Closer and Closer to Water
by Kathleen Alcott
Under the light that manages to sneak through the Redwood trees of Big Sur, all the people in the circle imply their intense willingness to elaborate on their reasons for coming. One woman with breasts overflowing from her hemp tank top explores her history of childhood sexual abuse, looking around through her weepiness frequently, and another man describes the wide-reaching effects of his fetish. Astrid dreads the moment the leader turns her big, understanding eyes in her direction. Jennifer, who had fed Astrid an obscene amount of liquor and convinced her to come here, was obviously preparing to describe the multi-layered pain of her break up; the tattoo she got on their drive down, after flying into the airport, looked more like a small, yippy dog named Lulu or Fluffbutter than the ancient symbol of acceptance she claimed it to be. They are to begin the age reversal process the next day. When the leader lands on her, Astrid mumbles, almost inaudibly.
“It seemed like a place I could try?” Astrid shrugs.
“You dreamed of a place you could fly,” says the instructor. “Mm. And don’t we all?” A series of murmured agreements resounds.
Back in New York, Astrid had dated a man with an unusually taut foreskin. Ultimately, his research concluded that a circumcision, at age 32, was the only option.
“I think I’ll have the rosemary chicken, or maybe the lamb,” Astrid would say.
“I could have a penis that looks like Nick Nolte’s mugshot!” he would reply.
Sex was out of the question. At night, he would put a pillow between them to decrease the risk of erection. “You’re too attractive,” he would say, as if that were a bad thing. “When I’m hard it feels like a thousand tiny cuts.”
All day long, his phone lit up with emails from other men he’d met on circumcision forums, photos of their penises often attached: some white, some pink and shiny with fresh surgery scars.
“I was thinking comedy, but documentary could also be okay,” Astrid offered.
“Hm,” he’d groan. “That one looks too new.”
Astrid wakes in the little bed in the little cabin she has paid thousands of dollars to sleep in to find the instructions they said would be attached to her door. On her nightstand is an adult-sized set of footie pajamas and a (100 percent biodegradable ginger-flavored) pacifier. She is to take off her clothes and wait in her bed for The Birth. The Mother will arrive to introduce her to the world shortly. A gentle reminder, reads the note, not to use your verbal-linguistic capacities. This is an exercise in trust. Should you feel unsafe, should you wish for comfort, feel encouraged to cry, to nuzzle, to reach up.
Astrid calculates the path that would get her out of here. Three miles to the rental car, on a path she’d been led in on blindfolded, and Jennifer has the keys. She removes her clothing and sits there. She says Fuck; says it again; it feels phenomenal to say fuck in a place where people say “journey” more often than “hello.”
When the door opens Astrid stiffens. Possibly the largest woman she’s ever seen—possibly a woman—stands in the frame blocking any view of escape. The midwife, a figure half as tall, is revealed when the giant approaches. Astrid remembers the instructions on the card and assembles herself on the bed, closes her eyes so she will feel but at least not see the thighs the girth of the redwood tree outside wrapped around her. The giant huffs and puffs and screams. “Push, Heidi” says the midwife. “Breathe.” But her didactics are covered by the sounds coming out of the gargantuan. “ASTRID,” Heidi yells. “WE ARE READY FOR YOU ON THIS EARTH.”
“ASTRID,” she booms. “WE NEED YOU ON THIS EARTH! SHOW US YOUR GIFTS!” And with one last clench of her legs around the entirety of Astrid’s midsection, she gives a shove and plummets her baby to the far side of the bed. The midwife runs a cloth over Astrid’s forehead and wraps a fresh white blanket around her naked body. She beams. “It’s a girl, and she’s beautiful.” Astrid has always has a head for figures, and she calculates that these six words alone have cost her 172 dollars. They encourage her to cry for the womb she’s left behind. Cry she does.
Adrian, the guy with the penis problem, had not been the first of unsavory relationships. Astrid made a decent living managing social media for an online dictionary site, and cultivated a pleasant enough one-bedroom apartment with several healthy enough plants and a ready supply of fresh white towels, and cooked decently, and felt her social graces fells somewhere between acceptable and talented, but still: she never seemed to attract the kind of man with whom a future seemed possible. The recently divorced, the musician afflicted by wanderlust, the sweethearted but undeniably alcoholic: they flocked. She once slept with a single father who left his 3 year old daughter with Astrid so he could go fight with his ex-wife in a nearby park, spent several months answering the erratic phone calls of a pianist who seemed gentle but turned piggish in bed. She viewed the failures as individual until she couldn’t, and saw them as one mass of poor judgement and ill-placed need, which happened to be around the time that she started looking at babies like they were the only clean water for miles. She passed families on the street of her leafy Brooklyn neighborhood and looked down at her meager groceries, some of which would inevitably go bad—cooking for one was an exercise in waste—and imagined herself in cotton flats, patting her rescued dog, handing the small child she’d created perfectly sliced fruits.
The relationship with Adrian ended without any real conversation. He travelled to Florida to see the doctor he’d researched extensively and convalesce on the beaches, and though he made an effort to keep in touch, there were realistically only so many conversations to be had about stitches and ointments and recovery statistics . On the last occasion they spoke he told her he’d masturbated against doctor orders and spent the next 48 hours paying for it.
“I’ve only seen that much come out in porn,” he said.
Thinking perhaps this was a window for intimacy or at least some dirty talk, she replied half heartedly, “Wish I could have seen it?”
“No,” he said. “No, you really don’t.”
Jennifer called right after, and so it was no wonder that Astrid agreed to meet her for too many drinks. They were old friends with little in common, but they had perfected the art of circling each other’s lives. Jennifer had a job in fashion marketing and an extensive collection of large bracelets and a tendency to get emotional when intoxicated. And so, when she brought up the retreat during the fifth drink, and got rather choked up again discussing the latest heartbreak with the latest guy named Brad, and offered to put down their deposits then and there—Astrid could pay her back whenever, really—and pulled out her computer and credit card, Astrid couldn’t manage a yes or a no, and that was that. The last thing she remembers from the evening is throwing up in Jennifer’s bathroom, looking up mid-heave to a host of scented candles tottering on the back of the toilet, named basil tranquility and cedar welcome and almond alignment, and semi-purposefully ejecting onto one of them, just to see the flame go out.
At age two, two days in, Astrid regains access to solid edibles and a small number of words, among them me, mine, want, can’t, food, water, home. At age five, she is asked to identify her feelings by pointing to the most appropriate cartoonish face on a laminated sheet passed around to the group. At age ten, she gets 15 brief unsupervised minutes, and walks along a forested path that follows a variously rushing and tranquil creek. The ground is soft with many layers of things that have fallen from their original source, and it would be some kind of comfort, yes, if at the end of the hike she wasn’t expected to the hug the fifteen people waiting to congratulate her on her blossoming independence. The guy with the fetish is so happy for her, thinks himself such a great well of empathy, that he cries increasingly loudly and is sent to see his mother. Astrid hatches her plan; Astrid, at age eleven, becomes a runaway.
She leaves in the middle of the night, tiptoeing through the farts smelling of kale that Heidi has offered consistently throughout the evening, carrying the flashlight she’s stolen from the recycled tote bag of her appointed mother. Sorry, Heidi, she thinks. All children make mistakes. On her way through the camp she passes tents of taut canvas dark or lit up in variously soft patterns, a circle of people with their arms raised above them humming one tone, and one naked man crying on a rock which appears a specifically uncomfortable place to sit. When she believes she has made her way out, sees the curvy highway, she realizes she has not planned any further than this. She takes a seat on so many layers of organic debris and tries to think, admires the very possibility of the civilized concrete with a simple-mindedness that makes her wonder if the food they gave her was drugged. From the dearth of sounds there is the precious one of a car around the bend and Astrid watches with glee as a truck approaches, slows and pulls over, parking delicately on the shoulder. She decides that possibly this is the sign, this is the person that will help her. A woman with tangles of hair leans her head out the window.
“Sister!” she says. “Have you just come from the Loveolution?”
Astrid narrows her eyes and considers. And then she runs.
When Astrid walks into the restaurant, she doesn’t know what time it is, or how long she ran along the curves, or when she gave up her speed for a steady limping, or why her life had begun to feel like a series of wrong answers in italics. She misses her day-to-day ritual painfully, wishes hard in fact for the moment she will once again wrestle with the stubborn facuet of her shower, condense some etymological fact into a 140-character quip. Misses the safety of an air conditioned subway car travelling over a body of water.
It’s a plain place with gnarled wooden everything and the people in it are dressed like they use their hands to make and change things. She sits at the bar, consumes the cheeseburger in a way that involves less chewing than it does inhaling. Next she orders a whiskey from a surly man who looks like he has never consumed granola in his life, and drinks it happily, swinging her feet around the bar stool like a child. After the second whiskey she feels a loosening, an opening, like touching something very old and understanding how its place in the tactile world has lasted. Eager to put something in the air and watch its path, Astrid finds her way to the dart board in the corner, approaches it and runs her fingers over the holes in the wood surrounding it. She steps back. Throws a few. If she concentrates, she swears she can feel the moment at which they enter and stick.
Kathleen Alcott‘s first novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, is forthcoming from Other Press in September. Born and raised in Northern California, she presently resides in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction; Slice; TheRumpus.Net; Explosion Proof; Rumpus Women Vol. 1, an anthology of personal essays; and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her second novel. You can visit her at Kathleenalcott.com or on twitter @Kathleenalcott.