folklore - the lost chapters
When I think of the word “folklore,” I think of enchanted forests, haunted houses, and other classic fairy tales benchmarkers. Now, when I think of the word “folklore,” I think of Taylor Swift’s eighth album. She wanted these songs to sound like stories – not her own, but other people’s. When I listened to this album, certain images and ideas passed through my mind during specific songs, clips of things not from my own life. As a creative nonfiction writer, fiction doesn’t come easily to me; I find myself unable to think of storylines intriguing enough for a reader – and myself – to continue reading. However, I decided to put the stories I created in my mind around certain songs in the album into words. This is unfamiliar to me, but it feels right. I believe folklore must have felt that way to Taylor Swift as well: a completely different, yet familiar and exciting sound.
After we watched Singin’ in the Rain, you liked to pretend you were Gene Kelly in the iconic dance sequence whenever we walked home from the bar. You’d grab onto the body of a streetlight with one hand and extend the rest of your body like a star, your bright, drunken face glowing under the yellow light. You would pretend to tap dance along the sidewalk as I laughed loudly at your obvious show of intoxication. Strangers would stare, but I think some of them recognized themselves – young and drunk – in us.
I think about that moment when I think about us. It comes back over and over again, even when we didn’t. I might have lost you, but at least I have that memory forever.
the last great american dynasty
I stand on the same beach she may have stood and I feel history under my feet, worn and ambiguous and solid. It seems as though this whole place has forgotten she was here, but I don’t want to forget.
She fascinates me. What kind of things have to happen to a woman to make her dye her neighbor's dog’s fur green? To fill an entire pool with champagne? I don’t know, but I desperately want to know. I feel as though I’m reaching for someone who can never be fully unearthed. I’ve written biographies before; I love the process of research and dead end and redirection as though life is a maze that can be navigated through fact. This one is expected to be big. I’ve been given a nice advance for it. “Write something Gatsby-esque or…,” my agent urges me, “I don’t know. Something that makes people want to go back in time. I know you can do that.” Her confidence in me fueled my initial dive into this project – the thought that I could write something spellbinding, enchanting my audience into a false vision of the twenties. That’s what the money tells me to do, but you don’t become a nonfiction writer if you’re going to bullshit your way through every chapter. After a lifetime of causing such notable trouble, why make her into a woman helpless to the whims of a wealthy lifestyle, when she was anything but that? I love her because she knew her resources, tapped into them ridiculously, and always got what she wanted. I feel as though I can feel her fierceness, her bold streak of life, in the crash of every wave and in the vibrant sunsets that have graced the skies almost every night since I arrived. When walking the beach one night, I struck up a conversation with a man who had lived there for quite a while. “You’re lucky,” he said, “We normally don’t get sunsets this beautiful.” I told him maybe it’s the owner of Holiday House making a final bold statement for me, ensuring I write her well. “You never know. She was an odd one, at least from what I’ve heard from the stories,” he responded. Then we just stood there, enjoying the sunset in our own way.
I know I shouldn’t be here, but I am. I remember when I used to be able to come into your house without knocking. Now I’m standing outside in the rain like any other person walking down your street. The kitchen lights are on and you’re standing with him, laughing about something. You’re effortless in everything you do, laughing, chopping, standing, moving. I wonder if he knows that or if he’s just another clunky piece of furniture you must do endless circles around. I remember when you bought the apron you’re wearing, the one with the lemons on it. I laughed when you told me you were going to buy it, but then you did and wore it everytime you cooked and I now can’t see food without thinking of that apron. It looks like you’re happy. There’s part of me that hopes you’re happy and a part of me that hopes you’re just as lonely as me, wandering around the places we used to roam in exile. Any empty space in a restaurant or a bookstore or a sidewalk seems even more void of humanness. I don’t recognize anything anymore.
Some days I believe my life will always revolve around the moment you left, as I watched you pull out of the driveway and I sat on the concrete steps for hours, hoping you might come back around. I guess we were never on the same page in any way. I go back in my dreams and nightmares to us. I can’t decide if I was happy the whole time or if I’m making it up so that I can’t look back on those memories and come up with reasons why you’re not here anymore. But this isn’t a dream. All I want to do is burst into that kitchen and wind every single house in that clock back and back, so that it was never him, it was only me and always will be. If only my selfishness were greater than my desire to see you happy. And you are happy. At least I got one thing I wanted.
my tears ricochet
My wake. I never thought I would be seeing this. I always thought that once you die, you’re dust and bone and decay. I guess there is a small part of us that survives, becomes some sort of star matter or something. I was never good at science. The one thing science cannot explain is why you’re here. I see you, dressed in your best, at the back. Your eyes are rimmed red and not from a high. You and my mom make short eye contact, a recognition rather than an interaction, and I wonder if it hurts. I told my mom I liked you because you reminded me of her. She loved you, she loves you. I don’t know which one it is. You’re waiting for something, I don’t know. You lean against the wall, so casual and cool like you always look. I’ll always see you the way I did the first day I met you, even after everything you’ve done to shatter the vision of that person.
For some reason, I really want to see you cry or scream or be something other than okay. Every dream I ever had of you ended in violence. In one dream, I attended a party in your house, but you weren’t there, and everyone – your friends and family – broke everything of yours. A lamp, beer bottles, wine glasses and mugs, your glasses that always framed your blue eyes beautifully. I didn’t participate, I couldn’t. I calmly walked out as chaos erupted. But this isn’t a dream, and I’m dead and you’re alive. Funny because you were always the one who made me feel the most alive. You push away from the wall, quickly surveying the room, before walking up to the casket. You stop for a moment before the polished wood chamber, contemplating the swirls and patterns in the material. I’m scared of what you’re going to do. You’re not one to cry in public. In fact, I’ve only ever seen you cry once. You wiped away your rebel tears before hugging me. Now, I don’t have words with which to sweep you away, though they were never really enough.
Then you do something I don’t expect. You fall to your knees and put your head in your hands. No one notices, this is between you and me now as it should’ve been a long time ago. You cry, tears leaking between your fingers and down your sleeve. I hope it feels cold, reminds you of me dancing in the rain. I love how I can tear you down now. This is what I’ve always wanted – to cut you down the same way you did to me – but it doesn’t taste as sweet as I thought. Instead, it tastes like the beer we shared that one night – bitterness and connection. When you finally get up, wiping your face and brushing off the dust from your pants from the floral carpet of the funeral home, you place both your hands on the casket. You lower your head onto your hands and I hate how you’ve never looked more beautiful. You whisper into the wood, knowing this is just for me, over and over again, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you.” The tears keep coming and it breaks me. I want to hold you so badly. I want to hold you like you held me when I thought I was going to fall apart in your living room that one night. I want to scream. I want to start an earthquake so that others may tremble before the sight of a love that never was, may stand agape at the great void of longing interrupted by everlasting sleep. You compose yourself, not knowing if I received your last message. I hope we can both live with that.
They’re so predictable, so easy to enchant and bind in mysterious chains. If I keep dancing and talking as if I’m interested, I can keep them around. I can remind them that they are merely at the whim of their own lust. I’m good at what I do and I like it. As a woman, you’re rewarded for that. You’re rewarded for being sexy and casual, like you never even thought about it. But I do know it. Just look at the way my clothes hang off my body.
But when I finally lure you in, and lips touch lips, I will not want you. I’m supposed to want you, I know I am. I’ve grown up with the idea drilled into me until I bled. I will continue to kiss you, give you more of my body, while I dream of a softer body. Of curves where this is taut skin over bones, of something feminine – whatever form that comes in. It is my most primal desire, yet my most hidden. But it’s so easy to want what everyone says you should want. It’s so easy to want what is most accessible, what is right in front of me in the form of charming boyishness.
I don’t see the charm. I only see obligation The formula of gaze, flirtation, and physical touch have worked for this moment. I leave before he can touch any part of me that exposes my softness or my apprehension. He wanted a show, something to pine after, and I gave him that. My work is done.
Our music teacher used to tell us about a haunted house she found deep in the woods as a child. If we were good, she would end class early, turn off the lights, and enchant us with her stories. A ghost in a Rolls Royce. A woman in the window. The death of Mozart. She always had a new tale, as though she had memorized a book; she read the words from behind her eyelids. I’ll always remember that house.
It had crumbling steps, she said. Her small legs once fell through one of them and her friend had to pull her out. There was a long hallway once you opened the front door, and a chandelier. She never went upstairs, too scared of what sort of truths and lost lives she might find. She always left that place running as though something would catch up with her if she didn’t leave quickly.
I once walked into the woods behind our school with my best friend, attempting to find the house. It must be there, I knew it. I could hear it behind her words. I continued to dream about the house for a year, only able to find it in my mind, but it was always where I expected it to be. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough.
Sitting in that field with you made me think of what people imagine heaven to be. There’s often lots of light, natural imagery that comes with one’s vision of heaven. Mine is quite simple: it’s that moment. I like how we are something and nothing. Exclusive and free. There’s no obligation or ownership, only the choice to find each other every day. You brought a blanket and some beer and we got drunk and sweaty under the summer sun. I knew I would go home smelling of beer and my mom would know that I was with you. I think my brother secretly likes you though. I told you I felt disgusting, the humidity soaking my shirt, but you claimed that if I was disgusting, then you were disgusting too. I like it when you say such simple, soothing things like that. You never need as many words as I do. I think this is what people mean when they wish that summer would never end.
this is me trying
We sit quiet in the car on the foggy drive up to the beach. I want to make you laugh or sing, but it feels wrong. I decide to look out the window until you want to say something. “I’m sorry if…,” you start, “I’m sorry if I made you feel like you weren’t enough.” Fuck, I can’t cry, but you always get me. You always know my heart too well. But it’s not your puzzle to break apart and solve over and over again. Fuck off, I want to say. “I understand if you don’t want to say anything.” But there’s so much I want to say. “I just – I’m a bit frustrated honestly. I don’t really know what to do.” I look over at them in the driver’s seat, their face illuminated by the white mistiness of the fog. It’s not your fault. It’s all me. “I just want to understand you, like at the end of the day. Whatever that means. And I know you work so hard and you don’t have to.” They glance over at me. “Like I don’t know if there’s anything I did or anything I can do, but you have to know I love you. And that you are loved and loveable.” I look away. “Please don’t keep this to yourself. I really don’t want to read about this later in something you’ve written.” But I write everything for you. Every word is for you, even if it isn’t about you. “It’s not you,” I finally say, “I’m – There’s things I have to work on and I want to understand me too. And you trying to understand me means the world and you do. I’m trying really – This is me trying, please know that.” A tear goes down the cheek facing away from you. I’ll hold you later and I’ll hope you understand and I think you will.
“Just pretend you went for a run,” they say, exasperated, covering their face with their hands, “They won’t think anything of it.” I had spent the last hour yelling at them. What happened to the people who met at that party, so alive and young and wanting a love so big it could crush them both? What happened to the person who kissed me in the rain in that parking lot because they could? What happened? Over and over again. Defeated, I put my hood on my head, ready to walk home in the rain. “You fucking go for a run,” I murmured angrily, unable to say anything intelligible. I walked out their door, more heartbroken than angry. As I started walking, I felt like I could see the history of us going by. Scene 1: a party; we meet through mutual friends and it’s doomed from the start. Scene 2: my house; we watch a movie and somehow I’m not watching the movie anymore because we’re kissing, and I’ve realized that’s all I ever wanted to do. Scene 3: the mall; you pull me into a nearby store because your partner is also here and they can’t know that you’re here with me. I don’t say anything. Scene 4: your place; the first fight. Scene 5: a local park; you set up a nice picnic as an apology and I forget everything. Scene 6: my place; the second fight. And it goes on and on. You call me “kid” on a phone call and it pisses me off. You call me “baby” in the kitchen when we make pancakes in the morning and I think I love you.
I can’t tell if I’m crying or if it’s the rain, but my eyes start to burn as I think about lie after lie. As I think about touch after touch and turn over words carefully in my mind. All I know is that my life isn’t the same and it’s all your fault. Or maybe it’s all my fault.
I fucking hate you. I hate that you hurt me and I hate that I love you and I hate that I knew these things all along. I knew it all along.
I stand at Betty’s front door, holding my hands behind my back, and try to look at something else as I wait for someone to open the door. The white house seems to shake with the existence of teenagerdom and the loud music that exists inherently along with it. I look at the small, yellow flowers in a pot near the door. I remember her mom always tried to convince her to help her with the garden. “James, will you help me?” she would ask sweetly, bent over the hydrangea bushes in the front of the house. I’d look at Betty, who would give me a furiously stormy look, begging me to move on from her mom’s requests. “Of course,” I chirped, looking back at her and shrugging. “Now…” her mom would begin rambling about her plants and the specific care required for each of them. Betty would stand on the porch, arms crossed, trying not to smile at the sight of me and her mom getting along so well. “Hydrangeas are Betty’s favorite,” she would say and wink at her daughter. The next day, I brought some hydrangeas to her house and, when her mom answered the door, I asked if she could put them in her room. “Do you want to leave a note for her or something?” she asked, holding the flowers in one hand and the black door open in the other. “No...no. She’ll know it’s me,” I answered. I could tell she knew it was me because she didn’t have to ask me the next day at school, though she never would have openly admitted it.
Now, I’m standing here at her door and I want to cry at the thought of that memory. Maybe once she opens the door, I’ll just say something like, “I want to buy you hydrangeas again.” That feels more fitting than “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” I’ve tried both of those before. The door opens. A moment of anticipation. Everything freezes. I can’t imagine anymore what it’ll be like to stand here. Here we go.
I hope one day I wake up and I am a part of the ocean. That I can finally reform and break over and over again, my anger frothing and sizzling out over the sand. I am not a part of a calming beach. I sometimes feel as though I cannot be gentle, that I must feel everything in a way that must destroy me. Every one of my waves must crash into another part of itself, water rolling up into ribbons before breaking all over again. I am too much for myself. I’m used to feeling like I’m drowning in my own skin, my lungs fiery with burning saltiness. I love how I am constantly alight in my own gasoline-matches concoction, but this just means I am in desperate need of water. I am not peace. I’m bleeding and choking and touching and burning and dissecting. Before you decide to love me, you must know I can never give you peace.
You gave me one precious thing: the joy of biking. The clench of cold fingers around rubber handles and the whirling, blurring of feet on pedals, turning the spokes into a constellation.
I believe everyone we love never leaves us because they leave little gifts like breadcrumbs behind them. I learned the word “efficient” from my sophomore year English teacher just like I learned to take a shot from the first girl I loved.
But then I biked the whole city looking for you in my dreams and I biked at night and I biked past you and you weren’t alone. I knew that girl from a picture you had shown me two months ago, branded into my memory because of the way she was unaware she had everything I wanted. I turned around in the night, my legs shaky as I stood up in my unsure pedals. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t because you had never taught me that. You never taught me that you could hurt me just like everyone else.
I biked until I reached a grassy area next to the river. I held my bike by the handle and the seat – your unintentional gift to me – and looked at the lights reflected in the water by the large skyscrapers. I’ve lived here for two years and this is the first time the sight hasn’t dazzled me. You have, for a moment, ruined everything. I always imagined us as a movie and I knew you would film it well. But I didn’t anticipate you choosing a different costar. I feel like I did so incredibly well at an audition, the casting directors giving me their silent smiles and promises, and I was cheated. They chose the other girl. They always do, don’t they?
Dedicated to my best friend, Zoe
This is the place where I first felt I had known you before. We were sitting on the wooden dock on the lake on an unusually chilly summer day, the clouds covering up the modest sun. I remember how your big red sweater enveloped my body, how I pulled it over my knees when the wind started whipping my hair into my face. We ate sour gummies and pointed at the train tracks in the distance, wondering where they might lead to. I wondered if ghosts live there, if we might be able to haunt that place once we’re gone. I imagine we’ll die at the same time; we’ll time it perfectly, holding hands across the space between our hospital beds like the delicate chains of a necklace we started making when we were ten. I find comfort in knowing no one will be able to tell my story without including you in it. We will die with each other's stories and carry them into our next lifetime and we will continue to find each other over and over again. So when I say “I love you,” I will say it in multiple languages and lifetimes, praying the meaning never gets lost no matter how many times it’s translated.
Read more about Tatum here
Read more about Christine here
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