Love Is Not a Permanent Structure
The following story was chosen by Min Jin Lee as the winner of the 2022 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. The prize is awarded annually by Selected Shorts and a guest author judge. The story will be performed live by an actor as a part of the 21-22 closing night of Selected Shorts on June 8: Tales of Fatherhood with Denis O’Hare.
Make Yourself into a House
We argue on a Manhattan sidewalk until you end the relationship on an impulse.
The crowd throngs on, unchanged. The August air tastes of dried pee, bright orange flakes I can almost see, crisp before they melt in my sour mouth.
That fall, I train to counsel LGBTQ youths in crisis. We are taught not to express pity. “I am sorry” can sound like judgment and compound their suffering.
Instead, make yourself into a house. I turn so large my insides are a whole season. My house has bright walls, against which their pain ricochets, then lands, on a quiet, soft floor.
I say, “that sounds like a difficult time.” I say, “it’s okay to feel this way.”
My grandmother died young, before she had a chance to meet me. One hot afternoon, in the early days of my parents’ marriage, my father’s old jeep broke down on a dirt road in Ipoh, their hometown. So young, they were all there, not yet passed on by the moving world.
My grandmother rested patiently by the roadside as my father, half-swallowed under the vehicle, patched the oil leak with soap, while my mother watched on.
“That image of her, relaxing, enjoying a popsicle in the sweltering sun, sits with me even now,” my mother says, once a year.
After the breakup, you come back, in tears, regretful.
I take you to Cape May and we sink our toes into the cold sand. You cry when the city lights across the horizon remind you of home, one you don’t feel you can return to. I don’t tell you what I think: your refusal to return is a choice. A hard choice – but a choice you have that I do not.
Don’t you see? You have a live grandmother. She breathes. I hate that you lie to her about me. Don’t you see? I would have told mine about you. You laugh, how cute, then call me cruel.
Girls loving girls can kill her with a heart attack. Do I want your grandmother dead too – is that what I want?
You, the perfect granddaughter, cannot clutter her arteries with the terrible fat of me. Instead, you clutter the house we share, fill it with books, photography equipment, mementos of art projects, light beams, cooking ingredients.
You take my photos and put them on your walls. You cook every dish you miss from home. When you have to kill the lobster, you turn the lights out so you can’t see it struggling and I can’t see you crying. You mutter sorrysorrysorry before you crack it wide open.
The last night we spend together, you refuse to sleep. You want to record in your mind’s eye what the loss of us will do to you. When we kiss our last kiss, I taste the clamor of a crowd on a Manhattan sidewalk.
I lose you to the clanging fog of New York; we don’t see each other again.
Now, I dream I’m searching for June. I have found my way to a love that is built like a house for me, too. I am with her now.
I stroll across meadows and let the spring dew soak into my sneakers. I walk across open clearings of woods. When I finally walk into the ocean, feet squishing, I see June. There, swimming. Her head bobs on the water’s surface. A seagull cries out and she laughs along, relieved to see me.
June swims toward me as if I am a lighthouse.
I hear you approach from the other side, on a boat, its engine sputtering. Come back, you cry out.
Someday, we won’t run adrift of those we love. But now, I am burning neon red. June rises out of the water, her hair dripping wet, and takes hold of my hand, even if I am a structure ablazed. I am with her now.
When I wake up, your boat is gone.
June kisses me and I taste salt, as if we have never left the ocean.
It must have been cold, a January day, but all I feel is heat, radiating brighter than a popsicle on a hot afternoon. June pulls me out of the water and onto the quiet floor, soft, and not yet shattered in tomorrow, we make a house of each other – we rest in there while the world passes us by.