The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Poppies

By

Poppies grow wild in the yard across the street from my childhood home. They crowd the thick grass, choking a tiny log cabin with charred streaks across the wood. The glass in the windows of the cabin is gone, chicken wire in its place. When I walk by, I imagine the sunlight filtering through the chicken wire, casting checkered shadows across the black, burnt floorboards of the cabin. The house burnt down years ago—the owner passed out inside the bright flames.

He had no heirs. No one to step in and clear out the log ruins. No one to sell his creek-side lot. No one to raze the building to the ground, tear out the thick grass and weeds, upturn the soil, pile the debris into a truck and cultivate a space free of wild poppies.

Poppies are my favorite flower. Fire followers, they germinate in the aftermath of destruction. Once, I walked by his home and wanted so badly to reach out and pluck some for a tableside arrangement, but I couldn’t. It was as though the poppies grew directly from the ashes of his body and bones mixing with the soil.

*

I spend the summers living in my childhood home, but during the academic year, I live in a hollow in Appalachia. I once described it to a friend as a holler. She asked me what that means, and I didn’t know how to explain it: It’s a road that extends back into the woods, I said. It’s very green and overgrown. People live in clusters. They have lots of stuff in their yards. I’m sorry, I finished. That’s all bullshit. I don’t know how to describe it without sounding classist. It’s a beautiful place, but the people seem sad.

At night, I run in the dark hollow. I wear a headlamp, a white circle bounces in front of me. The dogs howl from top to bottom. In Idaho, the state where I was raised, the howls of hounds echo through the open landscape. Like desolation. In Appalachian Ohio, the howls are muffled. Like despair.

Moon-glowed faces peer out at me from front doors. I keep running, the air, thick, heavy, and misty. The greenery is alive, insect sounds press on me like fingerprints, desperate in their urgency. I think of how the road in the hollow feels like an arm extending into the hillside, of how my house sits at the end, and I am a beating red heart inside that house. I think that, with every house I pass, we are all pulsing along the vein of this road.

*

I am intimate with loneliness. The loneliness of my twenties has changed now that I am in my thirties. It has less to do with the absence of company and more to do with an awareness that when my eyes close at night and open in the morning, I am only ever alone.

*

A decade or so ago, when he was still alive, I saw that neighbor sitting on a bar stool at the Owl Club, a dive bar on Main Street. The entire front of the building that houses the bar is a wooden, shingled owl. The owl is a false front, a façade. A false front usually hides cheap construction, but in this case, the false front masks a beautiful nineteenth-century brick building. The Owl is kitsch that masks beauty. Poking out of one of the owl’s eyes are two arrows. No one knows where the arrows originated. They poke into the sky, free of history. A man from Ghana later told me that the only way to live free of trauma is to live without history, but very little in this town is free from history.

This Idaho winter, a winter in my early twenties, was bitter cold. Bodies crowded the warm bar, the air hazy in its heat. I stood next to a young friend, Tim, who wanted to be more than my friend, but I was still in love with an older man who no longer wanted to be my lover.

Most nights, I drove for hours along the winding, icy river dreaming of this older man. I parked, sat by the blue water, and cast incantations into the air, begging the universe to bring him back to me. I burned his letters then regretted it. I drank potions given to me by an herbalist to calm my nerves, then sank into a deep, hot bath, and waited for darkness.

When Tim came to town, it was a distraction from my longing. At the Owl Club that night, his hand grazed my shoulder. I smiled, stepped closer to him.

Before entering the bar, Tim and I had sat in my car in the parking lot, the engine idling, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon playing on the CD player. I ran my finger along the steam of the window. I drew a wet heart.

“I have something to show you,” he said. “I want you to know the truth about me.”

He reached up and took off his baseball cap. “I have psoriasis,” he said, He lowered his head. It was shaved and patched with red.

“Is that all?” I asked. “Oh Tim, I don’t care about that.” I reached out and touched his scalp tenderly. His body slumped against mine, resting against my chest. “It’s okay,” I said, stroking his head. “I like you just the way you are.”

IMG_5757He shoulders heaved, tears soaking my shirt. This wasn’t the first time his tears had soaked my shirt. We had a history of his longing, his sadness, and my withholding, but this was the first time I had accepted his embrace.

I didn’t know how not to. He had taken his hat off for me.

After Tim recovered, wiped his eyes, and we entered the bar, just after he stepped closer to me, just after his hand grazed my shoulder, just after I had accepted the offering of his body collapsing into my chest, just after I had accepted the offering of his shame, just after I had let him into my car on a dark winter’s night when I knew what he wanted from me, but I also knew I was in love with someone else—in the moment just after all of those things—my neighbor fell off his bar stool. He fell and his head made contact with a table on the way down. He sat dazed on the floor, bleeding. The blood was so fast, so great, so red—bright pink almost—rivulets quickly turning into a stream.

He sat on that floor like a child, and looked up at me, poppy red face glistening, eyes so sad.

Everyone scattered. No one would help him. I grabbed Tim’s arm, and we rushed over. I kneeled down beside him. Tim asked the bartender for a rag and held the rag to my neighbor’s bleeding head. My neighbor looked up, ashamed.

“I have to tell you something,” he said, as Tim held that blood-soaked rag. My neighbor closed his eyes, then opened them again, “I have hepatitis.”

Tim looked down at his hand on this man’s bloody head, but he kept it there. “It’s okay, man,” he said. “Let’s just get you home.”

He helped the man up. The bartender shook his head at us. Tim helped the man out to my car, put him in the backseat, and we drove to that little log cabin.

In the main room of the cabin, there was only a wood stove, a chair, and a mattress. We put the man in the chair by the stove, so he could stay warm. The man looked at us for a long time, then said, “Thank you.”

What I remember is that stove. That black wood stove. And the chair beside it, the warmest place in the cabin during a dark, cold night. And that small man in an even smaller chair, and how his face was so grateful, and so ashamed, and so, so lonely.

I remember that black, murderous stove, but what I remember more is his solitude.

*

Just before the man I married kissed me for the first time, he took off his hat. Only twenty-four, and he already had early male-pattern baldness. He had started balding at 14, such a difficult age. He ran his hand over the smoothness of his scalp, visibly uncomfortable. I couldn’t resist, I reached over and glided my hand over his head. I had only met him that night. I smiled at him. He leaned over and kissed me quickly, as though I would change my mind.

I didn’t know how not to accept his embrace. Just like Tim, he had taken his hat off for me.

*

Sometimes, I Skype at night with a friend in Idaho. We became friends when we were twenty. We are now in our thirties. I have a photo of her from when we roomed together. She was in tight jeans and a sequined shirt, captured in mid-movement—dancing—her arms raised, hair wild.

Beautiful.

We wear pajamas during our Skype conversations. Our dogs sit in our laps. They eye each other balefully through the computer screens. We each have a glass of wine.

I raise my glass to her. “You know what the worst part of being in your thirties is?” I ask.

She raises her eyebrows.

“When you realize all of those problems you thought you had left behind in your twenties are still there.”

“I’ll drink to that,” she says, taking a sip of her wine.

*

Some days, I am just an accumulation of my wounds.

*

Years after the moment at the bar, after my neighbor sat stunned on the floor and stared up at me—bleeding and red-faced—there was another moment.

A terrible moment.

I was the one on the floor.

It was as though I was watching from the outside. It was as though I could see myself staring up at my husband, bleeding and red-faced. I no longer knew who I was, my poppy red face glistening, eyes so sad.

*

Some days, I am the light let in by my wounds.

*

I was in my early twenties when that man fell off his bar stool. I had dropped out of college and was living in my parent’s basement. Tim had returned from a stint on a fishing boat in Alaska, a stint that had wrecked him emotionally and physically. We had found a balm for our loneliness in each other.

I left my hometown a short while later. I met the man I married, I moved across the country with him. I had a baby. I finished college. He made me homemade scones in the mornings before I woke and left them on the counter with a note: Smoothie in the fridge. Have a good day today. I know things are hard, but you’re such a good mom and wife. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Please give me time. Please forgive me.

And I forgave. I didn’t know what I’d do without him either. We had found a balm for our loneliness in each other.

*

IMG_5746At some point, I turned thirty, but I don’t remember my thirtieth birthday. I remember my husband’s love, his notes, the way his hand smoothed my hair down at night before he fell asleep with his arm around my shoulders. I remember the way I soothed myself by running my hand along his smooth head. It was the same motion I had done as a toddler when my mother still carried me. I sucked two fingers on one hand, the other hand entangled in her hair. Even then, I never wanted to be far from the person I loved.

I also remember my husband’s fists, his rages, his words.

I remember believing what he said to me:

You are crazy. You are a fucking cunt. My life was ruined the day I married you. You are the ugliest woman I’ve ever dated. You make me this way. You provoke me to abuse you.

I remember also believing what else he said to me:

You are amazing. You are such a wonderful mother and wife. No one has ever excited me like you. Sometimes I wake at night and just look at you. You are so beautiful. You are so smart, so talented, so funny. I am so lucky to have found a woman like you. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.

I remember believing this:

I am amazing. I am worthless. I am amazing. I am worthless. I am amazing. I am worthless.

I remember feeling grateful that he loved me even though I was such a horrible person that he felt he needed to hit me.

I remember thinking I couldn’t leave him because I was too weak to survive the loneliness that would return in his absence.

I don’t remember turning thirty, but I remember thinking later:

This cannot be real.

*

Now, in my thirties, I have divorced my husband, and again, I return home in the summer. I live in my parents’ basement. My neighbor’s burnt house reminds me of those years in my twenties, when I didn’t know what I wanted, when I didn’t know my own power, when I didn’t know what was coming.

What else is there to say? All patterns either come to an end or continue.

But now, I live in my parents’ basement—not because I have nowhere else to go—but because I miss the light.

And when I walk by my neighbor’s scorched cabin on my evening strolls, I see the poppies growing wildly in the midst of tall grass. They swarm the cabin. They rest their beauty against the black ash.

Poppies might bloom for years following a fire, but eventually will quit blooming until the next fire comes through. In the forests around my hometown, there are good fires and bad fires. It is sometimes difficult in the beginning to tell the difference.

This is what I have learned: There is always another fire.

*

This is also what I have learned: He was the fire. My older lover was the fire. My ex-husband’s fists were the fire. His words were the fire. Tim was the fire. My neighbor was the fire.

But I was a fire too.

*

There was a man in my hometown in the summer after my divorce. We lived on opposite ends of the country during the school year, but there was a moment before we parted for our separate homes. A moment where I said, “Are we still moving slowly?”

And he gripped my waist, buried his head in my hair, and said, “I don’t think so.’

We had found a balm for our loneliness.

*

I am thinking of this man as I run in my dark hollow. I did the same thing after my first love left me. I did the same thing after I hurt Tim. I did the same thing with all of the men in-between. And I did the same thing when I left my husband.

I ran.

But this time I am running from neither a man nor my pain. I am running to escape my loneliness. Loneliness is more acute following an absence of it, and this hollow, for all of the life within it, feels so solitary. This hollow has probably never seen a fire.

IMG_6345And as I run along this vein, I think of all of the men who I let into my life because I was afraid of loneliness. I think of the ways I let them hurt me, and of the ways in which I hurt them. When I was still with my husband, I told my counselor that I could never leave my husband. “I’ve never left anyone,” I said.

And I hadn’t.

But, now, while I’m running, I think of how I did eventually leave my husband. I white-knuckled through the dark nights without calling him. I white-knuckled through the desperation. I white-knuckled through the loneliness, and one day, I awoke, and I no longer missed him.

I think of Tim, and how he’s probably fine. He’s probably found someone who loves him, and I think of how I cared enough about Tim to regret not loving him for a third of my life, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe that regret is the only offering I have to give. Maybe it’s time for me to let that regret go.

I think of my older lover who did eventually want me back. I think of the messages I continued to receive from him throughout the years, and of how I finally said, no more.

I think of this other man, and how we sat on a deck in the Idaho sunlight—two divorced adults—and we had an adult conversation about where our relationship was headed, and we were both honest, and we both felt safe, and in the end, we each placed our individual needs first.

I am thinking of all of this as I run in that dark hollow. Greenery consumes the hillside, the abandoned furniture, the abandoned homes, and the abandoned cars. My loneliness often consumes me in the same way, but it doesn’t consume me whole. I white knuckle through it, and as with those nights after I left my husband, I wake up fine.

It turns out I haven’t brought all of my problems from my twenties with me into my thirties.

What else is there to say? Patterns either end or continue.

I am not only an accumulation of my wounds. I am not that greenery from which the landscape can’t escape. I am not those abandoned homesteads being swallowed up whole. Most mornings, I wake up grateful for the quiet, for the calm, and for my solitude. The darkness still comes at night, but the mornings are full of light. I will never be that arrow, free of history, but I am also not a circle. I am the beating red heart at the end of the vein. I am the fire. I am the poppies.

***

Art by Queen Donderkop (1) and Final Girl (2,3,4).


Kelly Sundberg's essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Guernica. Slice Magazine, Mid-American Review, The Los Angeles Review, Quarterly West, PANK, and others. A piece of her work was listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2013, and she is the A Room of Her Own Foundation's 2015 Courage Fellow. Sundberg lives in Athens, Ohio where she is the managing editor of Brevity Magazine. She is currently completing a memoir about her childhood, her hometown, and surviving domestic violence as an adult. More from this author →