A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Fall Back.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
The new year was two weeks old, but it already felt stale. Snow lay in slushy piles beneath Konstantin’s dorm room window. The walk was grimy with layers of salt and ice. The winter sun set quickly.
Konstantin was alone in the dorm, the university. There was no one he could talk to about the heavy, dark feeling that covered him like a blanket. Why did he have to leave the nest of his house, with his sisters and parents and dozens of Russian relatives dropping by, fighting, laughing, until three in the morning? Why did everyone say college would be the best four years of his life?
He dreaded the cold campus, the cavernous lecture halls full of professors who didn’t care if you were asleep, the portable TV flickering in the tiny room late at night.
In a way it was right, this depression. It was January 14th, the Old New Year, celebrated as a nod to the czarist Julian calendar that changed with the communists. It was a time for reflection, an end to the tumultuous winter holiday season. But Old New Year was usually spent at meals with cooking aunts and fighting cousins, not upstate, in silence.
He picked up the phone, ready to hear his mother’s voice. But she would worry. And he would hear his sisters in the background, making him feel like he was in another galaxy instead of Buffalo.
Instead, he got the plastic bottle of vodka from under his desk. There was no shot glass; there was only a bottle of stale Mountain Dew. He opened the window, letting in the bitter chill, and drained the pee-yellow liquid into the slush. He poured a swig into the bottle.
“To Old New Year,” he said dramatically. He was at peace with his depression, like a true Russian man.
Someone knocked on the door. He jumped, his heart beating with electricity. Allison stood outside, wearing a slim gray peacoat.
“Hey,” he said, breathless. “Kenny,” she said, awkwardly. “I was just over at Jenna’s, and I thought I’d stop by.” They smiled at each other, faintly.
“Well, come in,” Konstantin said. “I was just celebrating.”
“Celebrating what,” Allison said, eyeing the bottle.
“It’s a Russian thing. There’s New Year, and then there’s the Old New Year,” he was saying as she unbuttoned her coat.
“You celebrate alone?” Allison asked.
“Not anymore,” Konstantin said.
* * *
Nobody has eyes at the back of their head.
Hindsight is of no use.
With nothing to fall back on, don’t loose sight.
Don’t be myopic.
Be sharp. Stay focused.
Watch . . .
Who you put your trust in.
There is no going back.
* * *
Tim died so well that Charlie went inside to get his mom to show her. She came out wearing a white apron with flour on her face and watched while Charlie shot Tim with his toy machine gun. RATATATATAT!! Tim’s body jumped like he was being hit with multiple bullets from a real machine gun. Charlie’s mom gave Tim a thumb’s up and went inside. As the door shut, she told Charlie it was almost time for dinner. That left the rest of us to end our game of war and gather up our plastic guns and knives.
Since no one else lived in my direction, I was on my own walking home on the cool October evening. I lived four short blocks or so from where Charlie did and was home sooner than I wanted to be. Unfortunately, my dad’s car was in the driveway. My strategy was to sneak in the back door and head quietly down the basement stairs to my room. Since it was only around 6 p.m. on a Monday, I thought there might be a slim chance that he was sober. All thoughts of that ended when I heard my dad screaming at my mom about whatever it was she had cooked that evening. My dad’s preferred menu was composed of chili, Spanish rice, hamburger patties, and meatloaf. Since my mom had those down to an art, I suspected she had made the mistake of trying a new recipe that evening. I was happy being downstairs in my bedroom until my dad yelled “Jimmy, get up here and eat your dinner.” The word dinner was said with the same tone as my dad talked about things that disgusted him, namely me, the Twins losing, the Vikings losing, and me. I sunk down into a chair at the dinner table and hoped to get through the meal without too much abuse. “Aren’t you just wonderful” my dad slurred as I filled my plate with the pasta and meat dish my mom had cooked. “I saw you earlier. Aren’t you too old to be playing with toy guns?” he said. “It’s fall; you should be playing football, not playing with toys. You’re in eighth grade, not fourth.” I didn’t answer and my mom didn’t throw me a lifeline. I finished dinner and rode my bike to the library where I stayed until it closed.
* * *
In the coffee shop, a little girl is having chocolate milk for the first time. “Look at that,” her mom says in wonder as the barista mixes in the syrup. “She’s stirring chocolate.”
The kid is wide-eyed at the miracle before her. Chocolate and milk. Chocolate milk.
I allow them a brief smile, then turn back to the e-mail I am writing to my boss. I am debating if I should put an exclamation point at the end of the e-mail, because my boss gets upset if your e-mail doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough. And should I sign off with “Warmly” or just leave it at “Best”?
Outside, the leaves are changing, a cool breeze is stirring the sidewalks. Autumn has come to Brooklyn. Last night, I pulled my jean jacket out of storage and shook it out. I switched the heater on and sipped on pumpkin chai as I cleaned out my inbox. This is only my second fall—back home, in Texas, even October is hot as hell—but it has already become old news. Just another box to mark off on the to-do list.
“I think you’re going to like it,” the mom tells her daughter, handing her the cup. Without realizing it, I’m watching them from over the top of my laptop. The little girl is looking down at the cup of chocolate milk, like she doesn’t quite know how to drink it. Then, timidly, she brings it to her lips.
It happens in an instant, the milk finding her tastebuds, the joy blossoming in her eyes. The world has come together in the smallest of ways. Chocolate and milk. Chocolate milk. The girl grins goofily up at her mom, a foamy mustache on her lip.
I return to my e-mail, hit send. Through the window beside me, I watch as a leaf linger-falls to the ground. I grasp for the magic of it, the capital M of the Moment. But it is just wind, and gravity, and time. A clock that won’t wind back.
* * *
Fall always announces her arrival the same way, an insistent hiss in the trees. She leaves a little mystery about what her look will be; it’s never the same two years in a row. Maybe dry and crimson and crisp, laced with smoke. Or damp and mulchy and golden gray.
That first late August breeze has always stirred up some itch. I should be different this year: taller, tougher, more feminine, more intellectual, more daring. The maples’ crowns caught fire overnight, so it wasn’t too much to hope that putting a ring of seashell pink on my lips or shifting my books to one shoulder could tint or turn my world ever so slightly for the better. I could ride that fresh wind and catch up to where I should be. All I needed was to picture that new me and all the picture needed was this one new thing:
Kindergarten: Red nylon backpack
2nd Grade: Pastel dolphin binder
4th Grade: White button-fly jeans
6th Grade: Olive-green skater sneakers
10th Grade: Tinted lipgloss
12th Grade: Designer perfume
14th Grade: The pill
16th Grade: Pocket-sized notebook
18th grade: Canvas shoulder bag with leather trim
Teaching Yr1: Red wool blazer
Teaching Yr 3: _____
Sometimes people noticed and told me so. Sometimes no one did. Always the noticing stopped after a week or two at most, for everyone else and for me. The gloss wore off, the sneakers got floppy, the blazer started to pill. I didn’t start acting or thinking like someone else, but the stuff started looking like me.
The September chill came late this year and when it did I still couldn’t find something to latch on to. Maybe I should learn how to wear foundation before I stop getting carded in bars? To make that work I probably should have started moisturizing back when I got that fake ID. Along those (softening) lines, maybe I should figure out what foundation garments are? At least swap sweats for yoga pants? Nothing was exciting enough to pull out my purse (11th grade). Could it be that my congenital disposition to pinch pennies has kicked in? But I haven’t stopped looking for the next thing. I just don’t see new the way I used to.
The trees look different this year, too. The gold and crimson leaves still dazzle me, but I’ve got a new respect for trunks and branches. They know how to stay and what to let go.
* * *
When the pioneers crossed this land, they filled their journals with days of monotony and loss. Years later, after the energy boom, hearts and souls were shattered and scattered into the wind. Even now, the population is famous for drinking and new residents fail to find a sense of community. They are not welcome here.
When I first arrived, this stop was part of an adventure. It was a temporary location in what was supposed to be a chain of temporary stops. I made friends. I was learning about new things. And then, as it does, the adventure faded away. My friends, also, left this place.
The first time I had a chance to leave, I thought it would be easier to find work if I stayed. I also thought, maybe, a certain friendship would turn into “something more.” I hold no regrets about that relationship, but it is now gone as well.
The second time I had a chance to leave, I was given an opportunity . . . the kind that might not ever show up again. The kind that could define “success.” I am hoping it is a doorway, or at least a window that I will be able to crawl through. So far, it feels like two steps backwards. It feels like what success should have been many years ago.
And now, as I see the years go by, I am starting to panic. I swore I wouldn’t stay here. Despite my best efforts, this place refuses to feel like home. It reverberates with the loneliness of the pioneers that moved across the Oregon Trail and the desperation of the oil workers, pushing, sleepless, through bad weather, bad luck, and forever-long days.
I am trying to stay calm. I am trying to seek out new adventures and a new escape route from this place—from this land built in lonely desert sage and windblown sand.
I fall back into my chair and cover my face with my hands. Winter is beginning to blow in with high-velocity gusts. Like many generations of explorers before me, I must find a way to forge on, and leave this place behind.
* * *
After I moved back to Spokane, my mother and I drove out to Green Bluff with the windows down and the FM radio tuned to the city’s Rob Thomas station. He tantalized my mother with a song about young fools desperately in love. Mt. Spokane loomed in the distance. I hadn’t realized I was looking forward to seeing its snowy hat again after so many years of seeing its bald head in summer.
When we arrived at one of Green Bluff’s orchards, we were greeted by families and running children. “Hay ride! Pumpkins! Hay ride!” they giggled to each other as they ran around the parking lot. My mother and I shared a glance and got back into the truck, driving to the next stop on the map instead.
This orchard-farm was nothing fun: no hay rides, no pumpkin picking, no corn mazes—just jars of apple butter, salsa, huckleberry syrup. It was perfect. In the freezer, they offered homemade apple pies of various kinds. My mother balanced pies on each arm. How to decide between caramel apple and traditional?
“Go with the plain,” I said, licking a sample of salsa from my lips. “You know it’s going to be good.” She bought the caramel.
We took our spoils to the truck and spotted a small farm not on the map. They had bins upon bins of apples.
My mother and I are from apple country, having lived many years in the Wenatchee Valley, formerly known as The Apple Capital of the World. (They have the welcome sign to prove it.) My earliest memories of spring’s apple blossoms now seem like endless gossamer blooms.
We stood over the reds, galas, winesaps. It smelled intoxicating, a little like hard cider in places. We had to be careful, avoiding any mealy, mushy, worthless ones. Apples bruise so easily. We turned them over like delicate lace in our hands, looking for worm holes and setting only the perfect orbs in our hay-lined baskets.
The owner weighed my apples on a scale as I remembered years of store-bought, nitrogen-gassed holdovers with the Washington logo where I lived in Oregon, Massachusetts, Maryland. But that sticker wasn’t here. As I bit into a red delicious, I let the juice drip onto my shirt, a sign to show I belonged.
* * *
We were huddled up in her dorm room, blankets over blue jeans in bed. My suitcase and backpack were leaned against the door. The movie she’d put on flickered in front of us but the sound was off and we talked instead.
We’d watched a story about a woman who had a stroke and suddenly started hearing music in her mind, lullabies her mother sang that she’d never been able to recall before. The expert on her case said all our earliest memories are locked away in a safe-deposit box to which no one has the key. This woman suddenly did.
Elena loved this story. She was studying acting and liked to practice improv in public. She’d say something outlandish and was teaching me to play along, say yes to her instead of no. I was more naturally a “no” person, she said. But she promised there was hope. Then she whispered that time travel was possible.
“Board a train on the right day,” she said, “and you slip out of the timestream for an hour.”
At two in the morning during daylight savings all the trains around the country stop in their tracks and pause so they can arrive at their destinations on schedule. Everyone on board has to wait. If you’re a passenger, you’re chronologically in limbo, she explained.
“That’s not time travel,” I said. “That’s semantics.”
Besides, I continued, what about places without Daylight Savings? What if you took a plane instead of Amtrak? I’d missed my flight hours before to stay with her longer and was heading to the airport as soon as the sun came up.
“You’re not so smart,” she said, turning away from me. “But it’s okay.”
Ten minutes later, I said too loudly, “Let’s take that train together.” But there was no response and I could tell she was already asleep. I left her apartment at six.
I’ve never bought a ticket for an overnight trip on the right day. I am more naturally a “no” person, without her especially. I do think about that extra hour sometimes, and about chronological limbo.
If we were playing an improv game and she asked me to pack for time travel, I’d mime reading a book or folding clothes. But she would call that too easy. The harder performance would be holding still, taking nothing along, acting totally free of our expectations of arrival.
* * *
Nostalgia’s impulse directs your gaze backwards, your choices becoming echoes of glories remembered, or more often, mistakes once forgotten. You take comfort in the past like a 10-a.m. beer, intoxicating yourself with the promise of a do-over that blinds you to terrifying, unknown possibilities.
You fall back into academia, searching for elusive undergraduate epiphanies. Failing that, you fall back into the habits you swore to shun, coping with gulps and inhalations that deaden your mind and body to the stress.
You return to your childhood home, having failed to plan for an alternate future. Sticking yourself to a couch, to a stoop, to a bed, to a screen, you mourn your past disgraces as you sink deeper into your present one.
You retreat to the safety of volunteering, giving of yourself for free, for gratitude, for penance. You are no Girl Scout, but a grown shadow of one made meaningful. You become adept; you see a future. It’s a mirage.
You fall back into non-profiteering, conveniently forgetting the cynical aftertaste it left in your psyche until a few months before you reenact your severance. You vow this is the final fall.
You embrace at last the ill-defined future, falling forward into the ready arms of unemployment for the promise and possibility it provides. You shun nostalgia’s siren descant in favor of an autumn that offers renewal, rather than certain decay.
–Rachel Sona Reed
* * *
How the gang convinced me to come on a road trip, I will never truly understand. But suddenly there I was on Thursday afternoon, my plaid weekend bag full to the gills and a still-warm mix CD in my hand.
Now, the trees were whizzing by as I stared out the back window. Zoom, red. Whoosh, yellow. Zip, green. A flash of orange. The grey sky was interrupted by the screaming colors. It was nothing like fall back home.
I focused on that, instead of my numb butt cheeks and cramped legs.
My stipulation had been that we stop frequently enough for my tiny bladder to be comfortable as it accompanied me from DC to Lucy’s cabin somewhere in the seven-hours-away woods.
As she pulled the car into the fifth gas station on our route, I grinned and leapt from the car. Took my sweet time in the bathroom. Checked out the snacks. When I met back up with the girls, they were huddled together.
“What?” I asked simply.
They broke apart, revealing a terrible sight. It was bespectacled, with a messy mop of curly dark hair. It was looking at me apprehensively. I stared back at my ex-boyfriend. Ex because of no good reason that I could think of at that moment.
“His car broke down,” Lucy’s words dribbled out. “He asked if we could help him out. Drive him to . . . ”
“No,” I said.
But of course nobody cared what I thought, so I found my backseat sanctuary invaded by the one person I was afraid to fall back in love with.
My mix CD was playing. I could feel his eyes. I fixed mine on the blur of color lining the road. Started bobbing my head.
Out of the corner of my eye, I checked to see how he was getting on. He stared at me. I gave him a half-smile. Tapped my fingers to the beat on the seat.
And suddenly his hand was on mine, and he gave it squeeze that felt like an apology and an I miss you and nothing was said but everything was said and I had the feeling we were going to fall back to our old habits.
I squeezed back. Why not?
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.