Creative Non-Fiction by Aliki Barnstone
When my husband and I were teenagers, we were in the same friend group. Now we’ve reconnected four decades later. “Rekindling” the AARP calls it. We’re on the i70 and Craig is driving fast, dreaming up things we can do together.
“Do you want to go skydiving?”
“Okay. Do you want to go ballooning?”
“No, thanks. I’m afraid of heights.”
“Oh. My ex-wife and I got married on a balloon.”
“Well, that’s nice for you and her. I like seeing balloons from the ground.”
“How about spelunking? Would you like to go spelunking?”
“I went with you, my brothers, and our friends when we were teens. You had to go through a corkscrew in the ceiling of one the caverns and I got stuck even though I’m thin. I still can feel that awful claustrophobic panic. Ugh.” I shake my head and meet his eyes when he glances over.
“Plus, it’s muddy and cold in caves. I like the caves in Greece built for tourists—the concrete paths that open to vaults and the rivers wide enough for boats. You float, looking around at the stalactites and stalagmites glowing in colored lights—so pretty. Let’s do that someday.”
“Sounds nice. Would you like to go camping?”
“No. I like my comfortable bed, the bathroom a few steps away. You know, other kids went to camp—Dad did and told funny stories about those days. When I asked if I could go, he said, ‘We live in the country. Camp is for city kids.’ Then I went to college in a city, and I’ve lived in cities most of my adult life. I guess I’m one of those city kids now, only too old for camp.”
“I thought you liked to take risks,” he replied, disheartened.
“No, I never did. I was reckless with my emotional life. I guess I take risks in my writing. But the kind of risk you’re talking about? No.”
I test the truth of what I’ve said. Was I reckless in my emotional life, that is to say, my sex life? I muddle in the vapors of my brain and swallow, a metallic taste on my tongue.
He comes back—his freckled skin as he knelt naked in front of the stove, pumping the bellows, coaxing the fire to rise and burn on its own—maybe that’s a metaphor for what he did to me. He was seventeen years older. I had braces on my teeth. He was so gentle and slow. He instructed me. Monogamy is for children and property. Love is not a pie. It’s limitless. We were intentional. Or he was intentional. I had an argument inscribed on my body, an ideology that transforms “reckless” and “risk” into consent. No wasn’t an option, not with him, not with others. I thought I was strong and in control of relinquishing control. I was comfortable, the fire warming the room, him stroking my hair in the afterglow.
Days of the ‘80s in San Francisco
My throat still tightens when I remember one of the notoriously loud dance parties we threw. My housemates and I lived on the border of the Upper Mission and the Castro. Our bay windows looked out on the palm trees of Dolores Park and Twin Peaks. At 4 p.m. the fog unfurled across the sky and hills, opalescent at first, then a blur, then an umber street lit darkness.
It was the mid-80s. People sickened, shrunk into their skeletal thinness, and their young skin that had been wax-smooth was patched with purple sarcomas. Some planned their Aids Memorial Quilt square with loved ones—rainbow blanket stitches around the edges, a scandal of beadwork on a scrap of brocade, hot air balloons appliqued above cable cars, the Marin headlands, a tiny plastic surfer in the curl of cold waves. The one who said, “I’m not going to lose my ass,” lost it anyway, but their jeans still held the shape of that pleasure zone, that home of the body’s secrets.
When I saw the square with the denim butt sewed on at a jaunty angle, I held back, didn’t gasp between sobs. Everyone was quiet in the colossal Moscone Center, and you could scarcely hear a whisper as we shuffled around the quilt pieces that covered all the floors and walls.
Nonetheless, we couldn’t pivot. We weren’t Gen Xers. We were still in the ‘70s, terrified but not terrified enough not to be free. We kissed in the shadows of the arched doorways of the English Department and called ourselves exquisite. We weren’t unfaithful—we didn’t agree to such restrictions. Everyone was invited to the party.
I greeted our guests at the top of the stairs. She handed me a small white box, which I opened quickly, piercing the transparent tape with my thumbnail. Laid in the cotton were two brass triangle earrings I recognized from the stalls that sold cheap jewelry on Telegraph. “I’m giving you these because of your interest in triangles,” she said with a sidelong grimace.” “Oh, thank you!” I exclaimed, knowing I was a fool to express gratitude. I closed the lid and laid the box on the shelf edge of one of the bookcases lining the corridor. The next morning, I stood in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee water to boil. In the light of the window that looked out on the fire escape and the air shaft between buildings, I held up the earrings. They were nothing special. They were a message of shame that it didn’t take me long to throw in the trash.
Aliki Barnstone is a poet, translator, critic, memoirist, editor, and visual artist. Dwelling (Sheep Meadow Press, 2016) is the most recent of her eight books of poetry. Her books of translation from Modern Greek are The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation (W.W. Norton, 2006) and Liana Sakelliou’s Portrait Before Dark (St. Julian Press, 2022). She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri and served as poet laureate of Missouri from 2016-2019.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela