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Luxury Jail

I’m glad I had a top bunk. It was my island of half-safety. And yet I must
acknowledge the threat may not have existed at all, because the way some tell it, the
Catawanee County jail is the Park Hyatt of Tennessee jailhouses. Two days ago, it was a
hot June Friday, and men of various ages, ethnicities, and attitudes were in a holding cell,
waiting to be processed, or “booked,” in correctional parlance. I was among them. Some
of us paced about, some sat on the long bench; others leaned against the wall or stood in
place. It was a long wait. Aside from the general shock of having upended my life, here
was the striking thing about that long wait: the manner in which the vocal ones discussed
the merits and drawbacks of the respective jails where they’d done time over the years. I
wondered what kind of losers I’d managed to surround myself with—these people who
compared jail stints as though they were a series of jobs or home addresses, as though
jail-hopping was a viable way of life. If I’m ever in a position to weigh the pros and cons
of multiple jails, please just end me.

There had been ten or twelve of us in that holding cell. I was one of the standers,
trying to will myself invisible–anything not to draw attention. Inside me was a bundle of
nerves, despair, and curiosity unlike anything I’d ever felt, and I knew this had to be the
only time I was ever in this predicament. We waited upwards of three hours. Some were
silent and miserable like me. Others chatted like it was a cocktail party or a networking
event. A stocky man with buzzcut red hair bounced happily, making small talk with those
nearest him. He was clearly a veteran of the system, a fact which seemed not to bother
him, and oddly, he was already in a jumpsuit. The rest of us still had street clothes on.
A different man, who’d been fidgety but quiet, dropped to one knee and pulled a pouch
from his shoe and rose back up and announced, “I don’t go anywhere without my
cocaine!” Nobody reacted much, but I wasn’t the only one peeking as he snorted bump
after bump. One last binge, I guess. How had he gotten it past the officers? Of course, the
real body search was yet to come; his contraband wouldn’t travel much further.

The painted block cell had a concrete bench along each wall, stopping only for an
aluminum toilet-and-sink combo in one corner, an apparatus sparer even than a similar
setup I’d used on an Amtrak train. On the wall above was a metal plate where a mirror
would be, but it was so dull and scuffed, you’d be lucky to make out a vague outline of
your head. I didn’t see how anyone could use that toilet, out in the open like that and with
other people around. Nevertheless, one man did. Mercifully, he only had to pee. The
holding cell was next to a large room with a big, crescent-shaped desk, where officers
milled about, shuffling bags of inmates’ belongings and scribbling on paperwork, happily
chitchatting. Their camaraderie contrasted with the anxiety of the holding cell. I gathered
that the big desk was ground zero for the alleged “booking” of inmates. Everything I
knew about jail came from television.

There were other holding cells attached to the main room. Mean faces peered
from those cells to ours, further intimidating those of us already afraid. Real predator-
prey vibes. My hackles were raised perpetually, my fight-or-flight response ever ready to
engage. Yet, a few feet from me, the buzzcut redhead was as carefree as a fox in a
cranberry bog.

Now, about that fast-approaching body search, an event sure to rack up further charges
against the holding-cell cocaine smuggler: when it was my turn, I was led into a tiled
enclosure with a pair of showerheads. It would’ve felt private were it not for the deputy
accompanying me, who commanded me to disrobe. The deputy became less a full person
and more just a latex-gloved hand with index finger and middle finger aimed at my
anus—I know, because I had to bend over, and I could see him coming. That man’s hand
is all I remember of him. He told me to squat, then he searched, feeling for contraband.
The violation wasn’t a bit sexual, but it was a violation, nonetheless. That’s when I knew
I was rubbish. Never before and never since have I been so humiliated. My sense of
dignity evaporated. A dousing of delousing powder and a short shower followed, all
under the faceless deputy’s gaze, and I slipped into what would be my uniform for the
weekend. I was scum.

Beyond booking, after it was finally my turn to go inside, the jail proved quite
unfamiliar. I had ideas about what it might be like from shows I’d seen, but the parts they
show you versus real-life walking through one–as an inmate, no less–are inexpressibly
different. A sizable gap between spectator and participant does exist. Night had fully set
in. I could see it through the narrow slits that served as windows, much too narrow for a
person to fit through, understandably. The jail, or at least the part I was privy to,
consisted of a large common area with tables and a television mounted high on the wall,
and radiating from this common area were two floors of pods filled with bunk beds.
These pods held maybe ten sets of bunks each and were vaguely pentagonal—I never
counted the sides, but it felt geometric in nature. The common area was separated from
the main hallway by glass, which I imagine was tempered and shatterproof and
bulletproof and reinforced in whatever ways glass can be. The lights were off in the pods,
and many of the inmates must have already been sleeping. It was ghostly quiet as the
deputy led me through the darkness in search of an open bed, using only a flashlight and
the light bleeding in from the common area. It was like crashing a giant sleepover for
adults, and to wake the wrong one could be perilous. Unnatural, this feeling of tiptoeing
through a compound of strange, sleeping men.

I had only thought of Wallis sparingly. She was the woman I was sleeping with
and casually dating. The casual part was all on her end—it was clear she could take or
leave me, but I was hooked. A friend told me I was in lust, not love, but I was convinced
it was love. Wallis was uniquely pretty, effortlessly seductive, and had a chihuahua that
liked to shit on the floor. More than once, I stepped on a turd on my way to the bathroom
in the dark, yet the shit was so small and solid it hardly seemed like shit at all, more like
Silly Putty. Shit is shit, though, so I complained, but that accomplished nothing, because
the little imp was a demi-god with full run of the apartment—Wallis’s apartment, that is.
We’d sit on the balcony for hours, Wallis smoking weed and me drinking whiskey, both
of us smoking cigarettes. The chihuahua, Thor, had the advantage of being cute and of
being owned by the woman I was obsessed with, so I tolerated him. For all the time we
spent together, though, Wallis refused to acknowledge we had a relationship. I don’t
know what she thought we were doing. She simply wouldn’t talk about it, so I never
knew where I stood with her. A lonely man will tolerate much for the attention of a pretty
woman, and I knew that the moment I was out of jail, I’d go right back to her apartment.
Anyway, here I was, tiptoeing through this mostly-dark jail pod with a deputy who’d had
his fingers in my asshole moments before. I was a guest at a terrible weekend retreat
where no one could leave, the aesthetic was the wrong kind of minimal, and humility and
indignity were baked into the experience–all of which is the point, I know. The deputy
finally shone his flashlight on an empty bed—the aforementioned top bunk. He set a
blanket, a small toiletry kit (no metal, nothing sharp), and the book I’d brought with me
on the mattress. Slowly I climbed the frame at one end, trying not to shake it and wake
the guy on the bottom. I could tell there was a body there, but it never stirred. The deputy
gave some instructions that I didn’t really hear and then turned and waddled off, the beam
of his flashlight disappearing past a doorless doorway.

I lay down, doubtful that sleep would find me. No pillow, just a very thin blanket,
which proved surprisingly sufficient to keep me warm in the cold jail. Must’ve been the
material. I guessed it to be wool, but then I’m kind of dumb about such things. For all I
knew, it was some special prison blend designed for cheap mass production and sold in
bulk to correctional facilities and the military. Physically, I managed to get comfortable,
but mentally, I was a wreck. There was despair at my predicament, but it was more than
that. A broad agitation encompassed many feelings: regret at having gotten caught;
shame at what people must think, were they to ever find out; fear of the unknown, but
also, a curiosity about incarceration, about life on the inside. No, it wasn’t prison—there
weren’t violent felons lurking about with shivs, making booze in toilets and plotting
against rival gangs—but it was the closest to that type of thing I was likely to come, God-
willing, being mostly a law abider with no inclination to hurt or steal and a strong sense
of which authorities not to cross. Yet the curiosity gets shuffled aside, replaced by the
despair, and then the regret, the shame, the fear—all of this in constant rotation, as I lay
there on that top bunk, warm under the jail blanket.

Time creeped. There was little noise: distant snoring, a crackling of mattress. I
longed for sunrise, when I could better assess my surroundings. Any amount of
reassurance would’ve been welcome, like the way morning light can diminish a night’s
terror. No steady stream of sleep was to be, though. There may have been moments of
unconsciousness, but I can’t be sure. What is remembered is the intermittent re-
positioning of my body in futile attempts to attain a state of rest. Another thing: when
your only choice is to stay put, it’s hard not to feel useless. Even a forty-eight hour jail
stint holds a yearning for purpose. And here’s something I find surprising over and over
again: true leisure does not exist. Wallis said, “Enjoy your weekend of relaxation,” i.e.,
your weekend of jail, in which nothing is required of you but to be there—no work detail,
no cafeteria service, no laundry duty—nothing to do but lie about, the only exception
being the obligatory Alcoholics Anonymous origin story film and discussion class, in
which they pressure you to admit uncomfortable things (for the record, I stood my
ground). But the weekend could not be called restful, it was merely existence.

When it was time for the AA class, it was nice to be with a smaller group in a
quiet room, darkened for the film. We were all weekenders. It was less intimidating than
the buzzing and humming pod and cavernous common area. In the discussion that
followed, one of my fellow delinquents claimed he didn’t believe in alcoholism or
addiction of any sort; he said addiction was in the mind, and that if you didn’t think you
were an addict, then you weren’t. His name was Michael, and, apart from the AA class,
all he did that weekend was either sleep or pretend to sleep. I could see him lying there
whenever I walked to the toilets, prone on his bunk, face buried in the crook of his elbow.

After class, there was a long walk down some corridors to get back to the pod. It
was three other men and me, and one of them boasted about fucking his girlfriend one
last time before turning himself in, implying that those forty-eight hours in jail were depriving
him of some life-saving treatment: critical coitus. Midway down a long hall, the same guy jumped,
kicked a leg out and farted, pumping his arm like he was ejecting a shotgun shell. He assumed
we were amused. I can’t speak for the others, but I couldn’t stand him, with his tapered black
hair and sneering lips, his small and slightly athletic build suggestive of the kind of guy
who plays pick-up basketball with strangers at the Y. He disgusted me, and he quickly
became an emblem of everything I hated about the place—the pathetic men slouching round
and comparing jail stints, the lack of privacy, the general put-upon-ness of being detained.
His face became a symbol of the whole sad experience. I never knew his name, and I don’t
want to know it.

Back in the pod, inmates were tooling about, their movements purposeful. I felt
like the only one who didn’t know what to do with himself. Many of them had returned
from some type of work detail. A tiredness attended them, like that of laborers at day’s
end. Their pay must’ve been pennies. A skinny, long-haired man strolled through the
bunk room plumbing a cup of ramen with a plastic spoon, and I wondered where he’d
gotten water hot enough for the noodles. He clearly savored it, and I found myself a little
envious. It had to be secret jail knowledge—how to obtain water hot enough to hydrate a
cup of ramen. There must’ve been a microwave somewhere, which I wasn’t inside long
enough to discover, and I wasn’t about to go exploring. The man was close to my age, his
jaw stubbly and his longish hair a greasy blonde. On the outside, we might’ve sat at a bar
laughing, things made funnier by intoxication. We could’ve been drinking buddies.

At intervals, I tried to read. The book I brought was much too thick for a
weekend, even if I’d been able to concentrate. It was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the
Rose, and the prose was dense. I’d read it before and loved it and thereby could rely on it for
psychological comfort while stuck in jail, or at least that was my logic. Engaging and
humorous as the book is under normal conditions, however, the effort was futile. I’m not
sure what, if anything, would’ve made for effective reading this weekend, with it being
my first time in and everything so new and overwhelming. Crossword puzzles, maybe.
It’s not reading in the narrative sense, but it uses words and can distract the mind in a
non-committal way. Ill-fated reading aside, there is something to be said for the mere
presence of Umberto Eco in the Catawanee County Jail, its bulk solely mine in a place
where nothing else was. I could hold it and look at its cover and the simple maps inside,
and I could smell the pages.

In a perfect example of the way coincidences can be meaningless, the man in the
neighboring bunk had the same first name as me, lived in the same part of town, and was
in jail for the same reason. How about that? I would see him a few times over the years,
either in a sports bar or restaurant, and it always embarrassed me, like we’d shared a lap
dance with the same stripper in a moment of vulnerability, and each feared the other
would out us in the presence of people we knew. I could see he felt it, too, but we only
ever said hi. And the person I was with might say, “Who was that?” and I’d say, “Just
somebody I used to see at the Red Door.”

When mealtimes came, shouts of “grub” would echo off the concrete walls. From
the second-floor balcony, I could see a man in white wheeling in a cart, a line forming
already. The man with the cart handed out paper bags. Lunch on Saturday was a peanut
butter sandwich and a child-size carton of milk. I sat by myself in the common area,
eating the depressing meal at one of the round, stainless-steel tables, all of which were
anchored to the floor by steel posts, like they’d grown there. The stools around them were
smaller versions of the same. Steel flowers in a cement garden. Nothing was moveable.
At least people were leaving me alone. I stared at the television high on the wall, where
numbered cars were zooming round a track, their sponsors’ logos like stamps of
ownership. It struck me that my situation was similar to that of being on layover at an
airport. I could sit at the cold, hard table as long as I wanted, waiting for time to pass, just
as at an airport, I might sit on the same plastic seat for hours, waiting for my flight. This
made the situation more bearable.

They let you have a pencil and paper. Saturday night, I sat on my bunk and wrote
several pages of whatever came to mind. Wallis was the intended audience–something
for her to read when I got out. I wrote about how I wished I was hanging out with her,
and how seeing Thor wouldn’t be so bad, given the current situation. Sometimes we
played pool at the sports bar near her apartment. That’s where I longed to be. She had her
own cue stick, which she’d remove from its case and ceremoniously screw together
beside the coin-operated table. She probably didn’t miss me at all and certainly wasn’t
worried about me. I bet she was sitting on her third-floor balcony, up high with the pine
branches, holding that damn dog and laughing with her roommates, all of them stoned.
That she considered forty-eight hours in Catawanee County Jail a weekend retreat should
have told me something, but I was love-blind, or lust-blind. One or the other.

Dinner was nominally better: a slab of meatloaf and a baked potato with butter.
There was also a fruit cup with pink, squishy chunks, vaguely melon-like. If the cafeteria
continuum ranges from school food to hospital food, then this fell somewhere in the
middle, though I did avoid the mystery melon. The deep compartments of the plastic tray
made it easy to carry without spilling anything, so I took it to my bunk. A lot more men were
at the tables than there had been at lunch, and the noise in the common area
reflected that–thus, my decision to eat alone. My goal was to go unnoticed. I was
intimidated by the camaraderie these men must surely share, which would make lonely
little me a target. The guy I’d met earlier, who shared my name and neighborhood, was
eating on his bunk, too, but we didn’t talk to each other. It was best that way.

The toilets were in a large passage adjacent to the common area, at the opposite
end from the bunk pods. The stalls were all doorless. Anyone could walk by and see you
at your most vulnerable. This was one of the more hellish aspects, me having always
been exceedingly private about such things. If someone conceived a version of hell
specifically for me, it would include open toilets. Mother Nature spared me any
embarrassment, but imagine being there longer than I was. One can’t hold on indefinitely.
I never saw the showers, presumably beyond the toilets down that large passage. They
must have been a similar hell. That anyone could go about the usual hygienic routines in
a place like that was beyond me. Of course, we do what we have to do.

Sleep came more readily Saturday night. It helped knowing the majority of my
sentence was over. I realize it’s laughable to talk about being “on the inside” when it was
only a forty-eight hour stint. Many of those guys had been there for months, and several
were likely to land in a penitentiary at some point. They must have resented us
weekenders. I found it hard to dwell on that though, because I was getting out.

When I opened my eyes, it was day, and this was an enormous relief. Sunday had
come. For a while I lay there, curled under the blanket and able to truly relax for the first
time. A few inmates were up and going about their mornings, but there was no work
detail, and the pod was the calmest and quietest it had been all weekend. I decided to read
and managed more pages in an hour than I had the whole day before. Passages I had
underlined and circled from the earlier reading took on new dimensions. They became
sacred text:

“…full knowledge, the learning of the singular.”

“…signs and the signs of signs are used only when we are lacking things.”

“Images are the literature of the layman.”

Entire essays could be pulled from these fragments: critiques on religion and
social class, epistemology and linguistics, visual art. At the end of an anxious weekend
where I’d felt trapped in someone else’s world, I could feel myself returning–the old
interests, the old crutches of my daytime thinking life. Soon I would be leaving never to
return. Hard lessons had been learned. Jail had done its job.

When I was booked on Friday, I had been allowed to use the phone to arrange for
someone to pick me up on Sunday. It had been impossible to find anybody. They were
either out-of-town or simply didn’t answer. It’s not like I had many people I could rely on.
Wallis was too paranoid to come that close to a law enforcement facility, because her life
revolved around getting high on illegally obtained substances. The signs couldn’t have
been clearer that she was no good for me. Finally, I was able to leave a voicemail for a
friend-of-a-friend named Robert. There was no way for me to know if he’d get the
message or be able to help. All I could do was hope.

The morning hours dragged. I couldn’t stop looking at the big clock on the
common area wall, close to where the television was showing a church service. There
was no way of knowing when an officer would come for me, but I knew it must be
getting close.

It might have been my imagination, but I thought I could sense a general
resentment. Every Sunday, I bet, the men with lengthy sentences saw group after group
of weekenders get called to the heavy door, where a deputy waited to guide them to

I read a few pages, occasionally watching the inmates who were up and moving,
careful not to make eye contact. Bonds had formed between some of them, it was
obvious. The tendency is to look at a person in jail and guess what they are there for. The
next thing you know, you’ve created a backstory for the frumpy middle-aged man who
looked like he’d been there a long time, completely at ease. He was in his element,
conversing with his bunkmate. He was a man resigned to his fate, which is admirable in
the abstract. This reverie was interrupted by the approach of a deputy. I could see him
through the big glass wall. The door opened, and a name was called out. Not mine. It was
one of the other weekenders. This gave me hope, though, because it meant the process
had begun.

When I stepped into the hot glare of Sunday afternoon, no one was waiting for
me. No car idled outside the rolling gate, but they wheeled it open all the same. They
were finished with me. Rather than worry about having no ride, though, I took off
walking, as if it was the start of an adventure. When I turned the corner, my belongings in
a bag and thinking they could no longer see me, I wanted to run. It was an impulse like
Barry Keeler had years ago when he finally hit a shot in the church basketball league, and
his run back down the court was filled with his thrill, both heartening and pathetic. I may
have been a low-life, but now I was a free low-life. My body grimy from a couple of
showerless days, I bounded through the grass by the road that led into town. That strip of
grass was greener, and the sky arching over was bluer. The grandeur of ordinary trees had
swollen. Newly freed eyes, even after only forty-eight hours, are a revelation.

To my left, a long, low warehouse stretched the length of about three blocks. As I
reached the halfway point of the structure, I looked up and a car was turning off Highway
13, maybe a tenth of a mile ahead, and coming my direction. It slowed as it drew near,
and I thought they must be turning on one of the perpendicular streets, but they didn’t.
Instead, the little sedan slowed to a stop right beside me, and the driver was smiling up at
me through the passenger window. It was Robert, the friend-of-a-friend I’d left a
voicemail with on Friday.

“Hey, man! I was scared I missed ya!” he said.

“Dude, I’m just glad you’re here! I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

“Get in!” he said.

I settled into the passenger seat, my bag in my lap. Though I’d embraced the idea
of an adventure getting home, I was nevertheless relieved to see him, my brain still
humming with the high of recent release. An open can of beer was in the cup holder. He
noticed me looking.

“You want one?”

The Time I Flew

My Dad worked atop a hill that loomed over another hill.

“Mommy, I was so worried for you.”

Five-year-old me didn’t understand the concept of death, not really. Mom says she tried
to stop the car. She clung onto the back and waited for her superhuman strength to kick in.
I used to roll down that hill. Long summer days I’d spend with Dad at work. He had a little
portable TV, grainy and unreliable, that sometimes I could find cartoons on. If I was bored there
was an endless amount of pens, paper, rubber bands, and paperclips. Sometimes I’d make art
using the scanner on the copy machine. I’d pile rubber bands or pens on there and watch it spew
out new creations. One time I pressed my face to it.

I’d broken my arm that day. A clean break. I wowed the doctors by not crying. I was a
big girl after all. Daddy was going to sign my cast.

That hill seemed to go on and on. One could tumble down and never reach the bottom.
Daddy’s hill led to another, much steeper hill. A small line of trees stood between them.
That day the car flew. I’d never flown down the hill that fast. Where green melted into blue as
sky became ground. We whirled like the teacup ride at the fair. I didn’t like that ride; it made me
sick. I’d like to say that I had some epiphany. That my short life had flickered like the grainy
images of Daddy’s TV. But I didn’t really know. Not enough to even be scared.

Mom flew through the air when the car hugged one of the trees that stretched between
Dad’s hill and the next. She was told later, that she barely missed a tree stump that would’ve
killed her. She didn’t notice. She laid there for only a few seconds before she was crawling
through the driver’s door because my side of the car was still hugging the tree. I still had
my seatbelt on, of course. Mom had told me to keep it on. I patted her cheek and told her how
worried I was for her. Not for myself. No, I was fine.

It’s been over twenty-five years now. The trees have all been cut down. Dad is dead.
There are new people who work there. Maybe they bring their children with them to work.
Sometimes I think of those hills and those trees.

Maybe, now, we’d fly higher.

Let the Girl Dance

Macrame would have made the most sense. Anyone would agree. Crafts were the longtime
hammock for my hummingbird heart, the only cat’s cradle where my breathing slowed.

Russian Literature Discussion Group was a muscular option. My spleen would soften in Rose
Parlor chairs. My Grand Inquisitor would accept samovars of conversation in lieu of answers.

But Easy Salsa kept shouting across the Student Center.

It was surprising to find myself there at all, my goosey legs wobbling from one booth to another.
Vassar’s premier introvert was not looking for the camaraderie of a “Mini-Course” taught by a
fellow student. The girl who kept her dorm door shut was not open to intramural extroversion.

But some unbidden heartburn hurtled me into the open. Some trickster angel smashed me like an
avocado. And there I was, gushing and grinning at Louis.

“You want to learn Salsa!” A tiny man of laughing colors, Louis was brilliant enough to taste the
hilarity. “Yes! Oh Lord, yes.”

We had met in Italian 101, the language requirement that I chose for my grandmother and Louis
chose for music. I knew he lived for the cherub he’d fathered at seventeen. He knew I was all
anxious A’s and underweight pastels. He plucked the barrettes out of my hair while
Professoressa was pontificating, and he had the most ecstatic accent in class. I prayed for his
family and earned his accolade, “Sicily’s sweetest, just too skinny!”

And now I was handing him twelve dollars to learn Easy Salsa.

“You won’t regret this.” Louis feigned salesman smarm, shaking my hand as though I’d just
signed up for a reverse mortgage. “I will take care of you, good girl.”

Although I was bewildered by my own existence most of the time, I regretted this particular
decision instantly. What was I thinking, make-believing I could inhabit a body for eight
Thursdays? I was all disembodied head and Diet Coke, earthless empathy pressed like a leaf
between pages. I was a Type 1 diabetic with no background boyfriends. I did not join. I did not

I sat dumbstruck, listening to my cola fizz and scold me at Christian Fellowship that night.

“You OK?” Vanessa crashed onto the couch beside me, linguini legs flying.

“I did something ridiculous today.” I took a gulp of soda, scalding my throat.


I laughed. Of course, Vanessa would need no context to approve. Her hair was long enough to sit
on, and her eyes were as enormous as any Byzantine icon’s. She loved Jesus and women and
cackling mid-sentence. She could turn tempera paints into liturgy, and she could give me
permission for anything with an eyebrow flourish.

She asked the campus chaplain why God had doled out Type 1 diabetes to “the two most
beautiful girls at Vassar.” She elbowed me when my freckles “got weird,” hers the only eyes to
recognize low blood sugar draining my color. She grabbed glucose tablets while giving her
“testimony,” saving herself without apology.

She was the first one I told. “I signed up for dance lessons.”

“Oh my God.” Vanessa shook my knees. “What kind?”

“Easy Salsa. No way it’s easy enough, but—”

“GIANNA!” She bubbled over. “I DID TOO!”

Cognitive dissonance knocked over my soda. “But you already know how to dance.” More
accurately, dance knew how to Vanessa. Her every movement was droll and delicate at the same
time, conscious comedy and Eden’s first elegance. I loved to watch her walk.

“Well, not formally.” She shrugged. “Besides, eight weeks with Louis.” She wiggled her
eyebrows. I snickered my blood sugar out of place.

“You’re going to be sensational. I’m going to be lucky if I can stay upright.”

“You’ll blow us all away.” Vanessa shook her head.

“You don’t understand. I once gave myself a concussion by opening the freezer. My Varsity
sport was ‘remaining generally ambulatory.’”

“Salsa is different.” Vanessa had decided my fate. “It will take care of you. Besides—” she
grabbed my knee “—you have it in your blood.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re Hispanic.”

We had been through this before. I was a mashed potato with one drop of marinara. I was named
for my grandmother but as clumped as clotted cream.

“I am one quarter Italian. That’s not even—”

“You’re a formidable Latina woman.” Vanessa waved her magic hand over me. “Salsa will
recognize you. Anyway, you’ll have me.”

We crossed the quad together that first night, following the sound of Louis’s laughter to Main
Building. The Yellow Parlor was proud of its identity, a staid host for seminars on neutrinos or
the redistribution of wealth. The world’s earnests and eminents spoke here.

But Louis was his own sovereign nation, and he had exiled the velveteen chairs. The Yellow
Parlor would feel its brightness again. I would feel around in my pocket for a tube of glucose

“You low?” Vanessa always knew.

I pulled out a strawberry discus. “Just a little.”

“You’ll be fine.” She pointed into my palm. “Don’t you love how they smoke?”

I watched the sugary haze rise like the O’s of Alice’s caterpillar. “I love how they save my life.”

“Your life is fine.”

“Welcome to my life!” Louis had spotted us. “Ladies, ladies, welcome! Pick a partner! Pick a
place! Tonight…we dance!”

“God help us.” I giggled and chewed as fast as I could.

“He always does. Blow us all away, lady.” Vanessa wiggled off to attend to another curve of her
infinity of friends.

Louis was full hibiscus, fluorescing in colors no one could name. “My people!” He clapped his
hands overhead. “Attention! We are dancing now! Salsa waits for no one!”

This would become endlessly evident, a madcap joke that punched me in and out of line. “Easy”
Salsa was subjective. My feet seized like opossums, pale and lost. The music hurtled hymnic,
fast as an honest prayer, and I froze. I contemplated telling Louis my body was an atheist.

That was not necessary. My body was telling Louis secrets without my signature.

“Miss Gianna!” Louis crowed, pausing to keep other birds in air. “Keep dancing, keep dancing!”
He put his feet on mine. “You have these lovely feet like skis. You have these long legs. Why do
you not dance?”

“I am—”

“Oh, you are.” He scrunched solemn. “You are. You are…” he shook my shoulders, some sort of
shamanic CPR “…a ballerina.”

A snort shot out my face. “That’s hilarious. I wanted to be a ballerina desperately as a kid, but I
was so awful at it they kicked me—”

“Well today, you are our ballerina.” Louis stiffened his body like a corpse, lurching side to side
until his laughter loosened him. “Everyone look at Gianna!”

“Oh God, Louis.”

All the birds landed.

“Look at this lovely lady!” Louis winked at me. “So serious. So careful. She is doing the ballet.”

“Minus the grace,” I added. A tall man laughed loudly three dancers over. Vanessa arabesqued
her arms overhead and nodded confidence in my direction.

“My lady is following instructions,” Louis acknowledged. “She is obeying the rules. Alas—” he
crumpled to the floor “—my lady has no blood.”

The tall man frowned sympathetically. I shrugged at him.

“Ballet or blood?” Louis asked. “In Salsa, you choose. Bleed music.” He shook his fists. “Bleed
sadness. Bleed passion. You have passion, my lady.”

“If you say so. I also have low blood sugar.”

“Then bleed all over. Bleed badly. Bleed life! Red, not pink!” Louis mercifully abandoned me
and returned to giving flight instructions.

I could not read his directions. But I grasped for good, steadying my sugars and scribbling flash
cards and reporting for dervish duty every Thursday.

Vanessa and I debriefed before Christian Fellowship meetings. “Are you loving this, or what?”

“I’m surviving.” There was something quite lovable in that.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” Vanessa insisted. “I hope he makes us a mix CD of all the
music. I hope he offers Slightly Less Easy Salsa next semester.”

“I hope you know I want to be you when I grow up.” These are the things a good girl says when
she finds another diabetic with icon eyes.

“You’re crazy.”

“I’m serious. I watch you dance, and I thank God for inventing dance. I’m hopeless, but you
move like the Holy Spirit exists.”

“My maple syrup girl.” Vanessa put her head on my shoulder. “God’s girl. Prima ballerina. You
don’t know what you’re talking about.”

We did not expect Louis’s mischief in Week Five. “There is no passion alone!” He clapped his
hands overhead, which caused his visiting toddler to shriek from her stroller. “There are no
bodies alone!”

“It is not good for man to be alone,” I whispered to Vanessa.

“Or woman.”

“Tonight, we find our lovers.” Louis wiggled his fingers, florid fairy dust filling the room. “Pair
up. Do it. Pronto!”

Vanessa looked at me. Louis swept her into his arms. The tall man looked at me. He had John
Lennon glasses and a nose like a tuber.


“Badly,” I nodded.

His name was Steven, Film Studies with a minor in German. He was writing a thesis on Gene
Hackman. He joined Easy Salsa for a friend.

“Me too, kind of.”

He danced better than me, but so would an electrocuted mollusk. I stepped on his feet and
swooped hypoglycemic. Louis and Vanessa stunned the seraphs with their art.

“I don’t feel well,” Vanessa admitted on the walk back to the dorm.

“Low? High?”

“Just off. I don’t know.”

She worried aloud about her major – “choose early, choose often doesn’t seem to be working” –
and coughed about Christian Fellowship. “Ever feel like they’re trying to whip us into a frenzy?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it can feel almost manipulative. Just chanting the same chorus seventeen times until we
all FEEEEEEEEEL things. OHHH Jesus Jesus Jesus…like they work us into a trance and say it’s
the Spirit.”

She had a point. “I’m the wrong one to ask,” I admitted. “My body kind of checks out during
‘worship.’ I grew up with all these stodgy old hymns that I loved, old English kinda—”

“—maybe they’re not stodgy. Maybe they’re great. Also, Sarah – that little pixie thing that prays
loud – put a note under my door the week I skipped out. Some crap about ‘do not give up
meeting together.’ Don’t tell me how to do God. I talked to God this morning.”

Her electric wires sizzled, and my spirit knotted up when we reached her door. “You sure you’re
ok, Vanessa?”

“Yeah. Love you, dancing girl.”

There was only a week left of Easy Salsa, and I was more relieved than wistful. My legs were
sore, and my pride was pickled. It has always been my way to be little-girl grateful for memories,
but ghoulishly grateful that the actual memory-making is over. For once, I had been a ballerina
and danced with a tall man. That was enough. Now I could return to Russian literature and
Italian verbs and the London rain of my closed room.

But Vanessa swung feral, dripping tragedy. “This feels like an ending,” she lamented. “This feels
like some turning point. We’re going to be juniors next year.”

“We have a lot to look forward to,” I promised.

“You do.” Vanessa’s dark eyes stomped the rest of her face.


“I have no idea. I just want to feel alive.”

My opossum feet nearly fell off. “Vanessa, you’re the liveliest music I know.”

She stopped and smiled loudly. “You’re music, you know. You’ll always have somewhere to
turn. You dance in words.”

“It almost makes up for the balderdash body.”

“But the body is on borrowed time. Especially ours.” She wrinkled her nose. “What comes

“There is no after.” I flailed. “There will always be something. There will always be an Easy
Salsa. Or a Hard Salsa.”

“I don’t know.” She picked her cuticles.

“Don’t do that. You’ll make yourself bleed.”

“I want to.”

Louis did make mix CDs, “six dollars unless you write me a review,” which we all did. I rated
him five out of five stars but noted that the appropriate metric was full constellations. Steven
vanished with all the other boys whose fingertips I’d touched.

Sarah asked if I would take the role of Prayer Coordinator in junior year, but the title tasted so
weird I declined. I signed up to offer a Mini-Course on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, but no one

Vanessa declared Art History and cut her hair. “I’m applying for a semester abroad,” she
announced the last time she came to Christian Fellowship.



“But you don’t speak—”

“—I’ll learn. It’ll be an adventure. I’ll call you if I get stuck.”

“You’re incandescently brave.”

“I want that needlepointed on a pillow.” Vanessa jabbed me. “I just know to stay moving. Like a
shark, you know.”

I couldn’t help myself. “It’s actually a myth that they die if they stop—”
“—well, I hear there are sharks in the Mediterranean, and then all speak Italian, and we’re going
to talk trash about you, ballerina.”

“I’m going to miss you terribly.” It was true. I was happiest on my hermit nights alone, which
made my scarce dance partners as precious as powdered sugar.

“You’ll be fine.” She shook her head, then pointed at my chest. “Just bleeeeeeed, OK?”

“Can’t stop, won’t stop.”

“And convince Louis he’s in love with me?”

“You don’t need my help there.”

“Oh, and take over the damn Fellowship.” She curled her legs under her ferociously. “I want to
come back and sing some stodgy hymns.”

“You just grab the Spirit with both hands.” I was preaching to myself more than Vanessa. “No
one can tell you that you’re doing that wrong.”

“They’d regret it if they tried.”

Vanessa went to Siena, and I went home to poetry and prose. She packed enough insulin, and I found a new power source now that I was at least part ballerina. We would never be close again. 

College is four years of intricate knots, meshwork over black holes. We fall through our best intentions and land on our own feet. If we’ve loved anyone, we are not alone. If we’ve forgotten ourselves in a yellow room, the Spirit will remember how to move us. The right paths will shout until we obey. Macrame would have been the wrong choice. 

No News

Let’s just say it’s the one describing
her father’s recent illness, how just before his fever broke
his cough morphed into the sound of a steam engine
hauling tourists up the two percent grade
for one last glimpse at fall’s fading colors,

or maybe a request for money to repair her car,
the one her friend borrowed, crashing it
into a utility pole and breaking her leg
after trying to tune the radio from Country
to Rock—or was it vice versa?—

or perhaps an invitation to join the prayer chain
that her new, so-called friends recommended after discovering
her inability to make a financial contribution,
her checking account needing some kind of assistance
to grow from red to black,

or a plea to help pay for her cousin’s
prescription meds, the ones he can no longer afford
since his job and budget were downsized—
cut down with those of many others
to pay for the CEO’s retirement,

or maybe word of the warm spell
bringing rain and wind, the combo toppling
her neighbor’s dying oak—severely topped
just a year or so ago—and collapsing
the newly installed greenhouse like an umbrella,

that is, the message that was never written—
or at least never sent.

By Pity Undeterred

This old ugly contest of who’s on first,
whose prize. I feel ready for tit-and-bum
journalism, finally, ready to
invent new commonplaces, to allow
myself to imagine how it would feel
to believe what I report. But, wary,
I stick to reading. The invitation
writ on the wall of the restroom beckons:

“No strings of any sort.” Of course critics
know that the truly beautiful don’t need
to advertise. Unless making a show
of wanting is in now? I’ve always been
proud of how I earned this reputation
as an authority on wanting. Did
you earn yours? Did he, his? Did she, hers? Fight
not these incessant wars. Where shall we take

our long holiday? Nowhere near here, please,
where we’d be forced for consistency’s sake
to maledict the dead. Let us go far
to somewhere sunny and out of reach. Where
any old dead log might burst into leaf
and flourish like a fashion magazine.
Is that me? A dead log crying to be
made anew a god above all regret—

mired in the process, not nearly half-
baked. When you touch the pan I tremble like
a custard. I record the testament
of any old partially crushed dead log,
suited only to be supervisor
to paper wasps in their dry catacombs.
In the hotels I stay in, I dream of
knowing the people I hear in the hall.


Consider an arc crossing the cosmos
nine billion light years away
a bit of order making the chaos

spookier             Consider a small boy
flying through a park                   chasing two
huskies               one with gray eyes

The boy’s not calling their names
simply running and waving a strap
while his dogs scamper away

and don’t even stop to sniff
my own tame hound               Who gives
a child such a task               For a while

I follow at a distance               then
cut the angle toward pines
and brush–home to rabbits
that might draw the truants

The gathering dark               of course
swallows the trio               leaves me
another sad adult lagging behind
staring up at stars I can’t name