Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
 print preview


After the miscarriage, the Alaskan and I decide gravely to get married.

Money’s so tight that a wedding is nonsensical, but—in a plot twist only possible if you love the rudderless bartending son of a founder of an international consulting firm—his parents buy us a princess-cut diamond equal in value to our annual rent and, for an engagement gift, send us on an all-expenses paid cruise around the Mediterranean. I have a journal with passport stamps on the cover, a new pair of CVS sunglasses, fresh lip gloss. I try out my Spanish on the cab driver from the Barcelona airport, but he’s Catalonian. “The number of Catalonians executed in the Franco era?” the driver says. “Four thousand.” Four thousand bullet ballets. Four thousand families turned inside out with grief. I have this theory that grief goes up into the sky, hangs all around us like moisture. I try to explain this to the Alaskan, but he accuses me of thinking I know what it’s like to live under fascism, what it’s like to lose.

The ship is a hotel. Men and women in shoulder pads and bellhop hats hand us key cards, take our luggage, map amenities. They adorn us in goofy hats, snap our photo. There’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Free pizza,” the Alaskan exclaims, shaking me by the shoulders. “Twenty-four hours a day!” In our cabin, towel swans neck on our bed, chocolates pose on our pillows, champagne ices. “How did they know?” I ask. We take turns looking out our porthole window at the wide black pier, the sloshing water, the perched and diving gulls. I wash the sweat off my face in the bath nook as the Alaskan uncorks the booze. There are ninety-five calories in a glass of champagne; fifty in the chocolate. I’ll eat these, because they are free, and because it will make him happy, so that he may not notice if I pass on the garlic mashed potatoes at dinner. I pat my face dry with the facecloth.

The first warm day of April, he brought home a postcard with a baby on it that looked like him, how our baby might look—straight black hair, dark eyes. We took a picnic to the yard behind our apartment complex: a container of strawberries, a block of cheese, a blanket. I laid back, shading my eyes, while he babbled at my belly, put his ear on me to see if his kid was talking yet. “What are we going to do?” I asked. “Find a good cave,” he said. “I’d live in a cave with you.” He always says the right things. I brushed his hair away from his forehead, crunched it in my fist, waggled his head. Then, Patriots’ Day: blood. We were in the throng of our neighbors watching the Boston Marathon haul past when I felt a heat in my belly. I excused myself to our apartment. It was thick—my insides coming out. He drove back roads to Newton-Wellesley, argued with the cops who, for the race, had blocked every road to the hospital. Even from inside the emergency room, I could hear him in the waiting area. His soul is not a static thing; it’s a detonation.

Hours later, empty and dumped back into our lives, we did what we could do: we ordered pad thai. He wanted me to stay with him and watch Tommy Boy, but I went to the studio instead, citing a backlog of work for my drawing class. I was neglecting his pain, he said days later, maybe weeks. But what honest-to-God pain was he feeling? And who was he blaming? He texts me photos of himself crying which I delete immediately. In the months since the miscarriage, we’ve been fighting more. And I started a new routine: coffee in the morning, an apple at three, a glass of milk before bed—just enough so that I don’t die. It’s working great. I’ve lost twenty pounds—and if I do die, the Alaskan will feel like a real asshole.

The cruise accommodates morning “excursions” each day into this or that coastal city, and his parents have not skimped on these. We have a full itinerary. Nice is nice. The Alaskan and I skip the tour and sit at a café. My café au lait est parfait, and I moon over a flake of his croissant, refuse more. I wear a lavender dress with a short skirt. The air is just right for my legs, which is to say, I want him to notice. To be devastated. To suggest a rendezvous in the WC. Instead he pitches me his idea for a new business venture: government supply. What would he supply? “Mechanical pencils or some shit.” Neither of us knows about starting a company, but here we are in the South of France. “Go for it,” I say.

We talk about the wedding we can’t afford. He suggests—again—that I ask my parents for help, and again I shut him down, remembering but not mentioning the can of government-issued pork my mother kept in the cabinet as a talisman against us going hungry. He comes up with a plan, where instead of having a blowout wedding, we take an eight-month road trip to South America. “I’m in,” I say. “But even South America costs money.”

“If we make a reality TV show,” he suggests, “Discovery Channel’ll pay for it.” He glances at the table quickly. This blink in his bravado unnerves me. He doesn’t believe himself. Maybe he’s never believed himself. Maybe his self is a performance he’s waiting for me to see through so he can put it down, slouch around in the muck for a bit, be self-less. He hasn’t noticed my legs yet and I feel tired.

Later in the morning, we go to Èze and explore the shops built into the mountainside. These buildings are so ancient I can’t tell if they were built additively or reductively. Maybe both. Regardless, if this is what living in a cave would be like, sign me up. Get a nice braided rug, drink coffee out of earthenware cups, let my hair salt and pepper, wear turtlenecks with no bras and think about mortality while taking in the green-blue sea. C’est bon.

I snap photos of flowers that I imagine I will print and frame for the walls of our apartment at home, but my camera’s settings are whack. On the tour bus back to the boat, the Alaskan and I laugh—howl, wipe tears—at people’s skeeved-out, why-is-that-girl-taking-a-picture-of-me faces, coming in crystal clear behind blurs I attest are flowers.


Three weeks ago the Alaskan called me “a fucking saint” and threw his tumbler across the kitchen where it smashed to pieces, before he stormed out. That was the worst so far. When the door closed, I considered my options:

Option a) Do nothing.

Option b) Put the shards in our bed and find somewhere else to sleep.

I felt flooded with violences others have confided in me—drunken dads, crazy boyfriends, the Vietnam vet who lived in the barn. I imagined moments of impact, when a thing hits a thing, fist to belly, head to wall. The crunch and smash of it. Perhaps because my parents never beat me. The Alaskan thinks it’s my self-defense class that has made me feel so shell shocked. Twice a week the women in my class practice how to get heavy, create space in the triangle between an attacker’s chest and two arms. I don’t tell the Alaskan this either, but violences conflate in me—the violence of a raised voice; the violence of spat words; the violence of a cruel nickname, of not asking someone their real name; the violence of not helping, of an averted gaze; the violence of nosiness; the violence of shyness; the violence of condemnation; the violence of neglect; the particular White Person violence of compensating kindnesses with cash. These sit heavy on my chest.

I went for option (c) Sweep slivers into an empty ice-cream container, cap it, and throw it away. Think to self: I am a fucking saint.


“Princess Grace of Monaco. To you Americans, Grace Kelly—To Catch a Thief, Dial M for Murder, Bridges at Toko-Ri? Non? She was on this road with her daughter when she suffered a stroke. The car fell down this cliff. Steep, oui? Do not look, driver! Ha ha. The car caught terrible fire. Princess Grace broke both legs, her collarbone, ribs. Princess Stéphanie—can you imagine?—seventeen, poor chérie. She tried to pull her mother from the car, but had her own fractured spine, c’est vrai. And shock, of course. Oui. The ambulance brought Princess Grace to hospital at Monte Carlo, but—” The tour guide shrugs, makes a raspberry with her lips.

We funnel through Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Monaco-Ville, where Grace Kelly is buried. The halls are dark. Incense hangs in the air. Grace Kelly is immortalized in a life-sized portrait, beneath which is a tombstone in the floor that has her name in Latin: Gratia Patricia. People leave flowers. I don’t know what the fuss is over a dead movie star. She had a body and it conked out. Bodies conk out all the time. Every one, actually. The Alaskan and I didn’t bring flowers, so we clasp our hands in front of us, as though we’re in line for Eucharist and make eyes at each other like, let’s bounce. As soon as we can, we tumble back into the sunshine, to the seawall, over which the sea is jewel toned and beckoning. The French call it l’appel du vide. The call of the void. The feeling of wanting to jump off balconies.


Like me, the Alaskan is a lapsed Catholic—one reason why I like him. The shapes and contours of his spirituality are similar to mine, defined mostly by vintage rock and roll. We say a prayer for Jimmy Brown and exalt “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” in the bucket seats of the luxury car his dad gave him, up and down the darkened back roads of eastern Mass. When we need help to transcend our earthly shackles, we consume spirits, and when the world becomes truly unbearable—weed.

Our apartment is across the street from a Unitarian Universalist church, and I sometimes talk about going over there, seeing what it would be like to worship with gays, to have a woman priest. When I mentioned this to him, he said, “The problem with Protestants is that they think they got it right.” Meaning, we lapsed Catholics can walk through the world certain that we know nothing and deserve nothing, which sounds about right to me.

In Monte Carlo, we can’t afford to even enter the casino, so the Alaskan takes my photo in front of a row of Lamborghinis, then sets off to look for leather pants. “Don’t break the bank,” I call after him, then laugh because there’s no money in our bank. The only things I can justify purchasing are an overpriced sparkling water, which entitles me to sit for an hour under the sunshade of a café, and a postcard of the Lamborghinis. At the café’s outdoor table I write on the back of the postcard “Hi Mom!” but I can’t think of what to write after that. Remember that welfare ham? Or, He’s a good guy! You’ll like him. I don’t even know where to get a stamp. Or find a post office. What is the meaning of a postcard anyway except to say, my body was in this place for one hot minute. Especially on this trip: three countries in seven days; each city for a few hours. Maybe I’ll keep the postcard. Remind myself I’ve been here. I tuck it into the journal and start a list of things I’d love to do in each of these cities, if I ever get the chance to spend time.

Marseille - Rent barely furnished room from nosy French landlady who chastises me for being messy and broke. Typewrite novel (like The Stranger, but funny). Play big band music loud when I bring men back to apt. so landlady won’t hear. Take up smoking.

Nice - Get scuba certification. Make friends with French divorcées. Drink wine on rooftops or fire escapes while laughing at exes and the poetic horror of being alive. Learn to say ‘non.’

Èze - Get a grunt job in bakery. Learn to make perfect crepe. Run up and down the mountain to counteract effect of crepes on waistline. Understand that, despite running, I will still end up in the infinity closet. Thank Lord that, for now, time exists.

Monte Carlo - Wear sparkly dress to casino. Carry revolver in garter. Give man a blow job while he zooms his sports car down that road where Grace Kelly died. If I feel like I’m suffocating, Cyndi Lauper.

I close the notebook quickly when the Alaskan returns. He insists the black leather pants in the bag were deeply on sale. “I couldn’t afford not to buy them,” he says. When I’m still angry, he adds, “I used my dad’s credit card,” which makes it zero percent better, but I shake it off, thinking, when in Rome, and also, nonsensically, water off a duck’s back.

In Pisa, we pretend to hold up the tower, then feel generally disappointed and wonder if we should have checked off Livorno on the form instead. Since we’re buying things now, I buy a pair of David shorts, the kind with the cock and balls on them, from a souvenir vendor. Back on the boat, we nap, then shower—one at a time in that tiny shower—then dress for dinner. I put the David shorts on first, of course, dance around the cabin topless, thrusting my hips like a male stripper. The Alaskan begs me to stop, to take the shorts off, but I feel so powerful with my fake penis I almost admit Freud was on to something. I put my dress on over the shorts. At dinner, we make small talk with a Canadian couple in their midfifties. “Mademoiselle Coco?” the Alaskan asks the Canadian wife, performing his father, which I find hilarious. The Canadian man talks to me about how Goldman Sachs manipulates raw-materials markets, which I encourage with prolonged eye contact. For the Alaskan’s benefit, I pull my skirt up to reveal just the tip of David’s member. The Alaskan pales and closes his eyes, as if wishing the moment over.

We tour Herculaneum and Pompeii. I’m enamored of the frescoes on the doorsteps of ancient moneyed families, and of the feeling of disaster. One day these people were baking and selling bread, fucking in whorehouses, naming all their kids Julia, and the next they are asphyxiated by volcanic gas. There is something comforting about that. We tour the museum that holds the molds of the people crunched and praying, and I wonder if the Alaskan’s soul is a detonation, if my soul could be a void. Someone could fill it with plaster long after I’m dead, and say, look—this one was anxious and narcissistic.

In Rome, of course, we visit the Vatican. I’m furious that the Catholic Church extorted money from poor people to buy all this art, then painted over the genitals. The gold frames and beatific faces get me though. It’s beautiful in the boring way of the holy and the gilded. We touch the foot of Michelangelo’s Pietà, slick with the grease of a billion faithful hands. The artistry is so tactile, especially the way Jesus’s skin ripples around Mary’s fingers. Mary got to hold hers.


It is the last night on the boat and we head back to Barcelona. We don’t have to wake up early for any more tours, so I convince the Alaskan to go to the boat bar with me for drinks and, if I’m lucky, dancing. And then if I’m extra lucky, sex, finally. At the bar we meet the Canadian couple from dinner; already in the bag. I try to pull the Alaskan to the dance floor but he’s feeling sociable. He tells me to warm it up. I do. On the dance floor there’s a bunch of single-looking guys, young and mostly brown. I recognize our waiter from dinner. I spend the whole song trying to figure out if it’s a perk of their job that, in their off hours, they get to come dance, or conversely, if it’s a requirement of the job, the possibility of which makes me uncomfortable. He recognizes me, pulls me toward him. I avoid eye contact, add dancing to the list of violences I have committed. Perhaps the server misses someone or maybe has lived under fascism, because the grief between us is thick and pools into the cotton of our clothes.

When the song ends, I go back to the bar and find only the Canadian husband. “They went to smoke a cigarette,” he says. Then he adds, defensively: “Don’t worry. She wouldn’t try anything.” I’m not worried. She looks like Josh Stevens’s mom from second grade. She has papery lips and chin waddle. But a few clicks after he says that, worry two-steps into me.

I exit the club into the Mediterranean night. The boat is designed so that the bar is at the back end, and there are two exits, one that leads down the starboard side, and one that leads down port. I’ve gone out the wrong exit because I’m on port side, and I can see the Alaskan’s straight black hair and the Canadian woman’s poufy blonde hair walking side by side down starboard. I’ll keep my eye on them, I figure, meet them at the bow. But when I get to the bow: No one. How could I have missed them? They didn’t go past here. They didn’t go back.

At the bow, the wind blows my hair like I’m the masthead. This is the moment where, if he were here with me, the Alaskan would make a Titanic joke, probably involving my scoring the rich asshole and a poor hero in one weird package. I would chastise him for jinxing our boat.

Someone laughs, from on high. I turn. A rock wall rises into the moonlit sky. I take a few steps down starboard, and notice a narrow staircase that ascends to the top of the rock-climbing wall. Up there must be, I presume, a tiny fourth deck.

The staircase rises as if into the stars. The wind is cool. There is another deck up here, room enough for two or three lounge chairs. I see a fluff of pale hair in one of the chairs, facing away from me. Everything else is dark. I can’t make anything out. Until the Alaskan looks up, his face moonlit between her knees. He looks down again, tucks his hair behind his ear, and says, slowly, drunkenly, “Shit, it’s my girlfriend.”

Everything suffocates: primarily the ring. I chuck it, chuck the sunglasses holding my hair back, chuck my cardigan, kick off my flip-flops. I descend the stairs in a hurry and when I get to the deck, I run.

He moves fast though. I hear the thud of him jumping down the stairs, and in a second, he catches me from behind, lifts me off the floor. We struggle. It’s muscle memory, like my instructor said. I elbow him hard in the ribs once, to make space inside the triangle. I elbow him again and again, on the right, trying to hit through him, trying to hit the wall on the other side of the room.

I twist around and grab his face with my left hand, throw a close-fisted punch with my right that lands outside his right eye. My left hand clenches his cheek, nails digging into his skin.

“Fuck,” he says. Then he has one arm around my back. His other arm catches both my wrists, pinning them together in one hand. I consider my assets: I’m about to knee him in the balls, or else headbutt him, when a waiter pulls him off me. Pulls me off him.

I stumble away, one guy escorting me, another setting a pick so the Alaskan can’t follow. “Are you all right, miss?” the guy says.

I’m deeply embarrassed and have no place to sleep but tell him yes. “A hundred percent fine. A little shaky.”

He sets me up on a deck chair in the solarium, which I didn’t even know the ship had. There are plants here, and the air is thick with moisture, which validates my theory. We cry and cry; tears must go somewhere. The man who consoles me offers to stay and talk. He offers to bring me tea. We are alone, and though I have none I want to offer him money, and suddenly I remember to be scared of him. “Non. Non. Merci. Non.” To my relief, he goes. I lie back on the deck chair, hoping the Alaskan is distraught, hoping he is looking for me, hoping he feels like shit, hoping he jumps into the sea. No. Not hoping that. I would feel like a real asshole if he did that.

I wake up before dawn, the slats of the chair imprinted to my face, and find my way back to our cabin. Towel swans are unrolled on the floor. The engagement ring taunts me from the nightstand. The Alaskan is in bed, sweating booze. I sneak into a spot on the bed where I could sleep without touching him, if I sleep in a tight ball.

He inhales. “I’m sorry.” His mouth seems filled with spiderwebs.

“I don’t want to talk,” I say.

He makes a noise in the back of his throat, throws the sheets off. For a second I’m scared of him, but then he stumbles to the bathroom to vomit. He has to lean sideways, on one knee, with one leg straight out the folding door, to get his puke into the commode. “I’m so sick,” he says, spitting.

“Category error.” I warned him. I don’t want to talk.

He says my name, exasperated. “Please can you just take care of me?” He pulls his T-shirt off and wipes his face with it, throws it into the corner.

The veiny nebulas purpling on his torso concern me before I recognize them as mine, the product of my fists and elbows.

The bruises tell the truth. I was telling the truth when I made them. The moment feels holy, like I’m recognizing the singular truth of the universe: that I know nothing, deserve nothing.

“Come here,” I say, and open my arms to him.  

return to top