A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Too Much, Too Soon.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
Shuffling down the stairs in her biggest pair of tortoiseshells made her feel tall. Round at the margins with a cat’s eye at the corners, Warby blessed her with a pair after she’d made some loot selling weed around school. Everything around her seemed new. Her home, her father, her breasts. All new. They nuanced around her sometimes with her, sometimes a ghost stuck to her skin. Her phone hadn’t gone off in hours. The last text read, “No.” The question is irrelevant now, but the moment will linger. Milk falling from her lips cupped like sand dunes, her fingernails painted matte black; getting it right off that YouTube tutorial took forever. And she looks down at her speaking device wondering why it’s still black, why hasn’t she called? Her mother eeks up from the basement, eyes bloodshot, she’d been up all night getting her pitch ready. Another cockamamie idea. Another economic downturn. Another reference to her new body: Put those away or you’ll get attention you don’t want, she said.
She’d been eyeing this moment for years. The boys treated her like one of them, meaning terribly if not good-naturedly because she kept her hat backward and her tongue sharp. No one could fuck with the jokes, plus she was tall for her age. 5’7″ at least, skinny as a reed. But she wanted to be forever. Wear Comme des Garçons leathers with words like “Live Free” etched into the back with her whole life. Fake cool, she thought. I’ll be fake cool, but I’m not them. These are things she’d say to herself when things turned. Just like the night her father fell, a lump in her throat the consistency of death. Her too-tight pants running into the ER. The nurses looking at her with surprise, then shame, then sympathy.
It sprang to life, first, with a text that says, “Look at this!!” all eggplant emojis and low groans. She had to head into the subway. The swathe of bodies moving angrily around her like a stone bifurcating a river. She peeked. Her boy had sent this text to a girl she knew. And, now, it was everywhere.
* * *
It was because of the snow,
the old car skidding fast
down the side of the mountain
when something broke and we
ended up with three hours to kill.
The snow was gauze over my eyes
and the hours were the hand that tore it away.
I still have the photo, its torn
top edge white and soft from decades
of rubbing. A man’s legs in rolled-up jeans,
his hands on a toddler’s shoulders. She
in a sun suit and sneakers. Above her head
is a void where a face that could only be
Was 18 years long enough for
a lie to be ingrained, to solidify
the fictional beginnings of a girl with
an imposter’s name? The story
of the photo was a fiction. The missing
face was convenient.
The lie fell hard and dangerous as the snow
on the mountain. She held my hands with tears
in her eyes, offered a black leather jacket
with a name I’d never heard embroidered
in the pocket.
I left the jacket behind.
His name meant nothing to me.
* * *
I left my boyfriend the same day the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. We’d been together about a year and I was feeling 50/50 after coming to the realization that I just wasn’t very important to him. I wanted to feel cared about. His life was quite busy and he asked for patience. I had little left.
On the eve of Brexit, I dreamt of roller coasters. Free-falling on impossibly steep tracks, my stomach lurched with each drop and flip. Oh, the anxiety! I flung into oblivion, not knowing which way was up or down, flying towards earth or space. It was glorious and horrifying. I held my breath, terror plastered on my face in an eerie grin. Then there was a brief 4 a.m. interlude by the City Power Washer.
With the force and volume of a jet engine, pressurized water blasted against the window above my sleeping head. I leapt frantically from bed, sure that this uproar was the demolition of my home. I reeled the blinds up in a hot fury.
Outside, equipped with heavy-duty earmuffs and rubber boots, a balding official hosed down my building, the sidewalk below my first-floor corner apartment, the lamp post, and a trash bin frequented by the homeless. He was careful to power wash around the litter atop the trash bin. He did not take such care with the free box of shoes left on the curb for someone in need.
His work took approximately three minutes followed by another three to wash his white city-issue van. He then packed up, slammed the cargo door, and sped west up an eastern one-way. And thus, at 4:08 a.m., I found myself frowning out the window at a wet sidewalk wondering who wished such torture upon my soul.
My ex traded British pounds sterling “to throw his hat in.” It dropped ten percent to a thirty-one-year low. It all happened so quickly—mostly while we were at dinner, breaking up. Tears betrayed me only once, when I told him that I could not remember a time when he looked at me and I knew he cared.
In moments of emotional duress, humans default to nonsensical logic. I admit, as the two of us watched the market plunge over seven-dollar tacos, I sympathized with the Leave camp. For who does not wish to be cared for?
* * *
It was dark, but the sky was fractured with splinters of booming light. As he took his first shuffling steps outside, Silas was sure he had made a fatal mistake. The worn out soldiers in tattered uniforms had told him he was safe now. They said that he could start a new life, but now that he was outdoors he was sure it was about to end.
“It’s just an old custom, sir,” a young man said. He clamped a hand on Silas’s arm and pulled him farther into the shattered darkness. “Nothing to be afraid of. Everyone’s celebrating the end of the War.”
A spray of crackling, red sparks illuminated the young man’s face. He had a raised scar running from just below his right ear to the bridge of his nose. He was smiling, looking up at the explosion. Then the light faded and he was cast back into shadow.
“What is it?” Silas croaked. The fresh air felt sharp and cold in his lungs. Nothing like the insulated, recalculated stuff he had been breathing down below.
Silas jumped at another explosion, rattling his jaw like a broken window frame. The darkness, the reverberating echo of the boom in his gut—it was like he’d left the bunker, his haven from the War for his whole life, just to walk right into a new warzone.
“Celebrating the end of the War with bombs?” he said softly. The young soldier didn’t hear him as the grand finale drowned him out. He covered his ears and closed his eyes, but the lights bled through his eyelids and the explosions thudded in his chest like another heartbeat. He wanted to turn around and go home where the sky wasn’t so infinite and the air didn’t feel so crisp and there was no breeze to make his pant legs flap around his ankles. Where there was no fireworks.
There was a tap on his shoulder. Silas opened his eyes to see the soldier was giving him a questioning look, shadows dancing across his face as the lights in the sky thundered. The shadows made him look old, and his scar made his eyes look sad.
“I’m going home,” Silas said. He turned his back on the soldier’s protests and walked back into the tunnel and down into the darkness he knew so well.
–Ann Marie Devine
* * *
The more you learn, the more stupid and selfish you feel.
Plato said that. Or something like that. I’m fuzzy on the specifics and Google might as well be a thousand miles away from Word. Besides, I’m sure I’d just end up liking my version better. I usually do. Point is, the more you learn, the more you initially come to think of yourself as educated, informed, thoughtful, etc. Perhaps even poignant, insightful, profound, whatever. But you’re not. You’re just slightly less stupid and myopic than you were before.
It isn’t fun or endearing to be told that you’re wrong. It’s even less fun (if you can imagine) to realize that on your own. The preponderance of the evidence, as they say, begins to pile up against you and, slowly, painfully, you’re overcome with the realization that so much of what you once thought of as “truth” turns out to be as correct/sacrosanct as the old myths you heard as a kid about swimming after eating and shaving making the hair grow back thicker and fuller (I know, I was heartbroken about that one, too).
This is the double-edged sword of venturing into the world of easily accessible information wanting, desperately wanting to be well-informed. You spend so much time working your way out of the filter bubbles created by search engines and social media; you dig deep, mining for the actual facts and figures, wading through tide pools of clickbait and distractions in search of the Great “Actually.” And when you find it, you are forced to conclude that you have lived so long on the wrong side of history (AS THEY SAY) that you’re unsure if you’ll be able to ever generate enough momentum to pull yourself over the fence.
Everything you thought you knew (everything I thought I knew) is not what it seemed.
And instead of working out a way to restructure my worldview to fit in with the revelation that I have been so wrong so often, I’m busy reflecting on all the people I’ve harmed in my ongoing quest to always be the first one with my hand in the air.
* * *
I was alone at the end of the universe, sent to ask for help from the only other blue planet we’ve ever known.
Plasma thrusters disengaged, I was about to glide into the tiny planet’s gravitational embrace.
Five hundred light-years I traveled, catapulted on a death scream, with the light of a trillion stars coming at me in the space of a pinhole.
There are few moments when the world has a superhero. This was one. In what felt like a blink of an eye, I was the most famous man in history. We were dying and I was elected the savior. For the first time in my life, I was someone.
The press ironically called it a moon shot. She plaintively called it suicide. On my last night on Earth, I took her outside. In the shadow of the galactic monolith that was my trusty steed, its nose poking through the atmosphere, we held hands until she let go and placed them on her round stomach. Our last touch, a light caress of fingers slipping away. In the morning, our love was gone in a solar wind.
The ship started to slow down. I fired the rockets for a little nudge. Then the control panel yelled and the cockpit lights flashed like a disco. The blue planet floated by the porthole. And with it our salvation, for the mission, for our hopes, and especially for her. They’ll think of me as a hero for hundreds of years before the truth arrives.
Into a dark void I went, unable to look back. A black hole, the aftermath of a star that grew too big, too hot, too fast. I didn’t scream and didn’t curse and did think of her. She was right.
A black hole ruthlessly sucks in life, but it inscribes information in spiral grooves like a record, with non-stop playback for the inquisitive ears of cosmic passersby. If you feel trapped in a black hole, don’t surrender. There is a way out. Call out until you are heard, as I do, my body stretched across infinity, with all my regrets and longings, repeating, calling to you.
I was alone at the end of the universe…
* * *
My mother’s divorce has been dragging on for years. I call it my “mother’s divorce” probably because my father has slid so far out of the picture. I see him as if driving down an empty road watching the person I left behind fade in the distance. I look at John, my mom’s new boyfriend. The one from childhood, the one who never stopped loving her.
Sitting across the kitchen table, John stares back, grinning. He is in my mother’s chair. It is all wrong, but it’s happening. For months, in her manipulative, yet transparent way, my mother has been grooming me for this. I watch him watching me. He is too nervous for any silence, so jokingly he says, “Why do you have to be so mean?” I recognize something then. That he has heard everything I have told my mother during our many long, repetitive conversations about this new man in her life. Because he is now her person, the one she shares things with. I sit back, looking confused at him, and I feel a little dead inside.
I am too old for this. I am too old to reject this new person, to wish for my mother to promise things. That is not her way. I told her my biggest fear was that her chances of partnering with another abusive man were high. That she has been a victim for so long that she will likely not see the red flags in a new relationship without some kind of counseling. Looking at him, I realize that he has heard this also. My words mixed with my mother’s convoluted interpretation have already traveled to his ears. He is intimidated. I feel unfair pressure to reassure him, as if I had threatened him in some way. As if I had been the one poking around for reassurance. A man’s passive way of demanding a woman be nice to him.
The lines are being drawn. I can see in the future, the distance and tension, rather than the healing energy that we all so desperately need. I feel like an asshole on a pedestal looking down, passing judgement. As we sit around the table, bantering, smiling, trying to connect, guarding ourselves, I see these things. I see how it is too much, too soon and yet we all pretend it is nothing, it is fine, even good.
* * *
i have learned to believe
from my father’s
when you’re 18,”
from his clasping
of my jaw, my wrists,
his grasping for control,
from the friends who
tried to change
my clothes, my face,
from the declaration
that i loved you,
my gift become a burden.
so now i will unlearn
i will unloop
i will unwind
that i could be
too much, too soon.
i am all the necessary echoes;
i am perfectly in time.
* * *
When I was eight, we moved to a different part of town. To get to school, we had to drive by the local cemetery. It was a tidy, modern graveyard in California and traffic zipped by regularly, but the place terrified me. I got it into my head that if I took a single breath as we passed by it, someone I cared about would die. So I held my breath for a quarter of a mile every day, nearly passing out from the responsibility of keeping all the people I loved alive. Of course, they mostly didn’t notice.
And I wasn’t perfect. I once lost my little brother, Jesse, in the grocery store. My mother left me in charge for a few seconds when she went to get a cart and somehow he disappeared. In the moment, I was panicked but I was also angry—angry with Jesse for running off, angry with my mom for trusting me, angry that it was all my fault he was gone, that it always would be. And just as I was about to scream, I saw him at the end of the aisle, pawing at cereal boxes just out of reach. I grabbed his hand before my mother returned and never told her what almost happened.
I remembered this a year ago when she called to say we almost lost him. Jesse had overdosed on an unwise combination of pills he found in a friend’s kitchen cabinets. He’d been staying at this friend’s house temporarily—couch surfing or house sitting, or maybe something more like squatting. His girlfriend didn’t call an ambulance for twenty-five minutes because she wasn’t supposed to be there, anyway, and wouldn’t they get in trouble if she did? But he made it to the emergency room in time. He survived, and I went to see him.
Sometimes now I find myself repeating a favorite line of poetry like a mantra. It kept me company outside Jesse’s hospital room, and it still does.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The first time I heard it, it sounded like a soundtrack for leaving. But really, it’s exactly what you say to make staying bearable, to make sense of time and the inevitable accumulation of losses. And if you say it enough, and like you really mean it, it can get you through. It can leave you breathless.
* * *
~ day before yesterday
A sunny spring day a happy day first in a while.
Issues had barraged us like hailstorms, remember?
Work, teenaged kids money, marriage, sex . . .
. . . just Life. Now, a quick respite.
I was grateful. I gazed at you not long enough.
Back to our jobs, lessons, schools, clubs, sports.
Busy lives crammed into cans of worms.
Little time left for us to savor the sauce to figure out
what it’s all for what it all means.
You and our son (he, the best parts of us combined)
took off in your experimental airplane—your eight-years-long project
(the thing growing like another offspring in the garage).
An overnight flight to visit your dad his granddad.
I had a strong intuition. Don’t go, please.
At least, don’t take him.
He’s too young.
You scoffed. You didn’t listen to me!
Spring turns back into fierce winter again.
The FAA calls wakes me from dead sleep.
You did not arrive per your flight plan.
There will be a search will be in contact soon.
I cannot breathe
I am frozen by fear can’t move throat clamps upon words
I gulp a pot of coffee cup after cup
to jumpstart my heart
I phone your old father. We choke on tears. I think his heart may stop.
A policeman I see him approach through the kitchen window
driving his official car, creeping up the street like in a war movie
ambushing the mother in Saving Private Ryan.
Someone opens the door and lets cold grief inside inside my warm kitchen.
He stands close why is he so close? as he shares the report.
He puts his arm around me draws me into a tight hug.
I scream into his badge.
I’ll make a list:
Buy your coffin (decades too soon) and our son’s
(a mother is not supposed to choose her child’s box;
how much more can grief ask of me?)
Arrange the funeral. Find a speaker
because I’ll be unable to speak.
Arrange your sick father’s travel.
Place his war medal in grandson’s coffin.
Throw my wedding ring in yours.
Tell the TV and newspaper reporters to fuck off.
Tell you to fuck off.
Figure out what it’s all for what it all means
all by myself.
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.