Tyler Barton is a literary advocate and cofounder of FEAR NO LIT. His debut collection of short stories, ETERNAL NIGHT AT THE NATURE MUSEUM, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. Find his work soon in The Common, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal and Copper Nickel. Find him @goftyler, or in Lancaster, PA.
After the rapper, the comic. After the deadpan, the dancer. The dancer and her commitment to blowing out a candle after every major moment. The dancer and her canopy of hair by the work of god not catching fire, though one strand did rise slowly from the crown of her head as she spun, as if escaping her body. Her hair, I thought, could be a branch spirits climbed down from heaven, a ladder, if you can imagine—but forget the hair. And forget the dancer beneath it.
I want to tell you about the breathwork. The lavender performance.
The stage was just an empty space in a wood-paneled den. A living room. Lamplit, ten friends floor-sitting. When I say friends, I mean that each person was a friend of the host, who’d made us rice and masala, and not of each other. To each other we were strangers. We’d all brought things of hummus. Twice a year this happened, where my old friend invited a dozen of her friends, seemingly at random, for a salon—don’t call it an open mic—in her home in the hills.
On the drive over, my fiancée, Andrea, the rapper, said, “Marry me this evening or I’m leaving in the morning.” I laughed, and she laughed back half as long, half as honestly. I turned on the radio. She turned it off.
“That would make a good hook,” I said.
“It’s supposed to be signed by friends,” I said, driving with one hand, feeling the marriage certificate lightly embossing my pants pocket. “We won’t know any of these people.”
“I don’t care and neither does the goddamn state of Pennsylvania.”
“And you know it, so stop.” She tapped the radio back on. Everything was country.
“You’re right,” I said. “It would be so simple to just get it done tonight.”
But that was always my problem: if something was easy, something was missing. That dumb dictum was something I believed.
Her ring was loosest in the cold. The stone—a shard of amethyst collected from a scrubby mountain in rural Canada—slipped often to the back side of her finger. I felt it there between us when, entering the party, I took her hand.
The lavender performance: a woman and a man sit naked atop stools on opposite sides of a giant vase filled with lavender. It’s like a campfire of a lavender, a Christmas tree of lavender, in a monstrous vase white as the sun. The audience gathers low and close to watch the buds (calyx), and groups of buds (whorls), and flowers (corollas), all of it purple. All of it dry. Seemingly fragile. A dusty, frail bunch of lavender spikes. Just lavender sitting still, in a vase, on a stool.
The man and woman are both seated facing the lavender—one on the left, one on the right—angled almost away from us. Nude. We on the floor see the sides and backs of the couple’s heads, their bare shoulders, their long spines, their butt-cheeks squished flat on the seats.
The performance begins when their backs straighten and their lungs fill with air.
Upon exhale, the calyx, whorls, and corollas begin to tremble. The breath of the couple cannot be seen, but it is there. The lavender wavers in their air.
It’s always the case that when I tell this story the performers are lovers. Who knows? I never saw them again. Nor did I ever see again my old friend, the host, whose rice was so pillowy, whose performance after the lavender piece was completely forgotten. Even as she sang she was forgetting she was singing, and not in a good way. We could tell. We could tell because we too kept forgetting she was singing. For the rest of the night and some of us our lives, our minds were unabashedly lavender.
I never got another invite, though I suspect Andrea has.
When Andrea and I first arrived, I heard the boyfriend of the host, my old friend, say, “Oh God, is Steg going to do his little magic act?” I’d hoped someone would ask. I couldn’t simply sign myself up—too easy. I wanted to be prodded. I nodded yes, saying I would need a volunteer to be cut in half. The strangers in the party laughed, but no one raised a hand.
Before the performances we busied ourselves with tasting the masala and commenting on the rice, with discussing the differences between a piece of capital-A art and the solitary if beautiful mute object. We spoke of the tired nuances of form letter rejections and the special hell of waitlists. “I think I know what you mean,” Andrea said, spinning her purple ring as if she might twist off her finger. “That’s why I put all my stuff out myself. It’s so much easier. Who needs a gatekeeper?”
“Down with gates!” someone shouted, and it turned it to a chant that seemed to end when I joined in.
Our eyes moved between: 1) the lavender shaking in human wind and 2) the bodies of the performers as they blew out and breathed in, blew out and breathed in. Sometimes they blew their breath in unison, sometimes opposite, sometimes mere moments after the other had blown, which seemed to be the most unsettling for the lavender, though not one whorl had separated and no calyx had broken and every petal held on. The lavender took everything they gave it.
Four months before this, Andrea and I had gone to city hall and answered questions like “What was the weather like on the day you two met?” and “What does your mom do for a living?” and “How do you spell ‘shaman?’” and they took our phones so we couldn’t take any photos or call anyone to talk us out of what we were doing, which was obtaining a marriage license. This would allow us, in our state of Pennsylvania, to have two family members or friends simply sign their names as witnesses, and we’d be wed. Quaker married, it was called locally. The quakers had wanted the government out of it altogether, and this was the best they could do: cut the judge from the equation. Anyway, I kept the certificate folded up in my pocket every time we went out to eat with friends or to one of Andrea’s shows. I could fold it up and put it in my pocket just fine but the problem was I could never take the paper out. Once, I actually did pull it out, but I couldn’t get it unfolded, and it started to tear. Andrea’s sister saw and asked, “What is that?”
“Just a to-do list,” I said, shoving it back into my pocket, “but it’s all smudged with leg sweat anyway. I can’t even read it.”
Six, maybe seven minutes in—and believe me when I say I’m not sure when because time got very gummy—the comic started taking bets. Dollars and quarters and in one case a chocolate bar she had in her purse. Bets on when any bit of any spike would slip. Bets on the letting go.
“See that petal,” Andrea said. “Corolla,” I said.
“The brownish one on the lower left?” Andrea went on. “Yeah, I give that sixty seconds.”
“I’ll take that. Two to one,” the comic said, producing a twenty. “Anyone in on this?” The
comic’s wife had to corral her, which she did not take in stride, and the two fled to bicker in whispers in the bathroom. Just one room over, a thin wall. Two minutes crawled past. They flushed twice.
Eventually we split the chocolate bar, a square for each.
The piece was the plant, quaking, but the piece was also the posture. The deflating, how their spines began to curve. Toes curling. Their trembling legs made the stools knock lightly on the hardwood. When one of the pair shifted, the slight smack of their skin peeling from the damp stool was oddly erotic. The smell of the room: lavender and sweat. The piece was all of this.
The piece was about how breath sounds as it approaches running out.
“I get it now,” whispered the memoirist, who never ended up performing. “It ends when they can’t breathe.”
I whispered back, “It ends when they stop working.” Which is what every loss I’ve sustained has in common: I worship the unexplainable unless I can be the one to explain it. I couldn’t hear Andrea slinking away from me as I said, “Really, there’s nothing to this at all. Nothing but hard work.”
“She wasn’t talking to you,” said the host. She’d been a member of my friend group in college, but looking at her now was like staring at a stranger. Her last name even escaped me, as she was a teacher and used a fake one on Facebook. I turned to the other guests, and that’s when I saw that everyone had gone out of the room except for two people who had come here alone, who were occupied on the couch with kissing. I also noted a grope.
At one point—I mean it when I say the time was chewable—I heard the dancer, somewhere, gasp, which seemed to somehow make the room hotter. I took my cardigan off. I don’t know where her sound had come from, as I was the only one in the room with the lavender performance, which had sailed past the host’s suggestion of ten-minute sets.
At one point a whole corolla on a tall, center peduncle seemed to be holding on by a single thread thin as a spider’s web, like a tooth tethered only by a hair’s-width of gum. My grip tightened around my fiancée’s three longest fingers, which it turned out were my fingers. My heart, a worry-stone, slipped from my hands.
In the days after we’d gained the document—jumping hand in hand through that one small hoop, laughing—I began to feel the thing I would feel for weeks and weeks, something I couldn’t identify as guilt, but it was guilt. It was all too easy. Unearned. This document in my pocket—we hadn’t worked for it, hadn’t agonized. We’d been together for five years, so it’s not that the decision was sudden, but the whole process was so quick. I’m no patriot, but it felt unamerican that something could be this easy. Friends, parents, all the movie characters who had married described the fifteen to eighteen months of their engagement as a daily battle against money, time, and the manifestations of their partners’ stress and worry. A wedding was a gauntlet you survived to prove you were ready. That’s the story my country and culture had lodged in my head, the story to which my life was hardly holding a candle. A story I respected nonetheless.
It’d once taken me eight months to learn a single magic trick. It involved a live flame and a broken mirror. Then, too afraid to perform it live, I lost the skill. Everything I’d done in my life
—everything important—was achieved via laborious, time-intensive efforts that produced doubt, and doubt, and then the death-defying feeling of resiliency.
But the marriage license took twenty-five minutes, tops. Sure, my love of Andrea had been easy too, which is one thing I knew, logically, I should treasure. However, I often came back to this idea—sometimes conscious but often quietly sinister—that good things, true things, were supposed to be almost impossible. And maybe that’s why, I told myself, it was so hard to get the paper out of my pocket.
The one gift my father ever gave me was a tire—a black, ravaged rubber tire, from the NASCAR of Dale Earnhardt Sr., the day in ’98 when he won the Talladega 500. Earnhardt had gone around the track five hundred and one times, had raced in a rattling, deafening roll-cage, risking his life (which he would lose three years later to the sport), all in order to win. And my father had stood in line for three hours in the blistering Alabama sun to buy this tire, with money he had killed his back at Dupont to make (his back would literally break five years later after falling off a roof— he’d been removing a neighbor’s obsolete satellite for one hundred dollars on a Saturday morning). The tire weighed more than my seven-year-old body. It was dirty, scraped, pock-marked, embedded with pebbles and metal and what looked to me like crushed seashells, warped by pressure and heat. And there was Earnhardt’s Sharpied signature. I kept the tire in the extra room Andrea and I knew would probably never hold a cradle. Sometimes in those months, I’d open the marriage certificate with our names missing, and the names of two witnessing friends still missing, and I would read the language of the document aloud to the tire.
What I loved about the lavender performance was the work of it. The fact they literally fell over.
The man fell from his stool like a pacifier from a baby’s face. Even with this, which rocked the entire home, no piece of lavender detached. The calyxes, whorls, corollas, and peduncles shook, yes, even bounced, but they remained unchanged. They could not be unseamed. And that, I wanted to tell the memoirist, or Andrea, or anyone, was the point: nature outmuscles us.
The woman kept her eyes closed as she gave the performance the last drops of her breath.
I was the only one who saw the end.
“I feel like we’ve all just been through a war,” I said, turning to my no-longer strangers who had all returned to the living room just in time to clap. I was crying quietly, looking around to be held. On the list our host had made, my name was next, but there was no question in my mind that the thing that would follow the lavender was nothing. What would follow this night was nothing. What would follow us home was night, and then morning, and her leaving.
I had hoped to do the marriage signing as my act—Watch as I magically make two people one. I had practiced the line so many times in the shower.
Maybe the piece was this: the feeling of needing to be held. I kept looking around and kept not being held.
In the kitchen, the dancer was teaching my fiancée something simple but essential, their heads close and nodding. The room’s only light: a candle on the stove. A weak song sung from the other room leaked through the wall, and neither woman noticed me lingering in the doorway.
By the time I’d uncrumpled the document, the hair of both their heads was aflame.