Ceridwen looked him over. “I don’t follow.”
“I mean,” he said, “You’re in a tough place. I want to help. What do you want me to do for you?”
Ceridwen stood like a soldier, though she couldn’t match Phil’s height.
“I want,” she said, her voice breaking, “for you guys to leave me alone. Meeting all of you has been… rather disorienting and startling, for one. I’m in a sort of do-or-die situation now, which is really embarrassing, and I’d like to find a quiet place to choose the beast or the whirlpool. So please-“
“But you don’t have to.” Phil stopped the closing door with his foot. “I mean, I’ll go if you really really wanted me to. But we can make this better for you, even if I haven’t found out how yet. I know what you’ve been-“
A man walked in behind Ceridwen. An Indian man, a Clark-Kent type who looked at no one whenever he talked.
Bala bared a smile for only a second.
“You told me-“
“I’m here for damage control,” said Bala. “Did you hear what Raymond did? His ‘talk’ with Emyr prompted that asshole to tell the landlord she’s refusing to pay. The landlord wants her gone tomorrow morning.”
Phil stepped inside to see the open cardboard boxes, some half-packed, some ripped into pieces. Only candles lit the room— nothing electronic was turned on. Even for Texas, this room was dry. “Can I- can I help pack?”
“I think you’ve helped enough.” Bala stepped up to him between the dusty table and the skinny door.
“Dude, calm down. I just want to give her what she wan-“
“What you want. You’ve been so entrenched in a pissing contest with those other white boys that you forgot whom you’re pissing on.”
“Oh, like you’re so much better than us-“
“I know what’s going on now. I bet you don’t even know her friends all “disappeared” when she asked for help. I bet you don’t even know how hard it was for her to ask.”
“But I listened to her!” Phil began. “I-“
“You did not listen,” said Bala, both his little feet squared at him. “She said she wants to be left alone-“
“Then what the hell are you doing here?”
“I’ll tell you what I’m not doing, which is charging in and demanding a pity-fuck just because I’m there on the sidelines watching!”
“Ok!” Phil threw up his arms. His arms almost hit Alex and Raymond, who were stepping in behind him. “So maybe I don’t know anything! Maybe I am just rushing in. And I’ve made some mistakes because I’m a guy and white and middle class and I don’t know better, but-“
Phil’s momentum derailed and crashed in a smoking heap.
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s self-deprecating white boys,” said Bala, nostrils flaring. “As if a monkey would stop flinging shit if he realized where it came from. You’re not one of the ‘good ones,’ and if you ask me-“
“Philip has at least begun to understand his errors,” intoned Raymond.
Ceridwen began to speak, but Bala spoke first. “And that stopped him- or any of you- from acting mighty-whitey all over-“
“You do know Raymond’s Hispanic,” said Alex.
Bala swiveled to look at Raymond. The graduate student nodded. Bala then said at Alex, “You’re lying.”
“Can someone say ‘ethnic erasure?’” said Alex, the bite in his voice ripping the solidifying air. He sat down on a stool with part of a leg missing.
“You pretended to ‘get’ Ceridwen, I wouldn’t be surprised if you ‘really identified’ with-“
“Does it even fucking matter!” Phil shouted. “We’re feminists. We’re supposed to be doing feminist things-“
“Well, one of us is feminist at any rate.”
Raymond glared at Alex. “Please don’t tell me it is the individual who always uses the treadmill next to the women in yoga pants.”
“What have you done for women?”
“What have you done for women? You haven’t won us a single female member-“
“Neither have you!”
“I’m teaching my sister about feminist role models, I’m paving a road to the future while you’re all-“
“Who’s given their mother the most? Hands up anyone who gave a fortune-“
“I treat my female instructors the same as my males ones, and you’ll be damn sure-“
“I’m giving her a chance-“
Ceridwen screamed this, and the feminists froze. “Shut up! I don’t want your help and I don’t care who doesn’t help me first! And that goes for you too,” she said to Bala as he opened his mouth. “I just want some time alone, and if you knew where I was right now, you’d give it to me! Is that understood?”
She wasn’t louder or taller than them, but they heard every word. The fragments of the glass figurine dug into her hand.
The boys looked at each other’s feet. They were too big for the low ceiling in this medicine-smelling apartment.
Raymond spoke first. “I suppose the right thing to do now would be to leave.”
“Yeah, we may have gotten the hint,” said Alex.
“It’s about time.” Phil crossed his arms and glared at Bala. “I at least tried to dance around her heart condition.”
Ceridwen’s hair ripped back as she screamed, screamed as if she were Prometheus finally breaking the chains from the mountain, beautiful and terrible as the night storm. The cry squeezed and demolished the guts of these city and suburban men, who had never been in the wild, but held onto their inner cavemen that could smell wild tigers. They reacted fast. The feminists banged into each other sprinting to the exit. Phil blasted out last, slamming the door on the raised claw behind him. He turned and sunk low, his own heart pounding at the door to his back.
Way Past the Due
She burned down the apartment that night. Her brother saw the smoke and called the firemen over before the blaze reached beyond her dwelling. No injuries. One of the few things that survived the blaze was Ceridwen’s driver’s license. The rest of the feminists, when Phil told each one individually about this, began sentences like, “Crazy… you know…” and “Well, it’s what they say about ‘them’ be cray.” They never finished them. Phil attended Union meetings until February, the third time no one else showed up.
Years later, and even longer since Barbara, he saw Ceridwen in his newspaper, and missed his bus to keep reading at the stop. The article described The New Amazons, an organization dedicated to uniting differing factions of feminism, with a focus on radical, socialist, cultural, and liberal feminist ideologies. They were only celebrating a decade of activity when Ceridwen joined them. Ceridwen’s organization dropped shoes in the still pond that was Texan feminism. And Ceridwen was just another member, albeit one with a more interesting backstory. In the article, Ceridwen talked about how, when she joined the New Amazons, she had lost her job and her apartment, and was on the streets looking for purpose. It was here she discovered, through the New Amazons, that she only needed herself to survive, not a superior, not even Western medicine. This was her story to live out, no one else’s.
The article never mentioned Alex, Bala, Raymond, Phil, College Station, or even Joe’s. All this came about, Ceridwen said in the interview, because she was embarrassed about and tried to hide her heart condition, something her father and brother lied to her about. Phil didn’t understand.
But he had an idea of what to say. Phil hadn’t become an elected official yet, but his internship in the Texas Senate granted him some time alone in that political coliseum, when the lights were out and the janitors had gone home. Phil would stand at the podium in the empty Senate floor and deliver the ultimate fate of all politicians: the apology speech.
“When you burned down your apartment, Ceridwen, two of our worst fears came true. We were worried that your life would fall apart without us. You didn’t have to destroy things to be heard. We could have helped. And yet, the College Station Feminist Union had another fear. We feared that your life wouldn’t fall apart without us. After you left, there were a lot of questions at the next meeting, a lot of shouting that followed them, a lot of shame. In short, it was all about us. We broke up the club because we thought we failed in creating feminists. That should have never been our goal. Being a politician means trying to help others, and being a bad politician means helping yourself. Politicians should fight, not invade. I may be the main character in my own story, but I am not the main character in the story of your liberation. The closest you can be to being the main character in someone’s life is being the villain. In the future, I’ll count myself lucky if I can be someone’s Sancho. I may not understand why you burned everything you had. But for now, Ceridwen, let me say that I am enlightened, and that I am deeply, deeply sorry.”
Whenever he delivered that speech to a roomy Senate floor, Phil satisfied something primal in himself, as deep as the need to start fires or find love. Now, siting at the bus stop and reading the paper, that primal feeling suggested that he call Ceridwen and make his speech more that just moved air in an empty coliseum.
Her headshot lay on top of the paper, and Phil grew weak in the knees. Her freckles danced on her cheeks. Her smile was the smile of an arsonist. Her lazy eyes were bigger than her dry hair. Her nose could stab the world, and she’d laugh to do so. She looked like she did when she raised her claws: like a woman on top of a mountain, throwing thunderbolts to those with lesser skills for talking to gods, even if their kneecaps had worn down to only bone.