Issue 35, Final Fringe

Liminality: A Life Study

by Allison Dziuba Issue 30 05.07.2012

1. THE DAY JOHANNA SWALLOWED THE WHALE
[We begin with the past tense] She lived a life created for another, stitched together from spare bits of muslin, gauze, and malachite. It stanched her wounds and glittered in the sun. But sometimes she stood, doubt tucked under her arms, because it had too many sharp edges to allow her to sit for any length of time.

There was no obvious reason why she was so distracted. Floor seams became dark streams, and she fixated on irregular creases in the curtains. She fidgeted, scratched; cobwebs danced across the ceiling fan.

And some days—like today—this life held her down. She stayed in bed, figuring that 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. are twins from the dark side of Daylight Savings. She rolled over once and got her hair caught on a bedpost splinter.

She fell in and out of sleep; she couldn’t kick the fog, the fine pistachio dust and the bag of empty shells. She imagined doing certain things (laundry, checking e-mail, sweeping the kitchen floor) then opened her eyes to find herself in the same place, never having moved.

Sometimes she dreamed/remembered: “Okay, children, you’re not to eat for a week,” the second grade teacher said pedantically, collecting that week’s book reports. “If you feel yourself start to falter, try chewing on an eraser.” Stranger stomach pangs and sticky bubblegum hands. The teacher clutched a lit cigarette between her fingers, but never once took a drag.

She learned somewhere dark and long ago that everything is coded; e.g., losing teeth indicates social anxiety.

She did finally get up: blue slippers on, hair uncombed. She walked around the backyard in careful concentric circles. She traced each patch of grass, every rough-hewn stone slab.

Dark circles under her eyes, she mentally drafted a personal mission statement: Establish a safe haven. But safe from what remained unclear. Deciding to hammer out the details later, she resolved to head back inside and drink for several hours.

[We suspect that the day dragged on] The sun had been down for the duration of dinner, dishes, and dessert. She again faced the prospect—as it raked windows and percolated up from her toes—of sleep, and, inside that, of unpredictable, skittering thoughts.

She bundled up her assorted fears in a checkered tablecloth, slung them over her shoulder. She squinted, turning her face away from the inhospitable glow of her desk lamp.

2. FROM THERE
[We suggest an alternate reading] She lived a life created for another, and she lived the negative of that life’s image. On occasion she caught glimpses of her profile in parked car windows: cheekbones became dark plains, hollows beneath eyes appeared as light-filled pools. She would turn her head, check the other side of her nose for symmetrical shading.

There were reasons for her detachment. Gaze cast down while passing the houses of people she knew; the bitter click of heels that only walked away. Painfully aware of her own elbows, she haggardly hurried home and cooked to fill up time.

But today it happened. Whispered smoldering trails curled their way into her hair, tickled the tops of her ears. They made her wonder: Who struck the match? What was the fire’s source? If she lived on the smoke side, then who was stoking the flame?

She learned once, by the dark spaces between stars, not to believe what one sees.

Between meals she avoided staring into the abyssal future. It read something to the effect: Thursday past look doesn’t and calendar a opens she. Morning next the up waking of gasp sudden the fears but sleep of Lethe the welcomes she night every. Drink stiff a: now right use could she what.

Slipping in and out of daydreams, she wondered if, wandering, a person might spontaneously find her way back to square one. Could the dark turn inside out and eject her onto the sidewalk? Would the pavement buckle, crack under her weight? Pregnant with unanswerables.

Eventually, she set out to roam the backyard. Swinging the door open, she found that the grass had grown to waist height and smelled strongly of primer paint. She considered the practical function of roots, but not too deeply as she had lentils on the stove.

Her pulse quickened while chopping carrots; inexplicable desperation where the salad dressing should be. The sun was setting at her back—dark to dark, where did the middle of the day go?

[We observe that little changed] Floorboards rippled, roared, creased the area rug. Her bathroom mirror glowed in the dark. With the dust of unuttered potentialities caking her tongue, she checked under the bed for promises.
Closing her eyes, she decided that tomorrow would be a good day for groceries. Steam rolled out of the left corner of her mouth. Feathers flapped at the window, and, outside of that, recursive silence.

3. IN WHICH NO RUMORS ARE DISPELLED AND NO PARTICULAR TRUTHS ARE BROUGHT TO LIGHT
[Let’s listen in] The interviewer, presumably from Cosmopolitan Better Homes and Gardens TIME, sits at the mahogany table, taxidermy gazelle moose reindeer heads mounted on the wall behind. Johanna, dressed sharply in the grimaces of inevitability, slouches.
     I: Did you just cough?
     J: And I spat green and blue. I raged. I crashed—intentionally?—into the corn  snake’s glass enclosure. I fixated on the spines rising up vertically behind the walls.  But I’m all done with that now.
Interviewer glances nervously at the corn snake in question, but all seems to be contained.
     I: Why has nothing ever belonged to you?
     J: I am an animal. I AM an animal. I am an ANIMAL. I repeat the phrase  compulsively, trying it on, positioning the sleeves and the hem differently each   time and parading around in front of the fitting room mirror. I don’t care when  others (I am AN animal) see me. They do it, too, you know.
Interviewer frowns and wonders if perhaps the location choice—the zoo’s educational center for school groups—was ill-advised.
     I: What thought carried you out the door today?
     J: It’s a strange thing to be no longer a child but to be forever someone’s child.
     I didn’t know what to make of that, so I just stood in front of the chinchillas’ cage  and watched the male run around the wheel.
Interviewer shifts in the chair, guesses that this transcript will eventually get edited out before the issue goes to print.
     I: What does refuge look like?
     J: Sheep in a glass box. No, just the one sheep. I don’t even—

4. ATOPIA
[We offer some fragments] She couldn’t shake the susurrating suspicion that the best she could hope for was stasis.

Jolted awake at 2 a.m.; this thought punctured/punctuated her sleep.

Night             The sound repeating, reverberating in her ears, alternately
amplified       Cold         and muffled, until the words ceased to hold any
significance.
Night           Cramped into a corner of the full-sized mattress, she
listened to   Cold        her heartbeat as it drummed, undeterred by the dark,
through her Night          skull. Measured, deafening rhythm of word and
blood. She was       Cold     bound up in the thudding, a meter she
couldn’t unlock.

She tried making lists.
apples oranges grapefruit spinach tomatoes parmesan mozzarella baking soda
flour sugar frozen waffles frozen bagels frozen peas frozen carrots frozen mini
pizzas frozen steaks
shade shadow umbra dimness adumbration obscuration cover gloom darkness
shelter

And debris continued to swirl around her ankles, fibrous torrents gradually engulfing her from foot to head.

She determined that there were simply too many angles, hard edges. Not enough malleable building material to shape a safe haven (safe from what).

5. DISTILL, DISTILLING, DISTILLED
[We consider a parable] There once was a young woman to whom everything imaginable happened precisely because these things were imagined. She had dry hands.

She lived a life created for another and became accustomed to drenching the pith of her hours in routine in shadow in trepidation. And she had every reason to know the days of the week, but could never manage to name them in the proper order.

Today—whatever day—she woke up to splinters of sunlight and a bloody nose. Something urgent pressed against the backs of her teeth; stringy, it got caught in between molars. The air rippled, undulated, made her skin itch.

Pulling on a bathrobe, she determined that not much was to be done apart from making coffee.

The newspaper radio television was of course brimming with admissions/admonitions; she held a spoon in her mouth as though to shield its delicate ears. She tried to recall her dreams and to negotiate the steep gradients and hidden driveways of the rest of the day.

Anticipation wiped the morning’s misty bliss from around her eyes. Years ago she learned, from the marginalia in a used book, that the substance of a person’s life is largely peripheral.

If you met her, you might comment on her gazeless stare, the way her toes inch toward the door even as she says “hello.” A few polite sentences might crease her lips; perhaps she would shrug sheepishly if you asked about her plans. She waives her rights to intimacy before she turns to wave “good-bye.” If you saw her in a mirror as she walked away, you might see a silver thought flash across her face then dissipate along her scalp.

It has been said that to understand just one life, a person has to swallow the world. If you were to notice her frequent labored sighs, the papery lines around her eyes, you would know that she was taking it in bites.

[We end with the present] She gives the green bean casserole a meaningful look and says, “I’ve been thinking for a long while now, and I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Allison Dziuba

Allison Dziuba

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Allison Dziuba will graduate from Brown University at the end of May with B.A.s in Literary Arts and in Gender & Sexuality Studies. The future world is an immense, beautiful and terrifying oyster. Over the past few years, she has worked as a Writing Fellow and at the university Women’s Center. She is originally from Connecticut.