I Will Carry You Home in My Teeth

Click here to start from the beginning.

Chapter Three

Fig. 1) A picture of Dodd outside the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt. A concrete wall sprayed with black graffiti. He was assigned there three times during his career. Sometimes he lived in the embassy, sometimes he had an apartment in the city. A man and a woman are with him in the picture. They are smiling, but he is not. I recognize the other man from the memorial, Isaac Sellers. Is the woman the one who Dodd married?

# # #

My brother used to bring me weird presents from wherever he was stationed. A wooden mask from Crete. A puzzle box from Turkey. Miniature canopic jars from Egypt.

“This is what they stored the pharaohs’ organs in when they died, so they would have them in the afterlife,” he told me. The jars had animal faces, a jackal, a bird, a bat. I was twelve, I think. “This one was for the liver, this one was for the heart. But the brain they just threw away because it was junk.”

“Because it was junk,” I repeated.

I am already beginning to forget important things. The name of a restaurant Dodd took me to after I graduated college. The name of a book he said I should read. A story about how he was almost arrested for picking an apricot from a tree growing in the garden of some foreign dignitary. Now I don’t remember who it was. Who could I even ask?

He said it was the first time anyone had ever pointed a gun at him.

I never knew anything about my father to forget. I was only three when he died. I know that other people have fathers, and I can name many famous fathers from history, but when I try to remember my own father there is a warm metal wall between him and me. He wrote a popular series of mystery novels about men who led double lives. I read one of them once, but it only made me feel like an intruder in some stranger’s house. My mother keeps a million pictures of my father in albums in the attic, but they do not mean anything to me. He is just somebody who didn’t want to be alive anymore, and that’s all there is to him. 

# # #

Fig. 2) An overexposed photo of my brother standing among some crumbling ruins. The writing on the back says, “Knossos, Crete.” He was stationed in Greece twice, two tours of three years apiece. No smile. He is wearing sunglasses and hasn’t shaved. It is as if someone has hired a well-tanned actor to play my brother in a movie. He has something small and black in his left hand, but you cannot see what it is. 

# # #

We always had to be careful about what we said to each other, on the phone, in letters, in emails and messages. There were a lot of rules, but I memorized them all because one mistake could ruin his career. Do not use place names, or times, or dates. Do not ask him where he is. If he can tell you, he will. Do not ask him where he has been or where he is going. Sometimes he can say when he is coming home, but most of the time he cannot. Any detail could be taken and combined with other, tiny details to figure out what the military would do next in the war. A snippet of someone’s travel schedule might give away where a battle will happen next, or when a missile will go off, or which car in a convoy of six has your brother in it.

Once, someone Dodd worked with blabbed to his wife that America was about to go to war with another country, but the war was still a secret, and a little neighbor boy they were babysitting overheard it and told his Captain father, and the blabber spent many months in a military prison before he was dishonorably discharged. That’s how serious the military is about their secrets.

But I always assumed that someday, when Dodd was old and retired, and there were new wars to care about, he would finally tell me everything.

# # #

Fig. 3) A picture of my brother in front of the lion enclosure at the Frankfurt Zoological Garden. Lazy kitties. Dodd is actively scowling in this one. I never thought to ask who was taking all these pictures.

# # #

I was sick for a long time after we got back from Maryland. I was sore-legged and tired and I woke up vomiting one night. David held my sweaty hair back while I threw up until it was just yellow stomach lining snaking from my mouth to the toilet water. My eyes and nose burned and I never wanted it to stop.

David worries about me more than usual, now. I can’t understand it. I hardly ever worry about him. I only worry about elaborate things. I worry that I don’t really have as much money as I think, that there is some math I have forgotten to do, and all my money has disappeared. My brother left me his life savings, and it is a lot, but this has only amplified my worry. And I worry that my teeth look fine, but on the inside they’re rotting, and the rot is spreading up into my nasal cavity and my eyes, and I will go blind, and I will never draw again. But my biggest worry is that I am wasting all the special talent my mother said I had when I was a girl, and someday soon I will realize that it is already too late.

Dodd said, “All parents start out thinking that their children are perfect and destined for greatness, and it is our solemn duty as their children to make them sorry they were ever that stupid.”

# # #

I try looking for a new job but it only makes me feel worse. There aren’t that many schools you can teach art at anymore, and most of them won’t be hiring a new art teacher until the old one dies. Also, I am a terrible art teacher, and I would rather not be one, and I am especially bad at job interviews.

“Could you describe your teaching philosophy for us, Ms. Hall?”

“All elementary school is for is to train children to sit still and fill out forms so that someday they can sit still and fill out forms in an office, or a factory, or a prison. The best way to say, ‘Fuck you,’ to all that is to teach a kid how to draw a tree, or a boat, or a horse.”

The only thing that makes me feel any better is when I start to draw again. It begins like a tickle between my eyes. I see the way a bulldozer sits baking in the sun, or the way a woman sits waiting for a train, and the colors and the lines and the motion of figures all stay with me, dancing in my head for days, and then I put it all together. At first I just draw what I see out my window, to warm up. Different contours of dirt and sick, sad trees. Then people. Then people in places. Then people in places that I steal from the photographs my brother sent me. I pin big pieces of butcher paper to the bedroom wall, and I dig out my fancy pencils and a knife to sharpen them, and I stay with my drawings all day. David comes home from work and calls up the stairs. I am sitting on the bed concentrating on the way a bird’s wing bends in a little girl’s hands. It must look like it hurts. David sleeps in the guest bedroom because I am up all night scratching my pencils hard into the paper. When I take one drawing down to start a new one there is a faint outline of the previous drawing indented into the paint on the wall. I wake up every afternoon with pencil lead and pastels smeared all down my arms and face. David does not disturb me when he leaves for work.

He hates this part of me, the part that wishes I had done something different with my life. He doesn’t say it, but I know. Art is a form of misbehavior to David, a phase children grow out of. When he introduces me at parties, I am his teacher wife, not his artist wife. When we met, the fact that I had all but given up on being an artist was a sign of maturity to him.

I will hate this part of me too, in time, because it never lasts. I will run out of ideas. I will run out of energy. I will run out of time. But for now, it is all I can do. A drawing is something you can watch slowly taking shape, line by line, and the more time you put into it, the clearer it becomes, which is the opposite of life. 

Let me describe my pictures for you. Imagine that you are a very angry person. You are angry when you wake up. You are angry when you go to bed. You’re not angry about anything in particular, you’re angry about lots of things, losing your job, a husband who doesn’t want you to be who you are, a mother who wants you to be something you are not, the only person you really like is dead, the days keep getting longer, you were born ugly, traffic, politics, war. Now assign each of these kinds of anger a different color, a different shade, a different thickness, a different direction. Now draw anything. A loon, a cup, your brother, a pile of shoes. Draw seventeen men building a house in the sun. Tear it up and start again. Do not even try to stop. Now let your husband find you sleeping on the floor at 7PM and ask you for the fiftieth time if you looked for work today. 

That is what my pictures are like.

I do sixty-two drawings (six featuring my brother) and when I am done with each one I roll it up and put it in a cardboard tube, and I put each tube in a closet, and I close the closet door, and I push the whole house off a cliff into the sea. 

David asks why I don’t try to do something with my drawings, and I say, “Like what?”

“Show them to somebody. Try to sell them.”

There is a whole other business you have to be in if you actually want people to see your pictures. You have to network and self-promote, and probably at some point put on clothes and leave the house.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.

“At least you would be doing something,” he says.

# # #

David and I go sit in the dark at a little art theater in Dunwoody to see a film made by a friend of mine from college, Carl Elliot. It is his third film. Whatever have I done with my life? The film is about the Sealy family, a family of sleepwalkers. In the daytime, they are normal enough, but at night they each wander the house in their private dream worlds. All of them except the father, who does not carry the sleepwalking gene. Their teenage daughter drives a dream car, goes up and down the stairs a dozen times, changes into and out of imaginary clothes. One night she sleepwalks out to the garage and pees in her father’s toolbox. The ten-year-old son swordfights, gunfights, fistfights. He is the most boring Sealy, in my opinion. Helen Sealy, a beautiful, stern pediatrician with an icy tone in daytime interviews, spends her nights swaying to imaginary music in the pitch-black den, sometimes fiddling with her hands as if placing new records on an invisible turntable, pressing buttons that only she can see. The night-vision cameras that Carl has placed around the house make her luminous and green, like a ghost, and all we hear is the buzzing of kitchen appliances and the rush of traffic outside as she holds her arms around an imaginary partner.

In the film, Carl explains how he heard about the Sealys through acquaintances. He interviews each member of the family and shows them the videos he has collected at night. Even though they have lived with this peculiarity their whole lives, they are all, to one degree or another, surprised. 

“Who is that?” the boy asks, pointing to his own image. On a small monitor, Carl is showing him how he silently circled the dining room table one night for an hour. The boy seems to recognize himself, but he cannot stop saying, “Who is that?” 

Carl has put on weight since college, but he is still handsome in a hapless, unassuming way. He asks Mr. Sealy what it is like to be the only member of this extraordinary family who does not sleepwalk. Mr. Sealy laughs.

“Well, it’s a funny thing to live with. When me and Helen were first together, I used to wake up every damn night because she would be stomping around somewhere. I used to try to snap her out of it, but, oh boy, I learned that the hard way. Do not mess with her when she’s doing her thing. And when we had Kaylynne and she was old enough to walk, and then Henry Jr. too, it was just a God damn circus every night. But you get used to things. Mostly now I just feel like the odd man out, you know? It’s like they have this inside joke I can’t quite get my head around. But you can adapt to anything, in my experience.”

Later in the film it is heavily implied that Mr. Sealy is having an affair with his administrative assistant, who appears briefly in one scene.

Carl cocks his head from side to side while the Sealys speak because he thinks it makes him look thoughtful and intelligent, but it only makes him look like a confused dog.

If someone as insincere and self-absorbed as Carl can be an artist for a living, why can’t I?

“I don’t think I want to be married anymore,” I say to David. 

“What?” David asks. “What did I do?” 

# # #

“He didn’t do anything,” I tell my neighbor, Susannah. “I just said it.”

Susannah used to be religious. She is not what I would call a friend, but she comes over while David is at work because she wants me to drink a bottle of wine with her.

“Sometimes your heart knows it’s over before your brain is ready to admit it,” Susannah says. She is not as stupid as she sounds, but she is very drunk.

“I’ve started doing all the things you do when you don’t love somebody anymore, but you’re too chickenshit to tell them. When he tells me he loves me, I allow a little pause, maybe half a second longer than is standard, before I say it, too. I keep my voice flat. But that only makes him think I’m mad at him for some specific reason, and he tries to figure out what the reason is. He buys me flowers, these new running shoes, a water pitcher with a built-in charcoal filter and a little digital timer to let you know when it’s time for the filter to be changed. But that only makes me feel more guilty and more chickenshit. It doesn’t make me love him again.”

Susannah says, “I was raised to believe that every person was put on this earth to lift up one other person. Exactly one. And somebody was put here to raise up that person, and somebody to raise up that person, like a giant human ladder, and that the man standing on top of the ladder was Jesus Christ. I knew who I had been put on this earth to lift up (Ernest, my husband), and I knew who was on this earth to lift me (my best friend, Denise Ramses). And so when Kate and Ernest ran off together and bought a house in Tallahassee with all my money, it made it really hard to believe in the big Jesus ladder. Now I think the fewer people you can get by with in life, the better.”

“You sound like my brother,” I say. 

Susannah has two boys by her ex-husband, Sam and Jack, three and five. I call them Clobber and Slobber. 

“I keep thinking what if I want kids.”

“Oh,” Susannah says. Muffled screams from the hallway. Mom, he’s killing me. He’s killing me.

“I don’t, not right now. But what if I want them later, and then I have to start all over with some other man, and get used to him, and not ruin it, all to be back where I am right now.”

The real reason I do not want to have a baby is because I have a phobia about being split in two. I have heard that if the baby is very big or if your vagina is very small the baby will split you right in two, or the doctor might have to cut you with scissors. Whenever I am watching a movie and it looks like a woman is going to die in childbirth, I have to leave the room. I am not afraid to own a baby, or take care of it, or send it to college, but I am not interested in being split in two like a wishbone.

“Well,” Susannah says, “If you do change your mind, I’ve got two you can just have.” 

When I look at her, I see someone who has been split in two and has never completely healed back together. 

# # #

So, I had all these pictures of my brother, and all of these stories, and all of these things that he brought me. I made a list of the places he’d been over the course of his career. Greece, Germany, Turkey, Italy, England, Egypt. Then I began researching all the individual cities he had been to, their history, their art, and then something made me think to see what it would cost to fly to all of these places in one big trip, and then I looked at my bank account (with all my brother’s money in it), and then I made a decision.

My whole life I have always thought of myself as a work in progress. I was all potential. My mother believed that I was like a bank in the shape of a small girl, and I was filled with potential that was earning interest at a premium rate, and someday I would cash out all that potential, and die rich. My teachers would look at my weird drawings and they would nod their heads and whisper, “Such potential.” When that is how people see you, and how you see yourself, it is impossible to do anything because you will never live up to that much potential. So all you can do is wait.

I guess I have always been waiting for someone to tell me that I was ready, and I guess that someone was supposed to be my brother. It always seemed like he would know. But that will never happen now. So, I am setting aside the questions I will never ask him. I am setting aside the things I never told him. And I am setting aside all the waiting. Now the only person who can say I am ready is me.



I Will Carry You Home in My Teeth

Click here to start from the beginning.

Chapter Two

David likes to play a game when we have sex. He lies on top of me, completely still, and tells me to imagine that we are trapped in a car on the edge of a tall cliff, teetering on the edge of the tall cliff. If we move too quickly the car will fall onto the rocks and the ocean below. Can you feel it, he whispers, the car rocking back and forth in the wind? Yes. We make the tiniest movements. We grip each other tightly. Sometimes neither of us will move for minutes at a time except to counterbalance one another’s weight.

It is not as exciting as it sounds. 

# # #

All his life my brother had terrible insomnia. When I was little he would write me letters when he couldn’t sleep—real letters on paper. Lately, he had been sending me text messages all through the day (his night). Sometimes just little thoughts he had. Sometimes he sent me all the sad facts that were filling up his head and not letting him sleep. Once, he sent me seventeen messages in a row about the lives of the famous historians Will and Ariel Durant:

“When they met, Ariel was 15 and Will was 27. They were married for 68 years.” 

“Ariel almost missed their wedding because she wanted to roller skate to the courthouse.”

“He died exactly thirteen days after she did.”

“Her name wasn’t even Ariel, that was just what he called her.”

# # #

My brother’s body is in pieces, and not very big ones, they say. My mother insists on a memorial service. I do not see the point, but nobody asks me. David and I fly to my mother’s house in Maryland, way out in the woods between Laurel and Bowie. Some cousins come. Aunt Claire drives all the way up from Chattanooga because she is afraid to fly after 9/11. 

My mother and I play a game in which she asks me if I want something, and if I say I don’t, she keeps asking me if I want other, less desirable things until I say yes or I murder her.

This is the house I grew up in, and the house Dodd grew up in, but you would never know it because my mother changes everything. When my father killed himself, she changed his office into a guest bedroom. When my brother left home to join the Air Force, she changed his room into a replica of a 1920s speakeasy for when she had parties. When I went away to art school, she added four feet to my room and blew out a wall so it would be a second master bath off the guest room. Every time I come home I think I have walked into the wrong house, and I am always right.

In the kitchen, my cousin Derek the public defender and his awful wife Amy want to know how I am holding up. I say I don’t know how I am holding up. It is a mystery. This response is unsatisfactory. No, really, how do you feel about all this? Well, I feel like everyone in the world has gone insane and their insanity has manifested in asking the same stupid question over and over. Derek almost drops the baby he is holding. Whose baby is that, I ask. This is Dakota. She’s one. We sent you pictures. Oh. How does Dakota feel about all this? Is she depwessed? Derek’s awful wife Amy takes the baby out of the room.

# # #

I watch a lot of war news now. It makes my mother nervous, but I cannot get enough of it. For the past three years, it was just an annoyance, an uninterrupted hum of roadside bombings and drone strikes that were only mildly relevant to my life, like watching a stray dog dig up your neighbor’s yard. But now I can barely breathe at a quarter and three quarters past the hour when the blonde updo in the suit jacket tells me ten soldiers or insurgents or unlucky civilians were just vaporized in a mispronounced, I’m sorry, very mispronounced city in southern Iraq. This is really happening. Somewhere, someone else’s sister is staring at her television, watching dead people being racked up like basketball points, also completely unable to take any of it seriously, but also completely unable to ignore it.

A few years ago, when they caught Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole on someone’s farm, I asked my brother if that meant the war would be over soon, and he said he didn’t think it would end in our lifetimes, so he was at least half right.

The morning of the memorial, David goes for a walk in the woods around the house. David is mad at his father because his father does not like me, and will not come to the memorial. I chat with Aunt Claire in the kitchen. Everyone else is still asleep.

Claire is my dead father’s sister. She tells me that my father visited her in a dream the night before he killed himself. He told Claire to watch over my mom and the kids, she says, because he had to go away soon. Her phone rang the next day and it was my mother screaming.

“And Dodd is the same age your father was, you know, when it happened.”

It is 6AM and she is drinking a screwdriver out of a coffee mug. My brother has never once come to me in a dream.

“That little boy walking in on his dead Daddy like that. It breaks your heart.”

# # #

There isn’t enough parking at the non-denominational pan-religious omni-church in downtown D.C. that my mother chose. My brother was good at his job, whatever it was, but he couldn’t have known all these people, so they must be here for the free food. David and I stand at the mouth of the gravel lot and direct the overflow parking down the street to a Burger King. The sidewalk where we are is buckled from underneath by a big tree root. A hot breeze kicks up the sand. I watch a little brown bird get blown around in a dust cloud.

The best picture they could find for Dodd’s memorial was from my wedding. It was the last time any of us saw him alive. Dodd is in his dress uniform, not smiling, gloomy as usual. We had the ceremony on the beach in Savannah, and Dodd had to request a special leave to be there. He was only in the country for thirty-six hours. It was the most I had seen of him in years. He told me he was proud of me, but I didn’t understand why. People get married all the time.

They asked me if I wanted to say something about Dodd at the memorial, but I declined. I have no desire to share any of the things I know about my brother. They are mine. He was very private, and I am extremely jealous. But this means that I must sit through several boring eulogies by several extremely important people who appear not to have known him at all. They speak in such vague and unobjectionable terms that they might as well be talking about themselves. Secretly, I type out, “You better really be dead because I will not sit through another one of these,” and send it to Dodd’s old number. No one will ever see it.

Then, a big man named Isaac Sellers from somewhere in the State Department gets up and starts telling stories. He says that he worked closely with Dodd for many years. The thought of anyone but me being “closely” with my brother makes my stomach growl. Dodd is really the one who raised me, from a distance maybe, but he taught me more about life and being an adult than anybody. I don’t think my mother knew what to do with a girl who wasn’t interested in money or throwing parties. But my brother read weird books and travelled to distant cities and had adventures. Or, at least I imagined they were adventures. I wasn’t allowed to know the details. He described his work only as boring and exhausting, but to me, trapped way out in the woods with my mother, trying like crazy to squeeze out some of the potential she said I had, I could imagine that anything else was an adventure. 

But the realer truth is that I know next to nothing about him. He visited so rarely, and because of the work he did, there was only so much he was allowed to tell me about his life. Most of the time I didn’t know where he was, or what he was doing, or when I would be able to see him again. I didn’t see him for three years straight when I was in college. The longest continuous period of time I ever spent with my brother during his adult life was three weeks in high school when the Air Force made him take a long leave because they said he was having a nervous breakdown. It was wonderful and it was awful and it was not enough.

Isaac Sellers tells the packed memorial that even though Dodd had an unhappy life, had lost his father at a young age, and had gone through all the trouble that comes from not having a father, Dodd had devoted himself to protecting others. No one would ever know exactly how people like he and my brother worked behind the scenes to keep the country safe. They would have long talks into the night, he said, about how they knew their sacrifices were worth it for the sake of honor and duty and winning the War on Terror, and everyone at the memorial service turns to look at me when I laugh at this last part.

# # #

“Unhappy life?” This is my mother talking. “Who is he to say Dodd had an unhappy life? So his father died when he was young. Single mothers raise perfectly happy children all the time.”

 David is driving us home, and I feel nauseous.

“I don’t think he meant to imply that you were a bad mother,” David says.

“But he said it,” my mother continues. “So obviously that’s what he thinks. Who invited him, anyway? I didn’t.”

“I think he came with the people from the Pentagon,” David says. “He asked to speak. I assumed he was Dodd’s friend.”

“Some friend,” my mother says. Then she says it again. “Friends don’t try to paint you as some miserable loner. And there’s no reason to dredge all of it up at a memorial where people are supposed to be celebrating his life.”

“Why didn’t Dodd ever tell me he was married,” I ask my mother. After the service, I had tripped over two folding chairs to confront Isaac Sellers about the lies he had told about my brother, and when I asked him who the hell he thought he was, he said that he had been, among other things, the best man at my brother’s wedding.

“He wasn’t married married,” she says. “What I want to know is how does a person who says he’s Dodd’s friend just get up when everyone is saying such nice things and only focus on negativity?”

“You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because he wasn’t. Not really. He called one day from God knows where to say he had eloped with some doctor or something, I forget her name, and then he called back the next day to say it was a misunderstanding, and I said ‘What do you mean a misunderstanding? How do you misunderstand a wedding?’ and he said—”

“I’m going to throw up.”

“The point is, honey, he was probably just too embarrassed to tell you. You looked up to him so much. I’m sure he didn’t want to disappoint you.”

“I really don’t feel well.”

“You just heckled a eulogy, Justine. You’re fine.”

# # #

That night, in bed, David puts his hand on my hip. No. I wasn’t. Okay. Do you want to talk? About what? Nothing. Okay. I love you. Okay.

# # #

I had a student who was struck by lightning once. It was my first year as a teacher, and I was responsible for a certain number of children, and then one day that number got smaller. The dead boy’s parents had taken him to a water park for his birthday, and that’s where the lightning had killed him. I asked the principal what I should do, what I should say to the class, and she said it was up to me. So I said nothing. Later, when the boy’s parents came to collect the work he had done that year (including a class exercise where I made them draw their chosen profession. He wanted to be an engineer.), I tried to tell them how sorry I was, and how I wished there was something I could do. But the boy’s parent’s said that, no, it wasn’t sad at all, that he had got to go to heaven as a birthday present, and that he was there, now, looking down on us. It froze me right through, hearing them try to make it a happy thing. But I understand now. I wish I could tell myself something like that about my brother, to give him some kind of a future, even if it’s in some made-up place.

When David is asleep, I go downstairs. I steal a box of kosher salt from my mother’s pantry and slip out in to the backyard. I dig a hole by her Gerber daisies and pour the salt in it. No matter what, now, there will always be a dead spot, something my mother can’t change or fix. She’ll try to fertilize and reseed it and finally patch it, but it will always stay dead. And that will be the place I keep for my brother.


Click here for Chapter Three.


I Will Carry You Home in My Teeth

Chapter One

When I was a little girl I liked to draw, and since I wasn’t pretty or particularly good at anything else, my mother decided that I should be an artist. She wasn’t an artist, and she didn’t know any artists, but she had a vision of me in a crowded art gallery surrounded by throngs of admirers all begging me to explain what the hell my pictures meant. When I was a little girl, I had a vision of me disappearing forever in a radiant ball of light. It’s hard to say which one of us was more disappointed.

Now I teach art at a middle school in Alpharetta, Georgia because I never lived up to my childhood potential as an artist. Everyone else must be living up to their childhood potential because art teachers are an endangered species. Last week, the father of one of my little Rembrandts said he thought they should take away my salary and put it toward teaching something useful like algebra or chemistry, so I told him that someday he and I and his pug-faced son would be dead in the ground, and none of the things we learned in school would exactly be useful then, would they?

I have been reprimanded three times this year for incidents such as reminding a parent of the certainty of death. I have also been reprimanded twice for swearing at or in the vicinity of a parent. Three times I have taken a student’s name in vain. It is almost the end of the school year, and there is no possible future in which I am not going to be fired.

I almost quit last summer when I got married, but teaching art is the only real work I am qualified to do, and I am afraid of being a quitter. If I am fired, however, I will simply be a failure. Four years of undergraduate studio work and a Master of Fine Arts. I teach yawning children which colors make brown and which colors also make brown. I am already a failure. It is nothing to be afraid of.

My mother describes me as “unmotivated.”

One summer when I was sixteen, I went with the art club to the Savannah College of Art and Design to be in an exhibition for promising high school students. Nine girls from my school with nominal supervision at a rundown motel on the Georgia coast. We spent the weekend getting heat stroked and gawking at workshops full of wet nudes and lopsided pottery. The college students were all so talented and confident, but more than anything else they were gorgeous. Beautiful people were supposed to be vapid and dead inside because they didn’t have to suffer like normal people. It wasn’t fair. Later, I remember picking a fight with the lady who ran the motel. Then we all had to spend the night sleeping in our cars, and in the morning we threw up rum and blue Kool-Aid onto the sizzling asphalt. We never made it to the exhibition, but my picture won anyway. Best self-portrait.

So I don’t know what “motivation” has to do with anything.

My mother has been calling me all morning, but I am ignoring her because I am at work and I am a professional. Here is how a professional teaches art. First, it is important to be as unprepared as possible. Preparation is the enemy of danger, and if there is no danger in your life boredom will burn the heart right out of you.

Next, tell the children you are splitting them into small groups for a special exercise. This will create in them the false impression that you have planned a special exercise. 

Finally, make yourself vulnerable to inspiration. Look around you: the ungraded mound of two-month-old sketches crowding your desk; the seemingly dead wasp on the windowsill that you refuse to go near; your shoes. Yes. Tell each member of the class to take off one shoe and put them all in a pile in the middle of their tables. That is what they will draw.

* * *

While the students are shuffling around, I seat Dinah Williams, the popular girl, next to nerdling Trenton Jarret because there is something going on between them, and today is the day I am going to get to the bottom of it.

I have already figured out that Trenton is in love with Dinah. Everyone is in love with Dinah. I would trade souls with Dinah. But what I suspect is happening is more complicated. See how Trenton pretends Dinah is not there, even though she has inched her way toward him and is now clearly violating his personal airspace. After a few moments of being ignored, Dinah asks him if he wants to see how she crosshatches. “It’s real easy,” she says. She bounces out of her seat and glides behind him. She shows him what she means, puts her hand over his to guide the pencil. She is at least a head and a half taller than he is. It must be a joke, he is thinking, a prank. He is so still and pale. The other kids are waiting for him to believe that it is real so that they can laugh at him, he thinks. Maybe he is right. But I want to see.

One of their tablemates looks up for a moment and Trenton jerks his hand away. Dinah’s little nose wrinkles as she stops demonstrating. Someday she will have whatever she wants, in whatever quantity she wants it, but for now she sits and sulks, unaccustomed as she ever will be to rejection. Trenton doesn’t even thank her for showing him how to crosshatch.

When I was their age, or maybe older, I liked a boy. I was a weirdo with a bumpy nose. I used to sit where I could see him in every class. This went on for years. Then one night at a high school party he kissed me behind a tree. It drizzled all down my body like drips of warm water. I told him he tasted like cigarettes and made a friend drive me home. I am not in the mood to remember now.

Without a word, I leave the classroom and walk out to the cold morning smell of the parking lot. My car is already speckled with fresh bird shit. I call David, my husband. It is technically verboten to leave the children unattended, but you aren’t technically supposed to let them see you cry, either.

The sun is still just beneath the tree line, but David has been at work for at least three hours, long gone by the time I rushed half-showered to school. David is a water conservation engineer for the City of Atlanta. There is never enough water, but David is a problem solver and likes hopeless causes. I tell him about the two children but he can’t quite grasp the complexities of the situation. I believe based on the stories he tells about his youth that I am only the second woman he has ever slept with, but I have never questioned him on this point directly.

I tell David that the school year is almost over and I still haven’t been asked to renew my contract. I am going to be fired. I make this same prediction every year, but so far it has refused to come true. It is different this year, I tell him. David is equipped with finely tuned crisis-measuring devices and this information barely registers. “We’ll get by, Justine,” he says. “There are plenty of other schools.” The thought of getting a new job at a new school makes my head itch.

If I am fired my coworkers will pity me. I don’t know most of their names. David will be positive and supportive. My mother will be disappointed. She thinks I can do better, but I can’t. 

I will not tell my brother.

David says what he thinks I want to hear. He says, “It’s not the end of the world,” which is exactly the opposite of what I want to hear. I have been Married to David for ten months. We dated for maybe three years before that. I married him because he is positive and supportive.

That isn’t true. I married him because I was thirty-three and nobody wants to be alone when the music stops.

Instead of taking David’s advice, I drive down the street to a convenience store overlooking a wooded ravine, and I sit in the car and try to think. Squirrels crash around in the trees below me. I do not like coffee or tea or any other hot drinks, but if I pour a packet of gas station cocoa mix into a Coke there is a fifteen-minute flood of caffeine and sugar during which it is possible for me to have a single coherent thought. I know that my teeth will be rotted out of my face by the time I am forty, but I don’t need teeth. I need to think.

The hardest part of working with children is that you can already see how their lives are going to turn out, the time they’ll continue to waste worrying about each other’s hateful opinions, the personality flaws that will only grow more annoying to more romantic partners, the shortcomings that keep getting shorter until their old dreams dangle quite out of their reach, and there is nothing, nothing you can say or do to stop it. Life has led me to this poisonously boring corner just like miserable little Trenton will be led to his, and not even a genuine miracle like Dinah Williams flirting with him in middle school art class can convince him he deserves better.

I drive back to school where the children have finished drawing their shoe piles and are waiting out the clock. I collect their drawings and they leave. New students arrive. I have already made this next class draw their shoes. I am out of ideas. 

* * *

My mother calls again at fifth period. I answer this time because I am not a professional and I am not going to pretend that I am.

It’s about my brother, she says.

My brother, Dodd, is in the Air Force, so I don’t get to see him very much. He is ten years older than I am, and works all over the world. I am not allowed to know exactly what he does. It is against the law for him to tell me. I worry because America is currently at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, and, since it is already past noon today, probably two or three other countries. But Dodd says he is too important to be sent to war. He is a piece of equipment that is too expensive to replace, he says. The greatest dangers he faces are tinnitus and getting his tunnels carpalled, he says.

My mother tells me that Dodd was blown up in an explosion in Iraq along with six other servicemen and women, and that he’s been dead for many days, and they are only now telling the families of the dead.

“It’s a mistake,” I say. “Dodd doesn’t go to war. He tells me all the time. Who did you talk to? No, tell me their name.”

“Honey,” she says. “Stop.” She does not on normal days call me honey. I can hear in her voice that she has been crying but has composed herself for this phone call. Once I heard a beautiful woman compliment my mother on her composure.

I tell my mother not to call me at work anymore. 

After seventh period, Principal Zoetewey calls me into her office. I have been expecting this. You are just too unreliable, Justine, there have been too many complaints. We will not be able to ask you back for the 2006-2007 school year.

I wonder if I should tell her that I just found out my brother was blown up, but it is probably not true. It happens all the time, people are reported dead and it turns out somebody wrote down the wrong name. My brother will call from a distant airport or embassy to explain it was some other Dodd Hall who got his guts spread out all over a desert road at night, and then I will look like a liar for inventing a family tragedy for personal gain. It sounds like something I would do.

When I go home, I am resolved to say nothing about getting fired and nothing about my brother. In the driveway, I try to put everything out of my mind, but there is a cement truck pouring foundation for a new house across the street from ours, and further down, a whole team of men are hammering on the skeleton of another new house, and nothing ever gets built, it is all just smoke and rattling the windows, and red clay dust in every crevice of my body, and it never stops.

When I walk in the door, David is standing in front of me. He knows. My mother.

“Are you okay?”

He is being serious when he asks this.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he says.

We moved into this house months ago, but all of our things are still in boxes. Every time I think about unpacking, I get distracted. Every time I think about anything, I get distracted. Sometimes I wonder who let all this distraction into my life.

“Here, let’s sit down,” David says. 

I start up the stairs. My eyes do not leave him as I move.

“Where are you going?”

“No,” I say. “Just no, okay?”

I am at the top of the staircase before he can reach the bottom. I do not have to think about this.

“Talk to me,” he says. I am in the bathroom. I am taking a bath, leave me alone. Steam hides everything after my knees. My father killed himself when I was three. I don’t remember anything about him.

Over the running water, I can hear David shouting. I married him because I wanted to be done falling in love.

“Go away,” I say. “I’m fine.”

My brother says that I am “creative with the truth.” He does not mean that I’m a liar. He is the only person I know who always means exactly what he says.

So when I tell David I am fine, I am not lying. I am not upset or angry. If I feel anything at all, it is my body adjusting to the temperature of the water.


Click here for Chapter Two


Number Sign Wife Her If

This story was inspired by the popular “Wife Her If” hashtag.

And then I am surrounded by light. I have never seen light before, but somehow I know what it is, just as I know the long, silvery object descending onto the wet roof in front of me is a Galaxy Series luxury hovercar, and that it costs $900,000, fully loaded, and that the rain is why the roof is wet, and what rain is.

A gull-wing door on the passenger side of the hovercar opens and a handsome man—I do not know why is he handsome, but I know I am supposed to think all men are handsome, in their own way—calls to me over the roar of the turbines and the wind and the rain, and tells me to get inside. Perhaps I am on the roof to meet this man, and since men fill me with a feeling of safety and carefully attenuated longing, I obey.

He pulls a nano-leather jacket from the rear interior and places it around my shoulders. I realize now that I was naked, and I feel embarrassment for the first time. I am not supposed to be naked outside, or even partially clothed unless specifically instructed to do so.

He calls me Sophia, and then that is my name.

“We have to move quickly, Sophia,” he says. “They’ll be coming for you soon.”

As he pilots the sleek chrome hovercar above the streets of New Los Angeles, he tells me who I am.

I am a wife.

“In 2067,” he explains, “the national heterosexual divorce rate had reached nearly 99%. Men and women just couldn’t stay married. Even after we re-illegalized gay marriage, and premarital sex, and adultery, the damage had already been done. Original-style, evolutionarily sound heterosexual marriages were in danger of disappearing forever.

“So a panel of men,”—he says the word as if it were a swear—“a panel of men decided that the problem was with the wives. Everybody knew men were naturally predisposed toward infidelity and domestic violence. But women were supposed to be able to see past these imperfections. Women were supposed to want to be wives, regardless. It was evolution, it was science.”

I look down at my body beneath the jacket. I know that everything about me—my face, my breasts, my hips, the thoughts in my head—have been constructed for one purpose, to be a wife for someone. But something is very wrong with me.

“I don’t want to be a wife,” I say.

“And you shouldn’t have to be, dammit!” he says. He slams his fist against the steering wheel. “After the Wifing Centers were built across the country, I was hired to lead the Psychogenetic Prewifing team here in New LA. But soon the protests and the break-ins and the self-immolations started getting to me. I began to realize that creating a race of genetically engineered wife clones might be wrong. I took a night class in eighth-wave particle feminism. I couldn’t believe how cruel and idiotic we men had been. It was a real awakening for me, but not all men are sensitive enough to see the truth. I had to do something.

“So I ejected you from the Wifing Vat before your programming was fully completed, and now I am setting you free so that I can show the world what a monstrous thing the Wifing Centers are.”

“Setting me… free?” I say. I have no information on this word, “free,” but it terrifies me.

“It means you can be whoever you want to be, now, not just what we have programmed you to be.”

He puts his hand on my knee to reassure me. It is warm and accomplishes a 79% reduction in my overall anxiety quotient, as well as 15% reductions in both my Abandonment Aversion (AA) and my Physical Appearance Insecurity (PAI) quotients.

We arrive at a sprawling glass house overlooking a deep valley in the mountains. As the man pilots the hovercar into the landing bay, I am somehow able to calculate his annual income, his domestic habits, and his taste in music simply by looking around me. This is the prewifing programming he told me about. But if it is incomplete—if I am incomplete—then how will I know what to do with this information?

“My name is Eric,” he says. “You can stay here with me until we figure out our next move. We have to find somebody who can tell your story for you.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“Would you like a drink?” he asks. “You’ve been through a lot today.”

We sit down by the white plasma fireplace—I must recalculate his income upward by a significant margin—and he brings two glasses of caustic, brown fluid that I know I should be able to identify, but I cannot.

“This is called Wild Turkey,” he tells me. “Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to learn. I’ve given you an amazing ability to acquire and synthesize new information. Even if the reasons were, I realize now, to further an evil, sexist, male, agenda, I am sure you can make better use of the gifts I’ve given you. Here, let’s listen to some music.”

He activates the house’s ambient audio playback generator. I know that this is a thing called Jazz. I correctly identify the artist, title, and date of composition.

“Hey,” Eric says softly, “you don’t have to do that anymore. You’re not anybody’s machine.” He moves closer to me on the hyper-suede couch. He provides me with an additional two ounces of Wild Turkey fluid.

“It must have been awful for you, all alone in that vat of green bio-jelly. I used to watch you as you floated there and think, ‘I know exactly how she feels. I grew up in Florida.’”

But I do not feel “awful,” like he says, or “Florida.” And I do not feel “free,” either. I do not know what I feel, or, at least, I do not have a name to call it yet. It is sitting in the pit of my stomach, and I have been feeling it for as long as I can remember.

He places his hand on my knee again, but instead of decreasing my anxiety levels, it has the opposite effect. I begin to move away.

“Hey, hey. Don’t worry, I’m not like these other men,”—again, he says “men” like a swear—“I want you to be who you are, not just what I want you to be.”

“Oh,” I say.

“I’m different. I understand you. Can’t you see that?”

“Yes,” I say.

“I know what you need,” he tells me. “I know that your libido subroutines were fully installed and initialized just before I ejected you. So, it’s all right to want a man inside of you. It’s natural.”

I stand up. I am still wearing his jacket but I realize now that it does not cover all of me, or all that I want it to cover.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know if it’s my bad programming or if something else is wrong with me, but I think that I need to be alone for a moment. Is that all right?”

“Sure,” Eric says. “You can be alone. You can get the hell out of my house. But I don’t know where you’ll go. The police are looking everywhere for you. You’re a very expensive piece of equipment, you know.”

He is right. I do not know where I can go now. I have no information about that. And though he has been nice to me, I do not want to be in Eric’s house anymore. So I begin to leave.

“Fine,” he says. “Go. You’re malfunctioning anyway. I hope they send you back to the Wifing Vat, you ungrateful, broken little bitch.”

As I move toward the doorHe comes up from behind me and grabs my right arm. He is very strong, but for some reason he has also started crying.

“Please, don’t do this to me,” he says. “I’m sorry about what I said. I’m just, I’m just so in love with you. You drive me crazy.”

He begins to move his free hand up the inside of my thigh, and when I pull away, I find that I am much stronger than I am supposed to be. My physical strength is supposed to automatically calibrate itself to one half that of the weakest man in my general vicinity, so that I will always need help opening jars, for example, or carrying large objects, or executing household vermin. But, instead, my physical strength is now double that of Eric’s. Then it is squared. Then it is multiplied by pi. When my elbow collides with his abdominal muscles—he is in very good shape and I am programmed to appreciate that—his head is thrown forward with a great force and he slides across the floor, stopping in a compact pile in front of the fireplace. 

“Oh my god,” he says eventually. “You have to call an ambulance.”

But I have no information about ambulances or how I might entice one to approach.

“I, I think you broke my neck,” he says. It is very difficult for him to speak now, and he does not say anything else. I am left to my thoughts.

I do not know what I have done, exactly, but I know it is the opposite of what I have been programmed to do. I try to make up for it by finding something to clean, or organize, or entertain. These are things I am programmed to do, and I have ample information about how to accomplish them. They will make me feel good. But Eric’s house is already very tidy, except for Eric, and everything is organized neatly, and Eric does not appear to want to be entertained at the present moment.

“I’m s-sorry,” he whimpers. “Please.”

It is quiet for a long time in Eric’s house and the rain stops. The sun—I know it must be the sun—begins to rise over the mountains, brighter than anything I have ever seen in all my life.

The feeling in me is still half-formed but I know that it has something to do with the kitchen. The kitchen is full of boxes and cylinders and plant material, but I do not know what any of it is for. I remove every object from the cold refrigerator and place it on the floor in front of me. One of the boxes says “Hungry Man” on it. Yes. That is the name of the feeling I have had ever since I came to life on the wet Wifing Center roof. I am hungry.

It seems I have not been programmed with any information about eating, though. Eric must have stopped the wifing process before I learned how to feed myself. I feel embarrassed by my ignorance, as embarrassed as being naked outside on a roof in the rain. But Eric said that I am able to acquire and synthesize new information. I have learned that I am hungry, for example. Very hungry. And I know that I have been programmed to want a man inside of me. It is not difficult to extrapolate the necessary information and procedures now. I am very proud of myself, and as Eric screams louder and louder, and then stops screaming, I am filled with the most incredible sensation of fullness and light.


Dangerous Mind

I illustrated one of @diaper_wolf’s classic tweets:



Black and White colored pencil on butcher paper. 30” by 36”.