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You Are Exactly Where You Belong

The prairie smokes. Gray smogs the window across from the pool. On deck, the lifeguard with the tombstone torso and a nose he hasn’t grown into, scrambles after Nathaniel.
     You’re in the pool, helpless, while your two-year-old runs on slick, greenish tile toward foam noodles bungeed together in a rainbow arch.
     The teacher was supposed to lead Nathaniel off the edge of a white, canoe-shaped foam board laid on the deck, suspended several feet over the shallow water. Last week, Nathaniel’s turn, he swiped her glasses. I need those, he says, when he does that to you.
     Now you wait at the end of the canoe-shaped board. The teacher heaves herself out of the water. She trails the lifeguard. It’s all fast. And outside the sky behind the gray goes orange and red, a mesmeric pageant you want to be grateful for.
     Gotcha. At the open shed of floatation belts and flippers, the lifeguard grabs Nathaniel’s shoulders. The teacher takes his hand and leads him back to the foam board.
     He sits. The teacher slips into the water and scooches him forward.
     Ready to go see daddy?
     Nathaniel’s eyes are bright; his eyelashes spikily glisten.
     Another dad? he says.
     The teacher laughs in your direction. Your face feels like a pancake.
     Another dad? she says chipperly. Here’s your dad, silly.
     C’mon on, nightingale, you say.
     No c’mon nightingale.
     The teacher slides him all the way to board’s edge, scratched and gouged. In the pits the foam is the color of rain. All right, Nathaniel, let’s go.
     You extend your arms. Stretch your fingers. Feel the current fan your fern-print trunks.
     Jump, you say. Jump into Daddy’s arms.
     He turns around, eyeing the window. Parking lot, abandoned movie theatre, public housing, prairie, Interstate 34, sky.
     Finally, the teacher scoops him up—thankfully, he doesn’t notice the eleven silver studs in her ear. She passes him over. In the water, he’s light in your arms. He clings to you like a chimp. His ribs shiver.
     So fun, he says. So fun bridge.
     You did great, nightingale.
     So fun another dad.
     You smile the firm, noncommittal smile that means you hear him.
     So fun two dads.


Milkweed, thistle, ropey shrimp sunflowers, little bluestem—rangey yesterday, in flames today. Sky barking color, the oily shimmer of smoke.
     The other dad came from the fire.
     This is what you think while you and Nathaniel share a stall in the locker room.
     Little shower, he sings, little shower with dads.
     He steps down into the narrow ditch running along the wall, where lumped, matted hair clogs the drain. This stall has a new curtain, gray vinyl. The others have buds of black mold.
     Nathaniel’s too young to notice. You use dispenser soap to rub his neck, his round stomach, his proud back. He’s wearing his shoes and you’re wearing your shoes.
     Stay right there, you say. Only lately do you say this believing it will work.
     You wrap the towel around your waist and hurry to the trash—past the sauna with the cracked pleather cushions, by the sinks.  
     Of course, you still have visions of returning to an empty shower. Your son gone, water soaking the jammy old grout.
     But Nathaniel is a happy kid. A good listener. He’s singing to himself: Left in, left out.


At home, salmon with tomato coulis, a broken carmine-red.
     The roasted garlic is the only cooked ingredient, your wife says, all that taste is tomatoes from our garden. They dangle off the vines, skimming the copper pipe.
     She dunks a spoon into a stone bowl and says, Try.
     You mouth it wolfishly.
     Be. Grateful.
     Recently, your wife has left you. She’s reading Frankenstein, and there’s nothing in the world she’d rather do. You’d think talking about the book would be an option, but no. Books lose their power when she tries to speak about them. So do movies, songs, news articles, and most of what she does with Nathaniel. Only in passing did you hear her call him Nightingale, and then you learned he was reading an alphabet book of birds.
     You adopted the nickname.
     You find him on the pink couch, whispering to an Ernie figurine.
     Where’s Bert? you ask.
     Birch in the vent.
     Time for dinner, Nightingale.
     Time for dinner, he sings.
     The potatoes are crisp from baking in roasted garlic oil. The salmon flesh is clean, muted beneath the coulis.
     How was swim class? your wife asks.
     Nathaniel is gobbling potatoes. So fun hokey pokey.
     We didn’t do hokey pokey, you say. We did Humpty Dumpty, London Bridge, teddy bearshit, sugar. No.
     Your wife looks up. When she’s reading, she speaks less. If it can be said with a raised eye, all the better.
     I forgot our suits at the pool. In the shower. You stand up from the table. I’ll be ten minutes. Don’t wait—
     You’re in the car, backing down the driveway, looking in the rearview mirror, when you realize you can’t see your face.
     Are you remembering his mischievous giggle? His I need those? When did he take your glasses? Where did he take your glasses? How did he take your glasses?


It’s getting darker—only you can’t be sure how much darker because the streetlights stand at the end of every driveway, on both sides of the street, forming a tunnel of late-Victorian light. Yours is a block of streetlights. Before you moved to the neighborhood, citizens banded together to restore the ivory-painted iron, the patinaed green caps like pious bonnets.
     There’s no reason not to turn around and return for your glasses. But you don’t. You don’t want to interrupt the last minutes of dinner, the mandarin unpeeled and dispensed at top speed. You don’t want to interrupt your wife on the rug, reading while Nathaniel clomps on her back and rides her like a mule. You don’t want to chance returning to your own plate, tomato and potato and fish. You don’t want to admit that you’re a man capable of leaving the house without his glasses, when you’ve already admitted that you’re a dad capable of leaving his and his son’s swim trunks at the Y. But the main reason you don’t want to go back for your glasses is that you’re not sure what’s happening to your face.
     At the end of the block, you flip on the turn signal. There’s an opening, there’s an opening, there’s an opening—Losey is an easy right. There’s no traffic behind you, just the corridor of streetlights. For a couple months, Nathaniel would run up and hug every one he saw and say Reminds you of California.
     You shouldn’t be thinking about California, though. In the visor mirror, your face is flat, the nose a melting thing, the mouth a lump. No lips, no eyelashes, no eyebrows. No stubble. A lump, nostrils; instead of sockets, slits. Without the streetlights, you’re not sure you could see.
     Fortunately, it’s two turns to the Y. Two turns through town, turn into lot.
     You can make out red and green and yellow, and that’s enough for now.
     You pass Hawk’s Tattoo. You pass the auto parts store and the Dairy Queen that’s been advertising the same new summer flavors since you moved here fifteen months ago. You pass the church, with the marquis that says YOU ARE EXACTLY WHERE YOU BELONG. Keep going, second turn.
     After the second turn, you see the sky, redder and more furious than it was an hour ago. The pool windows tamed it, you know now.
     That blanket of sky is enough to steer you. You drive past the theatre and past the entrance to the Y. Past the housing projects. You feel pulled forward, compelled, the way you’re supposed to be overtaken with gratitude.
     You hit Inbinder Park, where a half-mile trail loops first a marsh and then the prairie. It doesn’t matter that you can’t see—you’ve pushed Nathaniel around that loop two hundred times. You see enough to see red and white lights, strobing, the enormous metallic dinosaurs that are fire trucks. Monitoring the burn.
     Hazily, you see large bodies in dirty yellow coats—or you imagine they’d be dirty yellow, and rubbery, if you could see, if it weren’t pouring night. Their coiled hoses: latent, fat cobras.
     The loud engines thrum. And the firemen are talking. You flip off your headlights and touch your face. Now it’s smooth as a lake.
     You leave the car without closing the door. You leave the keys. At first you’re not afraid—you trust you’ll feel the heat, you’ll smell the smoke and the burning grasses, the rubber woodchips on the playground where Nathaniel spins the steering wheel. Only then do you realize that you’re turned around and walking not toward the prairie but toward another figure. Not one of the firemen. A man alone. A man you still pray for.

JoAnna Novak's memoir Contradiction Days is forthcoming from Catapult in July 2023. Her fourth book of poetry, DOMESTIREXIA, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2024. Novak’s short story collection Meaningful Work won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and was published by FC2. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You and three books of poetry: New Life; Abeyance, North America; and Noirmania. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications.