Sylvia Sokup.jpg


Sylvia Sukop

Over fifty and back in school, I enter a life that unfolds in strange juxtapositions. At the student health clinic plastered in posters for the prevention of pregnancy and STDs, I perch atop the treatment table in a backwards gown whose faded purple color matches my delicate web of varicose veins, while the doctor advises me on high cholesterol and physical therapy for achy joints. I crave adventurous meals—here in St. Louis we have Bosnian, Taiwanese, Ethiopian—but settle for another greasy nosh at the all-night pancake diner out of a desire to bond with classmates whose average age is half my own and whose appetites have found a different groove. I think about updating my will and finally getting that bunion removed on my right foot, but I also revel in riding my bike six miles a day and in reading books with an immersive energy I haven’t felt since college more than thirty years ago. I sign up for a class called Aqua Motion at the local pool with a passel of white-haired women because underwater exercise isn’t offered in the new, multimillion-dollar recreation center on campus. 


* * * 


I study creative nonfiction and the craft of memoir. Memoirists routinely inhabit more than one self, one age, one era. We become our younger selves, we become our older selves. We say “I imagine” and, with those words, slip inside still more scenes and situations—womb, tomb, other rooms impossible to remember. At best, the memoirist makes all this look fluid, that is to say, the narrator does, who is yet another self, of yet another time. On a given day, we choose a point on the timeline that is a life, or a loved one’s life, and we go there. “Hello,” we say. “I’m here.” We surrender to the currents or we cut against them. We paddle hard, hope for good wind. We pick up passengers, discharge others. We may or may not use navigation. 

Out into and out of this dizzying vortex of time-travel the memoirist writes. It’s an uncanny liberation, so much co-equal co-presence, a tangle of turnings and projectings, ever-forward and ever-back. There is more to it than either memory or fantasy alone can account for. I believe it is actually in us. We carry the whole of our transtemporal lives, or it carries us, in all our fractal winding and unwinding. In every direction there is no center point, only intersections—constant, astounding, brief, memorable. Jewish wisdom recognizes and affirms this fundamental plurality: L’chayim! translates not “to life!” but “to lives!”


* * *


Since landing in my new city, arriving with a 26-foot moving van, settling into a rented studio, downsizing the accumulated overflow of lives left behind, and diverting much of that to storage, I’ve made friends. Younger ones at school, older ones in the six-story building where I live—like the 70-year-old widow, Mrs. Walsh, whose husband and adult daughter, five years ago, died of rare unrelated illnesses one week apart. She sings in the cathedral choir and sometimes I go to listen, to find (like she does) solace in something that endures, and that rises. Karen and Ken, a birth doula and her artist husband, both nearing retirement, are fixed on the dream house they’re building in New England. I take vicarious pleasure in their happy countdown and they even invite me to visit them there. Mrs. Chen, a Chinese immigrant grandmother who speaks little English, greets me like a village neighbor, animated and unhurried, and I slow down for that, be it by the mailboxes or out in the drafty garage. On my own floor, Ms. Gonzálvez, a single middle-aged lesbian like myself, walks with a limp. She does not own a car but was hit by one as she crossed the street. When I moved in, she welcomed me with a reheatable dish of homemade chili con carne. Now I collect her package deliveries and leave them at her door. Here we all are, on our ruptured and reset trajectories, diverging yet radically simultaneous and interconnected.


* * *


In a scene toward the end of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the two protagonists walk down the sidewalk hand in hand, one an old woman and the other, once her lover, now a young boy. At the poignant heart of the 2008 film based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story is the conceit that these two lives, these two loves, are temporally misaligned, passionately intersecting while moving in opposite directions, as one person ages backward and the other forward. This image captures the duality I feel navigating my own curiously transtemporal circumstance as a middle-aged graduate student. A cascade of unlikely co-realities and co-identities has ensued. A shift in time’s flow, a split, and many rippling tributaries. Things long submerged rise to the surface. I am constantly surprised.


* * *


Wednesdays, throughout a summer heat wave in a ski lodge-themed St. Louis café, I and three fellow creative nonfiction students immerse in each other’s work. We find ourselves, temporally speaking, unbound. It is 2017 and it is 1949, 1994, 2000, 2013. It is every season. It is infancy and marriage and end of life, sometimes all in a single catastrophic moment. It is crashing down and getting up. It’s the blind pursuit of hunches, the dig and the backfill, running in the rain. There’s a farm and a church and back porch beers. There’s a closet where a janitor reads books on the late shift; a gas station where the pretty teenage narrator sells coffee at dawn to the workingmen of her small town; and a girl, alone, skating on a lake buried in ice. There are refugees desperate to cross a dangerous sea. There’s an airplane flying upside down, and far more intimate terrors. There’s a visit from the police, from church elders, from a surrogate mom. There are borrowings of other writers’ sturdy words. There is God, and there is no God. There are survivors. Hello, I’m here.


* * *


“The deep-down laws of physics don’t distinguish between the past and the future,” observes theoretical physicist Sean M. Carroll in an interview with The TED Radio Hour on NPR. “They treat them completely symmetrically, as if they were just replaceable with each other.” The laws of memoir also permit such interchangeability. The jar of water in my storage unit is a jar of old snowballs, deliquescent reliquary of one of my happiest days. The box of pens is a box of writing. Voilà, the lavender couch, re-covered, is now a red couch—I am single, then partnered, then not. Clocks and photographs face forward, books and shoes face back. A puddle of pink candle wax is the night my mother died. Where is that lock of my father’s white hair that I cut before the undertaker arrived? This foot-high “Q” from a Pennsylvania movie marquee and that rocking chair from an Amish flea market, both were old when I was still young and remind me where I’m from. The black leather photo album from a cherished ex and the zip-up coconut she stuffed shekels inside, gifts inside gifts. How the musical triangle she gave me, to sound, needs one angle open where the metal bars vibrate but do not touch. A passed-down baby blanket, pink-yellow-blue, and all these years no baby. The things I keep are a language that no one speaks but me.  


* * *


One of six living siblings, all of us now 40 and up, I am among the last to turn gray.  Soon I will face the decision of whether to color my hair. When it comes to age, decisions about its masking or unmasking dog me daily. I paint my toenails blue and wonder if I look sexy in bike shorts. I accept the grocery bagger’s help to my car and, on campus, if a stranger mistakes me for a professor, I usually let it slide. 

* * *


On Friday nights in St. Louis, I tune into my home synagogue in Los Angeles for services livestreamed on their website. I miss my queer Jewish family back home. I am here but I am also there. The camera, positioned on the wall at the rear of the sanctuary, frames a view of the Holy Ark and, in front of it, the lesbian rabbi and gay cantor, in prayer shawls, invoking the ancient inside this “now.” Through my one-way digital periscope, I see the clergy and the backs of dozens of heads in attendance, men’s and women’s, bald and thinning, permed and dyed. I see traditional and rainbow yarmulkes. It’s easy to recognize individual congregants, even with their backs turned. I see our temple vice president in her nineties and her wife in her seventies, smooth onyx coif beside curls of flaming amber. I see stubbled pink pates, an angular white bob, and a bundle of dreadlocks beneath a blue bandana. I see my Imahot, my Jewish moms who adopted me when I joined the temple 18 years ago; their pewter heads magnetize toward one another and standing, they link arms, as they’ve done for 38 years as a couple. I see my family aging. Occasionally I see babies and sometimes their heads, too, are bald, or their hair, if they have any, grows in wispy patches. This airtime is hair time. From hair to eternity—for the temple’s email bulletin announced this week that pre-need plots for our communal eternal rest are now on sale.

Inside the sanctuary, the rabbi invites her congregation to turn and wave at the camera. Seeing all their faces animate my screen, I smile. But to them I am invisible and don’t wave back. 

If I miss a synagogue service live online, it’s automatically archived and I can play it back. Either way, it’s already a memory, and so am I. “What you are currently experiencing as the moment ‘now’ is about 80 milliseconds in the past,” says Carroll, “because it takes time for your brain to put together all the data it’s receiving and construct a conscious ‘you’.” Putting together the data to construct a conscious “I” is precisely the task of the memoirist, though it takes a higher order of magnitude of time to accomplish—months, years, decades. 


* * *


Heavy spring rains drove armies of ants through the narrow cracks below my windows and into my ground-floor unit. The ants then wandered boldly, one-by-one, making their way from the cliff of wall to the soft plateau of cushions and mattress—one time, in transit across the page of a book I was reading, another, along the gulley between the keys on my laptop as I typed. I removed one ant at a time totaling a dozen or more each day. Tentatively, I set out traps from the landlord, small white squares with poison inside. Scouting for a place to put them, I spotted a spider web on the windowsill. I noticed the tidy collection of dead black ants at the base of the web before I saw the airy web itself. The spider, pale as alabaster, seemed to float in absolute stillness, camouflaged by the white window frame. This spider did not look busy but yet, there it was, the telltale pile of prey beneath her entrapping web. 

Over the summer, I went away for a month. When I returned, the spider had gone missing, but the delicate pile of corpses remained. My carefully laid traps, along windowsills and baseboards, appeared to be empty. Yet I hesitated clearing any of it away. Why? Who cares? Who pays attention to my relationship to ants? I am trying to show a child in the room a right way of being with other beings, as if I am sure myself; someone older is watching too. Here we are all at once, the never-born, those I wish had never died. My mother especially.

Cleaning, I sometimes wonder: for whom the polished mirror? for whom the crumb-less kitchen floor? I am eleven or twelve in the house where I grew up. I am expecting my mother’s return. I want the house to be clean for her. Is this how she moved through her ages? Leaving Germany and coming to America at twenty-one, did she never shake her mother’s presence? Did she never want to? When she made the beds and ironed, prepared our meals and scrubbed the pots, was it really for us or was it for my grandmother, absent first by distance and later by death? In my family at least, is this how love works, expressed in these almost involuntary rituals of upkeep, of preserving appearances, not just by or for ourselves? Are we living more than one life at a time? 

With a wet paper towel I wiped up the ants from the sill and gathered up the poison squares. I threw it all in the trash.


* * *


I’ve worn glasses since the age of two, when the only eye charts I could read featured ducks and horses and little cars, and my job was to say in which direction they pointed. Reading, much as I enjoy it, has always been a challenge. Stacks of tiny-font texts assigned in my graduate courses brought me to the campus resource center for people with disabilities, where I was able to have enlargements made. At first I didn’t want my colleagues to know, but I’ve let that go. I’ve earned certain privileges with the time-travel mileage I’ve logged. I’ve also let go of the youth slang, words like “totes” and “dude” and “badass,” something I’ll never be.


* * *


At the end of our second semester, the youngest student in my program who also skates with the St. Louis roller derby team, suffered a pair of fractures to her left leg—one spiral, along the length of the tibia, one lateral, snapping the fibula. She was attempting to reverse direction on the track, backward to forward, but lost balance. Her bones kept turning even as the rest of her collapsed to the ground. She underwent emergency surgery and I organized a meal train for when she’d come home from the hospital, knowing she wouldn’t be able to cook or go out to eat for several weeks. Dinners were delivered nightly as planned and she and her partner thanked me repeatedly. They thought I was a genius, that I came up with the meal train concept. But I’ve been doing it for decades, for my friends who had babies, who had cancer, who had knee replacement, whose elderly parents died. I’ve been in birthing rooms and emergency rooms and rooms with the dying, and I know I will be again. One day I’ll be the one on the sickbed or gurney, grateful that what’s refracted through bodies isn’t just time but love. 

Two months later, my classmate, her broken bones secured by a titanium rod and well on the mend, meets me one morning at the outdoor pool. We walk past the shallow end where little kids are learning not to be afraid. My friend swims laps wearing waterproof earbuds playing songs I wouldn’t recognize while I, separated by a floating rope yet close enough to catch her splash, join the white-haired women who are always laughing more than I expect. We push the water with our arms, and it pushes back. The waves we make cast a web of shadows, splintering the pool’s bright floor.


Sylvia Sukop is a St. Louis-based writer with roots in Pennsylvania, whose adopted hometowns include Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Recipient of fellowships from Lambda Literary and PEN America Emerging Voices, she teaches at Washington University where she received her MFA in 2018.

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Nat. Brut is a proud winner of a 2020 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize