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Free Time 

Iris Berman

In my free time, I teach children songs in a language I do not speak for twenty-two an hour. I’ve never met my boss in person, and her face flickers on the screen before me. We’re not looking for fluency, she says and I nod, pretending to take notes. Instead, she tells me that we want the children to decode the words and afterwards superimpose the appropriate tune. I know they have no comprehension. Their faces reveal that there is no difference beyond the number of syllables or if it sounds like clearing their throat. They couldn’t tell the difference between God and shit. She calls this mastery, and I flinch. A conquest of sounds, of cultural capital, if for no reason but tradition and strained obligation. Mastery? I think. No, thank you. 

At the Lincoln Park Conservatory, C. rattles off species of plants like lovers he’s known. This one was too needy and dramatic, and his mother loved this one, she wanted to keep him all to herself, and this one he’s never seen in person, but oh God, isn’t he a beauty? We stop in the steamy room with skylights and a running stream, and I ask him a question I don’t quite know how to phrase. He’s a botanist, a forager, a collector of plants; is loving the same thing as owning? 

A pop hit from childhood plays as we leave, and I’m overcome with a vision: blonde curls spilling over, a girl singing with vehemence into a hairbrush. The familiar words are muffled by the speakers. Is she saying you belong with me or you belong to me? I think that what I want from my boyfriend is not the same as what I want from my language or from my plants or from my education or identity. However, when I peer a bit deeper into myself, I notice my possessiveness grow in size and magnitude, fortified by this unnameable fear. Whatever I’m trying to say, it’s a bit too on the nose, and I know Eula Biss said it better and first. This is not the first time I’ve felt myself slipping into a place of desperation, wanting something that is mine mine mine. Do I take my lovers the same way I take my coffee? Not iced with oat milk, but with an order I expect to be fulfilled. As we leave the Conservatory, I realize my fingernails are buried deep into my skin. I examine my palms like I’m trying to decipher my future, and they are marked with eight crescent moon depressions. I unfurl my clenched palms and take C.’s hand. Our time left in Chicago is brief, I think. I’d better seize the moment. 

Sometime in the future, I meet a man in a bar called Codependence, and he applauds my lack of social media presence. Our shrinking attention economy, he tells me, is the source of all our contemporary discontent. He’s watched a TED talk on the subject, and from his perspective, we must spend more time in the great outdoors, engaging with the wildness that is real life. All of the best things in life are free, he’s saying. He is a professional golfer, I learn, devoted to that wild, wild game. He comes closer to me, comments on our shared religious background, all the values we must have in common. Here comes another futile attempt at possession. I nod my head at him, while simultaneously positioning myself closer to my boyfriend, taking his hand and wrapping it around my waist. The Luddite golfer retreats, and I exhale. 

I haven’t seen X. in months. The last time I saw him, he was wearing khaki shorts and three-thousand dollar binoculars around his neck. He’s found his community in birding; that is, the art of finding and witnessing birds. He travels across continents, waking when the birds least expect him; finding them when they drop dead, recovering and freezing their limp bodies. I wonder if I’ll ever love anything as much as he loves the birds. I wonder if this can even be considered love. He has a list of birds that he wishes to see in his lifetime, and so, he keeps his camera with him at all times. If you don’t take a picture, there is no confirmation that the correct bird has been identified. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is the unofficial mantra of birding. It is as if the bird was never witnessed at all. I imagine X. breezing past me on his bike to find his next bird, and I think of my hours spent behind a camera before abandoning the sport altogether. Capturing the moment now feels like an act of extraordinary violence: the forced control and exploitation of something that never asked to be fossilized. If this is true, I’m not sure how to feel about the act of writing, or even remembering. I know I’ve gone too far, but I don’t know how to go backwards, how to unsee the world through the lens of the vicious camera. 

On the weekends, I come home to my grandmother, brilliant and blemished by war. I watch as the plaque on her brain grows and grows. Her stories are now relegated to the unreliable file cabinets of my impermanent mind. Her gold-plated trauma, for example, and her handbuilt terracotta sculptures; her sister, the farmer; her husband, the psychoanalyst; her righteous mother with enough guilt to last several generations. I keep looking for something, anything, to protect myself against this same assault of seconds and minutes. I love you very very much, she told me years ago, cradling my cheek in her manicured hand. I’ll call you in a couple of days. You have a very very, you know, nice day, and I’ll call you, and it will be nice and wonderful. She never called me back or I never received her call. 

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