Kathleen Deliege

Darkroom Negatives

Kathleen Deliege

An answered telephone call overheard. A coloring of anger. Only “Hi. Yes. Okay. Okay.” And boxed within, an entire undercurrent of unhappy marriage: like, say, a fight over the holidays, things have been bad for days now or maybe years, and that heavy exhaustion with another person’s way of existing, coupled with personal shortcomings like impatience, creating this palpable intolerance–the voice communicating its personal burden of injustice, like it’s speaking to the studio audience, and the resulting image is that both people’s flaws form a toxic combination, and it’s a bubbling vat of acid in a watched pot waiting for a blink, this relationship is, or it’s chemical compounds waiting for the oops that will blow up the lab, but then there are the pictures: of the son just after he was born, then a few years later, plus the drawings tacked to the cubicle walls, words like “to” and “daddy” and “from” in blocky letters, at tremor to their lines, certain of their limbs broken backward, and there’s the sense of maybe having judged too harshly and maybe all is fine; after all, nothing has really ever been said to indicate otherwise.

———–

The maze at Hampton Court Palace. The secret to getting out. And was it a certain relative who suggested it? Which means he was actually right about something pragmatic or practical, which rarely happened–why would a person who disregarded all directions and road maps and signs and pointed fingers, relying instead on an internal sense of direction based on nothing tangible but instead a mistaken perception that one’s own gut feelings about the universe were messages delivered by that universe, somehow know enough to care about finding his way out of a maze? (except maybe that was it: his need for self-preservation, to avoid being trapped in a dark corner with shadow-agents lurking in ominous twists or turns just as likely as a path to escape and to sunshine enough to imprint the tiny factoid in his mind: right hand against the wall, the kind of thing someone who’s scared of flying will remember, and he is: scared of flying). And it turns out he was right, right hand against the wall. But hadn’t you known that before? That thing they say about mazes, hadn’t you always known that, and so maybe you were the one who suggested it, and maybe what was surprising, what painted this memory a shade of unexpected, was that he went along with it?

———–

A slow drip from a faucet in a house that’s a house you never want to change, because if it does, that means you have changed too, which means a part of you is dead, which means that one day, all of you will be. You want to fix the leak, because it wasn’t there in the beginning, but you don’t know how to fix leaks. You think of the sitcoms or dramas where someone tries, sprawled on the floor with a wrench, garments bunched or stretched, screwing or unscrewing a pipe or its parts, the situation always a metaphor, about control or lack of it, and how here it is the same with you, just standing in the room, with your eyes closed and your ears open, hearing the soft infrequent plash, thinking, how much is that small sound really hurting anyway.

An Admonition from the Cover of That Book You’re Holding

Kathleen Deliege

You know how your mother always said you should never judge a book by its cover? And you know how she was wrong about a lot of stuff, like how nice guys don’t always finish last, and you should never talk to strangers, and you are really special and can be whatever you want to be when you grow up? Well it turns out, she was actually right about the book thing. I would know. Because I’m a book cover.

You seem really nice and stuff, so before I let things between us go any further, I have a few confessions to make. In the interest of full-disclosure, I am totally trying to trick you into buying this piece of shit.

Not me personally, exactly, but this junk all over me sure is. This really isn’t a good book. It’s not “riveting” or “emboldened” or “electrifying” or “tantalizing.” It’s not “arresting” or “heart-rending” or any of the other garish costume-jewelry adjectival embellishments trying to disguise the true nature of what lies between my marginally attractively designed fore flap and blurb-covered aft.

Please don’t tell me you fell for that platitude about “triumph of the spirit.” Or that trite amusement-park-ride analogy. Let me tell you a secret: nothing described as being like a roller coaster is really anything remotely like a roller coaster, unless it’s an actual roller coaster. And that question underneath the title is rhetorical, so take off your thinking beret and unfurrow that brow.

Ugh, I feel grossed out by myself. I’m so bloated with these inaccurate trumped-up phrases, I’d like to take an exacto knife to myself and excise the offenders, like they were cancerous tumors or (ew, even worse!) that really ugly kind of mole.

Don’t even get me started on the nouns. You do know that whenever I use a word like “volume,” “compendium,” “work,” “portrayal,” “portrait,” “powerhouse,” “tome,” “tale,” “piece,” “story,” or “narrative,” I just fucking mean “book,” right? Who am I kidding with this fancy shit? Besides you, I mean.

I told you, don’t blame me! I didn’t write this phony drivel. You know who did? Probably some freshly graduated, annoyingly overachieving flack in editorial. We’re talking someone who, for the past like ever, was the best at everything in his/her small suburban hometown and middling liberal arts college, and now has to contend with the vast sense of insignificance that comes from suddenly being in a place where everybody else is even better at everything. Someone who tries to justify the minimal wage and sweatshop-of-the-mind working conditions by pretending it will somehow lead to success, satisfaction, and self-actualization. Someone who, if he/she sticks with it, will probably at best just end up with a drinking problem and/or eating disorder, premature age lines, and a deeply repressed internal self-loathing that will have to be masked by a carefully crafted public persona (complete with perfectly honed telephone intonations capable of expressing the whole gamut of human emotion, from “so totally excited about this project” to “way too important for this slush pile garbage”), as though occasionally being thanked on an acknowledgments page is some sort of compensation for the general misery of life not living up to one’s expectations.

And do you know what this “book” really is? It’s a bunch of half-baked ideas, executed without passion, skill, or even really effort, compiled half-assedly by someone who isn’t even a writer, just a random relative of some low-level agent, willing to vomit out this filth in exchange for a tiny advance and a shitty royalties contract because she thought that writing a book would be a “sort of neat” thing to do in her spare time and that she’s always had “really fun” story ideas, which her pals at Arts & Crafts club “just adore” to hear her talk about. (It’s not. She hasn’t. They don’t.)

You know the author’s actual job? She’s teaches “product management” at the local community college. I’m so bored even thinking about what “product management” might mean that I’m already asleep. You know she actually likes hotel room art, and doesn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed by that?! She has several of those motivational posters—you KNOW the ones I mean—framed on her office walls, and not in an ironic cat-blog way. She didn’t know that “A Modest Proposal” was satirical when she first read it and actually thought it was a pretty good idea. She wears sweatshirts with pictures of animals on them. Okay? And her prose, my god. On one page, she uses the word “luminous” SEVEN times. It makes me wanna scrub my insides with bleach.

No, no, no, turn me around right now! Stop reading those blurbs on my back! You know who that Dr. Antonio Humphrey really is? The author’s friend, whose only claim to fame is that he writes a blog about imported cheeses. And do not be fooled by the label “bestselling.” Bestselling doesn’t mean good. It just means around a lot. You know what else is around a lot? Herpes. Failure. Republicans.

Wise up. That font is bold and neon for a reason, and it’s not because it’s trying to tell you something important.

Also, I can tell by the way you keep eyeballing it that you’re kinda into this photo on the cover— the silhouette of a pretty young woman’s profile, gazing into the distance like some grand lifechanger horizon-expander intrigue thing is, like, right around the corner? Guess what. There isn’t a girl or scenario remotely like that in here. There are barely even female characters in here, and the ones there are, well, you don’t wanna know them. In fact, despite being written by a woman (or maybe very much because of who that woman is), this book is pretty much all covertly misogynist garbage. So if you’re a self-respecting woman or woman-respecting man like you probably claim, you should really just put the goddamn thing back on that compellingly arranged display table. Never trust a stock photo anyway. The pretty young woman in question is actually a 15 year old boy with a lazy eye. I can literally feel the Photoshop layers weighing this thing down. Trust me: you don’t want to be or to date the person in this photo.

If this jacket had arms, I’d knock myself right out of your grasp and maybe smack your face around a little.

Look, I don’t mean to be so cynical and discouraging. There are some good books out there! Honestly. Outstanding verbal brilliance sprung from the creative loins of MacArthur-y geniuses; honed and polished by savvy, dedicated, professionally satisfied editors; covers adorned with legitimate praise; all put into place by aesthetically gifted designers. Books that are popular because they are GOOD. They do exist.

Just, you know, try to remember that thing your mom said next time you’re tempted by some visual or verbal fish-hook. Because there’s a pretty good chance that hook’ll just get painfully caught in your lip and then deprive you of oxygen for a while before you’re thrown back into the big boring sea. For now, put me back on that tidy stack with the rest of my kind, and please just try to be a little more discerning in the future.

Inside

Kathleen Deliege

Mark writes me and says he went out for a walk in the woods, found an injured garter snake, helpless, in its death throes, smashed its head in with a rock, “said a small prayer for him to have a safe journey on to his next life.”

I tell him I’ve been behaving badly, wearing eyeliner, trying harder, all tree-grows-in-Brooklyn contortions, twisted shape just to get a lick of sun. I mention that I didn’t forget about the time I told him I’d bring him to New York. (I meant the mountains, not the city, but who’s counting.) I still have a few more years to make good on that, said I’d do it by 27, my magic age, the age I promised myself I’d quit smoking by, the age by when I suppose my younger self always imagined something would have happened. (So I guess I am: I’m counting.)

I say to him that our present selves are like potions made in a chemistry lab, a little splash of that, a little splash of this, that I’m always puzzling over what elements exactly I’m really made up of. That he must be in there, somewhere.

He wanted to join the Navy but they wouldn’t let him in. Got fired from a job mowing lawns. Lost someone important, probably many someones. And the snake.

Is this the man he’s become or the person he’s always been?

So that’s the present. And it’s nothing to speak of really, just a few tendrils outstretched, a minimal overlap. It barely even exists, could’ve easily never taken place. I reached out, touched a fingertip against the wall, said a whisper, and he was there on the other side. No tin cans and a string, no bars to reach through. Just that I could hear him moving when I pressed my ear against the mass, could tell his fingertip was there, on the other side of mine.

But the past, that firstness: how has it shaded me? Water color on my skin? Tinted dye in my IV? A barely perceptible shadow: no color at all, just a slight darkening? Or maybe none of those. Maybe more like a guardian angel—a presence you wish was there but isn’t, that isn’t actually anything except your own desire to be surrounded by a presence. You hold a rock in your hand and feel it get warm. You mistake that warmth for a response, think the rock is embracing you back, but it’s just fog on the mirror, condensation that you made with your own breath.

———

Back then.

I actually never would have imagined that he existed.

I always saw his brother’s car parked out front of the house next door, became smitten with the Operation Ivy sticker in the back window and the boy I imagined it belonged to. Once I saw the car in a parking lot downtown and left a love note for it. (A folded up piece of paper, stuck underneath the windshield wiper, open it up and read: This is a love note: LOVE LOVE LOVELOVE LOVE <3 <3 <3 <3 LOVE LOVE LOVElovelovelove.) I fancied myself compatible with the nameless, faceless but surely socially aware and handsome driver—these weren’t serious, mania-inducing daydreams, just flighty urgeless urges. There was no younger-brother branch on that imaginary tree.

But then one day, there was Mark, striding across the grass of my lawn, I don’t think confidently is the right word, but with some sort of aloof, alone assurance. I was sitting on the porch, possibly smoking a cigarette, which I’m sure he derided, waiting for someone to come pick me up. It was evening, summertime, crickets and barely moving air. I don’t remember what he said, just that I thought of him as a boy; was condescending to him in my nice voice (I still do that to people now); answered some questions with uncomfortable honesty; got him to laugh, wonder about me. He spiked his hair up with glue. It may have still been brown at that point. See you later, neighbor boy, I said as tires crunched up onto the gravel.

He kept crossing the invisible barrier between our two lawns. Convinced me one day to go for a walk around the block with him. We rounded a corner and he announced: I want to kiss you now. I laughed, said, Well, okay, I guess. He was always direct.

———

We never loved each other, never said it, never felt it, never needed it. He was inappropriately affectionate with my friends and tried to/possibly actually did make out with one or two of them in the early span of our ‘togetherness.’ It was mildly irksome, but never really inspired any green-eyed ire or gut-queasiness. He was sort of mine by default anyway, and I think I just never really cared that much.

I started calling him honey (still the only guy I’ve ever used that pet name for) and he would reciprocate, in his mocking-serious way. Like he’d accidentally knock a cup of water over and I’d whine, HUN-eyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! and he’d bellow back at me, HONEYYYYYYY!!! grabbing my arms, face one inch from mine, with smiling eyes exaggeratedly wide.

He’d ride around in the street on his stupid skateboard which I made so much fun of, while I sat in the grass on my front lawn, writing frantic marijuana-induced ‘poetry’ in my green mead notebook. I’d mock his punk-rockness, put it down, say it was fake, not like mine, say he didn’t care enough, didn’t do enough. We’d walk to the park through the woods behind our street, and when we got there, he would hassle the Frisbee-golf players, rude up-in-their-face—who knows what they thought of this skinny teenage boy sarcastically sneering at them (like, nice knit cap duuuuuuude, wicked right hook, you guys are totally awesome). What the hell is wrong with you, I’d ask, also in front of them. Why do you have to be so fucking antagonistic all the time? Though now I sort of admire him for it.

———

We did it on the library floor of my mom’s house one afternoon when she was away all day at the hospital. Musty brown carpeting, musty brown books. We made out with our shirts off for a little while (that was foreplay), and then he put the condom on (stolen from the Trojan multipack under my mother’s bathroom sink; it was the kind with a beige wrapper, which I’m guessing was a regular lubricated one, maybe a reservoir tip as the extent of its fanciness. I can’t imagine selecting anything special for Mark’s sake, and would have surely found anything ‘her pleasure’-related to be gimmicky and beneath me).

Everything we used to play adults we stole from our parents. We’d take weed out of his dad’s bedroom stash and smoke it. His stepmom was obsessed with cows and had bovine-themed tchotchkes choking every surface and crevice of the house. That distinctive black-and-white pattern anywhere a wandering eye might land. Wallpaper, cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, figurines, hot pads and dish towels, tablecloth, throw pillows, dust ruffle. What’s even likable about cows? I wondered.

It lasted a few minutes. After Mark rolled off me, he asked earnestly, thoughtfully even, Did you come? And I laughed in his face. Maybe if it had lasted longer? he asked. Sure, maybe, I conceded, softer this time, half of my mouth curling up in a sad smile. I rode my bike to rehearsal that night, awash in a world of firsts. This is the first time I’m riding my bike as a non-virgin, I thought; tonight I will sleep my first night as a sex-haver. I think it was October. I thought I would never forget the date, but I have. Afterward, I had bruises from where his bony hips had pressed into my inner thighs.

———

That was the only time. I was terrified of pregnancy, counting down the days until my period, attuned to every twinge in my lower abdomen, suddenly painfully aware of the cruel irony that swollen breasts are a symptom of both PMS and pregnancy. He tried to make it happen again. Once when I was sick, delusional from fever, hallucinating and filled with terror that there were dark presences in my bedroom, convinced I needed to sleep on the couch in the living room. I would bury my head in his chest, hang on to him, all please hold me, Marky and pathogen-laced tears. He kissed me hard, pulled me close and pressed against me, started talking about how my mom wouldn’t be home for a while, said, come on, let’s just. I was too fever-addled to be annoyed.

But I postponed time-number-two indefinitely, saying I didn’t want to get pregnant, couldn’t rely on condoms, needed to go on birth control first. Really, it was just a gradual dissipation of whatever strange glue had been keeping me there.

———

And one day, it was just over. Some veil, finally totally lifted. He had moved at that point to another house, miles away. He came over one day after school and I spent the entire afternoon ignoring him: I took a nap and then listened to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, not looking at him or talking to him, singing along to every song. Fourteen year old me, in all seriousness and an impossible but genuine empathy: Fuck and run, fuck and run, even when I was seventeen…

I confessed my distaste to my mom and Liza Funkhouser, maybe Edward too, in the kitchen one day; everyone smiled knowingly and counseled me, saying sometimes this happens and you just need to be honest about it. So I called him on the phone: I don’t want to talk to you anymore.

After that, in my brain’s misguided attempt to detox, I became obsessed with grown-up masculinity. Ogling guys with big arms, not being attracted to anyone under 20, unless it was clear he could grow a full beard if he wanted to. Ironically, or perhaps completely unironically, I now prefer boys with no chest hair, long-lean arms, pretty faces, like Mark was and I imagine still is now (except who knows about the chest hair). Of course, after Mark came a ten-year stretch of boys, of men, who were at least five years older than me. It was a long time before I was with somebody equal to me again. It’s possible Mark started that pendulum swinging, but really I think it’s always been there, its own weight tugging it slowly back and forth, side to side, inside of me.

———

We came in and out of each other’s lives in minimal ways over the next few years. A while after we’d broken up, he went through a ‘spirituality’ phase where he got quiet and serene instead of brash. I visited him in Manchester, which I will forever associate with the idea of peaceful escape from pathology and darkness; like rehab, the whole town a halfway house surrounded by soybean fields and marshy swamplakes. We sat on a picnic table looking out at some vast expanse of green, talking about the universe and our intersecting pasts and the development of my blowjob-giving techniques. He tried to get me to let him spend the night at my place, and I said no, because it was beneath me. Because he was too young. Because it would have meant more to him than to me. He hadn’t slept with anyone besides me by that point, and I had just gotten out of a serious relationship with another man too many years my senior.

A few years after that, he started harassing Elizabeth, climbing onto the roof at my mom’s house and breaking into the window of my old bedroom, where she was staying. He’d wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d scream at him, tell him to get out. He’d beg her not to make him go home. Say he was drunk, couldn’t go home, couldn’t drive. He ransacked my mom’s dresser drawers, looking for the weed he knew she kept in there; eventually he’d leave, crawl back out through the window and shut it behind him.

———

Elizabeth and I still sing that Liz Phair song, at karaoke sometimes, even though we know everyone will feel awkward about it. Us, singing our hearts out in tribute to our sweet, sad, maybe-sick youth, everyone else in the room waiting for Journey to come back on, cringing uncomfortably at “even when I was twelve,” not knowing how to react (if they were even listening) when the song wraps up so choosing just to pretend like they were busy doing something else the whole time.

And almost immediately, I felt sorry. ‘Cause I didn’t think this would happen again, no matter what I could do or say, just that I didn’t think this would happen again, with or without my best intentions.

How true that is for me now, still. You delude yourself into thinking you’ve grown up, out of a certain phase; believe that at some point, you learned how to know better. But it becomes crystal clear in the span of a few awkward moments. Oh right: this.

I walk away, from room to room, in and out of doors, feeling like nothing I do will make any difference. Guys and their virgin-whore complexes: even the good ones sometimes want you to be one or the other or an impossible combo of both-and-neither. And the bad ones? They make you feel guilty and ashamed for being too dirty and too chaste.

I make my own guilt to carry, too. For my multiple dishonesties that first time, with Mark, for my withholdings. I withheld the wrong things. Possibly gave up the wrong things too. Should’ve learned to invert it.

These old habits. I still lay cards on the table I should hold close to my chest. I still keep stuff I should share locked in the safety of a dark box. Scared that if it comes out, it will get damaged. Better to leave it in blackness for centuries, unseen and so unharmed. Even if I wanted to let it come crawling out, I wouldn’t know how. Am scared of the life it might take on if it got free. Am scared of how it would change. How the colors would fade, how disappointing it might be in the light of day.

I can’t quite seem to fix myself; every moment a new opportunity arises and I usually revert, like when you drunkenly shrug off unprotected sex and then kick yourself for it in the morning. Next time, next time I’ll be better. The stakes are so high; can’t afford to make such a mistake again. And you can’t. But you do. Some steps forward, less steps back. If you’re lucky.

That’s not to say that I’m not different now. I’ve lost things, found others. My eyesight isn’t the same, my view, my scope. These things differ. I’ve grown.

But much of me is the same, and that’s why I’m not sure whether the impact of a number one is anything more than an imagined aura, an invisible hug you think encircles you but doesn’t.

I think of who he is now and wonder, Is any of that because of me? What did I do to him? Should I have said no? (Funny how I use those words—”said no”—as though having sex was a response to some question of his, when the whole thing was probably my idea in the first place.) Should I have made him wait, try harder to fuck that pretty, innocuous normal girl he dated after me? What would I have escaped from if I’d made a different choice? If I’d waited? If I’d loved the first? What would I have gained? The events, certainly, would have been different—an alternate external-outside chronology—but would I? Sometimes I think: That story had already been written, and he just stepped into it. Even if the plot had been different, it would’ve ended up the same old tale. (And I’ve never been very good at waiting for things.)

I look at a recent picture of him. He has a mohawk. So I guess neither of us has completely changed.