As if alone, relentlessly

Vanessa Holyoak

Julie Adler

In the night, a whistle. For crying out loud. There were pages about the sea. Waiting, and seizing. With the waves crashing in the background and the unexpected violence of a pine forest, a second delimitation. I hold it in my arms, softly, this book. When I read it, I easily enter this forest; I easily feel this fear. A fear of being pursued, the waves wiping out the evidence. An insistent breaking. I feel myself; I feel that I am falling asleep. A palm wraps around my wrist. 

In the book, she stumbles and falls. She doesn’t know where the sensation — the grip — comes from. Nonetheless she trips, she falls. Looking wide-eyed into the horizon. Then the rush of sand and pine needles pressing against her face. 

As I sleep, I dream that all my teeth are loose. They have other teeth inside them, pearly white. The outside teeth are hollow and shaking. I go to the dentist where she kisses me on both cheeks. Her smile hides something. I am struck by the brightness of her lips. 

I am on an island and as I work I stare out at the edge of the sea. My window is shrouded in pine trees. I feel far from my book but also carved into it. My house is full of skylights and I sleep with a mask over my eyes. In the morning, I see that they are strewn with pine needles. Some of them have been there for a long time. Instead of sand, this island has shells. White clamshells that glow and light the path down to the water at night. The beaches are sandless. They are made of tiny, sharp pieces of shells, and when I lie down on them, their edges dig into my back. 



Every day there are new spiders in the house. When I leave my bathwater overnight, I find a wolf spider sunk to the bottom the next day. I pull the drain and the tub empties, leaving dunes of sediment along the bottom, and the spider’s body drifts with the current — this is how I know it is not alive. There is no resistance, no sign of struggle. And when I wake up in the night, I notice another in the corner, where the stone floor meets the walls of the bathroom.

When I rub my hands together, they glow red. It is cold here for the summer months and this morning when I wake up I wrap a scarf around my neck. I feel a sensation in my throat, like an itch, and I want to seal it away. I notice that I am different from my body — I want one thing : to go outside, to walk down through the pines to the rough waves, to peer down at the algae-coated ladder leading from the old wooden dock into the sea, and my body wants another : to stay, to huddle, to layer in warmth. To wait. I sink into a dusty velvet chair. A green bracelet with small, jade-like beads wraps around my wrist. 

In the book, she returns to her hotel room and waits. Outside, the landscape changes. She struggles to remember the feeling from the forest, the footsteps and the quick darkness. One day there is rain, threatening to leak in. On another day, a fragrant zephyr, carrying the smells of the nearby market, fresh bread mixing with wafts of salt. Tomorrow I will leave, I will return what I have taken. I will go down to the beach and bring back what is not mine. 



Out on the water, it is silent as ever. But in my mind, something buzzes. I crack open a window to let another thing in. Here at this table, I hope they will merge. 

The sun hits the other side of the shore harder than this side, where I make my home. The neighbor comes around and marks the dying trees with fluorescent tape — he thinks we should cut them down. When I walk by his house, his yard appears empty. Not the kind of emptiness that opens up a space inside me, the kind that leaves me wanting. Thin bodies of trees struggle to communicate with one another there, and their leaves do not mingle. We won’t cut down our trees until they’re really dead. The shade they produce is life-giving. The moss and thistle form a prickly carpet across everything. When I look out my window to the opposite shore, I see only yellowed grass, exposed rock. I’m comfortable here in the green half-light.

The trouble is, I can’t remember what it is that I’ve taken. Yet I know there is so much of it, the heap grows day after day. Last night we went to the island cinema. They’ve set up a projector inside an old church in front of the graveyard. Rickety wooden stairs lead up to the projection room, so small it seems made for children. A masked woman sells popcorn throughout the film in the back of the theater, and the sound of munching sends me into an elated trance. When I quiet my own chatter, I allow the noises of others to excite me. 

Returning home, the headlights shine on a pile of twigs half as high as the house. Is it high like this, the pile of things I’ve taken? Can it be returned — to whom? To the earth: the place where I lie down and my spine cracks. Before falling asleep I listen to a smooth, crooning voice through headphones: There is no end to the madness I feel.



Today I wake up feeling afraid, unrooted. My feet wiggle on shaky ground. I feel certain that the air here is getting to my head; I am swirled around, plagued by a persistent dizziness, étourdie. Yesterday when I rowed out to the clamshell beach, a man was weeding out thistles with a thick branch. The man’s dog played in the shallow water while he worked, never tiring. I stayed away for a while in the rowboat, watching them, unsure if I was welcome there. When the man was finishing up he called out to me and motioned for me to come. You’ll be more comfortable here, he said. I thanked him and docked. He left quietly, his dog trailing behind him. I leaned back onto a piece of driftwood and closed my eyes. After a while I waded into the water, very slowly, crying out. It’s hard to ignore the sensation of cold water as it reaches the thighs.

In this place, all moods are exaggerated. When I look at the sky at dusk, I can’t tell if it’s full of clouds or entirely empty. The color of it is a transparent white, the color of air. The color of so many things. I myself am filled with feelings, new and old. They must be followed, must not pass me by. Biting down on an olive, the pit goes down with the flesh. I am like a child here, capricious and acting out all my whims. I thrust my hands around my throat and pant, sticking out my tongue. A pine needle lands on the ground beside me, indifferent to my panic, this tantrum on display for no eyes. I wonder if the pit will melt in my digestion or if I will shit it out whole. I hope for the latter, looking at the empty sky. It echoes my mood back to me, resonating across the harbor. Back in the city, emotions are not this loud. Here it’s as if there’s nowhere for them to be absorbed. The vastness holds and acknowledges them, and they linger far too long between the twin shores.



I am reading another book now, or maybe I am making it up in my head. These will be my last recorded thoughts for a while — I’m transitioning to another mode of seeing. I am anticipating a departure, though it is so far I can’t even make it out on the horizon. Nonetheless, it will come: I sense its messy arrival. This last one should take place somewhere silent, snowy, and solitary. Wrapped in winter and frost. Inside of this space, who could move? Two people who are entirely similar yet cannot live together. Cannot stand the stench of duplicate needs. A long drive and a dispute — leaving the island, lost somewhere on the peninsula. The squawk of gulls breaks the silence.

On the night of the Pisces full moon (tonight), we will row. We will walk down the clamshell path with eight feet, turning off our flashlights to let the whites of the shells guide us. Their glow is so faint I’m not sure it’s real — am I making it up too? Either way, I see it. Did I mention I am not alone here? We will sit beside one another in the aluminum boat and I will use my strength to push and pull our weight. Across black water. Toward the mouth of the harbor.

But there at the back of my mind, something shifts. The two people — they are driving onto the ferry now, their wheels untether from the island and connect to new machinery. After spending many months in a grey dusk, pacing around the house, sipping from cups that get lost when they set them down. The great horned owl appears from time to time. It squawks like the gulls who will greet them on the peninsula. I can’t decipher whether it calls out to someone or to emptiness. Don’t ask me to choose.



I grow tired of reading, of writing. I grow tired of thinking. Even of hauling my body to the point and back, taking slow, sonorous steps. At the same time, I feel joy, quietly, unobtrusively. My body hums with the low vibration it produces as I walk. When I get to the point, I sit down on a craggy rock. I can see other islands from here and can even imagine others beyond them: the Three Sister Islands, Deadman Islands, Goat Island, Powder Islet…

They are almost never alone. Two people orbit around one another; they are drawn in. Many seasons have passed here, over and over again. The harbor glistens and waits. Each night the same group of deer appears and they feed them banana peels. The deer take a long time munching, the peels dangling down from their mouths. 

Now they drive along the peninsula, now they pass rows and rows of trees. Tall trees, Garry oaks and red cedar. The trees are covered in white. Leaves fall without sound. I want to loosen their rope, I want to remind them: I never wrote this book. Nothing has to happen — you can turn around at any point. You can drift apart to different islands and letters can be exchanged. The words don’t need to be spoken out loud.

The moon rises yellow over the water. The seagulls shit all over the boat. The heron shrieks when it sees me. The current flows east. When her eyes start to flicker shut, she motions to stop and gets out of the car. Down at the water a man waits for her in a tin boat lit by a small wooden lantern. She places her things on a bench and then lowers herself down. He revs the engine. Behind them, a white foam trail, then waves.



Some of the doors in this house are made of paper. A grid of rectangles connected by wooden beams. At night, when I slide them shut, I watch a green glow shining through from the other side. Some nights I sleep like a baby, other nights the house’s air gets inside of me and I feel a pressure in my chest and fingers. I imagine them swollen, pulsing, but when I look at them through the darkness they are still. Under my eyelids, too much dry air.

One has left, the other remains, driving a straight line across snowy dirt. They write back and forth, between islands. Their aloneness buys them some time, the panic dissipates, stops mattering. In other words: they breathe less hotly with distance. Moths crowd around the lamp at her desk as she writes. Today the water is darker. It makes little pools in the rock openings. As if the harbor is filling with ink, deep indigo, midnight blue. The land’s edge against inky water. Still white, dense, frozen. Now I wait for it to melt. No one thinks of me and I like it this way. I don’t write to be acknowledged by you. I make these notes only so I can speak to myself, so that colors retain their weight and resist the bags under my eyes. The words keep track of me as a person. They make sure I flicker and dance.

At the nursery, I buy a banana plant. (It doesn’t belong this far north, but when I open all the blinds around it at once my room becomes a greenhouse. My house becomes the tropics.) I also buy white pansies, butterfly bush, geraniums, heather. We plant a field of flowers, sloppy in their new dirt. As I carry it to my room, the baby banana nods and bends its leaves in the whirring air, arching and flapping, gesticulating.



Vanessa Holyoak

Vanessa Holyoak holds a dual MFA in Creative Writing and Photography & Media from the California Institute of the Arts and a BA summa cum laude in French Literature, Translation, and Philosophy from Barnard College. Her work reflects on the ways in which liminality, memory, and the phenomenology of embodied experience play central roles in the forging of a self beyond categories, paradigms, and borders. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in multiple publications and anthologies, including Post Journal, BREATHE, rivulet, New Writing (California Poets), Nightjar (CalArts), and she has published critical art texts in Hyperallergic and East of Borneo.

Julie Adler

Julie Adler is frequently uncomfortable. So is her art, which mostly comes out of this awkward ‘in-between’ place. Based in Los Angeles, a heavy user of Buddhism and yoga, she employs a wide spectrum of mediums from painting to performance to singing to writing to explore things like having a body and the inevitable dissolution of it. She has presented her work in places like REDCAT, Armory Center for the Arts, Highways, POST, The Situation Room, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and VICE Magazine.