AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
For a story that’s about sex six days a week, there’s something prayer-like, even Biblical, about Emma Copley Eisenberg’s “Sundays.” Jeffrey, a scientist, is Mondays and Thursdays, Lamya, a Muslim marine biologist, is Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and polyamorous Beth, who lives in North Carolina with her primary partner, is Fridays and Saturdays. Six days, three different people to love or desire.
“Is this too much desire?” she asks rhetorically. “The world says yes, but I say no.”
Eisenberg’s narrator is confident yet reflective; she is assured in what she wants and understands what it requires of her, and of others. She describes her “way of living” as “not for the faint of heart,” as requiring “vain and detail-oriented work.” “Is this too much desire?” she asks rhetorically. “The world says yes, but I say no.” Her schedule is accompanied by a meditation on what she describes beautifully as “bothness,” which leads to an understanding of herself that is bittersweet and profound.
“Sundays” is a story for which it feels imperative to read every word, and that rewards second and third readings. Eisenberg writes like Grace Paley for 2017, with sentences that are at once compact and airy, assertions that are also questions, and politics that are radical yet tenderly cultivated.
Sundays, of course, are for rest and decompression. These are the days the narrator drives home on the interstate, sits by herself, and calls her friends. Driving lends itself to a certain kind of ideation, wandering and full of possibility. Best to let Eisenberg have the last word on what those possibilities might lead to: “There are places you can go where contradiction doesn’t matter, where logic isn’t anything, where the sum is always more than zero, but we hardly ever live there. Why?”
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
Sex Six Days A Week
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by Emma Copley Eisenberg
You want to know what I think about knuckle tattoos, about getting the words BOTH WAYS across your fingers, oriented so you can read it instead of the world. There is a man I know who can do it, though he has told me it will not be easy. There will be plastic gloves involved; you will have to be very gentle with your hands for a very long time.
I understand what you are getting at. I too have always wanted things both ways. As a child, my parents would pause me on the corner, metal bubby cart full of greens. Do you want to go to the bakery with Dad or do you want to go home with Mom? Sometimes we tarried there thirty or forty minutes while I looked between their faces, the cabs rushing south.
I want both ice cream and pie, to live by the ocean and in an ocean of strangers. One day I stick a jumbo yellow barrette in my hair, pair it with a white cotton sundress; the next I’ll pull out Carhart work pants and a loose tank top. I do not mix and match, I do not mashup. I separate, alternate, switch, repeat. Girls and boys and everyone else.
Is this too much desire? The world says yes, but I say no. There is something unmatched in juxtaposition, the way you can be using the hand you have inside a girl who is saying oh shit into your neck and then later it will be you saying oh shit from the crevasse made by two pillows as a man pulls you back again and again. More than this, it is the subway ride between them, the deliciously authentic and clearly untenable sense of dragging together into the moving, public light, gestures and words that we are told happen only in still, dark rooms on opposite sides of town. In Philadelphia the train hurtles above ground, past American flags painted on carpet factories and four-lane Interstate 95 which you have traveled in every season and in every kind of weather at some point in your life. I like that word — untenable. It means impossible to hold onto with your hands. It doesn’t mean impossible.
I don’t know if this is a story because what has happened so far may not be connected to what is coming. I have discovered that there are logistical reasons why the world does not put forth bothness as its first and most available offering, why we are told: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. This way of living is not for the faint of heart. It’s vain and detail-oriented work. A great deal of looking in the mirror. A great deal of hedging your bets — you can cut your hair short, but if you do, be prepared to lose weight and purchase earrings. It requires discipline, taking only what can fit in a purple backpack, and a great deal of advanced planning.
Let’s start at the beginning of the week, with Jeffrey, a scientist who I see on Mondays and Thursdays in my neighborhood. I have never seen the inside of his apartment though I know which window it is and walk by it often on my way to get Seltzer. He appears at my door in old white sneakers; later after he leaves he will jog eight miles in the dark. At first this disappointed me, I thought he would be a man good for quiet trouble, down to drink many beers on many porches and roam these cracked streets for hours in summer while we talked about music and movies and god and made out on a basketball court. Instead, I cook him pasta, pork chops, black rice. This is good, Jeffrey says, licking the plate clean with his bony index finger. He does the dishes then runs his hands through his hair which sticks up like a cartoon of a hedgehog, a cartoon of a boy. I’ve patched the elbows on two of his button-ups. There’s nothing to be done about the t-shirts but throw them away. After dinner, we sit on the steps so he can smoke and so I can watch the boys bouncing basketballs. His big knees rise nearly to his chest even from where he sits below me. We talk to my neighbor who works as an orderly at the hospital down the block. We talk about the little girl who died at the school nearby because there was no school nurse that day and about how there is still no school nurse there. I take a certain pleasure, I will admit, in how my neighbor sees us — two white kids sitting close together on a stoop.
Lamya is Tuesday and Wednesday nights, half an hour East on the train that runs across this city. She lives in a communal house of queer Muslims close to the gym where I box, which is how we met. We were assigned to hold the bag for each other at my first class. I fretted about kicking her in the face; she didn’t. As she jabbed and cross-kicked, I absorbed the bag absorbing her. I had never before seen a person in a hijab and athletic shorts — crimson mesh with white piping, the colors of an elite education. So, I said, over beers at one of the brew pubs in her neighborhood, how is it that you worship Allah and also fuck women? I think she got up right then. Sorry sorry sorry, I said. My interest in contradiction can make me rude. She sat down. For the rest of the date, we talked about Riot Grrrl. It took us months to kiss more than a peck. Are you attracted to me? I asked finally. Yes, she said. Oh yes. Now she gets excited just touching the edge of my skirt in a movie theater or the strap of my purple backpack at a lecture. Underneath her hijab, her hair is short and unbrushed. I feel ashamed to know this, as if underneath is not what I should be looking for.
I can’t tell you her real name. Her family in Jeddah are happy that she is a marine biologist and lives with other Muslims. She and her housemates sit on aluminum bar stools around a large kitchen island and eat bowls of expensive blueberry ice cream. I try to remember what I learned in tenth grade social studies when we did religions of the world, the Five Pillars of Islam. Only one comes back to me — There is no god but your God. The conclusion they reach is that Islam and fucking women are deeply contradictory but that it is possible to live in contradiction, that contradiction, in its nature, does not necessarily cancel out either property. The equation does not add up to zero, her friend, the doctor, says, before killing the rest of the pint. Later, when she is the tree and I the koala, Lamya cries, taking her hand like a duckbill to her eyes and flinging the tears across the room like a father.
Memory: my father getting ready for court. He calls my name and I come to where he is seated at my mother’s dressing table. He was colorblind and needs help. Does this go? he asks, holding up a red tie to a white shirt. Sure, I say. No, he says. It either does or it doesn’t. He is defending a man who killed his wife then put her body in the furnace of their apartment building. But he loved that dog, my father tells me as he is leaving, showing me a picture of a killer next to a German shepherd with extremely large paws.
I slip down into Lamya’s white cotton comforter, into sleep, underneath the memory, underneath my mother’s dressing table. In the dark green carpet are seashells that rattle when I pick them up. I keep rattling one and waiting for the thing that is doing the rattling to emerge from the shell’s hole but nothing emerges. Then the shell is closed, two shells cleaved together like a locket, and then always, that rattling sound. I wake to Lamya praying on the floor, the soles of her white feet facing the bay windows to the East. She chants words I have learned mean peace and blessings upon you, mean mercy. She touches her forehead to the carpet.
Beth is how I began loving this way, simultaneously, with all my pockets turned inside out. My Fridays and Saturdays, she calls herself a mama’s boi. In her farmhouse in North Carolina, where she lives with her forever partner who looks just like her but taller, she has a wall of snapback hats. Beth is only half her real name — she dropped the –any for a multitude of reasons, most of them about masculinity. She doesn’t believe in microwaves but believes very much in gyms, and in suffering for results. She still has a flip phone. As I drive the switchbacks, she yells at the inept receptionists of state senators, the national heads of agencies with intimidating acronyms. She organizes people to care about rivers and also builds complex wooden boxes which she fills with tiny objects — metal soldiers, trilobites, miniature slinkies. If you met her, you would want her. Most people do. We have picked blueberries in the woods of the highest point in West Virginia, we have lain with our spines against floorboards on the outside deck of a house on stilts in coastal Mississippi while Gulf-powerful mosquitoes sucked on our toes and ears. She says, relationship structure. She says, just tell me what you need. There came a certain point, she says, where I realized I could not just sit back and say, my girlfriend is killing me. She holds my hand and rubs my palm as if she is about to read it. She rolls her face an inch from mine and stays that way all night. This makes it challenging for me to breathe. I breathe slowly and lie awake. In pictures of her from childhood, which her mother offered to me in a neat album one Thanksgiving, Beth is thin in a striped bikini, squinting hard at the camera in an expression that might be crank or might be rage — as if the camera clicked just before she could scream.
Sunday mornings arrive bright and foreign with too much coffee and not enough dreaming. I drive the four lane highways of I-95 up or down the East Coast from wherever I have been with Beth. I listen to the radio, to books on tape, and talk to my friends on the phone. They live in Boulder, San Francisco, Tucson; they work, they marry. I’m tired, I say. Too much traveling, they say. Stay home. They talk to me about the jobs they are finding for their students who are felons, the briefs they are filing, the emails they are answering, the art they are making — huge canvases full of nothing but red, nothing but blue, real gold leaf on top of faux gold leaf. My sweet friend Leah, a nurse, keeps me from falling asleep by describing the latest videos I’ve missed — dogs snuggling panda bears, a man who built a palace for his cat entirely from cardboard boxes.
And then it’s dawn; not quite yet Monday. Beth has texted: Goodnight with an emoji of a person sleeping in old-fashioned pajamas. Lamya is on her knees, facing East. Jeffrey is smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. Soon he will walk to work in his one tie, then he’ll be at my door again. You are thinking there is chaos here, and vast disappointment, and likely loss. You are thinking, when you build your body for too many people at once, no one comes to see it. And you are partly right, as I have said. It takes time to be in transit; I am often already gone, but not yet arrived.
There are places you can go where contradiction doesn’t matter, where logic isn’t anything, where the sum is always more than zero, but we hardly ever live there. Why? This is a useless line of thinking. That much I can report back.
At least I can say I tried. At least I can say I have found a way to live there one day a week. On Sundays, I park my truck on the street where my neighbor’s son has opened the fire hydrant. I fling open the door to my house and let the mail that has accumulated fall to the tiled floor of the vestibule. I sit down on a chair and because there is nothing to do yet, I do nothing. Don’t think, don’t remember, don’t dream.
I wonder if BOTH WAYS are really the words you want. I wonder if what you want is words.
I tell you my hands cannot take tattoos. The flesh there got puffed and scarred from the tailpipe of a Cameroonian motor bike when I was reaching for something in the dirt the summer I turned twenty-one. The man to whom the motorcycle belonged grew up minutes inland but just the day before, saw the ocean for the first time. I watched him wade in to his ankles then turn back.
My hands! I cried, they’re ruined now. My friend laughed. That will hurt like a mother, he said. And it will last forever.