Eva Gordon grew up beside the ocean in Rhode Island. She is currently at work on her MFA in fiction writing from
Spalding University. Her poetry has appeared in Prism Review and is forthcoming from Dew on The Kudzu. Her new
book is forthcoming in January 2011 from Adams Media. She is about to move to western Spain to teach English to
high school students. http://www.suite101.com/profile.cfm/evagordon
My boyfriend Jimmy is writing his dissertation on the cultural phenomenon of Graceland. He wants to compare the fan worship
associated with Elvis to Joseph Smith and the invention of the Mormon Church; two ideas he claims are rooted in the same
distinctly American pathology of raising up and tearing down idols. Jimmy has always wanted something to pray to, and
although it’s unconventional, I guess Americana is as useful a framework as any if you can believe in it. For my part, I love the
Paul Simon record, and when it comes to heartbreak I can think of no one who explains it better than he does in the chorus of
Jimmy is in the third year of his PhD program at the University of Michigan; I take care of a wealthy, curly-haired infant for a
living (which means I have time to listen to records and he doesn’t.) After a few weeks of experimentation, I found that the
baby, Jacob, likes Lou Reed and Willie Nelson the best, so we spend most afternoons rolling around on the carpet of his parent’
s living room floor humming along to The Velvet Underground and Red-Headed Stranger. Jacob and I agree that the best way to
listen to an album is over and over all afternoon with the curtains drawn.
On Saturdays, Jimmy and I sit in our freezing mid-western kitchen losing circulation in our fingers, Jimmy flipping through
Xeroxed course packets and me chatting with myself, trying to remember what shade of grey the Atlantic should be this time of
“Dark, dark, almost blue-black, right?”
“Or would it be steel-colored?”
Then I try to meet Jimmy on his scholarly level: “You know I read the apparent optical properties in ocean water change
seasonally based on the absorption of light by phytoplankton. So that’s why in the summer the water turns lighter — there’s
more nutrient absorption happening, more vitamins and minerals.”
“I think it basically comes down to the weather.”
And then, if Jimmy is feeling generous, I get a pat on the head. If not, he gets up and walks out of the room without looking at
When we first came out to Michigan, my Aunt Carol and I talked on the phone in the evenings. She had an office job so I couldn’
t call her when Jimmy was at school during the day. Instead, after dinner, I would walk down our block to the Quick Stop parking
lot on the corner. I would call Carol from one of the benches out front and tell about our new place, and Jimmy’s degree
program — what I understood of it —and about Jacob. Carol wasn’t really listening, but it helped to talk to someone who would
be quiet and give the occasional reassuring, “yes, I think I know what you mean,” unlike Jimmy. He either talked out his ideas
(with or without me in the room) or treated my comments as an irritation, a black fly buzzing in his ear. But that was October,
and before long, the cold started feeling like icy knives jabbing at me, and then the cold turned numbing and the numb turned
deadening. Now I think about talking to Carol the same way I think about talking to baby Jacob. It’s what I do in New Jersey,
when I go home and visit the graveyard and to talk to Grandpa Clemmens and his sister, my Great Aunt Francie who died when
I was little.
Sometimes I do it silently and other times right out loud, but I always do it with my ears wide open to messages from God or
my own subconscious; I always do it pretending another person is involved.
Jimmy has been saying we should get married lately. I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not, but my stomach hurts less if I take
his word for things. Sarcasm doesn’t suit Jimmy or me, and when either of us uses it, our jokes come out mean. I told Jimmy
that I look like a dead person when I wear white, and that every time I pass a magazine rack and see all those smiley smiles, I
wince. He didn’t respond at first — he kept his head still, like my words hadn’t registered, and then he changed the subject. He
started in about Elvis and then moved on to the Mississippi Delta (the center of his theory is growing). He said you can’t make
informed decisions in your life if you don’t understand what he calls your “national context.” He said that whather I accept it or
not, I am an American, and that means certain things will always be inside me. He offered examples, including having grown up
watching The Cosby Show and eating Spaghetti Os. Refusing to act, he said (meaning refusing to get married), is a choice, just
as powerful as any other. On this point, I agreed. You can cast your vote in the election, or you can stay home and wait to hear
who won. Of course your decision weighs equally in either case — this makes sense. But then he said understanding the country
we live in requires coming to grips with the Elvis phenomenon.
“What does Elvis have to do with our marriage?”
“Seeing Graceland,” he said slowly, “is a rite of passage for all American citizens.” He took a breath. “Whether you are interested
in the more complex issues of cultural identity, or not.” He said that once I accept his point of view, I will feel happier, because I
will know that I am part of something outside myself. I got up and headed toward the coffee maker. He said he is reserving our
tickets to Tennessee.
I look at Jimmy when he’s sleeping in the morning with his face to the side and his knees resting up against the wall, and I strain
to think as hard as I can, but when I do this, my mind just goes white. I touch his side with the palms of my hands and I close
my eyes and I’m terrified that he will wake up and catch me and turn away, but I can’t stop doing it. Touching has become our
best form of communication. I rest my palms in the warm sleepy indent under his torso and breathe long breaths while I count:
one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three. Touching has pretty much become our only tool of communication, and I hate it like I
have never hated anything before ever.
When I was 8, my class dressed up as pilgrims and Indians and paraded around the junior high school. I was psyched because I
had been reading the American Girl series and I was really feeling for my Native American sisters. I volunteered to dress as a
member of the Navajo Nation, but my teacher told me I was, “way too white” for that. Of all the pipsqueaks in the entire
Lakeview Elementary, she said, I was, “most obviously a pilgrim.” I told this story to Jimmy when we first met and he got really
pissed off. We were standing in line at Toni’s Popsicle World on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, and waves were whacking the sand
with these incredibly loud nailing sounds. I assumed Jimmy was shouting to be heard over the water.
“Why the living fuck can’t a little blond girl play an Indian?”
“I don’t know, I think one could, probably.” I said. You should have seen Jimmy’s eyes when he talked. They are green, and
when he’s excited or when he cries, they get extra bright and dark and they are so beautiful.
“I would think,” he said, “that the Navajo Nation would appreciate your support. I would think,” he stressed again, “that the
Navajo Nation would be pretty much fucking delighted that an adorable Caucasian 6-year-old wanted to represent them in her
“I was 8,” I reminded him. “It was just a little parade.”
“So what happened? Did your parents step up to the plate and get somebody’s ass fired?”
“We just let it go.”
For a minute Jimmy stood there shaking his head and I concentrated on the waves — and then suddenly he got going again, as
though inside his wild changing eyes he had drawn some conclusion, and he had to let me know right away. Jimmy said that
when he had finished eight grade, his parents sent him to a Catholic high school for awhile, and Jimmy got really into learning
about Catholic traditions and everything, and he decided he would try confessing, and I guess one of the nuns didn’t like Jimmy,
or didn’t like him trying to “figure out” the religion — anyway, he told me he was turned away from the confessional. He told
them he really wanted to confess — he was afraid they thought he was making fun of it, and he tried to explain that he wasn’t,
but it didn’t matter, because he was turned away. After that, his parents let him change to the Quaker school where they never
asked too many questions. Now Jimmy can’t stand Catholics.
“I really hate those sons of bitches,” he says.
When Jimmy told that about his high school, I felt like he was an element competing with the water, and I just wanted to soak
him up. He wanted to soak me up, too, I found out later, and we’ve been together ever since, just like salt and water. There’s
really nothing like being that close and feeling that you actually are another person, is there? No, there’s not. There couldn’t be.
I had just graduated from Lakeview High and my dad had arranged for me to spend the summer down the shore sleeping at
Aunt Carol’s and washing dishes at her restaurant, The Crab Stick, before I went away to State. I was going to be a marine
biologist. I wanted to train dolphins. Jimmy came in for lunch one day during my first week and couldn’t figure out what to
order. Carol got fed up and sent me to “handle that wannabe cutup energy ball in section two.” (She liked inventing custom
insults when she got tired of her old faithful “shit-talking mama’s boy.”) I came out with rubber gloves and bangs stuck to my
face. As soon Jimmy saw me, he sat up in his chair and tilted his head back.
“Why aren’t you the waitress?”
“I just started. My aunt’s having me wash dishes. Do you need help?”
“Oh yes,’ he said. “Make me something, please, and come sit with me while I eat it.”
“Do you want crabs or calamari?” I asked. “I don’t think I can sit with you.”
Jimmy pushed his hair to the side and stood up. I thought he was going to touch my face, but then his arm came down and
kind of smacked his thigh.
“You choose. I’m going to take a walk now. Will you bring me a to-go box shaped like a squid and meet me outside when you
“I get out at 10. You’ll need to eat something before then.”
Jimmy laughed. “Later Bunny Gator.”
He patted my head and ran off. I moved to the window to watch him go, and hoped a wild hope that he’d come back soon
Jimmy and I began wandering around town after my shifts, telling long stories in the spaces between cement buildings. We
pressed our shoulders together, forming a block, impervious to running, vacationing children, awake past their bedtimes and lit
by neon clothing and double-sized packs of Sugar Babies. We breathed in fry grease and seaweed, and I imagined that every
time he looked at me I grew more vivid, not just to him, but to the world around.
Even now that Jimmy has become an intellectual and I have not, his eyes are all I see when I shut mine. My eyes are brown, like
someone’s old ugly lake house. They are flat and drab and I can never use them the way he uses his. He can scream and slice
with his eyes and other people can float away in those greeny pools. He can give the impression of deep and restful see through
waters and all I can be is a fad, a heavy, muddy, architectural fad stuck in the sand behind his pretty, pooly eyes.
Last night I called Jimmy and asked him to bring home dinner. Twenty minutes later, he came rushing up the wooden stairs
outside and I could hear something sliding back and forth in his arms. He walked in with a pizza from Mario’s, which told me two
things: First I knew he’d been in the department offices talking to his Cultural Anthropology professor Mark Stevens (Stevens’
office is at the end of the hallway, about 500 yards from the restaurant.) Second, I knew that he’d been in a hurry to get home.
Mario’s never gives you enough cheese, so we never go there unless we’re hungry and we want to come straight home. As
soon as I saw the cardboard box, I geared myself up for an announcement. I stood by the sink, he came through the door, and
I glanced from the box to Jimmy and back to the box. The few feet between us held so much in that instant it made me think of
the room in new terms. Such a strong kitchen — a bomb shelter kitchen, submarine kitchen, holding our hunger — that even in
our discomfort made us lust for pizza from the greasy Mario’s — and holding our heat. The heat of Jimmy’s excitement and the
heat of my desire to hold him, and the weakest but most visible heat, the heat from that soggy, saucy pizza. The space
between Jimmy and me held so much, but sensed nothing, cared for our failure not at all (bastard kitchen).
“Charlotte, we are so lucky.
“Char, come here. I had a meeting with Mark Stevens tonight. As you know, he has been in full support of my dissertation
subject from the beginning —”
“As I know.”
“Right! And I am being offered a fellowship to spend the next two years in Memphis conducting research and developing my
project. I have to teach a few freshman classes down there at a community college, but who cares? Stevens didn’t know how
long it might take to secure funding, so I didn’t want to mention the chance to you before. But we got it!”
“Two years, huh? Congratulations, Jimmy.”
Jimmy rushed up to me and grabbed my hand.
“Let’s get married, Charlotte.”
“Marriage is for sissies. Think of our dads. Freshman courses at a community college, in Memphis? Now there’s something to be
avoided by the faint of heart.”
Jimmy’s hand went slack in mine. I gave it a little squeeze and gave his mouth a quick kiss.
“But what about Jacob? You love that baby I thought.”
I was still trying to connect the dots when Jimmy said, “Don’t you want your own?”
Oh, I thought. Oh boy.
“Look Jimmy, for the five hours a day I spend on the rug with him, it’s great. His mother’s got the shit end of the situation,
waking up at night, letting him bite her swollen tit.”
The poking and pulling and uncomfortable warm air in that kitchen was so thick and so loud it could have been sensed by even a
backyard squirrel, even a basement spider, by even the rock-skulled aspirant fakey Jimmy, but not by this room. This
goddamned white-washed ugly linoleum room.
I said, “Are you gonna teach them social studies or what?”
Jimmy put down the box, and a burst of steam leaked from its slitted sides. I handed him a paper towel and he wiped his
hairline. My Jimmy’s eyes turned a little bit paler and more watery then, like eyes surrendered to television. The fight was not to
be — all that was left was our physical need to eat and that grossly unchanging pizza. We took our plates and sat down at the
table, and it was only four hours to bedtime.