The Midwest |


by Elizabeth Ellen

edited by Bryan Hurt

Two days earlier I’d texted Saul about his birthday. It was the end of November. He was turning eighteen.

“aww, u remembered,” he said.

I didn’t know what to text after that.

The last time I’d seen Saul was at a grocery store in town at the end of summer. Lee was at the meat counter. Saul’s sister came over with him to say hi. I was studying cheeses for a party we were having that evening: goat, brie. Saul’s sister said hi and then Saul’s sister walked away. Saul stood close to me, asked how I was doing, how Eli was doing. There was an unusual amount of fidgeting and shifting of weight. When Lee got back with the meat, Saul mumbled something and then Saul walked away.

I’d texted Saul when I got home. “You didn’t have to go running off as soon as Lee walked up like we’re in The Graduate and I’m Mrs. Robinson,” I’d said.

“Haha. I got scared,” Saul had said.

I was staring at a picture of Saul and Eli and me at a concert in New Orleans. It was Saul’s fifteenth birthday. Saul had asked the man standing next to us to take the picture. The man standing next to us hadn’t been wearing a shirt. The man standing next to us had several gold teeth.

We’d waited two and a half hours in the rain next to the shirtless man, stayed the night in an airport hotel. Now Eli refused to see Saul or to talk to him. She’d unfollowed him on Twitter. I checked her Twitter whenever I got bored. I checked her Twitter several times a day.

“What are you going to do for your birthday,” I asked Saul.

The photograph of Saul and Eli and me was in my head.

I was deleting our messages as soon as I sent them.

Saul said something about a girl at school and getting drunk and the girl’s boyfriend breaking up with her and the girl not coming to school.

I didn’t have a Twitter account. I’d deactivated it two times already. Eli said it would be embarrassing to reactivate it a third. I used Lee’s Twitter to check Eli’s. I didn’t think Lee knew this. I didn’t think Lee cared.

Another text came through from a young writer I’d started talking to.

“i blacked-out again last night,” it said. “i woke up in this other guy’s bed. i think my bf is mad at me.”

I wasn’t as interested right then in the young writer. The young writer was 22 or 23, lived in Georgia or Oklahoma; had written one good poem.

I asked Saul something about buying cigarettes. It was the only thing I could think of that was different now that he was going to be eighteen.

There was one other thing but I felt uncomfortable mentioning it. Mentioning it felt like a question or an invitation or something.

He sent me back a series of consecutive messages:

“naw fuck cigs” –

“cigs are gross” –

“i bought a pack over break and regretted it.”

I remembered Saul asking me to buy him a can of lighter fluid when he was fourteen. We were standing in the self-service checkout lane at Meijer’s. Later he asked me if he could have a scale for weighing marijuana sent to my address. I had a hard time saying no to Saul. He thought of himself as a young drug entrepreneur. I felt similarly about the writer who kept texting me. I didn’t like telling her no either.

“At least you can buy your own lighter fluid now,” I said.

“y bi what u can steel,” Saul said.

I kept deleting Saul’s texts. I liked the idea of having secrets even when the secrets would be of no interest to the person or persons from whom I was keeping them.

The young writer kept texting me.

“My job is really boring and meaningless. I think I want to do porn. I think I’m pretty good at sex.”

I didn’t text her back. I knew she’d keep texting even if I didn’t.

I knew there were people who felt similarly about me.

I hadn’t thought about Saul again the rest of the week. I didn’t mention our conversation to Eli either.

The last time the three of us had gone to dinner together she’d complained he was too nice to her.

“He held the door for me and told me I looked pretty,” she’d said.

“I never want to do that again,” she’d said.

In the past he’d always been pretty shitty to her, like a big brother is to a little sister on TV. Like he loved her, but not that much.

His politeness made her uneasy.

I thought it had something to do with Aidan, even after Eli said it had nothing to do with Aidan.

Saul’s parents had enrolled Saul in an east coast boarding school his sophomore year to avoid having him sent to a shitty alternative high school on the other side of town. There’d been an incident at the school here in Michigan over the summer, a break in, destruction of property, M.I.P.’s. The other boys involved were sent to juvie or to Stone school, where kids who got pregnant or in trouble went before they dropped out altogether, or before they were sent to juvie or prison. Both Saul’s parents had gone to Harvard. They had money and an attorney. They had influential friends at the university who could write letters to judges. I used to think Saul would end up at Harvard too.

Darius and Israel’s parents couldn’t afford attorneys. Or maybe they could only afford the ineffective kind. Or maybe judicial sentences for black and Hispanic kids were different from sentences for white kids. No shit.

My friend Sandrine’s son had been caught mailing methamphetamines internationally – a scheme he and another white kid had concocted when one of them went to a university in Canada and the other went to a university in Michigan and together they decided to be smalltime international drug runners. Sandrine asked Lee and me to write letters to the judge presiding over her son’s case. I felt conflicted doing so. I’d known her son over ten years. He was a decent kid, but so were Darius and Israel.

Aidan and a handful of other white kids we knew had had similar run ins with the law: shoplifting from Target, M.I.P.’s, vandalism.

Eli said Diondre had gone to juvie because when he robbed the gas station he’d had a sledgehammer with him so it was considered ‘armed robbery’ whereas when Aidan and his friend Seth were busted shoplifting expensive headphones and bottles of liquor from Target, they were unarmed, so it was more of a petty crime.

One of the Stone School kids – Sabio - was in prison now for stabbing Israel.

Sabio used to hang out with us sometimes on Friday nights, too.

Sabio was small for his age then – 4’ 11” or 5 foot. His dad was 6’ 6”, muscular, redneck. Sabio had a tiny Mexican mom, Saul said. Saul said Sabio had issues with rage.

One time Sabio got pissed because I threw his socks out the car window after he threw them in my lap. He called me a bitch and a fucking bitch and then he jumped out of the car at a red light.

A couple days later he wrote me a letter of apology.

He didn’t have very good handwriting. He wrote the note in pencil on notebook paper. He wrote, “Dear Eli’s Mom, …”

It seemed more sincere because it was written in pencil and because his penmanship wasn’t very good and because, when he wasn’t raging, he was still a sweet kid.

Saul said Sabio grew over a foot in prison. He was almost as tall as his dad now, Saul said. He was selling weed like his dad now, Saul said.

I wrote the letter for my friend Sandrine’s kid. So did Lee. He didn’t end up going to prison. He ended up sitting in a county jail in rural Michigan a few weeks, playing poker and reading books Sandrine and I sent him, and after that the judge allowed him to return to his university in Canada. I felt guilty I’d helped him get off so easy. I felt guilty the system was so rigged in favor of white kids, even though I knew Aidan and Seth wouldn’t have gotten off that easy either.

I didn’t know how tall Israel was now. Eli wasn’t sure what had happened to him after the fight; how bad he’d been hurt, if he’d gone to jail too. He was another boy we lost contact with, another boy who dropped out or was pushed out of school, another boy who wouldn’t go on to college, another boy who’d already been in and out of juvie, who already had a record, a reason not to give a shit, who didn’t have an attorney or parents who’d gone to Ivy League schools.

Of the boys Eli and Coco and Alondra hung out with, of the boys I’d bought pizza, made waffles, only Saul and Jehu would go to college. Jehu was a football player, a dancer, a good student. Jehu somehow managed to stay out of trouble, even while hanging with boys who didn’t. In a year Jehu would be enrolled at a primarily African-American university in the south. Once, when he and Eli were still dating, Jehu has asked to borrow a stack of books from our bookshelves. Whenever I ran into him after that he talked about one of the books, how it’d changed the way he thought about life. It was a large book, 1000 pages. I pretended to have read it.

Wednesday Eli texted me on her way home from school. She wanted me to meet her at Urgent Care. We didn’t have health insurance or a family doctor. We were frequently at Planned Parenthood and Urgent Care. I didn’t like the people who had their small children hold signs outside Planned Parenthood. I drove as fast as I could past them but they still bothered me. I worried one of the small children would run out in front of me, that I’d accidentally kill one of the Pro-Lifers kids.

I was less anxious at Urgent Care. There was no one standing outside.

I sat and tried to read a magazine but the waiting room TV was tuned to a station that showed local courtrooms. Two people who looked like someone’s boring uncles were debating lane closures somewhere in town. Someone had turned the volume very loud.

I didn’t think Eli had strep.

I remembered a nephew of a friend having Chlamydia of the throat.

I hadn’t known you could get Chlamydia of the throat until her nephew got it.

I remembered a Planned Parenthood campaign from the late ‘80s: Chlamydia is not a flower.

I didn’t think Eli had Chlamydia of the throat, I was just thinking about the campaign.

Alondra sent me a text about Coco. The four of us went to dinner sometimes, now that the boys were all sent away. “Her nudes are in the high school Drop Box,” Alondra said. “There’s a video of her in there too.”

When Eli came out I asked her about Coco.

“So many girls are in the Drop Box,” she said. “Every high school has one.”

I still didn’t like thinking about Coco being in there. I wanted to figure out a way of getting Coco out.

I remembered when Eli was in the third grade, an African-American graduate student from the university in town coming to our apartment and interviewing Eli and me about how often I read to her and how often we went to the library and what books Eli read on her own.

He was interviewing the families of everyone in Eli’s class.

He was a sociology major. Or an elementary education major.

He was interested in studying the disparity of academic performances of black kids and white kids in the school system; coming up with theories as to why there existed almost no disparity in the elementary years and why it grew so markedly in middle school and high school.

I was interested in his theories also, in the data he collected.

I was hoping the families would be able to read his final paper.

Or the outcome of the study.

But we never heard from him after the interviewing process.

And I watched over the years as Eli’s friends who were black or Hispanic struggled to stay in school, dropped out or were expelled for both academic and disciplinary reasons.

I had been telling Eli since she was very young that she had to graduate college, because I wanted her to be an economically and emotionally independent woman, because I hadn’t and wasn’t until much later in life. Neither my mother nor my father had graduated college either, even though both my mother’s father and my father’s mother had. Even though my paternal great-grandmother had attended and graduated from Smith College in the early 1900s when so few women went to university. I wanted to study why the younger generations of my family had underperformed the generations preceding them. I was determined that Eli out perform all of us.

That night we ordered take out from Olive Garden and played Eucher with Aidan and Lee. This was how we spent our Fridays now that Saul was at boarding school and I was married to Lee. Aidan didn’t seem to mind. Aidan seemed to idolize Lee. It made everything easier. Also I wasn’t best friends with Aidan.

Eli complained about her throat. I guess the Advil was beginning to wear off. I was beginning to think she wasn’t very good with handling pain. She sounded like when a deaf person tries to speak. Marlee Matlin or whoever.

“I’ll go and get you the spray,” I said. “Some lozenges.”

I’d forgotten all about the spray. Suddenly I remembered standing in front of my mom in an Ohio farmhouse with my mouth wide open.

I was happy to be on my own for a minute. Listening to songs I wanted to on the radio. 2 Chainz. Whoever.

Eli didn’t like 2 Chainz anymore.

She didn’t like Drake anymore either.

A song by Drake came on and I turned it up.

The young writer who’d been texting me liked Drake.

She’d mentioned him in her (one good) poem.

I parked in front of a sign that said “T-Mobile Parking Only.”

Even though I wasn’t going to T-Mobile.

I walked down the hill to CVS.

I worried someone would see that I’d parked in the T-Mobile spot but wasn’t going to T-Mobile.

I worried someone would yell at me until I got to CVS. Inside the CVS I didn’t worry about anything. Maybe it was the fluorescent lighting. Or all the makeup. I didn’t let myself stop and look at makeup. But it was still there: bright, creamy colors along the wall.

On the way back up the hill I started worrying again.

I had a thing where I didn’t like men to yell at me.

Sometimes when men talked in normal voices it felt like they were yelling.

I didn’t try to think about what it was in my childhood that had made me like this.

I made it to my car.

The wind had blown my hair in my mouth and eyes and I couldn’t hook my seatbelt.

There was a knock on the driver’s side window.

I knew without turning it was the T-Mobile man come out to yell at me.

I gave up on the seatbelt.

I felt ready to cry.

I turned my head and Saul was the man standing outside my window.

I felt a release of calming hormones and an increase in adrenaline simultaneously.

Saul looked taller. Maybe it was my perspective. My car sat low to the ground. He was wearing a collegiate sweatshirt and the hood was over his head.

I turned the car on so that I could roll down the window.

Whenever we had gone anywhere together, Saul had sat in the passenger seat. It was hard to adjust to him being to my left, like I had to angle my neck in a way I wasn’t used to angling it.

“What are the odds,” Saul said.

“The odds of what,” I said.

Saul was smiling

It was distracting how much Saul was smiling.

I felt myself smiling also.

I wondered if I’d been smiling all along without knowing it.

I knew if I asked Saul to punch me in the face, he wouldn’t do it.

He was eighteen now, a man.

But he remembered being fourteen, fifteen; he remembered the three of us – he and Eli and me - being best friends. I didn’t know why I was visualizing Saul punching me in the face. I couldn’t figure out when I’d started having trouble feeling.

“I just got into town for Thanksgiving,” Saul said. “My mom had to run in T-Mobile.”

Sometimes I didn’t like to remember I was married. I didn’t like the parameters it put on things that seemed like they should be parameterless. I didn’t want to be the young writer who kept texting me but I didn’t want to be me all the time either.

“Come on, man,” Saul said. “Unlock the doors.”

Saul ran around the car and slid in next to me. It was just like when I used to pick him and Eli up from middle school, only he wasn’t jumping on the hood. And Darius was nowhere in sight.

“Go! Go!” Saul said.

He had his hand on the steering wheel, was cranking it around.

I felt like someone who had just robbed a bank in a movie. It was a feeling I’d always wanted to have. It was a feeling I only experienced watching films by Tarantino and David Lynch.

“What about your mom?” I said.

“I’ll text her. It’ll be fine. You can drop me off at home in a few minutes. Come on. Let’s go. It’ll be just like old times.”

I pulled out of the parking lot. I made a slight attempt at controlling my face. I didn’t have time to think things through. I wondered if this was how the writer who kept texting me felt all the time.

“Where are we going,” I said.

“Just make a left into the gas station,” Saul said.

I turned left. Pulled up next to the gas meters.

“Now what,” I said.

“I’ll be right back,” Saul said.

I watched as he walked inside. I thought he was about six foot, six one, maybe. My husband was five eleven. Darius was six two, six three. Darius had begun sitting in front, the last of the Friday nights we spent together. “Come on, man,” he’d finally said to Saul, smiling at me. “I’m, like, five inches taller than you now, man.” Soon after that there’d been an off campus, after school fight that got Darius and the other kids involved in the fight suspended. I’d emailed the American Civil Liberties Union about it; it didn’t seem right, legal, to suspend a kid for something that happened off school property, after school hours. I’d received an email from an attorney who worked for the ACLU, but all she could do was give me her contact information to give to Darius’s parents. I texted her information to Darius but he never texted me back. His birthday was July 4th; that was the last time I texted him. He never texted back.

“I thought you didn’t smoke,” I said, after Saul came back out.

He was knocking the pack into his palm. He kept knocking it, over and over.

“Yeah, well…”

“Give me one,” I said.

“Make a right out of the parking lot,” he said. “Then turn left at the light.”

He turned on the radio, changed the channel. A Frank Ocean song was on. I turned left at the light. Saul lit my cigarette.

“Turn right,” Saul said.

“Turn left,” Saul said.
“Now straight through the light.”

Saul took the cigarette from my mouth, ashed it out the window. It felt like we were in a heist movie. I’d always wanted to know how it felt to be part of a heist.

I opened my lips and Saul placed the cigarette back in my mouth; we were pretending I needed both hands.

“Turn left at the stop sign,” Saul said.

I turned left and waited for another direction. I inhaled and waited for Saul to ash my cigarette for me. I kept dragging on it, wishing I had my camera. That was as far ahead as I thought. I didn’t think any further than that.

A couple streets later we passed a cheap motel that advertised weekly rates and I forgot we weren’t in a road movie, that we weren’t actual runaways. I stopped doing the math in my head. We weren’t going to rob a bank together either. We weren’t going to do anything criminal at all. We had too much and nothing at all to lose. I wasn’t a revolutionary; I was a chickenshit, goddamnit. I was privileged and Saul was privileged and neither of us was going to fuck our lives up too much even if we both played with fucking our lives up, even if that’s what we both thought we wanted.

When I got back to the house it was an hour later. I didn’t have a lie worked out or ready, so I told the truth.

“Guess who I ran into,” I said.

I’d left my phone on the counter. I saw it sitting there but I didn’t check it. All the Olive Garden food was packed away in little containers in the fridge but the cards were still on the table.

I was conscious of using his name, Saul, and not the name I’d given him in my novel, Evan.

Sometimes I got confused.

I pictured Saul in my head but thought Evan. I was afraid of saying Evan out loud.

I sat back down at the table, picked up my cards.

We were still playing Eucher.

It was still Friday night.

I waited until I was alone to check my phone.

There was a text from Saul.

“what r the odds,” it said.

I looked at the time on the text. He’d sent it when I was still in CVS, before we’d talked in the car.

I sent a reply text, “the odds of what.”

I sat for a minute staring at my phone.

Nothing happened.

I kept checking my phone when I went to the bathroom or kitchen.

Saul didn’t text me back. I figured he was at a party with girls who were in the high school Drop Box.

Once, when I was submitting an excerpt of the novel about Saul, an editor had written me a long rejection letter in the form of an email. I didn’t care about the rejection, but I fixated on something the editor had said that implied she thought Evan and the narrator were having sex. That bothered me. It felt lazy on her part and mine (were it true; it wasn’t). I wrote back right away, to say that they weren’t, that she was making assumptions based on other novels and films she’d read and seen, not on anything I had put in the story. (“Yes, she wears his t-shirt to sleep, but only because she doesn’t have pajamas,” I said. “Yes, they are close friends. That doesn’t mean they are fucking. Do you fuck all your close friends?”) I never heard back from that editor.

There was a text from the young writer.

“i texted ------- and he won't text me back and i feel shamed,” the text said.

I sat on the toilet to text her.

I wanted to type something depressing about my life, too.

“My life has 2 many parameters,” was all I could think of to say.

I was twenty years older than the young writer.

I felt shamed and unashamed, all the time, simultaneously.

I typed it out and hit ‘send.’

I was bored and I waited for the young writer to text me back. I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to talk to the people I could talk to. I was fixated on talking to the people who seemed uninterested in talking to me.

I thought about typing this out into a text and sending it to the young writer but it seemed like too much to text.

Earlier in the week the young writer had told me she was sending nude selfies to -------. 

I thought about how if I sent nude selfies of myself to Saul I would no longer feel bored.

I imagined Alondra texting Eli to tell her I was in the high school Drop Box.

I typed, "I am contemplating sending nude selfies of myself to an eighteen year old boy" into a text and sent it to the young writer.

I was trying to bond with the young writer.

"send them to me," she texted back. 

"OK," I said, even though I didn’t have any nude selfies to send.

I took off my pants and shirt and placed them on the toilet. I had only sent ‘nude selfies’ to one person in my life and now I wasn’t in contact with that person. In most of the ‘nude selfies’ I had been wearing an article or two of clothing, to distinguish these sets of photographs from the nude self-portraits I took for my shows. The nude self-portraits were not taken to convey any sort of intimacy or vulnerability on the part of the subject or audience.

Sometimes I looked at the selfies I’d sent the person I was no longer in contact with and wondered if he ever looked at them now that we weren’t in contact. It seemed unlikely that he did. It seemed likely I was more interested in them, at this point, than he was.

I took off my bra and underwear. I squinted my eyes so I could look without seeing too much. I didn’t think words like “attractive” or “unattractive.” I didn’t feel sexual or erotic as I had when taking the nude selfies for the person I was no longer in contact with. I didn’t feel compelled by any particular outcome or goal.

I sent the pictures to the young writer and put my clothes back on.

I felt less bored than I had before.

I asked the young writer to send me the selfies she'd sent -------.

There was a knock on the door and I said “just a minute.”

I put my phone in my pocket and walked back out into the living room.

I sat down at the table and picked up my cards.

I heard myself using the words that would move the game forward.

I didn’t think about the four separate worlds the four of us were separately inhabiting.

I felt a series of buzzes in my pocket and I knew they were the selfies of the young writer.

I looked up but no one was looking at me. 

Everyone was still looking at his or her cards.

There was no way of telling who had knocked at the door.