The artist is filling the town with ghosts. She stacks cinderblock statues in forgotten chain link corners and adorns them with colored glass, sun-bleached agave skeletons, and rusty tools from the belly of the desert. She gives them faces like saints. She says sometimes people need a place to keep their secrets, so she builds them altars with gated chambers where the secrets cannot be retrieved. “If we could just have a place to put them, other than our minds, it might help us to be free of them.”
You pull a notebook from your pocket and fill the pages with all that you've been holding, few of them your own.
I stole my grandmother’s car and left it in LA when I ran out of gas. I save my used dental floss in a Ziploc bag. I have everyone else’s bad thoughts about me before they can even have them. Whenever I hear the song “Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough” I feel so terrified I have to leave the room. When I have sex with my husband, I roll my eyes – I do it for me. I have to buy exactly 2 of everything at the grocery store. I pee in the pool. When I’m driving alone, I read all the billboards with an Australian accent. I use my sister’s loofah to clean my teeth.
When you slip the folded papers inside the Secret Keeper’s womb, the sound is an aria, it’s how Earth sounds from space, it is the breath of a thousand bees.
“I’m only telling you,” she says. She looks you in the eye, and your skin prickles and releases, spreading heat across your chest. She motions for you to follow, and you know that when she turns and swings her head, her hair will sway from left to right across her shoulders, because you have imagined this very moment for every day of seventh grade, throughout the long summer vacation, and for every minute of September, October and November.
As you follow behind, her clogs clack against the tiles, and her gymnast’s back is strong and arched beneath her sweater. When she points for you to take the seat next to her in the cafeteria, the whole world is on the outside and the two of you are suspended inside a glass bottle, breathing honey.
She sets down her lunchbox and you pull out your plain brown bag. When her lunchbox clicks open, the full weight of what you are now carrying makes your hands fall open, limp upon your lap.
“He touches me after science class,” she whispered at your locker. “He brushes my hair.”
She unfolds a wax paper package and offers you one half of a cream cheese and jelly sandwich. She wraps the other half and tucks it back inside her lunchbox, behind the cookies and the apple, “for later,” and pulls out a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. Her face is beautiful and unreadable.
You chew and swallow thick cream cheese, imagining Mr. Hanson in his pit-stained, button-down shirts, brushing her soft hair. His fingernails are stained and cracked from formaldehyde, his hands are the same hands that preserve frogs for dissection, his fingers hold the hairy knuckles that people joke about behind his back. When she tells you that while Mr. Hanson brushes, she sits on his lap, her lip trembles – and she allows you to hold her hand.
When someone calls her name from the sea of bodies, she stands and smiles at you before leaving for another table. It will be the last time you ever speak.
Dark chocolate sea salt caramels $26.95 a pound, Medjool dates $9.32 a pound, goji berries $21.99 a pound. You scoop them into your purse in the bulk aisle and they’re gone before you hit frozen foods.
Every morning, you log into Gmail and enter username “ControlFr3&k” and password “GetMeOutOfThisRatTrap#2017” and scour your boss’s email for anything with your name on it.
“Pack a bag,” you call, your face a panic. “We’re leaving.”
“What?” She pulls off her headset. She’s listening to Vivaldi because you heard somewhere that classical music helps kids concentrate, and you figure she could use all the help she can get.
“He left,” you shake. “He smashed up the house. Quick – before he comes back.” You duck your head out her bedroom door and head down the hall.
Before you’ve even finished packing the underwear and socks, you hear the car in the driveway. You close your eyes and imagine wings. You sprint back down the hall like your hair’s on fire.
“Put everything away! Don’t let him see!”
You stand over your child and she looks up at you with your eyes if you could see yourself clearly. You pull at the edges of your shirt, twisting at the fabric, telling yourself this is the last time, like you haven’t told yourself that a hundred times before. When your daughter’s duffel bag is stuffed behind the shoe rack, you smooth your hair and smile: “Now go hug your father and tell him you love him.”
When the organist hits the last chord, you let loose something that smells like it’s been buried inside a twenty-day corpse and smile: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...”
The flight attendant pauses at your aisle to make sure you’re buckled in. You click your seatbelt in place and glance at the man next to you, who glances at the teenage girl at the window, who tugs pulls up a blanket and presses her cheek against the glass. When you’ve cleared lift-off, you order two vodkas and pass out.
Hours or minutes later, you squint your eyes and turn, and the man next to you has his right hand burrowed deep up the girl’s skirt. You shut your eyes and open, and he is wolf-toothed and sabre-eyed and groping, and you think NO! and it’s as if he hears your thoughts, because the hand retreats. The girl looks at you and she is all lamb, soft and bleat-hearted do something, and you know you must. But then the man gives you a look and he is all Power and Father, he is everything that says you are nothing, you are mine, and you think fuck this.
You stand and hit the call button at the same time, and the flight attendant pokes her head out from the last row and waves her People magazine, just a minute. When the man realizes what you’re doing, he makes a sound like he’s growling through a wet paper bag, and you mouth NOW to the flight attendant, and she makes a face and drags herself out of her seat.
The man is pulling at your arm, whining it was nothing, telling you I stopped, and in the shush-shush of your eardrums, you can hear the voice that says: telling will get you in trouble, telling will get you hurt, and the longer it takes the louder it pounds, and you ask yourself:
will you put
down the shame
of bearing the secrets
you did not
You pull into the parking lot and turn up Daddy Yankee and roll up the tinted windows and swallow a Percocet and pull up your skirt and rub your ass against the gearshift and grab your husband by the ears and scream, “Talk dirty to me!” because PTA meetings suck.
You chant please help me please help me please help me all the way back to the pharmacy, hating yourself for the hypocrisy. You slog through grey slush, thinking, I don’t believe this, this is apocalyptic patriarchal bullshit, and fling open the door to Duane Reade. Your nose is a fountain, you hunt in your pocket for a tissue and blow, pounding under the fluorescents. You retrace your steps back through the shampoo aisle where a bunch of teenage girls are deciding on purple or green. You say, excuse me, all polite, and check behind their feet. Oh please oh please oh please oh please all the way to the cold medicine, and that aisle is full of all the other zombies in this godforsaken city who wound up with the flu, of all weeks, please God, please God, please God, please...
The pharmacist takes a step back when he sees you headed for the prescription counter because you look like hell, and just the thought of hell puts you on your knees in front of the sanctuary dunk-tank in a white dress seven years old praying Holy Lord God, please cleanse me from my sins and cover me with your precious blood...
“Please,” you plead with the pharmacist, “I lost something.” The pharmacist nods and says, “Do you know where you lost it?” and you roll your eyes. He says, “What does it look like?” You hold out your hands to show him the size, an 8 ½ by 11 inch brown box, 241 pages, one-inch margins, double-spaced, title: “Life without God: Feminist Atheists and Social Stigma in the South,” and the pharmacist says, “Hang on, let me check Lost and Found,” and when he comes back empty, that’s when you begin to pray for real, you even throw in the miracles, all Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, "When you walk through fire you will not be burned, He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted, Lord hear our prayer..."
Four minutes later, you find every word of your dissertation in a trashcan on 2nd and Houston, and you think: holy fucking gol-darn shit.
You put your hands on the steering wheel and say, “Yes officer, I’d be happy to reach into my pocket and hand you my I.D.”
You owe $21.97 in unpaid library fines.
“Boy, you sure don’t give anything away, do you?” He grits his teeth, and you take that to mean a smile.
“No sir,” you respond. You look at him without looking, which allows you to see the way he takes you in, the way he sizes up your tailored suit, your fresh buzz, your glossy high and tight.
When he reaches out his hand, you do not flinch. Your handshake is formal and firm, and when he holds it for too long, your nostrils flare with the remembrance of formaldehyde.
He leans forward, close to your face. “Girls like you keep me honest.” When he crosses the room and picks up the phone, you are already invisible. You step outside and close the door. The hallway is empty, so you reach into your breast pocket and whisper, “Clear.”
Thirty long seconds of silence.
“Mr. President, good morning.”
“How are you, Mr. President?”
“I am good. How are you? It is good to speak with you. Let me switch to Spanish so I will be more comfortable.”
“Yes, that would be fine, Enrique.”
Three staffers move down the hallway in whispers. You stand at attention. Every filament of your life has raised itself in preparation for this moment.
“…because you and I are both at a point now where we are both saying we are not to pay for the wall. From a political standpoint, that is what we will say. We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore...I am willing to say that we will work it out, but that means it will come out in the wash and that is okay. But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall…”
You close your eyes and hear music.
“Your words are so beautiful. Those are beautiful words and I do not think I can speak that beautifully, okay? It is you and I against the world, Enrique, do not forget.”
is the one
you run away to
when you can no longer
bear the company of yourself?
Mine is a coyote. Grey-backed and lean, I step inside her as she slips into the IGA, silent and unseen among the canned goods, hunting for beans. She drives a rusted truck and eats rice and beans for weeks on end, always one pot on the back of the range. She drinks tequila from the bottle and spends her days lost in words while the beans bubble over, sticky residue caked to the sides of the pot. No one would even know where to find her to tell her to wash up.
You wake up every morning and know that you are a supernova. You pull on your robe and push your feet in your flops and slide across the kitchen floor like flying flecks of radiance and stratospheric bliss. You unload the dishwasher, wondering if what hides beneath your surface is what makes you separate. You drink your coffee.
You are the rest of us.
Leigh Hopkins' featured column Secret Circus is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. At a time when government secrets can be revealed in 140 characters, Secret Circus blends personal essay and creative fiction with political commentary. In 2010, Leigh left a 20-year career in public education reform to move to Brazil, where she founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Leigh's writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and on her website. Leigh lives in Philadelphia with her wife, a painter, and a jittery Jack Russell Terrier.