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Explain It To Me by Jenessa Abrams

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Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow. Her work has been supported by the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in fiction and literary translation. Find her at jenessaabrams.com.

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K asks me to take her to the laundromat. We are at an artist colony; it is large enough to rank residents’ beauty, and small enough to find a tiny thing of beauty in everyone. 

The colony is in a remote town, nestled off in the woods. A ways down there is something of a main road with a take-out spot, a laundromat, and a single gas pump. 

When we arrived, we were handed pamphlets that told us to unplug from our lives, to stop thinking about the things that exist on the outside, to be present here, to not let anything or anyone distract us from our work. 

Currently, I haven’t done shit. Or I have done shit, but not even that much of it. My camcorder is charged, but I have lost all desire to shoot. I stare at my computer, open a Word document, glide my finger along the track pad, and watch the cursor move. Then I am on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or The New York Times, I am scrolling, I am reading, then I stop reading, I open a new tab, then I start all over again. 

Now I’m trying to draft dialogue in a notebook. 

There is a mix of us here: writers and visual artists, filmmakers and sculptors. K and I are on the younger end, though I find it delightfully impossible to judge anyone’s age when we’re all sleeping on twin mattresses and attending communal meals.  

It is K’s first time in this country. It’s her first time away from home. It’s the first time her mother isn’t boiling water and pulling chicken from the bone and sprinkling cardamom and reminding her to set out cloth napkins for only three from now on. 

The food is funny here, K says, in the barn where we eat spaghetti spooned from a metal vat the size of a bathtub. I nod and say I agree with her. She squeezes my hand. I am the only person here who hasn’t tried to sleep with her. We are girlfriends. She smiles and kisses me on the mouth.

I don’t tell her that means something different here. 

K knows a handful of English words, but her smile is the way she says, How are you? and, No tell me, I want to know, and when it isn’t there, when she isn’t smiling, I can feel that she is sad, but I don’t know how to ask what it is that’s upsetting her, and when I start to use my hands, gesturing at tears that aren’t there, she shrugs her shoulders and rolls her eyes in a way that I don’t think means I’m annoying her, but that maybe means I am only further confusing her, so I try with words and say, What’s troubling you? And she repeats the word trouble, but it sounds like rumble when it leaves her mouth. 

She has one of those mouths that looks like it is always pursing, but really it is just plump, plump and circular, and her laugh, her laugh is deep and full, and she tries the word trouble again, laughter still pouring out of her, only when she says it, what she really says is rumble, then she shimmies her shoulders and balls her fists up, like that’s how they rumble in the movies, and now I can’t stop thinking about how good she would look in leather pants, her thighs all shiny, the fabric tightly wrapping around her skin. 

Not understanding you. She frowns when I glaze over. Sorry, I say. 

This happens sometimes. 

.  .  .

K has never seen machines like these. She sets her painting portfolio on the ground and skips around the dingy laundromat, running her fingers along the rows of washers. A few of the machines are full, but we are the only ones here. Now there’s a squiggly line of K’s prints across the face of each made out of lint. I want to trace it with my own thumb, but if I did, I might erase the place where K was. 

Like home. She sniffs around, though I think she smells the grease from the take-out place next door, the buildings share a wall. She rocks her head up and down, and turns as if to say, You agree, don’t you? And I say, Exactly like home, because I know she loves that word exactly. It is so simple to her. Exactly means Yes, we understand each other. Means, I agree with you. Means, yes, yes, yes, I hear you. You are right. We feel the same thing; you feel it and I feel it too. 

Now what do we do? 

I slide coins into the aluminum box and wait for the small thump of the detergent packet. 

K’s interest in me is gone. 

She is staring up at the painted border that stretches across all four walls. 

Now that’s home, she says, pointing up. 

The border is dark blue and has a thin clothesline running through the center; mismatched socks with glitter detailing hang from wooden clothespins. There is a pattern of tiny clocks above each; they display big and small hands, some are gold-rimmed, others appear to be floating. 

None are the same, K says. 

I follow her eyes. She makes excited circles, stomping her feet and pointing up like, Quick, look before it’s gone. She is wonderstruck like a child and wise like she’s already lived many lives.  

I look up and see that she is right. K catches all the things I miss.  

Each sock is painted differently. Some have small hearts where the toes should be, others have polka dots around the entirety of the thing; the adornments are in lavenders, yellows, and greens. 

Lost socks, K says. How amazing

I’ve come to learn that amazing means something different to everyone. 

.  .  .

When K and I first met, she saw me editing footage by the river and asked me how many hours I’d worked that day. I said two, which was mostly true, although, I was incapable of permanent removal, so really, I was just moving discarded frames into folders, pretending one day they’d be useful. Her eyes lit up, something like a timer going off, and she said, You are amazing. And the way she bled the words are and amazing together and flicked me on the knee with her thumb and her index finger made me feel like maybe I was amazing, or maybe I could be amazing, but then in the barn, I heard her say that the comforter in her bedroom was amazing, and then when she went for a walk in the woods, she found a ladybug crawling up her leg, and it stayed there until she made her way back to the colony, and wasn’t that amazing too? And the most amazing thing, the thing that K thought was more amazing than any of the other things, was the way the light fell in her studio, just across her easel, which was mostly blank, because she was having trouble painting here, but the light made its own painting, and one time, K let me watch the sunlight land in little slants where her paint should be. 

It’s amazing, K said. 

Exactly, I agreed. 

.  .  .

I help K dump her clothes onto the table in the laundromat. A woman wheeling a metal basket stomps in and lets the door slam. 

K hadn’t thought to bring a laundry bag, so we had to round her dirty things up in a grocery sack from the floor of her room. As we make piles, I try not to let my hands dwell on the slips I find or the textured lace of her thongs. The clothes are dirtied, but they smell of K, of grass stains and too much sunlight; once they’re in the machine, all of that will be gone. 

Are these delicate? I ask when we’re ready to begin. 

Soft? I say when she doesn’t respond. I don’t want you to ruin them.

How do you know? K asks. 

Do you not understand?

No, I do. K presses her hands against the table and straightens her back. I understand. I just don’t know the answer. 

At first I’d assumed things were easy for her. K was so beautiful, which I’d been taught as a girl meant immediate control upon entering a room. That if you looked a certain way, you could actually alter the way the air moved. That if you widened your eyes just enough when looking up, a reminder that you were down below, if you pressed your breasts together with your elbows, you could make anyone do anything. Or at least, you could make yourself known. 

That is not how things work at an artist colony. Well, it is and it isn’t. See, upon arrival, K had a collection of men and women spooning the outside of their cereal bowls because they got distracted by the way her body swayed when she stood up to get yogurt. All of us were hypnotized, metal spoons clanging against porcelain. But then when K joined our table, an empty chair always waiting for her, someone brought up their project, or their novel, or their exhibition, or their philosophical motivation for why they’d become an artist, and I’d watch K’s eyes, watch the way she nodded instinctively and smiled without feeling it, and I could tell how badly she wanted to say something, wanted to ask us to slow down, to explain in simpler terms what it meant when someone said, I’m working within and outside of constraints, but she didn’t and no one thought to ask her. She was just a pretty thing sitting there, and we took pleasure in looking at her. 

The day I took K aside and said, Is this difficult? she pulled my body into hers and held me there, put her thumb on my hip and pressed the rest of her hand to my spine. We stayed like that, our bodies molded together, until a sculptor walked by and tried to hug us both, and we nervously brushed each other off, and she laughed, and I tried to make words or sounds or anything come out of my mouth, but I couldn’t and instead, I just stood there and replayed the way it felt to be that close to another person, even for a short time. 

Later K found me recording the sound of the river and said, Thank you for seeing. And we tried to tell each other all the ways we were unhappy, me mumbling something about sleepwalking, and her squinting her eyes, trying to focus on the words, me trying to simplify them with alone and not here. Her saying, Sometimes we’re like lobsters, which I thought was very funny, but her face got cross when I laughed, so I stopped immediately and she said, No, I am serious. When lobsters—you know what I mean when I say, ‘getting bigger’? 

Grow, I whispered. 

Grow, K repeated. When lobsters grow, they—they can’t stay in their shells. They leave them. But then there’s no shell. They’re naked. That’s when she touched my leg. That’s what’s happening to you. You are naked; you don’t have a shell. You feel—how do you say? 

I leaned to meet her fingers. I feel exposed. 

Exposed. The word sounded better when it came from her lips. Exactly, she said. 

Exactly, I agreed.

.  .  .

We close the machine and I show K which button to press so she can do the wash even when she is alone. 

How do we know it works? she asks, settling into a folding chair, lifting her portfolio to her chest. 

We wait. 

Okay, she says, elongating the ‘ay’ so it hangs in the air. 

Then together we wait. 

I think something is happening.  

She undoes the string holding her paintings together, and for a moment, I imagine her undoing the bows on her spaghetti straps. 

Oh. Her voice is a whisper.

I look away. 

Is it stained? 

There is sweet relief in thinking you’re caught and then realizing you’re still hidden.

Does it need a wash? she asks when I don’t respond. 

I want to say, yes. I want to slip it off of her. I want an excuse to take her shoulder in my palm, to feel the curve of her, to let my fingers tumble down her arm, to linger all over her. She is the first thing that has woken me in weeks, months probably. She is curious and beautiful and sad, but sad in a way that I know something is happening; it isn’t the sadness I have, the sadness that sinks you, sinks you so low that you can’t form words or thoughts, that you just stare out the window, or refresh your phone, or refresh your email, or refresh your profile, and wait to see if anyone is poking you, if anyone is following you, if anyone is liking you, if anyone is mentioning you, if anyone is doing anything that you can attach yourself to. 

No, I say. You’re good. 

K giggles. There is no other word for the sound she makes. 

You say that a lot. 

My face gets hot. 

Good. She says the word; it is guttural in her mouth. It comes from under her tongue.

The washing machine begins to hum. She kicks her heels against the ground and claps her hands. It works. 

There is enchantment in things doing what they are meant to. 

.  .  .

Last night, in the basement of the barn, K showed me the first painting she’d begun. 

Tell me what you think, she’d said, holding a sheet of canvas paper. This is all I made. 

Can I touch it? 

My hand was already on the parchment. She dropped her finger next to mine, and together we felt the places where the paint had thickened. There were uneven ridges and clumps.

I saw abstract faces, open mouths; the colors were burgundy and straw and violet. There was more blankness than object.  

What do you think? she’d said. How does it feel? 

I stared at our fingers on the paint.  

I’m not sure. 

I’ve never understood how to talk about art. 

We’ll say it together.

What do you mean? 

How it feels. K’s eyes were hungry. Say it on the count of three. 

Our mouths opened in unison: Sex, K said. Emptiness, I squeaked.   

There was no language to mistake, nothing to translate. I looked back at the painting. K was silent, until she wasn’t. 

The two are the same, she said. 

We shared something like understanding. 

.  .  .

The washing machine roars and our chairs shake against each other. The woman with the cart moves three loads into the dryer. Now she’s settled in the corner with a cotton blanket and a stack of magazines scattered around her. 

Why are you helping me? K asks as the metal of our seats clang together. Shouldn’t you be working?

Maybe. I turn my notebook over in my lap.   

I am trying to make a film about Lana from elementary school. It is about her and not about her; it is what really happened and what I can remember. She was tall and had thick, black glasses that took over her face. The lenses were shaded and at first this troubled me to no end because she was allowed to wear sunglasses during class when everyone else wasn’t. 

As a child, rules were very important to me. Rules taught you how things were meant to be, that if you followed them, if you did what you were told, things would be okay for you; your loved ones would be safe and you would be happy. This was before I learned that abiding by someone else’s protocol didn’t guarantee security. But for a time, it felt like it could. 

I made friends with Lana by accident. She sat alone at lunch, still in her sunglasses, so I slid over with my tray of two lettuce leaves and a cup of bacon bits. I hadn’t meant to be noble; I wanted to know why the teacher made me put the pink sunglasses I got from the drugstore in my cubby when Lana got to wear hers all day. That didn’t seem fair to me. So that was the first thing I asked her. 

You don’t know? she said, dropping her plastic spoon in her lap. 

That’s why I’m asking, I said. 

Lana reached her arm across the table and held my cup of bacon bites in her palm. 

Thank you, she said. 

It turned out Lana was partially blind and I hadn’t realized.  

But that’s not what the film is about. There was this thing about being close with Lana, everyone assumed I was only spending time with her because she was blind and I was a good person, but that wasn’t it at all. Sure there was something about her not having anyone, that at first, maybe only on the second day, made it feel obligatory, but just as quickly, it became much more than that—Lana made me feel like I was everything to her. Never before had I mattered like that. 

There was this moment with her, when we became close enough friends, that I could say things without censoring. We were at that strange age when we stopped thinking of ourselves as children, but didn’t know how to be with other people aside from our families. That’s when I first became aware that there was a precise time in a friendship when it was okay to touch the other person. I think it’s different for everyone, but with Lana, I remember the moment exactly as it happened. It was behind the jungle gym when she took her glasses off. She let me feel the skin around her eyes. After that we grabbed each other’s shoulders and held hands on the swingset. A few years later, she moved to another town, and I stopped hearing from her. 

Just before I came to the colony, Facebook suggested I might want to be friends with her. There she was on my computer screen, still tall, still kind—I could tell from her picture, only she wasn’t wearing glasses anymore.  

.  .  .

When I look up, K is gone. There is a moment I think maybe she was never here at all, but then, above the growl of the washers, there is the familiar sound of coins descending in a vending machine, almost like scoring points in a videogame: ‘bing’, followed by ‘bing, bing’, and then there she is in front of me, plopping herself down, cradling a yellow bag of peanut M&Ms. 

These are my favorite, K says, pouring them straight into her mouth. 

She crunches down and immediately starts to snort. 

What’s funny? I ask, covering my notebook. 

It’s like dust, she says between bites.

Dust? I say.

She motions to her blouse and demonstrates picking something off.

Lint? I say.

Exactly! She smiles and there are chocolate candy pieces all over her teeth. 

Now we both laugh. 

It’s this smell, she says, somehow still radiant with her teeth covered in brown flecks. Now she is up again, running across the laundromat, feeling the edges of the washer with the base of her palms. 

The woman with the metal wheeler turns to look at us, shakes her head, then returns to her magazines.  

Smell is like memory, K says, pressing her face into the slot between the glass and the plastic. Come here; try it. 

I have been trying to avoid this sort of thing at the colony, I’ve been trying to get away from the things at home that made me feel invisible and insignificant and not really there at all, that prevented me from making art, and now all I’m making are audio recordings of waterfalls and fragmentary dialogues that maybe I’ll join together one day, or maybe I won’t, maybe this is the story I want to tell, or maybe I am completely wrong. 

Everything else keeps sneaking in. 

I join K at the washing machine and place my head next to hers. It’s like we’re sharing the same pillow, only facing in opposite directions, with the backs of our necks touching. 

She is right, of course. The smell is strong and lemony, there’s the combination of citrus and sweat and lint that brings me right back to my mother’s house. 

Stay there, K instructs. 

So often it feels like she’s reading my thoughts, or maybe what I’m thinking is obvious to her; maybe she is thinking the same things and wishing someone would name them for her. 

So I stay there and let that smell wash over me, it is so familiar. It is the smell of my mother late at night, hanging her blazer on the wire rack, her bony arms scooping up dirty things, parsing through them, the house shaking, me stirring in my sleep, knowing she is there, just not seeing her. When I was a child, she would stand outside my bedroom, barely in the door, just the chin of her, her shadow casting through the leak of light. When I got older, I thought I could feel her, I was sure she was standing there, but every time I checked, she was gone. 

She was never there when I thought she was. The not knowing unnerved me. There were mirrors in my bathroom, and I had a reflective armoire that looked out on the hallway. It seemed to say, Things appear larger than they are. I would look for my mother, but she wouldn’t be there. I wondered how large she really was, or how small, what my mother really looked like: what she looked like then and what she looks like now, if only I could see her. 

Back in my apartment, I send my laundry out. It is washed in a factory. I think by men with masks, men with cigarettes. I can smell the cigarettes on my clothes, and that’s how I know they’ve been touched, in someone else’s hands, folded against their chests. For me, that is enough.

Hey, K flicks me on the shoulder. You are doing okay? 

I steady myself and step back from the machine. I feel—I start to say. I have chills

Chills? K says. What does that mean? 

I bite my lip. It’s likeyou know when someone brushes your hair?  

K smiles and this time I know she understands. This time, the smile is real. 

Can I look at your work? She wiggles one hand out like she is waiting for a treat.

If you want.  

Amazing! She removes the other hand from behind her back; in it, is my notebook. 

Right now? 

Right now, she repeats. 

I sift through the loose sheets of dialogue sticking out of the book. I don’t want to give her the one about Lana. I’m not sure what it is yet. It isn’t close to done. 

Here, I say, settling on a scene that is short and for the most part simple. 

She holds the paper in front of her. She nods immediately upon looking down. I watch her trace the pattern of the sentences, count the lines. 

Good, she says, the word still so deep in her throat. 

She stands there scanning the page, and I stay where I am, still in front of the washing machine, more and more aware of how awkward my body is. 

What is this word? she asks. 

She is pointing to the scene’s title. 

Grief, I say.

Grief, she repeats. What does this word mean?  

The machines tumble in response.

Inside are K’s clothes with their stench of being out too long in the sun, with their small blots of oil and paint, with that very particular ‘K smell’, with their grass stains. Everything is tangled together now, all the pieces of her, about to be lathered in soap. They will be clean soon, restored to their original form. 

K points again to the word, then stares back at my face. 

Grief. She says it like maybe I hadn’t heard. 

Now she’s all shadows in the light from the window and the washing machine. She moves towards me, and there is a moment when the glow prevents us from seeing each other. 

After someone dies, I say. It’s close to—sadness

But it doesn’t go away, says the woman in the corner with the magazines. She’s holding underwear now. It is wide and cotton. Grief is forever, she says. 

The woman folds the underwear into itself. I can see the body being made smaller, being made to fit into something else. It is there and then it isn’t. It was wider than the washing machine, and then it was folded into nothing.

I don’t understand, K says. 

Think of your mother, I say. 

K smiles, big and toothy and impossibly beautiful, and grabs her phone. I think she is done with me, but she is not. She bops, she scrolls for a picture, she points; she bops again, just like a child. 

Betty! She more squeals it than says it. This is mi mamá, mi amor.

I think about saying, What if she died. But K is showing me Betty, and Betty is smiling in this picture, and K is the happiest I’ve seen her in the past three weeks, and this is the first time I’ve heard her speak like this. 

Imagine. I start to say, Imagine if your mother—what if she— 

But then I stop. 

The woman with the magazines huffs as she tosses washed things in her cart. 

What? K says. 

She puts the picture away; she hides Betty from me. 

.  .  .

On the door of each studio there is a copper plaque instructing residents not to disturb one another. “Unless the building is on fire or there is a true emergency.” We are reminded we are lucky for this time of reflection in a landscape unspoiled by modernity. “Free yourself from the digital world, if only for the length of your residency.”

.  .  . 

Tell me about grief, K says, finally. 

I don’t know how. I reach into my pocket. I’ll have to look it up.  

We return to our phones. 

The glow is on our faces now, no longer in the room. K pulls up photographs of Betty, and I scroll past definitions of grief until I can find something we’ll both understand.  •