personal

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

Sound, Be.

I want to write about galaxies and sound interesting

or artsy or avant-garde

or whatever it is that people want these days.

 

I don’t mean to sound cynical,

but how many people in their early twenties

truly relate to roman phrasing and cocaine abuse?

 

I wonder how much of what I write in my lifetime

will be written to get me laid or paid—

how much of it will be real?

 

Truthfully, I’m too scared to ever do a line

or write one that’s honest. But I’ll try:

I’m going to die an insurance salesman in a town I hate.

 

No one wants to read that.

So I’ll spell out misery

in every way I can,

 

pray to Aphrodite for tits and love

sing to the stars in lingerie

and be interesting.

 

-Lu Terlikowski

Gravel Gardens

They were complaining and it made sense, because who asks children to plant trees in the middle of January anyway? So they were out there with scarves up to their rose cheeks and hands shaking as they tried to wield small shovels and the whole time I’m thinking about how all the trees will die.

And then, they did. All these little sprouts withered away and the thing about sprouts is that they don’t have grand deaths. The do not crumble to the ground or pronounce death with each graying strip of bark—they just die. So we had twenty or so tree sprouts that faded away and slipped beneath the snow without us knowing they would perform a disappearing act before we saw the ground again.

When the ground showed its face again, all the sprouts were gone. All but one anyway. This kid, Julie, had insisted on planting her sprout in the gravel lot and it was cold and Henry was having another nosebleed so I said why not. But the thing is, you can’t really plant in a gravel lot so there were all these rocks in the way and she had to ask for my help and it ended up taking twice as long. So she and I hunched over this tiny tree that shouldn’t even be called a tree yet and pressed numb fingers into hard gravel until the sprout was sturdy there.

And that’s the one that lived. All the other kids were furious, of course. Julie had never smiled so big. It was still pretty cold out though, so I was sure it wouldn’t last. But Julie tried her best. She took off her own scarf and wrapped it around the sprout during recess and said it was the plant’s now. I didn’t have the heart to tell her some kids had stolen it once we went back inside so I just kept buying scarves and re-wrapping them around a tiny tree I was certain would die.

Then Julie started talking to it. Whispering, actually. Other kids would make fun and point fingers, even kick bits of gravel at her. She just looked up with this face like she was a soldier in war no one knew was happening. Then she’d jerk up the corners of her mouth and keep on whispering.

Then, all of the sudden, it was spring and I began to accept that there would be a tree in a gravel lot. We were supposed to get more trees, too. But, of course, we didn’t. Late shipment is what they said and I wasn’t looking forward to twenty more trees dying next January.

Mostly because the kids were so mean about it, you know. I don’t know why it became so important to them but seeing Julie’s tree grow was just torture. And, if even possible, a bunch of six-year-old’s began hating a tree.

In the end, it wasn’t weather that killed it. It started reaching up and the spring sunlight welcomed it. It was a strong little tree. But Kevin, with his freckled face and pudgy hands, ripped it from the lot. And we all just kind of watched as he held it in front of Julie’s face with the roots all sprawled out and connected to nothing. And I know I said that sprouts don’t have grand deaths, but Julie made it an occasion. She cried out and her voice was so raw. She left a scarf where the tree used to be and whispered to the spot one more time. I don’t know what she said, but she looked resolved when she walked away.

Someone took the scarf the moment she left.

-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