CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
I have found the edge of this place, which is to say I know how to leave: Drive east until the air gets wet and the kids are chigger bit and stained with jam, or past them until you reach the ocean. There: The water will not be what you expect, will not be the clear glimmer of just-cracked sugar, but a churn of mud and rootless vines waiting to play shark. It is nothing like here. There: The salt in the air is a polite suggestion. There: Water and earth accommodate and grow big beasts. It is nothing like here. Or drive west, past glugs of neon and pills, until you reach the ocean. Elsewhere is nothing like here, much more so than with other places. I have found the edge of this place, which is to say I have left.
The fifth time I came back was from Kansas. I was heavied with failure and lard. Utah opened to me like a bed and I lay down and I opened it and took some of its down into my mouth: This is what it is to miss something. There are things I say about the Midwest: that the people are amorphous thumbs in hideous wigs, that balanced on bar stools they look like elephants riding unicycles. Funnel cake, car show, gun show, cross. There are things I say about the Midwest: that the weather will first dampen you and then spit mosquitos at you through a straw, and you’ll be a flushed and speckled dredge of human misery buying corn and tamales from the back of a truck. But it wasn’t all cicada-killing wasps; the smell after rain is God’s armpit. The lakes are bathtub warm and, if clear of brain-eating algae, make for a nice Sunday afternoon. This is the thing: I’d gone there with a plan clenched in one fist while my other hand was reaching. I spent the first fleshy minutes of a class on Vladimir Nabokov learning to pronounce his name; a poetry professor leaned back and closed his eyes, recounting for forty-five minutes the yard of his friend in California, how the avocado tree bruised fruit against his driveway. The real poetry was in the chipped wood benches of the bar after class, the rabbit meat and insistent green. I fell in love with a huddle of people, and now I am a ghost of that place dragging them all in my rattling chains.
And I came back to Utah each year to visit. And Utah in winter is the big ghost mountains holding up the sky, is the snow plowed into parking places downtown, is the birdseed strewn over the white yard of my mother as myriad creatures rush against starvation. Utah in winter is losing my friends to the strollers and group dates of the Hogle ZooLights and so staring at the bats instead, who are awake for the first time to my eyes and kissing all over an apple core. Like all wild creatures, they seem to be waiting to love me. I tap the glass. I do not ski and never will, but watch from the window as a wind picks up and snow clouds from the peaks. Winter in Utah used to mean gathering all the residents-cum-visitors together against the wall of a bar to talk about how glad we are not to live here anymore—secular or gay or hablantes de español or not-athletic or left-leaning or out-for-bigger or up-for-anything, everyone has their list. It is only sometimes like that anymore.
The third time I came back was after Mexico, which I traversed for a month with a blonde-haired-blue-eyed alcoholic and no plan. He’d pitched it as a chance to speak Spanish again, but moments after we’d crossed in he turned to me and asked How do you say “What is your name,” again? We saw anemic donkeys, Tarahumara, pyramids, monkeys, mangoes that bruised themselves against the asphalt, machine guns. This area no longer controlled by the Mexican government: Enter at your own risk. In Mexico City we saw a man bleeding from his forehead and walking from a wrecked car. At the Museo de Historia Natural I smeared my nose against the Plexi case holding Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis, only realizing years later it was a copy.
But I came back. An old archeologist trick: If it sticks to your tongue, it’s bone. In this way I’ve eaten through this place, Utah, taking it in until it accounts for my weight. It sticks to me, it is living, it is bone. When I go to southern Utah this is a list of things I will see: crows, red sand, broken fencing, cacti uglier than I expect. This is a list of things I may see: wild flowers, kangaroo rat, ATVs, my father. This is a list of things I will not see: cicadas, mangoes, avocado trees, ZooLights, Australopithecus afarensis, Vladimir Nabokov. I go to southern Utah to lay my skeleton on the hot breath of red rock and listen. This is the way my dad tells it: A friend from the East Coast turned to him and asked, How did they get all these rocks out here? imagining they’d been made and shipped in order to create the right mood for being at this place. Like building a set. We laugh. I have one for him: After a ranger at Antelope Island had described an outcropping of Precambrian gneiss at the Island’s edge, had said It is older than Pleiades, the first hand that went up was to ask Can we buy it?, I tell my father, like in the gift shop. We laugh: This place, our home, is a commodity. This place is a mine of countertop decor and anecdote. They come with their drills, they come with their cameras, they come with their axes: At the Rochester Rock Art Panel I meet the man who belongs to the Kansas license plate in the parking lot, and he is carrying a hatchet. He wants me to leave, but he only smiles a greeting. We watch the petroglyphs together, the sun changing against them as it has since prehistory—a strange measure as it means before recorded history or the invention of writing systems. He taps the blade hungrily against a pebble in the ground, wanting me to leave, wanting. He studies the panel, he picks and measures out corners and chunks. He wants. A tattoo on his arm says KANSAS. I will not leave. Finally he takes the tumble of path slowly back to his car, pausing to chip away I-don’t-know-what along the way. Probably mica.
Our apartment in Salt Lake City is a small, crooked commitment to place. Outside something vaguely Bavarian is playing, melancholy, with an accordion. It is exotic: a dirty graffiti on the air, a welling up, the obscene baring of human longing. We are in bed. My leg is on his leg, matting his tiny hairs with my sleepy sweat, and we are listening. The tinkling of metal could be drums or zils or the coins of a woman’s skirt. There could be roses growing in vines along and into our windows, we could have shutters, and for a moment we do, and the air outside is not the air of the naked American West, is not the pollen-clotted nothing of a Utah spring, and I say to him, What if we were in Paris?, and he knows what I mean, and wouldn’t we know then that we were in just the right place, with accordion and roses coming through the window like that. But instead I should have said, We are in Utah. And let this place bear the fruit our mouths were already sticky with.
Another time I came back and I married against the foothills as baskets of flowers swayed. I think they were calibrachoa, or maybe petunias. We went to Iceland, parsed the language from the guidebook and awed at the price of a sample of ash from Eyjafjallajökull while the place was still dusty with it. We rode bicycles in Copenhagen and I rang the bell each time I remembered I was happy, and not when I wanted people to get out of my way, and everyone got out of my way. I emptied the whole city with my bell until it was just me and him and curried calf tongue on rye.
And this was the sixth time I came back, from Iceland and Denmark, carrying chocolate-covered licorice and splinters from the Viking’s hull, and not yet knowing I now lived here with a husband. This should have been a brief stay: We’d promised. And we might figure something out, mightn’t we, if we really tried? One year back became two. Respite became home. I felt along the edge of this place, as a blind man might fall in love or a Kansan might test the ocean. I could love this, I could get in: Hey, this isn’t so bad. For months I moved through Salt Lake City in two, seeing how I was then and how I am now: Here is the secondhand clothing store where I first read my poetry aloud, in that corner, but it was a coffee shop then. This is the park where I came upon two men with swords, leaping from the bushes to fight a dragon in the light of the full moon—this park where I am walking now. The year I helped my friend help his father die we would sneak away and drive up Millcreek Canyon to walk past the gate, and I watch us every time I drive by: We are walking, leaning heavily on each other as we ignore the ascension. One life laid over another like this is the feeling of living where you were born: all my lives lived out at once—in a chorus, in a crash.
The second time I came back to Utah was from the roaring green of the South. I was not ordinarily an unkind child, but took this rare chance to smear the butts of lightning bugs under my eyes and lose their broken bodies to my wild chase. I put them in a jar, and wanted more, more, enough to read by, and in the morning they were dead, the edges of the lid crowded with the sheer-red shadow of cannibalistic nymphs. This was the place my mother was from, and things were familiar to her: woods so thick they might be hiding anything, and warm lakes, and lightning bugs. This was the first time it occurred to me you could be from anywhere else, or be from one place and live in another. What a fantastic idea, I thought.
The fourth time I came back was from England, France, and Italy: a tour of the mausoleum of art history typically reserved for the advanced or privileged student; I lied about my age to work at Pretzel Maker to save up, but that isn’t to say I wasn’t both. The blond boys from Foot Locker would circle and approach with the reserved fang of hyenas, hunting for free pretzels and attention, but mostly on the other girls’ shifts. By then I had turned myself inside out with the idea of elsewhere, and had no face and no body that wasn’t a burn of organ and nerve against the mall’s overzealous air conditioning; boys talk to girls like that only if they have to. Everywhere—in London, Paris, Rome—there were for rent signs. For rent, à louer, in affitto. I imagined it, how the roses would crawl in through the window and I would drink wine in rose-tinted bars, and rebuff the advances of swarthy, well-intentioned philosophers. Crossing a bridge, in a castle bedroom, on the bus to Stonehenge, in Roman ruins, at the height of the Eiffel Tower I would run my fingers through my hair and find loosened strands and release them to the air: Now I’ll always be here, I’d think. Now I am everywhere.
When you’re a little girl who loves words, first you meet Emily Dickinson and then you meet Sylvia Plath. That is to say, when you’re a little girl who loves words, first you meet two cautionary tales. Sylvia Plath lugged grief and lay down in it, but at least she’d lived in England. For me, Emily Dickinson was the more terrifying embodiment of woman and words: Eventually, she never even left her room. I collected things: I still know most of the words to the South African National Anthem. It was one of those things I thought I might need someday, you know, out there.
There is an idea about living in the wrong place: how it makes for the wrong kind of life.
In winter I go to a conference and I see two people I know: One lives in an achingly small town in a Georgia swamp, and he is the one who asks of Salt Lake City: How can you live there?, meaning in such a strangling wasteland. I’ve made peace with this exchange: Let the ill-informed or unadventurous not clog our mountains, let them go to Denver.
The other friend wants to translate the world to accommodate my location: In New York we have these people who live on the street, who don’t have homes, and they beg for change.
There is an idea that the poem makes the poet. We might only be small, quiet mirrors: able to reflect the mountain well or badly.
The first time I came here was when I was born. There are a lot of red-faced and wiggling things I could say, a lot of things I could look up and pretend I remember: The weather was mild. To look at photos of a young me and know there will be years of trying to learn French, of being the only non-Mormon kid in the room, of hating my thighs so much I can’t breathe. There are the years a thirsty man drank down, the years I drove alone letting the wind smoke most of my cigarette. Like a nesting doll holding all these selves I stare into the eyes of the smallest, seamless one; a life lies over another like that. But the truth is that Utah was a palm and life was the needle and I am the blood sown from that soil.
I’ve now rewritten this four times. All the other versions were driving toward a joke and then abandoned: The seventh time I came back I moved in with my mother. We moved in with my mother, and he hid the condoms in the back of the closet. When she’d walk the dog we’d watch from the window until they were across the street, and be naked within seconds. That the dog was elderly and slow, and my mother patient, is how we were able to set such specific goals and reach them. We, the three of us, spent a polluted Salt Lake winter buried in the basement watching The Wire with monastic devotion: Do you want orange juice? I asked my mother on a slow weekend morning; Mos def, she said. We thought we were just passing through, and sketched other plans on stray feathers that were lost to the wind or matted in gutters. What about there, or there. I’ve rewritten this four times from the vantage of a crescendoing middle and I can’t fake an ending.
Here is a list of things I am afraid of: failure, narrow caves, raw chicken. Here is a list of things I was afraid of: climbing trees, hantavirus, honeybees. Here is a list of things I was never afraid of: letters, candles, bones. Here is a list of things I will never be afraid of again: cherry tomatoes, sharks in the bathtub, staying.
The seventh time I came back I didn’t leave. At least, not yet. It feels the same as visiting, like I’m only here to watch. The flashing blue Walker Center sign means it will be cloudy. Do kids ever sled down their own streets anymore? I stop at my own lemonade stand on the corner. This place is a thriving tomb. I recognize few: All the men I used to know are humping Kerouac’s leg across the country somewhere. Most of the women are elsewhere, too, though less ostentatiously. No one calls to me on the street, no one ululates the high-school song: The city is mostly emptied of those who would recognize me, though not entirely, and those who might will never see me ducking behind a stand of lemons or turning my face away as if to check the time. I am not hiding from them—or, at least, not as much as I’m hiding from how they might remember me, and enduring a racheting conversation to reconcile the two.
It is almost like being somewhere new. I write a friend to tell him we’re staying: I type settling, but I mean to type settling in. This is the thing: I’d returned with a plan clutched in one fist while the other hand was pressing this away. Mountain, salt, temple, gull. As if my weight was enough to guard against the economy of aging, the accidental stumble that becomes a kind of dance.
Here is a list of animals that return to where they are born to die: just kidding. I found only a list of animals that return to where they are born to give birth or lay eggs. Why did I think it was to die? I ask him. Because it is a death, coming home, he says, a kind of death of possibility.
This is no Eden: This is no garden where it all began. Might that take some pressure off? In the movies the prettiest girl visits home and feels sorry for the rest of us. We eat the apples here, the pomegranates, the figs—we mistranslate—we denude. We are a symbol’s crash of sinners, we have full-sleeve tattoos. We rise early for church. We ask that you cover yourselves, we ask that you rend your garments at the edge and enter the hot spring bare. Migration or exile taste the same, clot the mouth with ash from cookfires and prayer; even our ancestors knew that.
Anyway. We plant eggplant, agree to take it season by season. This is the reattempt: to come back and stay. We trace corners of the other’s mouth to be sure the edges are upturned, that a smile would be the crescent moon to see by. We walk streets we’ve never been on just for the practice at it, the making of an old thing new. The making of a new thing old again. The making of a thing, the making. This is the reattempt, this is the reverie.
Iris Moulton lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her work can be found in Gigantic, American Short Fiction, The Literarian, and more recently in her book Tofu of Kansas (Sensitive House).