Fall 2019 Contest Nonfiction Finalist: witnessing: notes on loving and seeing

1. Mise en scène: Sometimes in your bed, but mostly ours is a love in exteriors, in undesirable spaces where we overlay ourselves and make like nest-bodies for one another. Maybe, we would stay out more–if we felt more held.

2. Liminal space: I love most being in transit with you, when we head together towards an inside. A grey journey, accentuated with nightlight orange and yellow, through blistering cold with your hand somewhere on me, always, and my mouth on you. I live in the crook of your neck. And you in all of the places you’ve been taught to see on women, like the small of my back. You’re on my waist. Your hands live on the plains and prospects of my waist and canal, nearing always the water.

3. You have seen me over the past few months, skitting mind and heated heart. So, you tell me to drink water. You are so beautiful. Your face, so clear, something the water made. I don’t know how I can love someone so softly and still be so jagged and uncertain with them in our other moments of intimacy. But, love is just one way of relating, of placing oneself in front of the mirror that is the world, of what some call “showing up,” and it can feel any which way. I don’t tire of feeling one thousand ways but I can understand why monotony is a refuge for some. Why routine, even in how you love, is comforting.

4. I cannot be in love with you every day​, I said once, thinking it revelation. You smiled–that was normal. When I told you there were some days you just pissed me off, you laughed. When I said I didn’t want to talk to you every day, that was normal too.

5. You have one of the most beautiful smiles I will ever see. I know this because I have already promised myself that it is true. It’s also comforting to gift people primacy and to give them claim to titles in your heart. But you never care about your body or the titles I grant it–what you look like, what you carry, is nothing to you.

6. What is this expanse between us? You tell me it’s one that exists between everyone and that there are no two people who can be there​ with each other. But each time you said that, the shadow of my last man flickered through my mind. Wethought together​, I say. You ask, whereis that man now​? He no longer speaks to me​. So you believed you were right about the illusion of being together and being connection. But I still think that “there” was somewhere, it was real. Only, it was our creation and because we no longer have each other, it has moved, like a tectonic plate, and it can no longer be had by either of us.

7. You say you aren’t moving. I ask myself what I can do for you. And that’s when I get the screaming inside, the one that started the first time I lost someone. The dam breaks, and the rush is from the weight of what cannot be controlled or kept. That’s when life becomes familiar and I can understand what hardens people, how that happens. I first thought to respond with fists and grit teeth. Now I see that will tire me, and the way only way to hold this is to continue looking right at it, to continue witnessing it, you.

8. How much longer will I try to affect change on the stage of my relationships. Little acts of romantic rebellion. How much can love do. My understanding of the personal as political is going to become, if it hasn’t already, lazy, outdated, infantile. I know there’s a bigger “us” out there, but for now I only see us:​​my head nuzzled around your neck. That’s what I fear most about romantic love–only seeing two who crave and need.

9. Rainy on New Years Eve. This will never be home for you. I cry, and I cannot make it one. Look, no one is dancing like you at the bar, this place is too small for you. Bring me outside into the rain while my eyes give you watery hell and carry my body like always. Mise en scène: you and me taking up a corner, pressed up on some side wall. Youshould just go back​, I say, and for the first time in some time, I take seriously that you will leave the United States. So here is stupid, and I am stupid. That’s how I feel that night drinking champagne and water, then mezcal and lime and syrup then water then mezcal and lime and syrup then water and then I hand all of my tequila over to you because I don’t want to drown in anything anymore. There really isn’t much I want to lose myself to anymore. I don’t know what that means; I don’t know what that says about where I am. Except that maybe right now, I don’t want to waste anymore time that already slips through the colander. I am trying to do now what I think I will regret the least: staying awake, keeping my eyes open, being a witness.

10. The thing about being a witness, I’ve learned, is that not everyone wants to be witnessed by me. I used to think that’s what it meant to be a good friend. It’s not true, and I don’t always like to be seen either. I most like sex as a secret, too. I don’t like anyone to see me bedbound. I just want to go and get there and then be lampside, overunder, panting.

11. Friendship no longer means to me witnessing someone for as a long as you can see them walk into the distance. Friends can be moving images who will not always want to be witnessed, and I tell myself it is okay to tire of being a beaming light, following, and tracing. I learned to stop begging to be witnessed. This change in behavior was vital. It was a matter of self-respect and because I felt like it was the only way to make it. I turned to my people: to you, to my aunt, to people who I could not look in the face and tell I wanted to die because of some bullshit, for some fucking bullshit. I taught myself, even if I did not seriously believe it, that I was lucky to be alive and even luckier to write, no matter if I question the language. No matter if I shame the language.

12. Your mother died too. You tell me, and I tell myself too, that I have to be okay if my family has not witnessed me. I have to be okay with this. I thought you were repressed. Realistic​​, you said.

13. I want you to only smile, to break your face in love. I can ruin my day thinking about your watery eyes when we talk mobility — you’re stuck. You want to move. But if my frustration is all that is at stake, then I would rather not waste anyone’s time centering affect. Sometimes making a life has to first mean money and not love.

14. I don’t need to be witnessed. And I don’t always want or romantic love to witness me, to bring me into being. Oh, the comedown. The feeling small. The bar was so small that night I felt nothing was moving. I was the one who told you I needed space, would you believe. It’s not really fair to me anymore, to care to be witnessed so much. I do enjoy being untethered and cusplike; I wonder if that ends. I’m not in love; I’m just yearning. I don’t think that ends either. People farther along seem like they manage. They just hold the yearn, move it from overbrimming cup to overbrimming cup. When you feel like you want to touch yourself, instead peel an orange, take a walk, breathe heavy. I, plunge straight into the yearn and what’s irresponsible about it is what I will miss the most about youth. I hope I never get over it; I’m sorry. Down the line, maybe it becomes easiest to say one has grown out of “it.” If that’s true, that’s okay. But I think the “it” will always be remembered because it was expansive enough to hold the next sensation, the one that now feeds.

15. I don’t know well what the water brings, never lived by it. Estrangement is never being witnessed by your home. To me, drown and tide are affective and types of blues, not images or sounds. Some of my people know water and others don’t. That’s another expanse, another strait between us.

16. New Years day, I take space from you, widening that expanse that you said no one can cross anyway. The relief is a wave. The time licks and retreats slowly; it feels sweet. There are tiny pangs when I think of your jaw and how you have come to care for me. I hate it. I’m tethered, I’m mooring. Tiny, nibble pangs that make my throat tight and then I think of all the life that comes with loving you and there is water in my lungs. The day begins with me drowning and ends when I have found a way to bring myself up to ground level, to busy my hands and soothe some stress. Then you call for the first time in days. No, the voice does not bring me underwater, it does not come over me like a wave. It’s rock, the voice. Your warmth comes to me like pebbles, granular, because even though you have given me slowly, you have given me so much. Your voice is steady but I hear the pleading excitement of a child, and it moves me. It’s not fanciful what you do, what the ground does. The holding.

17. You’re steady, but you move everywhere. You’re like me, flighty and fluid. I know you love me, and I know that’s no sure thing. I didn’t know I had a ground to walk on, said I didn’t have that type of home and was working on making that for myself, even though sometimes I know I like the spiral, the scream in the shell. When I came undone last year, I fell and fell and there is no rock bottom. What awaited me was a hammock, unsteadiness, and an incessant sway. An expanse that is moving friends, uncertain lovers, changing plans. Where I went, there was no rock bottom. There was a left place, and from there I waited and begged. It’s not that no one heard, it’s just that the people who had since left didn’t know how to come back for me. Maybe that’s love: always knowing how to go back there for others. I will make myself remember and come back for you. That’s the work now: phone rings, and I don’t ignore. Friend asks to be witnessed, and I am ready for their water, for their wave.

18. An abyss can be a place, feeling, or referent of time. Abysses collect and eat until they are expansive. I know that I’ve lived on top of an abyss, a bunch of lost things–not just land and bone, but heaps in a basement. A basement is the bottom myth of one type of home–a space where cherished collections of don’t know what to do with or can’t do with reside. The basement is a reticence where one can refuse to witness anymore. I’m at the age now though, where I am realizing that we will have to witness again and again, even when we don’t want to. Life writes quasi conclusions by mode of bodily reminders. It comes back around and puts on a finishing touch through resumed conversations, visits and more. Pipe water broke the tiles and ate the piles left in the basement. Ate-up tiles, rotted clothes– I haven’t looked again since the first time. Every so often, I hear the vacuum gurgle, taking it all back in. Whatever I forgot was there, I’ll now remember in its ruined state. This is what water can do, this is the type of witness water can give.

19. You don’t care about homes, things, or bodies — you say your body is just a suit. Well I like your suit, and I care about your body, and if you don’t like it, lay it down to me. There’s no “soulmate” or “your everything.” How could I know someone to be everything when I have never even seen the whole of life at once? What I’ve felt though, so my truth, is that there are moments and then our bodies that hold these moments. And if we are an extension of earth, then you and I are mise en scène: earthbacks pressed up against brick wall, giving each other the water and the breath we need, not to live, but to make it through more of these nights.

“Witnessing” by Charlene François is a Nonfiction Finalist in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Fall Contest, judged by Emily Bernard.

About the author

Charlene Francois is a born and bred writer, who strives to write against and between genres. She was named as a 2019 Fellow at the Poets House. For further inquiry, feel feel to send her a note at charlenelizabethfrancois@gmail.com

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