You are trained to look for stories.
For years you’ve told your students, setting means both place and time. You often forget the second part, the part about time. The year becomes 2017. Seventy jobs have rejected you— seventeen? You learn to round your mouth, to speak more clearly. No, sev-en-ty. The president pushes his hand onto a book and performs bad alchemy, where a gasp becomes a scream.
You tell your students, if you want to be a writer, you must enter the world in a new way. You must see what others don’t, hear what others don’t, smell and touch and taste. Notes of salt and rot on the air. Black fruit crushed to red; red fruit crushed to black. White ibises draped in a slash pine, those gangly ornaments. Lightbulbs sing. Keyholes swell. Become a cat before a thunderstorm hits, your ears perked, tail a switch, belly low to the ground. Feel yourself sizzle, hiss, snap.
One morning you feel an ache between your breasts, a knuckle that punishes and kneads. It’s because I ran too hard yesterday, you think, but it’s deeper than that, the start of wings in reverse.
It’s the way you sleep, your body a violence, clenching everything. It’s your heart chakra, the unhurt that flexes from sternum to throat, either too strong or too weak.
It’s your anxious girl body still kicking inside. Haven’t you always been a sloucher, shoulders hunched forward? In junior high you hurried through teeming halls, trying to make it across the building before each bell rang. Backpack over ten percent of your body weight. You were ashamed of your height and wanted to slide like a lizard along the lockered walls. There was never enough time to pee, so you gave yourself a UTI. Time became pain, a kind of fire. Your doctor wrote a note: Sometimes it’s ok not to show up on time.
A finger points to your breastbone: That’s where the wind gets knocked out of you. That’s where the grief resides.
This is not the beginning of the story, but it’s not a story that begins.
Another morning, in 2017: a headache glitters, a stick of rock candy behind your brows. It hurts to look up and apply mascara. Then it hurts every morning; it always hurts to look up. When you wash your face, eyelashes fall out like dandelion seeds.
Hips ache. It’s the rainy season, pressure building until a thousand windows break, a tantrum of glass. A ghost flutters in your wrists, but it’s not the same as when you took too many notes in school. Hair doesn’t look gray but feels gray, brittle and thin. It dresses the carpet in dry webs, bright only with static electricity. It’s not the color that has changed as the way it moves in light. Your friend D. used to say you were a phoenix. Ash, fire, bird. You’ve reverted: bird, fire, ash.
I’m getting old, you reason, but you’re only thirty-one. You turned thirty in a South Beach nightclub, green lasers a seizure behind your eyes. You could have been sleeping but you were dancing. Maybe you were the wind knocked out. On the beach gulls attacked abandoned bags of Tostitos and you begged your friends, Let’s talk about anything besides my life.
You turned thirty-one unemployed, rejected by a hundred jobs. Your therapist advised you to practice gratitude. She said, In my professional opinion, Clinton and Trump are pretty much the same.
Here’s a new rule for your brain: If it goes away in three days, you won’t think about it. If it stays longer than three days, you won’t think about it either.
You tell your students, watch your gerunds. –Ing verbs slow down the urgency. Things can get stuck. You don’t like the way it sounds: -ing, -ing, -ing. Muddled as your thoughts have become—mixing up dates, forgetting words, misplacing pens and keys, reciting to yourself, You are an I, like that Elizabeth Bishop poem “In the Waiting Room”:
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
In college, you think—you’re more than certain, you know—you got roofied at a party. One Natty Lite and you were floating above your body, the people around you a greasy throng, Solo cups dark as fish mouths. Your hand closed on C.’s wrist, and you muscled a path outside to lie down in the grass until your body fit back inside your body again. A week later, flyers taped on doors about a party in that building. Warning signs for a non-linear time.
Looking at a palm tree with yellow fronds and thinking, My stomach hurts every day. But it’s not your stomach; it’s your back, it’s your throat. Reaching for coffee and not seeing the tremor along your painted nails. Don’t they break more easily now? You choked during R.’s wedding, unable to read the Rumi poem you’d practiced for days. Held your breath because you already couldn’t breathe. Never heard the vows. You spoke to the other bridesmaid with your eyes, and she read the poem instead. Some people noticed; others said, It went off without a hitch.
It went off.
Drunk and gazing out the window of a Lyft, saying out loud, The half-moon here is horizontal, but it used to be vertical before. The Lyft driver knowing what you’re talking about, his words unfurling like thick smoke from cheap candles. Wait, wait. The Notes on your phone filling up with fragments and run-ons.
Not remembering why the moon is different. Not remembering what he said.
You tell your students, a metaphor is stronger than a simile. Fireflies of rust blink in your underwear, ticking their clocks that count down to what, you don’t know. This happens to girls like you: unruly, off-schedule. Your body’s cycles have been manufactured for fourteen years. Nothing went right as a teenager; you started too late and then with a vengeance, cramps radiating like a force field, careening like a blacked-out star.
No, that’s not right: You were the force field. You were the blacked-out star.
You tell your students, if you want to be a writer, push through and don’t complain. Push till you get the degree, the book deal, The Big Job. Numb yourself to rejection, to the point you don’t feel sad anymore—
(You don’t feel anything at all.)
You are on a run, on the run—does it matter? You tell yourself, just a little while longer. You’ll feel good, the endorphins will flood you, you’ll be proud of yourself once you finish. But you finish, and you don’t feel proud. You’ll have to start all over again tomorrow; you won’t want to do it, and you won’t be any better. How you long to float past the cornfield, the river, the pop-up Christmas tree farm, out onto the highway, and lie down.
You fall asleep on the couch after a shower, hair damp on the cushions, still sweating from your lower back and scalp. Your whole life, you’ve been an insomniac, sleep a skeletal merchant who stalked the bedroom corners. But now you marvel at how easily you succumb, how sleep has always been plush and fecund, a hypnotic swamp with arms of muck and algae reaching out to suffocate you and pull you under.
Ten hours, twelve hours, fourteen. What if setting is only time?
Since your health insurance keeps changing, you have to find new doctors. You understand, most people go to a doctor’s office thinking they don’t belong: This place is for sick people, but I am well. You think the opposite: This place is for normal people, but something is wrong with me.
Posters of babies in knitted vegetable hats. Nurses with clear skin and rose-gold engagement rings. They nod. White Coat Syndrome. Six out of ten patients that we see. Doctors sigh. I get stressed out, too, sometimes. Checklists for who you live with, whom they can call. They will ask too many questions, see your life curled as a snail. They will see how alone you really are.
Blood pressure too high and heartrate skyrocketing. Did you run here? You pop an Advil, a tide pool in your palm. Nothing makes your thighs stop shaking, your pulse quiet to a thrum.
You never used to be this way. So, what, you turned thirty and suddenly everything’s a fireball? Are your thoughts a meaningless spiral, or are they trying to tell you something?
To what? What is your body? What is your mind? How do you know how to read the signs if you don’t know what are the signs?
An art museum, an exhibit of taxidermied animals. A fawn enters a twinkling orange tent, a splendor of nylon threads and spinning seeds. You envy the little deer—the cotton in its eyes, how it faces a mist shapeless as a dream, its back forever turned on the white walls the artist never wanted it to see.
In the next room, a blackbird drops like a stone. R. leans in and blinks: You don’t look alright, you know.
You are “looking for something, something, something.” That’s what Elizabeth Bishop writes in “The Sandpiper,” another poem. She examines the world from every side, every angle. “Poor bird, he is obsessed!”
Maybe this looking needs to end.
You tell your students, adverbs and adjectives are pennies and nickels. Use sparingly. Nouns and verbs are one-dollar bills. Make them work for you.
Is this what it’s like? You un-noun. You un-verb. Boneless, you sluice into dependent clauses and prepositional phrases, the melodramas of TV shows you’ve watched a dozen times. Slot yourself into fictional characters who will live for you. It’s too hard to write your own story. You’ve grown too tired. You accept without tears: You will never travel again. You will never have children. You will not grow old, for you already are old. Your life has passed you by, and you are grateful. It was a good one, wasn’t it, at one time?
You do not speak of this. Your non-life is your secret, a letter folded unto itself until it offers dimension. It weighs something now.
And then, suddenly, you do it: one day, you land The Big Job. Only 149 tries to get there. To be a writer, to teach students how to write, but this time for a living wage. After you move again, you have to see Dr. P., a gynecologist. You don’t know why, but this time, you are not so afraid. She seems nice, young, calm. She doesn’t ask who else lives in your home.
Something wills you to open your mouth and share part of what’s going on. You only tell her about the spotting and how your cramps have gotten worse, how they seem to come from someplace deeper, like something has taken root inside you and won’t be shaken free.
But I’m sure I’m just stressed out. There’s been a lot going on for me.
Can she hear how your words echo through a thousand chambers? Can she see how you’re not a you anymore?
A simple blood test. No one else did it. They prescribed an anti-depressant, little quarry in your palm. They told you to meditate, run, be grateful; they told you Clinton and Trump were pretty much the same. Let’s test your thyroid. You are scared, but something about Dr. P. makes you feel it’ll be ok.
Wings at the base of your throat. You used to be so crisp in your mind. Your hair flared a thick ponytail, lush and gold. You’d ask for sex three times in a row. You traveled far. Your favorite books were the ones with a map on the first page: an adventure to reveal. It was how you saw your own life.
The blood test comes back. It isn’t ok. Somehow, you’ve always known.
Sometimes folded letters are folded wings. Sometimes wings have eyes.
The wings in your throat have gone limp, crushed from the inside. Your own immune system has attacked them for years: something in your birth chart, your fate, your genetic code. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—it was predestined for you. Grandmother with an autoimmune. She died when you were in high school. Uncle with an autoimmune. Different kinds, but they travel together in clusters. Like fish, wolves, or stars. The one you have, it usually hits the girls.
No one cared to look.
You thought it was the president. You thought it was the academic job market. You thought it was being an introvert. You thought everyone was depressed. You thought everyone was tired. You thought it was being a writer.
(Write it! Like disaster.)
There is no cure for what you have. It will be with you forever. You are cursed, but it is not the worst one. There are things they can do to help. Your diseased thyroid is a bucket of water with a hole in the bottom, and the hormone they give you is a hose that dumps in water. You can add more or less water, but there will always be that hole.
So you’ll take a pill every morning for the rest of your life. Little ocean in your palm, changing colors, a new kind of tide. You’ll get blood tests every few months. Other symptoms can be monitored. Your endocrinologist, Dr. G., listens to you, and your body begins to respond. In six weeks, the muscle aches fade. A few weeks later, you lift your arms and someone pulls off the lead apron of fatigue, places it beside you on the ground. One day you reach for coffee with a steady hand.
Doctors recognize your face in the lab, pharmacists your voice over the phone. What cured you from fearing you had a disease—getting diagnosed with a goddamn disease. All along, it was the unknown.
All along, it was being a girl. You thought this was a woman’s life: bleed too much, so you cross your legs. Legs too long, so you slump into something smaller. Shy heart too open, so you screw it shut for good. The world only wanted you to work: One more try, one more. To welcome your exhaustion. Dull your luster and verve. Forget your words; whatever you had to say, no one wanted to hear. It was better if you were ill—one less woman speaking, one less woman making sound.
The president loved your illness. He never wanted you to get well.
This is not the end of the story, but it’s not a story that ends.
Run through the rainy season: green clouds crackling with negative ions, the pressure of a thousand sealed letters. Finish and start again.
You must enter the world in a new way. A puddle can become a compass. A river, a weathervane. The end of an island is also its beginning: an overlay of sand, convergence of salt and waves. It had been waiting for you, the map with all its muddy terrain. It was just a piece of paper. Nothing to read out loud.
You’ll learn again about the moon. Dare to say it: Wasn’t it always yours?
Anne Barngrover's second book of poetry, Brazen Creature, was recently published with University of Akron Press. She is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University, where she is on faculty in the low-residency MA program in Creative Writing, and lives in Tampa, Florida. Visit her online at annebarngrover.com.