From “The State”, a short story by Tommy Orange

From The New Yorker, drawn from Orange’s forthcoming novel There There

Before you were born, you were a head and a tail in a milky pool—a swimmer. You were a race, a dying off, a breaking through, an arrival. Before you were born, you were an egg in your mom, who was an egg in her mom. Before you were born, you were a nested Russian doll of possibility in your mom’s ovaries. You were two halves of a million different possibilities, a billion heads or tails, flip-shine on spun coin. Before you were born, you were the idea to make it to California for gold or bust. You were white, you were brown, you were red, you were dust. You were hiding, you were seeking. Before you were born, you were chased, beaten, broken, trapped in Oklahoma. Before you were born, you were an idea your mom got into her head in the seventies, to hitchhike across the country and become a dancer in New York. You were on your way when she did not make it across the country but sputtered and spiralled and landed in Taos, New Mexico, at a peyote commune called Morning Star. Before you were born, you were your dad’s decision to move away from Oklahoma, to northern New Mexico to learn about a Pueblo guy’s fireplace. You were the light in the wet of your parents’ eyes as they met across that fireplace in ceremony. Before you were born, your halves inside them moved to Oakland. Before you were born, before your body was much more than heart, spine, bone, skin, blood, and vein, when you’d just started to build muscle, before you showed, bulged in her belly, as her belly, before your dad’s pride could belly-swell at the sight of you, your parents were in a room listening to the sound your heart made. You had an arrhythmic heartbeat. The doctor said it was normal. Your arrhythmic heart was not abnormal.

“Maybe he’s a drummer,” your dad said.

“He doesn’t even know what a drum is,” your mom said. “And the man said arrhythmic. That means no rhythm.”

“Maybe it just means he knows the rhythm so good he doesn’t always hit it when you expect him to.”

“Rhythm of what?” she said.

But, once you got big enough to make your mom feel you, she couldn’t deny it. You swam to the beat. When your dad brought out the kettledrum, you’d kick her in time with it, or in time with her heartbeat, or with one of the oldies mixtapes she’d made from records she loved and played endlessly in your Aerostar minivan. Once you were out in the world, running and jumping and climbing, you tapped your toes and fingers everywhere, all the time. On tabletops, desktops. You tapped every surface you found in front of you, listened for the sound things made back at you when you hit them. The timbre of taps, the din of dings, silverware clangs in kitchens, door knocks, knuckle cracks, head scratches. You were finding out that everything made a sound. Everything could be drumming, whether the rhythm was kept or it strayed. Even gunshots and backfire, the howl of trains at night, the wind against your windows. The world was made of sound.

But inside every kind of sound lurked a sadness. In the quiet between your parents after a fight they’d both managed to lose. Or when you and your sisters listened through the walls for the early signs of a fight about to start. For the late signs of a fight reignited. The sound of the church service, the building wail of worship, your mom speaking in tongues on the crest of that weekly Sunday wave. Sadness because you couldn’t feel any of it, though you wanted to. You felt that you needed it, that it could protect you from the dreams you had almost every night about the end of the world and the possibility of hell forever—you living there, still a boy, unable to leave or die or do anything but burn in a lake of fire. Sadness came in the sound of your dad snoring in church, even as members of the congregation, members of your family, were being slain by the Holy Ghost in the aisle right next to him. Sadness came in the quiet of the street when the days got shorter at the end of summer and the kids weren’t out anymore. In the color of that fleeting sky, sadness lurked. Sadness pounced, slid into everything it could find its way into, through anything, through sound, through you.

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