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No. 13 - Tess Congo's "Winter in Persephone"

Updated: Aug 25, 2019


Photography by Adrian Moens

__________________________________________________________________________________

August 7th, 2019


It's raining outside and I've just finished re-reading Tess Congo's short story, "Winter in Persephone," which appears within Issue No. 3 - Winter 2017-18, which also includes an interview with Congo by Adrian Moens. The rain's a perfect companion for Congo's story; as the drops beat against the window in here, barely audible over the hum of the air conditioning; then every now and again, I hear the roll of thunder in the distance.


Much like the protagonist in Congo's story, Andrea, I wouldn't mind making myself into a bear, slumbering my way through the rest of this hot and humid summer, then waking up to a cooler and more crisp and more calm autumn.


"Andrea wished herself a bear. Black, brown—any kind but polar. To steal a whole season for slumber and recuperation without consequence, to linger in sleep without shame. What would it be like to silence a season and resume life fresh with the first buds of spring?"


"Winter in Persephone" is short ––– it moves quickly, and delivers punches and jabs that pull you into the increasingly unreal world and life that Andrea finds herself trapped within. On Instagram, she's a star; while at home, she just, wants, out. Perhaps from her house, her book deal, her marriage, or from all three at once.


Then at last, as the story nearly reaches its ending, Andrea finds her strength and her words; and plans a haymaker, which may or may not end the fight.


Isaac Myers III

__________________________________________________________________________________

WINTER IN PERSEPHONE.

Tess Congo


Andrea wished herself a bear. Black, brown—any kind but polar. To steal a whole season for slumber and recuperation without consequence, to linger in sleep without shame. What would it be like to silence a season and resume life fresh with the first buds of spring? To feel awake as soon as—Andrea’s alarm beeped for the third time that morning. She hit snooze.

A text sounded at the top of her phone screen: Cynthia: How’s the draft coming?

Andrea dropped her phone on the bedspread. Light seeped beneath the curtains outlining the features of the room: the shelf with the dying cacti, the tufted settee beneath, the bookshelf of self-help, sex, and poetry books, the mid-century lowboy dresser and its matching mirror, and James’ recent bedroom display of affection: the photos.

On Valentine’s Day, James had spun her around three times as if they were in the midst of pin-the-tail on the donkey, and when he told her to open her eyes, Andrea felt like the donkey.

She wanted to say What the fuck? Instead she had said “Wow.”

James had taped twenty photos on the wall: “I LOVE YOU” carved into sand at Hampton Beach; champagne glasses cheers’ing over chicken pineapple kabobs from his family’s annual Independence Day barbecue; Andrea’s first Instagram post, a photo of James playing chess with the stuffed duck Andrea had won him on their first date; Andrea and James on that first date sharing a stick of pink cotton candy; James piggybacking Andrea across a puddle; James proposing to her in the snow (not shown: him saying Please say something. My knees are getting cold); their first wedding dance with James’ brother reaching mistletoe over their heads; Andrea preparing to throw soaked socks off a rainy Mount Major (Don’t, James said after he took the picture. The blisters will be worse.); pink shoes resting on Andrea’s hilled stomach; Becca in Andrea’s arms at the hospital; Andrea’s mom and Becca building an Angelina Ballerina puzzle; Andrea and James kissing over a candle marking their third wedding anniversary; James tickling Becca on a picnic blanket; Andrea and Becca bouncing hand in hand on a trampoline; Becca in a field of flowers in her bumblebee costume; Andrea and James snuggling next to a campfire; Becca biting into her uncut fifth birthday cake; a photo of Becca’s drawings of them as a marshmallow family with James and Andrea holding cell phones in their marshmallow hands; Becca dancing with her feet on James’s loafers next to a photo of Andrea as a little girl dancing on her father’s feet.

At “Wow,” James’s smile seemed to collapse into his chin. Andrea tried to perk him up with kisses, but he looked so wilted, the damage done. Why couldn’t she have just kissed him without the “Wow”? She cringed at the memory.

It wasn’t even the worst Valentine’s Day gift he had ever given her. Who could forget the wrestling tickets back in college? The photos were actually thoughtful. He had chosen some of her favorites, but in the moment after he spun her, when she opened her eyes, Andrea felt a tightness in her chest. What the fuck was followed by another thought: You’ll never be that happy again.

Surely, the display had to have a closing date, and yet two weeks had gone by, and here she was once again waking up to marshmallow versions of herself. Maybe James expected her to take the photos down. No matter the years, he didn’t seem to understand the cost of movements, the feeling of depletion before she even lifted her head from the pillow.

Her alarm beeped again. She turned it off and tapped open Instagram. The heart at the bottom revealed her latest notifications:

_y3ti_ started following you.

Radicalsabbatical_ commented: “Such a gorgeous family <3!”

Catherinelecomtephoto and 401 others liked your post.  

She clicked the third notification down. It was for one of her highest hearted posts:

“My daughter finds marigolds in the grass

and holds them to her eyes,

and says ‘Mommy, what time

are my eyes?’

And, I want to hold her still to this moment

as I tell her ‘Five o’clock”


Where were the marigolds now? Long dead, under snow. Andrea tried to listen for the ones without roots, the ones she could discover in her daughter, but it was hard to hear anything outside her thoughts. It’s always going to feel like this. It will never be what it was. It could be that she’d been living marigold moments all winter without realizing that they were occurring, but she knew moments only lasted so long as your awareness of them. If you didn’t commit them to photos, or words, or memories they were lost like they’d never occurred. 

Slipping her hand into her pillow case, Andrea found her gratitude list. Every morning and evening, she tried to read it to herself with a smile on her face. Sometimes if she imagined or pretended to imagine feeling joy, then she felt her head lift a little higher, her spine rise a little straighter. It made her feel like a kid again, with her dad penciling her growth on the pantry door: Another inch!

Part of the gratitude list was intertwining truths with desires. She had to imagine her gratitude at receiving the things she hadn’t yet received. Sitting up, Andrea began: “I’m so grateful that I am loved by my wonderful, adoring, handsome, kind, generous, funny, intelligent husband, that we have such a fulfilling, exciting marriage, that we have a beautiful, healthy daughter who is spirited, and curious, and smart. I am so happy that I am healed completely, that I’m healthy and strong and have more than two-hundred thousand followers on Instagram. I’m so grateful that I have a book agent, that I have energy to—”

“Mom, where’s the cereal?” Becca hung from the doorknob.

“Hold on, Becca.” Andrea dropped her eyes back to the list.

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

“Honey, five more minutes.”

Becca plopped her knees to the carpet, putting her remaining weight on the doorknob. In her other hand was a headless Barbie.

“Becca, I told you, you’ll break the knob if you do that.”

“Cheerios! Cheerios! Cheerios!” Becca began to chant moving the door back and forth.


“Five more—” 

Outside, a car door slammed.

“Daddy! Is that Daddy?” Becca ran to the window and pulled back the silk curtain.

Andrea flinched at the expanded light.

“Daddy’s home!” Becca thundered down the stairs, leaving the curtain still parted.

Andrea continued down the list at the sound of the key in the front door; … “book agent, that I have energy to” — the front door opened — “Daddy!” “to do everything” — the thud of a carry-on on the carpet — “that I want and need” — “And, how are you doing, Miss Becca Bell?” — “to do. I am so grateful” — “I’m hungry.” “Where’s your mother?” “that I am happy, content, and at peace with my” — “She’s sleeping.”

Andrea tore her eyes from the list and called down, “I’m not sleeping!”

“Well, where are you? I want to see your beautiful face,” James called in return.

I’m so grateful … at peace with …

“Dree,” he called. She could hear him coming up the stairs now. “Dree.”

Andrea sighed and folded the list back under the pillow. Maybe after coffee. She made it to the door just as James entered with Becca on his hip.

“You’re too old to be carried,” she said to Becca.

“Daddy doesn’t say so,” said Becca, and she stuck out her tongue.

Andrea kissed James. “Did you have a cigarette?”

“Just one or two while waiting for the taxi,” he said.

“Cheerios! Cheerios!” chanted Becca.

“Enough,” said Andrea, taking Becca from James’s hip. She set her on the floor. “Go get dressed.”

“Only if we can go to the park later,” said Becca, like a threat.

“We’ll see.”

“Yay! Park! Park! Park! And, Cheerios!” said Becca, running toward her room.

“And matching socks!” Andrea called after her. “Thought we agreed you weren’t gonna smoke anymore. You know my dad.”

“Smoker all his life, died at 43. How’s your head?”

“Still migraine-y. I don’t mean to sound naggy,” said Andrea.

“You don’t. You sound tired,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here this week. I just thought a sale might be easier in person”  

“We were fine. How’d the sale go?”

Footsteps scrambled back to them through the hall. “I’m ready!” Becca jumped in the air still wearing her nightgown, one foot covered in a spotted sock, the other in stripes.

“That’s not dressed, and didn’t I tell you to wear matching socks?” said Andrea. “Do you know what it’s like to do your laundry? I never know which ones are missing when you mix them up.”

“I’m tired of mean mommy,” said Becca.

James swiped Becca up into his arms. “Be nice.”

Becca laughed as he squeezed her ribs.

“I’m so glad to be back with my girls,” he said. “Who’s hungry?”

“Me! Me! Me!”

James stopped in the doorway and looked back at Andrea. “You coming?”

Andrea made eye contact with herself in the mirror before looking back at her husband. “I’ll shower first.”

“Don’t take too long,” he said, kissing Becca’s ear.

Becca squealed through the hall, down the stairs. “That tickles!”

_____________


In the shower, Andrea held onto the walls. If she laid in bed too long the walls tipped into each other. She could hear her doctor’s voice in her head: Low blood pressure. It helped if she held out her hands to keep the walls from falling. Sometimes it felt like she was ice skating on the frozen pond behind her childhood home. She had to hold out her hands then too, for balance. She closed her eyes. I’m so grateful that I’m alive. I’m so grateful that I am healed completely. I’m so grateful … How did the rest of it go?  

  Andrea brought her fingers to her shorn hair. She had recently cut it a la pixie to donate ten inches to Locks of Love. Her hairdresser had taken a video for Andrea to post on Instagram, and it was one of her top performing posts. It even made one of the top nine posts for the hashtag Locksoflove with over two hundred views. New followers were still messaging her about it: I love your page. Your family is so precious. Discovered you through #LocksofLove. I can’t wait to donate my hair some day.

Not bothering to lather her lack of hair, Andrea sat on the shower floor. Part of it was that it was something she had always wanted to do since a teenager—donate her hair (she thought of all the admirable heroines of literature who sacrificed their locks in the name of love; namely Fantine from Les Mis and Jo from Little Women). The other truth: she thought maybe shorter hair would make the morning routine slightly easier.

A tentative knock on the bathroom door preceded her husband’s voice. He tried the knob, but it was locked. “Dree . . . breakfast is ready.

“Okay,” she called through the shower curtain.

She could feel the energy of his hesitation before he spoke again. “Everything okay? You’ve been in there for awhile.”

She slammed her hand on the tub diverter and water gushed from the faucet. “Yes. I’ll be right out.”

She twisted the faucet off, and the water stopped.


_______________


Sometimes Andrea dreamed she was dead, and she was returning home for her own funeral. James and Becca and her mom and Joan and Philip and Casey and all her nieces and nephews were there and some aunts and uncles and cousins and her friends from her fitness circle (her Instagram followers were too busy hearting her posts and boohooing in the comments to actually show face). She walked up to the casket, which was a light blue like her father’s had been. She looked down expecting to see herself, but the casket was empty, and that was when she noticed everyone was looking at her, and she realized she was supposed to climb into the casket now. They were waiting to bury her, but they couldn’t do it until she admitted she was dead.


“You’re quiet,” said James across the table.

“Just tired,” she said.

He nodded. “I noticed that you haven’t been posting on Instagram as frequently lately. Been losing some followers.”

“I know,” said Andrea. “I just don’t have anything to say.”

“It doesn’t have to be words or a new poem,” James continued. “It can just be a picture with a few hashtags. You could post the Valentine’s Day collage I put together for you. You haven’t shared that yet.”

“Yeah, but Valentine’s Day is over.”

“I think your followers expected something day of.”

Andrea shrugged, stirring her eggs. “I just didn’t feel like it.”

James had laid a cauliflower and broccoli on top of her eggs in the shape of a heart. She ate them first.

“Well, you could’ve posted the breakfast I made today. Did you notice I shaped the broccoli and cauliflower

“Yes, very cute. Thank you,” said Andrea.

“Want the last piece of bacon?” James asked.

Andrea shook her head. “It’s yours.”

Becca was beneath the table talking to her Barbies.

“Do you want more bacon?” asked Ken.


“It’s yours,” said Barbie.

Andrea lifted the tablecloth and frowned at her.

“What?” asked Becca. “Still mean about my socks?”

“No,” said Andrea. “Carry on.”

Her eyes flitted to James as he lifted a coffee mug to his lips. The open window swept sunshine over his head, which had begun to bald. She didn’t know what he would do when his hair was completely gone. Maybe he’d wear hats or would become like one of her uncles, the one who wore a toupee that he would put on his knee to brush every night. Andrea and her sister used to giggle, peeking behind the sofa, watching him.

“What are you thinking about?”


“Maybe cute-happy poetry is losing its glimmer. In the age of MeToo, maybe people want something darker or deeper.”

“Maybe you should wait until spring and see how you feel,” said James

“You think my desire to write something different is seasonal?”

“I didn’t say that necessarily,” said James, standing up. “Just maybe you should stick with what you know your followers like. You have a book deal, Dree. Do you really want to gamble with our mortgage?”

She watched him collect the used dishes and silverware from the table. He took her plate away without asking, scraping the dregs of her eggs into the trash. In past winters, he’d taken note of her change in weight with comments like “Maybe less coconut bliss this week,” or “Hey, cookie monster, want to go for a run?” The comments brought her back to her teenager years when her mom would measure her waist.

As James started washing the dishes she said, “What about your job?”

“What about my job?” he said over the water.

“When is that going to actually start contributing to our household?”

“Dree, I explained the challenges going into this position.” He bent lower to scrub the skillet pan but continued talking. “It’s new software that’s a million dollars a pop that no one has ever bought, so other companies are wary to purchase it, but once I get just one sale, think of the commission, and I can go back to all of the other companies I’ve connected with and say ‘Hey guys, hey guys, this guy bought it,’ and like that, they’ll trust me, and it will all be worth it.”

“But it’s been like eight months. How long will you try to keep selling this thing where you can justify living without a salary?”

“I don’t know.” He flipped the pan into the plastic dish rack and laid his hands on the sink, his back still to her. “Maybe two years.”

“Two years?” She choked on her coffee.

He turned around to face her with crossed arms. “With your book sales, I think we can carry on until I make my first sale.”

“I haven’t even finished the book yet, James. You’re putting a lot of pressure on me that I don’t appreciate.”

“Dree,” he said, walking toward her. “It’s like that poem you posted: ‘Your achievements are as bright as the joy you give others.’”

“Don’t quote me at me,” she said.

Under the table, she could feel Becca’s hand softly patting her leg. She hated when Becca sensed her shift in moods. The mother should be in a position of comforting the child, not the other way around.

James sighed. “Dree, I’m sorry. I just thought maybe you’d get some inspiration from the words you use to inspire others.”

“Liar, that was some passive aggressive bullsh” she thought of Becca under the table. “Frogs. You come in here like a small tornado with your eggs and broccoli and my poetry and throw it all at me.”

“Yes, I made you breakfast and support your art. I’m a terrible husband,” he said, pressing his hand on her shoulder before leaving the kitchen.

Becca raised her head, and the tablecloth draped over her like a hood. “Do chickens ever eat eggs?”

Andrea scooted her chair back to let her out and picked her up. “No.”

“I thought you said I was too heavy.”

“You are,” said Andrea, carrying her into the living room.

_______________

Andrea settled Becca in front of Fuller House on the iPad with a glass of apple juice and slipped up the stairs. The coffee added a spring to her step. Who says darker poetry couldn’t be marketable? Maybe she could actually finish the first draft of her manuscript if she felt all her thoughts had value, not just the ones that made her followers smile. James was in the shower when she walked into the bedroom. She started taking the photos down as she thought about which hashtags she could test: #sadpoetry #emopoetry #sylviaplath #SADpo (that last one couldn’t exist).

She looked at the three photos she had taken down: the wedding dance beneath mistletoe, the piggyback over puddle, and Becca dancing on James’s shoes. They felt heavy in her hands, even heavier than they’d felt on the wall. Maybe James could get the rest of them down. She laid the photos on the top of the dresser she’d had since college. When she and James started dating, they flipped the mirror over one night and practiced logic proofs on the back while smoking pot and listening to Elliott Smith.

Figure eight is double four

Figure four is half of eight

If you skate you would be great

If you could make a figure of eight

Andrea could never make a figure eight, but sometimes, she swore she could feel her father’s hand in hers, how they used to ice skate together before he’d let her go, saying Now, you’re on your own. When he died, she’d wanted to grab his hand again. I don’t want to be on my own. He’d been the one she always counted on, to get her out of her “Garfield moods” as he called them. Once, after one of her high school breakups, her father bought her a chocolate bar called “Boyfriend Replacement.” The chocolate was terrible, but she laughed into tears opening it.


She traced her hand along the top edge of the mirror. She knew that lingering in the past was pointless. She knew it when she’d think back to the funeral and the way her mother pushed that woman on the porch, the shouting of it. Andrea closed her eyes to shut out the noise.

She wouldn’t go that way. The day had not been so bad. James was home, he’d made a nice breakfast, her daughter was spirited, and curious, and smart. It was Andrea who needed to adjust. She searched for her phone in the blankets. Had she brought it downstairs?

James had left his phone on the side table. His passcode was easy, one of those slide lines from circle to circle ones. She unlocked it in seconds and went to his Instagram and typed in #depressivepoetry in the search bar. Only 289 posts. #sylviaplath: 128,217 posts versus #rupikaur: 318,412. Was it the current political climate, or did people just naturally gravitate toward “Here Comes the Sun” over “Gloomy Sunday”? What about Daria? Clearly, there was a market for a dreary voice of wisdom.

Andrea returned to the Instagram home page and noticed she had new messages. She clicked the number six and when she came to all the messages she remembered: This isn’t my phone. This is James’s account. She had never looked through his messages during the years they’d been together (though now and then she’d been tempted), but she wanted to be a woman so secure in herself that she’d never doubt her partner. Now, she looked at all the globed icon photos of woman after woman and the previews of their messages:

Hahaha you seem full of

I bet your wife wouldn’t

And, how does a handsome

Hey follow me

Hey Gorgeous! Got a

Will you be in Florida

Message after message, her mouth got drier. She felt nauseous and hot like she had a candle burning in her stomach, and the flame was rising higher in her body. She held three fingers over her mouth, maybe to keep the vomit down or to keep herself from screaming.

_______________

The bathroom door opened. “I think you should post one thing today. It doesn’t have to be is that my phone?”

“Some of them sent you naked photos,” Andrea said, dropping the phone on the bed. “You didn’t think to print and hang up one of those. They would’ve fit with the motif. In the ones that showed their faces, most of them are smiling.”

He stood with a towel wrapped around his waist. She could see warring thoughts cross his face. Was he going to play angry? Victim? Villain? What was he? What was she?

“I love you,” he said.

“Don’t say that.”

“I love you,” he said again, and he fell on his knees in front of her. If there was snow, if they were younger, my knee’s getting cold. “You once said to me that you knew you were a lot —”

“Stop,” said Andrea, but he didn’t.

“I said you weren’t, but — Dree. Sometimes, I don’t even know if you like me. They — they just made me feel so good.”

“And I didn’t?”

“Not all the time.”

She laughed. “No one makes anyone feel good all the time. That’s life. I wasn’t designed to be your round the clock cheerleader.”

“Andrea, please, we have so much.” He pulled her knees into his face.

“James.” She resisted the urge to run her fingers through the feathery spot on top of his head where he was balding. It was a gesture she had done some nights when he was tired from the road, when he didn’t want to be the one with energy, and they traded roles; she the caretaker to his lethargy. Now, there was no recovery for either of them in the gesture. “Let go of me.”

“Please,” he said into her knees.

She thought of it as a picture, him on his knees in a towel. No filter.

My husband dresses our walls with smiles,

while my followers send hearts

to his inbox.

#FuckAllofYou

“I don’t want this,” she said. “I just don’t want it.”

“What does that mean?” he said, gripping her legs tighter. “Andrea, Dree, good men make mistakes. Look at your dad.”

“Shut up.”

“Why are you yelling?” asked a voice from the doorway.

Becca held the iPad out. “It died.”

Andrea stepped out of James’s arms and took the iPad from Becca. “How would you like to go to Grandma’s for a few days?”

“Dree,” said James.

Andrea’s mother’s voice reeled through her head: Have you gained weight? You don’t look healthy. How’s the book coming? Your sister just ran another marathon. What’s your editor’s name again? Well, start writing, missy. I told my friends about your big book deal. They didn’t know what Instagram was

“Don’t go,” he said to her feet.

“I want to stay with Daddy,” said Becca.

Andrea held a hand to her forehead. Was this how her mother felt — all those years, watching Andrea reach for her dad over her? She sat in the settee, staring at Becca smoothing her hand over James’s face.

“And you too, Mommy” said Becca, turning toward her, reaching for her knees.

Andrea wanted to cry into Becca’s hair as she pulled her into her arms.

James wiped his forehead sweat on the towel around his waist. “I’ll make it up to you, Dree. Whatever you want. I’ll never talk to any of them again. I’ll go to therapy. We can go together. I’ll quit the sales job, or … I’ll stay local. Please don’t go to your mom’s.”

Andrea looked over his head at the mirror where once they had written proofs, smoking and kissing, and leaning their legs into each other, and above that, all the photos still on the wall; all the different days Andrea had pulled herself out of bed — to go to the carnival, to go hiking, to get married, to have a baby (albeit in a bed), and all the smiles, the ways they become what so many people wanted, what she herself had wanted.

She could feel James’s eyes on her, waiting for her, and when she spoke her voice sounded loud to herself. “I don’t want you to talk to me. I want you to leave me alone. I don’t want to hear about your ideas for Instagram or anything else.”

“So, you’re… not going to your mom’s?” James said. He sighed, relieved. “Andrea, I promise

She held up her hand to his words. To Becca she said, “You want to go to the park?”

“Park! Park! Park” Becca pumped her arms victoriously.

“Daddy’s gonna take you,” Andrea said, and handed her daughter to her husband.

_______________

When she heard the car out of the driveway, Andrea opened her laptop. She had the lines already in her head. She pulled open her manuscript in progress and wrote:

In a towel on the floor, my husband begs

me to forget, weeks after

he taped memories on our wall.

Now, he begs “Please,” and “I promise”

and “Never again.”

I can’t forget

what my father said

when I was a girl, heartbroken—

“You’re better off without him.”

Andrea closed her laptop and pulled her overnight bag out from under the bed. Meditatively, she folded jeans and T-shirts and socks into the bag. Tomorrow, she’d pack some of Becca’s clothes. It wouldn’t be immediate. James would skip some trips, but eventually, there’d be one he’d beg to go on, the one with the sure sale.

She could already hear him. Please, Andrea.

Until then, she’d finish the poems.


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