Meg Tuite is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, and is a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog resides at: http://megtuite.com
Beth takes the bus to a workshop on setting boundaries. Shoes are lined up outside an entrance with a wooden sign that says, Tae Kwon Do. She slips off her gray slippers, walks inside. A group of ten women sit on pillows in a huge, open warehouse. She slides down on a pillow, looks around. Some of these women are antiques: dusty, hidden treasures, but for the smell of mothballs. They are lost in their bones, hands that detour, divert around a mosquito bite they can’t quite locate. They must have a hard time with maps like her. One girl is the border patrol. Her head bobbles a full-on affirmative every time the therapist speaks. She writes in a notebook as though the circumference of her being will slip away if she doesn’t frame it in print. One girl verges on a barbed fence of tears that rim her weary, pink eyes. The therapist begins another landmark statement on how to climb over the so-called ‘dead limbs’ that have stifled them in their past and mark their new terrain, piss on it. One girl’s perimeter closes into a knife of a smile as pee that was in her bladder changes its mind and sucks back into her kidneys.
The therapist says they are going to perform some exercises. The first exercise is to stake the fence. When he gets too close they should say ‘stop’, but not just some half-assed stop, more like screeching up to a yellow light just as it turns red instead of a stop sign. He says, hold up your hand, belt it out. He lays his hairy fingers, spread eagle, on his belly and blasts it out in operatic baritone. STOP! Bark it out like a dog protecting his territory, he says. The women stare at him. He paces back and forth, his storm cloud getting larger as his gestures bank the walls of any frontier, conducting an explosive outpost that frightens Beth as she battles the inner prison that withers her. Don’t be shy, he says. This is a safe place to explore those core emotions of rage, grief and fear. He lifts his tufted knuckles, curls them at the group, lifts his chin and howls. The women snicker and wheeze on either side of Beth. A strange sound like a person dying gurgles from her throat. Okay, the therapist says. Who’s going to go first? Border patrol is still writing notes. The rest of them look around the radius of the group without making eye contact. They remain still, sacks of rice. The massive room smells of unwashed bodies and terror. The therapist lifts his impressive eyebrows, beastly strands long enough to cover the empty patch where a hairline should have been, and studies each one of them. Come on, ladies. This is going to change your lives, he says as he claps. The eyebrows waver.
I remember I was scared shitless, walking on the ice across Lake Michigan in the middle of February with my friend, Joyce, and my little sister, Eliza. We followed Joyce’s rocky lead as she screeched at us, ‘It’s going to change your life.’ Something her dad always said. He was a fat, old lawyer with a swollen face and body, mean as hell. “You,” he’d say, pointing at me. “What are you going to do? Make pancakes for the rest of your life or become something?” I didn’t know what he meant. My mom made my pancakes. I was only twelve at the time. What was I going to do? Probably die before I got to high school hanging out with his daughter. Joyce had dared me to jump across three-story roofs, pretend I was blind, run into people on the street, shoplift and once I even stole a hubcap off of a cop car just to hear her frantic high-pitched giggle. God, I loved her.
Beth’s hand raises itself slowly like some fucking flag on the Fourth of July.
Great, come on up, says the therapist. Her head shakes as she takes her place beside the excited man and looks out at an expanse of glassy eyes that flicker in and out of vision. He smells better than he looks; some kind of incense permeates him. She wonders if he’s a Buddhist. Remember, this is about boundaries. Is there anyone in your life that you haven’t been able to say no to? Was he kidding her with this? She nods, hears that demented cackle of Joyce’s again. Okay, she says. Let’s do this.
The therapist walks away from Beth across the wood floor. He is talking as he recedes. Try to visualize that person in your mind. Forget about everything else. She hears scratch marks of Border Patrol’s pen. The rest of them barely breathe. When he is around 50 feet away from Beth he stops, turns toward her. Her heart palpates around the periphery of the building as she huddles inside the fog of her body. She can’t feel her feet under her when this man starts to run.
Joyce pushes me, giggling, and I push Eliza. “Come on,” Joyce says, “let’s get to Michigan.” It’s all thunder. Blinding acres of white sky and storm sheen glazed ice as far as I can see and I’ve got the whole day to get to Michigan. I’m an explorer. Few have barely touched the frozen shoreline and never come close to passing the buoy. The three of us are well beyond that. Eliza is all breath, complacency and silence in her shiny parka and matted hood. Joyce and I don’t wear hats. We stuff them in our pockets as soon as we are past parental range. Joyce’s ears are purple rafts on either side of her white pigtails. I can’t feel my ears, and snot has frozen little spitballs in my nose. The wind is one long, empty moan. Everything is glass, muffled grunts, moldering dead fish and wind that feels like it could gut me. I see some jaggedy, thin spots of ice that look like you could fall right through. Joyce talks but her words are weathered blind. We are in Antarctica, the lone survivors of a ship caged in and swallowed by two icebergs. We are down to two Snickers bars, a pack of Doublemint gum, and four Kents I swiped from Mom’s purse. We will have to eat snow when we are thirsty. The globe is all-invading and disfigured. I wonder if we should turn back. It’s a long way back to land. Eliza hasn’t said a word. She looks numb. There are no curves except Joyce’s mouth, still a dripping stalactite of gutted insults. Patsy wets her bed; Ellen has like fifty teeth in her mouth, have you noticed? Jesus. And Cynthia? You think her or her brothers know anything about soap? Joyce keeps tabs on her traitors. They rarely thwart her, but the worst actually have the nerve to ignore her. She is her own continent.
I hear the crack. Eliza drops like the branch of a tree. She is under ice. I scream, grab at her sleeve with the red mitten dangling from its clip. Her face is murky and gray under frozen water. I see bubbles. I bite my tongue until it bleeds, catch a hold of her parka and pull. A sagging handful of blue cloth breathes the air, steam rises off of it as the face beneath fogs into quivering ripples. The reek of black, stagnant water and the poison stillness gasps as the water starts to win. The blue coat is heavier, darker, slithers between my throbbing, pathetic grip. Eliza echoes from the shores of Chicago all the way to Michigan over and over. Eliza, I scream, but there is no world out there that answers back. Is she okay? Joyce asks. I look up into a splotchy red, under-animated face.
The man breathes hard in front of me. Why didn’t you say stop? he asks. The man sighs as if I’m an imbecile. Didn’t you hear my instructions? Why didn’t I say stop? Why did I ever go? I slap him hard across the face. Red garnishes the surface across his cheek.
The stifled room begins to erupt. Ladies unchain from whatever hems them in. They jump up, growl and yell. Beth sees their mouths open, one cavernous hollow that will never be filled. They’re all hopped up on adrenaline surging new life into them. Beth is feeling it, too. She can hear curses pelting her as she staggers out the door.
Eliza was only seven when she drowned. The splintered parts of Beth scream for vodka. She still hears rumbling, animated voices coming from inside the seminar. She sits down on the bench, studies the crowd of shoes, picks out purple sandals with some jewels on top and a two-inch heel that actually fit. To hell with the ratty, gray slippers. She buckles up these beauties and admires them. Maybe a pedicure would help. She gets up and wobbles off to the Owl Liquor store trying to remember how to walk in heels over concrete, click, click, wobble, wobble.
Beth buys ten tiny airplane size bottles and loads her purse with them. No matter who’s behind the counter, Beth is told that the larger bottles are much cheaper. She’s not an idiot. Hide the evidence. She knows she will drown, as well.