A Lesson on Endings
By Tara Stillions Whitehead
A Lesson on Endings
I tell her that good introductions are inverted fulcrums. They hook the reader by the ribcage and pull hard through the vertex. Good introductions don’t hesitate. They prepare the reader for the body.
“Yeah,” she says. “And then, the end.”
“The conclusion,” I say.
“Aren’t those the same thing?”
“No,” I say. “Arguments conclude. They don’t end. That’s the beauty of rhetoric. The conversations continue. They never stop.”
She sees me before I see her.
I’m not used to being seen. Not outside of the classroom. Living 40 miles from campus makes hiding from students easy.
But here she is: a jelly-sandaled cherub on one hip, a gingham-polo’d husband at her other. The white straw somerset is her trademark, a mainstay at the back of the classroom these first three weeks of the semester.
I don’t have time to stuff the bottle under the driver’s seat.
The look on her face. Recognition.
I don’t know it yet, but she is about to save my life.
The disease wants me alone. The disease wants me dead. Every day. All day. In the middle of a lesson on synthesizing sources. During department meetings. After dinner. While I’m rinsing the shampoo from my daughter’s hair.
To keep from picking up, distraction is key. I pray, read, binge on sudoku. Obsession needs hands, so I keep mine busy. I pick up the phone. Scroll Facebook, TikTok, Pinterest. I open my laptop. Take an online quiz Violet bookmarked: “Which baby Pokémon are you?” Togepi, it would seem, and I can’t disagree.
I accidentally open Outlook and read the email sent an hour ago at 2:43am.
I saw you at Target. I think it was a sign. I believe in signs.
I consider deleting the message and forgetting I saw it.
I have people to talk to, but I can’t tell them anything.
My trembling fingers steady themselves against the keys. I type:
You tell me something, and I’ll tell you something. That way, it’s even.
Two minutes later:
I use heroin.
I keep at least two bottles behind a loose panel in our unfinished mudroom.
Her daughter is eight years old. My daughter is eight years old.
She owns a Dutch Colonial with a detached two-car garage on three acres of farmland. I rent a half-remodeled Cape Cod near the oil refinery and seal the windows with plastic.
She wraps her arm with a silk belt from her daughter’s My Little Pony pajamas. I wrap my bottles in plastic grocery bags and stuff them into gas station trash cans.
She dreams of meeting Macklemore and is teaching her daughter Mandarin. I distrust Nabokov and put my daughter to sleep with Golden’s Field Guide to North American Birds.
She’s twenty-five, a high school dropout majoring in political science. I’m forty-two, a career adjunct who isn’t sure what she wants to be when she grows up.
Night finally releases its grip at 6am. Dawn’s reveal is slow but honest. Our sugar maples, asters—the mailbox—all are planted firmly in the earth. The disease was wrong. The world never left us.
I have to get Ella up soon. Thank you for the company. I’m sorry I kept you up.
I don’t flinch at my husband’s footfall cracking down the oak stairs. I’m relieved to hear the hiss and sigh of water dribbling into the Mr. Coffee carafe. I write quickly.
No apologies. I couldn’t sleep, and it helped me have someone to talk to. My office hours are at 5pm if you ever want stop by.
P.S. My favorite Macklemore song is “Starting Over.”
I grade in the office with the empty nameplate for an hour before class. I drink cold coffee from a tumbler with the college’s mascot of a hawk on the front of it and soften the corners of the room by putting lavender and lemongrass oil in the diffuser. The rhetorical precis are well-done and easy to mark, but only half of the class submitted them, so I finish up the nine I have by 5:40.
No one comes to visit me.
I gather up my effects, shoot two Bailey’s minis, and make the short walk down the hallway to the computer lab I’ve been teaching in, on and off, for eight years.
It takes longer to hit my stride this semester.
Holly is there, waiting to be let into the classroom. She looks well-rested. How?
We are learning about logical fallacies and how to spot them when she stops showing up. The class feels half its size now, exponentially less curious and insufferably quiet.
I don’t want to admit it, but I know how this goes.
October. A morning email:
Roxbury Treatment Center notified Academic Affairs that student #H237622 was admitted to inpatient for fourteen days and will return to class by October 30th. Please do not drop this student from your roster during midterm confirmation of attendance. Upon release and return to class, the student will arrange to meet with you and discuss work missed. You are encouraged to exercise flexibility and understanding, while still maintaining the integrity of your course policies.
I tell the students that transitions are easier than they sound, but they don’t want to hear it. They want to leap between ideas like lily pads, run across four lanes of moving traffic. I tell them that if they can learn how to transition, they can create enough buoyance to walk the reader across the water. They can build a footpath over the freeway.
Daytime instructors rinse Tupperware in the metal sink and bitch about HR to the departing faculty secretary. The ancient copy machine, justifiably exhausted, releases a hearty dose of ozone as we cross the adjunct bay toward the rear office and close the door. I turn on the diffuser and offer her a lifesaver from a ceramic bowl my daughter made. I push aside a stack of calc exams another adjunct has left ungraded in a rush to get to the next gig.
Her cheeks are puffy from the suboxone, but her hazel eyes are bright and present. She thanks me for issuing the incomplete and promises to have the final draft of her visual rhetoric analysis—Macklemore’s “Drug Dealer”—in before Christmas.
“I know you stan for ‘Starting Over,’ but,” she smiles, “this song and I have a history.”
Her sister is at Dickinson getting her masters in literature, and she plans to work with her on the revision. She tells me she is 38 days sober, and I tell her I can’t remember the last time I had a drink.
“It feels so good to feel good,” she says, twisting her wedding ring like a bottle cap. And then, “We got chickens last week and Ella named them after the Sesame Street characters. Grover is my favorite.”
“I’m a staunch supporter of Bert and Ernie,” I say.
“Yeah, but if you had to Sophie’s Choice one of them—”
“Have you even seen that movie?”
“When I grow up, I want to be Meryl Streep,” she says.
I wait to cry until she leaves.
Lies fuel the disease. Lies keep you alone.
I want the perfect teeth and the Dutch Colonial. The multi-lingual daughter and the yard full of Sesame Street chickens. I want more years in front of me than behind so I can have time to become something. A person, at least. I want to be able to put it all down and do the right thing and clear my leger. I want to be sober, too. I want to live.
February in Pennsylvania is oppressive.
Tonight, the parking lot is all but abandoned. I let the students go early. The last one, a CNA off to her overnight shift at the assisted care facility near the Jennie Wade House, pulled out of the lot more than ten minutes ago, but here I am, idling in the dark like a hung jury. The Subaru’s engine groans, exhaling dry heat into the driver’s seat. In the rearview, the community college is a hopscotch of white light and swirling snow. The adjacent grocery store, closed for the incoming storm. Beyond my headlights and the berm and the road, Barlow Knoll is construction paper black. One hundred and fifty-eight years ago, it was the eruption site for the Battle of Gettysburg. Thousands bled and died there. I can’t see it, but I can feel it. I’ve never felt it before. The collective suffering.
It’s been 86 days since I’ve had a drink, but I’m white-knuckling it. The water heater flooded the basement. I lost my wedding band. The second-grade teacher says Violet needs to be screened for dyslexia and ADHD. I’m barely managing these new weekend preps at Penn State Harrisburg, where I’m hoping to get a foothold, anything to be delivered from the brutal cycle of night classes. Eight years. Eight fucking years. I am Sisyphus. I am done.
The air vent rustles the paper bag on the passenger seat. I thought I would come out of teaching rebuttals feeling renewed and able to defend myself against the bottle I picked up on the drive here. But I want that first drink now more than I want to be sober. Prayer, acceptance, reflection, and thinking through to the other side of the bottle are useless to me. I know that once I put it in me, I won’t be able to stop. I can’t stop once I start. And once I start, I can’t stop starting. This helplessness—the wasted energy, the crippling obsession—is unbearable. Drunk or sober, the world keeps happening, and I am powerless.
A woman I know who knows a thing or two about a thing or two once told me that God has my number and will one day call me if he thinks I need to talk. Staring into the battlefield’s darkness, I’m not thinking about God when my phone rings. But I will always think about God when I recall my husband’s voice.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“They found Holly’s body last night.”
“And another person.”
“Oh, my god.”
“I saw it on the news. Minutes ago.”
“Oh, my god.”
“I thought you’d want to know.”
“I submitted paperwork to resolve her incomplete this morning.”
“I know,” he says. “You just finished class, right? Are you on your way home?”
“I’m…yes, leaving now. I had a student who needed to discuss his grade.”
“Okay. Drive safely. It’s squalling in Hanover.”
“Oh, my god.”
“I know. I’m so sorry. I love you. I’ll be up when you get home.”
Concession is part of the process. Sometimes, an argument is successful because it concedes the merits of the opposition. It accepts its own weaknesses.
For my eight-year work anniversary, the dean gives me a hawk plush dressed in a maroon T-shirt with the college’s acronym emblazoned in white across the front. The penmanship in her handwritten note is symmetrical and controlled, the antithesis of my clumsy marginalia.
Eight years cracks the rubber-band movements of the heart.
It’s eighteen hundred students and forty thousand miles on the odometer. It’s one hundred and thirty thousand pages of writing, sometimes double-spaced, sometimes sans serif. It’s two foreclosed rentals on opposite banks of the Susquehanna River and one Christmas at the Holiday Inn Express. It’s three teaching excellence awards and one blackout behind the wheel. Eight years is five tenure-track interviews, three published articles, one kindergarten graduation, two miscarriages, and a handful of relapses. It’s countless churches, confessions, and second chances.
Eight years is a lighted match and the descending jar.
It’s an ambush.
But it can be an epiphany, too.
This morning: I wake up.
I drink coffee on our tiny porch in the dark with the bamboo wind chimes. It’s early. The oil rigs haven’t yet begun their daily parade down the pike. I whisper a prayer of gratitude and crawl back into bed. I tell my husband I love him with my entire body. I eavesdrop on my daughter’s dreams while she sleeps.
At eight, Violet holds space for infinity.
At eight, Holly’s daughter holds vigil.
I’ve been given the chance of another eight years.
If I could, I would tell her a conclusion is a reciprocal for the introduction. It births the reader, reformed by the musculature of the body’s points, back into the world. It answers the questions: So what? Why does this matter? and What should I do now?
A conclusion is not an ending. It is synthesis of meaning. One can use an ending to create meaning, to draw a conclusion, to keep the conversation going.
It is still light out when I pull into our driveway and park next to the asters, under the canopy of sugar maples. Violet is swinging in the rainbow hammock beneath the treehouse my husband built when she sees me, but I see her first. In that split second before she rushes toward me, I see the years I thought were behind me right here, right now: swinging beneath the treehouse, standing by the open car door, bowing to the earth in the late summer breeze. I kneel. Open my arms. I pull her into my heart and thank God for today.
Tara Stillions Whitehead is a filmmaker and writer from Southern California living in Central Pennsylvania. She an assistant professor of film, video, and digital media production and received her MFA at San Diego State University. She has been published in a variety of print and online magazines, including The Rupture, The McNeese Review, Cream City Review, and PRISM international. Her hybrid chapbook, Blood Histories, will be released by Galileo Press in July 2021, and her full-length hybrid collection, The Year of the Monster, will be published with Unsolicited Press in September 2022.