The Tale Goes to the Survivor is one of my favorite essays. I’ve posted its history and current version because it’s no longer available online. I’m sad neither website is active but I will always appreciate the support these two publications gave to my early work.
My grateful thanks to Kelly McMasters and Keaton Ramjit at the Hofstra Journal of Literature and Art for their help in preparing The Tale Goes to the Survivor for its initial publication. Their support and guidance helped elevate the story, adding to its levels and depth. It was a pleasure working with them. I couldn’t ask for better editors.
I caught a few of Denise Mills’ online essays over on HuffPost and began following her. I loved her fresh take on relationships and her unwavering advocacy for women’s personal empowerment and connection. I was delighted when she agreed to reprint The Tale Goes to the Survivor for the Letters Anthology.
The Tale Goes to the Survivor
Today I learned you died over a year and a half ago. I consider the emptiness I feel. Perhaps this void is just a precursor, the sensation one gets before the memories soften and a kinder truth whispers in. Perhaps the truth is lost forever. The sudden impact of the news expelling the bitterness. I wonder if the tales I tell will reveal more about me than you. The wounds as visible as open sores on my face to the ones who listen.
You died when I, too, was struggling for my life. The news left me baffled. It seemed some primordial force had decreed we two must fight to the death, the ties formed ages ago binding us together for one final smack-down. I am the one who survived. I’m the one who gets to tell our story. I never expected this. I assumed you would always be around to object and be the one to say, “That’s not how it was. Let me tell it.”
Back when we were a couple, you were handsome and a little vain, each mirror a magnet. You wore your bangs swept to the right. You would slide your fingers down the long brown hairs, perfecting their arrangement.
The first time I saw your picture on Facebook, I laughed, and I shouldn’t have, for you were bald. I knew how devastating the loss of those hairs must have been for you. I laughed at myself, too. All those years of hoping we would never come face to face. I’d gotten fat, you see, but you, you’d gotten bald. Your features rounder, fuller. Your mouth ringed by a gray beard and mustache. Your sleepy bedroom eyes now heavy-lidded.
I remember you smiling at me as we sat side-by-side on the narrow dorm bed, charmed and intrigued I might be tempted by you. You didn’t know that I was busted inside, craving an all-enveloping love. You would come to think of me as insatiable, finally deciding I was too taxing to sustain.
One of the stories I might tell is from the time I was learning to work clay as part of my art degree. Marci and Donna, the inseparable Bobbsey Twins, were waiting for me in the ceramics lab. Marci, with her round face and thin blonde hair hanging in limp curls, preened and giggled, impatient to know more about the handsome guy looking for me. I was familiar with the reaction.
“Dark brown hair, mustache, deep voice? That guy?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” Marci said, pulling Donna’s arm up and down, “Who is he? Who is he? What did he want?”
“I have no idea what he wants.” It bothered me, your intrusion into my world. I’d found a new place to work and love, and you’d followed me. I inhaled deeply, the feathery light filtering through the curtains on the southern wall blinding me. I slowly exhaled, closing my eyes, hoping it would buy me some time to decide how to answer.
I was transported to the past. You thought you were smooth, but I knew. It was subtle and hard to describe, but when we made love I could always tell. In the truthful times, we would stay joined as long as possible. When the moment of withdrawal came, you would slip out with a little exhalation, an inaudible sigh of regret.
During the unfaithful times, you wouldn’t linger. You’d turn your back to me and fall asleep. I would try to spoon against you, but you would skitter away, mumbling. As if you couldn’t bear my touch; as if being with me was the infidelity.
These giddy girls had no idea. They saw only your face, felt only your attraction. “That was Dave, my ex. Here’s the deal. I’ll give you his number. If you are ever horny and want someone to help you out, give him a call. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.” They stood there, mouths open, incredulous that I, generally reserved, would say such a thing. “Marci, you especially. You’re just his type. He’d eat you up.” At that, she started to back away from me, her face turning beet red.
Then again, maybe it’s only what I wish I’d said. Perhaps I stood silent, tight-lipped about our history, shrugging that you were an old friend. All the while, pressing my hand close against the fluttering in my chest at the thought of you back in my life.
I remember one day you materialized while I was pounding the air pockets out of a fresh slab of clay. You led me to the student lounge so we could talk. I wondered why you’d tracked me down as you half reclined on a couch. As we chatted, your long tan fingers started unbuttoning your shirt, revealing a gold chain. It nestled in the short brown hairs I once played with. Inhaling, I searched your eyes for understanding, uncertain what you were playing at. Laughing, you said, “Oh, how quickly they come running back,” as you sat up re-buttoning your shirt.
I felt my fingers curving into fists, embarrassed. I wanted to slap or kick you. I wanted to yell, “So what? You think it’s funny to tease that way? It’s not okay. It never was.” I stomped on the few remaining embers, punting them in a loose circle around me. As they cooled, so did I. Then, like a hoarder, I gathered them, placing each in a different pocket of my crumpled denim jacket. Later, I would examine the surface of each for signs of life, wondering if spontaneous combustion was real; if it would take a spark or an explosion to make them flame once more.
Perhaps, this is one of the stories I will tell. I was working at the pottery wheel in the ceramics lab, watching as the clay magically widened from a lump into a bowl, the process part of me, yet separate. I slowed the wheel, measured the bowl’s circumference, then I gently fluted the edge, curving it like a wide piecrust. I spun the wheel one last time, then lifted the cheese wire draped around my shoulders and used it to detach the bowl.
As I carefully transferred it to a wide board with three matching bowls on it, I looked up, noticed you watching me. I stretched; my arms extending in bent V’s held shoulder high, as I rocked the stiffness out of my neck and spine.
You smiled, “I’ve come to say good-bye.”
Eyebrow lifting, I replied, “Can you hold on a minute while I put these bowls away? I’ve got something I want to tell you, too.” You nodded your assent and watched as I guided the board into an empty slot in one of the waiting drying racks. “Your timing is perfect. I’ve been struggling with those bowls all morning. I’m ready for a break. Have you had lunch yet?” Stopping to wash my hands at a large metal sink, I asked, “Do you mind if we go to the vending machines? I don’t have time to go to the Union.”
You grinned at me, your sleepy brown eyes alight as you assured me it was fine. “I’m going to have to take off in about twenty minutes anyway. I have a show this afternoon.”
As we walked into the lounge, I relaxed in the warmth of the sun-sprayed room. Even though it was filled with comfortable couches and slouchy chairs, today it stood empty. The large open space felt silent and prayerful, almost holy. I purchased a strawberry yogurt and a chicken salad sandwich. I laughed when you bought a banana.
We chatted a while about the radio station. You’d been doing your due diligence, sending out audition tapes, interviewing and applying for jobs throughout the northeast. Even though you weren’t certain what was next, you were hopeful.
“So you really did come to say goodbye?” You’d spent an extra semester finishing the final few credits you needed to graduate. I hadn’t thought the end would be upon us so soon. I was sad and nostalgic now that the moment had arrived.
“Yup, I’m finished here. Becca and I are finished too. At least, I’m pretty sure we’re done.” Then nodding your head as if reminding yourself of the reality, you said one more time, “Yeah, we’re done with each other.”
“I’m sorry. I know you tried to make it work.”
Your face grimaced a bit, your hands making whatcha-gonna-do motions, urging me to move onto another subject, the frustrating burn of rejection being too new and raw to risk comment.
“Anyway, I have news too.” Taking a deep breath, I continued. “Andrew asked me to marry him and I’ve accepted. The wedding will happen soon. June, I think.”
You gulped a bit, but managed to refrain from asking, “What’s the rush? Are you pregnant?” I’d come to expect it whenever I announced my impending marriage.
To my relief, you simply congratulated me and wished us the best of luck. You took your leave soon after, saying, “Well, Joannanina, it’s been real. Take care of yourself,” before giving me one last, graceful kiss on the cheek, smiling one last wolfish grin and sauntering out of my life, waving as you left the room.
Sometimes transitions are unheralded. One day, you wake up and notice you have misplaced someone and are unwilling or unable to go back and find them. Sometimes a change smacks you in the face; it slaps you a few times and boots you out the door. That’s how it was for you, I think. Hearing me announce my upcoming nuptials was the last door to shut on your college years. It pitched you out into the world. I never heard from you again.
Now, you are dead. It seems silly to worry about the story. What difference does it make? After all, I’ve lived for a year and a half without knowing. But the shaping of it matters. I’m the one who survived. There should be nothing of you in my world anymore. I am free to tell the tale however I wish. You’re origami now. I can bend and fold you into any shape I choose.