In their twenties love was ineptitude—being there to fail together.
Separately they delved the snowy miles between Erie and Rochester. A quest for meaning, those birthplaces their only landmarks, logical lapses in the dense contract language of northern hardwood. Their paths converged in a college poetry workshop, a group exercise where they fixed their willful corrections onto a hapless third’s verse.
She had green hair and wore face jewels. He wore steel toes and a red bandanna, ebony plugs in stretched earlobes. She worked at the campus library circulation desk. He worked on cars and bused at a diner built to resemble the railroad car it wasn’t. Her fingertips inked, his oiled. Her window faced a man-made lake where featureless fox decoys endured snowfall the geese had fled. He had no reason to doubt his mechanic’s heart—so far it had worked on all tasks, an all-purpose tool bought from late-night TV. She worked up the natal charts of TV characters and wondered if it was poetry—Do I decide who I want to be, then be her? Or learn who I already am? She wept in public, became a mirror image. In society’s blind spot she caroused with this despairing twin, transcending to higher and more wicked realms of privacy, an incandescent flash of holy grief too painful to look at. On breaks at the diner he smoked by the dumpster and chatted with the fry cook through the grimy screen door, workplace grumbling and small-town gossip—DUIs, domestics, too-soon deaths. After closing, he trudged home. Winter facsimiled him, his spirit burrowing in, tunnels of self so secret they had no openings. Converging again, they exploded into one other’s warmth. After, he’d smoke and spin records. His day’s petty remainders failed to bind, ashes scattering. Hers, though, had strange polarity, gathering into constructions unintentionally keen; bristling letters to the world. She imagined these missives tucked into envelopes sealed with an ironic sigil—a heart bursting with radial rays, the electrotheremin from Good Vibrations warbling screw-loose in the background. Little by little in this waiting embryo, they made actual plans. Superlatives deformed under impractical weight.
Years later, they’d reached the marital beach—a New England crescent strewn with beer-bottle rocks. A heart drawn in sand. Still the red bandanna, the green hair. The horizon was real. They’d chased it to Stellwagen Bank, whale watching. After three hours, seven boats starved for encounters surrounded a pair of ghostly green humpbacks. The eye contact seemed meaningful. If the horizon was this real, they thought, it was worth refining. They searched one another’s eyes for adornments to come and honeymooned on a friend’s air mattress.
Then a pregnancy. A glow striving, an attempt to expand. She wanted to be surprised by the sex, to decorate the nursery in neutrals. He shrugged. She started on a woodland mural. Talk of names pervaded—names’ operational beauty. As she knelt at a faceless fox with a line brush, he came in reciting from a book of baby names. She turned and prettified the air with something Gaelic, a flick of her brush. He parried: Aaron. Alexander. Andrew. Their eyebrows sparred. She turned back to the fox, her brush shy to mark its snowfall blankness. An envelope fell to her lap. Heart burst sigil.
They abstracted the naming so it was unclear what mattered. They resolved to build from scratch. It had worked before. Munching tortilla chips on the patio at the Mexican restaurant, her hand on her belly, they gleaned inspiration from the signs of businesses: O’Reilly Auto. Sherwin-Williams. Shawnee Optical.
O’Sher, Willshaw, Reilin…
They searched out their server’s name on the check: Desireé.
Des, Desi, Desilin…
At last, a binary: Desmond if a boy. Fern if a girl.
Good. They clinked glasses. The sky unsustainable blue.
A decade later, Friday afternoon: Dad’s wearing a backpack at the curb of the George Eastman House in Rochester, museum brochure in one hand, the fingers of his other tracing the hole in one distended earlobe. He’s waiting for the ex, the sky a pink-and-gray Formica of autumn.
He’s waiting for his kid.
The brochure’s central image depicts the sitting room’s signature elephant bust, a glass-eyed idol of judgment. The feature exhibit is called Murano. Photography on Italian glassmaking—glass threaded with gold, imitation gemstones. The copy contains words like smalto and millefiori and lattimo. He imagines crossing beneath the elephant. Will he freeze there? Wrongly stabilize, succumb to fear’s hardening? Before, the stakes were low; now he dreads to forget even what’s simple—walking, swallowing. His heart having reached the limits of its utility—no more hidden potential there, no more tricks or surprises; just an object of finite nostalgia.
His backpack brims with curios—things meant to say something (everything) deftly, silently, safely. Good Vibrations on 45—the most expensive single of its time, a guiltless sound. Comic books, curated and bundled in a manner wanting to convey care and hospitable weirdness. An autographed 8x10 of Richard Kline from Three’s Company, a left-field gag meant to evoke the nuclear family, one he now realizes is meant entirely for the kid’s mother—she will analyze these gifts. The photo made more sense earlier; now the joke feels way too desperate. Beneath it all: a Kit Kat bar, wrapped in a threadbare bandanna.
After the separation—many reasons, many sharp-cornered envelopes flung from the past, some earned, some not—he read to the kid. Comics, cereal boxes. Anything. Random stuff from the news, cutting out what was upsetting, dressing what remained. A National Geographic story about flooding in India—a grown elephant washed away in flood waters, carried from Assam to Bangladesh. The elephant survived, went on to live life. The bedtime lesson maybe about hope? Did you know elephants don’t run? Part of them is always on the ground!
Another night in the car on the way back from baseball, another bluff—Pangea. Pseudo-wisdom meant to divert, to salve the sting of the faltering athletic experiment (the bench warming, the strikeouts, being hurt when the cliques didn’t notice you, hurt worse when they did), the glove finding its final purpose hiding tears. It’s okay to fail. Silence. The fireflies’ cipher plaited gray atmosphere. Then the Pangea thread found higher purpose. The world might break—but it forms anew!
The black hybrid whispers up, the ex in dark glasses. Short blonde hair now. His chest is a dunk tank. They’d gone so long apart it all rings like fever—two lives across a checkerboard in a sanitarium common room, waiting on the angel of wellness. She leans toward the passenger seat, flips up her glasses. The passenger door pops open. A small foot emerges in a red-and-white checkered shoe, then draws back, door closing. Mom’s talking. Last-minute instruction.
His mood, a painstaking exhibition of control, starts to warp. The backpack feels too heavy—the insufferable toll of need. He stares at the car. He wants only to listen—participate, perceive. Be there.
He stills himself, stroking the void in his earlobe. The loneliness brings him back to those years ago in the hospital corridor, weighing surgery on their intersex child, not quite a year old. Boots crunching in a vending machine’s wreckage. Security on the way. Kicking out the glass had not been a plan—just a reply, a sudden island of circumstance erupting.
How she’d stared at him like a stranger without context. Kneading his ear, index finger spiraling the glossy black plug, that screw-loose gesture, his heart pounding, eager for a doctor, a professional, someone to take charge, sweep up, tase him to death. His boots grinding up glass, toeing candy aside. Their family was still forming. How do you explain this? Invisible faults? The kid was healthy. Mom had gone down the hall with the hospital administrator on damage control. He guessed it was then that her hair began to change, blonde casting out green. How could either of them remain what they had been? How do you stay the self you’d fashioned while having to choose for another—Desmond, or Fern? One, or the other? Perhaps both? Perhaps neither. Imposing their fears, imagining an entire world waiting to traumatize the child with their guess.
The administrator took pity. But dad needed to clean up and pay. Maintenance hunting down gloves, but dad had already begun. He collected the candy bars first. After that, he moved to the glass, having pulled off the bandanna to protect his fingers. He picked up the big pieces, then moved to the small. He was careful, and still he put blood on the floor. Clarity seized him, held him in sight, said Be there. Someone brought a garbage can near. His wife. She would see them through.
In the black hybrid, mom’s done. The passenger door opens again. Mom looks back. He doesn’t meet her eyes, leaves that distance complete. He watches the door. One little red-and-white checkered shoe, then the other. They touch pavement.