I sit across from my long-time friend in a hypothetically Mexican restaurant in a pit-stop off I-40. I’m swaddled in the gray cocoon of withdrawal. Not from a drug, unless you count my ability to use attention from a hypothetical beloved as a drug. (There’s a lot of “hypothetical” going around these days in my life – look for details in a future short story.) I know this withdrawal. I’ve felt it before. It is, at this point, beyond ordinary. It renders the world around me flat and banal. “I see that you are beside yourself with excitement,” my friend says. “Damn near paralyzed,” I say. We laugh, the dry chortle of what an old friend once called gallows humor.
A young waiter steps up to the table. He’s tall, slender and dressed all in black. He hands us our menus. I look up at him and the cocoon falls away, not because he is the next beloved, but because a greater Beloved is tattooed on his right arm. The San Francisco Peaks (Nuva’tuk-iya-ovi for the Hopi, Dook’o’oosÌÌd for the Navajo) rise over a towering Ponderosa over an elk. The same scene – with a wolf instead of an elk – covers the back of his arm. The tattoo artist has worked in shades of forest green. “Are those The Peaks?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “I love them.”
I ask if I can photograph his arm. “Of course,” he says. He takes our order and later delivers plates of food that is not actively bad, but essentially without flavor. I feel the withdrawal closing in. It doesn’t matter.
That night, I text my friend: Not exactly an endlessly intriguing road trip in Northwest Nevada, but the companionship and the humor were just as solid.
The cocoon, this afternoon, holds me. I have stayed faithful to not using the readily available drug – not the former beloved, but reaching out to him through the internet and phone. Instead, I reach out to Breakthrough readers, and I invite you to send us one of your ordinary stories – you know, the day you drove into the back of the irate guy’s truck because he passed you without signaling, your grand-kid’s performance as a cockroach in a school play, the tired mom or dad in the laundromat (Ray Carver’s stunning essay on trying to find time to write as a working dad) in Fires
There are no ordinary stories. There are no ordinary lives. Show us how deeply you know that.
Here is Elizabeth Maginnis:
Elizabeth J. Elizabeth J. I knew her from my hometown. The hometown I fled as soon as I was old enough to drive. She was one of eleven children, her mother raised them alone, the “man” of the house having run off when he learned Number Eleven was on the way. He was good at making kids but had no interest in raising them. Typical of where I come from. People drift in and out. Some stay a while, others just long enough for a one-night stand.
There was something special about Elizabeth J. that made her stand out from the rest of the family. Her mother, spiteful and jealous as she was, tried what she could to keep Elizabeth J. in what she perceived to be the girl’s place. Who did Elizabeth J. think she was, anyway, with her good grades and her good looks? All those deep blue eyes and dark brown hair were good for was attracting men, and keeping them, if she was lucky. What made her think she could go off to college and leave her mama alone with all those children?
It was the verbal abuse that wore at Elizabeth J.’s self-confidence. Maybe Mama was right, maybe I’m not good enough for college. Maybe I’m meant to stay in Nowhere, Arizona, and help her raise the family Daddy left her with. Who’s going to want me, anyway? What do I have to offer the world?
Her prayers were answered, or so she thought, the day her friends fixed her up with a boy home from university for the summer. She never did wonder why he had trouble keeping a girlfriend. She thought her love could change him. She thought they could build a beautiful life together, away from her mother, away from her dead-end existence.
Until the day he beat her unconscious for burning the toast.