In the city of frost and wine we buy because it has a first name, we’ve found our way to the warehouse version of the famous bakery. Nothing is as golden as we’ve been led to believe. We take our croissants to-go in thin, brown paper pockets and head back to stony academia, satisfied by our success in almost finding something we’ve been told is authentic. This weekend, we means four of us, here for the kind of conference that lives in small rooms in a building on the edge of academia. In these rooms, we listen to amplified voices tell us that we are free to move about as we need.
Mine is the only body of our four to have openly tried out refusal, to have decided not to conform to ability. We came here together in a small but sturdy car and in that racing vehicle we joked that if the car crashed, if we became buried in the surrounding blizzard, our own city would be almost devoid of bodies or brains who think about this foreign concept, disability. In the city of frost and wine, our host comes home after midnight and asks if we’d like some gin. She has a beautiful woman on her arm and they look down at us, sitting in a circle on the floor. None of us like gin. We hold up our empty cups anyway.
Under a bridge in a rainstorm in my city, I am contemplating apocalypse love. The man holding my hand is new to me but not to the world, which is almost a joke about his age. Other humans are younger and shiny but I like them less; their brains are less beautiful, more hollow and stuck on the wrong words, bodies that careen predictably into plot lines that play out into nothing. I like the way this man tells me stories I haven’t heard before.
The water in the river is high and there’s an abandoned backpack on the wall we lean on, my dress is soaked and heavy. We wait it out until we can’t anymore, I’ll be late to my dinner. I take my wrung-out hair back into the pouring water, the heavy air. It’s not beautiful, at his place the dryer will be too slow and my dress will slip back onto my body still full of rain. My contacts get rained out of my eyes and my hair is tangled. He has a first name like a bottle of wine slipping out of my price range, he has eyes like unphysical love, like the ducks struggling their way upstream only to be blown back past us, water and air ruining all their big plans.
In some distant and dismal future, he and I will carry my mother’s kayak to her green car and slide the yellow body onto the roof, tilting it and struggling until one vehicle caps another, knifing itself into the air at an angle I will always see as unlikely, untenable. When I call it a body I mean it is open and hollow enough to hold our two breathing bodies inside it in our nation’s longest unnavigable river. When I call the future dismal I mean the rest of you, the bodies that fill the space other bodies might need to move. The boat hasn’t climbed the car yet, it is an imagined life, glinting up at me from my newly-decorated left hand. Last summer I fell into this river twice, and the water was barely chest-deep, the suffocating algae a reminder that we can live even in the most submerged circumstances.
Once when I was a child in a different and dismal city known for its thriving banks, a teacher told my parents that she thought my brain must be slower than others, I was too fond of sitting on the couch and not making friends. Later at a conference in a cold city known for its frost and expensive coffee I will consider my slowed brain a point of disability pride, of proof that I must get it more deeply, in a way that some of my compatriots here in this small section of academia don’t. Of course my brain didn’t slow in the way my teacher thought it might, of course this a drawn-out story compressed and dragged into a straight line when in fact it meandered across the world: through twisting neurons and rays of ineffective sunshine and glasses of unhelpful milk, never quite delivering their promised vitamin D—apparently my body couldn’t process what was right inside of it. One day a long time ago I learned the body needs that kind of vitamin to avoid turning self-digging, sclerotic.
The teacher’s husband was relocated to Guam and she went along, to a place filled with snakes and known for its low altitude. I retained my brain cells for the moment, my bored and frosty attitude, my friends from couch-bound days, one of them a model, the other leading an eponymous indie band. The snakes in Guam were eventually poisoned by dead mice stuffed with Tylenol. I get stuck on this, an empty body, a vehicle, a vulnerability pushing reptile bodies out of trees and into the streets, where they maybe gasped one last slithering glittering snake breath into distant sky.
Sometimes I do get angry about the ways bodies with their various vulnerabilities are used by others, mostly men, to make a point. I feel bad because I use snakes and mice but men use women and girls, I’m angry about the girl shot by her father because he was mad about his divorce. I know her name, it is Claire, but her last name could also be a man’s first name, it was her father’s last name too, he killed her anyway. There is nothing I can say for the girl locked in a room at a frat party who climbed out because she was afraid, she fell and shattered her pelvis along with almost every bone in her body, but the news mostly talked about her pelvis. What else is a woman good for? She is a container, a friction of fabric or a body against a body, one small body climbing out of another. I saw that frat house every day for four years and never saw the future of her body knifing through air into bushes.
But once I did pick up a tiny girl from under those same bushes where she was lying alone, she wore a child’s boot around her neck as some jewelry decoration, I picked her up and I carried her until I couldn’t anymore, and then she held my hand like it was a mitten, and she couldn’t find me the letters to tell me her name, must have been the wine or maybe just her brain cells. When I say tiny I also do mean she was an adult, I also do mean she was big enough to make carrying her small body a difficult task, she came up to my chest, she made me feel like I was suffocating. And I’m mad about a different girl whose name remains a mystery to me, her stepfather raped her and killed her once she became pregnant, her brain worked in such a way that nobody believed her when she said whatever words she could push out of her mouth.
I’m mad about the hollow bodies and the violences and the way nobody braids your hair when you’re alive but they do your makeup when you’re dead and on display within a casket, a hollow body, a vehicle knifing itself into a sky and then the ground and whatever comes after. I make a point of believing nothing. I make a point of inscribing rage onto each body exploration, something about singing the body disabled and too electric, each boat cutting through water needs to also be a violence, this is the closest we can ever come to authenticity or something like it, something golden, and do you see it, and do you see it.
When I was young I used to stand onstage and spell words from my magic brain, the letters coming to my little lips from my camera lens eyes, my vocabulary photographic and telescopic. When I was small and only chest-deep in some liquid metaphysical understanding my brain was still fast and full, there was no apparent need to think about vitamins.
Later and later and later I make jokes about love as disease, affliction, dating as something necessitating a medical model of understanding. People think I mean my own complicity not because it lives in the words but because their own brains have tricked them into it, this strange idea that violence and promiscuity are diagnosable diseases of the female body. It lives nowhere in the definition, though at another conference in a small academic room the panel facilitator says she finds it odd that there’s nothing about women in the definition of hysteria and yet it is often a concept associated with women.
I want to say it’s right there in the word, hysteria and uterus have the same roots, words grow like leaves hanging from branches until like snake bodies they plummet earthward and hit our understanding, my eyes are telescoping but I close my lips and smile in a way that perhaps suggests shared confusion, or just anger, refusal to allow a violence to remain unrecorded, uncommented upon. There is solitude and crusade and self-righteousness inside me, of course, but don’t forget that in academia there are always some compatriots to keep my angry brain in golden company.
I don’t know what to tell you when you think a body like mine is the kind that enacts violence other than yes, sometimes, but mostly not. All kinds of bodies can buy guns in our nation which is known for its guns and mass shootings, sometimes my own body wants to as well, given the not-so-distant but very dismal future. My lovely newly-acquired man like a bodyguard says that someday he’ll take me out of the unending rain to a firing range and teach me how to defend myself. But no, mostly it is the disabled body that falls victim, it does not victimize. That’s the statistics talking, that’s not my little bright mouth speaking for just my brain. The brain is flawed, yes, but surely numbers can tell truths that words can’t quite get at, neither can neurons, not bodies, there is of course the water of unknowing that surrounds us, but only up to our breastbones, and our heads remain dry, and our mouths are full of our own saliva, and then we struggle our way back onto our kayaks, our bodies encased in other more durable bodies, and we steer toward land.
My doctor is a man with neatly coiffed hair who, for all I know, lives in a brightly lit office. His office is in a city known for its nicely-seasoned crustaceans, which I buy for lunch at a bar with a first name after I see him and have time to kill. He tells me about the unhelpfulness of milk or sunshine and the help that can be brought to my slowed brain and hole-ridden body with a colorful variety of pills, vitamins and medications. They get stuck throat-deep inside my body and I drink endless water to flush them down, which I hear can drown you if you do it very diligently, for hours and hours. After I see him I always invent time to kill. Otherwise I just end up crying in the car with my parents back to the house in the town by the shallow river; there is only so much saltwater a moving vehicle can bear.
After I see him I sometimes go out seeking ink to be skin-embedded, because what other decoration could be more permanent in the body known for its dissolve. He disapproves of the ink like he disapproves when he decides I might be seeking medication. I do find this funny or frustrating or violent depending on my mood—because of course he is the one who seems to be seeking my medication, and am I taking it, and am I calling for refills as frequently as I should be, and do I let them stick me and take my blood as often as he’d like. He asks the questions and does not like my answers. He calls me by my first name and I demur, pretending I’ve never heard of his. He pokes me with safety pins which doesn’t seem to be the right word for the way he uses them: sharpness, perception of pain. What is safe in that kind of space, and can I move about it as I need? Maybe he is ability and I am the refusal.
He tells me not to drink too much alcohol and of course I hold out my empty cup anyway, and the rain fills it, and the snakes try to eat the ducks but they dive under, bodies paddling desperately away from or into the coming apocalypse, the golden fault line opening up underneath, swallowing us all like we are only friendly frost and wine.
CADE LEEBRON lives in Columbus, OH. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University, where she served as an editor at The Journal. Her work has appeared in The Boiler, American Literary Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She exists online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com, and on Twitter, @CadeyLadey