You had a hard-on for my oratory. Some of my stories were fabricated. I had authority – a thing that people like you haven’t witnessed. It comes from a traditional upbringing and regarding my work as something more sacred than generations of effort or study. It’s something on a continuum, so far reaching you know it came from an inhuman place. Story is inhuman and beyond me, and I’m not sure you ever recognized that. You knew to be excited in proximity to my power.
We started the affair in a small booth at Village Inn. I didn’t sleep the night before. You were my teacher, and we discussed my fiction. My work was skeletal, before you. I waited for the right silence and then said flatly that I liked you.
‘Do we get a hotel?’ you said.
Your hands were shaking. I reached out and touched them – they were double mine and whiter.
I knew, before I was close to you, that your cotton-blue hoodie smelled like smoke, and I could put my entire body beneath it. I knew that your skin wasn’t rough. I knew that I was not going to be the same person for loving you.
We went back to our respective lives. We agreed to talk about it sometime soon. It was winter. I wore a brown corduroy jacket most days, and I remember waiting to be with you – putting my fingers in the jacket pockets until the pockets couldn’t contain my incessant want. My fingers felt swollen with focus and desire. I remember pulling threads, looking in the mirror, and seeing myself how you might see me. New.
While I waited, I went on a trip with a man I barely liked. You didn’t call for two days. He insisted on sleeping in the same bed in our cabin. Our room had a skylight. I couldn’t enjoy anything without acknowledging he was in the room. I tried to bathe alone and he played a guitar on the other side of the door. I was bored and asked for horses.
‘What?’ he said.
‘I want to be on a horse,’ I said.
We were somewhere mountainous, and it was snowing. He spent the morning calling stalls and asking for rates. He seemed offended when I told him I needed a warmer sweater, matching gloves, and that the breakfast we had wasn’t right. And that I might need wool socks as well. He seemed surprised that I was not fun loving. I was rude and gratuitous. I went horseback riding with the man. He was almost jaundiced – he was so sick in love with me. I wanted as much of the world as I could take, and I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.
You messaged me when I was playing slots with the man. You messaged that you had left your girlfriend, for me. You asked me how soon we could meet. I told the man I was ready to go home. It was urgent. He planned to go ice-skating, but I said no. He planned a tour of a haunted house, but I said no.
The man I had been conditioning was not happy with me. He knew something was wrong, and that’s when I wondered if maybe falling in love looked like a crisis to an observer.
You had a jawline, and I wanted to crawl under your gaze – under your chin. I was desirous to be beneath you.
The first few nights you tell me things.
‘I’d burn my life down for you,’ you said.
There was still so much to tell you – things too ugly to know or say.
I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said.
You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large. Falling in love felt fluid. It snowed when we fell in love. Everything reminded me of warm milk. Everything seemed less real. I thought my cup was overflowing. I found myself caressing my own face.
My son and I let you visit. I told him my friend was coming. He put on a Batman costume and hid behind the couch until you came.
‘When is he coming?’ Isaiah said.
When you arrived, Isaiah sprung out and stood quietly. You received him so well. You let him be weird. He was seven, and his fingers were perpetually sticky. My son was a smaller bolt of lightning – uncontained and sweeter than me. You were patient with him, and I watched you both put together a Lego set.
Safety wasn’t familiar – not with men. Our life felt brighter together.
We started to argue about autonomy and the agency I lacked with you. Neither one of us could pull away, so things erupted. Both of us had jobs and commitments. Our lives became less productive when productivity was pivotal.
Your agent called. I was underneath your chin, burying my nose into your chest and searching with my hands. You finally sold your book. Your neighbors had horses and chickens, but the land was insufficiently small. The place always smelled like manure but not in the worst of winter. Scents can freeze.
So many things were signs. The Spanish radio station you put on during our drives. You said you were ‘trying to immerse yourself in the language.’
I sunk into myself. I knew better. White people are brutally awkward, even you.
You didn’t pamper me like the men I had conditioned. You didn’t jump to buy things. You thought of us as equals. You expected me to do things and wondered why I wanted everything on the menu. You didn’t take out your wallet and tell me who I was. Those moments never came.
You ruined me with touch. It was a different exploitation.
You asked me for my secret. I told you about the son who didn’t live with me. I told you that I lock myself in the bathroom to cry when I remember his milk breath. I knew what it felt like to sleep next to him in bed, and he was just gone. I told you I go away.
You said you’d be on the other side of the door. That’s how perfect love is at first. Solutions are simple, and problems are laid out simply.
I knew that the way I had been living was too complicated for you to see up close. I should have consulted a healer before I went further with you.
Our culture is based in the profundity things carry. We’re always trying to see the world the way our ancestors did – we feel less of a relationship to the natural world. There was a time when we dictated our beliefs and told ourselves what was real, or what was wrong or right. There weren’t any abstractions. We knew that our language came before the world.
I knew I was not well. I thought of the first healer, who was just a boy. My friend Denise told me the story. She called him Heart Berry Boy, or O’dimin. His name means ‘strawberry’ in the language. Denise and I struggled and came up together – she named her son after the boy. The people in his village were sick and dying because the Indian world was shifting. The boy lost his mother. O’dimin became a sorrowful kid who found solace in the dream world. He fell asleep and spun a restlessness that comes when people are waiting to die. Sometimes grief is a nothing feeling.
The spirits finally came to him in a dream and told him to leave the village. He asked the elders what he should do, and they told him their own dreams, and that he should introduce himself by name and lineage to a bear and follow her until she gave him a gift.
He walked alone in the valley, and, when Bear presented herself, she stood tall. They looked at each other. He followed her. She sunk her paws into wet dirt, and then he told her his name. She started to feel sick. Her heaving seemed bloody and reminded him of his mother. Bear told him she was not his mother. She told him to let her rest, but he didn’t.
She said, ‘You can’t expect me to unearth medicine and give you power unless you give your life to this.’ She was willing to die to keep her secrets from weak people.
He sat with her. She put her claws into a strawberry patch and produced ripe berries. She ate and slept. He collected some berries and brought them to the people. Eventually, he started to plant and show others what he learned. This was how the first medicine man came to be.
I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion. Things feel continuous when I think of my gifts and heritage. With you, things don’t feel right sometimes. I believe you obstruct my healing.
What I notice with you is that I look outside whenever I’m close to a window, and I wonder how many women feel that way. I feel things I would rather feel alone.
Things have become more real with you. Every time I start to cry, you tell me that you can’t keep me from leaving. I feel abject without your passion. I feel uncontrollable with you.
In bed, daylight breaks through our tented sheets. I see you, Casey. You will always love me in a shadow. It’s not torturous to be with you when I consider being without. Instead of feeling the gasping pain of my powerlessness, I straddle it and put your hands on my breasts. I tell you that I’d burn my life down for you.
We try to remember each other this way, and I’m not sure how many times I can do this to you before I forget myself. I want you to will my pain away. I try to think that the things I do to you, I won’t ever do harder to someone else.
I guess heartbreak is simple. Problems seem to unfurl themselves like crumpled bills on a nightstand.
The first night that I locked myself away, you didn’t even notice I was gone. Every door is the same when I kneel in a corner – with a hand over my mouth. Every bathroom floor is different, but no mourning I do feels familiar. It feels brand new.
The above is an excerpt from Heart Berries, available now from Bloomsbury.
Image © Krysten Newby