The Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville is an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study. It was designed for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLAS program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. We are pleased to include works from the Creative Writing concentration in our publication.
The skin on my hands cracks and bleeds more in Asheville than it did in Durham. The chilly winters and excessive hand washing, a remnant of my OCD, account for this equally. The blood circulation in my right hand is worse than in my left. It might as well be ice in the winter.
On the Biltmore Estate brochures the grounds are frosted with a layer of snow. A Christmas tree near the oval fountain, no longer spewing water, is surrounded by smaller Christmas trees, all of them strung with white lights. A couple stands in front of the trees, the house in the background. They are dressed in black. She is draped over him with her head on his shoulder. Beginning in January there’ll be an exhibit showcasing costumes from the movie Titanic. Every time I look at the brochure it makes me colder. Fuck fall and winter, pumpkin spice, and candy canes. Clarissa asked me once if I was cold sitting outside a Bruegger’s Bagels, having lunch with her and her father in Durham. I had a cardigan on but no jacket. Her father said, “They don’t get cold.” This is one of many implications of white skin. I chuckled. Clarissa seemed embarrassed.
Clarissa and I moved here two and a half years ago. Then, Asheville seemed like a great unknown thing we could discover together. The house we live in is part of a three-house complex. It used to be all one house but the property owners split it into three. We have to get kerosene for the tank out back if we want to stay warm in the winter. We tried space heaters but they just drove up the energy bill and our landlord complained about us having them when he came by to replace the element in the oven.
Clarissa and I haven’t been a couple for a year and a half. But we still live together and are best friends. Friends tell us how grown up we are and inquire as to whether we still sleep together. I just tell them we have separate rooms. “I could never live with an ex,” most of them say.
Because of all the old and new money tourists, hippies, and hipsters, life here feels escapist. I came here to attend graduate school. I take no solace in hiking trails, mountains, or nature in general. I run in Carrier Park, frequent the Fine Arts Theatre and Grail Moviehouse along with a handful of other movie theaters, Starbucks, and Asian restaurants that do not feature the word “fusion” in any of their advertising. And I don’t buy local. Because you can’t save a way of life that’s gone.
Just this morning, around five, I walked into the Walmart on Bleachery Boulevard. I got a cart and rolled it down the aisles. One of the wheels on the front end squeaked the whole way. The other wheel kept getting hung up on yarn that had amassed around the caster. I filled the cart with a box of Lucky Charms, a gallon of one-percent milk, a package of eight rolls of Bounty paper towels, Lysol disinfectant spray (lemon scented), and a gallon of Clorox bleach. At the only open register manned by a live human being, the checkout girl was ringing up a man with a white beard, four-pronged cane, and camouflage baseball cap that had a fishing hook fixed to the bill. The girl’s name was Annie. I pieced it together from the tiny capitalized letters on her employee tag. The new company slogan “Save Money. Live Better.” was featured on the tag below her name. I prefer the former slogan, “Our People Make The…Difference.” Annie reminded me of my mom. But not my mom now, at fifty-seven. My mom in pictures from when she was in high school. Straight red hair, thin and freckly.
I overheard the man say, “Been here seventy years, yes ma’am. Born and raised.”
“You’ve seen a lot of change then I bet,” Annie said.
“Oh yeah,” the old man said, “it was different when I was a boy. Not better, mind you, just different.”
The focus of the conversation then turned to an incident that occurred at the Hendersonville Road Walmart a few weeks ago, in early October. A twenty-six-year-old pregnant woman came out of the Walmart to find a man had broken into her red Ford Explorer. When the lady confronted the man, he grabbed her purse and took off. She tried to run after him at first but then realized she wouldn’t have been able to catch him. So she got in her car, cranked it, threw it in reverse, backed it out, and drove after the man. As he fled she drove her car over a median and eventually caught up with him, hitting him from behind. The woman is now facing a charge of assault with a deadly weapon and the man was charged with larceny.
“I’d have put a bullet in his ass,” the man said.
“My daddy’d probably do the same,” Annie said, handing the man his receipt.
When I got back to my Jeep the stars were still out but you could see morning coming in the distance. I saw the old man a few rows over unlocking the driver’s side door of an Oldsmobile Cutlass. A sticker on the bumper read: STAND FOR THE FLAG/KNEEL FOR THE CROSS. Behind the letters was the design of a waving American flag. The license plate was a Purple Heart tag with a frame around it. Above the tag letters and numbers was printed VETERAN and below VIETNAM. As the man drove away he waved at me. I waved back. I’d forgotten Vietnam was decades ago.
As I drove home, Don Henley’s song “The End of the Innocence” played on the radio. I stopped the car on the red light at the intersection of New Leicester Highway and Patton. A McDonald’s eighteen-wheeler crossed over in front of me. On the side of the truck was an image of fries spilling out across the length of the trailer. The words under the red box of fries read: “going going gone.” As the truck passed by and the song played, a feeling of loss and disappointment set in. I tried to shake it but it wouldn’t let go.
In the middle of my second semester of graduate school Clarissa broke off our engagement. I saw it coming but I didn’t want to let it go. I’m not good at accepting failure. She told me in the basement while I was doing laundry.
“I love you but I’m not in love with you,” she said.
I didn’t say anything, I just thought about the cliché. I deserved more than a string of impersonal words. Any genuine feeling for me seemed gone from her. I would’ve rather been hated by her in that moment; at least it would have felt like she cared. But there was nothing in her voice. It was the first time I felt disposable.
But I understood in a way. My family never made it easy for her. We were the first interracial couple. Black girl, white boy. It’s a hard pill to swallow in Manning, SC, no matter which side of the color line you find yourself on. But I always had a fuck-you attitude about it. Clarissa wasn’t like that. She had two sisters, the youngest of whom we were close with. But her older sister lived in Houston and her mother died of ovarian cancer in 2009. Her father was still alive but he kicked Clarissa out when she was in her second year of college because of his new wife. Clarissa wanted to be accepted into a family. It hurt me not to be able to give her that. We’d always be outsiders in my family. But that’s what I’d always been.
There were other problems too. Clarissa had never been in a relationship with anyone else and she wanted to know what it’d be like to be with someone who wasn’t me. She liked attention, excitement, and for things to feel new and fresh. I had a tendency to be aloof and to get lost in reading, writing, and movies. She also regretted leaving Durham. It was my fault. She would never have left if it weren’t for me.
Not long after Clarissa and I moved to Asheville, we found ourselves passing the power plant on Lake Julian, coming down Long Shoals Road. Two sharp hills of pines shot up and out from the lake. Off in the distance, between the hills, square and cylinder constructions sat heavy on the ground. One cylinder spit white puffs on the sky. Leading away from the plant, on the right, power lines drooped down from lattice-like steel towers and tapered off into the mountainous landscape. It would’ve all seemed ugly to me but for a sailboat drifting on the water. Both of the sails were white, as was the hull. On the right side of the boat nearest the stern, the name “GRACE” was painted in navy blue lettering.
“Isn’t that pretty,” Clarissa said.
I thought it a lovely thing that someone besides me saw beauty there.
“I love you,” I said.
“Of course you do,” she said, with a wink and a kiss on the cheek.
Not far outside of Asheville, up in the mountains, there are folks who live off the grid. Folks with solar panels, propane tanks, broken-down generators, AR-15s and handguns. The black community struggles with gentrification and policing in places like Hillcrest, the flipside of the Grove Park Inn. The hippies have set up shop in West Asheville with bohemian-style bars and breweries.
Politics in Asheville runs the gamut. A good many white folks think they’re progressive just by virtue of living here. Anarchists show up to protest the Vance Monument. Hillbillies drive in circles around downtown in beat-up Dodge trucks waving Confederate and Blue Lives Matter flags. Culture is up for grabs. Appropriation is rampant. The women I go on dates with, in large part, are polyamorous. I even had one woman try to introduce me to her husband on a first date. “Spiritual” is a word I hear thrown around often. Religion is shunned.
I tried meditation once. It was in a meditation circle on New Year’s Eve with some of Clarissa’s friends. In the circle were six of us, three men and three women. A candle was lit and placed in the middle of the circle. I sat on the floor, my legs crossed, and closed my eyes. After thirty minutes or so they all started talking about how they felt their ancestors in the room and a connection with one another. Each of them had goosebumps, which they showed, lifting their sleeves. I was silent. One of them, a black guy with tribal tattoos running down the length of his arm and a hemp necklace with a Grateful Dead skull charm dangling down, attempted to interrogate me as to why I had said nothing. Clarissa interjected and told him, “Lee’s just skeptical. He doesn’t mess with the other side much.” My silence had been an attempt to be polite. I wondered why my reaffirming was required. Wasn’t silence the point of meditation anyway? The truth was that I hadn’t felt anything. I don’t need spirits.
On October 6 of this year, a forty-six-year-old man walked into the Asheville Regional Airport and placed a Mason jar on the floor. Twenty days earlier he was in prison. The contents of the Mason jar were pellets, two plastic cups filled with fuel, and a clock set for 6:00 a.m. The man’s name was Michael Christopher Estes. He purchased all the ingredients from the Lowes and Walmart in Arden. When he was arrested he told the authorities he was preparing for a “war on US soil.” When the police contacted Michael’s father, Jimmie, he said, “I don’t really know him anymore.” There were questions about Estes’ ethnicity but Jimmie denied any reports that stated his family was American Indian. He asserted that the family was white and of European descent. The story was covered by local and national news. CNN news anchor Jake Tapper even sent out a tweet about it.
Clarissa and I take occasional walks downtown. We park over by the YMCA and walk up to Pack Square Park and plan out our route from there. A week before Halloween we were making our way down Biltmore Avenue near the Orange Peel. Clarissa had her tight kinky strands of hair picked out and stretched out into an Afro. I saw a white guy jet out of the entry to Wicked Weed toward us holding out a cell phone. He reached out for Clarissa and attempted to hand me the phone. He was wearing a rainbow-colored Afro wig.
“I’ve got to have a picture,” he said.
“You’re not gonna get one,” I said, pushing the phone away.
“But we got the same hair.” He waved his hand back and forth pointing out their hairstyle similarities.
“Nah, man,” Clarissa said, pulling out from under his arm and putting distance between them.
“Hey, back off. That’s not appropriate. How’d you like someone to roll up on you like that? She don’t know you,” I said, putting myself between Clarissa and the guy.
“C’mon I just wanna picture. It’s Halloween,” he said.
Clarissa spoke up. “Do I need to tell you everything that’s wrong with what you just did?”
The guy’s face reddened and he suddenly looked unsure. He turned around. Many of the Wicked Weed patrons sitting outside stared in our direction. The guy walked back to his table and sat down with his group around a fire pit.
Clarissa and I cut over to the other side of the street. She didn’t say a word until we got back to the car. When we got in the car I turned the heat up full blast.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“For what?” I asked.
“It’s cold in here,” she said, rubbing her hands together and holding them over the fan.
“For it being cold?”
“For looking like this, having hair like this. There are other places where I wouldn’t feel so different. But here nobody looks like me. I get tired Lee, so fucking tired, everywhere I go. People coming up to me asking if my hair is real. This is what black hair looks like.”
She rubbed together a few strands of hair from the side of her face.
I put my hand on her cheek. “I know.”
A tear dropped down from her eye and rippled over my fingers. “Your hand isn’t cold,” she said.
I took a pair of leather gloves from inside my jacket. “The miracle of gloves,” I said.
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “You’re a dummy.”
When we got back home I made some popcorn and we sat on the couch and watched the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. The one where Alastair Sim plays Scrooge. It’s our favorite ghost story.