I traded one form of insulation for another.
My best friend Jenna became Queen of the Geese in college.
This was not a nickname either kind or cruel or arbitrarily granted. This was and is her title which she won in single-dance-combat with the King of the Geese one balmy night at Gazebo Isle on the shores of Radio Springs.
This sounds absurd but I assure you every word I’m about to say is the truth. I know because I was there.
It was the middle of spring. The best time to be in northern Missouri when the nights are just starting to get warm and muggy but not too buggy and magnolias blooming with flowers the size of your face and honeysuckle bushes full of bees from sunup to sunset when, if you were lucky, you might catch a lightning bug or three if the weather was warm enough.
Right at sunset, when the sun was low over the corn and highway, if you watched closely enough you could see spiders making their webs in the tops of the hedges. Spiders with bellies bigger than grapes floating through the air. They would never quite touch the founder of our college; a hundred-twenty years dead and she still did her rounds in the evenings making sure we weren’t out and about up to no good in the twilight. Half-corporeal she was fond of long skirts and stationary — more than once I woke up in short shorts with scratches down my legs from fingernails headed the wrong direction from my hands, had sticky notes come flying at my head from across the room if I put off homework too long.
Our founder minded us well. Taught us the important lessons. The spiders wouldn’t touch her.
Jenna and I didn’t go out right after sunset. Rather, we waited, wished for red wine where we had none, courted nervous breakdowns chasing the promise of final exams. That liminal week before commencement where the halls smelled of cardboard and lilacs, girl sweat and the bitter tang of packing ourselves into the basement for another summer at home. We were, succinctly, a hot mess.
We walked in flip flops and short cotton pajamas down to the lake in the close dark talking about our mothers. They were alike as Jenna and I were alike. Women who did not know how to love themselves and could not fathom why their daughters did not fill the void in their chests for them. Jenna and I grew a little crooked. Complementary. Strong. Strange. The crickets sang and in the dark up the hills bracketing the road leading ever downward toward the lake the deer hummed their quiet music to accompany our conversation. It was always a little like that late at night. None of the wildlife had the sense to sound atonal.
One o’clock in the morning saw us sitting on the low wall that marked the edge of Gazebo Island. Lit orange by a lonely street lamp, grass bridging toward cold with dew that shouldn’t have settled until dawn.
Jenna and I talked about lovers, and the geese began to gather. To listen. We talked about girls and boys. How they betrayed us, how we missed them anyway, how our hearts were eldritch things we did not quite understand but oh how there was so much we could give from them.
I don’t know when it got quiet. When the night insects ceased their music and the deer wandered off to sweeter grass. But I know when we decided it was too late to stay awake any longer, too late to justify the cost of the night spent out of bed at the expense of daylight hours in classes, socializing with those daywalking friends of ours– when we decided that, a goose sat between us and our only route of exit.
He was big. The size of my torso and worth slow roasting for Christmas dinner if you had to have a goose for Christmas dinner. We approached. He stood, feathers puffed in indignation, and gave a single warning flap.
I glanced to my left. Jenna had a look in her eye I couldn’t quite place– it wasn’t befuddlement, it wasn’t discomfort– it was intense and it worried me. She took half a step back.
“Do you want me to scare it off?” The goose was big but, I reasoned, running toward it shouting with my arms outstretched would be sufficient to frighten it off.
Jenna broke eye contact with the goose for just a moment. Shook her head. Declared in the most solemn tone: “Nah, I got this.”
Her posture shifted in a way that I can neither describe nor mimic bodily except to say that it was positively avian. The goose followed suit, bobbing his head in insult, summoning from the water hissing, feathered minions. We were outnumbered. Jenna had no patience for this– she doubled down, returning the insult with gusto, and advanced on the King of Geese.
With undulating, articulated steps in time to a wardrum only she could hear Jenna walked forth and with a mighty honk sent the King of Geese and all his court fleeing across the lake.
We stared after them in silence for no less than half a minute then burst into laughter.
“Does this mean you’re their queen now?”
We were troubled by geese no more on our nighttime adventures to the lake or anywhere else in town. In the act of crowning herself Jenna became known as the Queen of the Geese throughout the county. Geese on campus will nod and bow their respects when she passes to this very day.
The most brilliant woman to walk through the halls of my podunk women’s college was A– , a member of the Laguna Pueblo and Blackfeet tribes, if my memory serves. From the start she would proclaim this with the pride it deserved and from the start no fewer than half of us who heard it would look down on her as if she had taken from us something we should have had. The entitlement is strong among southern white girlchildren.
She was courage incarnate. Unafraid to attempt to expel nearly a dozen girls in one fell swoop for their racist parody script in Theater– they didn’t walk at graduation and their absence was marked by even the filthy rich donors, their sins made known through the almighty internet grapevine– while stubbornly double-majoring in English and Psychology and to top things off she had a baby her junior year, finished her degrees with a newborn on her hip.
“Grace” is too fragile a descriptor for this woman, let me tell you what.
Her family came together to bouey her. At least that’s how it appeared from the outside, from a distance, from my limited perspective hardly knowing her. They were on campus with hot food, with gifts, with affections. As guest speakers working to educate our sorry asses and as friends to those who were kind to their daughter. Even her boyfriend stayed at her side– I think in the end he married her. Oh how we lonely, unloved Others burned with envy, with jealousy, for what we thought we should have had. As if our wanting somehow warranted another’s deprivation. As if there should be a limit placed on the love in the world.
Last time I checked Facebook she was leaving Standing Rock– likely with her small human and family in tow. And to my classmates who sniffed in irritation every time we heard this woman proclaim her ancestry I have to ask, “What have we done since graduation?”
An ink-eater has a great number of thoughts about the systematic decline of the U.S. Education system and wants to talk about it. More below.
Down feathers– Not simply because of geese but because of the way the down feathers fall, flutter, and dance and the way you are so light on your feet without trying. I remember dancing with you one evening– I think you tried to teach me to swing or perhaps you were showing me your latest routine– whichever it was I could only think how lucky I was to see it. The arch of your foot, curved calves, magnificent thighs and the way those legs carried you without effort across the floor even though I knew how many hours, months, years, blood, sweat, tears of training went into every breath of movement–
Hailstones– You already know this one but you don’t know they remind me of your laugh. Hailstones on glass, bright and delicate in the middle of a storm, a startling and beautiful break from the gale that reminds us that there is far more out there than just thunder and fear. There is more to the symphony than the bass and the drums there is also the lone piccolo singing, flying above the rest of the din to carry the fugue and maybe it’s something of a fugue state that carries the audience somewhere else, somewhere new entirely to be someone new and isn’t that something? A new state of personhood just like that–
Dustmotes– You remind me, in quiet times, of dustmotes in sunbeams that would fall through the screen door of my grandmother’s house onto the dark-stained hardwood panel that marked off the entryway. That sacred space where we could give kisses and shrug off our days before giving way to rich, thick blue carpet, braced for family. The sun was such a dark gold I thought I could reach out and touch it; the dust would be velvet. You are those moments of stillness where we catch ourselves breathing and existing and it feels like someone has suddenly spotted us with our hand in the cookie jar but we’re grown ups so we know we’ve not done anything wrong at all it’s just old habit to pause and look over our shoulder, sheepishly smiling as if we are chagrined–
Spring grass– Specifically, the memory of lying on blankets in it when it has grown tall, tall, tall enough that lying on your belly makes it feel a bit like a forest if you pull your hat down low and listen to the wind and pretend. It helps if your best friend is lying nearby, not talking but breathing, too, quiet and present, like you are both creeping along on some adventure and trying not to be heard. It’s an illusion of course, a friendly one. All you have to do is roll over and it’s diminished in a wave of cool blanket on your back, hot sun on your belly, and the scent of grass on the wind– it’s itchy embrace kept safely away by the blankets. But your best friend is still there with her rockstar sunglasses, avoiding studying just as hard as you are, and all’s right with the world because it is spring and the sun is warm and the grass is tall.
I found religion in the heart of Missouri in August at a college populated by girls too smart or dumb or scared or queer to go anywhere else on a campus bisected by a highway frequented by drivers more than happy to run us down.
I never knew it could get so hot. Summer clinging close like that girlfriend or boyfriend or friend in high school who followed you around between classes and wrote you poetry about slipping into and under your skin that you thought was romantic and maybe illicit in a thrilling way instead of making you think of Ed Gein.
Sweat in places I forgot I had and heat rash forever breaking out red and cruel across the soft expanse of my inner thighs. Unforgiving wet heat. No fleet of box fans could move that heavy air. Secretly we all worried our hair would start to mildew– it never seemed to dry between showers.
The thermometer climbed so high the cicadas couldn’t stop screaming their protests. I took shifts with my suitemates in voluntary ice baths to keep the hysteria of heat stroke at bay. We didn’t go outside. The brave fought for prime real estate on granite bathroom tile or the cool marble of the parlor foyer, bare skin sticking to, warming the stone in exchange for a few minutes of bliss.
On a black day the cicadas fell silent. At dusk the storm hit. Without preamble or wind there came the rain sweeping across hot, soft asphalt and we followed like creatures possessed. Shedding sandals before the ground could cool. Careless feet running across concrete for the grass island before the chapel driveway. Shedding shirts to soak the downpour into our skin. Shedding skirts to move easier through the air and water. Shedding something we didn’t realize we carried until we set it down. Wave after wave of dancing girls screaming to the beat of thunder and strobing lightning laughing wet skin in the dark. Raging frolicking riding the wind and gale until our bones caught chills so deep we thought even Missouri couldn’t make us warm again.
Then, the clouds parted. The moon shone on the still debris: heaped, sopping clothes and naked girls breathless, dazed. The halls gave off their yellow glow and like moths we floated home.