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kristyn westphal

a self-portrait

in my head, i have shrinking green pond-shaped bruises and raised maroon lacerations down the length of my arms. inside, my soul is falling open like a thong-bound book, let unlaced with clouds of dust rising from the still settling pages. beyond the moonlight, in the subterranean chamber recessed deep within the facets of a labyrinthine room, an enormous silver door lumbers silently outward on its hinges. my heart is monstrous silky fuchsia petals, dew-wet and falling outward.

these months after being initiated into the company of grief i’ve grown to feel oddly separate from most of the people i’m close to. it’s like looking into my reflection in a glass building, seeing myself wholly from the outside, as an impregnable capsule that few will ever pierce. i have a disembodied empathy for myself, the friendly pity of a protective outsider.

light makes all the difference in daily life – perpetual cloudiness or sun being the difference between infernal gloom and inner radiance.  late afternoon light is my favorite; buttery slant-cast rays a la maxwell parish. i’m happiest when i’m outside in some far-flung state park or thrumming down the highway under icy stars, though i haven’t had either chance for a while. as i’m in need of a seven-month surrogate, holywell cemetery looks like fairyland for my money, and if i were to be buried and not cremated that’s exactly the kind of place i’d want to be. this time of year the magnolia tree at the nape of the curving path is heavy laden with wide-open-to-bursting sweet pink buds; i sense perfect peace in the sweet, honeysuckle-scented bird-song air with grass and ivy growing up wild around the decaying gravestones. to me, cemeteries are history, and familial love, and story wrapped up together, and i feel at peace wandering in the wild of my perfect overgrown hideaway, a place where you know no one else is likely to wander, and where you can be alone with the dead and their stories and your thoughts.

i’m in the city for my master’s, and i knew three days after coming this wouldn’t have anything to do with my life in the future. my boyfriend’s family has land on a mountain in morazon, el salvador. maybe i’ll end up growing agave and running an orphanage.

in another life, i drove a bus in seattle one time when i moved up there on impulse with my house on my back and couldn’t find work. i trained for three weeks with a jehovah’s witness who tried to evangelize me in the twilight drives back to the bus lot. the day i drove her bus instead of mine, the kind with a flat-mounted steering wheel instead of a tilt, i broke the rear-view mirror off a truck within five minutes. after i got my license, when i picked the kids up in the morning, there was one hill over whose crest the red-gold sun shone twinned in cold lake washington with a fringe of pines. i almost kissed a boy who worked with me – he was pierced like me and looked mexican, but it turned out he was actually filipino. he said he got the latin thing a lot.

i’m with an honest-to-goodness latin boy now – we met at a yom kippur service in new york city on my fourth day there; neither one of us is jewish. after that, we had pancakes the next day, and before the pancakes, he got there early and bought a watch outside my apartment lounging around waiting for me to come down. he loves frank o’hara, mcdonald’s, and gardening. he knows how to cox a boat.

kristyn westphal

there is someone in this world who’s a mirror of my own soul (not the boyfriend, though i love him). everyone should be so lucky.

once, in san francisco, mission district, treat street, i puffed clove cigarettes on the descending steps of my white victorian row house. next door they sold authentic burritos with red-hot salsa out of a hole in the wall. the sun went down and i smoked about five in a row, for the buzz. that year i went through two whole packs.

younger, in lawrence, i stood in the sixth-floor study room in the lobby of templin hall and watched purple clouds cast lightning through green sky. you haven’t seen lightning til you’ve seen it in kansas.

read ‘the dead’. read ‘cathedral’. and listen to tori amos, ‘leather’.

as a kid, i used to breed gerbils after it turned out one of my birthday present pets was a girl and one a boy. i sold them to pet stores. others died, and i buried them in boxes under the yew with my sister and cried. i gave my dad a slow one named zippy. there was something wrong with his brain; he couldn’t walk right, but he was a friendly little rodent. then he died, and my dad was grief-stricken and didn’t want to tell me.

my dad also told me one time – this involves frosties – a tall tale about the remnants of my shake. the straw was making the kind of slurping, burping noises it does when you get to the bottom and are greedy, and he said that there was a little creature down there, gasping its last breaths. another time we were swimming in lake pomme de terre, and he swam up beneath me and grabbed my foot like a shark. he’s a prankster.

my family lived in byelarus once. we called the perpetual boat-size puddle in front of our building lake galitskava. i learned the words for forest and don’t do that and prison slang for knife. this last we picked up from the drunk ex-con neighbor who wandered into our apartment at twelve in the morning and hung out the window, smoking cigarettes. he made us a present of a hefty knife with hand-made, jewel-toned haft. we kids used to tromp through stark forest snow under blue skies to catch the train outside pechi, the military town whose name means ‘stoves’. the trains are electric. you can feel the current in the live air around you.

horizon - canada

horizon – canada. i keep this on my wall. i like this picture because it reaches toward the horizon, and that's a lot of what i'm about – reaching toward the horizon

lately to fill the artistic void i’ve taken up video-recording. the thing of it is, it requires about 1/70 the skill of photos. so i’ve decided to become a master recorder, which basically means i aspire to take lots of still shots and artistic montages with a dvd camera, but i don’t have to bother with apertures and that kind of hoo-ha.

other things you should know about me are that the scent of melons makes me joyous. i love guacamole and halloween and fireworks on the fourth of july. if i could make it summer all year, it would be, but only the kind of summer you find in the american midwest, with droning cicadas and numerous fire-flies and potato salad and a good clean sweat on balmy nights in tall yard grass with friends and mosquitos.

as far as the beating remnants of my spat-upon soul: i’ll make it ok. i have five more weeks to go before i leave behind the overgrown museum that is oxford and return to something familiar and homey. this time it’s back to new york again; next time could be california. i’m old, and weathered, and only 25, like a sailor back from the wars, and feel the itch returning. in any case, for now i need some sleep, and a hot bath, and someone to tuck me in.

april 2005