As a refuge, as a threat, as a place to live
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© Laurie Minor© J. Eliza Wall
© Johnny Kerr© Karessa Ellis
My mother is a wood thrush, and my father is a great snipe. They aren’t my parents in this utopia. They’re birds who met once, then drifted apart, as birds do, so they could lead their own lives and become who they were meant to be. They have no children, bird or otherwise, tugging them in a different, boring direction. My father, who can fly for thousands of miles without rest, flapped away years ago in order to see all the places he never got to see in his actual life: other continents, the Black Sea, Russia. This self-propelled mode of flight is ideal for him, as my dad has always hated plane travel — not the flying itself, but all the rules. He has never been one to follow rules that aren’t his.
I remember, as a child, being buried in rules. I think this is how my father showed he loved us. His rules gave our house a fragile rigidity: every item in it, even the macramé hangings in the kitchen, appeared breakable or about to break, and I broke things. It’s unlikely for a child in such a situation to be able to obey every rule. (That’s my opinion, not my father’s.)
My mother the wood thrush, finally responsible for no one, has the time now to build a nest just how she always wanted it, smoothing the mud over dead grass and leaves for days, weeks if she wants. Do birds grow old? What does an old bird look like? I suppose it doesn’t matter, because my parents will not grow old in my utopia. My father will not lose sight in his right eye after a botched cataract surgery. My mother will not have a lump removed from below her left ear.
She spent so much time researching that lump. For months it was all we talked about on the phone: the different kinds of lumps, the various surgeries to remove them, the types of incisions she was considering. Her surgery lasted three hours. In the weeks that followed, we talked about the side effects: Her earlobe was numb. Her smile was crooked. She texted me pictures of her crooked smile. She should not eat sugar anymore (for a different health-related reason), but when my sister came to visit, she texted pictures of everybody’s desserts: the dangerous chocolate cakes; my mother grinning beside a deadly, dripping ice-cream cone.
In my utopia my bird mother grows plump if she wants, eating the delicious elderberries. Nobody — not my father, not her doctor — will comment on her weight, because nobody cares whether her body can still properly process sugar. There aren’t mirrors hanging in the birdcages. There aren’t even cages, only miles and miles of woods ending in the unexplored mountains.
I miss my parents, though they’re still alive. I miss a former version of them. I think my mom was very kind and very attentive when I was an infant. She nursed me for a long time. From what she’s told me, I enjoyed suckling at her breast. I don’t remember her hugging me later, except to say goodbye. I have few happy childhood memories of either parent. I don’t know whether that’s because I had an unhappy childhood or because I have a faulty memory. Or maybe my expectations were simply out of whack. Did I expect too much? Did I read too many books in which children stuck in stuffy, shadowy homes escaped into bright utopias?
Because my mother and my father never met in this particular utopia, I don’t exist in bodily form. Not that I mind. To be honest, my body has become an area of contention in my marriage. I don’t use it properly, according to my husband. Such complaints become irrelevant in my utopia, where I am like the light on the leaves blowing unpredictably in the wind, while my children — let’s allow them to be the sound of the wind. This will save everyone a lot of bruises and scrapes and, later, anguish. I will never have to watch my children grow unfamiliar to me.
In reality fine golden hairs are already emerging on my nine-year-old son’s legs. I swear those hairs weren’t there a year ago. Each one is like a tiny golden alarm. My daughter, at seven, tackles me to the bed and wraps herself around me as if we were lovers, and I think probably she is too old for this already.
As for my husband, in this utopia I have turned him into a hero, a slayer of dragons who doesn’t require me to attend couples-therapy sessions every week so I can be fixed. All that’s expected of my husband here is for him to leave. So it will come as no surprise when he announces he’s leaving. He has to leave in order to slay whatever mythical beast is threatening the land. On his adventures he will get to utilize his skills, which may not include acceptance but do include sharpening a sword and plunging the blade into the heart of what’s clearly a monster.
We met in college and dated for three months, after which my husband tried to break up with me over dinner in the caboose of a train-themed restaurant.
In his utopia he does not change his mind. Rather he says, “Thanks. It was kind of fun, but you seem like the sort of person who is going to change one day, and I don’t like change.” Then he moves to a larger city and marries a woman who enjoys frequent sex in every room of the house but is also attentive to his emotional needs. She doesn’t cry herself to sleep or talk too much. She wears her hair long and never grows demanding or critical or depressed. She remains the person my husband thought she was on the day they met.
I become a memory. It isn’t all bad, being a memory. I no longer have to hear our therapist say, in her know-it-all voice, “You and your husband may just want different things.” I don’t have to watch her scrape away at our marriage with her shiny fingernails until there’s nothing left.
In this utopia my son and I are wading through a glassy mountain lake. He has never learned to swim — he’ll scream if somebody makes him lower his face into the water — and now he cries, “Mom, save me!” Something dark is tugging him under the water. I yank on his arms, but I’m slipping. “Don’t let me go, Mom!” he says. I pull harder until my son’s arms and legs are around me.
Other times my son rescues me. (It is not too much to ask, in this utopia, for our children to save us.) He and I are in a lake again, and I have stones in my pockets, and I am tired and start to sink. My son, who still can’t swim, somehow dives down and removes the stones. I float back up, find more stones, and sink again. My son dives and removes them. Nobody calls it attention-seeking, my failed attempts to drown. In my utopia it’s not self-indulgent to ask that somebody look in your direction, at the emotion spilling from your eyes.
Such emotion makes my husband nervous. He insists I see another therapist. “Tough luck,” I tell him, because in my utopia there are no therapists.
Love looks like the creation of a utopia. Nobody interrupts me here to point out that love doesn’t actually look like this.
It nearly killed me. On Sunday nights, at his insistence, in our bedroom, with all the lights on. I used to do the math: I will live for 45.3 more years; there are 52 weeks in a year; that means there will be 2,355.6 more instances of . . . what to call it, exactly? A transgression? A violation? A ravishment? A molestation? A plundering? A confusion? A bother? A despoilment? A concern? Those are my words, not my husband’s.
But it doesn’t kill me after all — not in this utopia. My therapist does not ask me, in a worried voice, “Do you have rope in your house?” I do not press my fingers to the pulse on the side of my neck and think how small and crushable my life is. In my utopia a door is not always an exit but can also be a means of entering another, brighter, room.
I try on a flashy costume, because it’s that period of time in which everybody is trying on different costumes — only, in my case, my husband falls in love with the costume instead of me. I think, No big deal. I’ll just take the costume off. But the zipper is stuck. Then my husband says, “Actually there is no zipper.”
I am turning into a crystal. This takes a surprisingly long time, but once I’m done, my husband lovingly picks me up, pleased at my metamorphosis. “How nice,” he says. “I’m relieved that we aren’t the same people we were two decades ago. That would have been so boring.” Then he turns into something different as well. We both keep changing. He turns into a cave, and I turn into a geode in the cave. He turns into a stream, and I turn into a breeze rippling the water.
My husband in this utopia cuts the costume from my body. Who wants to be in love with a costume, anyway? We burn it on the grill. The cheap fabric hisses and smokes. I am not told, in this utopia, that I must go back to pretending to be who I was before or else things will be taken from me: my marriage, my future, my income, my husband’s love for me, my two children. The smoke drifts into my lungs, making me cough.
A man I don’t know insists on telling me the cost of all my utopias. This man isn’t wearing glasses, but he squints as if he needs a pair. He explains how each utopia will shave a year off the life of someone I love. “Haven’t you ever looked at what’s underneath the roots of the utopia trees?” he asks.
The trees are made of my longing for a place in which everything is as it should be. The problem is I don’t know which utopia that is. Is it the pale one? The one with the lake? The one where I am drowning but the drowning doesn’t hurt?
Following me, the man says, “This particular utopia took a year off your daughter’s life.” He jabs at the soil. Half buried in the dirt is a pair of reading glasses and a wool blanket. Because this is my utopia, I make the man stop talking, but his point isn’t lost on me. No one can travel from utopia to utopia forever, wasting years. Soon I’ll have to choose one in which to settle down. But which one? The utopia in which my husband is finally satisfied? The one in which I am happy? The one in which my children will never be sad? The one in which my parents do not grow old?
“And your longing is for what, exactly?” asks my husband.
© Michael Galinsky
There is a picnic in a garden. Nobody ever has to go inside. People sleep in hammocks attached to the trees. I have laid out a blanket for whoever wants to sit and eat. I set out bowls of fresh berries, cheeses, crackers, bottles of iced tea, lemon tarts. In my utopia there is no chance of rain. When my guests come — my children, my parents, my husband (who has brought along his new wife) — they don’t remember that I exist.
“Now, who could have put out this spread of food?” my mother asks, glancing toward the woods.
“It doesn’t matter,” says my husband.
“I’ll bet the food is magical!” my daughter says.
I wonder if all utopias are, by their very nature, personal; if a utopia can be a utopia for only one person at a time. What a lonely proposition.
Everybody feasts and wipes berry juice from their lips with napkins I have folded into precise squares. After the picnic my children fall asleep in the hammocks, and they do not dream.
I make a slit down the middle of my chest with the straight razor I used to keep hidden on the top shelf of my closet. Because this is a utopia, the pain is bearable. My husband is in the room with me, standing by the closet door. I am near the dresser. Instead of looking away, he says, his voice full of emotion: “Stay.”
“Stay,” he says to me in the morning.
“Stay,” he says in the evening, when it’s raining.
Light starts spilling out of me.
My husband has light pouring out of him as well — a different-color light, but no one tells us this is a problem. In my utopia love is not something you do for each other. It’s visible and obvious, and it will never go away. The windows are open. My husband is not searching for a way out. Below us, in the yard, our children crouch in the trees, straining to see beyond the turn of the dusty road, where more utopias wait. My mother the bird perches on the wooden fence, waiting for the right moment to finish her song.