What We Know
The inevitable confusions and frustrations…did not end with the closing of the frontier…(a)nd, as with all frustrations that cannotbe either mediated or resolved, the frustration…was finally expressed through anger—anger at the land that had seemed to promise and then defeat men’s longings for an ambience of total gratification.
- Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land
in pen. I summarize stories I’d acted out with dolls, sticks and stones as a child, what I see as the gestation of my creative self. I am surrounded by enough good men that I hardly find them notable, and yet I tell these stories of women’s kingdoms in the sky, where Totally Hair Barbie reigns over a group of flying horses and women transported there via a portal in a closet in a terrestrial women’s shelter. They swoop down to earth on occasion to exact vengeance on their oppressors.
“Everyone knows the Ken doll is a rapist,” I read, and look up for reaction. My teacher smiles. I am proud of that line; I know I’ve entered into a more complex relationship with the audience by including it.
The girls in my class snort-laugh. They know why moms send their kids barefoot across snowy yards to the neighbor’s, and maybe their dads are the ones, like mine, who call the cops and make hot chocolate, or maybe they’re the ones taken away in cuffs while the neighbors stare. But Ken can only play one role at a time, and anyone can make hot chocolate and call the cops.
I’m right, I think. They do know.
I make a life in Denali National Park, a place most people only pass through. Like most Denali lives, mine starts with summers.
Alaskan summer comes on like a drug, bright green and gaudy and forgotten in the cold haze of September. It’s the annual boom to the bust of winter, when most of the jobs, the people who work them, and the tourists who pay for it leave for warmer places where the bar windows aren’t boarded up. The Great American Wilderness, untouched, untrammeled, and for four months of the year, like so many tourist destinations, host of a grownup summer camp for people unfit or uninterested in “real jobs.” Each generation of seasonal employees thinks they’re the first to think of the nicknames: Never-Never Land, the Land of Misfit Toys. Each generation thinks they’re the first to switch the “I” to spell “Denial,” as in “My summer in Denial.” Clichés abound. “What happens in _____ stays in _____,” etcetera.
Which is to say we take pride in social obliviousness. Which is to say we sometimes feel ourselves exempt. We really might not know any better. Actions are viewed as separate from context, and here, even context is removed from context. Each summer is a new lifetime. Each summer dive bar a testament to the routine of forgetting.
For a few summers, I go out most nights, maybe do a shot with a guy everyone likes and I think I should too, even though I find his theatrics overwrought, his charisma somewhat lacking. We have what I think is a half-decent conversation, and then later he asks me to kiss him. My suspicions confirmed, but I keep talking. I remind him he’s married, which he declares irrelevant, and persists. Maybe it is; what do I know. I try to turn the conversation back to work, to the park, to the fluctuating wolf population, but I don’t walk away, and on the shuttle home, a fifteen passenger van driven by a sober twenty-three year old with a saint’s patience for shit-faced old men, he dives over a seat and latches teeth onto my shoulder, through two layers of clothing, and there will be bite marks in the morning. No one is surprised. He has a reputation. He has a great mustache. He is, generally speaking, forgiven. Other women forgive him for worse, or knew better than to engage at all. I’m called petty for holding the grudge.
Another night, same bar, different man. This one can’t hold down a job, can’t hide his addictions, makes art he can’t sell. He has the facial hair and social skills of a man who lives alone all winter without a mirror. I’ve been warned: he is To Be Avoided. But I feel for him, as I believe humans should feel for each other, wish for him health and comfort in his own skin. Once, he tells me I’m “the best intellectual we’ve got,” and in the wilderness of Denali/Denial, where one can be a “badass” but rarely an “intellectual,” that means something, even coming from him, so I talk. Like adults might. Like I don’t know any better.
He takes conversation as a promise. I say it isn’t, that I’m going home with someone else (there’s gotta be someone else here, someone sober with a car) even though he promises a good Scrabble game (I’m the best intellectual, after all) and the best head of my life. He turns to leave, then thinks better of it, turns back and kicks my shins, hard, like a tire he wishes weren’t flat, and keeps kicking past me and into the wall. If he weren’t so clumsy-drunk he’d take me with him, but I am less drunk, mad, and faster, and bored with this shit. My legs bruise. I go home alone.
These stories are met with eye-rolling, with “oh, that so-and-so, what do you expect.” Depending on the charisma of the drunk in question, there is an affectionate grin or a disgusted snort. There is no mention of a violent culture of entitlement. There is no mention of the rampant alcoholism in seasonal communities. There are no apologies. That’s just what men do when they think no one’s watching, when “no one” means a room full of people, half of whom think the place disappears once snow falls. What happens stays. Etcetera.
Last I heard of my Ken doll, he was strung naked from the ceiling of a kid I hung out with in high school, who’d taken him home to film a portion of a group project for English class. My friend kept him, and periodically described his fate as the morbid art project developed. After a few months I stopped asking, partly because I didn’t want to seem too invested in my childhood toys and partly because the attention paid to the doll’s torture got weird. Everyone knows…
I stayed into the months after the bars closed, and then I stopped caring when they reopened in spring. Maybe year-round residence means accountability. Maybe it means you just get used to drinking at home, or you learn to let your grudges walk into the bar before your compassion. Every mustache, every man selling jewelry out of his pockets and every woman giving him the benefit of the doubt starts to look the same, and they frequent every small town dive bar.
Anyone can make hot chocolate, but not everyone does. Anger comes easier, and forgetting.
The Denali biter retired. He’s featured on T-shirts, on Adopt-A-Highway road signs. A Never-Never-Land legend.
The kicker lost his license, and hitchhikes a lot, year-round, bundled thumb out at twenty below.
I used to pick him up, but I don’t anymore.