There’s a world through three boxes, made of photographs and words. It’s a world I’ve loved and let my heart spend as much time as it could within, since the first month A Softer World was published online, so many years ago.
A Softer World is a vitamin for my soul; something essential, vital, that I have never known how to synthesize for myself.
I don’t know what I’ll do without it.
But I’ll tell you today what I did with it.
After I show her this, she is curled up close to me and my family, crying, shaking softly. The story of a drunken mother, a horrible pattern of narcissistic abuse, methodical degradation, spilled from her lips minutes ago. Voicing it, remembering it, making it real, has left her in this state. As though she fears the words she’s let spill will stain the air like ink on a prized cashmere rug.
It will be the first home she’s ever lived in where she never has to fear other people will betray her, and let her mother in the door. That will never happen.
I meet her by firelight on the provincial grounds. It’s us and some friends, a little music player, and a hidden bottle of Boone’s Farm, some picnic foods. It’s a hot July night. Security guards come to roust us, but see that we’re behaving ourselves. Just some quiet music, some shared food, some pleasant company. They leave us be. A friend of a friend brings a camera.
I lean into her, and we share a smile. We kiss. “Being in love is totally punk rock,” I say.
She laughs. “Totally punk rock,” she agrees.
“Everything I am begins and ends with these.” I say to him, leaning against his side, while I gesture to the screen. “Everything I want to do in my life, with myself. I feel like it’s got these two as a bookend. Fit everything I want to write, and every part of my life between them.”
He runs his fingers through my hair and listens, tolerantly. “I believe in you,” he says. “And I’m here for you.”
He kisses me, and I kiss him, and I think I know I’ll never be alone.
“Don’t call me trans, because I’m past that.” my friend tells me, and I believe him. He’s been a man for the better part of his life, and the only part of his mixed-up downstairs business that’s anyone else’s business is his husband’s.
“You seem so much happier for it,” I say. “Most of the folks I know going through that are as miserable after as they were before, it seems.”
“Everyone’s the architect of their own misery, man,” he says to me. “People still want to think it’s all magic wands and happy fucking endings.” PTSD rides him nightly, and misery his constant companion. He knows all about muddling through the endings. I show him the comic, and he nods. “That one saved my life,” is all he says. I know better than to ask.
She gawks at me, for a few long heartbeats, and then her shaking hands put the knife down. Then she crumples, folds herself up on the floor, and cries. I hold her close, and I bandage her forearm.
“I’ll clean the blood up before they come home.” I say.
“Thank you,” she’ll tell me much later, when moonshine and privacy and years of perspective lend all the meaning in the world to two words, spoken in the silence between sips.
“He’s going senile,” he says to me, with a weary sigh. “Eighty-seven years old and he gets into a fistfight with his brother while they’re fishing.”
I’m not surprised by the news, I’ve known him a long time. He’s got the sort of pompous arrogance coupled with a sincere grounding in culture that one can’t help but like, even when they’re irritating you. He’s the sort of man you’ll roll your eyes at when he goes on for the eighth minute straight about wine, but you don’t actually want him to shut up, because everything he’s telling you is fascinating and true. Even when he’s being so damn high-handed about it.
He bursts into tears at family gatherings. He thinks each one will be his last. He loves everyone there so much. I love shaking his hand.
“Why did you save that one?” she asks me, brushing a kiss against my temple. She only kisses me there when she’s concerned about me.
“For the day I need it,” I reply, and swallow.
“I’m being evicted,” she types to me. “Got a few days ahead of me. Don’t know what I’ll do.”
I send the link. Pregnant pause.
She types: “That’s the first good laugh I’ve had since this started. Thanks. Not an option, but thanks.”
She does fine.
“How do you think Furiosa lost her arm?” he asks me.
“I think this year I’m going to try to get published,” I tell her.
It feels like saying I’ll buy a hot air balloon. Impractical and irresistibly exciting.
“Do it.” she growls over a lustful grin.
“Thanks for listening,” they all say.
“Anytime.” I always reply.
“We are all becoming who we choose to be.”
They’re words like a secret society’s mark on a building, between us. They are our secret handshake, left extemporally, shared with others, but mostly with ourselves.
She flourished, out of a childhood of misery and neglect.
He flew, from a life of deprivation and loneliness.
She can tell me what being stabbed the second time feels like, what floating in the pond in the woods late at night, treading water, hoping her grandparents find her before death does. I say the words, and her chin rises, and she swallows. She nods.
He can tell me what riding in a car with a shotgun in his lap and kilograms of cocaine in the back seat feels like. What a youth spent in a war zone feels like. What bullets feel like, when they miss. And hit someone behind you. And he can tell me what having an honest job feels like, what paying honest taxes feels like. (“Good!”, he exclaims.) When I say the words, he is as terse and sincere as ever: “Damn right,” he agrees.
“How long have you known you wanted to be a writer?”
I’ve worn through the spacebars of five keyboards. My thumb polishes each one to a mirror shine, before one day rubbing a hole right through. My vowels go next: e, a, then the rest. Consonants, m, n, r, s, t. Like lights winking out, the white letters on black keys fade and vanish.
Emily, Joey, thank you for so many years of thoughtful pauses, itches behind suddenly wet eyelids, laughs and smiles and uncomfortable guilty guffaws. For the right words to steal, sometimes. For the right wrong words to use like a double-dare, sometimes.
Loving your work hurts like pulling the cloth band-aid off after the wound has healed.
– Patrick Rochefort