We stopped short. There should have been a cartoon-style skidding sound for how short we stopped. A guy was sprawled face-down on the ground, white Chiclets scattered around him like dice. His body was limp under a hoodie and jeans, like he was wasted.
“Daaaaamn.” Kira was from Kentucky and had a light drawl that I envied. Over the past year I’d started saying girl a lot and stretching out my damns. It helped me sound casual. More my age.
“You think he’s okay?” I asked. This was too serious to end with girl.
We inched closer. His clothes were clean—I could smell the fabric softener. He was sort of tan, with straight black hair. You could only see an ear and part of his neck. The Chiclets turned out to be teeth, their saw-ends fresh and angry. I glanced up the side wall of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, looking for—I don’t know—blood? A maniacally laughing killer? Harlan Hatcher himself, opening the gates of the spirit world? But the looming stories of monographs were as impervious as ever.
“He looks Asian.” Kira was half Asian herself and always wanted to know who else was.
I shrugged. I mostly worried about who was brown. Lots of people in Ann Arbor were— just not my kind of brown.
“Girl, we gotta call someone.”
I took my wallet out of my backpack and started rifling around for change.
“911 is free.”
“Oh. Right.” I swallowed hard, tasting the falafel I had just scarfed.
She dropped her backpack and ran off. With her textbooks weighing down my toes, I looked the kid over. So this was death: slack and damp, a few ants nudging the perimeter. He was fair game to them now, a thing to be landed on and dragged away. No more sucking in or controlling your bladder, no more making sure nothing was showing when you bent over.
I crouched next to him. Did he have time to feel it? Did he lie there alive for a second? Was it a relief? He was in the shade, and the pavement was cool as a basement. The basement always felt good this time of year: dark, quiet, ten degrees cooler. That was how I liked to think of death. Like going inside from a hot, rowdy day.
I wasn’t taking summer classes, but I’d been doing a lot of reading. Monographs about funerary customs and mourning and preparing for the afterlife. I was an Anthro major—freshly declared—so I knew where to find them in the stacks. On one of the floors this kid had just fallen past. I shivered for a second, chilled by the shadow of the Grad.
You have time, my mom had said. Ten years, fifteen. And then, all conspiratorial, like we were comparing notes on our periods: You start shaking and your muscles lock up and you choke to death. I’d thought of the three boys down the street who had muscular dystrophy. All the neighbors called their mom a “saint” but pretended not to see her when she wheeled her sons down the driveway. My mom had interrupted me: This thing isn’t muscular dystrophy. She didn’t say what the thing was.
My eyes flicked back over the kid. I wished he’d had The Sorrows of Young Werther in his pocket or a t-shirt that said Fuck ______ (fill in the blank with whatever or whomever needed to be fucked) or at least that he’d been wearing all black. It was somehow more depressing that he had on fresh khakis and a button-down shirt like a regular guy. There was a little pimple on the back of his neck with a red, slanted line through it. Probably from a fingernail. I do the same thing when I read, feeling for little raised bumps and slicing them open. In a week, the scab would have fallen off in the shower.
My friend Arielle had had a cut when she died too. I had given her one of my Sesame Street Band-Aids—ironic, of course—to wrap around her finger. She had it on when she was shot. I know because they showed her after, covered with a sheet. Mostly covered. From the second I took that Band-Aid out of the box, it was destined to end up in the trash at the O’Brien and Sullivan Funeral Parlor. “Destined” is a dumb way to put it, though. I mean that was its eventual fate, but we didn’t know it at the time. I don’t think there’s a word for that, at least not in English.
No one wants to admit that dead people will turn into something else, like a stump that gets covered with mushrooms and breaks down into soil. But I liked the idea. After however long it took for the embalming to wear off, Arielle would start sinking into the ground, taking the little sliver on her finger with her.
I looked around. People over on State Street were disappearing into the Union or the bus, oblivious. If a kid jumps off a building and no one hears…, I thought.
No one had. And before I knew what I was doing, my hand floated down and closed over a little cluster of his teeth. I looked away as I did it, casual as hell, like I was just picking up some change I’d dropped. I watched the bus woof away and shook the teeth in my palm, making soft, beady clicks. The enamel was oily, as if he had just finished eating. Maybe he had. I wondered if we’d walked by him on his way to his last sandwich or burrito or whatever.
Kira ran back out, raver pants flapping on her calves. I stood and raised my hand to her, still closed over the teeth.
His name was Chris, we learned later. He had lived on the floor above us in Couzens Hall, drifting over our heads all year, unheard. He had a single room, like Kira and me. He’d left his backpack on a table in the North Stacks, then climbed the stairs all the way to the roof.
I imagined leaving my own bag behind, full of makeup and library books and punch cards from restaurants. I would keep it in mind.
No one believes my mom just blurted it out. They picture some after-school movie where a mother and daughter walk through a flower-strewn cemetery and the mom makes it all beautiful and says they get to be angels before their time or some other sympathy-card bullshit. I understand being skeptical—mothers are supposed to want to take a bullet for their kids. They’re supposed to say I wish it was me when their kid gets diagnosed with leukemia.
Not my mom. She likes to tell me she gave up her career for me, like she was some sleek urban type with a chignon and a briefcase. What she really did before me was bounce from job to job, screwing up and blaming it on sexual harassment so that my dad wouldn’t tell her to just tough it out. She has the worst work ethic I’ve ever seen. She can’t drag the vacuum over the floor two feet without stopping to complain about how heavy it is or how much her back hurts or how she’s not in the mood. I can’t imagine her ever changing a diaper—not that I want to think about that.
The first thing everyone says is She can’t be that bad. Even Kira did the first time my mom told me to pack up my stuff because she was pulling me out of school. Kira walked in when I was stuffing my clothes into garbage bags and told me I must have heard wrong. No one paid tuition for exactly one and a half semesters and then dragged their little Dean’s Lister home. But my parents did, bags and all, and my mom kept them locked in her closet with my books all weekend. She only let me go back at the last minute on Sunday night, after I begged her, on my knees. The knees were her idea. I crammed in the car on the way back up and still aced my Chinese and Psych quizzes. I made Kira help me fold everything back up and put it away.
Adam said the same thing when I told him, over a fat joint, how I’d awakened to a loud snip and my mom standing over me with scissors and a chunk of my severed hair. No way, he said, even when I showed him the chopped-off spot.
But they learned. They all met her, sooner or later. Or talked to her. Everyone had to go through her to get to me. That was the set-up. After years of missteps, I knew how to survive. And that was even before I knew that surviving was what I was doing.
The first rule: write nothing down, and keep nothing anyone writes to you. Even something benign like a Christmas card will get you in trouble if it suggests that you’re the biggest perv or hilarious in 1st hour. She’d call their houses and demand to know what sort of “perverted” things they were discussing with her daughter and why we couldn’t pay attention in History class.
The second rule—and it wasn’t until the loftier stages of cognitive development that I arrived at this one: plant decoy secrets. You can’t be too clean. Every once in a while, you have to share an embarrassing story about your bra strap or maxi pad, even though you’ve kept a stash of forbidden tampons for years. Or point to some squeaky-clean student-council member in the yearbook and sigh a little about how he’s super nice but always has a girlfriend. When she throws it in your face, it doesn’t hurt, because your real crushes are on skater guys and burnouts with wallet chains.
The third rule was the most obvious: speak a different language. Not German. My mom had sprich-ed the Deutsch every day of her life until her parents died. She still did, during late-night calls with her sisters, all urgent hissing and laughter that sounded wild in the silent house. There was some family secret about the Nazis or the Stasi or some other state organization that she whispered about with whichever sister she was speaking to at the time. It had something to do with why she and I were both so dark-skinned and the fact that she’d grown up poor. I always related the two, even as a kid. When I asked her once how I could be so dark if my dad was really my dad, she slapped me so hard my teeth took a big involuntary chomp. And that was when I was still too young to know what I was implying.
All I could get out of her was that my name meant forest in Romani. She wouldn’t confirm or deny that she spoke Romani or that we were Roma. But I was pretty sure we were. In first grade, after I told her my best friend, Brenda, had dressed up as a gypsy for Halloween, she told me gypsy was a bad word. “Like they have bad words for black people,” she explained. I should never say it, but I also shouldn’t correct other people if they did.
“Why not?” I liked to correct people. Mrs. Stokker already had me correcting other kids’ worksheets with her delicious orange Sharpie.
“You get in trouble. With the government.” State persecution was everywhere, according to my mom.
She certainly identified with the aggressor. The East German phone surveillance program had nothing on her. When my best friend, Snu, and I had to call each other, we spoke Chinese, peppered with English for the words I didn’t know. By the time I went away to college, I was extremely proficient, like the placement tests said. And by “went away,” I mean during the week, because my mom dragged me home every weekend. You’re only seventeen, she kept saying, even though it had been clear since I was five that skipping a grade meant I would do everything early.
I liked college. I liked Ann Arbor. But at first I’d liked it with the idea that it would make me into a person who could get places on time and stay at one job for a while and know when it was okay to ask someone if they wanted to go to lunch—and maybe buy shirts that went with the pants and skirts I already had. After finding out that these four years were my middle age, the whole enterprise looked different. Like finishing school. Which was all well and good if you were going to live long enough to need a veneer.
I’d gone home the last weekend before finals and given my mom the present I bought her for no reason—this nice wooden carved giraffe, because it was pretty and she liked giraffes, and it’s always good to do some public relations. For about four seconds she pretended to be choking back tears, to make me ask what was wrong. After I asked, she kept saying, Giraffes are bad mothers, which I guess she’d learned from some nature show instead of one of her usual talk shows. I tried to explain that giraffes are exactly the kind of mothers they need to be, from an evolutionary perspective, because giraffes are still around.
But the giraffe ended up across the room with its neck snapped. The next thing I knew, she was telling me about the thing. That was her name for the disease I’d inherited from her along with all the extra melanin. I’d heard her whisper about it to my dad, but I’d always thought it was code for whatever she was hiding at the time. There was always something.
The last thing I said to her was Shit is going to change. My dad came out and tried the Calm down, girls act and refused to drive me back until my mom and I made up. I called him a spineless cuckold. Then I called Snu. I looked for Bobby, but my mom had locked him in the bedroom with her. So I pulled a couple of folders from my file cabinet (having a file cabinet makes me sound very corporate, but it’s pink and covered in anti-establishment stickers), in case I needed vaccination records or birth certificates or grade-school report cards for the afterlife. I envisioned it as a huge bureaucracy.
“See you at my funeral,” I said aloud to the silent house. Behind the bedroom door, my dad was soothing my mom in his antipsychotic baritone. Bobby whined and scratched, wanting to be out with me. On my way out, I picked up the pillow he slept on, as if I were She-Ra or something and could shoot rays of comfort into it. My scent, at least.
Snu showed up a few minutes later. I met her at the end of the driveway, backpack in hand. “Good thing I was home,” she said as we peeled off.
“Yeah.” I was still sore over leaving Bobby. And trying to get used to the idea of being around for the short term. I tried to put it in perspective: nothing had intrinsic meaning; you had to make your own. The farms down Beck Road, the drive-thru we stopped at on the way, the sun-fried stretches of M-14 that always made me happy because they led back to school—they were just clusters of atoms that did and didn’t contain carbon. Like Snu. And me.
Matter is neither created nor destroyed. We’ll always be here, I told myself, dabbing my eyes with my sleeve when Snu wasn’t looking.
I stayed in bed the next day, the phone buzzing every few minutes above my pillow like a trapped fly. Snu had turned down the ringer as low as it would go. It was the double ring, for off-campus calls. Fuck off, I kept saying to it, when I wasn’t dozing.
Snu wandered in and out, stacking my books and drifting into Kira’s room every so often for peanut-butter crackers. “Is it okay if I tell her?” she asked, and I nodded.
It was a warm day. I could hear kids with three times my life expectancy out on the Hill, doing all the stuff I wouldn’t have time for: Frisbee and catch and watching the devil-sticks guy with that mix of awe and pity you feel for people who are really good at devil sticks. It felt expensive to be sweating between my flannel sheets and shutting out the daylight. Like eating something endangered.
Around dinnertime, Kira and Ash and Jamie and Van came in and helped Snu pack up my stuff. “I should help,” I kept saying, but I liked that they wouldn’t let me. Watching them do it was almost like getting to be at my own funeral. I cheered up a little and ordered Dinersty for everyone, and we took the containers out to the top of the hill and listened to the cicadas as we slurped it all up with our chopsticks. Even outside, I kept thinking I heard the phone.
That night, I drank and smoked up with Kira and the others, but part of me stayed lucid, apart from everything. I was experiencing what’s known in literature as a dark night of the soul. Which was fine. Perfect, actually. Pretty much every turning point happens after someone spends a night tossing and turning or drinking or whoring. My freshman seminar professor had given a whole lecture on it.
When I finally went to bed, head to toe with Snu, she fell asleep in five minutes. But I kept imagining I heard the phone whir or someone tap on my door and then jerking myself bolt upright to listen. I got so paranoid after smoking. More than usual, even. The main doors are locked, I kept telling myself. They’d have to buzz up. I took the teeth out of my hoodie pocket and shook them while I thought through the most accessible methods of suicide. Nothing grabbed me. It was like trying to masturbate to what should turn you on instead of what does.
I’d always thought being an adult would solve everything. All those years of my mom saying, When you’re eighteen you can do what you want. I had pictured it as voting, smoking if you wanted to, and living in your own house, though I was hazy on how you acquired the real estate. I hadn’t been ready for all these layers of indebtedness. I’d learned this semester that elders in most cultures hold onto resources as leverage over young people. Until they die, like my grandma—my mom’s mom—and leave them something. My grandma had died before I was old enough to remember her and left me around ten thousand, maybe more by now. My mom would open the quarterly statements from the mutual fund company and hand them to me after reading off the balance in a sullen monotone. There had been a letter a few weeks ago about age of majority and sole ownership, effective on my birthday.
I sat back up, energized. I could use that money. I could go have a midlife crisis somewhere—preferably somewhere foreign—instead of pretending to be a normal college kid twenty miles from home. I pictured myself in all kinds of national costumes, blending in with local populations and filling notebooks with details about coming-of-age and funeral rituals. I just needed a passport. And a flight. And somewhere to be.
I’ll deal with it tomorrow, I thought, zipping the teeth back into my pocket and shoving the suicide scenarios aside like a pile of dirty magazines.
The next day, I went with Snu to the Office of International Programs and talked to an extremely patient study-abroad advisor named Cassandra about which country would be a good fit. Not Germany, obviously. Not France or Italy or Spain or Great Britain. My first choice was Prague. There had been an article in Sassy on the cool expat community there. But the program was full. I looked even farther east of the Danube, but all of the credit-bearing programs were either too expensive or full.
“There is another one,” Cassandra said, handing me a dot-matrix green brochure the color of an old paycheck. “We don’t really know much about it yet, but if you’re interested…”
It was a work-abroad program in Moldova: homestay and English teaching just outside the capital. I jerked my head up to look at the floor-to-ceiling map. There it was, a jagged, landlocked morsel engulfed by the pseudopods of Ukraine.
“It’s not that popular,” Cassandra added, and my heart went out to it.
She called the Director of the program, a woman named Snezhana with a cute robot voice, who gave me the most cursory interview ever. She explained that there were some political tensions and that most people in her city spoke Moldovan—basically Romanian. She and about half of the other families in her town were Russian. We are meen-ority, she told me in a low voice, like she didn’t want someone in the room to hear.
I always root for the underdog, so I signed up to teach English and live with a Russian family. And then I just ran down the clock. I bought a ticket from Detroit to Chisinau by way of New York and Vienna. I packed my dorm room and stowed my stuff with Snu and Dave. I took a break from monographs and spent my afternoons looking at the Hall of Life dioramas at the natural history museum. So many animals had sprung up, slithered around for a while, and been replaced. No big deal. They were just scraps of protein clustering together in cliques and copying each other, the way the girls in grade school had followed Melissa Treatt even when her ideas were dumb, like wearing shoelaces as hair ties. Sometimes the copies added up and made something. Sometimes they didn’t. In the end, everyone went back to the scrap heap.
So you’ll be recycled, Snu said after I explained it to her, and I liked the idea.
Year of Women draws on my experiences as a volunteer and traveler in small-town Moldova and Russia. Like my protagonist, Vesh, I traveled by train across Siberia and tried to learn more about women’s lives in Moldova, though perhaps with less aplomb than she does.
It’s the mid-1990s, and eighteen-year-old Vesh has just learned that a genetic disease will cut her lifespan in half. After finding another student who has committed suicide on campus, she decides to spend the rest of her short life having adventures rather than remaining under the thumb of her mentally ill mother. Using a small inheritance from her grandmother, Vesh flees suburban Michigan for a work-abroad program in Moldova. She has two objectives: losing her virginity and doing something heroic before she dies.
Vesh is embraced by her host family, but her inability to let down her guard results in a series of elaborate lies and misunderstandings. In her work as an unlicensed cosmetologist and occasional English teacher, Vesh uncovers some of the hypocrisies of small-town life—and of the women who struggle to build lives amid the omnipresent poverty, loneliness, and violence. After she begins dating her friend Ev, Vesh is forced to confront her relationships with men and their impact upon her power and “independence.” She clashes with Ev, and almost everyone else, in her efforts to free a trafficked girl and sidle up to a Roma family living on the outskirts of town. When she learns that not everyone appreciates her help, she’s forced to make other plans—and quickly.
Despite the challenges of race relations, illness, gendered violence, and class, Vesh’s clumsy journey out of her own privilege is at times courageous and humorous. My hope is that her attempts to reach out to the young women she meets will resonate with readers looking to make a difference but unsure of where to begin. Perhaps Vesh’s experience of, and constant anxiety about, the constantly fluctuating relationship between self and other can spark some discussion about how to bridge that divide.
T. M. De Vos lives in the Detroit area. She is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); a 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars Fellow; and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Gloom Cupboard. Her work has appeared previously in Vagabond, Folder Magazine, Drunken Boat, concīs, Juked, Pacific Review, and burntdistrict. De Vos is the recipient of fellowships from the Murphy Writing Seminars, the Summer Literary Seminars, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017