Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
I want to tell the story of a different woman.
Maybe if I figure out why I’ve been writing the same woman for too long, I can.
Sometimes I think I was missing Kenny before I met him. He was always ready to get going, stay gone. It’s as if my natural state is missing, and he came along and said, “Yes.” Always that space between us. Our first kiss a fissure. The Eagle River and the moon an erosion. The back porch all those nights a split-trail to distance. When I slept beside him, I’d stumble down a jagged trail, a canyon. I settled into where he unsettled me.
Give me distance, and I’ll give you an essay. Here:
A wooden staircase leads up to a closed door, to what used to be the Wormy Dog Saloon. Peanut shells on the floor, saddles for barstools. That kind of place. A fuchsia teddy teases the antlers of a moose head on one wall, and balls roll and clack on two worn pool tables. In the back, a yellowed Budweiser sign keeps bar time. Rainy afternoon, and maybe because we’re in Oklahoma somebody plays Three Dog Night’s “Never Been To Spain.” I’m the girl in a red tank top, denim shorts, flip flops. I haven’t met Kenny yet. This is 1996, when I’m in graduate school, and every chance I get, I’m dropping the 4 ball into the side pocket, smoking Marlboro Lights, and sharing a pitcher of Bud Dry with anyone who can break. A couple of guys in Carhartts shuffle around the next table. I lean toward and long for their just-worked-all-day-with-my-hands scruff. I’m half in love with any man who wears a tool belt.
I met Kenny three years later. He wore Carhartts, shrugged a tool belt in the morning, and worked so much with his hands the callus on his right hand scratched my skin. He was always ready to get going and stay gone. And after all these years, I’m beginning to think what drew me to Kenny was that he was a cavern. Because when what you are is words, choosing a man who can build a bookshelf but has no use for one guarantees you'll end up alone.
I’ve written this bar a few times before, climbed those same wooden steps. Do I simply write what I miss? In this version, I think I’ve figured out that the moment I swooned at strangers in coveralls was when I knew: It’s being far away from where (who?) I should be, which is where I go when I write. Or to put it this way: All my essays have peanut shells on the floor. Some man I don’t know. Three Dog Night on the jukebox and another round. It’s all one long, lonesome afternoon.
I’ve been trying for ten years to end this essay. Here are some possibilities:
Kenny once told me about the moment he knew we wouldn’t last. We were in bed and he said he wanted to make me happy. I tried to explain why I never wanted to be. Because I don’t want to lose my capacity for longing, for missing, for wondering what might be, for yearning for what has come and gone before I had the chance to save it. I want a window to stare out of or a dark bar where I can buy my dissatisfaction another drink.
I used to lean into the hard curves on Chardonnay Road to write, but the dull oak of apple-pears slammed me into walls, and I’d reel on the page like a runaway hubcap.
This one seems more like a beginning than an ending.
When Kenny abandoned us in 2002, I don’t know where he went. It’s as if he got on a road to somewhere and never stopped. Not even Google could find him. And then, in 2007, a woman from Child Support Services called to tell me he was living in California. For the first time, there was a way to measure the distance. But a month or two after that, he left. Still ready to get going, stay gone. Thinking about him feels the way it does when a car with a spare tire passes me on the road—somewhere—something ruptured—and still that stranger insists on getting to a place, or a person, that has nothing whatsoever to do with me.
Maybe all I’ve ever written is the woman I’m afraid I’ve been. The one I will goddamn-guarantee be again.
I asked my friend, Charles, the one who says I write fiction, the one who says I “manipulate persona,” why he thought I began to write (and wine) so much during those months Kenny worked construction in other states. His answer: “Because he was so distant.” So why, I wonder, when Kenny was home for a week or two, did I stay up hours after he had gone to bed, insist he not join me at the bar some nights, or ride my bike home from the café instead of letting him drive us home?
I like the way this one ends in a question.
I worry that being with me is like waking up with someone who’s been dreaming about someone else all night.
Our daughter, Indie, now old enough to know the story of her father, of our love, of his leaving. When I tell her, I balance the weight of our undoing between both of us, admit that some of the rumblings were my own. “Like an earthquake?” Yes. And then she said this: “Earthquakes start beneath the surface and they go down, but when they come up, they come back to the same place.” Oh, yes. I ask her to tell me again what she said so I can write it down. She knows I write her father, the man she says is just like every other person she doesn’t know in the world.
I first read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the summer shore of the Grasse River in northern New York. When I read, “Above all, I want to stop missing you,” the ledge where I had been standing for ten years gave way, and I stared off into the farthest bend of the river to hide my sobs. Our daughter, Indie, splashing in the distance.
A bar in Fort Collins, Colorado, 2000: I’m the one in a gray tank top and khaki shorts sitting next to the man who built me a bookshelf, the man I’m afraid I’ll write for the rest of my life, the one who complains when I turn to talk to the man on the other side of me.
Maybe one of these should come back to those wooden steps of the beginning, something about the way writing opens all the closed doors of what used to be.
Every essay I write is about missing Kenny. Even if he’s not mentioned, he’s there.
You see? If I don’t have distance, I construct a new map. Move. (I’ve moved seven times, to seven states, in the past ten years.) I’ll assemble my own country, build a border. “Even when you’re here,” Kenny would tell me, “you’re not here.”
“If the reader prefers,” Hemingway writes in the preface to A Moveable Feast, “this book may be regarded as fiction.” This essay, too. My omissions—what’s missing—their own essay, another story.
If I got into my car now and drove the seven hundred and sixty-three miles non-stop to those wooden steps, the distance I would cover would be as staggering as the one between the woman I am and the woman I write.
Because I wanted Indie to love words, Kenny and I read aloud from books while I was pregnant. The first one was A Moveable Feast. We shared the couch and took turns reading, talked about the sadness of every chapter’s end. I think we were already missing each other.
I’m thinking Didion: "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends."
Who knows how we end up in the rooms we do, saying things to people we’ll never see again in a year or two? And what might we say, or not say, if we knew it might lessen the missing? I think I write somewhere between what I said and what I didn’t.
A few days ago, I read a story and got caught by the way one sentence answered the question of the sentence before it: “Missing people are the most spontaneous ones I know. Construction workers. . . .” I don’t remember what happened in the rest of the story. For me, that was the story.
I don’t think anyone ever reads the same story, the same essay. We make each one our own.
How can I possibly wish to experience again the hour he told me he was leaving? How can I long for the way I howled through every room of the house while he sat in the chair in the living room? How can I not remember where Indie, only four months old, was while I gasped and grasped the kitchen counter against the ground swell? Will I ever stop writing around and around and around the way I went to the bathroom mirror to make sure it was real, it was me?
I don’t drink as much as my essays say I do. The woman I write insists on at least three glasses of Chardonnay, sometimes a second bottle. But I still don’t drink when I write. Sometimes I revise. Write sober. Revise tipsy. Sorry, Hemingway.
I have a memoir with the word “miss” in it twenty-six times. “Chardonnay” comes in at twenty-five.
I’ve driven Indie past the fuchsia-teddy bar in Oklahoma, but I can only point to what used to be. So much, I think, has gone missing.
I don’t think it’s ever been about missing him at all.
I write because I used to be someone I miss.
Let me write another woman.
Maybe this isn't an ending at all, just another way to begin the same essay.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). She's also the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Paris Review Daily, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. Three of the essays in The Way We Weren't were named Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016.
InterviewThe Thread That Makes the Cloth: An Interview with Brandon Lingle
As my life becomes more intertwined with conflict, I find it more complicated to write about war.continue reading >