The Absence of Presence

The following is a guest post by the phenomenal fiction writer, Jenna Leigh Evans (with a forthcoming novel due out SOON). When I first noticed Jenna on a summer afternoon surrounded by writers, I knew she would be in my life for an extremely long time. She has since become my soul sister. I admire her strength as an artist, human, woman, and survivor. These are her words……


Presence: It Began With, and Returns to, Chimney Pots

From my kitchen window, I watch the fan that juts from the roof of the building next door. White steam is gusting from its round black mouth. When the wind blows, the steam dances wildly before dissolving. The sunlight is pure, naked white – the last days of November.  Every structure is edged in dazzling platinum, and the small clouds above the water towers and the elevated subway tracks are likewise haloed in bright white light. Now a squirrel appears on the fire escape, surprising me.

There were vents and fans on the rooftops across from the apartment where I spent my early childhood. From that kitchen window, too, I would sit and stare when I was lonely. The variety of shapes – those with caps like mushrooms, those that resembled the steam whistles in cartoons, those that spun briskly or lazily revolved, those that were only tubes poking up – was intriguing, and I was hypnotized by the mystery of their purpose. Maybe once I asked what they were for, but if I did, I don’t remember it, so I must have wanted not to know.  Like many children, I read books set in a long-ago London, and I perceived these totemic protuberances as chimneys, or related to chimneys.

2i. Absence: Absence Defines Itself in Every Moment, Repetitively Yet Inventively

She, herself, is quiet by nature, but her absence can’t shut up. It calls attention to itself as punctually as a pre-recorded announcement on the subway or the airport. But unlike those monotonous admonitions about the white zone being for loading or unloading of passengers only, it custom-tailors each announcement just for me. I observe as I walk the dog down Baltic Street: golden gingko leaves frilling against a deep blue sky, the last leaves of November. For a split second I enjoy the sight. But it’s been whole minutes since her absence last announced itself, so it can’t help itself. It simply must add AND YOU ARE NOT TOGETHER TO WATCH AUTUMN DEEPENING. I try to combat this terrible fact by trying to be present — but the present is now composed of absence. SO MANY WONDERFUL MEMORIES OF WATCHING AUTUMN DEEPEN TOGETHER, absence continues. WOULD YOU LIKE TO RECALL A FEW RIGHT NOW? This is how I end up staggering back toward my apartment minutes after having left it. Her pretty hands pulling open a milkweed pod, setting the floss afloat.

2ii. Presence: And on the Topic of Gingko Trees,

This was the last day of the gingko trees. They have been dazzling this fall. They were the last to turn, still flirting with green until the first hard frost, and then all at once unfurling like a hundred dancing girls in golden kimonos unfurling a hundred thousand golden fans. Even at night, under the sodium streetlights, they make me stop in my tracks and stare. The sidewalks beneath them are soft heaps of uncountable riches. They are given to creating sudden, magical tableaux. For instance, the other morning on Bond Street, I came upon a white car wearing a garland – an enormous drift of leaves had gathered just so at the base of its windshield, a tidy yet luxuriant crescent shape. Yet there was not a single leaf anywhere else on the surface of the car. Spotless and holding its circlet of golden leaves, it looked like a bride on its way to a fairy wedding – this homely, boxy white car.

3i. Absence: I Had Been Doing Great, Even Though the Store Was Playing Christmas Carols

Today absence first hinted with me fleetingly, peeking out coquettishly from the beauty products aisle at Winn Home & Beauty. I had figured it might find me there; I could even be said to have gone looking for it, in that browsing in old-fashioned dime stores is a thing we both love, and she particularly likes Winn Home & Beauty. But the other option was a chain store notable for the rageful incompetence of its staff, which would have been purely masochistic; so off I went. I reacted to the sight of the pink packet of Beauty Gloves, with their 60’s-style cartoon of a beatific sleeping woman wearing white cotton gloves, as though it were an electrified fence. Snatching up the relevant item on my shopping list, I skirted blindly out of the aisle just in time to escape specific memories.

3ii. Presence: And I Say to Myself, What a Wonderful World…And Then I Have a Panic Attack

On the walk home, one thing after another revealed its beauty to me, almost aggressively. Stately old brownstones love an autumn rain, as drops leave pendants on all the most elegant objects: wrought iron that’s patchy with rust, sycamore trees wearing waistcoats of English ivy, fancy gourds and pumpkins arranged on brownstone stoops, yellowing bamboo fronds arcing over wooden slats.

These magnificent sights began to give me the sensation of being a wild animal that wakes up in a zoo. Recognizing confinement, desperate for a home that has vanished and been replaced with something else altogether. I tried to reason with myself while walking up Douglas Street, but only returned to the same crushing facts as usual. Then I got mugged by reality. I stood on a street corner, shaking, panting, clinging to a pole. This is really happening, this is really happening.


5ii. Presence: an Embarrassment of Riches Cuts No Mustard

It’s interesting to spend an hour trying to come up with something that feels present enough to write about it. To be surrounded by the world, to have had a pleasant walk in the park with a friend, and have nothing special to say about any of it – it’s surprising, but that’s life. I told myself, you should not be embarrassed to start with the teapot on the table, its fat cream-colored body belted with an orange stripe, with the spray of fir and hard red berries in it.

Nor is there any shame, I told myself, in feeling that for the second time in a week, the high point of your day might be the view out the kitchen window. Bruised, moody purples and red-browns, glazed with silver.

6i.  Absence: I Believe They Were Called Romper Stompers

When I was a child there was a simple toy made of inverted yellow cups attached to long green rubbery cords. That was the store-bought version — you could make your own out of cans and string. The point was to stand atop the cups, grasping the cords, and walk. It was surprisingly laborious, and if you got good at it, the payoff was discouragingly low. At best you scraped around with a clomping, high-stepping gait, hindered and concentrating hard on not tripping.

Walking the dog at four o’clock, every step forward shot a jolt of physical hurt into my heart. I felt as though there were cords attached to my feet and threaded through my chest, each step buckling my knees, threatening to take me down. I forced myself to go one step further, one step further, but young children were being walked home from school, filling the air with shrill cries met with quiet, deliberate responses. Plans were being made for supper. Everyone was going home.

6ii.  Presence: After the Pot, But Before the Tranquilizer

I am so cool, I have really lived, so even my pain is cool, even the fact that I’m a mess right now is cool, even the holes in my coat are cool, even my backache is cool because it’s from writing, good writing, I’m a good writer, I have a certain kind of iconoclastic slightly fucked-up cool, I am completely awake, I am the fox that slinks through your yard, alive to the night!