flash nonfiction

May There Always Be by Katie Kalahan

May There Always Be | By Katie Kalahan

My mom likes to say that her goal is to have all of her children (there are only two of us) in one time zone. My parents recently moved to Arizona, where time is the same all year round; they don’t follow daylight saving. For half of the year, my mom is in my brother’s time zone—Mountain Time. For the other half, she is in mine—Pacific Time. 

When I was little, my mom asked me to make a drawing on a piece of paper. I don’t know how old I was. I drew the woods behind our house, which had a trail that led up to a park. In fact it was a few lines in crayon but I remember how it looked when I drew it—a lush and fully formed image. She wrote a quote on it in calligraphy, and entered it into a juried show. 

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In college, I made an artist book for my senior thesis about my mom—Unsaid. I didn’t believe that I thought about my relationship with my mom that much so I surprised myself by writing about her. The book is a series of brief passages describing my memories of the times I learned about sexuality and my body from my mom. There weren’t many times; it was easy to include them all. The images behind the text are halftone lithographs of me and my girlfriend at the time in intimate moments—they aren’t explicit but they are sexual. The colophon of the book says that I made it before I came out to my mom, because I didn’t come out to my parents until I graduated from college and could be financially independent from them, until I felt they had no standing to try to tell me how to live my life. 

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The drawing and calligraphy were a collaboration but I was too young to understand. The book was a collaboration but my mom didn’t know about it until it was done. Making art about someone I love is a collaboration, whether they know about it or not. 

For years I have been living with the idea of a piece, called Perfect Lovers by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I have never seen it in person. I have never sat in front of it and cried. Gonzalez-Torres is, for me, a friend I have never met, whose life only overlapped with mine by six years, whose life is abjectly unlike mine and yet—I feel an affinity for him. 

Always, if I am drawn to someone, I am afraid that they will not be drawn to me. 

Perfect Lovers is two clocks, set to the same time. As they run, one will inevitably die before the other. They will fall out of sync. 

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But what if the most perfect love is between mother and child, when their hearts beat as one? And the rest of life is the process of falling out of sync?

Even mothers and three-month-old infants can synchronize their heartbeats. But now, three decades after she incubated me, our hearts are mysteries to one another. 

When I was in high school and college I made art with words where I layered words over each other to make an image; the words jittered and shook together over each other repeated and repeated to create something new. When my mom was in college she did the same. I didn’t know until after I graduated and she handed me some of her prints. I hadn’t known she had made prints, I knew my mom as a lapsed calligrapher and as a graphic designer who mostly laid out church programs and instruction manuals.

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I wrote about Felix Gonzalez-Torres in college, something about transcendence and the need for finding transcendence through sex for queer people. “Non-traditional sites of transcendence,” I think I said in an attempt to sound academic. Later, I wrote a story about artists in New York in a threesome marked by different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of power. I named the cat in the story and the story itself after him: “Felix”. I don’t know if I can even compare it, my life to his, my pain to his pain, my love to his love, but there is an affinity there or simply admiration, and there was a point in my life that I needed to see that a photo of the shared bed of two men—two men in love—was put on billboards around New York City, in a year when I was too young to know I was different from my mom. 

Gonzalez-Torres’ work is so beautiful and so simple that viewers are drawn in before they realize how it implicates them. So that to look away is an active choice. His work is shot through with grief, which is the desire for the future you imagined, which will never come to be: AIDS without crisis, government without lies, love without loss, perfect parents, a child who doesn’t leave.

If straight desire is the desire for your counterpart, the difference, the calendar to your clock, then same-gender desire is the desire for your mirror. 

I remember saying once, about that girlfriend whose body against mine is printed into a book about my mom, that good relationships are like being both parent and child. You get to take care of and you get to be taken care of. Perfect lovers. 

Now my mom knits, she knits beautiful and delicate garments and she knits silly ornaments and she knits for charity and for gifts and all the time. My mom likes to knit socks, which are always matching and never a perfect pair. I hate knitting. I don’t have the patience she has.

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When I started writing this essay, I didn’t remember what that quote was on our earliest collaboration. I thought that maybe it was something about ‘home’.

As I drew each image, I kept thinking about the quote. And as I drew a facsimile of my own crayon drawing, I remembered fragments: “May there always be sunshine,” I remembered, “may there always be mama, may there always be me.” I searched for it and found that it’s from a 1993 Raffi song, so I was older than three when we made that collaboration. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996. He was born two years after my mom. Perfect Lovers was first shown in 1991, when my heart was still beating in time with my mother’s. 

About the Author:

Katie Kalahan says that she lives and works in Seattle, but right now, they actually live in Olympia. They are pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and hold a BFA in Printmaking/Drawing and English Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis. Her work is published in The Ear, Thin Air Magazine, and Witness Magazine.