BY LYDIA WEINTRAUB
Princeton University, ’18
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Recipient
My mother and I returned to the Tucson art museum because Rose Cabat’s daughter told us over the phone that the museum was selling Feelies not featured in the retrospective. The night before had been David’s bar mitzvah, and I spent most of the evening talking to my blond cousin, who may or may not be gay. Maybe just shy. The gay theory was my parents’, not mine, and came about because my blond cousin liked to massage the shoulders of his uncles and had chosen to room with two girls for his sophomore year. But really my parents were just confused by his reluctance to be social and tried to reason that it was because he was hiding something. Ben wasn’t hiding anything. He was just shy. I knew that because he and I used to explore my grandparents’ backyard, make rock gardens, and look for snakes. He always went willingly, but silent and spectral, until one year he offered to help make dinner instead and it was like those years before had never happened.
By the end of bar mitzvah, I had questioned Ben on what he liked to do, (Paint.) what he liked to paint, (Trees and stuff.) did he think he was dull, (Perhaps.) did he think he was mysterious, (Not really.) had he had sex, (Sort of, but she was a virgin and it hurt for her.) and what’d he think, (Oh, it was alright, nothing crazy.) and then he finally agreed to go on the dance floor and danced like nobody had seen him dance before.
He asked me a few questions too, which surprised me, because people don’t usually ask me questions, and I was a little out of practice answering. Was I excited for college, (Freaking the fuck out.) was I scared to be going across the country, (West coast, here I come.) did I think I was dull, (I hope not.) did I think I was mysterious, (I talk too much to be mysterious.) had I had sex, (Yes.) and what’d I think, (Can’t stop thinking about it.)
We hugged good bye at the end of the night, a longer hug than I was expecting, and I was tempted, tempted, to wrap my arms around his neck (a romantic hug?) rather than his waist (a friendly hug?) but I figured I’d been reading too much Faulkner not to be grossed out by a first cousin. I told him he’d better come visit me in New York before I left for Berkeley, he said yeah, and smiled, but I didn’t know if he was smiling because he liked the idea or because he was embarrassed.
It was May and the Saguaros were flowering. Ben told me it was his favorite time in the desert, when clusters of green buds gathered on the tops of the cacti arms. But to me, it looked like the cacti had developed some sort of skin problem – incongruous growths: warts that needed to be scraped off with a scalpel at the dermatologist’s.
At the museum there were thirteen Feelies for sale. My mother chose a plump turquoise one whose glaze had dried in spectacular drips down the sides. When I cradled it in my hands it was like holding a large, velvet marble. The sales clerk in the museum shop explained that the tops of the Feelies made after the ‘70s all have a tiny opening raised from the body of the pot on a thin neck. Like a seahorse’s mouth – and I know what a seahorse’s mouth looks like because I had gone to the Coney Island aquarium the summer before with a boy that wanted to “see if it would work.” (It didn’t.)
We drove through the desert back to my grandparents’ house. The purple shadowed mountains hulked in the distance. The adobe shopping malls melted Panda Express and In-N-Out Burger drive-thrus.
At my grandparents’, people were grabbing slices of pizza. I found Ben sitting with my other cousins. I tapped his rounded shoulder and told him to follow me to the car. I almost wanted to kiss him but instead I unwrapped the Feelie for him and placed it in his hands. Isn’t it awesome, I asked him, the feel of it? He rubbed his fingers along the sides and pressed the Feelie to his face.
Imagine how cool it is inside, I said, tapping my fingers on the belly of the porcelain pot, feeling sweat between my thighs and in the creases of my elbows; wouldn’t it be cool if you and I could curl up in there.
Let’s take a year off, I continued, let’s go hiking in Maine; let’s go biking through the Cape. Ben carefully placed the Feelie back in the box and wrapped an arm around me, pressing my face into his chest. I worried I was getting makeup on his white shirt.
He asked me when I graduated and I said, two weeks, and we walked back into the house. He spent the rest of the day near me, sitting next to me again at dinner, but we had run out of things to say. I knew we’d never go hiking or biking and I doubted he’d come visit me in New York.
Before I left, I asked him if our rock gardens were still in the backyard. I don’t know, he shrugged, I haven’t checked. He opened the screen door and motioned for me to walk through onto the porch. One of the rock gardens had been along the side of the house, near the swing set. Now there was a potted plant.
I guess they moved the rocks back to where they were, he said.
Or maybe to new places, I said.
To new places, he echoed. He stood so close that our shoulders touched. The buds on the Saguaros around my grandparents’ house had opened and in the sunset the white petals turned orange and red.
“‘Feelies’ is a subtle, elegant and mature story about growing up and the pain of time passing. It’s tender and subtle and told with humor and real economy. Not to mention, beauty. A pleasure to read.”
– Alexander Maksik, 2015 Prose Prize Judge