Softening

by Ruth Joffre Read author interview October 24, 2016

I used to tell people that my first kiss was on a December night, under a pine tree, when a boy I sort-of liked kissed me after a dance recital; but actually my first kiss was older, and with a woman. In this memory, I’m twelve (it’s seventh grade), and I wake up one day to find the condo hushed as if afraid to breathe too deep and set the hinges to sighing. I open my window to let the air lap the length of my legs. It rained overnight. I can smell it. I head to the bus early to enjoy it, the silence of the wet-blackened street and the fog clinging to the tires of the school bus. I feel as soft as a lick of shed fur, standing there, and then watching houses roll past. By the end of second period the moisture in the air has lulled me to sleep. It is the teacher who wakes me. Ms. Laura, I call her. She has one hand curved to my skull, her palm a constant heat seeping into my ears. She says, stay, eat lunch with me, then feeds me half a banana, hazelnuts, and a kind of candy—some strange, powdered things softening to the likeness of caramel and cream. She asks why I’m tired, why I’m hungry, and if I’ve eaten breakfast. I haven’t. There were ants in my cereal, I remember. I had to throw it out, box and all; then, when some ants lingered in the bowl, I had to hold it up to the faucet and watch as the water rose slowly, slowly to drown them.

I don’t remember if I tell her this, or anything. I am aware that the lights are off, the door open, the halls bright, but quiet, while all the other students are at lunch. The static lines of a tape rewinding fall between us, that section of the in-class movie revealing a boy’s throat opening and closing underwater. Maybe it’s a trick of the light when a dog resurrects onscreen and then again when Ms. Laura promises she will never hurt me, paint me in her chameleon colors with no more than the swift sure strokes of her voice. It’s mournful work, this deciphering of hues, with the sun a dapple on the soft kid of Ms. Laura’s boots and my right eye pressed to her shoulder until color begins unraveling on the lid: violet dots, a faint blue, millions of tiny stars winking, and a strange gold specter passing through. This is broken by the fingers smeared on my cheeks and the mouth tending to mine as to a bruise, then this is broken by a knock next door, and Ms. Laura pulls back and never tries to comfort me again, perhaps because I have never learned how to ask for help, or to realize that I need it, when I need it. I let myself go hungry for entire weeks before speaking to Ms. Laura again, and then it’s just to say that I finished my test. Very good, she says. Thank you.

About the Author:

Ruth Joffre is a writer and a critic whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Nashville Review, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. She's a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she lives in Seattle, where she teaches at the Hugo House.

About the Artist:

Marisa Iliakis is a Seattle-based graphic designer, illustrator, and visual artist who does both hired and commission work. At the University of Washington in the Visual Communications Design program, Iliakis is working towards a BDes in 2018.

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