On Reading the Work of Friends

Jessica Alexander



The obvious: writing I love clarifies a fog I live inside.

Take this line: Yes, there exists an uncertain hole. The fear of falling over it kept me not-me, and lonely, for a long time. [1] I am thinking: I know.

Or this: Like spooked birds: my inhibitions disperse. I coax them back. Come, come. I won’t harm you. I need you. Hold me down and keep me quiet[2] I think, I know.

Or this: I wasn’t really looking for you. I was (more) looking for my thought of you[3] I know there is another loneliness in knowing this, when the lines are written by those I love. As though I am consoled yet consoling—what? A mark. Like writing on a bathroom stall. A register of where my friends once were when I was not.

I think: I know but what do you mean? What do you know? Does your fresh opacity help me see myself more or less clearly? Your work. Your loneliness. Your desire. The engine tucked inside your social self. These lines written by my friends, among many of theirs, have lived long inside me. Or is it that these women, my friends, who wrote these lines have lived inside me for a long time?

Let me begin again: I am not interested in reviewing your books. I am interested in a feeling, I, who in my late thirties, have learned only recently how little I know of feelings. Still, I thought about this question so many years ago in Utah, on a rooftop with Jaclyn Watterson, in a misplaced season, when we spoke of our mothers and were always laughing: Friend, how in the world do you get up and work again? I was thinking about it, carrying cat liter up a hill with Caren Beilin. Some nights before readings, we’d put on all these extravagant necklaces. We’d put on red red lipstick, and whisper “mommy has her secrets.”

Or Rachel Levy, when we sat on the edge of a bathtub and, drunk on whiskey, acted out a Raymond Carver story. Friend, what do you do when I am not with you? What will you do tomorrow?

I am thinking about it now, in Pennsylvania. Like a postcard, I am writing: Dear Friends, It’s beautiful here. The trees are like fat stalks of kale, oozing over brick sidewalks. Ivy grows on everything, the restaurants are always empty, and the streetlamps remind me of musicals. I take long walks in the evenings. Come see me. Stark winter state. I beg the birds come back, pin me down, keep me quiet[4]

Time itself is an excess of spectacle. [5] And it is not as if I am flooded with memories of a different or a better one. More like trying to remember before we were born. [6] Sometimes, after long spells of speaking with them, my friends, I catch myself, alone and still engaged in this, our conversation. And this effigy of an interlocutor, woven with words, is my fiction. It is how we carry or do not carry each other into our solitude. It is how we do and do not get inside each other’s writing. In Full Stop, one March, I read a piece on IUD’s by Caren Beilin. In paragraph one, Caren is given Jolen Crème Bleach. Her mother says, “You know, Caren, women have their secrets.” And there it is: the proverbial bulb in a cloud above my head. So that’s where it came from. Of course, you brought that history into the bathroom with me. “Mommy has her secrets,” you whispered, daubing on red lipstick, in a voice so sultry and eerie it sent me reeling! You miraculous being! How could that sentence have come from you! And here it is: an answer, an anchor, or an origin. It came from then. And isn’t that what humor is: an unmooring of our events, the reeling in of origins and dressing them—our wounded little fish—in extravagant necklaces, red lipstick, things that do not fit?

It is not unlike that Carver story. Or rather that night Rachel and I drank whiskey and acted out that Carver story. Even under the best of circumstances, Rachel—my birdlike friend, who spooks so easy—bumps into things. That night it was the medicine chest. Lotion and things kept falling into the sink. It’s like that Carver story. We were laughing. He knocks stuff out of the medicine chest. The story is called “Medicine Chest.” We laughed and everything kept falling off the shelves. No, the story is called: “Aspirin.” He’s looking for aspirin, and he’s just thwarted in this very specific sense. We laughed. “Sex,” Caren said, “is where you can save people from a panic attack and express mercy and worship and tenderness. [7]” I feel this way about laughter: sex without gravity or bodies, a way to make someone you love feel weightless. Rachel, my friend, looks like a kid leaping through a sprinkler when she’s laughing: her abandon, exquisite and ingenuous, so gleefully besieged, her head turned slightly away from me, like some animal, fervent and adorable, keeps licking her face. It isn’t really funny, is it? So, what made Carver—the real stuff, the serious stuffso hilarious to us? No one ever praised “Aspirin” or “Medicine Chest” for its light comedic tone as reviewers once praised Maud Martha for its light comedic tone. Rachel wrote of this in an essay published by Smokelong Quarterly[8] Gwendolyn Brooks’ novel, which dealt with bitterness, rage, and suppressed anger, along with sexism and racism, received “the kind of treatment,” wrote critic Mary Helen Washington, “that assured its dismissal.” Whimsical is what a critic might call it. Air. Our laughter. Capricious. A thing without reason. They’re mistaken. It is not a masquerade exactly either—not like a rock atop a mountain painted the color of a cloud. It is wearing that which never fit and tearing it. Like Zabina’s last speech in Tamburlaine the Great. She shreds the tyrant Tamburlaine’s discourse. As if no other language were available to her. A rage, which, Rachel wrote, is both a perversion and a pleasure. [9] Like putting lipstick on, until the antidote (or instigation of an illness [10]) is nothing but a nub.


Just then I was warming to the idea of dying alone, and the antidote presented itself:

Red lipstick.

In the end, I decided: only a touch, and for the purpose of attraction.

When I brought the tube to my mouth, I could not stop. I traced blazing circles around my lips like our dying planet in motion until I held in my hand an ember, a nub. [11]


It’s exorcism. Domestic fiction. We laughed and acted it out beside Rachel’s bath. Now his wife (Patti, Pam, Donna?) wakes up. She enters. What does she want? A glass of water? He can’t take it anymore! We laughed. He never can quite take it anymore. Go back to bed (Patti, Pam, Donna?), I’m looking for something! It was an exorcism. Because Carver’s pain is not mine. Because if you study almost anything, or just live to be thirty, you basically have a PhD in Carver’s pain or some iteration of it. If you study it too seriously, it will wound you and it will keep you from knowing your wounds. He was looking for vitamins. The story is, in fact, called: “Vitamins.” We could not stop laughing.“Vitamins.”

Admittedly, it was not whiskey. Boxed red wine was, in fact, what we drank back then. You drank whiskey with another friend in what is, to my mind, the loneliest story you have ever written [12]. And so, like a turkey baster, I inserted myself. But I have, I am told, appeared in some fictions. I am the auctioneer, Caren says, in “Nina’s Alcoholism.” The auctioneer: too thin, depraved maybe, possessing a pert old fashion sense. I wear loafers. I orgasm when I am ordered to smash an antique vase, “to do something that jeopardizes [my] professional position.” [13] I know I’m enacting a naïve equation. The auctioneer does not equal me. She’s more like Frankenstein and the charnel house is a place I’ve never been inside. Still, here I sit, gazing out my window, so wistfully courting history, a new authority—come see me. Smash my antique life to pieces. Is that what you mean? Jackie confessed that I am Spinster, though I identified most with Eliza in “Kindle and Scorch,” a girl who fades in the act of narration, a girl who turns to paper and is burned, because writing, too, can be a form of exorcism. But more than this, I’m sure I stood atop a hill with her one misplaced winter [14]. It need not be a character. A word is enough. Cunt. Dildo. Those seemed to be our favorites. A reclamation of language. Am I these dildos? Everything, Caren writes, is a dildo if you look at it at length. [15] Am I a narcissist? I remind myself there is, of course, the possibility that this has nothing to do with me. Or story is a gauze with which you wrap a broken thought of somebody, and maybe that heals something:


Spinster cared only about her teeth and her mother.

Spinster told me that although rabbits are very cute, they do not have personalities.

Fear, she said, is not a personality.

Spinster has never cared for me. And now she thinks Dowager has more personality. [16]


If I could see myself inside another’s dream, would it be like this: a mummy, some exhumed shuck of me, swaddled in another’s most cherished anxieties? I took Jackie’s Ventriloquisms to a café with me. But I needed to read some self-help first: a strange book from the early 90’s, which reminds me slightly of scientology, insofar as I suspect the author believes everything—headaches, hunger, heart disease—is a symptom of blocked energy. Anyway, it tells me how to feel my feelings in my body. And I was wondering how will I know which feeling is which, when a blond man entered and told me I was in danger. He called me “girl.” He said: Girl, get the fuck out of here. And wasn’t that just what would happen in a nightmare or a Ventriloquism? In times like these it is hard not to believe him. Nothing happened. Eventually, I left the café, and as the thrall of this young man and all his omens, faded, I found fear—if I’ve learned anything—was still the feeling in my body. I thought Ventriloquisms is about all the different ways to be afraid in one day [17]. Only temporality is astonishingly volatile. It is not about what happens next, as if a threat delivers death. It’s not about that. It delivers you instead to a place that is no longer living: a misleading season, a hilltop in a misplaced winter [18], a lake from long ago, an uncertain hole, which has all but evaporated. Now the ingredient for your transfusion is everywhere, is air [19]. Your fear. Dear Old Maid, I care for you, too.

Atonal landscape. You never get what you want. You badly communicate. Your farmland, your winter. You, heart-shaped state, which no one loves to talk about. I do not want to be alone. [20] It is not unlike Ohio. It is not unlike the only Jimmy Stewart movie I kept accidentally seeing. This act of reading your work, in a sunny café, full of locals in a state I never thought I’d be, at a time in our lives when we are all so marvelously dislocated. I am trying to understand something: this particular form of longing or loneliness. Is that what it is? And I am haunted too by my spectral self, a wound in your mind, which is not mine. Yet the words are so familiar, it feels as though they could have been. It is not unlike thinking: that line is so apt I might have written it. But, of course, I did not. I could not write it. It was written and I only needed it.





[1] Jaclyn Watterson, Ventriloquisms

[2] Rachel Levy, Necessary Objects

[3] Caren Beilin, Americans, Guests, Or Us

[4] Rachel Levy, Necessary Objects

[5] Caren Beilin, Americans, Guests, Or Us

[6] Jaclyn Watterson, Ventriloquisms

[7] Caren Beilin, Interview in the Offing

[8] Rachel Levy, “The Excess of the Short-Short,” Smokelong Quarterly

[9] Rachel Levy, “The Excess of the Short-Short”

[10] Caren Beilin, “From A Pig’s Mouth,” “I wasn’t really looking for you. I was (more) looking for my thought of you. I thought of you and then tried to understand the thought, like instigating an illness to study a greater disease, which doctors do. They do” (34). Americans, Guests, or Us

[11] Rachel Levy, A Book So Red

[12] Rachel Levy, “A Turkey Baster Is Just Like a Penis”

[13] An interview with Caren Beilin in The Offing

[14] Jaclyn Watterson, “Kindle and Scorch” Ventriloquisms

[15] Caren Beilin, Nina’s Alcoholism

[16] Jaclyn Watterson, “Loving Spinster” Ventriloquisms

[17] Jaclyn Watterson, “Nor Do They” Ventriloquisms

[18] Jaclyn Watterson, “Kindle and Scorch” Ventriloquisms

[19] Riffing on Caren Beilin’s “Zoo Balloons” “Children love the release of a balloon. They don’t understand how helium works, though I remember I understood and would cherish the death of my balloons in the living room as they incremented into the rug and the whole house took on the air of hospice and I stroked the balloon where it wrinkled and began my path to intuitive understanding that to inject it with air would be to kill it, that the very nature of injection—pin, plunge—was in opposition to the nature of balloonskin, that there was no solution, no transfusion, though the ingredient for its survival was everywhere, was air” (11).

[20] Rachel Levy, “A Turkey Baster Is Just Like a Penis”