Something terrible has to happen. I tell my student to complete the sentence: This is a problem because… I give her an example from the last story she wrote: we’re at a wedding reception. The tables have collapsed and guests are eating from the floor. There’s cake everywhere. This could be a problem if, say, I’m very thirsty. All the glasses have broken and I walk table to table asking for a drink. Who will help me?
Over dinner, T tells me his father gives his mother Botox.
He says he’s not sure how he feels about plastic surgery.
I hate it when men condemn plastic surgery.
But, he asks me, wouldn’t you hate it more if men advocated plastic surgery?
Sure. I just don’t know those kinds of men. But I’m frowning.
He says anyhow, his dad can only legally do Botox. Honestly, it’s a relief, not having to watch his mom age.
This is a problem because.
We’re eating jerk chicken and I’m almost crying; I’m already crying a little out of my nose. I’m trying to wipe it away with my jerked-up napkin, then the back of my hand, which makes it worse. This is the first night I sleep with him.
I wake up with a migraine and T walks me home. To avoid the sun, I close my eyes and hold his elbow. Everything is like a light bulb, I tell him. Even through my eyelids, the buildings stay so bright they hurt.
My mother would take me for walks like this when I missed school. People ask if I was her subject in my childhood. I think they hear that she’s a photographer and picture Sally Mann. Of course my mother took photographs of me. But did we have wild days chewing candy cigarettes? Posing in junkyards, leaping nude across tables, looking off at burning fields? If we did, I can’t remember. Which is to say no.
I started going to a prep school in the ninth grade. I felt so out of place in my first few weeks, I would slip through whole days without speaking. I snuck food into the library so I could eat lunch in a carrel, reading a book. One night in the first week of classes, I had finished my homework and was watching television with my parents. A psychic suburban mother investigated a string of child murders. I nestled into my mother’s body and she put her arm around me. I would have given anything to stay like that.
That winter, the migraines started. Doctors put me on one drastic dietary regimen, then another. They prescribed personality-altering medication to shock the system. I wonder, now, how much of the dizziness and pain was caused by my unhappiness. But then I think, what good would it have done to know the cause when the effect remains? Sleep deprivation, mushrooms, direct light, stress, alleviation of stress, yogurt, exercise, lack of exercise, too much caffeine, too little caffeine, loud noises, thyroid levels, menstruation, nerves, tiny blood vessels—knowing why something happens isn’t the same as controlling it, and won’t prevent it from happening again.
Sally Mann didn’t expect Immediate Family to be controversial. It was also Mann’s first big success: for every letter condemning the project, she got a letter of praise. The first print run—10,000 copies—sold out. That series is recognizable in a way few photographs are, and even fewer by women.
When a classmate yells at me over an offensive moment in a poem, I feel vomit rising in my throat. But isn’t that what I want? To be like Sally Mann. To be so successful I’m sick.
Sally Mann has secret photographs, though. They’re of her husband, often nude, sexualized in a way we haven’t seen him. They take us through fifteen years of muscular dystrophy. She doesn’t show them because of his career, their happiness. But she says they’re like nothing else she’s seen. She calls the series Marital Trust.
T turns on my television. A boxing match fills the screen, mid-weight champions. I lift my legs on top of T’s and kiss his fingers. The fighters are well matched. When one blots out the other’s face with his red leather fist, they could be the same man.
T tells me the best fights are between opponents of different sizes: Mike Tyson teasing some big boxer then out-quicking him until he falls. We watch these men hit each other with such even force, I think they will never stop. Every blow smacks through the speakers like a pulse.
One of them bends a little, like he would kneel, but doesn’t. A faint whistle sounds, then a busty girl and men with towels rush into the ring, their voices muffled almost to mute—as if the mics had been the men’s own skin.
During orientation at the University of Virginia, they told the men we were their sisters.
One day in November, everyone starts talking about a Rolling Stone article called “A Rape on Campus.” It’s an exposé about a gang rape at a frat party. Everything the article alleges took place when I was there. It’s graphic. T lies next to me, touches my hip, and asks what I think, how I feel.
Imagine a thing, then imagine feeling it. No, write the feeling. This is a problem.
This is a problem because. They tell the men we’re their sisters. Something terrible
has to happen. I fall asleep trying to make this sentence.
The girls in Sally Mann’s Immediate Family are her daughters. This is a problem because women are expected to protect their young. When I show T the photographs of Mann’s daughters, he moves his hand over his lips. I want to tell him to love them.
We’re eating, so I don’t show him Body Farm, her images of rotting flesh. A human hand or curve of fat becomes and unbecomes the surrounding leaves.
The photographs are, then are not, like something else I’ve seen.
Before our conference, my student rests his hand against the unplugged department coffee maker. It must be cold. He takes a few creamers and sits across from me.
He says the problem is he’s not as smart as any of the writers he likes.
I say he’s very young, and he needs to write more to know that.
He opens a hazelnut creamer and pours it into his mouth.
He says he’s never going to be the kind of writer David Foster Wallace was.
Well, most of us are not as smart as David Foster Wallace.
Was, he says.
What? I say.
Was, David Foster Wallace was. He’s dead.
Dead said with emphasis.
I know, I say. But we’re still alive.
You’ve got to have a little more faith in me, I tell him. I’ve been in school for a long time. I’m pretty sure who is and is not alive.
T says he wishes we could fall asleep like this. I’m lying on top of him with my head turned so that I breathe into his neck. I could fall asleep like this.
He asks what my poem is about.
I say it’s about a lot of things, but he appears.
He tenses his body. He says I shouldn’t tell him any more.
The poem isn’t really about you, I say.
I’m a good person, I repeat in my head when I’m worried about hurting someone.
I’m a good person. I’m a good person. I’m a good person.
In the quiet, I hear the television left on in the other room. It’s the Lakers game. I ask T why he likes professional basketball. Everyone else I know is indifferent to the NBA.
Because they’re incredible athletes.
He says it with such certainty.
People think college has better defense, but that’s because none of them can play.
College basketball is—he waits for the words—it’s like choosing to watch people be bad.
T asks if I’m wearing makeup.
Of course I’m wearing makeup.
He asks what kind of makeup.
I say mascara. I always wear mascara.
He looks shocked.
I think of myself as a woman who wears very little makeup.
Most women wear mascara.
His ex doesn’t wear mascara.
He thinks for a minute, focusing his eyes on one of mine.
Your eyes are a lot prettier than hers, he says. Maybe that’s why.
We lie in bed. I pick up my shirt and dab sweat off my face. The cotton feels cold against my skin.
T turns on his side. Is this what you look like without makeup?
I say I guess so.
He says ah! and grimaces as if shocked.
He can handle the worst, then.
Are you wearing blush? T asks midway through sex.
I pause in what I’m doing. No, I say.
Good, he says.
He’d be disappointed if that weren’t real.
Of course, we’re also happy. We kiss on top of a picnic table until I feel dizzy. The table sits on the edge of a marina. I stare out at the shapes of boats and talk. T apologizes for not having anything intelligent to say. I like that. I like that I can make him quiet.
A man follows me home from the subway one night. I ask him to stop walking so close. He offers me his cigarette. I tell him I’m not interested.
He says I should stop freaking out.
I see someone come out of an apartment with a dog. I run down the street, up my steps, and inside.
The next night, I tell T I always want to go home with him.
A friend says his professor thinks a good book should have a rape in it.
When the action’s slowing down, he quotes the professor, throw a rape in.
Bam! He claps his hands. She gets raped. It was very uncomfortable in class.
Yeah, I say.
He holds up a book. It does happen like that in here, though, he says. And it’s a really good book. But still.
My students call stories cinematic. Why? I ask them. How does the scene move? Where does the focus shift?
I see very few movies; they hurt me too much. I don’t know which is worse: staring at a light for a long time, or the disappointment when the world collapses into credits.
On the day we buy Plan B, we had planned to go to the movies. We walk to a Rite Aid two miles from my apartment. T stands in an aisle as I ask for the box and pay. He gives me the money later that night.
T decides a movie, on top of that, would be expensive. He suggests we go back to his apartment and watch a similar movie that came out a few years ago. Both are about cars. The one we had planned to see was a comedy. Last year, T’s bonus was more than the graduate school fellowship I live on.
The movie stars an actor everyone else thinks is handsome. He pretends to be poor and speaks very little. It takes place in a Los Angeles that I think exists only for people who make films in another Los Angeles. He falls in love with a blonde woman while driving through a long, well-lit sequence of images. They must fall in love because the stakes are suddenly much higher. Her husband reappears. By the end, everyone other than the quiet, beloved woman has died violent deaths.
I tell T it looks as if they saved money by not hiring writers.
Was that one car ride enough for him to die for her? She didn’t say anything.
T says the movie was well received. He liked it the first time he saw it.
Two days later, I get my period. We go to a bar near T’s apartment. I feel sharper pain in my abdomen than I usually do. I go to the bathroom. When I take out my tampon, my uterine lining falls into my hand in one piece. I search on my phone to see if this could be normal. I find images that look like little uteruses. This happens to some women, one website says. I return to the table and finish my drink. I don’t say anything to T.
I’m never sure when I’m being transgressive and when I’m being messy. I’d like to put menstruation into more poems. I’d like to talk about pantylines and underwire, and how my thyroid medication makes me sweat. In the poem I’d like to write, this litany would appear as neither metaphor nor complaint. It would be as material and important as evidence, as a theory toward something. I write the beginning of my pantyline poem over and over for hours. It gets funny, and then I pick apart the language until it isn’t funny.
The New York Times sends an email entitled, Police Find No Evidence of Rape at University of Virginia Fraternity. But on my phone, the subject line gets cut off. It reads, Police Find No Evidence of Rape. I start laughing when I see it.
When I arrive at dinner, I put my keys on the table. With the plastic canister of pepper spray attached, they’re bigger than the utensils next to my plate.
T says he sometimes forgets I’m so heavily armed. I’ll have a keychain handgun next.
There are nights, I tell him, when that’s all I want.
Sally Mann’s autobiography will be released the day after I plan to have this poem finished. I’m going to go see her speak that night. I think it might change everything I’ve written. She calls the book Hold Still.
She writes an article in the New York Times Magazine, an article that in many ways responds to the profile 23 years earlier that brought her work into controversial focus. She speaks for the first time about the stalker who haunted her family for years after Immediate Family’s release. He called her children’s school, he called friends, he begged for any detail about the family: birth certificates, grades, the score from a soccer game. She didn’t discuss the stalker sooner because she knew it would make her critics happy—she must be a bad mother, her photographs had endangered the children. Her critics assume there is cause for every effect.
I might let them be happy if this could be true. If we knew what crime sat across from our words; if we could know what words might be crossed out, what photographs undeveloped, to be safe. If it weren’t our entire body that would need to be erased.
In interviews, Mann is very careful with words like truth and information. She corrects interviewers who paraphrase her, using the word again in a particular context. Her voice, though transcribed, sounds patient, as if she’s teaching a lesson.
Many of the 347 letters Sally Mann received in the two years after the publication of Immediate Family came with gifts. These were: “photographs, of course, but also books, journal pages, handmade clothing, 35 preserved butterflies, jewelry, hand lotion, porcupine quills, Christmas-tree lights, sharks’ teeth, recipes, paintings, a preserved bird, mummified cats, chocolatechip cookies and a hand-painted statue of the Virgin Mary with a toothy demon on a leash.”
I’m listening to an episode of This American Life as I get ready for class. On the bathroom mirror are two small post-its on which my roommate has scribbled STRONG and WOMAN. The curling iron lets out steam. The reporter is midway through a story about a well-loved school principal in Tennessee who secretly harasses, gropes, kisses, and rubs himself against young female teachers. The incidents are separate, apologized for, and go on for years, shifting focus from one woman to another. Eventually, they report him. The town is outraged. Not outraged with, but outraged against.
Don’t believe is a gentle phrase, is flexible, can be an exclamation, as in I don’t believe it—you’re here! But not being believed doesn’t feel gentle or flexible. I stand as if paused, looking at my reflection, my ear turning red from the heat of the curling iron in my hand.
The principal shoots his wife while she sleeps on their sofa, then kills himself. After his death, the local paper prints the names of his accusers. The women give interviews for the story but don’t allow their voices to be recorded. His friends do. They say the women misunderstood, overreacted, and look what they did. The whole right side of my face is flushed. I still haven’t twisted my hair around the curling iron. I lower it to the sink. I listen again.
Something terrible has to happen, but sometimes the story doesn’t build to it. A character intrudes who shouldn’t be there, whose presence shifts the story off-kilter. Or two unrelated characters, each serving the same function in the piece, crowd one another and make the story less believable. Make the problem very simple, I tell my students. Just because something happened to you doesn’t mean it’s believable.
When I was eighteen, I had a job in the office of a school. The two older women who supervised me told me I needed to dress well and to make people feel welcome. One asked that I wear my glasses less often.
The other person in the office was a middle-aged man who ran a nonprofit where one of my friends volunteered. He made me tea with local honey when I had allergies. He invited me to watch foreign films with our coworkers. I brought my friend to the screenings. No one else came.
After a few months, I asked my friend if the man ever made her uncomfortable. No, she said. That’s just him.
He began to send emails inviting me to do things on the weekend.
I told him I was busy.
He said he would pretend to be my father and buy me drinks. He made the same invitation over and over.
The next year, after I had moved back to Virginia, I heard he solicited sex from another young woman, who was unwilling to come forward. I told administrators at the school about his emails to me. They were sympathetic, but I don’t think they did anything. I wondered what I wanted them to do. The nonprofit he ran served people who otherwise wouldn’t be served. He never harassed my friend or the other volunteers.
Was I sure he was asking me what I thought he was asking me? Wasn’t he, for the most part, kind?
He bought me a necklace with a pendant in the shape of a monkey, its face contorted with pleasure, or maybe pain. I remember throwing it away, then I find it again each time I move. I’m almost sure, now, that I’ve gotten rid of it.
T asks if I would choose to be a woman, if I could choose.
Of course I would.
We’d been talking about the pay gap over dinner. We’re walking back to my apartment, and the night has gotten cold. My hand holds his inside my coat pocket.
I can’t imagine not being a woman. It’s who I am.
What if you didn’t have to be one? Like clean slate. He moves his free hand as if wiping a table.
I want to change things.
But wouldn’t everything be so much easier if you were a man?
I look up at him, backlit by the pizzeria we’re passing.
Can you imagine wanting to be a woman?
He doesn’t hesitate. No. He knows it’s not fair, but it’s easier to be a man.
Your answer surprises me, he says as we keep walking. You’re usually so logical.
My high school boyfriend and I went to college together, then broke up. He dated another girl at the school, a tall blonde who, from a distance, people mistook for me. I joked about it with friends. I cried in my room, a single that sat above a laundry grate where students smoked. It smelled like weed and artificial lavender.
After a few months, she asked me to get coffee. I felt guilty that I’d hated her—for being happy, and for not being me. So I said yes.
She talked for hours. They were breaking up. The relationship was terrible. She had no friends. He was isolating her; he was unkind to her. He wished she had been me. I felt luminous. She asked what my plans were that night.
She came over to my room. Friends were there getting ready for a party. She brought a mixed drink, which she poured for me.
My best friend was flying in to visit that weekend. By the time her cab pulled up, I was tipping over and incoherent. I’d had one drink.
I don’t remember the party. On the way home, I fell on the sidewalk and stripped my stockings off. I was drooling. Back in my room, I opened my computer and tried to type but couldn’t find the keys.
I went to bed, then woke up and took off my clothes. There was a sink in the corner of my room and I stood over it. Vomit came up my throat, tasting sweet, and filled the sink. It was neon green. I’d never seen so much vomit, and it kept coming. In the shower, I watched it wash down from my mouth, bright green over my breasts and stomach.
I went to the cafeteria for brunch later that morning and found the girl sitting with my friends. She stared at me as I tried to eat. After I went to the bathroom and was sick again, I felt better.
My best friend said something must have been in my drink. She didn’t trust that girl. We searched the Internet and read up on antifreeze poisoning. It’s an easy way to kill a cat or a person. The vomit pictured looked like my vomit. But if it had been antifreeze in my drink, I should be dead.
What happens when the problem stretches on and comes to no climax? I never ask my students this question. Their stories rise and fall over the four to eight required workshop pages in two ways: a character dies or finds love. Except for one student, who writes either gorgeous nonfiction, or stories in which the characters fall in love and also die—sometimes fall in love while dying, or already dead. Her pieces are funny, complex, as mean as they need to be. I tell her she’s on the right track.
The girl learned where I would go and followed. After art class, I would walk to Starbucks a mile from campus. On Fridays, I would go to the drugstore and buy stockings, a case of ginger ale, and Sudafed. I would eat lunch at 12:30 every day, where I would sit with the same group of friends.
She loved my friends, and was it ok if she joined us? She was always here at this time. We must not have noticed her. She had allergies. Ginger ale was her favorite soda. Stockings looked so elegant. She loved Starbucks—was I also ashamed of how suburban it was? I got a green tea lemonade? She always got green tea lemonade.
When I say it like that, it sounds playful, annoying. I’ve become so used to telling the story as a joke because that’s how people are willing to listen. But I can tell it to you and not make it funny. It wasn’t funny.
She ate the same food at lunch. She said she wanted her body to look more like mine. She copied the numbers of my high school friends and called them. She changed our boyfriend’s number in my phone. She took up photography. She borrowed a leather jacket and wore it everyday, so, she said, from far away, people wouldn’t know she wasn’t me. She got fake glasses. She bought the same charm, a monkey gripping a little copper penis, I had found at a local market and hung on my keys.
She wanted me to do her makeup. How? I asked. Like yours, she said.
She took Sudafed every four hours so we would run out of the 48-count pack at the same time.
You’re wondering why I didn’t stop it. Our boyfriend had told her so many things about me. She recounted her trauma, which echoed my life, my friends’ lives, the lives of characters in my favorite books. She said she would have killed herself if it weren’t for me.
How could I ask her not to sit with us? Not to walk with me on errands? I did, though, after a while. My friends didn’t like her. But when I would bring up that night, the night I got so sick, they weren’t interested. I should never have talked to her. The whole thing was a bad idea, they said. No part was more or less than a bad idea.
At night, she would come to my dorm room and let herself in. She had small, brown eyes. That was our greatest difference, she said. Our eyes. In the semi-dark, I could only see pupils between her lids. She stared at me and talked in her flat voice.
I started locking my door. I woke up to the knob’s rattling. She never said anything. She stood in the hall, moving the knob until I fell back to sleep.
I have a recurring nightmare where I wake to her standing over me. I can’t remember if this really happened. The image is clearer than any photograph. I wake up screaming, my hand batting the air where the light switch had been next to that bed.
What’s the shape of the story? I ask my students. They wave dramatic arcs through the air with their hands. I draw on the board. Slow climb, then steep descent. All climb and no descent. Here, what would we do? I blur the chalk down through a long, slow denouement of white dust and dirty blackboard.
Our boyfriend and I began talking again the next fall. She had told him we were very close. She said she could hurt me whenever and however she wanted to.
I don’t talk about her often. I find it hard to tell the story in the right tone. Photographs of her help to make it believable. You can’t imagine otherwise how much she managed to look like me.
I tell T about her in a conversation about exes—his long-term girlfriend, my high school sweetheart and his girlfriend who maybe tried to kill me. I skim the story, but make sure it sounds bad enough to explain why I didn’t date for so long afterwards. As if she were the cause and I the effect. I don’t know if this is the truth, or if it’s what Sally Mann calls emotional information, contained in the image but not fixed.
I first wrote about Sally Mann a year ago. The poem swings from the gray-toned scene of her daughters watching a field burn right up to my skin, jelly-covered, getting a sonogram. I’ve never been pregnant. In fact, after she looked at the image of my uterus, the gynecologist—the same gynecologist who delivered me—thought conception might be difficult, or might not happen. But that was too far down the line to worry about. If sex is painful, she said, you should have a drink beforehand.
Younger doctors have since told me she’s wrong. But the anxiety over having children flared in the poem. I want children. I want them so much more because I was told I might not have them. The way people pine for lovers who spurn them, or teenagers sneak out just past their curfews.
My mother sends me a photograph and letter she found in an old box. In the photograph, she stands in the bathroom my parents and I still share when I’m home. I’m so small that she can hold me with one arm. A 1980s Polaroid camera covers my mother’s face. I have a tiny toothbrush in my mouth and I look like I’m in a trance.
Dear Mother, the letter begins.
I thought you’d enjoy these photos even though they’re less than perfect—it’s hard to take photo with a baby in one arm + camera in the other!
Tory wanted my toothbrush yesterday, so I gave her her own + she went to town. She didn’t want to give it up! Let’s hope that’s a sign of things to come.
On one of the euphoric final days of high school, when we’d been released from classes but had yet to graduate, I was walking through the hall with my boyfriend. Our sophomore history teacher hailed us. He was leaving, too—returning to Kenya to run for parliament.
You nerds, he greeted us. He said it affectionately. Where are you off to in the fall?
We were going to the same small liberal arts school, but we each told him as if it were two unrelated facts, not notable enough to call a coincidence.
Our teacher turned to me and said he’d be preparing his presidential campaign around the time we graduate. I should look him up for a speechwriting job.
Though we were still holding hands, my boyfriend had turned to stare out the glass walls of the school at a stretch of lawn and trees. He was probably stoned, which I probably didn’t realize.
I told the politician I would take his offer under advisement.
He looked at me and said, you’ll be a writer. And you’ll need the work. He chuckled as he walked away.
In the summer after we graduated, I went on vacation with my boyfriend’s family. When we met their friends in Martha’s Vineyard, his mother introduced me as a future English major. I thought, at the time, that I wanted to study policy, perhaps learn Arabic. But I didn’t resent her prediction because she sounded so proud. She said Victoria is a talented writer. I don’t think she’d read anything I’d written. I don’t think I’d written anything.
I enrolled in a poetry workshop in my first semester at UVA because all the fiction sections were full. In the class, I wrote poem after poem about the year in Minnesota. I thought I would never write about anything else.
I loved workshop. I could bring in anything—anything—and I would be believed.
Two of my students write brilliant lyric essays for their midterm assignment. Both center on self-doubt. Neither student speaks often in class. The same thing happened last semester: one student wrote poetry far beyond the level of the course, scheduled frequent office hours, and never volunteered in discussions. I don’t need to tell you that all these students are women.
In our discussion of a short story, a student works through what’s at stake in the piece. He’s read aloud two passages that contradict one another. In one, our hero wonders why the people in her life love her. In the other, she talks about her longing for fame, for her wonderful, unwritten novel. She wants so much, but then questions everything she has.
Wait, he exclaims, maybe her anxiety and her ambition are the same thing.
I want to write a novel because I’m exhausted by real people and the things they did, or I imagined them doing, or they almost did and stopped themselves. I’ve never written one because I’m afraid to find out what I’m capable of: whether I quit or have to live with the finished story.
Instead, I’m writing a poem. The longer I write, the less I make up. I worry about hurting feelings, then I stop worrying about hurting feelings. I think this would be mortifying for anyone to read, then I think it’s the most important thing I’ve written.
T and I will break up. But if I tell myself to complete the sentence, this is a problem because… I have too many options to pick. Something terrible has to happen. But something terrible is always happening, to, around, and also inside us, in the possibilities we give ourselves.
One morning in the shower, I imagine attending T’s funeral. I would meet his parents for the first time. His ex-girlfriend would be distraught, and I’d—what? Comfort her? I imagine introducing myself to everyone, or introducing myself to no one. It starts looking less like a funeral than a wedding I haven’t been invited to. In the fleshing out of this fantasy—fantasy’s the wrong word, but more elegant than unwanted imagined thing—I don’t assign his death a cause. I think that plot hole is the exact shape of my fear.
I’m a good person. I’m a good person. I’m a good person.
Writing is an immortality project, the professor tells us. I think, not of my own work, but of T’s. At his company, there’s a department he calls the immortality division.
Think about it, he says. They’re integrating technology into the body. It’s sad. The man who runs it is famously afraid of death. He eats vitamins instead of food.
T twirls pasta on his fork. In every division of the company, they expect things to happen too fast. But these guys, he shakes his head. It’s like they can’t understand time at all.
T and I go see a standup show. The performers are pretty bad. After it ends, we go to the less popular of two nearby burger places. There’s a basketball game on.
T says he’s given up on ever doing something creative. It’s not going to go anywhere, he says. Even best case, he’d be one of those people. He means the bad standups.
So he’s going to teach himself how to dunk. How cool would that be? To be playing a pickup game and suddenly be able to swoop in there and dunk?
I guess that’d be cool. I’ve never thought about it.
It’d be like—for you, it’d be like being a Victoria’s Secret model.
What do you mean by that?
Like how you’d want your body to be.
He says I know what he means.
I say no, really, give me a minute, I have no idea what you mean. My having bigger breasts is like your being an athlete? You’d get to enjoy playing this game and I’d—what? Lie around in my underwear?
Do you ever come up with the perfect response long after a conversation ends? You go home, you take a shower, you call a friend and realize it would have been better if you’d said—this.
That was the problem with T and me. I never had that feeling. I said exactly what I meant.
A few hours later we’re in my bed and not looking at one another.
He says he realized we shouldn’t get married, and he’d been waiting to have this conversation. But he didn’t want to break up until after his company’s holiday party.
Of course we shouldn’t get married.
He asks how long I’ve known that.
Since the moment I met you.
My professor is hosting her graduate students for dinner. I have a migraine. My classmates and I are perched around her living room, eating pasta and talking.
The professor says she’s been thinking about my migraines. Have you read, she asks me, about migraines and love?
No, I say. The rest of the class looks at me.
My professor says she read a theory that we stop having migraines when we fall in love. The chemicals in our brains shift. So when we fall out of love, the migraines get much worse.
But, she says, she doesn’t know what kind of advice that is to give.
I’ve had migraines each week this fall. Put in terms of love, they would make every day with T a slippage.
I fell out of love once. The year I moved back to Virginia. I also had my worst migraines then, or at least the most painful. I would wake up at night and stay awake for hours vomiting. Sometimes I would call my mother because I thought the pain would kill me.
But there were other factors: the food, the stress, the irregular schedule. I found the right medication that year. Now, I can stop the migraine before it gets bad. I will never again be in that particular kind of pain.
T and I break up, but we still see each other. We go to the Natural History Museum for his company’s holiday party. We walk around for a few hours eating the free food and putting empty drinks on top of display cases. I ask T to take a picture of me in front of two wolves. They crouch, teeth bared, but their ferocity has been taxidermied away. They look like dogs, but much more interesting. I sit on the ground and T has to kneel to get the photo.
I find, months later, in an exhibition catalogue, that Francesca Woodman took a photograph in front of the same diorama. Her model lies in a leotard alongside the glass, angled so she looks like she’s in with the wolves. It must be a sign that we chose to photograph the same wolves, but mine is so out of focus, I don’t show it to anyone. I decide it wouldn’t mean anything to other people even if it were a better shot. I try to figure out what it means to me.
Francesca Woodman has a show of fashion photographs up in a small gallery. Or, a small gallery has an exhibit of Woodman’s fashion photographs up. Being dead changes the syntax of everything.
I want my poems to have edges. To be more like a photograph than a movie. 35mm, a rule of dimensions: what is and is not in the shot. If you want to include more in the image than will fit, you have to change where you stand. Either that or change the world:
Move the saltshaker in front of the woman. Ask her to scoot closer to the light. In the poem, I can pretend the saltshaker was there, or neglect mention of it. The woman can keep moving. I’m writing her in one way, but this is not how it is, she’s already out of the light, and though I call her back, she’s gone. The room is a room and goes around me in every direction, populated with objects I can’t hope to include. I move close to the saltshaker and find that it’s filled with tiny stones. This isn’t true, but I live in the lawless room of the stanza. Every image I write is a lie. I feel guilty and proud.
T asks to get dinner every few weeks. He wants to know how my students are this semester. He really wants to know if I’m seeing anyone, but I won’t tell him. The conversation slows.
He remembers the long poem. How’s it going?
Good, I say. Better.
What’s it about, again?
You know, womanhood. We laugh. And Sally Mann, a lot on Sally Mann. Language is important. Language and image. Oh, and that comes through in teaching. And conversations.
I pause. I don’t want to say conversations with you. I don’t want to say, so much about you.
I’m a good person. I’m a good person. I’m a good person.
He says wow. That’s a lot. You’re doing all that in one poem?
Yeah, I say. My whole idea is not to leave anything out.
I cry about T, but I’m crying because I feel the way I felt before T and I dated. I don’t miss him. The shape of a circle is very different than the shape of loss. Loss fills the space where a body has been. Loss has volume.
T wants to talk about a girl he likes.
I say that’s too weird.
He bites into a pepper on his plate. It turns out to be decorative, inedibly hot, and he starts to cry. He’s crying too hard to speak.
I watch him. After a minute or so, I ask if I should get some milk.
A few tables away, the waiter is bringing out a dessert for someone’s birthday, a chocolate cake topped with sparklers. They put on music and the waiter summons the woman from her seat, then twirls her around between tables.
I get up and walk around the spectacle, smiling and bobbing my head to the music. I find our waitress standing by the kitchen, watching the dancers.
I ask her for some milk and she asks if cream’s ok. Sure, I say. She goes back to the kitchen.
While I wait, I look past the last flare of the sparklers to T. He’s leaning his head back on his shoulders, face contorted and raised to the ceiling. As if he hopes gravity can pull the pain down.
I teach my students the difference between empathy, sympathy and pity. What should we feel for our characters? I ask. What do we want our audience to feel? I use a graph in class that I call the spectrum of knowledge. It’s a line across the chalkboard going from ignorance to certainty. Faith, doubt, and poetry are in the middle.
Pity is where? I ask. Flat characters are already listed on the ignorance side of the board, so we add pity underneath.
Sympathy, I tell them, is when someone tries to fix your suffering. It assumes that problems have solutions. In a story, that might look like a moral, or judgment passed on a character.
Empathy requires that we let the suffering affect us. We’ve experienced an emotion, and we reopen it to write it into our story. I point to the board. So where do we put the empathy?
The summer I met T, a friend said that he would marry me. As with most sentences with this construction, the would had an if.
He would marry me if I didn’t have, he paused, health problems.
I wondered what he meant. I remembered, then, that he’d read my Sally Mann poem, the one where I’m on the exam table and the doctor says I can’t conceive.
I didn’t know if I wanted to correct him—I’m going to have kids and they won’t be yours!—or spit in his face. I stopped speaking to him.
But now, I’m almost proud of that conversation, and of him. He predicted what I want my writing to do; he made it a force in our lives. The poem is what happened. The poem is a terrible thing.
Sally Mann’s description of Marital Trust comes from an article by Blake Morrison in The Guardian, published on May 28, 2010.
The words truth and emotional information appear in Mann’s January 5, 2013 interview with Jiang Rong in American Suburb X.
Sally Mann’s list of objects received, and the story of the man who stalked her family, after the publication of Immediate Family come from her April 16, 2015 article in the New York Times Magazine, “Sally Mann’s Exposure.”
Mann’s book, Hold Still, was released on May 12, 2015 from Little, Brown and Company.
Rolling Stone’s November 19, 2014 article, “A Rape on Campus,” has been retracted. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on the article is available on the Rolling Stone website.
The episode of This American Life is “Naming Names,” first broadcast on May 3, 2002. Susan Drury writes and narrates the story.
The lesson on pity, sympathy, and empathy is adapted from Brené Brown’s talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”
Victoria Kornick is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from New York University, where she was a Rona Jaffe and Goldwater fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books–Voluble, No Tokens Journal, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among other publications.