Falling at Fallingwater
It happened mid-autumn, the trees right on the cusp of turning over, giving the deep woods “a layered, quilted quality, the greens bubbling beneath the yellows, browns and reds”, all the observations hers, made on the spot in the woods on our way to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house in Pennsylvania, and while they were smart and vivid and appropriate both in scale and in size of her awe, it annoyed me she insisted on saying that which should remain unsaid. Maybe, by this point, there was nothing about her that didn’t rankle.
Esther had this way about her, a blinding earnestness that bulldozed everything in its path. I used to think of her as some sort of long-game performance artist, and later maybe it was all about revenge for some pick-em transgression (I am aware of my limitations as a boyfriend, though this knowing has rarely done me much good). It no longer matters, for me anyway, if she’s this person or some deeply committed pseudo-human, I’m at the same place with her. Last month we were playing truth or dare with her sister Rose and her girlfriend, and Rose, who likes me as a person, but was always against us as a couple, asked truth about what it’s like to kiss me. “Polite laughter,” Esther said, and when a collective “Huh?” went up (no one’s voice louder than mine), she said, “Everybody loves polite laughter,” in a tone and surety of voice that had someone with no knowledge of our culture heard her would believe, yes, it’s true, everyone loves polite laughter. Seeing how taken aback Rose was by the answer got me thinking Esther might very well despise me.
Of course she fell at Fallingwater, making a mad panic rush across the stream just below the near falls and above the far, the house corner looming like “some perfect plateau carved by a sentient nature,” (she said in the telling and re-telling), lurching backwards on a slippery rock the way you might on a loose rug, then over-compensating and tripping forward face first, landing in a pool and going under before popping back up and whipping her wet hair around and in that moment, I knew she was the kind of woman who would fall at Fallingwater and then tell everyone about it. I privately likened her to a particularly pushy contestant in the swimsuit segment of the Miss Fallingwater contest, a remark which caused Rose to say, “This really is your problem, isn’t it?” a comment so obvious I couldn’t be bothered to mount a protest.
As always, Esther had impeccable timing, falling when an entire tour group was gathered on one of the outside porches (they clapped) and later recounting the story at just the right moment at dinner and dance parties, at gatherings of friends at bars and backyard barbecues. “I fell at Fallingwater,” she’d say, giving the story a spot-on air of self-deprecation (“Hardly a surprise, I have trouble crossing the street without tripping.”) and self-important bravado (“When I was under water for that micro-second, I wondered, Do you think Frank Wright ever stood in this pool? When he first got the commission, before he’d ever put pencil to paper? Just stood here, his pants rolled up over his knees, nothing but his genius standing between him and a vast wilderness?”)
His genius? And she always said Frank Wright, like she had some small, but personal connection to the man. “Frank Wright?” I said, out loud one time at a raucous, drunken TV viewing party for the Academy Awards populated mostly with her friends, and everyone turned because (I suppose) my tone was shrill(ish) and I was forced to backpedal into a tale of a “college buddy” Frank Wright who played guitar and turned out to be gay, though it was clear no one believed me. Except her, she did, she even asked why I’d never said anything about “your gay Frank Wright” before. And all I could think to say was, “My Frank Wright wasn’t a pimple on the ass of yours,” an answer which pleased her.
“Few were,” she said.
Michael Backus’s writing, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in Cleaver, Okey Panky, One Story, Exquisite Corpse, Digging Through the Fat, Prime Number magazine, Hanging Loose, The Writer, The High Hat, The Portland Review, and The Sycamore Review, among others. His short story “Coney on the Moon” was published in early September 2017 in an illustrated Redbird chapbook and Xynobooks published his novel Double in ebook-only form in 2012. His novel The Vanishing Point will be published in regular book form in 2018 by Cactus Moon Publications. He teaches beginning and advanced fiction writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine. He can be followed @MikeJBackus and more information is available at his website here.
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