Inside her book
In the place where he would have written a dirty note
I want to taste your pussy on the kitchen table
a dead earwig
Silver scaly back flattened against the clean page
wings sticking to his pen, so all that came out was
I and another I
the want left waiting on the wings
Months later, when he was almost forgotten
she turned the page
there he was
I…I touching her fingers
I…I against her palm
She thought about that time
on his table
in the kitchen
the dog licking her shaking feet
Three days after the latest big fight.
Two days after the latest big fight.
During the latest big fight.
Two days before the latest big fight.
I meet Sonja for dinner. Four years ago, she and her husband of 35 years divorced. She met someone else. She tells me this someone else was her catalyst, her mirror. He saw who she was becoming, who she wanted to be in relation to the world, and they fell in love. Even if they end up apart, she says, she is grateful for this person who encouraged her to wake up to her own future. Sonja says that when she and her husband split and she moved into her apartment, she bought a life jacket that she kept in her closet. At night, when she got really scared, she would pull it out and wear it to keep herself from drowning.
My husband kisses me when he gets home from work. He asks to hold my hand as we walk into the Cabela’s to buy a food dehydrator. He calls me his sweet potato as he unlocks the passenger side door and bends down to kiss me. I’m touched by this moment of tenderness. He talks to me about making sweet potato treats for our dogs with our new food dehydrator, the German Shepard puppies we will get when our dogs grow old and die, how our next car should have tinted windows. Paul Simon is playing on the car stereo, the arc of a love affair; I look out the window. I am afraid that if I look at my husband he will see on my face that I don’t know if our love affair will stretch long enough into the future to encompass a new car. While we make dinner, I think, yes, our marriage will end long before the dogs die. I turn up Etta James and sing loud while I make our omelets. I want to drown out his sighs.
I yell and blame and say that I want out of the marriage; he tells me he hates me and wants a divorce. We decide I should move out. This isn’t the first time separation has come up during an argument. Discussion of it is becoming more frequent, just like the fights. Over diner hash browns and French toast, he tells me he is ready to recommit to our marriage, to support me. We go grocery shopping, and I think about how much I would miss sharing small domestic moments like this with him: planning and cooking meals together, walking with the dogs, watching Mash and drinking beer at the end of the day. More and more, I wonder if I should move out, even if it’s temporary. This knowledge is a smoldering weight in my gut. It feels like a betrayal. Worse than an affair.
I visit Sarah in Tacoma. It is her 40th birthday. We celebrate with tacos and hard cider. I bathe in Sarah’s claw foot tub. She gives me lavender bubble bath and a chocolate covered strawberry. The water is hot and smells like lavender oil. I watch my nipples, dark pink and slick from the heat, float above the mound of bubbles on my chest. I feel soft and sexy and almost content. I slide my head under the water and blow air out of my nose, shake my head slowly back and forth and wonder if anyone will ever again see my body the way I see it now, in this claw foot tub, flushed and vulnerable. I come up for air, keep my eyes closed and watch the pulsating light behind my eyelids as it grows and shrinks, grows and shrinks in time with the beating of my heart. I take a picture of my legs and feet resting on the edge of the tub. I want to remember the moment when I felt myself slip back into my proper skin.
1. I move into a sunny attic apartment in an old house in the same neighborhood as my ex-husband, so Dimitri has the freedom to move back and forth between our homes. The apartment has a small balcony where I can grow herbs and cherry tomatoes in pots, and my cat can sun herself in the afternoons. My life is stripped down: no car, no piles of dog hair to vacuum, no demands on my time outside of work and my son. Half the week I have Dimitri, the other half I am free to write, learn how to letterpress, meet friends at the bar, stay in bed on a Sunday reading or watching old Merchant Ivory movies. I take spur-of-the moment trips to the ocean, and I also take a lover (or two) who is light and funny and creative and adventurous and spontaneous. Sometimes we go to Seattle or Portland to see an exhibit in a museum or go dancing or eat Ethiopian food before going to a show or a reading. Sometimes I meet my ex-husband for coffee or a dog walk, so we can talk about Dimitri or whatever else comes up. We have dinner once a month with our kids. I am beholden only to my son, and I don’t mind that because soonhe’ll grow up and won’t be around to eat all the food in the fridge (except for leftovers—unless they are from Little Danang) or to snuggle with while watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He goes to college somewhere close enough that we can still have our monthly breakfasts. I go shopping for thrift store outfits with my daughter, and she comes over for our girls’ night when we drink champagne and make dinner while listening to Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill, and she catches me up on all the details of her life.
2. We grow old together, my husband and I. He is so full of life and living that he is bursting at the seams, and he is my lover who is light and funny and creative and adventurous and spontaneous, like he was eighteen years ago when we first met. We retire and travel, get lost in new places, and then come home to our children and grandchildren. We teach our grandchildren to garden and to make tamales and chocolate chip cookies. We watch documentaries about space and nature and historical events. Our children and grandchildren come over for the holidays, and we camp with them at the ocean in the summers. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I roll over and touch him, wake him up from a dream, and we make love, and afterwards, I do not cry with longing. Instead, I sigh, content, and fall asleep with his hand cupping my breast, the smell of his sweat on my pillow.
3. When Dimitri goes to college, I leave. I move to Mexico City and live in a section of the city that is populated with expat artists. I become an expat and spend most of my time writing and collaborating with other artists: modelling for painters and photographers, talking about artistic process, attending my friends’ readings and shows. I visit the beaches on the weekends where I sleep in a hammock and fall asleep to the rhythm of the ocean. I fall in love with a photographer or a musician. We meet when a mutual friend introduces us at an after-party for a gallery opening. We run into each other again on the street and decide to go on a date but find ourselves holed up in an ocean-side bungalow where we fuck like mad for a week and only leave for food and walks along the water. I don’t get home enough to see my children and grandchildren. Someday, I tell myself, I will make it up to them. I grow old someplace new that becomes someplace familiar. This vision works in any number of locations: France, Turkey, Brazil, England, Spain, Morocco.
4. I move back to Texas, reintegrate myself into my family. Teach at a community college in Denton. I write weird shit that my brothers and sister turn into funky films. We see live music on the weekends and have regular sibling dinners where their kids run around like crazy hyped up cokeheads, and we ignore them and laugh at dirty jokes and gossip about each other. I spend time with my nieces and nephews, become that funny wise aunt who they can talk to because they know I won’t narc on them to their parents unless they are doing meth or something equally stupid and dangerous. I repair my relationship with my mother, and she and I take walks on the greenbelt along the Trinity River and drink wine on her back porch on warm spring evenings, surrounded by the hanging pots of thyme and the old aloe plant that she got the year I was born. I drink beer and talk politics with my dad at his favorite bar and go see him and my godfather when they play gigs with their bluegrass band. I spend time with my grandmother and write down all her favorite recipes, so that when she is gone, I can make her garlic cheese grits and bourbon pecan pie, and we can remember, with each bite, that Mimi showed her love best when she cooked for us. I go often to Austin to visit my best friend from college, Amy. We stay up too late and drink too much and laugh so hard that we pee ourselves just a little.
I lost my first tooth and held hands with my first crush at the City of Denton Civic Center pool. I snuck my first cigarette and first heard De La Soul and Tupac in the murky water of Lake Lewisville.
I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t swim. I joined the swim team in second grade and discovered the rhythmic whoosh, thump thump, whoosh, thump thump of the butterfly stroke. My arms: so strong I could fling them into the air, palms open and facing outward, my pinky fingers straight and taut as my hands entered the water without a splash. My body in perfect synchrony: head to shoulders to arms to torso to legs.
In ninth grade, I joined a private swim club and trained for the Junior Olympics. The 200 fly was my race of choice. Coach Pat duct-taped our hands behind our backs and made us dolphin kick across the fifty meter pool. I began to hate swimming. I quit the swim club and joined the high school team, but I got kicked off for getting drunk in the back of the school bus.
In college, I learned about selkies and wished I could become one. I imagined sliding into my seal skin and moving through the water sleek and fast. When I was 20 and alone and pregnant with my daughter, my friends took me to South Padre Island for a baby shower. They mostly got stoned and drank Busch Tallboys. I waded into the ocean and let the waves carry me out to the sand bar. I swam back to the shore, meeting the rhythm of the waves with my arms and breath. With each stroke, I let my hands slide over my big belly, and I knew I was wearing my selkie skin.
When my husband and I first met, I swam almost every day. In our wedding photos, I stand tall, my shoulders are broad, and the satin of my wedding dress stretches against the muscled contour of my back and waist. During our honeymoon, I swam in glacier-fed rivers, washed my hair in the sunny pools of the little creek near our campsite, and made love to my husband in hot springs. We came home, and my focus moved inward—to the small spark of life swimming in my own amniotic waters.
About two months after Dimitri was born, I went to the downtown Y and tried to swim butterfly. I felt slow at first, awkward in my new, softer body. After a few minutes, I found myself moving through the water with a familiar rhythm: my head, torso and limbs connected like a string of beads, pulled forward by the momentum of my strokes. I got out of the pool, and a woman approached and asked if I would consider joining the masters swim team. After that, I didn’t go back.
I dream that I walk to the downtown Y to swim laps. When I get
in the water, I can’t get my arms above my head. I can’t
complete even one butterfly stroke. I am too weak. My body
can’t float, and instead of flowing through the water, I fight
against it, my limbs too heavy to slide smoothly.
I wake up and realize I don’t know where I’ve put my swimsuit.
I don’t even know if it will fit anymore. I don’t remember the
last time I went swimming, and I let my membership to the Y
expire several years ago.
I take a walk along a stretch of the shore on Vashon Island. The Olympic Mountains are outlined against a rare blue sky, but my head is lowered, eyes focus on the rocks and shells scattered along the shore. I find a vertebrae. It’s slightly longer than my thumb and fits snugly into my palm. The bone feels smooth and rough and fragile and strong. I’m not certain what creature it came from, but I decide to believe that it belonged to a seal. When I pick it up, I am pulled back into my dream, to the heaviness of my limbs and the awkwardness of my body moving through the swimming pool. And I am pulled further back, to the time the warm water in the Gulf of Mexico held my pregnant body, and I swam like a selkie.
Sarah Tavis has been a Texas punk girl, a teen mom, a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a bookseller, a letterpress printer, and a teacher of writing: each of these fueling a different experience with the written/spoken word. Her rich and varied background is reflected in her current work with The 3rd Thing Press (www.the3rdthing.press), which pushes against the conventional restrictions of literary form and genre. Her work has appeared in the anthology You Look Too Young to Be a Mom: Teen Moms Speak Out on Love, Learning and Success, and several literary journals and chapbooks, including Bombay Gin, Cliterature, Mamazine, Inoculation and Wendigo.