Growing up in rural Indiana, Ella lived as close to the corn as I did. Its rows formed a similar fortress around her garden, yet she never came to depend on it for company or solace. Because her father was not a farmer, she didn’t begin her autumns harvesting ears that are female flowers in essence, soothed by the stirring of a tractor’s engine. She never listened with the same attention to the susurrus of its brittle leaves. She needed nothing from those same cornfields that whispered to me, time and again, how vastly Ella and I were different. Left so much alone with them, I had no choice but to listen.
Only among the cornfields’ copper blankness has my true self ever risen to the surface. Facing the corn, weeding flowerbeds in my pajamas, I had a sense of wool being spun within, a fullness I still have not forgotten. Now only the oldest cells of my body retain this trace of wholeness, only those forming my heart, brain, and bones, those that refuse regeneration. I have likely spent too much time trying to reconjure this feeling, which was always realized in no one else’s presence. Yet rural Indiana abides as a place of isolation, a place I return to in my mind often, solely for this purpose. Ella, however, never reconciled herself to a landscape with no skyscrapers. She moved to New York City after college. Chicago is large enough for me, I keep telling her.
* * *
Ella and I reconnected in our late twenties after some years of silence that encompassed both our marriages. When she and her husband invited me to stay with them, as they still do often, I decided to visit. Instead of sleeping on their couch, I made a reservation at a hotel in the West Village, opting to savor some of my old loneliness, even in Manhattan. When I arrived at my hotel, about a mile from her office, Ella was working later than expected.
I washed my face and began to trace the arteries of the Village. Inside a used bookstore, I bought a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins and scanned its pages in a coffee shop called the Bee’s Knees, where my banana muffin was waxy and tasteless. I watched men in sock hats stare into laptop screens and brush their eyebrows with their fingertips. Crossing and recrossing my legs, I spread the book across my lap to crack its spine wider open.
Walking toward Union Square, I stepped inside a boutique where I tried on a navy blue dress that fell to my knees like a curtain. Encased in this dark membrane, more a silhouette than person, my body’s contours were flattened. I avoided my eyes in the mirror, pretended I was faceless, saw my hips had lost their slight sulcus. I left and watched the sun fall behind a flotilla of silver buildings whose tops thinned into needles but stitched together nothing.
Bicycles whirred past me. Their riders stared ahead with their third eye focused high on the horizon, their vision guided by the sight of the mystics. I rubbed my eyes and watched legs emerge from the slipstream, knowing somewhere above the riders’ waists they each contained an essence as dear to them as mine has been to me, mine so long missing.
Later that evening, I sat eating a sandwich in a deli when Ella called and said her young son was sleeping, her husband was out drinking, and I should take the subway to her apartment in Harlem. She would give me wine. She would paint my fingernails and push back my cuticles. She would braid my hair, still soft as corn silk, she said, once she began to brush it clean of tangles.
Resting on a window ledge in Ella’s bedroom were several bottles of nail polish, already open. Their brushes had fallen limp against a pillow of cobwebs. I reclined on her raised bed, the wooden legs of which tapered toward lean ankles. I wrote my name with my finger on a suede blanket, and Ella broke off a tip of the aloe plant she’d had since college. She squeezed some aloe onto my inner wrist, attempting to straighten veins that scattered into blue tree limbs.
She handed me a rope of black licorice. Ella has never been hungry as I remember, and New York has only made her thinner, accentuating her bones’ beautiful structure. Even so, she always used to offer me something to eat whenever I entered her family’s kitchen back in Indiana, knowing I liked cold chicken and warm eggs scrambled with milk swirling through their albumen. As I lay on the bed, she refilled my wine glass and fed me chocolate. I reminded her I never wanted red licorice again after she had me try the black. Yes, she said, I was always easily persuaded.
We used to buy sheaves of licorice at the only store within cycling distance, a candy outlet in a town of no more than forty residents. Ella rode a quarter mile ahead of me on average. One Sunday afternoon in late October, two men in an orange El Camino sped past us, calling us pretty ladies when we were barely women, nearly running us off the road’s shoulder. Ella shouted to me that there was no reason to slow down—“They aren’t coming back, I promise.” Yet they did, once, twice, seven times or more. I felt the car’s headlights burrow into my lower back where my 13-year-old hips had begun to widen.
When I stopped and walked my bicycle into a field of corn, Ella must have suppressed her easy laughter. I wheeled it in deeper, until no one from the road could glimpse my handlebars’ rictus. I refused to leave the amber thickets for hours, to ride any farther to buy licorice, to hear what more the men in the El Camino might hiss. No matter what Ella said to soothe me, I would not leave the corn and risk watching the men’s tongues flicker between their fingers like flames from a burning building. I wasn’t leaving the shadows of the corn until after dark, I told her, as ants crawled from the stalks, down my shoulders.
Having lived half my life now with the nearest cornfields blurring along highways, my cells breathe less oxygen. Most have long lost all sense of wool being spun within. They have become way stations, anonymous places of transition. After the El Camino vanished, if some part of myself too vital still to name it had not stayed within the corn, my cells might yet breathe something sacred. This is what I tell myself, though my cells refuse to listen. Instead, they open themselves for strangers to enter at random.
I would always be the girl who rode her bicycle into the corn, Ella told me as she smoothened my nails with her emery board. I still disappeared so easily, she said with a little wonder as I stood to leave. My hair, skin, and eyes were all still the color of corn ripened in autumn. The near hueless husks of what there is never any hope of seeing in a city.
I woke Saturday morning and again opened The Mandarins, a roman à clef depicting Simone de Beauvoir’s affair with Nelson Algren. Throughout its hundreds of pages, Simone flies from Paris to New York to Chicago, where she finds love on a bare mattress spread across a kitchen. She finds love, which she later loses. She is married to another man having his own dalliances, a transparent rendering of Jean Paul Sartre.
I closed the book, rested it on my chest, and let the lovers rise and fall with my breath. I imagined returning to the Bee’s Knees and bringing one of its men back to this place where I was anonymous. I envisioned someone hirsute and nameless undressing then putting his sock hat on me. I envisioned this in more detail than I would allow myself in my usual fantasies because it had such little chance of happening, because I had walked my bicycle into the corn too early. With my third eye atrophying, I had searched its stalks for the holiness of virgins rather than gazing out toward the men with their car door wide open.
Rolling over on the bed, I let Simone and Nelson collapse onto the carpet. I watched them fall and knew for certain I had stayed in a hotel rather than with my friend because I’d wanted to escape my life as well as my husband. I had wanted the fleeting sense of freedom, at least for a weekend. Simone and Jean Paul Sartre’s relationship was famously open. Nothing between them was hidden. Still they each experienced the pain that leaches from love dividing itself between two bodies, pain I felt even before desire began to reach its long arm through me. I knew this prior to experience because I have also known the opposite—the bliss of my own fullness while the corn’s spores grafted themselves onto the forks of my arteries. Corn’s fertilization, however, is hardly intimate.
Left free from human intervention, each stalk of corn is a wholeness. A tassel at the stalk’s tip functions as the male sexual organ. Blown by wind, the tassel’s pollen reaches silk hanging from the corn ear’s end, each strand of which contains an ovum. Untampered with, corn conceives in a state of innocence.
Much of the corn in our county is grown solely for its seed, something I realized only after Ella and I had gotten our first summer jobs detasseling. Seed companies across the country’s corn belt engineer corn’s breeding to produce larger offspring before selling their seeds to farmers like my father. Late July and August, they hire rural teenagers to pluck tassels from rows they design to receive pollen from another subspecies. They pay them minimum wages to transform what was once complete into something passive.
One early morning, a girl wearing a faded baseball cap scratched between her legs, which hung from her hips straight as chopsticks. Someone saw her scratching and branded her a lesbian. I could have said something to her, not left her to work in silence and eat lunch, as usual, alone, ostracized for the weeks that remained to us before school started. Yet something soft and warm in me was disintegrating along with the tassels I pulled and left to decay in the soil. I ignored her along with everyone else, said nothing.
A few weeks after this, Ella and I sat on the edge of the field at noon eating sandwiches. Boys on both sides of us asked us what we were discussing in our itty-bitty-titty committee. That summer, the tops of my thighs were expanding, my breasts rising higher from my heart’s oven. Ella responded while I shrank and kept silent. Rather than protecting me, suddenly the corn exposed everything, and I felt my true self go dormant. Surrounded by those so young and horny they’d fuck anything, I became more like them. Decades later, I have only begun to accept this animal transformation. Perhaps that goes without saying.
The last day of my first visit to Harlem, Ella met me in my hotel lobby. I told her I’d never had a facial when she asked me the prior evening, and she said she wanted to treat me. We took the subway to Chinatown, and on Spring Street she paced half a block ahead, saying we had to hurry. Inside our room, I dropped my dress onto the floor, not using the hanger. I lay down on the hard bed, rolled the towel below my collarbone, closed my eyes and waited.
Waiting for the voiceless touch Ella had promised, I thought of the evening I received my driver’s license, when I’d driven to Ella’s house in my father’s pickup. “Do you remember?” I asked her as my pores expanded beneath the steamer, and she said she could not have forgotten. I had barreled up her driveway, blaring my horn over Janis Joplin’s raw thunder. We drove to a fast food restaurant where a boy I dreamt of kissing was working. I ordered a roast beef sandwich, and he piled the meat too thick for me to eat without removing half of it. He asked me to prom a few months later. I hardly tasted his tongue in his car after the dance had ended, and his hands refused to wander. I left my coat in his back seat, and he returned it the following Monday morning in biology, where we sat dissecting fetal pigs at separate tables.
Our pores squeezed clean, Ella admitted she had always liked him but had never told me. He had the same snow-blonde hair as the man she married, his eyes the same blue so clear they looked as if they could vanish. But Ella never had the chance to feel his lips retreat before a dusty dashboard. She had not been in biology.
We met a friend of hers at a bar in Little Italy, where I drank my glass of sparkling wine too quickly. The bar, already warm when we walked in, was made hotter by yet more bodies as the day lengthened. The bartender mixed a second glass of absinthe and whiskey into liquid amber for Ella. Frozen honeycomb blended with absinthe melts to the tongue’s temperature, he told her. Ella offered me a sip, but I said it was too sweet. As I drank a glass of water, I could still taste the honey on my lips.
The summer I turned 16, I took CPR training and passed a swimming test to become a lifeguard at a local pool. I was done forever, I told my parents, with detasseling. I was standing at the pool’s edge alone one evening, skimming the water with a net, gathering dead insects with a fatal thirst for chlorine. Ella approached on her bike with her boyfriend, and I set the net against the fence. I unlocked the gate for them.
They set their backpacks on lawn chairs, and I slid down the pool’s curvy slide on my stomach. Ella and her boyfriend slid down together a few minutes later, her legs wrapped around his waist when they hit the water. I dove into the deep end and sculled to the bottom. Coming up for oxygen, I watched them in the shallows as they pretended to drown each other, breathing harder after they surfaced. I walked to the bathhouse, changed out of my swimsuit. I was dry when they left the pool dripping.
I offered to drive them wherever they needed, and they said his house because his parents had left it. They lifted their bikes into the truck bed, and Ella said they’d ride in back together. I heard them laughing, kissing each other on the sides of their faces. I reversed the truck and stopped when her boyfriend shouted. Through the rearview mirror, I saw Ella had shifted. She was no longer sitting snug beside her boyfriend, their ankles braided. He had grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him, he nearly screamed, catching her before she’d fallen. I turned to face him, and he looked me in the eyes for the first time that evening, his pupils dilated into black planets. I mouthed “sorry.”
I assumed she was sitting safely without checking, assumed with ease because although my breasts had grown larger by summer’s end, no boy had ever felt them. I had turned on the ignition while looking forward rather than into my rearview mirror, knowing hers were suckled like oysters. I thought nothing could hurt someone whose life had so much pleasure. Looking out onto the darkened horizon, I saw nothing clearly, only another woman’s fullness.
After leaving them at the house with no parents, I drove home between the cornfields in silence.
The last time I saw Ella, on another trip to New York City, we spent the afternoon at a small park near her apartment. Her son hopped off his bicycle, whose wheels he was learning to balance, and announced that he was going swimming. He said he wanted someone to join him, so I stepped into the water coming only to my knees, and we raced from one side of the pool to the other and back again. I let him win and splash me. Every time he touched the side of the pool before I did, I laughed and then he echoed me, shouting, “Mama, I always make Melissa laugh. We could laugh forever, couldn’t we?”
Ella nodded, and I stayed silent. She pulled the straps of her sleeveless dress down past her shoulders and stared up into the sun emerging from the cloud cover. I bent down and lightly splashed her son so he would splash me back again, so together we could keep laughing until I couldn’t laugh any longer, because someday soon the water would be gone. The sun would leer closer and all the liquid would evaporate like dew on cornstalks in the morning, leaving only shells where there once was an ocean. No more corn would grow then either. No young women would ride bicycles past golden rows, one after the other. No one would walk them into the cornfields that hid them from the men who might have loved them had they left their shade and ridden on.