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Entries in kara vanderbijl (70)

Friday
Sep202013

In Which This Pencil Gets Sharper With Time

Marie

by KARA VANDERBIJL

This is how I learned to be angry. It was like connecting dots in tightening concentric circles until I reached the bullseye, using a pencil that gets sharper instead of duller with time. 

First, I had to hate a place. Have you done this before? Hating a place displaces the hatred you have been taught you are not allowed to feel ever since you were in white Sunday-school shoes. Hating a place takes the white-hot lava of anger inside of you and erupts it into the far reaches of the Milky Way. You will feel it with a telescope. You will feel it groping around in the dark.

The place I hated was a small farmhouse in a small town outside of San Antonio in the big state of Texas. I hated the way that the road you take off the highway ended at this house. I hated the way that drivers had to be careful not to go too fast down this road, or else barrel into the small farmhouse or into one of the trees beside it. I hated the chain-link fence around it and I hated the garden hose hanging off its left side like an open artery and I hated the road that curls away from it into the countryside. I hated the big field behind it and the rusty tractor parts lying in the tall grass around it. I hated the old sash windows and the way they rattled during big Texas sky thunderstorms. 

This farmhouse was my friend Marie's home and in the summer after our sophomore year of college she invited me to come stay there with her. I did not have enough money to go to my own half-home half-not halfway across the world and I did not think I could find a job in the state of California. I was promised that the big state of Texas did in fact offer jobs to blonde college sophomores. I was also promised crushed ice in Sonic drinks and hill country and deep nights. "We are going to be happy this summer," Marie said to me as we waited unhappy for our plane. 

We had a layover in Las Vegas. As we sipped Dr. Pepper's, I watched people play the slot machines. 

At first it seemed like we might be happy. Marie's father, a big Texas man, picked us up at the airport in cowboy jeans. He had an intimidating mustache but a kind smile and deep leather skin. His eyes were diamond blue. He drove us to the small farmhouse just outside of San Antonio in a large black sports utility vehicle that was pristine inside. The large black sports utility vehicle was almost bigger than the small farmhouse; it swallowed up the driveway and the canned burnt air-conditioning smell. Marie warned me about centipedes as we crossed the gravel to the kitchen door, which faced the main road. This was the door we used, and it was almost always open during the day; the front door sealed shut like a mouth in the front room, behind the corner of a chair, the end of a piano. 

From front to back: a tiny hot kitchen, syrupy sweet tea bubbling on the stove; the parlor, with high school pictures of Marie and her two older brothers hanging on the walls; a tiny hot hallway, off of which there was an office and the master bedroom; a narrow bathroom papered with magenta rosebuds; and Marie's room, in the back of the house, next to the enclosed back porch. 

Her day bed was sunken soft in the middle and she sunk softly into it, her face tired, gray. I didn't ask her how she was feeling then, or even later when she chose to stay in bed instead of eat chicken and cheesy broccoli and corn out of can around the table with her parents and myself, the stranger, while the old house hummed. "Marie, come out and eat," her mother drawled. A centipede scuttled underneath the furnace in the darkening hallway. 

The next morning, Marie was sick. She got up before the house and I heard her retching in the bathroom over the whir of the window air-conditioner in her bedroom. I lay stiffly on the trundle and listened to her cough and sputter. When she came back, hugging her tummy, she whispered in a tight, hoarse voice, "I'm so sick." She lay on her belly and turned her gray face to the wall. It was Memorial Day, and hot. 

Later, her mother came in. "Marie," she said, "Wake up. Wake up, it's time to get ready. Remember, you have to sing at the ceremony today." 

"I'm sick," said Marie's voice from under the covers.

Her mother shook her shoulder. "Marie, they will be so disappointed if you don't come. Now, get up and get ready. Is it something you ate? You know you're not supposed to eat cheese. You ate some of that cheese, didn't you? Well, that was your choice. Now get up. It's time to get ready." 

Marie protested, weak voice growing angry, desperate under the covers; when her mother finally left the room, she said, "I'm not making excuses for you," and slammed the door. 

While Marie stayed in bed I went to the ceremony at the cemetery and listened to another woman sing the National Anthem to dead men and listened to a speech about how America is the best country in the world. Marie's dad fired a gun into the air alongside three other men.

I thought about Marie, about the disease that like a worm was eating her up inside and making her sick. I thought about the classes she'd missed over the course of the semester and how her lips turned blue sometimes and how her arms were thin because the nutrients from her food never really made it into her bloodstream. I thought about how she said she'd had this condition since she was five years old and that no matter how many doctors shook their heads and said the word "incurable", her mother wouldn't believe it, wouldn't accept that it wasn't something her daughter was doing on purpose. 

I'd heard Marie throw up before, I'd heard the strangled noise she made and the way she didn't complain about it, only lay on her belly and waited until the nausea and the pain passed. I waited for Marie's mother to acquiesce, to look up one day as we sat uncomfortably in the parlor, glasses of sweet tea sweating rings onto the side tables, to say, "I've done you so much wrong," but in the morning she put her hands on Marie's shoulders and shook her on the sunken day bed until Marie turned around to yell. The screen door popped shut as I left the house to run. 

The road that curled away from the old farmhouse shimmered in the heat as I ran. My thighs shook as I ran. I pumped my arms backwards and forwards. The sun was yellow and bright already at nine in the morning, hot, and my music seared my ears. I walked the last half-mile back to the house, from the old tree on the corner. A few hundred yards from the house, I heard a high shrill noise, just a pitch lower than the hum you sometimes hear lifting off electric fences. I thought it was an echo from the interstate, or maybe a television turned too loud, until the pitch deepened into a throaty sob and I knew Marie and her mother were screaming at each other. 

I sat on the little step outside the kitchen screen door and waited, sweaty, until I heard the back screen door pop shut and Marie's sniffles as she moved through the backyard. I waited a few more minutes and then walked inside. Marie's mother was sitting in the parlor turning the pages of a book, her glasses on the end of her nose. She looked like she'd been sitting there for days. A glass of sweet tea was sweating on the side table next to her, the ice cubes melting. 

The sink was full of dishes; I silently filled it with soapy water and scrubbed until my hands were red and raw. 

As the summer grew deeper the fights grew louder and my hands got chapped from doing the dishes. One night, Marie was sobbing in her room after a fight with her father and as she swallowed hard she told me that she'd gone outside to get away from his yelling and he'd followed her and turned on the hose and sprayed her in the face so she'd stop crying. And then she told me how when she'd been small he'd duct-taped her mouth shut so she couldn't talk back. I held her as she cried, small, gray, frail, and I felt my insides crumble. I cried, too, and it was the first time I ever cried for somebody else. 

The next morning, at church, I listened to a woman tell Marie's mother how brave she was, how hard it must be to have a child so ill, how sacrificing she was. I escaped to a stall in the bathroom and sat for a long time and felt my insides churning, the anger growing like a worm, eating me from the inside out. 

But it wasn't the drunk brother, discharged from the Army, who'd sat on her and tickled her until she cried from pain as a child, who now twisted her arm sharply behind her back as a greeting, who made me angry; it wasn't her father, who came to me meekly on evenings when she escaped the house for a long drive in the dark country night and explained to me how he was worried about her, how he just wanted her to listen, who made me angry, it wasn't her mother standing at the stove stirring the sweet tea brewing like everything was fine, who made me angry. It was the people around them, the people who saw everything and then turned a blind eye, the people who heard what had happened and rationalized, justified. It was the people who said, "Honor your parents." 

When Marie and I finally left the small farmhouse, a few weeks later, it was to housesit for people who hadn't cleaned their large suburban kitchen for months. Spaghetti sauce stains spattered across white cabinet doors. Cockroach corpses littered the stairwell. We drank Dr. Pepper's and watched reality television and I thought for what seemed like the thousandth time that summer why life couldn't be as easy as loose ends neatly tied up, as purging when you've bitten off more than you can chew. Marie wasn't sick at the house, not at all, even when she ate a little bit of cheese.

When I left Texas that summer I thanked Marie's parents because they had put a roof over my head and cheesy broccoli on my plate. I hugged Marie goodbye and told her to call if things got really bad and told her again gently that I thought she should take her brother's car and drive away, far away, as far as she could go. She said she might but I also knew she needed them to pay her school bills that year and that after that she'd be free and it made me feel angry sick inside to know she thought an education that'd eventually get her far away from them was worth this, these sharp diamond blue eyes, this woman silently standing at the stove stirring sweet tea. 

When Marie passed away, a year after graduation, it was from complications from her illness. Still, I wrote a letter to her parents telling them everything I had seen and heard, telling them that no matter what they thought of themselves, that I knew the truth. I learned to be angry when I learned that the world still protects the powerful. I learned to be angry like you learn to love: by discovering that there are things that defy logic.

You can see them with a telescope. You can feel them groping around in the dark.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about her summer. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Puerto Rico" - SPL (mp3)

"Drop" - SPL (mp3)

The new EP from Sam Pool, The Baleric Bass EP, was released on September 3rd.


Thursday
Sep052013

In Which This Is A Portrait Of Our Summer

Prompt

by KARA VANDERBIJL

It was summer; we feasted.

I took up drinking coffee so there would be no tea leaves to read. I spent hot afternoons fielding prophecies of the future. As butter melted in the hollow of a skillet, I thought no further ahead than what it would taste like in my morning eggs. Big things happened when I stopped blaming my circumstances for my unhappiness. For one thing, I got mono. I raged against the quiet windows, the kind flowers, the soft bland flood of my convalescence. When all of that broke, I had broken too, into subdued pieces, a child with an appetite only for milk and manna.

J said, “I could cook for you every night.” I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d been visited by an angel. Octopus tendrils trailed off the fork, doused in spicy tomato sauce. The brine of it on my tongue reminded me of my childhood by the sea. Aren’t we all prophets of the impossibilities of our youth?

The French poet Baudelaire uses the word “spleen” to describe a particular melancholy, a gray mood brought on by the dirt of Paris and the rotting carcass of a dog. With the onset of infectious mononucleosis, lymphocytes abound in the bloodstream. The liver and spleen are tender and enlarged. When the doctor pressed her fingers into the skin beneath my ribcage and told me she couldn’t feel my spleen, I laughed. My mouth was dry. Later, I lay in a bath so hot that red flowers bloomed on my legs.

I decided not to be suspicious. I wanted to enjoy things with the innocent fervor that assigns a mythical quality to even the most basic things. I wanted to believe in basic good, in excitement, in childlike wonder. I wanted to change, to become the prompt for a better story.  

Illness was a big frame for the small, stifled narrative I’d built into myself, the lie I had told myself: “You are better off alone.” There were ins and outs to my physical failings that I couldn’t predict. One morning after a shower I sat next to the toilet and dry-heaved before tremblingly climbing back into bed, hair sopping, the damp spreading in waves across two pillows. J whispered to me, concerned.  A good friend sat with me at my sickest and read Mary Oliver poems out loud while I sobbed. I was weak. It takes the bigness of a sickness to belittle you, sometimes, when you’ve made yourself grand and others small, when you’ve let a lie swallow you whole and chew you up.

I slept very deeply when I did sleep, and waking up felt like breaking the surface of a viscous, tepid pond. I did not dream.

J told me about his dreams and about his father. I cried and touched his hand. We shared a cigarette on his back porch at the time of summer night when the air is thick and warm and purple. I had to wash it from my hair afterwards. I fell into dozes on the dark, oblong couch in his living room, while he cooked me noodles with butter and freshly ground pepper.

I never considered the space between two people as a safe place to rest. I had always trusted my surroundings to save me from the people in my life: a forest to envelop the wolves, a house with a picket fence to be home when mother and father’s arms weren’t long enough to reach. But you can move from forest or glen or house; you can’t move from your own blood that teaches you to care even when you think you can’t. Welling up within me was the grace that knew I’d be hurt and the grace that somehow still wouldn’t expect to be hurt. They fought gently.

When it came time, I purchased eucalyptus and hydrangea to mourn my girlhood. I said goodbye with tears. I have always believed in making one’s life a sacred space, in dragging out ornaments and holy oils to mark the demise of something in favor of something else. Even the happiest things hurt.

I didn’t read much. I was too distracted, and there were not many books readily at my fingertips. Like talismans, I’ve always trusted them to take me to who I need to become. But instead of this looking-forward I got caught up in the poetry of the present. It was too beautiful to abandon for even a small amount of time. I sat for long quiet periods, nothing to occupy me, without restlessness. After my recovery, the importance of cultivating an inner serenity seemed paramount.

This summer, Presence was my Holiest idea. Like bread and wine, it’s an old thing that has been made to look simple in the light of new spells. But I won’t take an hour-long half-glance for an instant-long hold of your fingers, for your kiss goodbye after breakfast, all of it bacon and sunshine and whatever other crumbs we’ve been leaving behind to find our way back to one another.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about how to become a foodie. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Here's Where The Story Ends" - The Sundays (mp3)

"You're Not The Only One I Know" - The Sundays (mp3)

Thursday
Aug152013

In Which We Ask If You're Still Doing All Right Over Here

Fast Foodie            

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Yesterday your palate was as sophisticated as a half-eaten Hot-N-Ready® pizza and a flat Red Bull. Yesterday your palate was wearing sweatpants and double-fisting Ben & Jerry’s and episodes of Breaking Bad. But today, you’re going out to eat. You may be meeting friends for lunch, taking someone to dinner, or grabbing brunch before a jaunt at a modern art gallery. Needless to say, your palate needs to update its resumé. Today we give you a few tips on how to become a foodie, fast.

Self-deprecation. Nothing is more pretentious than someone who claims to have always had stellar taste in food. Describe the joy with which you ate the McRib in your youth. Refer to your past self as an “Olive Garden-variety eater”. Then, wink at the waiter and order something involving paté.

Notice the location. Every self-respecting foodie knows that the atmosphere lends as much to the experience of the meal as the food itself. Say, “I really love this space.” Elements to be admired: exposed brick walls, naked light bulbs, ambivalent industrial fixtures. Elements to be derided: menus not printed in typewriter font, flowers that aren’t in mason jars, a lack of cork sculptures.

Think small. You may have grown up going to restaurants with confused medieval decor and Grecian-inspired menus that spanned twenty or more pages. You may have fallen prey to television advertisements promising juicy lobster, sizzling steaks, and reduced-price appetizers. It was entirely possible to receive not only a bowl of popcorn as a free starter but also a basket containing various kinds of carbohydrates. Your meal came on a plate as big as a pizza pan, and you did not share. Those days are over. You will learn to navigate plates smaller than those on which toddlers receive their evening portion. “Small plates” will offer you four bites of something doused in balsamic vinegar that costs $12. Never mind. It has a “surprising flavor.” This will be your mantra.

Drink slowly. And heavily. Grab a Bud Light at one of these places and you’ll be thrown out or looked on as an immaturely ironic hipster. No, it’s to the mixologist you must go, which he’ll call himself, even though he’s just a bartender dressed in an unironic beard and cryptic arm tattoos. Keep a straight face while he tells you that yes, the rosemary is organic, it’s grown right in the back alley.

Know your oil. E.V.O.O. isn’t a new FDA certification, it’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You will refrain from mentioning the adulteration of olive oil in Europe as you pepper it expertly and dip your perfectly toasted bread into it. You have two options with truffle oil: go along with the con of faux luxury, or educate your peers. Either way, you will often find yourself in front of a giant plate of fries doused in the stuff. It’s also in the pasta, the aioli and the salad dressing. Great news, everyone! Truffles are now so abundant that we’re just throwing them in the condiments.

Story time. There comes a time in every server’s life, especially if he or she started out by wearing orthopedic shoes and throwing $5 Applebees apps in front of drunk college students, when they can get revenge tenfold against the nibbling, “dressing on the side” masses. It’s called reading the menu. They’ll do this with an aching precision, asking after each section whether or not you have any questions, if you’re doing okay, if everything is still all right over here. They’ll leave a full bottle of water on the table for you to use at your leisure, and will still stop by every three minutes to refill glasses you’ve barely sipped out of, all in the name of protecting the nebulous 20% tip that will pay their rent. Do them (and yourself) a favor: listen to them. Indulge them. That we as a foodie culture have managed to lasso an entire population of the workforce with such fear of losing a few extra dollars on the bottom of a damp receipt at the end of a boozy night is a crime worthy of severe punishment. I vote that the offenders sit in a dark room and have their unfavorable Yelp reviews read into their ear at a deafening decibel.

Brunch is your safe word.  Food-wise, brunch is nothing but the breakfast you had time to make because you didn’t press snooze three times before getting ready in five minutes and going to work. The power of brunch is in the idea that those who eat it belong to an exclusive club of people who wear J. Crew and get up late because they spent all night partying, drinking pricey cocktails and most likely eating fine foods that will show up in a different form on their brunch plate. When you text, “Brunch?” to your friends at an acceptable hour on Saturday morning you can all for one moment believe you belong to that club.

Fads. You’ll want to log into Pinterest at some point and check out what hybrid freak of nature desserts are stirring people into a frenzy these days. Don’t.

Purism. Long ago, a man was judged by the content of his character, then by the car in his garage, and now he’s judged by the contents of his plate (and if we’re being really honest, the contents of the contents of his plate.) You may have been wondering why your coworker is staring you down while you pop your sad pocket change into the vending machine at work. “Ugh,” she says, “don’t you know that granola bar is full of chemicals?” The correct answer to this and all other similar questions is, “Oh, I know. It’s my guilty pleasure.” Guilty pleasure will let you get away with bathing in a tub full of high fructose corn syrup with an aspartame syringe shoved up your arm. Guilty pleasure will save you from judgment when you’re caught by your roommate with your arm covered in Cheeto dust. Guilty pleasure will shield you with invisibility when you find yourself in the suburbs drinking a blue raspberry margarita at Chili’s.  Use it wisely, though, because it’s only guilty if it’s rare. 

Kara Vanderbijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about manual labor. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


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