Barbie Skin Calluses
“To call for hands of above to lean on, wouldn’t be good enough for me, no.”
-The Knife, “Heartbeats”
I pulled Astro out of the Waffle House parking lot. Soon my grandfather and I had left behind the grits, the smoke, and the beachside booth with the blue ocean view. He and my father had come down to visit for a weekend— it was the first time anyone in my family had come to the Coast. Spring had finally arrived, and the wind blew gently into the frame of the van. I paused as I had before, stretching my hips up for a desperate cigarette, and began to speak again as we drove east on 90 in my 96 Chevy.
“You know, it’s funny.” I looked straight ahead, lighting a Camel and resting my arm on the window, twirling the cigarette almost subconsciously in my fingers. “You know what I told you this morning, about Evelyn and her webpage.”
Pipa nodded. I continued.
“I mean, like I said before, it makes you step back for a moment and think about what’s important. I mean, of course you hear about something like that and it hurts. That’s human, right? But then you sort of step back, outside of that id instinct for a second, and think about why it hurts.”
“And then, forgive the misuse of vocabulary here, but then, given that, I step even further back, outside of my ego, and then I find myself asking another question. Why do I choose to let this hurt? So here, in this most outer, or inner circle of understanding how each day, each moment affects us in the here and now on a level above myself, I think, why am I even worrying about this? I mean, I have my grandfather and my father here. I’ve never in my adult life spent time with just the two of them- it’s a privilege. There’s no way I would fixate on something external to that now. So, why think about it?”
Pipa nodded and took a breath. I instantly doubted the objects that made my car my own: my days since Cincinnati running tally on that piece of duct tape in the center of the dashboard, my hula dancer, my Bengals towel, even my Hemingway’s Paris book. And in thinking about these objects, I mused. So what? Pipa cleared his throat.
“You know, Will, this work that you are doing down here is very inspiring. I think you are very fortunate to have had this service experience at such a young age.”
Instantly I thought. Service experience. Was that what this was, or what this would always be to someone that didn’t understand? I was thankful to have departed from Evelyn for a moment though so I went with it.
“I told you earlier about the responsibilities…I mean, it occurs on many levels. For example, I think about the things that go on with every person here, every domestic expatriate if you want to call them that, must go through in staying down here for awhile. I have a unique life down here, but with that uniqueness I think comes an intrinsic responsibility, for those cognizant enough to take heed of it, to understand everything about a new model. Here you have all of these people, these young amazing people, some old, but for the most part young. And you have them choosing to give up their lives, give time (and time is money) to this state. To this poor state that can’t pull together enough to even put up street signs for a neighborhood. That can’t clear that away, even though it would take 10 minutes with a bulldozer, because everything is about money.”
“So you have these people, that come through and go out. You have these people experiencing, in my opinion, three tiers of trauma. On the surface, there’s the destruction we’re all so habituated to looking at. There’s that Shell, or my hunch that that used to be a Taco Bell simply based on the shape of the shell of that sign. Neighborhoods, Mr. George, all of it. So that’s the first tier.”
“On the second tier, you have the miniature traumas that occur with the transition of people you love. Coming in and out. Quickly, in a place where time doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. I was telling Dad earlier, or Dad actually told me, it must be something like war. Dad was saying that in the military, in the field, soldiers don’t want to get to know the newbies until two or three months into their commission, simply because they might get killed or later just based on a natural meritocracy that can occur with really important situation. Well, here at base, there are grievances that our staff retains about how long-termers, the volunteers that have lived here for months, aren’t nice enough to the short-termers that are only here for a couple weeks. My response to that is a question of how else it could naturally be. In a system that until recently had no systematic support of the psychological welfare of a young group of people in a situation like this, of course people would value the love that they have for the people that relate to what they relate to and be wary of those that don’t yet. How can you smile and nod every single day to someone that doesn’t understand your life yet when you can walk ten feet one direction and find someone that saw what you saw three months ago?”
“So think about that love and trust, those bonds between people, and then imagine the series of traumas to the heart of having to always say good-bye to these people. Good-bye, Billy. Good-bye, Mark. Jeff, Janos, Evelyn, John, all of it. Every time it happens it take a little out of you. That’s the second tier.”
I paused. I’d let the wind blow out the end of the cigarette. I passed a blue condo.
“And the third?” Pipa inquired. Softly, Miles Davis began to play from my iPod. I re-lit my smoke.
“The third? Imagine trying to love someone in that…a girl, a woman, you know? One-on-one. Being twenty-three. With all of this. Think about that. My friend Dan was saying just the other day it’s easy to think you’re in love here. It’s an easy place to think to fall.”
I thought about what had come out of my mouth and instantly recognized a need to clarify my own stability.
“And I stay cognizant of these things that affect everyone because that’s in my skill set. That’s me. I am good with talking to people. I can relate to the administrators, then I can flip around and relate to the workers. I’m a bridge, but I am also loyal. Loyalty is important, and so many times since I’ve been down here I’ve found myself counseling this man or that woman, time and time again about anything. Because it’s important. People need to talk.”
I was on a roll, my heart was pumping. I knew I’d been talking Pipa’s ear off, but here my grandfather was listening. My compassionate, brilliant grandfather who created all of this, his legacy, his family. Me, explaining trauma to my grandfather. And he was listening. And speaking.
“It is true, you know? It must be very difficult to live here, doing this, but to have good-hearted people here, that are aware enough to know when your brother or sister needs a hand. You seem much different than when I saw you at Christmas…”
I bit my cheek.
“…I was worried for you. But you seem much better now, my God.”
I flipped the lever and started talking.
“I am wonderful. I’ve been healthier. Present at all times, you know. And it was from that decision that I began to realize so many more things about me, about the way I’ve been framing the world for so long, and where I can do better.
When you saw me in December, I had plans to visit Evelyn. You know, I had driven around the country a month before, looking for something but I didn’t really know what. Driving, adventuring. And I didn’t find it in Denver, or Tahoe, or Calexico, or Las Vegas, or the desert or the mountains or the seas.
So I guess at the time I thought to myself, ‘If I can get this girl back, this beautiful, wonderful ex-girlfriend of mine that is so far away, if I can transcend all expectations of success given these circumstances, then that will be the fix.’ The thing to kick things into perspective to me.”
I was smoking a butt that was burning my fingers. I let the foamy thing slide against the glass out the window and unconsciously lit another. I wouldn’t realize I was smoking this until this cigarette also burned my fingers. But I must have, because it did, and I was talking all the while. My grandfather listened intensely to my story. Behind me, I could see my father driving in his small white rental car, following us back to Hands On. I continued.
“I went to London. And I had one day, one pure, good day. I walked around the city for hours with this girl. I kissed her again, and the next day I dropped her off at the airport, and there was love between our eyes and we promised each other a new beginning and she left and I thought to myself this is it. I did it. I won.”
Did Pipa know what came next? Yes, I saw it in his eyes. I continued.
“But I hadn’t. I had made all of these overt and subverted material gestures, exposed myself, and thought this was it. But it wasn’t. You see…”
“I’m not perfect, I guess. I never talk to you about what my life is really like. I think for some time now I’ve relied on external validation for happiness. Mostly women and alcohol. Anything, you know? I don’t know why. I never developed confidence. Or a sense of self.”
“So anyways, the fact of the matter was I could be perfect for 12 hours, but the 13th hour would always come. So Evelyn left me, and I was lost. I felt like a shell of a person. I had lost everything with this woman. I couldn’t even tell her things would be different without dying a little inside, because how could I even tell? That was my life. Her mother told me it was just the wrong time for us. Now I know that there’s not really an us to it, it was more the wrong time for me.”
“I left Cincinnati the evening we ended, I woke up Christmas morning in my van at a rest stop about thirty miles south of Columbus. I got out of the car and walked Heli. It was raining and I just let the rain hit my face, drip through my beard. I felt like a wretch, in the cold rain. It was cold. I stood in the rest stop for awhile, across from a gray field. Just thinking.”
“When I left, I couldn’t come home. I drove all day, and finally I arrived on the shore of New Jersey to talk with a friend that works as a carpenter here. We talked for a long time, and at the end of it I decided to stay the night. And I decided after everything to give him a ride back South, to come back down to this Coast again.”
I lit my third cigarette.
“In these last three months, I’ve lost Evelyn completely. In the same vein as the other good women I’ve lost before, Sarena, Greta. There was a girl named Blair in college. Evelyn was the best, it hurts to think about, but those three were good too.” I took a drag and turned into the left lane at Veterans.
“In these last three months, I’ve come to understand something so basic, so simple to say that you’d never think it was this difficult to understand from within. Pipa, happiness and fulfillment must come from within. You can’t get satisfaction from anyone if you’re dissatisfied with yourself. Furthermore, to do so is to present yourself as a complete half of a whole. For too long now I’ve been ruining my relationships, sabotaging them one way or another, and it’s all stemmed from an internal,” I patted my chest for effect. “- lack of self. I’ve never really had confidence in myself until now. Even existing in a place like post-Katrina Mississippi, even having done all of these things over my time here. That doesn’t add up to anything if you don’t respect your existence, your life. I did in spurts, but not continuously.”
“So my best guess at this point is that it must come from within. If it doesn’t, then it will always be missing from every relationship you have with anyone you know. In every interaction, every coming together of two individuals on any level, the completeness of friendship, trust, values, love, respect, is dependent on the completeness of those basic self-affirming emotions within each person.”
Pipa spoke again.
“Evelyn needed to leave you for you to understand this.”
“I know. And I don’t completely understand that part yet, because then I think, ‘Ah, man. Now I’ve finally decided to own myself, life goes on for her. Maybe there’s someone else for me somewhere, and I’m happy to have this happen now to meet that moment. There’s always that selfish part though, it sneaks in— why not Evelyn? Take me back, Evelyn. But Evelyn could be anyone. A Liz, a Greta, a Sarena, a Blair. And whomever will come next, whenever that comes. But no one is going to be the right one until I’m the right one.”
I shrugged my shoulders, and my grandfather smiled.
“Will, you must understand how important this thing that you’ve realized is. Some people live their whole lives and die and are buried without ever understanding what you, at 23, seem to understand.” He laughed.
“My God, what a lucky young man you are to know that, to understand that. It’s true. It must come from within.”
“Pipa, I cringe at the thought of what engagements, marriages, divorces, and the parts between everything that occur everyday, God, hundreds of thousands, and how many of those are devoid of this simple truth that must be the case should love be salubrious between two individuals and not slow death. One of my favorite authors said that. Or something close.” I took pause.
“I think you are well on your way to becoming a great man.”
I didn’t say anything. My grandfather had never said anything of the sort to me, so I ignored it. I turned left into base and drove toward my parking spot next to my tent.
“Sorry for talking so much. I didn’t know I had that much to say, but…I need you to understand how much of a change and revival these months have been for me. And how starkly different things are now than they were in December, eating myself away with guilt. I…” I paused and collected myself.
“For the first time in my entire life, I am proud of my existence, as meager as it is in the big picture. I am proud of who I am, I am confident in my morals and my values. My only regret is that I didn’t come to understand what I do now sooner.”
Helicopter jumped on my father’s knees in my rearview mirror. Pipa unclicked his seatbelt and turned to me one last time.
“In this world most go through many more years of confusion, doubt, pain, and they don’t understand the within that then manifests itself in the love between people. I’d like to speak more about this later. I have many ideas about this, but your father is waiting.”
* * * *
Three days later, Arielle the N-trip walked by me, sitting alone on the picnic table between the circus tent and the building, smoking a cigarette and alternating between picking at Ray Lamontagne’s “Burn” and Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush.” She said I always look so pensive. I answered that I am. She said that that made sense then. I asked her what she was up to. She said she was going to bed. I said have a good night. She asked why I was always so pensive. I said there’s always a reason to be. I told her there was a lot to synthesize. She walked to bed, and I returned to my playing.
The calluses on my left fingertips were thick and the Barbie skin looked shiny and artificial. Not my fingertips. I will stand here and burn in my skin. I promised Rissa and Michelle when they left my van earlier that I wasn’t wallowing, insisting on staying to finish the songs on the playlist, to finish Ray and finish Young and finish that haunting and non-familiar Jose Gonzalez “Heartbeats” song from the commercial Clint told me about months ago, the red and blue bounce ball commercial along the mean streets of San Francisco. In the distance behind the dumpsters, Caleb spun a wooden stick and practiced Tai Chi on the grass of a shotgun volleyball court. Sam the Architect rode a bicycle along the edge of the parked vehicles. James and Helen went on a walk on the golf course and in thinking that I found myself thinking about that special innocence that shines bright in the eyes of the girls that dance in their t-shirts before bed. Where it goes. It’s not in me to stop time, where does it go? I cannot make you reborn, nor you, nor anyone. I am so close to tomorrow it burns in that salty, static gum of my failing mouth and my burnt lips. Proud to see the grass, proud of the return of steam to our windshields, warm summer nights have returned to Biloxi and it is merely almost April so the earth not only spins but pushes away the winter like a jilted lover.
I strummed a makeshift F in a way that the one good Dan showed me earlier today, in a way so that I can play Burn and not burn in my skin but lift myself a bit instead because I can now play the guitar, I can now swim a mile, I can now run and breathe, and now spin if I want, and I can look you in the eye and say this is me and I own this body and I own these brown eyes, these cheekbones from nowhere, and I own my soul and my tears. Rilke says the lights fall down on the city and that is when loneliness receives the rivers, and he said this not in a letter but a poem and loneliness as an abstract end to an idea of a poem is no longer appealing, I think about my life, I think about On The Road and Kerouac death drunk at 46. The constant ache of my tips of fingers numb to play beautiful and my hand can bend different and I wish I were a Mariachi but I grew up somewhere along the way and I can no longer be a farmboy nor a dread pirate, I can just sit here in the hot Mississippi night and play this song and think about how I got the job, and my health and I worry about Helicopter’s swollen foot but that is a good thing to worry about, a worthy thing, to love my dog that loves me and to give myself completely to the space I occupy and it is a good field and a good guitar with good names of good heroes. I realized for the first time in my life what it was to have lost and loved still and loved despite because I saw a person in a dream and I cared more about what made her happy and I just wanted her to be happier more than I wanted to satisfy whatever inkling chalked out my current vein. So there will not be a second mixtape to bother her school and career but I know the songs if it were, but that is good enough, it is good enough, and even if my chest aches it aches for the epigram of halfwayedness, and if I ever meet her again I don’t want it to be fixing the old I want it to be new, though I know it would take a miracle and I don’t get miracles as I am no dread pirate. So I sit and strum my guitar, the bugs are out, the Pubbers are pubbing, and I have no place but bed so I can wake up at 6 and go back and forth in that unique meditation of laps and lane lines and dashes and flags and what makes me feel good-sore for the day. It’s not so bad, better than before.
Eddie told me tonight that a man once walked up to him with a brilliant Ozark accent and said three months of sobriety, Eddie. That’ll change a man. Three months’ll do. Loneliness is to yearn for someone else, but peace is to understand why you are lonely, and what it means to be a comforter, not the lavender comforter in my failing tent but a comforter with strong arms and how it can be to bury your face in someone’s hair and kiss the nape of her neck and worry about the part of her arm that is not covered by the other comforter; most importantly to be there, permanence in comfort, reliable, love is reliable, Joyce desired to press into his arms that loveliness which has not yet come into the world, and that’s what i want too, to be too and now be worth the strength of a simple hug, now, now, always, always. Always.