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Friday Feature: Jacinda Townsend

Jacinda Townsend is the author of the forthcoming Trigger Warning (Graywolf, 2025) and Mother Country (Graywolf, 2022), winner of the 2023 Ernest Gaines Award for Literary

Excellence. Her first novel, Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction, was an Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Jacinda teaches in the MFA program at Brown University. Follow Jacinda on her website.

Trigger Warning

(an excerpt)

Homeowning had been Ruth’s idea, conceived almost the minute she became pregnant: it had taken her only one bout of morning sickness to start resenting the plant-infested bungalow they were renting, to start reminding him how impossible it was to heat the house’s back rooms. To start pronouncing its lone full bath as too small and old-fashioned for the magnitude of what was happening to her body. They were flushing money down the toilet twelve different ways, she argued, lining the landlady’s pockets ahead of their own. It had taken them a couple more years to piece together a down payment, but in that time, Myron took on Ruth’s American dream as his own, perking his ears at interest rate dips, covertly eyeing the real estate circulars he found in the supermarket.

He was surprised, then, to feel a bachelor’s lack of regret at watching his house burn. A neighbor, Walt Meyers, pushed his wife to the sidewalk in her wheelchair to watch the fire just as something deep in the living room caterwauled before exploding. Walt stopped her abruptly yet no part of her body lurched forward: Myron found that his anima, too, stayed parked in neutral. His sensibilities, as the roof crashed to the foundation, fell to clinical analysis: he was intrigued at the idea of the power drill in his garage becoming hot enough to melt, and wondered at the thought that flames must, at that very moment, have been shooting out of the splintered screen of his plasma television.

Yet even if he himself failed to be moved to regret about the loss of the house–the French doors they’d had installed between living and dining rooms, the crown mouldings that had sold Ruth on the house in the first place–there was Enix. How sorry he was for them now, and how worried for their mind. They’d watched the fire with a look of puzzled wonder on their face, their mouth slightly ajar, the glow of the sodium street light glinting off their braces. But when things went irrevocable, when the roof fell, and then the fire truck dragged into their front yard leaving two deep, muddy ruts behind it, Enix turned into a puddle of a child.

Six firemen rushed out with two huge, gray nozzles and hooked the truck to the hydrant, and Myron took Enix’s hand. He felt them swoon a little next to him, as though the square of sidewalk they were standing on had sunk into the recently-rained earth. They didn’t cry, but Myron picked up the weight of them as he hadn’t been able to in many years. He let their head sink into the crook of his neck and felt their legs dangling past his knees, felt them spread into a slow smear of emotion that pooled against his own body and made him lightheaded.

Their hair was so smoke-filled that he felt strangled. It was to be expected–Enix had been sleeping downstairs, and the fire had come up from the basement. But he found, too, that close to them, a sweet baby smell that could only have been his imagination, a corrupted memory of having held Baby Annie all those years before. Only through Annie did he feel the loss of the house, the death of the kitchen doorframe where they’d penciled notches to mark her jumps in height, the shattering of the patio door where she’d spent so many summer mornings sitting with her back against the glass, eating cereal out of a mug.

Already, Enix was traversing two houses and two sets of rules, having to become emotionally ambidextrous, all because he’d chosen the wrong woman, the one most attracted to impermanence. After a string of girlfriends who’d hinted at destination weddings and sent birthday balloons to his dorm, it had blown Myron’s mind, when he first met Ruth, the way she’d excuse herself from his room right after sex, the way she’d leave him waiting for her in restaurants where they’d arranged to meet. Each time she showed up, fifteen minutes, sometimes half an hour late, flashing across his retina in her red curls and faux-fur coat, the relief shot through his brain like a narcotic. She appealed to the lowest part of his self-esteem, he supposed: she quite conspicuously didn’t need him, but she wanted him. Occasionally.

Now she’d left him over a joke and she wasn’t coming back, and it turned out that Ruth’s kind of sexy was all wrong, once you were older, with a mailbox full of AARP solicitations and your body transforming into all the things you’d never wanted for it. He’d seen Ruth as a higher order of person, tethered as she was to nothing, but he’d been wrong. It was the solid brown earth, a man needed under his feet.

He sat now in the Holiday Inn, eating the tin of honey-coated almonds that had been gifted to him by the sympathetic desk clerk, mindlessly patting his buzzing phone as if it were a baby, as if he could somehow calm its loud insistence. His old friend Anthony Rutherford had heard about his divorce through their grapevine of college classmates. And had come out of the woodwork to say he'd tried to warn him. She played you, Anthony texted him, out of the blue. You never could get that chick in line

Nice to hear from you, Myron texted back, then shut down his phone. But when he turned it on again, fifteen minutes later, it buzzed with a parade of messages. My barber’s sending a guy out, began the final series. He hasn’t reopened since COVID, if you can believe. Get yours buzzed too? Come to my house, brother.

Myron winced. After all these years. Anthony was still claiming honorary membership in the Black community. But he was one of Myron’s oldest friends. Freshman year of college, Anthony had sat coxswain as Myron rowed through his drinking problems, Anthony restraining Myron’s shoulders on several occasions as he heaved into the toilet on the men’s floor of their dormitory. And then there was the night at a bar on Limestone, when. After Myron won five pool games in a row, a crew of White frat boys had announced they “were gonna beat the shit out of that nigger.” Anthony had intervened, swinging his pool cue like a samurai sword as they advanced, then hoisting himself atop a pool table to sing Frank Sinatra, distracting the entire bar with his two booming verses of “New York, New York” for a long enough time that Myron was able to slip out the front door unnoticed. Even now, Myron could remember run-walking down the street outside the bar, counting out two hundred dollars of Phi Kappa Psi’s money, folding the twenties into his pockets as whistles and applause breached the sound barrier of the bar’s front window.

All these twenty-five years later, Anthony had massaged his way into some sort of vice-presidency at UPS. As his star had risen, so had his hairline receded, but Myron supposed that was all the more reason for him to need a regular haircut.

Myron cleared the messages, then used his right-hand fingers to drum the beat of “Green Onions” onto his knee. His phone’s wallpaper was a photo of Ruth and Enix when Enix was still Annie: from the left quarter, Ruth smiled sleepily at the world, holding Toddler Annie on her hip in front of the giraffe pen at the Louisville Zoo. Ruth’s sweetness, frozen in perpetuity: hers was the smile of a woman who’d made love to her husband that morning after asking why they didn’t try for a second helping of baby.

Myron vividly remembered that morning of sex: it had been celebratory at the same time it had been like fucking someone he didn’t know. He was trying to make another human at the same time he was wondering if a prostitute, at least, might whimper into a couch pillow afterwards and tell him about her abusive stepmother. Not knowing Ruth had been maddening; not knowing what he didn’t even know made him sad.

When Annie had first announced themselves as Enix, Ruth had grown impatient with his skipping, old mind, that could wrap itself around Annie’s new pronouns only when it was uncluttered. She herself had been bringing a book called Found in Transition to bed with her, and the night she finished, she flung it at him before turning over to lie on her side. “How would you like it if someone kept calling you Myrick,” she said. “I mean, really.”

He watched her shoulder slide into further relaxation, found the red curls flowing into the mattress, felt choked with emotion. “It’s not intentional,” he said. “My indifference curve on her gender is completely flat. I mean, if this gets Annie equal pay one day at work, I’m happy. I fully support Annie. Enix. Both of them.”

“That’s just it,” Ruth had said, miserably. “There’s not a ‘both of them.’ Just an Enix.”

He’d taken his mind to the gym then, sat in his office muttering “Enix they them” over and over to himself; he’d taken an empty lemonade bottle and turned it into a pronoun jar, putting a dollar bill in every time he misgendered Enix: the first week, Enix had taken the seventeen dollars and bought themselves a pair of rainbow leg warmers. He’d changed their name in his phone, and added pronouns. “ENIX THEY THEM,” he’d say aloud, each time it popped up.

The money Enix collected in the pronoun jar dwindled to nothing, and what then became indelible in his memory was what Ruth had said to him after she threw the book. She’d rolled over in bed, her eyes still closed but the tone of her voice intent. “What if I told you I wasn’t who you think I am. Would you do that to me, Myron? Would you continue to get it wrong on purpose? What if I told you everything you knew about me was just a construct?”

“Ruth,” he’d said, laughing. He hadn’t then been able to imagine anything as large as not knowing his own wife, not grasping her true mind. “Ruth come on. But you’d never do that.”

She’d turned back over, he remembered, but then rose from bed, put on a hoodie, and gone downstairs, where he found her, thirty minutes later, sitting on the couch, finishing off an entire bag of potato chips.

“Come on, Ruth,” he’d said gently. He descended to the bottom stair. “Come back to bed.”

“Later,” she told him. “I’m thinking. I’m thinking hard.”

Reticence hung constantly about Ruth, like bar smoke; hers was a love that could never bring them closer. Now, with Anthony’s chiding reverberating through his frontal lobe, Myron changed his phone’s wallpaper from Annie and Ruth to a different photo, one of Annie alone, pitching him a softball.

The phone rang. It was a tone he’d coded in jest, the theme music to Jaws. This meant it was Anthony. “Hey,” he said, regret quieting his voice. “The guy’s coming in a couple of hours. Best my man could do on short notice.”

“Oh, I’m close to you, anyway,” Myron found himself saying. “At the Holiday Inn on Hurstborne.”

“Boy, what you doing at the–“

“My house burned down. I’m wearing clothes from the Salvation Army.”

“Brother, what?”

“Yeah. Down to the ground. Everything gone. Poof.”

“You know you can stay here if you need.”

“Lined up for an apartment already,” Myron lied. “I’m fine.”

“Well, listen. You got a lot going on, but it’s not gonna help, walking around with some jungle afro. You gonna make it over?”

“Yeah,” Myron said, aware that he was adopting Anthony’s phony New York accent. Neither man had ever lived outside the state of Kentucky but when Anthony turned it on, it spread like an infection. Myron wondered if he was in any shape to throw up all the resistance he’d need to sit in Anthony’s presence.

When he arrived, he found Anthony sitting in his living room, an old boxing match roaring from his television. Anthony sat Myron down and shushed him, throwing his hands to the screen in supplication. Fury downed Wilder, the referee raised his arm in victory, and Anthony took his remote and switched off the screen. He sat upright on his sofa and sucked in his paunch, a move he’d crafted to smoothness in middle age. “So listen,” he said. “You’re homeless. I get it. But how’s your love life? You back on the market yet?”

“Nope. There’s no one. You?”

Anthony held out a hand and closed his eyes in the gesture that historically indicated he had a long story. He disappeared into his kitchen, came back with two tumblers of ice and a bottle of Woodford Reserve. He poured, dramatically. Said, “I was fucking this sister–“

“You were fucking your sister?”

“A sister. A Black chick. I was fucking this sister but I could never figure out where she was and she’d never call me back, so I just started sitting around at night, smoking a lot of weed, drinking…”

“You still messed up about her?”

“Nah. When I finally caught up with her, she was living with her moms. And the mom was a real manhater, you know, that type. Real piece a work.”

Habitually, Anthony presented Myron with the conversational impossibility of giving what he had just taken. Myron looked glumly down into his lap. “Sounds like you’re better off without her,” he said.

“I dunno. It’s been six months and I feel like I’ll never find anybody again.”

“You will. You’ll find someone as many times as you need to.”

Anthony laughed, but it was the laugh of a dead man, a man who’d poured his life into the mold of a corporate ladder and watched it come away yet unformed. Myron watched his Bourbon sweat through his glass, its malaise seeping out into the ether. When the doorbell rang, it was a relief.

The barber’s guy turned out to be a young woman whose mouth pursed disdainfully, in a way so beautiful it defied belief. Anthony paraded her into the living room, downed his drink, then poured a third. “Look at this work of art,” he said, still standing next to her. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” He leaned over her to look at the gold-plated script of her necklace, then answered his own question: “Marina.”

“Yup,” she said, pursing her lips into an even angrier heart, one dense enough to pulse. “Marina all day.”

“Marina,” said Anthony. “That means you got a boat somewhere?”

“No. It means I’m Portuguese.”

Myron could see the mump of her tongue, placed angrily into her own cheek. Her irritation was exquisite; it floated above the entire city.

“Portuguese,” Anthony said. “I wouldn’t a guessed that. You ever been to Rhode Island? Lots of Portuguese up there. But they’re really all from this one little island. Government relocation.”

“Never been to Rhode Island I just came to cut your hair,” she said. She glared at Myron. He felt falsely indicted. Marina was no longer floating anywhere: the exchange had settled back into a real world of sexual harassment and dirty old men. Marina cut both their heads and went away, taking with her a fifty-dollar tip on two fifteen-dollar haircuts. Myron thought of Twitter hashtags. #MeToo. He felt his heart contract.

“Mah,” Anthony said, as he closed the door behind her. “You can’t find true love unless you’re stationed in the army.”

Myron heard, in Anthony’s affectation, the deep misery of his trying to make a way in a world where both women and understanding were routinely denied him. Myron felt knocked over with grief: there’d be no Ruth to tell all this to when he got home, no Ruth to compare notes with, or bounce his own strange realizations against, forever and ever amen.

“Hey you know,” Anthony said conspiratorially, in the exact way of Corleone, “you ain’t the only person from the class of ’01 getting a divorce.”

“I’m sure I’m not. Statistically speaking, sixty percent of the country and I are getting a divorce.”

“Be serious,” Anthony said, pouring more Bourbon, pitching the tumbler to the back of his throat. “You remember Paulina Wray?

“Paulina. Hnnnh. Paulina. Paulina…” Paulina Wray walked across his mind suddenly, as if put there by a bolt of lightning. “Paulina! What happened?”

“Who knows. Maybe Danny Todd turned out to be a shithead just like the rest of us.”

Paulina Wray had been holding her Bible the last time Myron saw her. He’d known her as a freshman on the women’s floor of their dormitory–she’d come to UK all the way from Trigg County, and risen quickly through some mysterious, churchy ranks to lead the campus homeless outreach ministry. Paulina hadn’t been the prettiest girl in their class: she was short, almost neckless, and wore her purse slung across her body like a bandolier. But Paulina, with her religious fervor, was the most unachievable woman they knew, and thus the most consistently noticeable.

Danny Todd, goofy, smelly Danny Todd, with his Tetris addiction and his hobby of intentionally gluing the men’s bathroom door shut, had set out like a conquistador. He joined Paulina’s outreach, wrapping 200 individual care packages for the homeless in one rainy Lexington weekend. Danny lodged his way into Paulina’s heart that month and stayed there: they were married sophomore year of college. She was into permanence, Paulina was. Kingdom living. Eternity. She was a woman Myron should have chosen all those years ago. At the very least, with both their marriages imploding and his house burned down, Myron guessed Paulina might have an intact flat screen television.

“I’ve got her phone number,” Anthony whispered, looking around his own house as if it were a crowded bar. He removed his phone from his pocket and rotated it in the air. Once, twice. “Just for you, my man, I’ve got her number.”

“What are you doing with her number?”

“We actually do business,” Anthony said satisfaction edging his voice. “Stites and Harbison is one of our local firms. How about that.”

“So why haven’t you called her?”

“Paulina would never go out with a white guy. She ain’t one a those. She doesn’t swirl.”

“Well.” Myron reached into his jacket pocket and put his phone on the coffee table between them. He wondered idly whether Paulina and Danny had ever gotten around to having children. He and Ruth had started late with Enix, but Paulina’s children, if she had any, might be college-aged themselves by now. Out of his way. He imagined Paulina home alone, Danny Todd’s abandoned power drill hanging from a hook in her garage. “Sure,” he told Anthony. “Put her number in. I’ll call her. Maybe.”

“Hey. No pressure. No skin off my nose, either way.” Anthony scrolled through his phone, then peered down and input digits into Myron’s. “I’m just trying to help a brother out. But remember–if you don’t call Paulina? Someone else will. You ain’t seen her lately, but that piece won’t stay on the market long.”

Myron took his phone back and noted the time. “Hey. My man. I gotta get going.”

He’d almost called him brother.

At the door both men hugged, clapping each other on the backs in unison. A gesture, Myron thought, leftover from the time of apes.

Back at the Holiday Inn, in his houseless, hotel-room future. Myron passed the front desk, noted a besuited man whose puckered, unbuttoned shirt collar spoke of a tie that was no longer there. The man was just standing there, at reception, in a pair of earbuds, and he tapped the toe of his shoe against the floor in some sort of rock/pop time, leather metronome. Myron veered away to put six feet between them but still he heard the man whisper. “Home stretch home stretch home stretch,” the man said, as if chanting it into the dusty hotel lobby might propel him all the way there.


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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