From the Archive: The Saturday Rumpus Essay: DNA


This was originally published at The Rumpus on June 4, 2016.

It’s just dinner. It’s just the Lumberyard, a beer pub. It’s just the last day of the semester. I want a glass of wine. Erik wants a beer. The kids want root beer. I pick the kids up from school. While we wait for Erik, we play tic-tac-toe. Already no one wins. When Erik gets there, the kids interrupt me telling him about my talk with the dean. Zoe interrupts Erik’s story about the how they broke into small groups for his supervisor training lesson with a story about math—if 84, 27, 9, 3 then what? Erik interrupts her to tell Max not to pick his nose. I tell Erik not to yell at Max. Erik says he isn’t yelling. I mimic his yelling. No one says anything for the rest of the night.

Max crawls into our bed at night. Max tosses and turns and the bed is too small for three of us so I go upstairs to the master bedroom to sleep. Erik and I have slept together in the master bedroom maybe thirty times together since we took down Max’s crib about a year ago. I usually sleep downstairs with Erik in Max’s room but tonight while Max sleeps in Zoe’s room, Max wants to sleep in his own room. Neither of us wants the kids to sleep alone on a separate floor and since Erik can sleep through tornadoes, which is the manner in which the kids sleep, I leave the tornado-sleepers to Erik.


We fight when we don’t sleep together. We lose our way toward any notion of “one.” When we sleep together, our bodies share blankets and sheet and pillows, our breath shares the same air. It’s like the DNA of the fetus embedding itself into the cells of its host-mother. In the bed, our alleles, our sloughed skin, our dust mites, our microbes get mixed up and shared. When we don’t sleep together, there is distance between us. We can’t operate as one. We are not as one as we are when we sleep together every night. We don’t blame Max for interrupting us. It’s easier to be mad at someone who shares no DNA. Verbs of anger, like “mad at,” require a direct object and Erik who I didn’t sleep with last week is not in me.


December is full of birthday parties. My friend Beya has kids born on either side of Christmas. Erik and I take both Max and Zoe even though I think this party is the one meant for Zoe. I can’t keep track and Max would be sad to miss his friend’s birthday, even if it’s not his friend’s birthday. Erik and I stand around, look at our phones. I reorganize the carrots and the vegetable tray. Erik takes pictures. A mom of one of the kids, sensing our awkwardness, starts talking to me and Erik.

“Mine is just a blur. He runs from one room to the next like he’s superman. I can’t keep track of him.”

“That sounds fun. Max is a blur too. A blur of two different superheroes, asking if he can watch Batman, crying if the right Batman isn’t on.”

“And then mine, in the middle of building a Lego tower, wants to stop and build a real tower. With the kitchen chairs. And asks me to sit in the middle, holding up one of the chairs with my head.”

“Max asks me for the one piece. You know the gray one? With the two parts. And I say, what parts. And he cries, the two parts. The TWO parts. An hour later, I find the gray piece with the THREE parts and he says, ‘that’s it.’”

Erik turns the heel of his cowboy boot against the carpet, grinding his thoughts into the ground.


Later, when Erik says what he was thinking, “Why would you say Max was a terrible kid to those people we don’t even know?” I cringe. I wasn’t saying Max was terrible. He’s just a regular kid, I thought I was saying. And I say Erik’s being horrible to me and Erik says, “I just don’t get you.”

I was already ready to be hurt. Erik said the mean-in-my-mind thing to me after he asked, on January 4, if Max would like a birthday party. Max’s birthday is on January 6. As if one can plan a birthday party in two days. I take this the wrong way too. Erik doesn’t understand how he’s telling me I’ve failed. That I’m a bad mother. I neglected to organize a birthday party and Erik as a last ditch is going to, two days before the event, going to save it by throwing one together. And now I feel he’s seeing the truth. That he married wrong. That I will throw my son under the bus for a good story. But he doesn’t hear it the way I hear it so he doesn’t see why I hit myself on the head, on purpose, to make the pain stop or start somewhere sharper. He doesn’t see why I slept in the other room. He doesn’t see what I see which is the gap between the way he loved me before and the way he loves or doesn’t love me now. And, when he raises his eyebrows, pulls his eyes thin, and tells me I’ve done wrong by our son, I see the gap. I do not want to see. I kick the bag with the portable DVD player because I cannot believe I used to be so loved and am now so not, and I used to be the best mother, and now I’m not, and the gap is not only between me and him but between me and time. At least my toe and the DVD player are as one.

The gap is still wide. It is too much to expect him to close it? He does, just a day later. While I’m chopping broccoli, I bend my head toward him. He takes my sunglasses off from the top of my head so they don’t fall onto the cutting board. He smiles at me. Married again.

I’m getting to see it. Like a geologist checking his seismograph. Erik said something about never spending money again for ten years. I said, fine. I don’t like to spend money either. We moved on. Got the kids dressed for dinner. One snarky comment by me about shoes all over the floor. Then, maybe he said something about, good for her, his mom not drinking and then he was telling Zoe about Les Paul and his broken arm and how Les had his broken arm set purposefully bent so he could play guitar and I said stop, and he said, don’t tell me to stop and I said I’m sorry, I just need your sister’s address really quick. It’s all fine. But the seismograph went from 3.0 to 4.0 to 6.0. Earthquake? Imminent disaster? This world is hard to keep.


But there are whole days when I think we’re going to make it. Not the one when we were driving to Napa, leaving San Francisco airport, and Siri freaked out and thought we were on surface streets so we bailed on the freeway and you were so mad you said, “If you don’t know how to look up the maps, then you drive.”

It sounded a lot meaner when he said it. We didn’t talk the whole ride up to Napa but fortunately everyone on the trip got sick but us, which made it kind of romantic, in the end. It’s easier to squish together in a twin bed that is far, far away from noises coming from the bathroom. Trying not to laugh at other peoples’ misfortune is a kind of romance too.

It is sweet to ask me where I want to go to dinner for my birthday but even sweeter when he decides. I know I said even Denny’s is fine but I like it better that he knows it’s not.

“Is your mom talking to me, Max?”

“Nope,” says Max.

“Can I give her a kiss on her head?”

“I guess so.”

Erik kisses me on my head and the world leveled out. A kiss sustains.


I like to divide the world into two kinds of people. Some people are believers in potential energy—these people are the believers in God, ghosts, fossil fuels, football, Dancing with the Stars, and the power of baking soda. They are against abortion. The idea of potential human weighs heavily in their calculations about what to do about women’s bodies. Inside that woman-body, the fetus, smaller than a mouse, with less volition than a mouse, with less hunger than a mouse, with less movement than a mouse, has the potential to become a human. Humans trump everything, in this group’s mind. Potential energy is gas in a lawn-mower, a car on top of a hill, students waiting to go home from school. The future is bright in this potential world. Everything is coming. They follow the physics of potential energy. PE=mgh where m equal mass and g equals gravitational force of acceleration and h equals height. This is where one gets the idea that the bigger you get, the harder you fall. But believers in PE believe that on this planet, mass equals human and mouse equals zero.


The people who believe in kinetic energy believe in birds, fate, bucking up, the fantasy of solar power (it’s kineticking right at you), The Walking Dead, and the sovereignty of toothpaste. KE-1/2mv. Where the m is mass and v equals velocity. The nice thing about velocity is you’re already going somewhere. It’s nice to be on the road or even on the train that lets you know where you’re going because you’ve already seen the tracks. The kinetics are bound by their love of movement to believe in abortion. Not only because babies slow you down, which they do, but that babies-as-mice, are not even quite mice. They don’t breathe on their own. They’re like those creatures in The Matrix. Pods in Aliens. Peas more than mice.

The kineticstician values this: an equality of cells. You cannot eat a chicken, a fish, a steak. You might not even be able to drink a milk or eat a cheese. The vegan may be the judge of what is valuable but to someone who eats veal and decries the removal of an accidental chemical reaction between an egg and a sperm, well, potentially, they’re hypocrites, and, worse, hierarchists. The humans-are-best argument seems like a good belief until you start up that lawn mower, drive that car down the hill, let those children out of school. And then, by nature, everything turns kinetic. The mouse wins.

Of course, maybe dividing the world into two kinds of people is just another way of making sure there is a crack in everything. When can you smooth out this fault line?


Here is a story about potential energy.

Walnut Canyon is a big crack in the limestone where Sinagua Indians once lived in pueblos built into the bedrock. At another end-of-the-world, possibly what is now Sunset Crater erupted, the Sinagua Indians fled their homes. The climate changed. The river that ran through the canyon narrowed. They moved on. Possibly to Portland, Oregon, where we shall all be reunited in our post-global warming lives. Until then, I am determined to find a way through Walnut Canyon to Northern Arizona Campus by bike. I’m done with the car. Or, at least, I’m done driving the car while the sun is shining and I don’t really need to be to campus at any specific time because it is suddenly summer break.

The paths in the forest are circuitous. I can see campus from the hill where I live. It seems like a straight shot. I pedal out from Lake Elaine. The trail is ATV-ridden. Erik has driven his Four-Runner out here. But I am righteous and biking and hoping my tires don’t pop on the sharp rocks. I wend down to a neighborhood I didn’t know existed where people raise goats and chickens. The remnants of an US ARMY helicopter and a paddle boat decorate someone’s front yard. There are many no trespassing signs and NRA signs and this is a private road signs but I ride on because I am on my bike and I’m a short, blond girl and I use that as my force field today.

I ride along a fence. I find the Walnut Canyon loop. I’m too far south. I ride north. I find a fellow bike rider. I ask him if I can make it to Lone Tree Road this way.

“Are you good?”

I think on it for a while. Good? Like, if I’m pure of heart, I’m on the right road? And then I realize what he means. Good at riding a bike.

“Good enough.”

“Yes. Then keep going this way.”

I follow him but the path seems wrong. South again. And downhill. I hate to go down hills. That means I’ll have to come back up. I turn around again. And again. And I’m not lost but I’m certainly not going to make it. Apparently, I am not good enough. I walk my bike up the hill. Ride past the helicopter. Walk again up the hill, wondering if I have enough energy to get back home.


Here is a story about kinetic energy.

A cure. Later that week, Erik and I ride together. I look at the map. He looks at the map. We argue about which way feels south. We argue about whether to trespass or not. He bikes down a hill that I know we’re just going to have to come back up. The hill has too many rocks for me. It’s too steep. I walk my bike down. We look at the map together. I sense we are close to the never-had-a-drop-of-water-in-it-that-I’ve seen Rio de Flag.

“Is that the river?” In the distance, we can both see water.

“I think it is the river.”

“That’s the path we need.”

So along what is called the Sinclair Wash, we ride our bikes. There are sunflowers as tall as our heads. To our left, the same limestone the Singua dug their homes into. To our right, a golden eagle. We ride under I-40, around the water treatment plant. We ride toward Rio de Flag, full of water. We have to get off our bikes and carry them across. We find a paved trail. We pass the labyrinth NAU students have made with lava rocks and Mardi Gras beads.

We make it to Lone Tree Road. We have made it from our house to campus through the forest. Maybe that’s how cracks in the façade are forded. By potential energy at the top of the hill and kinetic energy at the bottom. By a map and a dialectical argument—no this way. No this. By a bridge of bike and dried up river.

Erik offers me a sip of water from his camelback. I suck on the plastic tube even though it’s warm and frothy. It’s hard to know where the spit ends and the water begins. We share a lot of spit. We could make a bridge out of it.


Featured image by Flickr user Stefano.

NICOLE WALKER’s is the author of two forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story and Where the Tiny Things Are: Feathered Essays. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July. More from this author →