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The Brightest Burn

For Maia,

 

My friends are

fire.

I wonder how

they keep burning–

 

in winter

in the desert

at night

without kindling

without care for the universe

telling them to dull.

 

Maybe, when God

or chance

created the matter

that I would love,

She said to hell with the universe–

let it burn.

 

And isn’t it beautiful

that we can all stand together

to watch it go?

 

-Lu Terlikowski

First time, then me

I was 15 when I lost my virginity. His nose was too large for his face and he had hungry hands that made their way up my shirt and between my thighs. He rolled on top of me and hovered there with his legs bowing together where his cargo shorts wrapped around his knees. He rocked toward me and I shook my head.

“Just a little bit?”

His nostrils widened as he smiled at me. I shook my head again.

“Just for a second.”

He moved forward and I inched my hips and shoulders back until my neck craned against his scratched headboard, stacked with fruit candy and video games. He kept moving forward. Candy wrappers crunched against my head and my hands became filled with static and weight. And, as they lay useless beside me, he pushed against me, a very motivated battering ram with no real target.

My breathing was fast, my cheeks were hot, and my face was wet. Drops fell to my chest and pooled between my barely-there breasts as I continued shaking my head, more frantically now.

He kept whispering, “Just a little bit.” I wish I had responded by using my fists and elbows and knees just a little bit. I wish I had made him bleed just a little bit. I wish I had broken his jaw and burned down his house. But I didn’t do any of those things. I just shook my head and stared at the laundry crumpled on his floor and the light blue curtains hanging by his window.

And, after all of 30 seconds, when his whispers became heavy breaths and grunts, I let my head roll all the way to the side. My eyes relaxed and the whole picture became a blurred mess of blue and light. When he finished, he straightened over me, and his body tightened and relaxed in all the places that make a boy moan. His tee shirt drooped onto my cheek and stuck to the wetness there. My eyes found his dusty blinds, pulled up on one side and sharply dropping on the other. He let his arms slide out and lowered his body on top of mine, his skin slick with sweat.

He rolled over, letting his feet dangle over the bed. I heard the padding of them drop onto the wooden floor. Then, he sank into the chair in front of his television and resumed the video game he had so romantically paused for the occasion.

The sounds of warriors fighting faded in my brain until it became white noise, sinking beneath the vibrations of my heart. I brought my fingertips to the swollen skin beneath my eyes. I tried wiping away the tears, but my fingers came away black, thick with mascara. I knew my eyes were red and my hair was sticking out. I knew my shirt was still hanging sideways, clinging to one bony shoulder. I knew I was not beautiful.

He stomped out of the room, slamming the door. His mother yelled his name. He returned with a large plastic bowl in his hands. The red-rimmed edges were faded and flattened. It was full of something thick and white. I lowered my nose to the mixture and breathed in sweetness and celebration. Vanilla cake batter.

He threw a spoon toward me and I heard it clank against the wall. I searched for it in his faded, stained sheets as he turned back to his game. The sound of clashing metal and monstrous growls made it difficult to hear him say, “Now, can you stop crying?”

I quieted my breathing, counting them as they left my lips. And I ate the entire bowl.

-Lu Terlikowski

Note: This is an excerpt from a larger piece entitled, “Then and Now and In Between”, which contains a series of essays exploring pain, place, understanding, and identity.

The In Between

At the age of 20, my closest cousin and neighbor became pregnant three months after meeting a boy. She announced this on a crisp day at the end of January— this and the fact that she would be marrying him two weeks later, on Valentines Day. Sitting in a dented plastic chair at the reception, the wind having blown my ears numb and deaf, I leaned to my left, asking my 60-year-old grandmother to repeat what she had just said.

“I said,” she began and then paused. Her eyes turned teary and lingered on my cousin sitting across the room, who looked beautiful and who had refused to have a first dance with her husband. “I said not to worry. This can happen to you, too.”

Growing up in Lincoln Country, West Virginia, I imagine, is like growing up anywhere else in the world. Except that when it’s you growing up there, it feels different. Just like everywhere else in the world. My family has been low-income as long as we’ve been alive. This was the same for my neighbors, and the neighbors of my neighbors, and the neighbors of everyone I knew. Most of the kids hated their families for it. They demanded nice clothes with bejeweled pockets to cover their asses and 100-dollar price tags. And their parents, somehow, made it happen. My parents knew those sparkling jeans were uncomfortable when sitting and refused, not that I ever asked. Instead, they sent me to school with lunches my mom packed the night before, complete with sandwiches stuffed with square, pale pink ham and chocolate puddings with plastic spoons. My ass was covered.

Like most people, I grew up resenting the place I called home. Everyone was racist, and publicly so. During a 4th of July parade, all of the American flags were replaced with Confederate ones. Everyone said “nigger”. And they said it hard, lingering on the “r”. Heaven was a place for Baptist, white, straight men and their wives, if the women were willing to hush up. We married early, had kids early, and died early (usually, it was the cancer). I can remember giving a speech during my graduation, looking out onto a field of sinking chairs in the mud, seeing all of the male, and some female, classmates spitting their chewing tobacco into empty water bottles they carried out with them.

I spoke about achievement and beginnings, pausing and smiling as my voice reverberated. And I told God, privately, that I would saw off both of my legs and never take a sip of alcohol if only he would let me die somewhere other than up a holler in Lincoln County.

I’ve been writing my whole life, but never about home. It seemed too easy and too boring, so I actively avoided it. I came to college and wrote about hitchhikers in Montana and city slickers and Mars and anywhere but a bumpy back road with two exploded meth houses. I used to think that seeing a place for what it is meant that I had to write it exactly how I remembered it. But I was not seeing. I was not looking for stories, I was looking for an exit. In doing so, I missed it. The point. The moments in between. The magic.

This November, I went back home for Thanksgiving— a three-and-a-half hour drive with nothing but exits. My cousin had her baby, a healthy boy. As did my brother and his girlfriend, a little girl with his face. We sat in plastic chairs and I watched the babies sleep, holding their fragile little hands attached to their fragile little fingers. I was with my people. Low-income people with low-income neighbors and low-income family— all of us knowing that we didn’t care. My grandfather blessed the food and my grandmother packed it away in red Tupperware containers for my three-and-a-half hour drive back up. My ass is covered.

“This can happen to you, too.”

For one terrible moment, I thought about answering, “I hope it doesn’t.” And for one, even more terrible moment, I thought about answering, “I hope it does.” But in the end, I only smiled. I was there. Right in the in between of things.

-Lu Terlikowski