When she got to Bliss, it felt strange. So strange that now she couldn’t quite remember when she’d arrived or where she was before.
In any given moment, she had a vague awareness of something like gravity grinding her mind to a halt, along with a simultaneous awareness of her brain laboring to make sense of things—what was here, what was missing. What was then, what was now. In the middle of the struggle was she.
But struggle, she sensed was a then thing. She shouldn’t feel it now.
Now there were berries everywhere, almost too many. So many that you had to get used to sitting down and then standing up with varying shades of redbluepurple circles on your ass. A bruise of sweetness, without the pain (when?). Fruity residue, without the insects. In Bliss, there were no yellow jackets at all. No jackets period. And, to her delight, very few pants.
The only pants allowed were cotton or flannel, with drawstrings, and they were covered with things like whales. Not actual whales, which would have been awkward, but pictures of them. Sperm whales and minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and orcas, humpbacks and blues. Narwhals and belugas. And, to her delight, no one even dreamed of playing that Raffi song about them.
In Bliss, she was relearning how to be in her body, without a stiff neck (then) or achy shoulders (then). Without indigestion, constipation, a twisted intestine (then, then, then). In Bliss, she could eat all the fruit she wanted without dietary consequence (now).
Except for, well, along the edges of Bliss, every so often between the songbird tweets and windchime bells (now), she’d hear a hiss that made the soft hairs around her neck stand up like a spiked collar (when?).
The first time it happened, she thought: This is memory (then), what I must let go of, get past, move on from. Mostly because that was the definition of memory stenciled on every stone in the courtyard at the center of Bliss. The same one written in spiraling script on every slip of paper in every fortune cookie served for breakfast every morning (now), for as many mornings as she’d been here. However long that was.
This hiss, she told herself, wasn’t now (when?).
The second time she heard it, she stopped and set her coconut down, because in Bliss, of course, one drinks out of coconuts. She looked around, and no one else in Bliss seemed to have noticed. Not even the woman right next to her, the one doing yoga without farting (now).
Other people in the courtyard just pranced or napped or sat on berries, blithely staining their flowing skirts and going along and along.
But the hiss was real and now. She knew it. And wondered why in all the blisses in all the towns, a fucking hissing noise had to come to her and her ears.
She tilted her head to one side and leaned forward. She heard it again, and she sniffed, too. Under the jasmine, a whiff of sewer wafted up, almost making her vomit in her coconut. What. The. Fuck (then, now, when?).
Okay. She leaned over to the woman doing yoga without farting and asked, “Did you smell that?”
The woman smiled through the legs of her downward dog, berry stains making polka dots on her flannel drawstring cupcake pants, and said, “The jasmine? It’s delicious, isn’t it?”
“No, not the jasmine.” She wrinkled her nose. “Something else.”
“No,” the yoga woman said, “sure don’t.”
“Maybe,” the woman suggested, “you should refill your coconut, Deirdre.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Okay.”
Wait, who was Deirdre? Oh, that’s right. It was her. That was the new name she’d been given (now). The other thing that had happened when she got to Bliss. They’d changed her name.
A smooth-skinned greeter in a billowing skirt had wiped her forehead with a cool washcloth, wrung it out in a silver bowl and said, “Now you’re free.”
She’d watched the water trickle into the bowl and felt a release of something she didn’t have a name for. Something like herself. A tear pushed out of her eye and ran down her cheek. Plop in the center of the bowl, rippling out. The greeter’s forehead skin rippled too.
Freedom felt heavier than she expected.
The greeter reached for a new washcloth, wiped her head again and wrung it out. “Now,” the greeter said, “you’re free.”
She had a fleeting thought: I’m doing this wrong (then, now, when?).
The greeter gave her flannel whale pants, a handful of berries, and a coconut that refilled itself with whatever she wanted to drink. Her coconut had filled with spicy tomato juice, a thick red that made her want to remember something else (then).
Before she could recall, the greeter named her Deirdre, like she was suddenly a soap opera star, who most likely had an evil twin in Barbados, which was not to be confused with Bliss (now, then, when?).
And everything was supposed to be fine, suddenly, after decades of not fine (then), with a new name to seal the deal (now).
But now in the courtyard, with the smell of sewage (when?) came the knowledge that she had tried to feel like a Deirdre, for a while. Not a decade, but a while. Even when people had called her Deirdre, it wasn’t a sound or self she recognized.
But that hiss, beyond the yoga woman, and out past the edges of Bliss. She would know that anywhere (when?). And it wasn’t supposed to be here. That was part of the agreement, the advertisement: Leave it all behind, and come to Bliss.
Now-Deirdre tried to remember where and when she’d heard that, and to find her name from before. Maybe, she could look for it. When something was lost, that’s what she did. Or used to do (then).
She wandered the courtyard and reached through the strawberry vines and the blueberry bushes. She rooted around in the raspberries, and they didn’t even scratch her skin. She remembered the word blood, but wasn’t sure if it was liquid or solid or if she still had it. Heat rushed from her chest up to her cheekbones. Maybe Blood was her name, what she’d given up to come here (when?).
That night, under a star-slathered blackened sky, while everyone else slept or swung or masturbated happily in their hammocks, with vibrators the shapes of fruits and vegetables, Now Deirdre, who may formerly have been Blood, got up and wandered.
Restlessness, she knew, also wasn’t part of the agreement. Bliss was supposed to have come with pure rest, moments freely flowing, no wondering what to do next, because at every moment you were handed exactly what you needed: a coconut, berries, a flowing skirt, an eggplant vibrator. And even though all of those were present in Now-Deirdre, Maybe Blood’s, hammock, she wasn’t.
She was out looking for lost things, again (when?).
Of course she was the one doing Bliss wrong, hearing hisses instead of meadowlarks, smelling shitwater instead of jasmine, wondering and wandering while everyone else just was.
Familiar fire crackled in her chest. This was the goddamn story of her life. Even when she got Bliss handed to her on a bedazzled platter, with fortune cookies, every morning, it wasn’t enough.
“You’re just not meant to settle,…” A memory of a voice, a statement unfinished (then).
Now-Deirdre, Maybe Blood, knew that someone had said her real name right after that, but it was gone, drowned in the burbles of the fountain that ran all night in the courtyard of Bliss, where the moon was always a gentle crescent and never full, always waxing and never waning, because in Bliss there was no decline.
Now-Deirdre, Maybe Blood, wandered to the edge of the courtyard where moonflowers bloomed all along a gate that seemed not open and not closed. No way out and no way in.
How did she get here, she who was not meant to settle (now, then)?
Another line twisted up out of the brambles in her mind: “You’re a wild bird, baby.”
Was that her name, Baby? No, that was someone else’s name, something to do with Patrick Swayze and coming of age (then). Now-Deirdre, Maybe Blood, was not coming of age. She’d already come and gone of age and wasn’t sure what she was coming to, although she could say with confidence that Patrick Swayze wasn’t here (now).
The gate of moonflowers rattled, and she jumped. There it was, again—a hiss long and low, slithering between the molecules of air, looping around the dragonflies and lightning bugs. And that smell of sewage and filth, pushing open the gate that wouldn’t open (when?).
Now-Deirdre, Maybe Blood, stepped through it and out of Bliss, with barely a thought until she tripped over a silver bowl, spilling water and making mud beneath her toes. She shivered at the chill of the air and felt the urge to poop, but couldn’t. She felt wetness between her legs, and a thick familiar red rose up like a halo around the head of the humpback whale in the crotch of her drawstring flannel pants.
Above her, the full moon made long and lovely shadows on the forest floor below, and she put her hand on her belly and felt relief.
“Do you know how much I’ve missed you, Jenny?” A line with her name this time.
Her actual coming of age name from a memory, from a time when her dad came home from the hospital on the same day she first bled and stained her white pants in math class on the second floor and knew everyone could see. She’d almost died of the shame of it then, but now she clutched at this moment like a lost treasure because it was all hers—the memory, the blood, the name she’d forgotten.
And there was a way to be in the world as Jenny, under the full moon, in and out of the scary forest shadows and whatever waited for her beyond them. A way to hear the hiss of a blue balloon from a night that was supposed to have been a party but became a nightmare in an alley with a sewer that stank. That, too, was hers.
When? Then. Now.
It wasn’t Bliss, but it was real. Like such a thing as too many berries. Or actual whales breaching. Like the blood on her pants and the bruises no one ever saw, like yellow jackets and watching Dirty Dancing and growing up and old and out of yourself so far that it actually feels like starting over.
Jen Violi is the author of Putting Makeup on Dead People, a BCCB Blue Ribbon Book and finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. Her writing has been featured in Nailed Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Burlesque Press, and Annapurna Living, and she's a regular columnist for Sweatpants & Coffee. In mentoring writers, Jen creates sanctuary for stories and the people called to tell them. www.jenvioli.com.