all the corners of me, and knew that I’d never again punch a mirror or get suspended from work for screaming at a customer or placate myself with simple, shallow, ineffective solutions for my anger problems. Maybe I would tell Silas wise things more than once a year. Maybe I would tell Shane that he should start playing music again, and maybe I would paint again, and in the manner of the American Revolution, it happened for a reason, we would remember these dim times when we struggled. We would look back fondly at our fragile and delicate selves who didn’t know what to do each day, every day, and we would give ourselves hugs from a distance and from the future.
Kara McMullen is currently looking at tarot cards and procrastinating in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in the Ohio Edit and the Harpoon Review. For more, visit her online at karamcmullen.com.
Marly Gallardo is an Ecuadorian artist based in New York. She enjoys tackling creative challenges through conceptually driven imagery and a flavorful color palette. For more, visit marlygallardo.com and follow her on Twitter.
Magnetic Poetry are a Moscow-based husband and wife duo whose work previously appeared in Storychord Issue #108. They make synthy bedroom pop music with an 80's glow. Check out their self-titled debut album on Bandcamp. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.