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Refractions - Landon Wittmer

I tell myself it is time to write again. I tell myself, staring in the mirror, that I am come from the dead and must give an account of my trip, must paint the walls of the well I sink in with couplets and peonies. I tell myself, staring at red hair as buds of loose dye drop and raise stalagmites on the bathroom floor; at an old towel stained from previous attempts; at these eyes which are not so full, so open as they were; and at the hair that has always called attention, has always been a topic of conversation—I tell myself I have done this before.

I drive down a brick boulevard in Grand Rapids. The windshield splays street lamps in bleeding, vertical flares, and my reflection in the glass is twofold, is threefold, is stacked and blurred upon itself as an impressionist portrait. I am driving to the bar for the birthday of a friend, and I discover a girl next to me.

She is wearing different skin now and answers to a different name, and my tires pace the rural streets of Cedar Springs. We are in high school, and I tell her to come to the game tomorrow because I’ll be there, I say, I’ll be playing in the band, and I’ll be there. She does not answer but leans to kiss my cheek, and tomorrow, she is not in the stands.

A pontoon takes my younger self on an Everglades tour. Beyond the walls of the boat, the ridged back of an alligator surfaces and rolls like a wheel above the water, submerging again. Its mate waits on shore, circling her clutch of twenty eggs, thirty eggs, and a patina of muck and bugs hovers above the oil lake of these antique beasts. I concentrate on anything but reptiles, anything but the imagined horrors of snake vats and the Nile, but the tour guide drags me from my sanctuary, asks me how long I can hold my breath. I say thirty seconds, and the guide laughs at his naïve tourist, and the other tourists laugh, and I am made a spectacle with my tired lungs.

And I am in the audience of a Beach Boys concert, knowing nothing of the band. My friends—music historians—tell me all the members are dead but one, and he’s old, they say. During the show, I realize that all of their songs are about beaches and girls, not boys.

Somewhere in elementary school, I am infatuated with a girl on the sands of Lake Michigan. She has built a castle of mud and stones, a womb to birth lineages of hermit crab kings and starfish servants. I cannot approach this earth mother of a budding religion; instead, I grab a plank of twisted driftwood from the breath of the sea and set it as a flood wall at the base of civilization. I run before she can confront me, and I do not see her again in that life, with those clothes and that name.

I sprint through the woods of West Virginia for no discernable reason, but it feels good. The privacy, the solemnity of the forest is good, and the sensation of springboard feet on mosses and rocks is good, and I do not yet know any words beyond “good” or “God.” I remember that I am on a church trip, that I am playing capture the flag, and as a hand taps my back, that I am behind enemy lines.

At a similar church camp years later, I swim suspended above a pit delving forty feet at its deepest, and the water is hued the indigo of raven feathers. A girl treads to my right, and I become acutely aware with the sun falling, with nascent stars clarifying, with the soft pulse of water at my neck, that I fear the ocean and wish to pass into it. I become aware of my staying afloat and want nothing more than to leave the girl beside me and let gravity press me into the ooze of black water like an insect in amber, an old boy in a Danish bog, to fill my lungs with the grist of fish and live as a cryptid in the folklore of future church trips.

L’appel du vide is the umbrella term for intrusive and irrational self-destructive thoughts. In English, it translates as “the call of the void,” and I only ever hear its lyrics while swimming and driving.

I do not breathe in the heat of the shower, do not let paint into my nose, my throat. I open my eyes a moment, and the plastic bathtub is stained red, and my naked body performs a large, slashed vein. Two tears, three tears fall like birds from their nest because I have never done this before; because I am changing, have always changed, and only now do I note it. Only now in new fashion and habit do I recognize that my name is a lonely constant. The drain swirls crimson. The music historians talk beyond the bathroom door about high school, about things and people who have drowned in the well of amnesia, about the songs haunting their pillow thoughts.

I listen to music, though favorite songs are stained with associations: cicadas in a sunset forest; slipping on hidden beds of ice; lipstick and I love you; old world birds-of-paradise; the study of Paris not as a city of lights but tourists; band camps and invitationals; floods in the streets of my town; seasons and solstices; Scheherazade finding phrases in a tortured night; the moon’s shrapnel tossing on an unsettled lake; car rides.

The music historians and I buy ice cream in my small town. One day, the sky dies, blackens and unfolds itself, and we take cover on the benches of the ice cream shop as water grows around running feet. Pools of dirty water build at points of lowest elevation, at points where water is comfortable and stale, and with years of patience and rain, these pools will drill as waterfalls into their concrete caskets. But the sun wakes again hours later, and groundwater fades into the visiting wind.

The bar is crowded, and we play a game like charades. One friend has drunk two glasses and is beyond himself, and most of the words he adds to the pot are sexual. I do not want to play the game anymore.

To relieve the anxieties of budding and wilting relationships, I play video games, read books, write blank verse. I am cobbled in fiction and hexed by Pavlov.

The drive home from the Beach Boys is silent, or conversation is muted by the drum of the engine heart. Through the windows, a dark world is lit with the intermittent bioluminescence of buildings, and trees are shadowed as kelp on a floor of clay. The Beatles sing with the voices of ants from a CD. The music historians have tried to force the band on me, have made playlists to that end, but I can never find myself in the notation. I tell my friend who is particularly keen to modernist trends that I enjoy music without a strict tempo, or a tempo that is difficult to recognize. I tell him I am enjambed.

I am caught in a storm under the waves of the Atlantic. A hand of riptide grabs my foot, and I tumble against the sands at the bottom of the shallows. I hold my breath and know I will die, know I will be crushed as a scrap of tin under the pressure and gravity of the ocean, know that no survey team will collect my corpse, or that they will parse its broken lumps separated from the source. But I resurface and am baptized, breathing again some yards from shore; the boards of Theseus’s boat sink in a wine-faced sea.

The boys in my youth group tell me they wish I would open up more. They say I’m quiet, that I should be more vulnerable, but they have never asked me about the ocean or music. They have never read the scripts carved in my skin or indulged in the epicurean tastes of a high schooler. The boys in my youth group do not listen when I say I am drowning or she is gone. It is winter, and they know warmth from fire alone.

It is spring and cliché, but this is not fiction, and all who are living are becoming clichés with a little patience. I leave the shower and resume my stance at the mirror, and blood-dye has soaked and patched pink flesh and dark bruises, has filled the pages composing this golem. I am alone again in a world where people talk in the hall, where the future is discussed and diagnosed so it no longer can abuse us. I am more hopeful than previous days that I will not remain under the heads of showers and lakes, that someone will salvage my flotsam—but then, that is not my thought, but the thought of a foreigner, a foreigner I have become, am becoming.

I avoid music when I can. I’ve taken up podcasts for commutes, but when those deplete, I still turn to lyrics and rhythms. I will sing in the car sometimes, and when the void finds voice, I will remember as a skiff remembers the currents raising it, lowering it, gnawing at its hull with brine, with patterns.

"I wrote this piece at the nadir of a rough patch mentally, and what started as a personal essay turned into something much more formless because I didn't have it in me to keep up with conventions. "Refractions" became a list of memories laced together with a sort of dream logic, of associations, all following the general themes of love, music, water, and identity. I love the lyricism of some phrases ("to fill my lungs... church trips"), and I'm excited with every reread and every new discovery I find thematically linking different sections of the piece." - notes from the artist


LANDON is an emerging writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose nonfiction examines the themes running through his adolescence. His writing encounters himself as an outsider to his lived experience, analyzing it through the fogged window of memory.

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