Summer of Corn

by Ellen Dworsky

I like driving--fast. Flying through empty spaces, imagining if I gain enough momentum my past will fly free from my body. And I'm afraid to think about my future. Sometimes I imagine leaving myself behind in somebody else's past, a past with answers, a past that's already been decided, so this summer I'm going to tour Minnesota State Historical sites and lose myself in a history that isn't mine.

Today is the Fourth of July, and I'm panicking. The past four Fourths, during fireworks against empty Minnesota skies, I was always driving to or from Mark's house. I miss the drive, soaring down the highways that took me through unpopulated places. I miss his queen-sized bed with the cast iron headboard where we were free to reveal ourselves without words. My body is still branded with the imprint of his body, and I carry his shadow with me wherever I go. But this year there will be no fireworks of any kind. The thought of my dark, smoke-filled apartment suffocates me. Before the day gets too hot, I get in my car and take off for Southern Minnesota to see the petroglyphs.

I take off down Highway 169, windows down, wind whipping my long hair across my face. As little as fifty miles later I no longer recognize the landscape. Strange to have not traveled more than fifty miles from my apartment in Minneapolis. I was afraid of what I might find--only tall blonde people, like corn, dotting the landscape. I find mile after mile of both and plenty of time to wonder how my life has brought me to this wide-open highway.

* * *

I flew to Minnesota three times that winter to visit my Aunt Lynn and Uncle Tom. Plane fare from Oakland to Minneapolis is cheap in the dead of winter, few go willingly, but I hadn't seen my favorite aunt since the previous summer. The night after my arrival, she and Tom had invited their friend Mark over. About all we had in common was our age, long hair, and being dumped by our respective lovers in the past six months. Still, he showed up again the next night and sat in the V of my legs, his back pressed to my front. While I braided his waist length hair into cornrows, he smoked cigarette after cigarette. I plaited for three hours in neat rows so he would stay between my thighs.

The next night I drove to his house. He wanted me, but I wasn't ready, couldn't imagine showing myself to a near-stranger. Instead, I pulled off his jeans and wrapped my mouth around him. He was silent until the last when he allowed sound to escape. I wiped off my lips, lit a cigarette and as I walked out the door, I said, "See you next time I come to Minnesota--without my clothes."

Forty-five minutes later, as I came in through the garage into the house, the phone was already ringing. I knew it would be him, knew he would tell me something I wouldn't want to hear--Lynn has always said I'm a little psychic. As I answered the phone, I was already walking into the bathroom in the front hall for some privacy.

"I can't do this," he said.

I sat on the closed toilet seat, phone to my ear, and listened to him talk about sex and sobriety. When he was using, he said, it didn't matter who he slept with but now he needed an emotional connection.

"We don't have a connection because we don't even know each other. I'll be back next month..."

"It won't work. But hey..." he gave a jovial little laugh "'re one of the only women who's ever made me come through oral sex."

I flew home the next morning.

When I think back on it now, think back over the years of our relationship, I wonder what happened to his need for an emotional connection. Sometimes I think our bodily connection was so strong that the thought of a connection on any other level was just too scary for both of us. If I told him this, he would say that I was wrong.

* * *

In Lake Crystal, where I see no lake--maybe it's hiding just out of sight--I stop at a gas station and ask the man behind the counter if I'm headed the right way.

He says, "There's a shortcut. Turn right by the elevator and go towards New Ul-um." He gives "Ulm" two syllables.

I picture an Otis elevator sitting in the middle of a cornfield but then I realize where I am. "The grain elevator?" I ask, pleased those summers on my grandparent's farm in Indiana were not wasted after all.

The man shoots me a "you're-obviously-not-from-these-here-parts" look and he tells me yes.

Shortcuts usually take me somewhere I don't want to go, so I hold to my original course. I get lost anyway. I'm hurtling through the cornfields, glad the corn isn't towering yet because at least I can see off in the distance. More corn.

* * *

When I flew back home to Oakland from Minnesota that December, I remember staring out the window wondering what I was doing with my life. In the past year, I had lost my job, gone back to college, broken up with my boyfriend, Eric, moved to Oakland and into the house where I met Michiko, Pie, Tim, and Sean--Sean of the long curly hair, hazel eyes, and mischievous smile. Seven years younger. I hadn't slept with him, but I wanted to. I sensed that he wanted to also though neither one of us had ever talked about it. I had tried to use Mark to exorcise Sean from my mind. It hadn't worked so I gave myself over to thoughts of Sean.

We always began just as night fell, sitting in the white plastic chairs I had brought with me when I moved in. Sometimes we placed the chairs in the middle of the lawn and sat side by side. Sometimes we sat on the slightly slanted deck--the victim of California mudslides and earthquakes--in moldy kitchen chairs waterlogged from too many winters outside. We covered their squishy seats with garbage bags. The chairs encircled the warped and peeling Formica-topped kitchen table. Our house, red brick and redwood, was high in the hills, just above the fog line, and as early evening faded into hazy black, we sat beneath the three huge pines and watched the fog creep between their needles, Jack Daniels and a joint in hand.

Our ritual first began on a rainy fall day, which had not gone well. I was working as a candy sales rep. That day I hadn't made a single sale. Worse, somewhere along the line I had lost a hundred dollar bill--some happy Longs Drugstore or Safeway customer was probably dancing in the puddles in the parking lot--and I was having difficulty juggling school and work. The topper came at the end of the day when a little old lady driving a car big as a boat rear-ended my new Honda. Early evening found me sitting on the stairs outside, head in hand, cigarette dangling between my fingers.

Sean came through the gate, saw me there, and asked, "Bad day?"

"I'm too old for this. It's just too hard."

"Want to get high?"

I hadn't smoked a joint in seven years, never thought I would again. I don't know why I said yes.

"Cool. We've harvested some."

"Harvested some?" I asked.

He led me up the cement stairs, cut into the hill that ran past the windows of my downstairs mother-in-law unit, into the back yard--a long narrow expanse of cement with a waist-high retaining wall holding the earth back. I always favored the flat front yard and hadn't been in the back "yard" since the previous summer to look at the six foot tall sunflowers Sean had planted. But now other plants were standing six feet tall. And they weren't sunflowers. My mouth fell open. "Are you crazy?" I asked looking at the small ganja jungle. "We could be arrested!"

"C'mon," he said, "let's get high."

Looking back, it's hard to even remember what we talked about in our haze of alcohol and weed--but we did, for hours on end--because mostly I remember our laughter, or sitting together in quiet communion. Sometimes we'd come out of the damp night and into the light of my small apartment and watch a video, often Woody Allen, because when I first confessed I'd never seen a Woody Allen film, he asked, "What kind of Jew are you?" and made it his duty to educate me. We would sink into the love seat, arms and thighs touching, and I would think about what we said to each other in the absence of words.

I got off the plane in San Francisco and looked around for Sean and found him sitting on the floor, his back to a stone pillar. His head was bent over a paperback, shoulder length curls obscuring his face.

"Whatcha reading?"

He held up a tattered copy of James Joyce's The Dubliners and got to his feet. We stood a foot apart staring at each other as my carry-on grew heavier. I shifted it to my other hand.

Sean reached for my bag, asking, "How was your trip?"

"I need a drink."

A bar without walls was ten feet away. We sat in the open and drank.

"Bad trip?" He asked.

I told him about my encounter with Mark. "The image stuck in my mind is of me driving back to my aunt and uncle's house. It was midnight. Five degrees below zero and I had the window down. The taste of Winston's and cum still in my mouth."

"I don't want to hear this."

"Drink up then and let's go home," I said, downing the last of my gin and tonic and gathering up my belongings.

"I'm house-sitting for Professor Miller. We're staying in The City tonight."

I should have said, "Take me home," but after the Mark fiasco, I wasn't ready for real life and thought a night of suspended animation in San Francisco would do me just fine.

We walked to the garage, found his truck and took off. On the street he drove fast around corners, ran red lights while I held tight to the armrest.

"I had a dream about you last night," he said. "We slept together." He turned to look at me, gauging my reaction.

I looked out the passenger side window. "Not a good idea," I said, trying to ignore the pull I had been feeling towards him for months.

"I think we need some whiskey," he said as he wrenched the truck across a lane of oncoming traffic, bringing it to a stop in a loading zone in front of a liquor store. He jumped out and strode into the store. I watched his receding back and noticed his favorite off-white Fisherman sweater and his khakis looked looser than the week before. He caught my eye as he exited the store, but I looked down and started digging around in my backpack for my cigarettes. He opened the door and handed me the bottle.

At the professor's house, he took the key from his pocket, unlocked the front door and we went in. I held the whiskey in one hand and dropped my bag on the floor.

"Let's go outside," he said.

I sat in a plastic deck chair underneath the second story balcony. Sean wrapped his arm around one of the redwood posts and leaned out into the drizzly day. He unscrewed the top of the whiskey, took a swig and passed it to me. Ten minutes went by as we stared at each other, passed the bottle back and forth, drinking in silence.

"So what do you want to do?" I finally asked.

"I brought some herb from home. Good harvest, huh? We'll be set for months. I'll roll us a joint. Then we can go to the Irish pub down the street. I can get a draft Guinness there."

We smoked the joint and then headed for the bar. I was feeling fine until halfway through my gin and tonic, when my stomach began to churn and it felt like somebody was sticking swizzle sticks in my temples.

"I have to lie down," I said.

"Just one more beer."

I remember the dimly lit interior of the pub, how cool the shellacked wooden bar felt against my forehead, remember Sean carrying on an animated conversation with the old drunk sitting next to him. I remember wanting to be anywhere but in a San Francisco bar at 4:00 in the afternoon.

After his beer, we leaned on each other up the hill. Arriving at the house, we saw a car in the driveway.

"They're not supposed to be home till tomorrow. At least that's what I thought they told me," Sean said.

Christ on a cross. How high were you when these arrangements were made? I thought. But I said, "I can't face them in this condition. Let's go home."

"It'll be fine."

"Ellen has a migraine," Sean told the Millers, who, after the introductions were made, were unbearably kind. They shepherded me to the guest room; brought me a bowl filled with ice water and a wash cloth to lay across my eyes; a bucket in case I couldn't make it to the bathroom fast enough to vomit. I got undressed and crawled into the bed. Sean sat beside me.

"Are you going to be okay?"

"No," I said.

"I'll just leave you to sleep. I think I'm going to walk on the beach. Can I borrow a couple of bucks for a beer?"

"You've had enough."

"Just a couple of bucks."

I sat up in bed and wished I hadn't. I fished around in my backpack and dug out a twenty.

"Thanks," he said showing me his perfect teeth. "I'll check in on you in a couple of hours."

But it was midnight when Professor Miller told me Sean was on the phone.

"Where are you?" I mumbled into the phone, fuzzy with pain and sleep.

"A pay phone."

What else did he say? All I recall is the urgency in his voice. And fear as he told me he needed seventy-five dollars or...or what? Something bad would happen. I remember that much.

"I don't have any more money," I said.

"What about your bank card? I'll pay you back tomorrow."

Fifteen minutes later he appeared in my bedroom at the Miller's, pacing and shaking as I handed over my ATM card.

"Eighty bucks. That's all," I told him.

They say junkies are smart. That they know how to work you. Get you at your weakest moment. They are right.

At seven the next morning the professor was up drinking coffee when I wandered into the kitchen. Sean had not returned.

"Maybe he's on the beach watching the ocean," he said.

I picked up the phone. The mechanical Bank of America voice told me that four withdrawals had been made over the course of the night, totaling two hundred and fifty dollars.

"No, I don't think so," I said.

At 10:00, Sean walked in.

"We're leaving. Now," I told him.

The twenty-minute drive to Oakland was made in silence broken only by Sean's occasional apologies and promises to pay back the money.

I avoided Sean for the next two days. I didn't think I'd ever see the money he'd taken from me; he didn't even have a bank account. But two days later he was knocking at my door, money in hand. I didn't want to know where he got it. Instead, I said "What'd you spend my money on that night?"

"Crack. I'm going to N.A."

Two weeks later I came home from school to find him on the stairs smoking Camel straights and drinking a Guinness. He was standing under the eaves sheltered from the January rain, but the bricks were wet and he was barefoot.

"How was your day?" He asked me.

I said, "There's a song by the Wallflowers called "One Headlight." The words go, 'Come on try a little, nothing is forever, there's got to be something better than in the middle. Me and Cinderella, we put it all together. We can drive it home with one headlight.'"

He stared into my eyes, unblinking, silent. After a few seconds had passed, he said, "I feel strange. Do you?"

"Yeah. What are you feeling?"

"Probably the same thing you are."

"Tell me."

He once told me he had never once made the first move. Why did he that night? I still wonder. I pushed him away, saying, "We don't have to do anything about it."

"Yes we do," he said.

And I put my hands in his hair.

The relief in giving myself over was like floating in the Dead Sea in Israel. Effortless. I relaxed and floated into the feeling. I just don't have any excuses. I knew what he was and I slept with him anyway.

The next month he was dead. Straight from my bed at 5:30 in the morning to the airport, where he boarded a flight that took him back to his childhood home of Texas. "I want to visit my family," he had said, signing over his paycheck so I would give him money for airfare. And as it turned out, the ready cash for the heroin that killed him. Later, as all of Sean's friends and family pieced together the last twenty-four hours of his life, we learned that first on his list of things to do when he got Texas was heroin for the first time.

After the funeral, I flew to Minnesota to visit my aunt and Mark; he wanted me but I said, "It's too soon."

"Get over it. It's been three months," he said.

"If you'd ever had anyone close to you die, you'd realize that you don't 'get over it' in three months."Neither of us knew then that a year later his best friend Carl would be dying of cancer in Mark's living room.

I didn't hold his words against him then because I needed something, someone, anything, and he was there. We spent my few days in Minnesota together going to the movies, to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts where I bought an Adolphe-William Bouguereau print of The Bohemian, painted in 1890. In the print a sad-faced, dark-haired girl sits on a low stone wall, burgundy and green scarf around her neck, hands folded over the violin in her lap. "My God, she looks just like you!" he said.

I didn't want to go back to Oakland because I couldn't stand seeing Sean's nearly vacant room. The few possessions he hadn't hocked for crack would have fit in the back of his missing truck, which I assumed had been repossessed. So when Lynn took me to the airport to fly home, I turned to her and said, "I'm moving here."

I went home and started packing up my house. Sean's sister called to say she was driving up from L.A. to clean out his room and wanted to know what few things were his. I couldn't stand to be there while she wiped out all traces of him. Couldn't stand to watch him disappear completely. I sent her an e-mail:


I'll be in Minnesota when you come to pack up Sean's room. Here's what I know: the Klimt mug by the side of his bed is Pie's. We all fought over that mug. The green chair at his desk belongs to the house. The lamp shade and brown folding chair are mine. He was wearing those brown cords lying across the chair and the hat that last Friday night when we went out. He demonstrated how he would tip his hat to all the ladies in Texas and say "Howdy, ma'am." I told him I always knew he was a hat person. Hat people can recognize each other instinctively.

On the wall is a program from Macbeth. We went to see the play at La Val's Subterranean Theater with some friends of mine. He loved the play. My friends loved him. Also on the wall is a little Christmas stocking that I filled with chocolate and that little book on the desk: Joy. The card I made him was hanging under the stocking, but when I heard the news, I went and took it off the wall. I'm not sure why, but I felt compelled to get it. I thought I might frame it or something. I made it for him with love.

I gave him the copy of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski that is on top of his bookcase. He finished it the Tuesday before he died. When we were in San Francisco at the end of the year he quoted Being There and was surprised when I recognized the quote. We started talking about Jerzy Kosinski. I told him that I had read a lot of Kosinski and The Painted Bird was one of my favorites. He loved it. He wanted me to read Siddhartha and love it as much as he did. He gave me his Michael Penn tape that Friday night and insisted that I listen to it over and over till, once again, I loved it as much as he did. I'm beginning to.

Even the Stash tea bag beside his bed has a story attached. He was down here one night and I was making him tea, (just before he became a tea snob in January and would no longer use tea bags) when I asked him what kind he wanted and he started digging through the basket full of tea on my kitchen table. Then we noticed that all the different types of Stash Tea (I've got about 20 kinds) had different quotations on the back. We read them all. That quotation particularly struck his fancy. When I told him to take it, he smiled hugely. Such a little thing but it made him happy and that made me happy. The empty frame hanging above his bed, Michiko and I scrounged on "large trash day" right before he came back from Texas in September. I thought it might appeal to him, guess it did.

I wish I could remember what the quotation was. I guess Alison must have taken it with her. I put the card I made back in his room and she took that with her too. I took a picture of him off his wall--he's standing on a beach, his curly hair blowing across his face, covering half of it, a slight smile on his face. I also took the oblong gilded gesso picture frame. It hangs in my bedroom now--still empty, with gaps in the scrolly design where gesso once was.

I flew back to Minnesota. Mark was moving across town and I offered to help him paint the tiny studio apartment he was moving into. It felt safe and warm in that small room and I wasn't expecting it when he pushed me back on the black plastic paint tarp. In the end, it was easier to give into what I wanted once again.

* * *

Finally I am sure I should not be on Highway 4 and turn around to go through Comfrey. I know the petroglyphs are near there. I stop at a gas station to ask for directions.

I say, "I have no idea where I am..."

"Where do you want to be?" asks the woman with the 1950's bouffant hair-do.

Anywhere but Minnesota. But I've been here long enough not to say what's really on my mind--displays of emotion, negative or positive, are frowned upon in this stoic Scandinavian state. "The Jeffers Petroglyphs," I say instead.

The younger, fatter one explains how the petroglyphs are actually closer to Comfrey than Jeffers. "Eight miles down the road and left on County Road 2."

I ask where the bathroom is--right behind me--and when I turn around two fiftyish men with frizzy blonde hair and missing teeth are staring at me. Sitting at a red table, eating their gas station, hot-dog lunch. Yes, as Mark always says, "things could be worse." Living lonely among corn and unattractive yellow-haired people in the boondocks, or in Minneapolis--at least my Loring Park neighborhood is not so starkly pale and toothless.

I fill up my car, pay, and drive on. When I see a building surrounded by blowing prairie grass, I know I have arrived at the Petroglyphs. Inside the building the earnest young man behind the counter excitedly explains the site to me. He spits a little when he speaks, "The multi-media production is just beginning," he says. I feel like I'm in grade school again and go in to watch. There are no words. Just images of life changing over the centuries for the Indians. And not for the better. No corn is included, but I see burning prairie, running buffalo, and pictographs that appear in red lights on the plastic rocks.

Once I'm finished watching, the nice young man wants to show people how to spear a buffalo with the use of an atlatl. It seems unlikely that I will ever come upon a wild buffalo and need to defend myself but I don't want to disappoint him. He herds us outside and dashes to the demonstration area and proceeds to show us the inefficiency of the spear, or dart as he calls it. He takes aim at a large wooden carving of a buffalo, draped with an actual hide. Throws. "See how it falls way short of my target?" Throws another. "See how it goes wild?" Now this is an atlatl. It extends the distance that the spear will travel. People all over the world have used them and there's a lot of them carved into the rock face, which is why I'm telling you about them," he says with the enthusiasm of an evangelical preacher. "They can be made from anything, though usually they're made of wood; there are two loops for your fingers to go through on either side of the stick; you insert the butt of the dart into this socket here and..." He launches the spear. It hits the mark. Proud, yet modest, he invites the men--not the women--to try.

I walk on to the petroglyphs reading signs poked into the ground. I learn that the prairie once covered 400,000 square miles of North America, yet today, less than one percent remains. When the white people immigrated from Europe, they brought with them the Red Clover that choked out the indigenous Blue Stem Grass. The Jeffers site contains thirty-three acres of native prairie grass and forty-seven acres of repopulated with native plants and grasses. I walk on but don't see a wall of rock anywhere. Instead I see a large expanse of flat pinkish stone pushing up from the prairie grass--a domed balding head, surrounded by a fringe of hair. I should have known better than to expect a piece of tall and immobile nature to jut up from this landscape. The plaque tells me the rock--three hundred yards long and Fifty yards wide--on which the petroglyphs are carved is only part of a series of quartzite outcroppings called Red Rock Ridge, which extends twenty-three miles. "The rock is 1.6 billion years old," I hear the tour guide up ahead telling her group. How can anything last that long? I wonder.

Lichen is running rampant but even where the rock isn't furry, it's hard to see the carvings, not surprising since some of them are 5000 years old. But once again, there are plaques that tell me what to look for, and the helpful tour guide with her stick--pointing. She says, "Here's a turtle. This is a thunderbird. We don't know which group first started carving but we can trace the first pictograph back 350 years. The Otoe and Ioway were here until about 1650." And who the hell were they? I've never even heard of them. She's talking over my thoughts, "And then the Cheyenne until 1750 when the Dakota began to live in the area." I'm guessing these were not peaceful transitions. The guide goes on to say, "Today the Ioway, Cheyenne and the Ojibwe are helping the Historical Society and visitors understand this place." Why the Ojibwe? None of them contributed to the ancient graffiti. Do they understand what the other Indian tribes have said in stone?

* * *

A little over a year after Sean died in Texas, Carl was refusing to die in the San Antonio VA hospital. Mark drove straight through to Texas and checked Carl out. Carl had told Mark he wanted to die where he was born, not in a VA hospital in Texas. I anxiously awaited their arrival. Mark called as soon as they walked in the door say they were home. Then he handed the phone to Carl.

"Do you want me to come over?" I asked. "We've only been friends a few months..." What was the protocol for a new friend dying of cancer? And Mark. Would he even want me there? Was I butting in where I was not welcome?

"Come over. I want you here."

I drove to Mark's house. In the living room, Carl was lying on the couch. His face was pale, a knit cap covered his bald head. He looked like a World War Two Concentration Camp victim.

I said, "You don't look so good, Carl."

He laughed and pushed himself up into a sitting position. "It was a long drive. We drove straight through from Texas."

Almost every evening I made the forty-five mile trek to Mark's house to do what I could. But one night it became too painful to watch Carl's life spilling out in the basin I held beneath his chin and I went outside to breathe in the still frigid March air; Carl's sister Anita followed, saying, "Mark's a good friend to take on Carl's hospice care. And you too. Thank you."

"I couldn't be there for someone else once; I wanted to be there for Carl." I told her about Sean dying, alone, in the bathroom of a stranger's house as a party was going on around him. How he had told me he was going to see his family but never did. They didn't even know he was in Texas until the police called to tell them that he was dead.

A few minutes passed in silence and then she said, "You and Mark are together, aren't you?"

"How can you tell? He barely talks to me. Never touches me in front of anyone."

"I feel the energy between you."

It was a relief, or a vindication, that Anita could feel what passed between me and Mark. Mark might have pretended there was nothing between us, but Anita was the proof that someone else could see the invisible thread that tied us together.

We sat next to Carl's hospital bed. Mark held his hand. I knew Carl would die that night but I didn't know if I should stay or go. I left at 2:00 that morning. At 6:00, the phone call came. I drove back to Hastings a couple of hours later. I found Mark slumped in his chair. He told me they had already taken Carl away. I looked around the empty living room--he had already moved the hospital bed to the enclosed front porch; the morphine and all the other drugs had been thrown in the trash. "I don't want to be tempted," he said.

I remember staring at him, not knowing what to say to this man I had been sleeping with for over a year. I only knew how to speak to him with my body. So, for the first time, I said, "You know, I care about you. I'm here for whatever you need to get through this."

He said, "I don't think I can love you."

It was as though the room was caught in the telescoping action of an Alfred Hitchcock movie--I saw him sitting in the chair at the end of the living room, as if he were centered at the end of a tunnel, legs crossed, mouthing those words hours after Carl had died a foot from where he sat. The tone of his voice, sad. Was he sad he couldn't love me or was Carl's death in his voice?

"I'm not asking you to love me," I said.

Because I wasn't. Because I didn't think I could love him either. I wondered if I knew how to love anyone or if I just knew how to give people what they needed.

The day we buried Carl was unseasonably warm for late March. After the graveside service, friends and family gathered at Mark's house and sat in the sun. Mark said nothing to me as I played the role of the good hostess--serving food and drink, but after a couple of hours he took me into the bedroom. On my hands and knees, facing the window that separated us from those outside, he kneeled behind me, his voice in my ear saying, "You feel so good," merged with the voices outside.

* * *

A week after my journey to the petroglyphs, I decide to visit the Lower Sioux Agency. I'm not sure what to expect but it's certainly not the giant casino that rises up in the middle of nothing and nowhere. I turn around in the packed parking lot wondering where all of these cars could have come from when I haven't even seen a decent sized town within a hundred miles. I drive the opposite direction and soon come upon the museum. I pull into the parking lot, and get out of my car. It's already eighty-five degrees and humid. In thirty seconds, I'm damp all over.

Other than the chubby blondish woman behind the counter, I am the only one in the air-conditioned building. She gives me a brief tour around the small room and then leaves me on my own. I sit down on a stool and read the words under the large laminated plaque. For the first time, I learn that the word Sioux originally comes from an Ojibwe word for snake, rendered into French as "Nadouessioux" and into English as "Sioux." But then I discover the Sioux call themselves the Dakota, the Lakota, and the Nakota--"allies." I also discover the Sioux Uprising has been renamed since my grade school days and is now called The Dakota Conflict.

I had been walking around for three years not realizing the Dakota and the Sioux were one and the same.

* * *

It's been seven months since Mark left me for a woman he met at a sweat lodge--an irony I'm still having trouble swallowing. We're both interested in Indian culture, but I tell myself knowledge is a more honorable pursuit that trying to co-opt another culture for my own. I still call him once a week. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I don't have anyone else to talk to. Maybe because I feel like we have unfinished business.

When I call him at lunch, I ask, "Are you happy?"

Pause. "Some days are better than others."

"Do you ever think you'll be happy?"

Silence. "Like I said, some days are better than others."

"So how are things going with the sweat lodge woman?" I ask.

"Good," he says. I can hear the smile in his voice, and after months of saying nothing, he tells me about the ways we are similar: both of us have lived in other countries and speak other languages. Then he says: "And you'll never guess where she was living before she came to Minnesota." Before I can answer he says, "San Francisco!"

I feel as though I have been replaced by a better version of myself.

"Well, you must be in heaven with an Indian girlfriend."

"She's not Indian," he says.

"She's Asian," I announce.

"How did you know?"

I have no explanation. I just knew.

"Are you getting serious?" I ask.


Instead of driving to Southwestern Minnesota, today I am departing from habit. I'm driving a different direction though I don't know which way I'm going. Without hills or an ocean to ground me, I don't know where I am. I do know I have to get on Highway 169 to find the Mille Lacs Indian Museum where I will learn the history of the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa. Of course, they don't call themselves either one. They just call each other Anishinabeg--first people.

As I speed along through empty places, I think about how nobody ever tells the whole story. Nobody ever knows the whole story, not even the storyteller. Sometimes I think we don't know our own hearts, let alone another's. And words aren't always adequate. I know that. Maybe because I don't know how to explain, I want one sentence to say everything. "He died of cancer," I say about Carl. "He died of a heroin overdose," I say about Sean. "It was about sex," I say about Mark.

People who have passed beyond my reach.

2005 by Ellen Dworsky.
Ellen Dworsky is a California native who has lived in four different countries. She is still not sure how she ended up in Minneapolis eight years ago, so she blamed it on a momentary lapse of reason, finished her BA, and went on to get her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Prose Ax, Minnesota Monthly, The American Muse and others. She is a frequent contributor (as half of the 2-Jew Review) for She lives in Minneapolis with her cat Eddie-Small-Devil-Kitty.