GUEST POST BY KATERINA IVANOV

 
THIN PLACE
 
October 2020
 
by Katerina Ivanov
 
 
INTRODUCTION
I spent the course of this adapted Field Studies program in my hometown in Florida, so naturally when I tried to write about borders and inequalities and violent spaces, I could only think about how they manifested in my life. I found myself circling drains I knew well: thinking of the economic inequality of manual labor during a time where everyone was shut up in their houses, learning trades for entertainment. Last year, when completing the Field Studies program at the border, I wrote about my connection to this space as a dual citizen and child of immigrants, and the deep sense of complicity I felt. Thinking about my parents and their immigration stories brought me to consider the well known dialogue of sacrifice for the promise of upward mobility, and how it rings false to those who know the realities of systemic economic subjugation in this country. And yet, it’s a desire that’s impossible to shake: the dream of providing more.
 
This year, I’ve continued thinking about thin places: not just at the U.S.-Mexico border, but also the spaces where these narratives we are so familiar with, of immigration, of labor, of immolation, play out: in our families and our homes. In this excerpt, I attempted to use fiction as a vehicle for my own compiled memories, a way to write about what it means to identify the cyclic fraud of the ‘American Dream,’ while still being unable to shake the desire for the things it promised. I suppose I’m asking the same question I did last year, although the stakes feel so much higher: what happens when survival becomes our most radical source of hope?
 

 

THIN PLACE (Excerpt)

When I was younger, I would go to jobs with you. The women you worked with, memory lines in the corners of their eyes, would hand me pieces of taffy. Their fingers moved as quick as insect wings, putting things together, or maybe, they were taking them apart. I would stay quiet while you worked, curl my knees close to my chest, read a library book. I could make a piece of taffy last an hour. I knew to make myself small: a thumbtack, a marble, a kernel of corn.

You would take breaks to crack the joints in your fingers. I would promise you, with the solemnity of a child, that I would work harder. I would buy you a house, one of the ones with a lawn as green as a glass bottle.  A promise that would drag its thread through me for years, until I was made up almost entirely of its fiber.

***

The men at the dock warn me that this work will change my body. Make me look rugged, they said. The only other woman who works at the dock is a fishing boat captain, leathery and smart-mouthed and everyone knows not to fuck with her. Her skin has shifted to the point where it doesn’t look like skin anymore. It looks like the way chiffon pools under a sewing machine, barely opaque and folded in on itself. The men, no great lookers amongst them, say I will look like that.

The tourists have left, no demand for charters anymore, so I start manning the catch crates. I separate the fish in the nets, take them out from their trappings, and line them up on ice. Sometimes I fill up private boats with up-charged gas. It’s monotonous and it smells like death, but I’ve gotten good at quick math. Any given catch will have roughly 30-40 usable fish, fish like grouper and  snapper and mackerel. Fish that when cooked, flakes off with whiteness. About 20-30 fish in the net will be unusable, fish that won’t sell.

I calculate the profits without thinking: the fishermen will get paid by the pound, although they’ll have to payout for the boat owner and docking charges. The dock will sell them at an up-charge of around 50%, depending on demand. I will get paid eight dollars an hour. I will powerwash the blood from the gutted fish into the ocean before it can stain the wood.

The men are right: my skin darkens and chaps like freshly poured asphalt. It drinks up summer like it never wants to let the sun go and I get little patches on my arms with jagged edges and permanent gooseflesh. My face lines itself. My hands change: I look down and see someone else’s fingers.

I read somewhere that your body completely restores its cells every seven years. That every seven years, you get a replacement: fresh hair and skin and new blood. It feels as if I am speeding that process along. 

***

I had been back home three months and my mother was worried about the desiccated bowls of cereal in my childhood bedroom attracting bugs. I lofted my twin bed, long outgrown, and started sleeping up high so I couldn’t see them, the cereal or the bugs.  The ceiling fan broke and then the heat filled the room, rose upwards in search of a vent and I sweated through my bedding, stained with salt of my own making. When I was awake, I estimated: if I didn’t pay my loans. If I let my checks bounce. If I slept through that day. If I immobilized my body and let myself float inside, untethered.

My mother worried and the only cure she knew was work. She had been working since she was eleven, maybe younger if you count all the quiet jobs: the raising of younger siblings, the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry. The sort of jobs that age you in their necessity, their unspoken duty.

I didn’t get to lie in bed, she said, yanking open the curtains.

Finally, I got hired to do off-season fishing work. This both pleased and displeased my mother, who subscribed to the school of thought that all hard labor was good for the soul, but also that college degrees exempted one from this sort of soul searching.

It’s a job, she finally said. She made me sandwiches and thermoses full of coffee in the mornings, always rising before me, no matter how early I tried to wake.

We always dream of buying our parents’ houses. We watch you send money home and buy our school clothes and books, and maybe, once when the stars have crossed a particular way, get yourself a new blouse or a CD. You’ll agonize about it to us, this is what it cost, and we–caricatures of adults, half-children–already understand what sort of prices you have paid.

***

The men at the dock go fishing before work, in the hours where the sun barely laps at the horizon. They say this makes it all worth it: a job where they can fish while the fishing is good. The female captain never joins them.

People say that fishing is about power. That there is a moment of stillness before the bite. That there is a penitence in the long mornings with empty lines. A liberty in being out on the boat, with no roof to press you down. That once the fisherman has hauled something in, something alive and still struggling, there’s a rush. They’ve triumphed. They’ve used their hands. They’ve provided.

When I started the job at the dock, I was surrounded by boxes from my packed-up apartment, account statements from credit card companies, Dollar General brand toilet paper, reminders my student loan deferment was ending, unrelenting pep talks from my mother–  it was hard to think about power or agency or hauling in anything at all.

The dock is on a little outlet in the Gulf, sandwiched between a sliver of untamed beach, equipped with little besides an “Alcohol Prohibited” sign. A slip of land, anchored by mangroves, their roots lifted up and out of the water for air. Eroding with every big rain, sand slipping between brittle fingers. A thin place. Only getting thinner.

 At dusk the gulls trade the skies and bats flood the humid air, dark smears against the sinking sun. The sand is littered with beer bottles peeking out of the dune grass, and blind pelicans that got so close that sometimes I can feel the movement from their wings on my neck. They lose their eyesight from diving headfirst into the saltwater over and over, pulling up with a catch twice their size. They do this, growing blinder with each feed, until they start aiming bad, miscalculating. Then, eyesight slipping and bellies empty, they presumably die off.

No one feeds the pelicans, but also, I’ve never seen a dead one before. I’ve seen dead gulls–hit by cruisers and cars and jet skis, tangled into sails and strangled by nets. Washed up and rotten and covered in algae. I figure maybe the pelicans go off to die quietly, in solitude, like cats.

At the dock, I start seeing more pelicans than ever: I tally fourteen, and a few days later, I can squint and see twenty. Half of them milky-eyed and almost hollow. Living in the margins of the ecosystem, scrabbling for throwaways from gutted fish. I don’t know if they’re living, but they’re certainly not dying.

Katerina Ivanov Prado is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Arizona. She has been published in The Florida Review, The Nashville Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Pinch, Joyland, and others. She has won the John Weston Award for Fiction, the 2019 AWP Intro Journals Award, and The Pinch Nonfiction Literary Award. She was a runner up/shortlisted for the SmokeLong Quarterly Flash Fiction award, the Lumina Fiction Award, The Puerto Del Sol Prose Award, and the Passages North Ray Ventre Nonfiction Prize. She was raised in, and will never fully leave, the Gulf Coast of Florida.

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