Catherine Kyle is the author of Fulgurite (Cornerstone Press, 2023), Shelter in Place (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), and other collections. Her writing has appeared in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She was the winner of the 2019-2020 COG Poetry Award and a finalist for the 2021 Mississippi Review Prize in poetry. She is an assistant professor at DigiPen Institute of Technology, where she teaches creative writing and literature.
After a nine-year relationship ends—abruptly, traumatically—I cut off all contact. I distance myself. I repair my life quietly, keep my head down. Set my gaze on the future.
My life alters its shape, its pace. Its location. Everything is new. I embrace it, welcome it, not wanting to be devoured by the past, that fairytale wolf. I meet new students at my new job. Step lightly into new routines. Remain optimistic, even as I do the necessary work: therapy, support groups, reading of books on How did this happen? How did I ever get so lost?
The shock of one life ending, sliced as if by guillotine, slowly bruises over to a dull thrum. Nightmares dwindle. Clustered panic attacks gradually space themselves out. My thoughts lean more toward what is for dinner than fiddling with the past like a Rubik’s Cube.
Still, sometimes, wandering grocery aisles, I am caught in my tracks like a rabbit, frozen stiff. The sight of certain coffee creamer, certain veggie burgers, locks me in place to the ground.
I ask myself why. I do not want to flee the answers, even if they fly out of me like screeching bats. Even if they scream through the purpling night. I want to confront them. To seek the truth. I want to know the name of the feeling.
It isn’t quite grief. It isn’t even sorrow. Not anger, nor nostalgia, nor regret. In searching for the feeling’s name, what come to me aren’t words, but images. Pictorial analogies. They rise as though conjured by some subliminal algorithm: If you’re feeling that, these might help tell you why!
First are the abandoned malls, made famous by Seph Lawless. The photographs are haunting: in one, snow has poured through a broken skylight. The stilled escalator is a lumpy slide of ice. Nearby pillars flake with rust. Flanking the escalator, storefronts yawn into caverns dark as new moons. In some, plants droop, yellowed and un-watered. In many, blue glass lies shattered on the floor, gleaming like bits of arctic ice. In one, a painted ringleader gestures to a painted tent that once sold funnel cakes and corndogs. Underneath the big top, the lights are off. The ringleader gestures, now, to nothing.
The second image that floats into consciousness is Fort Worden, a former west coast military base, overgrown with grass and time. My grandparents took me there often as a child, where I roamed the echoing barracks. Though the fort never saw combat, locals whisper of ghosts, and the grounds evoke palpable eeriness. Beyond the cracked stone and encroaching moss, the sea stretches on the horizon. The compound teems with the aura of a graveyard. One that also serves as a playground.
These spots once held whole reams of human chaos—kids clamoring for one more corndog, soldiers sitting tensely in the pine air. Those stories have ended, but the ruins remain. And it is not the presence of the relics that unsettles, but the absence. The incongruity.
The batteries, poised for attacks that never came. The ringleader, gesturing to nothing. Potential and history, orbiting around static images, their lips tightly sealed. For though the places might remember, they cannot speak. All they can do is convey, wordlessly, by existing. Convey and imply. They bring to mind marbles clogging the necks of half-spent hourglasses. Below, all the things that happened there. Above, all the things that didn’t. All the things that might have, but didn’t, and won’t, and therefore, can never be known.
I rotate the shopping cart away from the creamer. I do not pick up the veggie burgers. I do not fall into the haunted mall. I refuse to prowl my own green grounds, a ghostly soldier with a bayonet.
Something happened, something is over, and physical objects remain. Ribbons of words spiral out in both directions—the fairytale wolf holds one end in her teeth. The words keep spiraling out. On the opposite end, the long-winded might have, the words are scrambled, are garbled. The past and deleted future both want to speak, but all you see is coffee creamer.
It is strange to stumble upon these structures in the landscape of myself. And maybe there is no name for this feeling: the feeling of witnessing a ruin. The feeling is Abandoned Mall. The feeling, Unused Barracks. The feeling of gesturing, remembering the funnel cakes that used to warm and sustain. The feeling of thinking that you were prepared, but no, the battle was elsewhere.