Conjunctions:56 Terra Incognita: The Voyage Issue

Once it was underwater I thought of.
     Once I was gripped by thoughts of underwater. 
     Because my father once said, when I shouldn’t have been listening, what if all the earth’s water were drained. 
     Because my father once said, when I was too young to deal with it, it would be wild. 
     He said there’d be ships and planes and cars and bodies. 
     It made me afraid for years. 
     I was afraid to drive across bridges. 
     I could only think of the water below, the cars and bodies inside it. 
     By which I mean my body inside it inside of a car. 
     I imagined ways to see what was down there. 
     I wanted to have X-ray vision. 
     It went on and on, this want. 
     But I was over it now. 
     Not over the want of X-ray vision, but the want of seeing in water. 
     Because now I thought of the space between the clouds and sun. 
     Of what things were in that space. 
     Of what happened in that space. 
     This was the space I thought of now. 
     The space, I mean, I was gripped by now. 
     Because I knew a girl who died in that space. 
     It was years before and she died in a plane. 
     It made me afraid of flying. 
     I avoided flying for years. 
     To say I went nowhere for years. 
     But today there was somewhere I needed to be. 
     Today I was going to visit a friend. 
     Because today I was brokenhearted and needing to visit a friend who lived what felt like across the world. 
     And so I had to fly to see him. 
     And so there I was, suspended. 
     And so there I was watching our shadow on the backs of clouds. 
     And I was thinking of ways to think about clouds. 
     I was thinking of some original ways. 
     Because what you think, I think, is white and high. 
     And white and high says nothing of clouds how I think of clouds. 
     And as we went higher, 
     And when the shadow was smallest, 
     And when there was no shape, but just a point, 
     And when there was no point, 
     The flight attendant’s skirt made a sound. 
     She was standing at my row. 
     She said are you all right. 
     I knew I didn’t seem all right. 
     I knew it was wrong not to seem all right. 
     I knew better than to seem this way. 
     The flight attendant needed something. 
     She needed me to seem all right. 
     Even if I didn’t feel all right. 
     She needed me different from my father who never seemed all right. 
     She didn’t know, of course, my father. 
     She didn’t know, of course, the sad places my sad brain went when she gave me the look that said please be all right. 
     But I knew how to seem all right. 
     I knew how to push things deep into my gut. 
     I knew how to play a role that was always all right. 
     I could do this for her. 
     I could do this now. 
     I knew how to play a role that was not a girl. 
     The role was not a guy. 
     But it was always all right. 
     Because my father was never once all right. 
     And I took after him in some, but not all, ways. 
     And no one wanted to see the ways in which I did. 
     So I stopped thinking of what it was I was thinking that was making my face all wrong. 
     So I stopped thinking of the clouds. 
     So I stopped thinking of this guy I loved. 
     It was too much to think. 
     I was brokenhearted, too much to think. 
     There was this guy and he was wrong for me. 
     My father would have been enraged. 
     He wanted something more for me. 
     He made this clear he wanted something more. 
     The flight attendant wore too much makeup. 
     It was orange and stopped where the face stopped being a face. 
     There was a time I wore too much makeup. 
     It was back then I wore too much. 
     It was part of my performance back then. 
     I was performing something obscene back then. 
     I was feeling like a showgirl then. 
     I was feeling like a show for you. 
     I would dance in my head for my father. 
     And I would dance for his friends in my head when he had friends. 
     I was not a nice girl. 
     I was a very nice girl. 
     I was not very nice. 
     There were things I did. 
     The flight attendant said are you all right. 
     I said it’s my head. 
     She said your head. 
     She was how I used to be. 
     By which I mean she was still obscene. 
     By which I mean her shirt was too tight. 
     The snaps were straining and I could see skin between the snaps. 
     I couldn’t help but look at her skin. 
     This made her obscene, not me. 
     She was the one whose shirt was too tight. 
     She was the one who got it all wrong. 
     She was the one who lived in that space between the clouds and sun. 
     She was the one who walked back and forth in that space between the clouds and sun all day. 
     There was a very fine line between giving orders and taking orders. 
     There were very fine lines between me and her.
     The lines were no different from the lines that held each thing in place.
     She didn’t yet know the right things to ask. 
     She said what about your head. 
     That was not the right thing to ask. 
     The right thing to ask was what can I get you. 
     The right thing to ask was how does the plane stay up. 
     The right thing to ask was who on this plane can’t I trust. 
     The right thing to ask was and then what. 
     The world revolved around her empty brain. 
     And I lived in the revolution. 
     We all lived in the revolution. 
     The right thing to ask was and what did you do when you found out the girl died. 
     The answer is I lost my shit. 
     But the question is what did you do. 
     Enough to say I lost it. 
     Because her initials were G. O. D., this girl, and I knew her from school. 
     Enough to say this is why I lost my shit. 
     Enough that she was flying home from study abroad, and the plane exploded, and everyone died, and the plane parts crashed to the ground. 
     And the body parts crashed to the ground. 
     And the people on the ground looking up were crushed. 
     Is why. 
     I was too young to deal with this then. 
     I tried to deal with it then. 
     I tried to deal with it by not flying. 
     I tried to deal with it by taking pills. 
     I tried to deal with it by dropping out of school. 
     The right question was what did you do. 
     Because her initials were G. O. D., and I found this alarming. 
     But what was it you did. 
     Because we took a class together sophomore year. 
     And just because. 
     I am nowhere near where I want to be. 
     I have lost the flight attendant. 
     I have lost the stiff sound of her skirt. 
     She was just standing there, orange faced and stiff, waiting for an order, hers or mine, but I can’t remember what I needed from her, what she needed from me. 
     I have lost her face and it was just days ago I saw it. 
     It was just days ago she stood at my row making me feel not like a girl and how is it my mind is replacing it with other things. 
     But how is it so many things. 
     Like the sun in the morning, the sun in the evening. 
     Like the sky between the sun and sun. 
     The leaves that turned too bright that year. 
     And we walked through leaves and dirt on our way to class. 
     Sophomore year which was a hundred years ago already. 
     Sophomore year and it was me and this girl and her two blonde streaks and I thought at first she would be too cool. 
     She was not, as it turned out, too cool. 
     She was cool, but it turned out I was too. 
     Because I knew how to be from watching girls. 
     Because I knew from watching guys as well. 
     The way they stood there. 
     And the girls just stood there. 
     We wore schoolgirl skirts from the Goodwill. 
     We wore guys’ sweaters and black tights. 
     We were too old for schoolgirl skirts. 
     The Goodwill was on the corner of North and Harford, and no one wanted to be there. 
     People shopped there because they were either poor or cool. 
     The poor people bought serious clothing. 
     I watched a woman buy a wedding dress there. 
     I wasn’t judging as she held the dress up to herself. 
     I wasn’t judging that she was by herself and holding up this tattered, yellowed dress. 
     I was poor too but I was not the kind of poor that counted as poor. 
     We bought schoolgirl skirts and ran north back to school. 
     There were no leaves on North. 
     There was brick and endless brick. 
     There were guys who wanted to mess you up. 
     They wanted to get you hooked on drugs. 
     We were already hooked on drugs. 
     We weren’t hooked but we were something else. 
     The guys said sister. 
     They said let’s see you smile. 
     They said let me ask you something. 
     They said look at that ass. 
     They said you make me hard. 
     We said fuck you. 
     We ran the way back to school. 
     Leaves fell like snow at school and we were not the right kind of poor. 
     We had philosophy class, and I didn’t understand philosophy. 
     The professor wore a red velvet jacket. 
     I couldn’t follow his ideas. 
     What’s there, what’s not there; I couldn’t follow. 
     Instead she and I passed notes on how bored we were, how hungry we were. 
     Instead we passed drawings of the professor. 
     There was this guy in class who called himself the mystic. 
     He was an asshole who predicted things at lunch. 
     Like he predicted a girl would drop out of school. 
     And he predicted a professor would kill herself. 
     He was an asshole this guy and only he called himself the mystic. 
     He wore a hat made of old socks sewn together. 
     He’d go into a trance at lunch. 
     We called the trance the so-called trance. 
     We called the guy the misfit. 
     He’d roll his eyes into his head and we’d try not to laugh. 
     We didn’t try not to laugh. 
     We laughed in his dumbass face. 
     We drew pictures of him in philosophy. 
     He once intercepted one of the pictures. 
     He said some shit like you fuckers. 
     He did some thing like shake his head. 
     This was long ago and who cares about this dumbass. 
     I’m lost. 
     Let me get back to the subject. 
     Let me get the subject back. 
     The flight attendant and her orange face, her stiff skirt, her snaps nearly popping on her shirt. 
     And me and my needs. 
     She said what about your head. 
     I said what. 
     I’m ready to talk about the guy I love. 
     I’m ready to tell you what happened. 
     I’m ready to talk about his eyes. 
     I’m ready to talk about his teeth. 
     It wasn’t real love. 
     Not with him I mean. 
     I fell in love with myself. 
     I was a girl worth falling for. 
     Unlike many girls. 
     Unlike the girl from sophomore year. 
     Unlike the flight attendant who was more a woman than a girl. 
     She said what about your head. 
     She said what can I do. 
     But the right thing to ask her was how does the plane stay up. 
     She could tell I was not all right. 
     She could tell by the way my hands were on my head, my head pressed to the window, that I was in no way all right. 
     I just needed to be a few nights with my friend. 
     Because I needed this friend to tell me to stop. 
     I needed this friend to tell me that I could stop. 
     Stop what. 
     The window felt like it could crack. 
     It felt like my head could have pushed a way through the window. 
     I felt like my father must have felt mornings after nights. 
     I must have looked how he often looked. 
     He often looked on the verge of cracking into tiny bits, of being swept up into the wind. 
     When I was gripped by thoughts of underwater I thought first of X-ray vision. 
     I thought next of submarines. 
     I thought next of me in a submarine, my face pressed to the window. 
     But next I thought of the windows cracking. 
     And next I thought of water rushing in, of fish rushing in, of shells and sand and plants and cars and planes and people long forgotten or now forgotten or never known. 
     The flight attendant had the thinnest hips and I could never love a face like hers. 
     It turned out I liked something else. 
     It turned out I liked what my father liked. 
     A little edge, a little something off. 
     I said my head was suffering from the pressure. 
     I said my head felt like it would combust. 
     I said I was all right. 
     She said can I help, and I said you could bring me a drink. 
     She looked at me like who was I. 
     I just sometimes played this arrogant role. 
     It was not always nice this role. 
     It was neither girl nor guy. 
     It was both girl and guy. 
     It was sometimes girl and sometimes guy.
     Just because I knew how to be both him and her. 
     Just because. 
     There was a fine line between. 
     I said did you hear me. 
     She said we need to level out. 
     She said I’ll be back to take your order. 
     She gave me a look like you’re an asshole. 
     I stared her down. 
     I said forget it. 
     I said I don’t need your help. 
     I said I don’t need anyone’s help. 
     But later, in the airport, waiting for a cab, the ground was cold and wet and I felt small and snapped into something old. 
     When the guy said do you need help I said yes. 
     I don’t like to say this but I said yes. 
     Perhaps because I needed help. 
     Perhaps because I needed a guy to help. 
     He was missing a tooth, and I never liked to see this. 
     It reminded me of something from when I was a kid, a cartoon or something, and then, as a kid, I tried not to cry. 
     He said how can I help. 
     I said you tell me. 
     He said do you need a cab. 
     I said I need something else. 
     He said what do you need. 
     I said I need your advice. 
     I need help I said. 
     I was in need I said. 
     I was a mess I knew. 
     I wanted to be intercepted, whisked off, brushed off. 
     He said I can help you to get a cab. 
     And I rode in the cab to my friend’s place where I would drink my friend’s whiskey. 
     And I would tell my friend what I told the toothless guy because it was my friend I was supposed to tell, my friend who could help, I realized in the cab, and not the toothless guy. 
     I had gotten confused. 
     There are too many characters in this story. 
     There are too many stories in this story. 
     The guy at school was not a mystic. 
     There were no mystics. 
     There were people who knew shit and people who didn’t. 
     And the people who knew shit only knew shit because they were smart. 
     And the people who didn’t only didn’t because they didn’t care. 
     There are too many people, too many bodies, too many parts to play. 
     When the plane exploded I became afraid. 
     I was gripped by the space between the clouds and sun. 
     I was consumed by what could happen in that space. 
     They described it as a fireball. 
     Try to picture that. 
     They described it as a spectacle. 
     It’s impossible for me to picture. 
     All I can see is a rain cloud or something. 
     All I can see is this rain cloud spinning in place for a second before it burst. 
     The guy I loved was too much like my father. 
     Where did that come from. 
     He had short hair and a fat face and he was too much like my father. 
     Because his shoes, as well, were never tied. 
     Because his shirts, as well, were always stained. 
     When we met he seemed more in control. 
     When we met I wanted to be controlled. 
     It was at a party at someone’s house. 
     I was dancing wildly and he was watching me dance. 
     And I had forgotten for the moment about the sky. 
     And I was ready for something I didn’t know what. 
     After the party, we were standing outside and he was looking at my mouth. 
     And he drove a big car and I needed him to tell me get in and he did. 
     And I needed him to drive the car fast and he drove the car as fast as he could. 
     Then one thing, another, another another.
     My friend said yank him out like a rotting tooth. 
     He said change your perspective. 
     I was drinking his whiskey and he refilled my glass and refilled my glass until tiles in the floor became lovely things. 
     Stop thinking of the eyes, the mouth he said. 
     Start thinking of the stains on his shirts he said. 
     Start thinking of the crazy shit he said. 
     He said yank him out. 
     But I was like how. 
     I meant what tool would I use. 
     I imagined a tiny clamp, a tiny hook.
     I said what tool. 
     I was drunk. 
     You’re too literal he said. 
     Fuck you I would have said. 
     If what. 
     If the ceiling hadn’t turned lovely too. 
     If I weren’t being such a dumbass girl. 
     If I weren’t being two tits a hole and a heartbeat. 
     I was such a girl sometimes. 
     Meaning I was such a guy. 
     On the runway I felt unafraid. 
     We were going really fast and I didn’t care. 
     I imagined how my hair would have blown were the window cracked. 
     I imagined how my skin would have blown back into my hair. 
     And my teeth would have blown through the back of my head. 
     I wasn’t yet thinking of how we would push upward. 
     I wasn’t yet thinking of that space between the clouds and sun. 
     I was thinking of the guy I loved. 
     It wasn’t love. 
     It was just a performance. 
     And how terrible not getting what you want. 
     Like when I wanted things as a kid and my father said no. 
     Like when he said no no no. 
     About every last thing, no and no and no. 
     Like when I wanted the guy to drive faster. 
     And he pulled over. 
     And I wanted my head in his lap. 
     I was thinking of his hands on my head. 
     And then we lifted. 
     And I didn’t care. 
     And when the shadow of us was huge, then not, 
     And when the shadow of us was just a point, 
     And when there was no point, 
     The flight attendant needed something. 
     So I changed for her. 
     Because I felt like it. 
     Because I was ready for the fireball. 
     I was ready to land in the broken bones of a stranger standing on the ground. 
     I was ready to be a person remembered or forgotten or never known. 
     The right thing to ask was does one fly. 
     Or does one drop. 
     My father had said no study abroad. 
     No way he said. 
     Waste of money he said. 
     But he had no money then. 
     He was jobless then. 
     He was brainless then sitting on the curb outside the house near North he would lose. 
     How terrible not getting what I wanted. 
     Terrible the cigarette stuck to his lip. 
     The house like a mean face behind him. 
     The windows as eyes and so on. 
     He was still drunk from the night before. 
     He sat on the curb a hole in his pants and was like no way. 
     He was like waste of money. 
     He was like get lost. 
     He was like no way no fucking way get lost. 
     But I stood there for a while thinking he might change his mind. 
     But he went into the house. 
     I walked away. 
     School was so boring. 
     I didn’t care about philosophy. 
     I sat by the window counting leaves. 
     I wrote notes about the teacher’s red velvet jacket. 
     I didn’t care about what’s there what’s not. 
     At lunch the misfit called our skirts stupid. 
     He said we looked like children. 
     He made no sense. 
     He said you look like perverts. 
     I said shut the fuck up. 
     I said what’s with this guy. 
     I said someone tell him to shut the fuck up. 
     And she laughed and I said what. 
     I said I’m serious and she laughed even harder and I said what. 
     And then I was laughing too hard. 
     Her initials were not G. O. D. 
     They were just G. D. 
     I never knew her middle name. 
     But whatever. 
     G. D. 
     G. fucking D. 
     I wasn’t cut out for certain things. 
     I lost my shit. 
     On cloudy days I watched the sky. 
     On every day I watched the sky. 
     And nothing happened except sun and other stars. 
     And the planes that did their thing and I did mine. 
     And nothing happened except once. 
     There was the one day I was watching the sky. 
     I heard the plane that day before I saw it. 
     And I saw it emerge from above the clouds. 
     And it was flying too low, and the roar it made made me scared. 
     And I swear it was coming for me. 
     And I swear I could see the pilot’s face, see the look on the pilot’s face. 
     And I thought to duck below something, to hide below something, but there was nothing to hide below. 
     I was in the kitchen. 
     And it was coming for the kitchen window. 
     And I watched it coming for me. 
     And I started to cry. 
     And then what. 
     It shot across the sky like any plane. 
     Like any day, the sky full of planes. 
     Like any cloudy day. 
     Like any anything day. 
     I felt amazing. 
     I took a shower. 
     I went to a party. 
     I met this guy who would be all wrong. 
     The misfit could have told me all of this. 
     Because he knew a few things about my future. 
     Like how I was the girl who would drop out of school. 
     And a professor really would kill herself. 
     That was an awful day, the kids all crying. 
     It was an awful mess, just everyone crying. 
     Pills, of course, and I’m still too young to deal with this. 
     Pills, of course, as women do. 
     It was an awful day, the kids just crying. 
     The misfit crying like a kid. 
     The misfit making a spectacle of himself. 
     But that was a different day. 
     That was a different day, the misfit crying. 
     The misfit predicting the fireball. 
     The misfit saying don’t go abroad. 
     And when I thought for a second he was right, 
     And when I thought for a second how uncool, 
     And when I thought for a second I loved this girl, 
     And when I ate my lunch, 
     And when I said misfit, 
     And crumbs sprayed out, 
     And she laughed her ass off. 
     And I laughed my ass off. 

Susan Steinberg is the author of the story collections Hydroplane and The End of Free Love. Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, McSweeney’sGettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, Boulevard, Columbia, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.