They hung that name on you at birth, but Virginia was never your home. Read Nausea by Sartre and give yourself a new one. Trumpet your new name to the liver-spotted washroom mirror, like a coronation. Gape your mouth then angle your tongue behind your teeth. While you’re at it, work to remedy those other afflictions: that fetid high-hill r that has planted itself in the middle of words like wa-r-sh. Scrub the stink of manure from your clothing and while your young body churns over the basin, keep whispering your new, still-secret name. Believe that if you can just change this, you can change everything.
When your furtive girl body begins to unfold, pull your hair back so severely that the boys don’t tug you down below the bleachers. Take to wearing Daddy’s fishing flannels to ward off solicitations to tissue paper dances. Don’t accept it when they ask, Who do you think you are? Don’t accept the moldy hymnals, the marquee salvations. Don’t ache too badly for milk cows in the pasture, their slick contoured ribs pressing through. Take French, lock your doors, and trust in your own 16-year-old self.
Fill out an array of applications, but don’t tell Momma when you win a scholarship to an all-girls college toward the center of the state. Instead let the screen-door clap closed behind you. Let the brisk air rush by as you sprint barefooted to the creek bed. As breath stings your lungs and a stitch claws up your ribcage, howl victorious into the night sky.
At freshman orientation, chew up and swallow the first nametag they give you. Write yourself a new one. Someday soon you’ll make it official, this new and chosen name. Smile with restraint so that no one can question the slant of your eye teeth—those hidden incisors, white as fresh, warm milk, since according to Momma, there was fluoride in the well-water. According to Momma, she did not expect a girl-child and one light as her after all. According to Momma, nothing is promised in this world.
Tell the other girls you’ve lost both of your parents when they ask why you didn’t go home over Thanksgiving break. In the coming months, they’ll invite you places: a cottage On the Cape, a brownstone in Georgetown for New Year’s Eve. These young women who grouse over dining hall menus, who can’t imagine divining supper from scraps. Take note of the weight of their family silver, the line of first edition books along their parents’ mantels. Read Camus and Kafka to tatters. Read Simone de Beauvoir.
Work harder still and, as soon as you are able, transfer to a bigger school, one with a better language department. Don’t fret that it still sits in your namesake state—Virginia or Ginny, like your sweet-faced grade school friend used to call you. Those girls you grew up with who preened in pick-up headlights, who got knocked up then abandoned before reaching legal drinking age.
Study your new suburban suitemates but don’t follow them to their beer-soaked parties. Instead, take a Greyhound to a protest near the White House. Lead a chant against the bombs being dropped in a desert you can’t properly name. Shake your fists at those suited, greedy men determined to devour the world before you even taste it.
Work double shifts on weekends at the rural country club on the outskirts of your Blue Ridge college town. The steep, winding bike ride reminds you of Momma’s family land. Ferry trays to round tables of aging patrons: gin and tonics, jumbo shrimp cocktails, chicken cordon bleus. Couples shift in dusty three-piece suits and gowns glinting with costume jewelry. All that pomp against your black V-neck sweaters and second-skin leggings. Men ogle your cleavage, a few pinch your bottom: They all command you to smile. Watch how, as soon as their wives turn away, they circle back to lay more money on your table. Save every goddamn penny and buy a plane ticket to Europe.
Ride trains from Firenze to Munich, from Munich to Prague. Tell yourself, I am here, I am here, like a song. Here is history and culture and power. Here are the old writers who wrote books that you believe saved you. Here you are with your notebook outside a café: If you hold your mouth right, you feel like you nearly belong. Never mind that cobblestone recalls rutted gravel and your hostel’s stark duvets summon Momma’s mildewed quilts. Bolt upright in your sleeping carriage at the knock in the night as your train crosses yet another border. Curt foreign voices demand Passaporte! Hand over your full and legal name.
Outside a discotheque in Paris, lean into a striking dark-haired man. He whispers your chosen name to you, his accent making it new again. When he asks where you’re from, list a string of cities you hope to soon visit. Tell him London. Tell him Lisbon. Tell him Barcelona. Hurry back to his place and allow him to take you—a satisfying shock like diving into spring water. Call out a strand of inelegant rrrrrrs followed by a sob of release.
Turn your head, catch the eye of another man, less beautiful, but an artist—a photographer—and from a good French family. Don’t go to bed with this second man right away. Stay with him in the city in his family’s flat, weeks past your flight, forfeiting your final semester. Promise yourself you’ll go back and graduate in the spring.
When this man questions you about the States, answer him as if America is a dream you are still dreaming. Close your eyes and recall vast open spaces and sleepy small towns. Recollect men with skin so much darker than yours curled over saxophones. Speak to him in French of art and ambition—those foreign words rattling around in your neediest places. Flash him your crooked eye teeth and hope he sees what you mean to show.
Marry this man in nine months’ time, a small, secular ceremony back at your parents’ home. The animals have all been sold off or buried, but there is still that one narrow pasture. Tell yourself it’s only a handful of days, it only makes sense your new husband needed to see this place. Don’t tremble inside those peeling-paint walls. Don’t startle when Momma lays a tattered family bible in your hands. Silver photos chafe between yellowed pages, those pale, abiding ancestors of hers whose lives ended here where yours began.
Your parents look older than their years, their faces creased and furrowed. They refrain from using your new name but also hold the old one deep in their throats. Let Daddy walk you down the grassy aisle, dark and stoic in a well-pressed suit and wingtips. Let the girl from Momma’s church scatter petals on the ground. Your new husband seems to find all of it charming, even the new A&P in town, even Momma’s cola-soaked ham. As you walk with him along the muddy bank, notice how he mimics the way Daddy mumbles crik for creek.
Rent a place just outside of D.C. since a prestigious firm there wants to represent your husband’s work. Tell yourself it will be six months more in Virginia, a year at most. Your husband photographs looming constructions: bridges, facades. He’s out the door well before the light goes golden and works through sunset when the day is nearly gilded again.
While your husband is away, metro to Foggy Bottom, metro to DuPont Circle. Step through the automated doors into swampy summer heat. Don’t bristle at the sight of homeless men who sit near the exits with cardboard coffers open at their feet. Don’t stare too hard at the girl who brings your tea at the teashop, at her deep brown skin and closely shorn head.
Metro to the National Mall in winter. There you are, a dot of a girl in a wide gray landscape, gloves off and waiting in your lap. Scrawl something you remember of your one time in Europe: a story—you hope—of a girl who got away.
Come spring, dredge yourself from a nightmare of sinking to find yourself unaccountably seasick. Your husband is somewhere in Rome photographing famous ruins. Accept that this is your own fault, after all these years of brutal care. You’ve been reckless in the ways you’ve wanted, as if there was no end to want. As if the hungry burden of your husband’s foreign body could free you from your own.
Let motherhood present itself as a dull ache at your center. His voice ecstatic on the phone, your husband says he’ll be home in five days, seven at the most. On your next call, Momma, she gets sobbing—from joy? From grief? Eat Ho Hos and canned corn and thick cut bologna. Don’t ask yourself, where am I headed now?
Abandon yourself to wrenching labor, break open and birth a son. Eighteen months later, bear a girl, a daughter. Choose your son’s name, a clever French name, but let your husband name the girl. It sounds like a fine name, the way he first says it, but soon your daughter plucks a nickname from it, perky and provincial. Your husband’s career continues to lift, his inky seascapes lining gallery walls. While his agency flies him all over the world, you are tasked to stay behind and raise the children. Dig your nails deep into your thighs each night, but never let the inky bruises show.
Let your husband buy you a house in the suburbs, an outpost from which to raise these fair and fitful beings. Whenever he’s home, petition him still. Tell him you could live in Bordeaux or Brussels. Tell him you would live in Madrid. Never mind that already you know his stock answer, that the money is better working from the States.
Insist on a long trip to Europe each summer, though it reminds you of how big the world remains. Stay near La Rochelle, by the water, where your husband’s mother now lives. This woman, who wears crisp, white linen, who speaks to you in formal French and plants dry kisses on the children’s cheeks. The whole time you’ve known her, she’s kept the same servant, a North African lady who cleans and cooks and shops like a wife. When you glimpse this second serf of a woman, feel outraged and full of envy.
Those early years are trying: Persist! The children beg you to play on hands and knees. The children run screaming to greet their father whenever he bursts through the front door. Notice the lavish way he lifts them with only a weary peck on the cheek left for you. Jet-lagged, he collapses on the king-sized bed, leaving luggage for you to unpack. Much later, wake to the light of his cellphone, its blue glow in his eyes and your shared bed lurching to his needy rhythms. Let yourself feel something too, a pulsing sadness, a lumen of want, even if before you can whisper his name, he emits a shuddering groan that gives way to snores.
Notice how quickly the years are unfurling: the children double then triple themselves. The boy is five, the girl is ten, the boy is fifteen. Your husband’s gone bald, still women swoon at his stubbled jaw and muscled chest, as if he grows brighter even as you dim. You hear him outside, below your bedroom window, the same morning you find those forgotten notebooks full of your eager, awful words.
Gawk at those futile, straying stories and don’t pick up the phone when it rings. Momma’s voice will rise out of the machine to tell you your father has passed. Feel numb and at the same time untethered, as if an invisible cord that anchored you has now been severed. After the funeral, at the stoplight in town, your husband palms your stockinged knee. Believe he is consoling you until he says, We might consider moving here. For your mother’s sake, he adds.
Promise yourself you’ll never move back but take Momma’s calls every night. Each small thing she says makes its own kind of sense, but taken altogether, recognize a jumble of despair. Your husband’s been home for six weeks in a row, his unflagging presence setting all of your routines askew. Turn away when he mentions moving in with Momma, though he says this as if it’s a high-wire trick that might well save you. See how he sidesteps all talk of his dwindling work, the partial mortgage payments, the growing distances between you.
Put the house on the market just to see what it will bring. You are falling farther and farther behind so what else can you do? Accept the highest middling bid and let your husband call this Freedom. Your son, tall as you now, makes fists when you tell him, his young mouth twisting as if he holds kindling inside it. Your daughter slams her bedroom door, leaving you outside of its dry rattle. Press your ear to hear her mewl on the phone to a middle school boyfriend, a person you’ll never meet.
Those first weeks back are trying—hold on. The old rambling house is a circus and Momma’s confusion, a grotesque new exhibit. See how she stumbles over the children’s names—how she acts like a child herself some days. One bleak winter night, she wanders off though you don’t realize till the corded phone in the kitchen blares. Some city-sounding couple is on the line; they must’ve bought your old neighbor’s place. Race down to find Momma in your car’s searching headlights, alone in a grove of pine. Momma caped in a mossy quilt and spinning, your son’s filthy sneakers like rank mittens on her hands.
Move Momma into a nursing home and visit every day. Even though, whenever you walk in, her body seizes with agitation. Take a break, don’t go back, one day then another, until a week has passed. The first time you return, Momma grasps the arm of a passing staff member. Hear how she implores this uniformed stranger to tell her who in the world you are.
Your husband accepts sporadic assignments up and down the coast. He drives himself to Portsmouth, to Lexington, leaving you carless and stranded. He shoots portraits and street fairs and weddings, all of it ephemeral and small. Eventually he packs his cameras away, reminding you that he’s always loved jazz music. He uses the last of your savings to open a boutique record store in a strip mall in town.
The children attend your old high school—classrooms from which you once plotted escape. Each day they grow less tied to you, leaving longer swaths of your days free. One rainy spring morning, after dropping off your husband, collect a rustling stack of applications. Tell yourself they are for your daughter, but never show them to her. What could you do here with no real qualifications, not even having finished your degree? Could you be a clerk? A secretary? Could you wait tables again?
Meanwhile mulch Momma’s feral azaleas. Resurrect the kitchen garden that fed you as a child. Fashion a series of raised beds from the railroad ties abandoned behind the shed. Eat lunch on the side porch—white bread with sliced tomatoes—your face turns to the breeze.
The next time you visit the nursing home, Momma flies up in her wheelchair. She clenches you with such ferocity, it feels like you’ve only just met this woman who raised you. There are letters, she tells you, in the house. Letters your own dark and somber father once wrote to you. Promise me you’ll find them, Momma says. Hold her cloudy gaze. Graze her downy cheek. Let her warm breath fog your face.
Rifle through drawers, overturn crates, leaving everything gaping and churned. Even after days of fruitless searching, admit to yourself that you want to believe. Read in bed by ocher lamplight of glaciers liquefying and waves of refugees breaching Europe. When your husband asks what’s the matter with you, let your old wounds gleam. Look at him and plead, Take me away, even though you don’t know where there is to go, exactly. Your husband answers you in French, so quickly you can’t catch the words. When you ask him to repeat himself, he frowns and shakes his head. He reaches over and past you. With one bright click, he pitches the room to black.
After you and your husband separate for good, fill out each application. With central hiring and background checks, your legal name is required here again. All this time you promised yourself you’d change it, and now it feels too late. As you hurry out of the new Super Walmart, don’t dwell on the line of accented girls working three registers in a row. Did they come from Ethiopia? From Egypt? How did they end up belonging better than you in your nowhere, hill-tucked town? Balance heavy bags of groceries in the crooks of your arms and pinch yourself to keep from crying. Your nearly grown children sleepwalk beside you—the girl a sophomore, the boy a senior who will graduate soon. Their eyes remain pinned to the cell phones they hold of which you don’t approve. These devices were given to them by their father, to keep in touch, now that he’s moved back to the continent.
Keep moving and look straight ahead when you hear someone call after you: “Virginia! Virginia!” the voice draws nearer even as you quicken your pace. “Ginny! I can’t believe you’re here!” Feel red heat spread across your chest. Here is a girl you used to know, her face pale and still pretty though swollen with age. Let your body twist, let your arms fly up, even as your grocery bags fall to your feet with a clatter. Lunge in and holler, as loud as you can, “Virginia’s not my fucking name!” Roar into the glassy face of the grandchild this woman holds and tries to shield. Take in an endless, jagged breath, then squeeze the arms of your own wayward offspring. Slam the car doors shut and swerve away to a stench of burning oil. Take in the tableau in the rearview mirror: gaping mouths, your own daughter’s eyes welling and all those lost groceries which you can hardly afford to replace.
Know that they are real, and you will soon find them, your Daddy’s letters. You’ll unearth them in an antique chest, varnished in mold, that your father’s own people gave to him. Each letter will speak of dull but dogged yearning, each one will be hand-addressed to you. Virginia, you’ll confess to the foggy washroom mirror, your reflection thicker, age spots blooming on the backs of your hands. You’ll look hard and wonder how the time passed so swiftly, how your mark on the world remains shallow.
Tell yourself you can still start again—there is still time! Tell yourself, this time, you’ll trek across Asia. You’ll sail to Antarctica to witness the great ice caps weeping. This time, you’ll go to Africa to follow the last wild elephants’ run—you’ve read they have a secret language, sonographic as whale song. You’ll sing them a dirge and kiss the dust. Lay a humble ear to the ground and listen.
Chosen by: Timothy Johnson, Managing Editor
“Virginia Is Not Your Home” snuck up on me. When I first started reading it, the second person perspective stole my attention because it is often tried and usually failed. It succeeds, however, because it justifies the perspective choice to us. We get the sense the narrator is not speaking to us but to herself, and we are granted access to that intimate introspection, which spans an entire lifetime in just eight-plus printed pages. Beyond POV, the content moved me. There is a lot about origins and identity and the crossroads of the two. The narrator wrestles with whether she can change what is generally considered unchangeable. The structure also takes the form of a wheel, revolving us through independence and dependence, freedom and imprisonment, and finally, this story reaches beyond the esoteric. We are given peeks into the narrator’s specific experience, but there is substance encompassing its lovingly crafted core so that we can connect with the story on a human level. That, I think, is what all good fiction strives for.
Art: Kyle Cromer, “Goodbye Blue Monday, No.4” Phoebe Issue 49.2