My favorite photo of Caleb and me is a self-portrait taken on a beach at Ecola State Park on the Oregon Coast. We had hiked down a steep trail, stopping to lunch on smoked salmon and bagels, and ended up on a beach. The tide was low, and sand dollars dotted the shore. We scooped them up like prizes. We ran into the surf. We hugged. In the photo, we are both smiling, our heads pressed together.
When I look at that photo now, I wonder, “Where are those people? Where did they go?”
Just to the right of us was a cave. I had wanted to go in it, but the tide was coming in, and I was afraid of getting trapped and drowning.
The wind howled and pushed against the glass of the windows. The world outside was pitch-black with faint starlight. I lit a cigarette and asked myself how I could change to keep loving her.
Two years after we moved, I started graduate school and finally made some friends, but it was hard to spend time with them. I had to lie: I shut my arm in the door. I tripped on a rug and hit my face on the table. I don’t know where that bruise came from. I think I did it in my sleep. I think I’m anemic. I just bruise so easily.
Once, Caleb said to me, “You probably wish that someone would figure out where those bruises are coming from. You probably wish someone knew, so that things could change.” He said it with such sadness.
ENDNOTE #4: VISUAL/CULTURE
In this installment of ENDNOTE we bring you a reading list loosely curated along the lines of creativity, class, race, and visual culture. Featuring: questions of agency surrounding the political selfie, the dangers of “do what you love,” Ciara and object fetish, the racist origin of film, and at The Toast, a coffee break with every TV show’s favorite anonymous dead girl.
1. Selfie Control, Jenna Brager, The New Inquiry
Writes Brager: “The specter of the unintentional object, particularly an object of action—the lens of a camera, a blurred hand in motion, the barrel of a gun—in conflict or atrocity photography carries the viewer’s gaze into the margins of the photograph and outside it. Who is acting in the margins? Whose gaze do we occupy?”
2. In the Name of Love, Miya Tokumitsu, Jacobin
"Do what you love" has long been the motto of America’s burgeoning, plaintively long-suffering "creative class." But how responsible is this philosophy? Tokumitsu argues it does more harm than good, especially as it falls across class divides.
3. You Are My Ducati, Andrew Durbin, Triple Canopy
"Since first listening to Ciara’s “Ride,” her 2010 chart-topper about the reversal of expectation, gender trouble loosened in the declaration that her man is her Ducati, the mobilizing object parked in the garage that begs you, slick with rain, to take him for a spin, I’ve become obsessed with the Italian motorcycle company."
4. Teaching the Camera To See My Skin, Syreeta McFadden, Buzzfeed
This essay ought to be required reading for any consumer of mass visual culture. McFadden discusses the racist origins of Kodak film and explores new ways of photographic representation with a lyrical, compassionate hand familiar with the shutter and exposure.
5. Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break, Helen McClory, The Toast
The eeriest thing I’ve read lately. “She peels back the plastic and gets out of the water, a little clumsy with her limbs not moving right and her blue-black blood slow shot through them. She hasn’t even opened her eyes yet, they’ve been closed that long she has to pry them with thick fingers, prop them open a while, practice her blinks.”
Have any compelling, charged, or otherwise fascinating reads? Send them to us and they might end up in ENDNOTE.
—Larissa Pham, Tumblr ed.
I had never, in my whole life, been able to understand love as a sickness. Love should not destroy our dignity. Beautiful feelings should not make us hang our heads and burn our eyes with tears. When I suggested that she get rid of their pictures and letters to help her forget, she refused, saying, “I can’t shred two years of my life.”
Image by Alex Gibbs, I Know Nothing of the Illnesses I Will One Day Have, 2012. Courtesy the artist.
The Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin committed suicide at twenty-six, leaving behind this story of a passionate relationship between two young women, told through a series of letters.
In the beginning of our relationship, I slept in his cabin in the woods with no indoor plumbing. I had to pee, so I let myself out. The ground was snow-covered and cold and I didn’t feel like walking to the outhouse, so I went around to the side and squatted in the moonlight. The moon turned the snow into a million stars while my gentle lover slumbered in the warmth—such happiness.
The Walk, by Jamie Quatro
Wednesday, early March. My twelve-year-old son has the day off from school. It’s his older brother’s birthday and I need to bake a cake. Hudson and I decide to walk to the Lookout Mountain Market to get a mix and frosting. We take Boji, our yellow lab, along.
It’s the first sunny day in a week, warm, the kind of soft-focus, liquid air that makes me feel half-time and drowsy. Blots of color in yards along Lula Lake: purple crocus, yellow forsythia, green onion grass. Hudson yanks up a cluster and chucks it across the street, then smells his fingers. Will that grass make actual onions? he asks.
We walk a block and cross from Georgia into Tennessee, alongside the rock wall with built-in mailboxes in front of each house. Past the Civil War trenches—hospital, not battle—at the four-way stop where Lula Lake road becomes Scenic Highway. We wind along past the trailhead that leads, Hudson says, “to a sick cave.” I had no idea he’d been there, though it doesn’t surprise me: mountain kids grow up roaming free, climbing boulders, swimming in creeks. We reach the small ravine across from Watauga road and cross the metal replica of the Market Street bridge—this smaller version painted black, not blue like the full-size bridge in downtown Chattanooga.
I wave to Ruth on the patio of the Café on the Corner. She’s the owner and chef, keeps my favorite Cabernet in stock for half-price wine night. I spot Gwen—the “mountain tracker” social columnist—exiting the post office. My friend Melanie speed-walks past us, waves.
Everyone we see is white. I wish I could say this grim reality is still something I notice daily, as it was when we first moved here. The shameful truth: I rarely think about it anymore. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee—there’s a reason Martin Luther King singled out our town in his famous speech.
We reach the market and I sit outside with Boji while Hudson goes in to buy the mix and frosting and a snack for himself. A woman whose name I don’t know comes out of the market—I’ve been told she’s a “socialite.” She drives a convertible. Her young son is with her. They get into the car and a country song blares. I LOVE this song! she says, and high-fives her son, who’s drinking from a juice box. They sit there and listen, together.
On the way home Hudson kicks at the spiked seed pods lining the road. Boji sniffs at ivy, lifts his leg.
There he goes, I say. Reading his pee-mails, replying.
How much is Boji worth? Hudson asks.
He’s priceless to us, I say.
I mean his actual body, Hudson says.
I tell him how much we paid, when we bought Boji from the breeder. Hudson stops walking.
You bought him?
It hadn’t occurred to me that Hudson wouldn’t know this.
We bought him from his owner, I say.
You can’t own an animal, he says. You just take care of them, in your house.
I guess you’re right, in a sense, I say.
Like, humans can’t be owned, he says, and Boji’s pretty much human.
The dog sniffs, lifts, jogs ahead.
So how much is a human body worth, Hudson says.
And we’re off again.
The next day, driving Hudson to school, we pass Howard High School, in the inner city. We’ve passed it all year, but today it’s a late start and there are students outside.
Is that a private school for black kids? Hudson asks.
Actually, it’s public, I say.
But racism is illegal, right, he says.
How do you explain to a twelve-year-old? I wish I could say, Yes, darling: racism is illegal.
Mandatory segregation is illegal, I say.
It’s the best I can do, for now.
We get on I-24 and take the Sugar’s Ribs exit at Missionary Ridge, where a herd of kudzu-eating goats grazes the hillside. Hudson’s school, private, sits at the base of the ridge, where in 1863 Arthur MacArthur—the famous General Douglas’s father—charged the hillside and took Chattanooga for the Union, General Grant watching from Orchard Knob nearby.
The sun is already high above the ridge. I say goodbye to Hudson and drive back up the mountain, the city growing hazy below. Birdsong, pillared homes, pear trees laced in white blossom—another gorgeous Southern day made, it seems, to lull us into forgetfulness.
[Originally published in Guernica’s special issue, The American South.]
So There It Is
I don’t know how to put this. Here, there’s no comparing. There’s knowledge, and there’s dirt. They’re the same thing, also entirely different. My mother has a night-blooming cereus that was her mother’s and her mother’s. This is exactly like Kew Gardens, where there is a house plant two hundred and fifty years old. Same thing. Except my grandmother has died, which is what happens here.
I spotted a cemetery on the way to work the other day. Not the one by the little church with the “We Trust in Christ” sign, not that one, but another one, with a spindly obelisk and two cracked stones and one whole stone thin as a layer of cake and canted back, and a few foot-markers and infant pillows and what-all can you see navigating the corner by the mobile home park at fifty miles an hour. So there you go. So there it is. That’s how it is. Except that it’s different, because that’s how we are, we like to make distinctions even when there aren’t any, for the fun of it and to make sure strangers never get it right. (They try, though, bless their hearts.)
You see, here is a narrative nearness that approximates the closing in of landscape by hills and trees, and the closing in of space and night-sky and finality by the presence of ghost ancestors who perhaps are also trapped by the land, which is beautiful, unutterably beautiful, so it’s no wonder the dead aren’t leaving to go into that goddamned light. Here is a blur that talks to you, makes love to you, leaves you flat. Here you’re related to everyone, but they’re still waiting to see how you turn out.
Are we stagey? Are we absent? Henry Adams said we have no mind, just temperament. That’s probably what this is, this state of absolute certainty about the details of the storm we forgot to come in from—the moment the pine cracked in half, the green and sap-drenched air after.
Most summers my sister and I were taken along to family reunions and also to cemetery meetings, where the family discussed the upkeep of a fenced-in plot of graves on a bald hilltop in a valley we’d peppered with ourselves since the 1800s at least. These gatherings usually involved catered barbecue, sometimes matching t-shirts, and always the one picnic table spread with ledgers and picture albums and Xeroxed family trees and marriage certificates and birth and death records bearing the studied penmanship of our forebears. Sarah and I would chug chalky lemonade, straddle splintering benches, leaf through the pages to find the relatives we were glad we hadn’t hadn’t been named after: the Geraldines, the Hortenses, the Dorcases. We were often the only kids, the lonely green tip of our limb of the family tree.
It seemed to me then that the chief purpose of these gatherings was to figure out how we were all related to one another, that if we could just figure it all out then we wouldn’t have to keep meeting this way, year after year, always on the hottest day of the summer. I sensed some level of subterfuge, some amount of information being withheld by someone at these meetings, always just enough to merit another one.