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January 23, 2019 Nonfiction

First Inhabitants

Amanda Yanowski

First Inhabitants photo

Consider: the founder effect, wherein the first organisms to get to an environment and be successful will alter the trajectory of the rest of the ecosystem, determining how it develops.


After high school, I moved from Minnesota to Texas. Average annual number of tornados in Minnesota: 41.9. Average annual number of tornados in Texas: 146.7. 


This is my bedroom, now, on the second story of an apartment complex on Oak Street in a town nine-hundred miles south of the place I belong.


Here, I balance oscillating fans on milk crates, push mismatched dressers against the wall, and surrender pillows to the cat’s shedding. Here, my husband and I sleep on our decade-old-mattress because I am never certain we have enough extra money to afford a new one. Instead, I flip and rotate every few months. Instead, I try to believe I am capable of feeling the difference a small change makes. Every side of this same old mattress is crowded—with late night laughing and smoldering fights and flannel sheets. My mind cyclones, hovering above this mattress in the middle of the night hours. I forget, here, what it was like when I knew how to sleep.


My husband has left the bed now, early this morning, to deliver a note that says, yes, we will live here for another year. I pull my knees toward my chest and try to not think about time, try to not ask if I have stalled. Instead, I rock on my spine and grasp at my knees. My eyes follow a drop of water sliding down the headboard—this happens when I use too many ice cubes, when I think the Texas nights will be warmer. The condensation sweats through the glass, falls away, and pools up on the saturated stone coaster. I wipe the drip line clean with my thumb. There’s no ring on the wood, which relieves. I wedge the glass in the space between my legs and hold the coaster with both hands. I do not whip the stone across the room where it might dent the wall, break the window, disappear. I do not pour the water from it into my mouth. Instead, I turn it over to wipe and press the moisture deep into the mattress, to let it soak and crowd in with the everything else.


In this bedroom, at the start of each morning, all the dust I am made from aches.


Do others search for basements when they hear strong winds, when they imagine tornados? Do they insist on coasters under stemmed wine glasses?


We’re covered with germs, all of us. Some scientists insist certain bacteria cling to us for life, that we can be identified by our specific microbes. Our Microbiome. Every mucosal surface in our bodies—mouths, gastrointestinal tracts, skin, fingernails, ears, anus—every bit is covered in bacteria. And those covered bits release about 36 million bacterial cells each hour—some are respirated, some shed off with our skin, and others simply detach—dry out on the surface and drift off as dust.


When I moved out of my Texas dorm room after freshman year, I left behind a water ring on the right front corner of the desk. It was university property (the desk, not the ring). The ring wasn’t the school’s, of course, but it wasn’t mine, either.


I wonder about who I was as a pristine hunk of biomass, when I was not quite born, but all human, before bacteria began to colonize my surface.


That’s not true; I don’t really think about this at all.


But I do wonder about the bacteria I am made of, now, how I am still carrying the strains that grabbed on in the first hours of life—or their descendants, at least. If I erased them all with antibiotics and magic, if I moved to the other side of the world (or to another world altogether, probably), if I started wearing the fabrics and eating the food of this new place—the first colonizing bacteria would still creep back.


Try as we might there’s no overthrowing them, is there? Those first inhabitants.


The first night in my Texas dorm room, I sat at my desk—brand new, free of water rings— and pretended to do a crossword puzzle while I listened to laughter move through the hallway.


I want to reach through time and tell this version of myself that I will not be well here. That, here, I will learn to swallow shame and make it part of every part of myself. That I will not figure out how to work my voice for another decade. That I do not understand, do not want, my own bacteria.


One of my teenage bedrooms—tucked on the middle floor of my parents’ 120-year old fixer-upper—had blue shag carpeting.


In this room I made carpet angels, studied college brochures, imagined moving nine-hundred miles south. I slept with my head by the door so the slanted floors would push blood into my feet instead of my brain. I wondered about—wished about—how an elsewhere like Texas, with its looming mythology and wide-open spaces, might swallow me whole.


On those nights, I stripped off my sweatpants and snuck the six steps from the edge of my carpet to the purple-walled bathroom with the claw-foot tub. I smuggled in dog-eared college brochures with pictures of tanned-skin boys in tanned-leather boots. I took long baths and slid myself, angled my body toward the faucet’s streaming water, its pressure—pulsing pleasure.


In March of 1968 a tornado’s pressure trapped my mother, then seven years old, inside a Minnesota farmhouse kitchen with her extended family. At least thirty people were in the house, kids pinned to the floor under the protective weight of aunts, mothers, grandparents. My mother watched as the collective weight of her uncles failed to force open the door—all those big men and your grandma, she tells me—out in the porch trying to push into the storm outside that would lead them to the safety of the root cellar.


The storm left the house untouched. The rest of the farm—aside from a few empty cement slabs where barns and machine sheds once stood—destroyed. Everything vanished, swept up and elsewhere. Twisted into microscopic debris, scattered.


Just now, I had an eleven-minute phone conversation with my husband about digestive enzymes and kombucha because something in this life has destroyed my gut and I need a project and it may as well be trying to heal my insides as anything else.


And he will bring home bottles in the following days, flavored with blood orange and grape and lavender. I will study labels that promise renewal, rebalance, rebuilding, recharging, rekindling, reclamation. I will pour the fermented tea into whisky glasses and wait for the bacteria to take hold.


It’s a pretty clean setup before we’re born, before the bacterial baptism that is birth. But what about someone not born vaginally? Whose bacteria colonizes the skin of a girl cut from her mother during an operation scheduled, in advance, to save the mother’s life?


Would I be drinking kombucha tea and eating sauerkraut and swallowing digestive enzymes if my mother had liked the sound of June 9th more than June 10th?


When my mother hears tornado sirens, I wonder if her skin remembers the potential of air pressure. I imagine she closes her eyes and sees pieces of straw wedged into the bark of the few trees that managed to stay upright. I want to ask if she ever stopped longing for the safety of underground.


Yesterday in the living room, Patsy Cline singing about cigarettes in ashtrays, my husband says there is a tornado spinning near us, but not in our direction.


We are not in danger, but it feels grotesque to think of anything else. So, I ask: were you scared growing up in tornado alley? And he says tornados are just big wind. So, I ask: why are there so few basements in Texas, so few places to hide? And he explains away the impossible dry, shifting soil.


I feel suspended in air on this second story, the way I imagine my mother may have been had the door to that farmhouse kitchen been ripped from its hinges.


Patsy stops singing and my husband stands to flip the record. He keeps talking about whipping wind in various diameters and how tornados are, essentially, wind and clouds—rings of water—spinning fast enough in a circle that when the wind bends toward the earth the clouds follow it down.


And while we speak, a tornado destroys days and homes and lives eighty-seven miles away. And while we speak, a cool breeze floats into our cracked window, cutting up the humid day.


I should call them water stains, not rings. I do not throw stones into ponds and watch the surface ripple. I do not care about the undulations around the expanding circles. I think about water that sticks to a surface, water that collects into a rise and leaves a mark, rings that scar.


He kisses me now, my husband, and I say you taste like gin. He says that’s odd, he’s drinking rum. He does not tell me I taste like vinegar even though I am drinking the sweet and sour kombucha he ran out for earlier today. I will eat fermented sauerkraut before bed, and he won’t mention that either.


I wonder about the bacteria in my gut—about when it started dying off, about why. I worry about the first strains that planted their flag, colonized my insides.


More than a decade ago, on a twin bed, in a dormitory, on a third floor, in a building called Maple, a Texas tornado siren blares while foreign bacteria claws, climbs, shoots inside of me. I do not look at this man as he tears me open because his hand is over my face, because his fingers press into my eyes, because I am not sure I will ever remember what it is to see beyond the tip of my own nose.


The morning is empty. The man has vanished, but on the front corner of my desk sits his discarded glass, sweating and etching a ring of itself into the wood. I sit on the floor of the shower and vomit my insides as close to clean as they will ever get.


I’m thinking about bodies—how they partner with bacteria, how they betray us moments and days and years after they have been betrayed. How we punish them for this betrayal.


In the mornings now, my husband is an alarm clock. Before he leaves for pre-dawn runs, he flicks on the bathroom light and turns on talk radio, quietly, so I will not wake up to nothing while he is gone. When he returns, he asks: Would you like eggs or an English muffin? — then decides for me as I burrow down into the mattress. He says he will turn the shower on to warm up the water, and I clench my eyelids, touch the center of his forehead. He knows this means snooze, knows this means I did not manage to fall asleep last night.


This is where my greed lives, in this room. This is where I never stop feeling guilty for how much, how well, I am loved.


How will I ever stop searching for basements, sliding coasters under glasses?

image: Aaron Burch