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I, the unnamed Native American narrator, am taking you on a journey. This journey is not the kind you take when you pay an ungodly amount to take ayahuasca in a rural village beset by criminal tree harvesting, nor is it a vision quest or a smoke lodge cleanse or an official visit from a real-life Cherokee princess who also happens to be your great great grandmother. This is a worse kind of story. But you, my I'm-not-like-them friend, must listen. It's the only way out.
"Hate is a bottomless cup; I will pour and pour."― Euripides, Medea
I say, anybody can get into law school.
I tell this to my secret rich friends and the couple I am "dating." I mean it. They are a blonde frat boy and his blonder sorority girlfriend. They bob their scary pale heads in unison, and I say STOP THAT and they do. I don't like them, but I like how they do basically whatever I tell them to do, and that they make me feel so mind-bendingly gross by association that I have a reason to drink. The last thing I want to be is a drunk Indian, though I would never say that aloud, nor admit it to anyone else. I look white, to most people. Which is to say, it's fifty-fifty. Which is to say, I am not white enough for white people and not tan enough for Native people. Which is to say, oh boo-biracial-hoo.
Anybody can get into law school, but I refused to. I decided to do something stupid. I decided to get a graduate degree in creative writing, whilst sober. This is, you might think, a hamartia—which the leading professor in my scholarship program said was not so much a fatal flaw, but a fatal misstep. At least, that's what I think he said. I was too busy warding off the nausea that pulsed and pounded into my duodenum, saying this is what you get for being a half-breed, bad genes, and the feeling, simple and pure, that I shouldn't care as much about the Greeks as I do, as I did.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created a Doomsday Clock—metaphorical, of course—in 1947. This clock warns us of how many "minutes to midnight," again, metaphorically, that we have until a global man-made catastrophe occurs. This catastrophe can be nuclear or technological. It is Icarus and Daedulus symbiote. We are currently a mere one hundred seconds from midnight. At doom's door, so to speak.
In my body, my mind—there, too, lies a Doomsday Clock.
Fine, you got me. Maybe I care about the Greeks because I feel like knowing their culture, their history, and their philosophies civilizes me. Or is that too on the nose? What, exactly, do you want from me? Tell me, and I'll give it to you. It's all I know how to do. Let me be your Indian in the Cupboard, daddy.
Oh, god. Nevermind.
I get to school in August, and it is sweltering, swampy, and sensual. I don't drink anything but Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Blue Gatorade, and nasty little sips of Polar Ice seltzers—but I want to. I make lots of friends and a couple of acquaintances. All the bartenders love me and give me little cups of soda with lime in it. I'm gonna have to cut you off eventually, boss, they say. Ha ha, I say. There are several markers on campus that say things like Injun Joe Died Here, and We Still Buy Scalps At the Campus Bookstore. The football boys I teach bring mini fans into class and make noise into them in an imitation of a war cry. I forget myself and wear shirts that say things like Honey Hill Softball Tournament and Voices of the Cherokee Tribe and Frybread Power.
Brettlyn and McKayver and Rinnsleeigh, the ringleaders among ringleaders, ask about my last name and ask how many men I've killed and if they add a number each time and if I gotta change my last name each tally mark. I say, you wanna make it three more, bitch? And get sent to a disciplinary hearing with the dean.
The Dean has tapestries hanging all over the walls that look like dyed Navajo rugs. Someone has affixed a full puzzle of a wolf howling at a full moon to strings that hang from the ceiling. There is a pen that looks like a flute and clay jars that are actually mugs and a Build It Yourself Dreamcatcher kit on his desk. I wonder if he put them out to welcome me, and if I were less assimilated, I would be like, thanks for inviting me to my own country, Richard. But I'm not, so I just sit on my hands and wait, wait. He smiles that Administrator Smile and says, now ****** I heard there was an incident, and I say yes, they called me a squaw, and he says, no, not that and I say, oh, you mean you want to make it three more, bitch? and he says, yes, that, and I say I'm real sorry I didn't mean it and it's the verbal equivalent of rolling over on my back to show my belly like a Rez Dog.
I try to smile like my white mother taught me to smile and I think he might soften a little, but then his resolve grows. We care about institutional solidarity here, he says. We are not our predecessors. I spy a Confederate flag mousepad but don't say anything because he's still talking, and that would be rude.
He goes on, and on, and on. Talks about race and equity and exceptional students whose parents paid for the library. I nod, and nod, and nod. Say I'm sorry, sorry, sorry. And I am sorry, if only, for having to have this conversation. He tells me the Great Spirit expects better of His Children and then lets me go. I understand afterward that it wasn't, in fact, a popular Sno-Cone Shack downtown's frequent flyer card that he showed me but instead his tribal ID, which certified him 1/100,000,000 degree Indian blooded. To my credit, they do look remarkably similar.
A visiting professor lectures to us over Zoom. I have always been a fan of her work. She asks if my name is an avatar name. I ask if she means the James Cameron movie. So that's a no, she says.
I go to class and it's fine, probably. I talk about Philip Roth and John Updike and sit through stories about bored white people WITH bored white people, like the world's worst diorama box. A racially ambiguous professor whose writing I find too precious and purple to sit through makes us join hands in meditation. She says that she senses an outlier in the room, someone who isn't receptive to hearing what she has to say. I open my eyes a little like at church and she's staring at me, those scary pale eyes in a semi-dark face. I look away.
An eternity later, she passes out a syllabus. She's the slowest talker I've ever met and somehow manages to say nothing. The first assignment is to describe our Spirit Animal in as much detail as possible. I look at her again and she hisses out a forked tongue that no one else seems to notice. In an instant, she's back to cardigan wearing kindness with her sweet little scarf tied oh-so-jauntily. I'm the first one out of the room.
I send her a long, sad email that pleads and begs for mercy. My father has died, and I need to go home for the traditions. Too bad so sad, she writes back. You didn't even love him; why are you going home? she taunts. Crybaby, crybaby, go write a little more about your half-and-half heritage some more! HA HA! she ends.
The Clock in my chest ticks on. I go back to rural Oklahoma. EXACTLY HOW MANY TIMES IN A CONVERSATION CAN YOU WORK IN THAT YOU'RE FROM OKLAHOMA? she had asked—rhetorically, of course.
Before the funeral, but after we had stood around a shoddy fire I built with the aid of one of those fireplace logs from the home shopping network, my brother and sister got in a fight. I look at the ground and say, we have to be at the cemetery in—and my brother turns to me and says, now you can go write about dad dying instead of just abandoning you emotionally, happy? I say, whoa and he says, since you were a little girl, all you ever wanted was for people to say you're smart, and then you go to writing school, I mean. Our sister laughs. I say, how long has that been in there? He says, when were you born again?
A conversation happens. I say I don't think I'm a person of color; I mean, don't you have to… have color… for that?
The person I'm talking to replies, conversationally and congenially, I don't think you understand how anything works.
My mother says that one day in Heaven is a thousand years on Earth. I ask how many days in Hell one day in Alabama is, and she says, I wonder how Jesus feels about all your cursing.
I apply for food stamps. The office calls and sets up an interview. They say I'm ineligible. Why? You make too much money and work too little. I repeat the number of dollars I make in a year. Yeah, they say, but your fellowship. I look at my student billing account. Several lines say "Ethnic Scholarship." Thanks, I say. Don't call again, they say back. That night I dream of commodity cheese and the kind of grape juice that comes in cans. The next morning there is a drying drool mark on my pillow in the shape of a buttered egg noodle. I touch my tongue to it lightly and am glad, once more, that I live alone.
At my graduating cohort's potluck, the Dean, a different one, makes long lingering eye contact with me and recites a wooden land acknowledgment. He winks and says incorrectly that he knows we have a few First Nations people with us. Everyone turns and looks at me. After I eat a stale piece of lemon cake from one of the many mousy brunette bakers amongst us, he asks if he can call me by my sacred name and, if not, if he can call me his Indigenous friend in the separate departmental listserv that he made after someone hurt his feelings. I tell him no about the name and yes if he Venmos me twenty dollars. I can tell he really thinks about it.
After graduation, I started to write, despite not having done so when I was supposed to, despite the maximum labor violations and ten thousand dollars a year I was gifted to do so. I submitted a couple of articles, and the editor asked for edits until I finally put in something about mysticism and Coyote's Ghost and being afraid of owls. Then she said yes, perfect.
I decided a novel was in order. It was about a young half-Cherokee girl from Oklahoma who had grown up poor, though through her smarts and grit, ended up getting a full ride to a state university, where she plunged headfirst into the alcoholism that had plagued her father and then, eventually, killed him. The writing is okay. It feels a little unrealistic.
Tick, tock, Kemosabe. Tick tock.