An Essay by Sarah “Sam” Saltiel, January 2020
Sarah “Sam” Saltiel is a queer, nonbinary artist and writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Graduated from the University of Chicago with degrees in English, visual arts, and creative writing, most of Saltiel’s work deals with questions of gender and mental illness, particularly pertaining to what it means to be a body in space. She seeks to investigate matters of identity, intersection, and erasure through a wide variety of mediums. Saltiel has been publishing since 2013 and has works published with Duende, Thoreau’s Rooster, and Storm of Blue Press, among others. All of her work can be found on her professional facebook page, Sarah Saltiel, or on her website: sarahsamsaltiel.com
I didn’t write you into my poetry book. I realize that as you sit on the other end of the couch from me, our feet touching, my computer on your lap. You scroll through the first draft of the book and though I can’t see the screen, I try to picture the words as you would see them. It’s then that I realize that I have four lines dedicated to you— love in reality, and pages about someone else— love that exists only in theory. When you’re done reading, I make a joke about how being poly means I can simultaneously be in a healthy relationship and still keep up my long-standing tradition of pining after emotionally unavailable men, but I wonder (too late) if the exclusion hurt you. Why did I not write about you?
The days after, I keep track of how I sort my thoughts, how each thought becomes actionable. I have a note on my phone that is full of snippets of poetry waiting to be used. As I scroll through it, I notice they are all things that I want to say but can’t. I have a paragraph about coming to terms with a friend who will never love me back. I have entire essays with descriptions of anxiety attacks and depressive episodes, each sentence too melodramatic to say out loud. By comparison, our text conversations read like an ode of all the things I feel okay saying to you, the good and the bad. It is an archive of the things that I didn’t write in poetry because I said them to you instead: care and anxiety, communication and memes, shitty pick up lines and asking about your day.
The ability to say these things to you still feels novel; I am not in the habit of thinking about love as an act of celebration, rather than one of mourning. Writing about it as such feels alien and unfamiliar and I find it difficult not to turn my love letters into eulogies. There are words I’m used to using when I write about love: “ghost”, “residue”, “as if”. Writing about you feels like it requires a whole new vocabulary and half the words would be memes we found on the internet meaning, “I’m thinking about you”. The other half would be synonyms for all the ways I’m learning I can touch you. Sitting on your lap, limbs entangled. Running my cold hands up your back as you shiver but oblige in letting me warm them up. Poking your adam’s apple and your belly button because I don’t want any part of you to be strange to me. I delight in both the new and the familiar— there would be an entire page of entries dedicated to realizing that it’s okay to hold your hand while walking down the street. An entire chapter dedicated to different ways of saying, “I purposefully don’t put on my jacket when we stand outside at parties. I like the way you unzip your jacket, wrap me in it, and let me steal your cigarette, like you’re inviting me to embody the space that previously held only you. I don’t even like cigarettes, but I like feeling like I am now a part of you”.
I realized when I first started kissing you that I was always the one escalating: tugging at the hems of both our shirts. It’s the product of countless one night stands spent with men who kissed me to fill the quota of perfunctory socially acceptable number of kisses needed to unlock the barriers of clothing. It made me feel dirty to realize I was repeating their patterns, as I if was clay that they had pressed fingerprints into. I worried something between you and me was getting lost in the ridges still spelling out their echoes. I try to slow down now, because if I swallow you in gulps, you might be gone to me, but this is a memory I want to retain. I want to linger by your neck long enough that I can form new fingerprints and use those new hands to hold you close to me, as something precious and powerful, both.
I feel sometimes like I am a child reaching out to touch your face, asking, “is this okay? I don’t know how to do this but I don’t want to hurt you”. I worry that I will hurt you, because I forget that I have the power to do that. Some days I preemptively put distance between us, assuming that’s what you want, because that’s what’s been wanted from me before: intimacy, but not close enough to burn. Like the day that I curled up in the dark, wombing, entombing myself in piles of blankets after white knuckling it through the day. You messaged me and apologized for not being there. I told you it wasn’t your responsibility to follow me into the depths of every bad day. I meant that to be comforting: “I am not your responsibility so you are relinquished from your guilt”. It was only after that I realized (again) that you don’t want to be relinquished from me, that that distance didn’t feel like a relief to you but a yawning chasm. You were afraid of me being swallowed whole. I am still learning how to let someone toss me a rope without pulling them down too.
Months after you read my poetry book, a friend messages me and unprompted says that they are taking a break from reading my writing because they don’t want their mental health problems to consume their life. They ask, inoffensively, if there are other things that I write about. I bristle for a moment and respond that trauma and mental illness show up so often in my work because they are inextricable from my lived experience. A piece absent of that narrative would be a fiction.
It’s a fair question though. I characterize the months since I’ve moved to the desert as being punctuated by panic attacks and the feeling of slow suffocation. In some ways, that characterization is a fiction as well, because there are many things that it does not account for. The pride of publishing my first poetry book. The giddying independence of decorating my own apartment. The calm every morning before work when I drink my coffee, my cat headbutting my arm until I let her crawl under the covers. And again, you.
You have not known a version of me without my nerves strung tight as an entire string quartet, just waiting to spiral into discordance with a single wrong note. I’m not sure if a version of me without my neuroses exists, but sometimes I forget that there are parts of my personality that are not centered around the act of trying not to want my own death. My ideation is not my identity, nor is my rejection of it. Increasingly though, I find the urge to remind myself of that: though this struggle is inextricable from me, it is not me in my entirety. I’ve started trying to make a list every day of the things that make me happy. A lot of days I forget or the effort seems insignificant, but I still do it, telling you that I want to refocus my brain lest I collapse myself into a singular dimension. Mostly though, I find that telling you that there are other parts of me is just telling you something you seem to know already.
I’m not sure how something human slipped through the cracks in my anxiety but I’m glad that you have seen me whole. It helps ground me, so I keep writing my list because you are one of many things that I don’t want to slip through the sieve of my perception. Even if there is a grain for every panic attack and every day I spend curled into my couch, I still want to catch all the other grains, count them and call them by name:
1. The plant that a friend brought to a party as a gift for me.
2. My boss, who patiently taught me how to drive.
3. The leftovers in my fridge from the first recipe I’ve taught myself in years: coconut curry lentils. Made more flavorful by the friend who came over to cook it with me.
4. The sunflower dishes that I bought when I moved here. I wanted reminders of things that would make me happy.
5. The nod my dance instructor gives when I enter the studio to practice. My presence has become familiar and there is comfort in that familiarity.
6. The mismatched assortment of furniture and kitchenware given to me by my mother, my grandparents, and my coworkers to fill up an apartment that haunted me with its emptiness.
7. The tattoos on my body: reclamation of disputed territory.
8. My college roommate who calls me several times a week just to check in and tell me about the trials of law school.
9. The illustrations that I made for my poetry book after drawing for two days straight. Trying to take pride in my ability to turn pain into something beautiful.
10.The day you came over and I peeked out of my dark apartment at you, wrapped in blankets like I was shielding my raw shivering nerves. I made you build a pillow fort with me like we were kids — we drank red wine, ate cookie dough, and had sex until you couldn’t breathe and had to grab your inhaler. I asked you if that meant that having sex with me took your breath away. I didn’t have to tell you that day that I needed you to hold me. You did anyway, because for you it wasn’t conditional on my feeling bad or good, you just did. We padded our consciousnesses with blankets and pillows and a table from my living room that we turned on its side. It made it easier, for a few hours, to forget my suicidal ideation, because it made me feel young enough that I didn’t know what death was anymore, didn’t have to grapple with it, let alone my own. There are no cure for things like me, but it reminded me that I don’t have to make my own pain my hobby, that I can make that habit rusty with disuse. The fluttering of your heart when I pressed my hand against your chest is the tenth grain.
I know that I can’t list my depression away, but you remind me that I don’t need to see myself as a poison, that I don’t need to absent myself. So I start my list again because it may not be everything but at least I’m trying. I take pictures of my cat to remind me that there are soft things in this world. I look up new recipes because my body deserves to be fed. I collect your freckles in my pen in case I decide to write about something other than trauma.
Editor’s note: From the moment I read Sarah “Sam” Saltiel’s poetry collection, I was hooked. She has such an incredible way with words: so raw and piercing I often end a reading with tears in my eyes. I am proud to be publishing Saltiel’s poetry chapbook. It is especially in contrast to this aching poetry memoir that this essay shines with hope, connection, and deep love. – Ava Balis
Saltiel’s poetry chapbook, a thesaurus for the way water returns, will be published with Riza Press in Spring 2020. Inspired by writers such as Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson, a thesaurus for the way water returns deals with the jarring effects of physical and temporal displacement, leading the reader through the emotional topography of a narrator in surroundings that are simultaneously familiar and horrifically strange.