DIE IN SUMMER OR NOT AT ALL: A RESURRECTION IN THREE ACTS
SARAH PANLIBUTON BARNES
I want to resemble a sort of liquid light which stretches beyond visibility or invisibility. Tonight I wish to have the valor and daring to belong to the moon.
― Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
All pairings unsure, everything under blankets, laying on a trampoline in Briana Carter’s backyard because her mom is from New Hampshire, prefers thong underwear, and subscribes to the belief that it is better that the kids do it at home than out in the wild. I lay there with the boys at night, spine stiff with nerves against the ecstatic nylon membrane rocking beneath us. We look up, reach out for someone’s hand beneath the blanket, each movement so small, every twitch of the pinky nearly imperceptible, every point of contact a hundred conversations we aren’t having. The moon lays our faces in fractals of silver light, we are all edges. Every encounter under the streetlamp or on the crumbling dock or by the row of mailboxes this summer is an attempt at becoming something we think we have to move through each others’ bodies to become— boys, touching, learning to touch like they’re taking; boys, shining with a kind of ease that I want to swallow up and be illuminated by. We are mistaking each other’s bodies for the stories that we don’t yet know how to tell.
It is the summer after ninth grade. The pale yellow trailer my family lives in has an aluminum roof and plastic sidings and is separated by a two lane highway from the biggest natural lake in the state. My mother tells me it is not a trailer it is a modular home and that her family didn’t come to this country for her children to be trailer trash. I am reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf and everything seems to be dying this summer, but somehow nothing seems quite dead. In the book, six narrating voices seem to pass through each other. They are at once rendered as distinct perspectives and yet they break together over the absent body of Percival: the golden boy who died before his time, that they all in turn admire, desire, seek to be or to have.
Percival lives and dies at the center of the story, and yet his body is not a fleshed presence so much as a gateway. His body is made of language that all the book’s speakers pass through in order to locate themselves. His voice is a phantom in the text except for the way it is refracted through the people that knew him and in this way it feels as if they are all living in and out of each others bodies through language. This book bends me backwards. It becomes the sun I turn my face to. I let it take me. I lost myself in language (which is always a sea of others that we are swimming through, speaking through) and I emerged in crests of singularity and desire, only to break again and again that summer.
It starts right as soon as school lets out: pets piling up on the highway, cats I’d seen around the neighborhood once or twice; a dog, head all a mess and body crumpled and still. As they pass out of the frame of the car window, I practice seeing the edges of their bodies dissipate into the landscape and they do not seem so absolutely dead. Then, it is the fish that start washing up on the lakeshore, impossible bellies bloated in the sun, the smell of rot and brine emanating from the lake as the heat reddens around mid summer, and still their opalescent eyes seem to glint just so. I am practicing believing that language might upend the order of the world or suspend a life between speech and silence.
Bernard, the language-obsessed speaker in The Waves, spends his life wondering at the power of speech. After Percival’s death, Bernard says that he believes his friend still exists somewhere. But, Bernard wonders, for how long? How long can we hold the space in our speech and in our bodies for the ones we lose? Bernard acknowledges that there will come a day that life will fall back into that usual order where the dead will stay gone, but he says, I still resent the usual order. I will not let myself be made yet to accept the sequence of things. Bernard believes that language is our only tool for resisting that sequence, for choosing some other way to live besides marching straight lines through the days just to arrive at a stagnant oblivion. I have wondered ever since I read this book how I might resist such a sequence. That summer, I made myself busy with language and desire. I believed that somewhere between these two impulses, the impulse to speak and the impulse to touch, I might find my way to a different sequence of things, I might find my way to resurrection. I’m trying to keep dying things from dead.
On a summer night after my father did or did not die, I sit with the boys at night on the lakeshore across the highway from my house.
Does anyone want to go skinny dipping? I peel my jeans off my body ungracefully. I am naked from the waist down in front of the boys at night. Perhaps they make a sound. I don’t care. I walk toward the lake fast and stumbling slipping on the rocks slick with lake sludge, take my sweatshirt off, my shirt, and I walk into the lake and they are laughing. I walk deeper into the cold water. Hydrilla wraps around my feet and it smells like an algal bloom. My skin goes stiff with goosebumps. I want to walk to the middle of the lake where the white reflection of the moon on the water might flood my eyes and shake off this horrible blue cast that the world has taken on and right as the water wets my lower lash line I feel an arm wrap around my waist. I am being dragged back to the lakeshore. I feel a hand cup my ass in the water as I am being dragged.
When the water gets shallow enough he lets go and I walk out by myself. I hear the boys at night say: what the fuck. I hear someone laugh. I hear them say: I thought she was gonna kill herself. Adam, the volunteer firefighter who has already graduated from high school had come for me in his cargo shorts. He has a fresh tattoo on his calf that he isn’t supposed to get wet. It is a tiger because of course it is a tiger. He talks about it for a long time that night, how he jumped in to save me even though he was contaminating this colorful open wound, how he pulled me out of the water. He may have been dragging my skin to shore, but how could he have saved me? I am already gone and returned a hundred times by now. I am already spread out into these boys at night who do not love me but come to me hoping to fuck me, looking also to be inside another body, looking also to spread themselves out, for the chance to come undone and exceed the bounds of their own bodies, night after night, in the fractured light of a moon that spills itself over all of our borders equally– now Adam’s fingertips the color of dark water flashing on the edge of the moonlight, now a chin, silver tilted up to suck at the lip of a beer bottle, now my wet shoulder the shining round of a Steller’s Jay belly.
I spread a rumor that summer about how Virginia Woolf died and I still believe it. I know people say she killed herself by walking into a river with stones in her pockets. She killed herself one day when that roiling chaos— the talk too sharp and too quick in her skin, the skin remembering everything, the skin saying nothing— got up and walked her to the river, the river with banks where the mud smelled like wet copper and roots stuck out horizontal like pointing fingers, the river rushing over stones, the river you can never step into twice. She picked stones up off of the bank and put them in her pockets and walked out into the river and let it take her. I know that is what they say. I know I am supposed to believe this. I don’t. I believe that she walked out alive and started a new life off somewhere, published under a new surname, started a garden, unencumbered by a permanent death. I refuse to google it and I refuse to watch The Hours. I have told so many people that this is how she died and came back. My mother believes me. I have heard her talk about it at family dinners where she reports it to people like something she saw on the History Channel. Did you know that people think Virginia Woolf drowned but actually (beat) it didn’t happen that way at all, she says.
Before my father might have died, sneaking out to find the boys at night during the summer was a most electric game. It went like this:
It was lights out by 10:30 PM. It was listening for his TV shows in the living room just on the other side of my bedroom door. It was me, belly to the ground, a makeup mirror slid under the space between where my door met the floor and it was me watching my father upside down in the sliver of mirror, every nerve alert and focused on him. It was him sitting in the living room watching late night television. It was me listening to Letterman say goodnight. It was his image cradled in my hands. I angled the mirror to watch his shoes move from kitchen to living room and back. He was the only member of the family that wore shoes in the house. I heard the whir of his breathing through the tube he wore around his face. I heard the clanging of the oxygen tank he rolled along with him on a small trolley as he removed the tube and settled the tank against the leg of his chair. I watched him walk out onto the porch one last time for a cigarette, then watched his shoes move down the hall and listened for the house to go still and hum with refrigerator noise and the intermittent kick up of the central air conditioning. I was waiting for him to go to bed so that I could steal away into the world of blue light and boys that did not love me. But my joy was in knowing that if he spotted me with my little mirror up past my bedtime I would be caught: meaning he could see me, meaning I was not dying, meaning neither was he. It’s the eyes you miss. Not the organs, but the ability to look into someone’s eyes and know that if they’re looking back you are locked in a moment of mutual possession. Holding my father in my hands; every nerve alive waiting to be caught. Look at me.
On nights when everything was a most electric game, I watched the boys at night for signs of dying: under the blankets, laying on trampolines, laying on concrete driveways, on gravel by the lakeshore. Then there was a moment of contact, where my hand went from tentatively grazing the back of a rough hand, rough and dirty from BMX biking all day. And when the boy turned his hand over and grabbed mine I felt something jump and open inside of me. Those moments, the first times that someone accepted my hand into theirs, felt like being caught. I was no longer reaching under the blankets which felt like falling and falling forever unclaimed. In the twitch of a pinky I felt called on, I felt pulled up and out of, I felt saved from never knowing what waited for me there in the warm dark folds.
On the Spring morning when my father may have died I smelled the sharpness and woke immediately to the barometric shift of tragedy in the house. There is a certain sharpness to the air on the mornings where something terrible has happened before you even open your eyes. The house was colder than usual. No one had come to wake me up for school. As I opened my bedroom door I saw that all the doors of the house were open. I heard my mother walking around far away in the back of the house, quick and scared. The house felt heavier, there were more bodies here than there should be. I heard her shouting instructions and then I saw Adam, the volunteer firefighter who had not yet pulled me from a lake, who had unmarked calves, who was walking backwards out of the backdoor holding my father on a gurney covered in a white sheet. He was respirating him with a blue silicone thing that could have been a dog toy if I saw it on the ground. The sirens got quiet and far away. I rode the bus to school.
My fingers are wet with sweat and I am holding The Waves in my hand as I walk to Nice Market for a Monster energy drink and a bag of Funyons. I pass a trampled bird’s nest on the dirt path next to the highway and, if I had been walking any faster, I might have missed the pink-grey stain of a baby bird pressed into the pine needles and scraps of twine that made up its nest. By the time I arrive at the market, my armpits are drenched in sweat and my thighs are chafed. I am sick of all my skin this summer. I want to shuffle off this girlsick body swelling to a ripeness that promises an inevitable rot, a sickhouse full of the clanging of my father’s oxygen tank. I want to pass into the boys at night. I study them. I hope that if I can open myself enough they might pass through and into me– that I could be made vital by their glow.
I want to take my shirt off in the sun and lean on the handle of a shovel next to the market where I will spend all day digging up mounds of dirt to make jumps for my BMX bike and chug Mountain Dew and call my mom a bitch. I want to know what it feels like to be oblivious to all the eyes on me. I want to decide what will happen at night the same way they would holler at me when I walk into the market hey, tonight, meet us at the streetlamp and there is no question mark. I want to pump my legs hard standing on my bike pedals, I want to have calluses and reach beneath the blankets and touch the indentations made on a girl’s thigh after she’s been sitting on the rocks of the lakeshore for hours in the moonlight. I want to be a boy at night. A boy of dirt. Boy of road. Boy of forehead pimples and boy of tiny backpacks. Boy who doesn’t live with his parents. Boy who laughs at everything. Boy who laughs at me. Boy who taught me Oxys and Whip-its and shotgun as a verb. Boy who is white. Boy who tells me I look like a porn star named Lily Thai when I wear lipgloss in the 8th grade. Boy who once pointed out a pothole that looked like a heart while we were walking alone and smiled. Boy who is always much older and who sometimes smells like clean laundry. Boy who showed me how to pop beer bottle caps off with a lighter and who gave me a standing ovation when I figured it out. Boy of the trailer parks. Boy who will meet me under the one streetlamp on the road by my house and take his dirty fingers off of his handlebars and put them inside me dry and standing up. Boy who has a little brother. Boy who says hello to me now in Safeway when I come home to visit my mother while I look at his rough palms.
My father is a poet and a Catholic and a Shakespearean actor and a stay-at-home dad and he makes stir fry like my mom taught him but he makes it better than her now. He speaks with such a particular diction that he seems out of place in every conversation that is not about literature or god and sometimes I’ve wondered if he could’ve been gay or if he would’ve loved me anyway if he knew that I was. It is not yet the summer that starts to redden the air and boil the lake and send all the fish up big-bellied and break the dogs over the highway ditches. It is instead the Fall and my father is making stir fry and noodles and the house is filled with wok smoke and I am sitting at the kitchen counter swivelling in the broken swivel chair my father sits in all day when he is not cooking in the kitchen or smoking out on the porch. I am complaining to him about my friend who is getting a lot of attention from boys and maybe likes it and maybe doesn’t like it at all. My father is my dearest friend and I am too old to play this game with him, and we both know it, but I am too young for us to speak frankly about desire and the particular anxieties that accompany it yet. With his back turned to me, I know my father is smiling the way that when you live with someone your whole life there is an intimate sonic landscape and you are so bone-sure of every inch of this soundland that you can tell by the way someone swallows their spit that they are mad or you can tell they’re tired by the way their footfalls sound. I could tell my father was smiling from the angle of his neck.
He comes into my room the next day with a copy of The Waves and tells me that he thinks I will like it. My father is always giving me books instead of advice. I take the book with a hot face and say nothing. In the years since, I have considered what this moment could have been, how I could re-tell it. I try to move time around this moment, slow it down so that I could have turned that nothing into everything.
On a night when I was no longer being watched, after my father had been carried out of the house, and everything was washed in the steadfast blue of dark hard water, I walked out the front door without bothering to sneak. Sometimes the boys at night would bring their bikes and walk them next to me or ride slow circles around me, lazy rivers, hungry ambulation.
I hoped that one of my favorite boys at night, one that had gone further with me, one that had put dirty fingers inside me, would sling an arm around my shoulder and I would be pulled, up and out of, all over again. But he would not meet my eyes. When they cracked the tops off the Smirnoff Ice bottles with their lighters, he handed the one he opened to another girl that had come to sit on the lakeshore. Adam, the much older boy who carried my father out of the house on a gurney, was there.
I knew by the way Adam sat next to me on the lakeshore, and the way he opened Smirnoff after Smirnoff for me, encouraging me, teasing me, that he had picked me that night. I was the easier pick. Adam could smell the falling on me, remembered the velocity in my face as he carried my father backwards out of the house. We sat there looking out over the dark water and the more I drank the less I could stand one more moment of all the language trapped in my skin. I remember that the moon was big and brilliant and familiar and I felt like it was for me. I felt like maybe I could turn a whole lake to dust or turn my life over like an hourglass and stay belly to the ground watching my father’s shoes.
I asked Adam if he had ever read anything by Virginia Woolf, while Adam and his fingerless gloves were handing me another drink and I took it from his fingers that were the color of blueberries in the between-day light. I was so quiet and sick I felt my teeth buzz and the stars start to pulse. I said to Adam that he was really missing out, that she was something else, that one day she just walked into a river and didn’t come out the same. He said: Do you like my new tattoo?
Does anyone want to go skinny dipping, I asked.
It is the month before Adam carries him out on a gurney. My father walks into my room and cups my ear with his palm. Look at me, he says, and we hold each other’s gaze and his eyes are so green and his palm is so big and rough on my cheek. He says that he knows I’ve been sneaking out, that he is disappointed in me, and that I could get hurt. It feels good to be in trouble. To be caught and then forgiven. He says more to me, about responsibility, about honesty, about how I can tell him anything and he’s disappointed that I don’t feel that way. I am too old to be actually afraid of getting grounded and we both know it, but I am still young enough to feel chastened. He hands me a note on a shred of yellow legal pad paper and I hold it folded in my hand until he leaves my room, anticipating a rush of tears I want to save for myself. I keep that shred with me everyday for the next decade of my life. It is just a bullet pointed list of chores. No, it is pomegranate seeds. It is pocket lint. It is dry leaves. It is everything.