French Antarctica

JoAnna Novak

I do not need much, so I have brought very little. I am on the open water yet snug in the cell of my vessel. Two openings. One for me, one for my valise. My antiscurbatics, my earthly affects.


  1. Sack of apricots, navel oranges.
  2.  One loose kumquat, size of eyeball of dissection corpse.
  3. Two flesh-toned-nylon-hued empty sleeves of Ritz Crackers. (Let these stand in for my sons.)
  4. Sheaf of wartime letters. Husband’s Palmerian script buttressing each consonant. Each vowel a suspension.

Upon the faces of the waves are expressions of fear and dispassion. The sun, round and runted, behind the clouds: gray nut. And nature’s accomplice––time is assaultive and present-tense.

I do not need much on this narrow boat––the Soviet handle is baidarka. I am poor, especially poor with denominations. As such, I have long fetishized them, believing proper terms might prevent me from descending into madness. Utter madness is the accepted phrase––I prefer commonplace commands. Sit down. Stay put. Put up. Speak up.

Utter madness.

Madness, I say to the stiff sealskin covering the canoe.


The first thing my husband noticed was my tendency to make a morning of blueberry biscuits. Creamed butter. Paddled butter. Melted butter. Buttermilk. Grossness of butter.

This was obvious and knuckled, a pastry blender sharding frozen butter when the boys should be getting off to school. And we were living in a house with proper walls, posts behind bricks, and glass blocks even in our shower, melting the outdoors inside. It was 1956, not 1842––we had no need to collect fats and butcher paper our windows.

One tallows a boat, one talks to a mirror, one recognizes oneself in a photograph of a mother with unsteady eyes, the same eyes one sees in her compact. Almost violent, these affinities. And the year, the home, the predictability of it all. Doorways. Area rugs. In our yard there grew a rose-apple tree.

I did enjoy that. A grandmother had taught me to talk to plants. Pitch your voice like you’d swaddle a newborn, sure and tight.

Of course, you needn’t speak sunshine. Try Czech.

My grandmother would splutter shit-something-shit.

Utter madness.

A pervasive chaos written into the bones. It runs for you. It runs deep. It does not matter if can give it a name, assign it a number. Call it Patient. If it has been rightly tied to a bed, sentenced three weeks in solitary, loud, soloing its chorus of mania in a downstate Illinois reformatory. Emaciating on cereal grains the color of colostrum.

(The milk of the sealion is fat-dense, I learned when last I took the boys to Brookfield Zoo.)


The sea chops the boat’s forked bow. Underneath the tough, stretched pelts are bones and pieces of driftwood. This is a frame light enough for one boy to carry with the help of his brother.

The second thing my husband noticed was how I napped in the garage, near bags of sandbox sand.

Third: I went to the butcher and brought home Polynesian shish kabobs. Ate them over the sink, pineapple and green peppers and pork belly, raw.

Fourth: Riotous laughter in church.

Fifth: A preliminary experiment with vanishing: We had a sitter on a Saturday, and we had gone out for humdrum errandry: A shirt to the tailor, Breen’s. Gravel from DeWitt’s on 31st Street. Afterwards, we got lunch.

The chop suey shop sat across from a cemetery. We were marooned in a booth, with a teapot adjudicating our silence. We were the only patrons.

When the egg rolls arrived, I excused myself. I pushed through a curtain of grenade beads depicting an emerald dragon surrounded by tiger lilies. In the restroom, there were things on the wall: a cigarette machine, a wet, waffle-weave towel that fed through a metal box with sharp, sharp corners. I pulled the towel, yanked it, heard the chuck of whatever gear inside needed oiling. I remember I was wearing a favorite dress of mine: wool, long-sleeved, navy blue with a jewel neckline. A pair of gold, low-heeled pumps that matched my clutch. I looked vaguely like Deanna Durbin, but more villainous: Deanna Durbin pulling her wrist across the corner of the towel dispenser until it bled. Deanna Durbin lighting a cigarette and watching it burn sour down to her fingertips.

A short woman in a charmeuse pantsuit, the owner, came and found me.

Do you want your supper? she asked.

Do you want your suffer? I repeated.

The moo shu had arrived and the pancakes were no good cold.


It is quite cold on the water, but I stay warm. Crossing my legs and thinking up little orgasms. Fisting my hand inside the camel sleeves of my one nice coat.

I stop rowing, let the oar gag on the water. I am paddling toward Saint Joseph or French Antarctica. I have come to test my possessions. Do they float?

Of course, I am lazy and immoderate, and have eaten the frills off the Ritz crackers first. This taught me that often I had misused the word nibble.

Another oily word: Nicene. Another: nyctalopia. But what, was I to bring the lamb’s quarters?

I lean forward, squashing my waist. I grab an orange. Warm in my hand, the fruit is alive.

There. Like that. I let it go, in the water.


Still, I had flirted with hope on at least one other occasion.

It was an August Thursday. Thunderstorms aborted whatever daylight. I was looking out the window, paused as I often found myself, entranced with being the only adult in our house.

My husband? Call him John, call him Stephen, call him Timothy. He was at his desk in his office in a building behind the sanitary plant in Stickney. At lunch he would alley over to Mrs. Dolezal’s tavern, eat in the basement cafeteria, roast turkey on dry toast.

That place, he’d told me, was overrun by cats.

(There: I draw lines. I do not learn breeds.)

I had opened a sleeve of Ritz crackers when I heard the crack. A CRACK. The sound was enormous and biological, like someone breaking invisible bone breaking clean in two. I looked out the window, observing the clever silence. From where I was standing, inside, at the kitchen sink, I could see that a long precarious limb of our front elm had snapped off. It had plunged like a cock, striking the hood of my husband’s car.

This was my own adventure, the isolation interrupted, framed by curtains the color of mango fluff. I felt aware of my lungs, compressing. Numbness in my forearms. And like that, I realized I should not fear happiness.

The thought hounded me, a fly I couldn’t shoo. I had to distract myself somehow: I put five Ritz crackers on a plate. The butter was waiting on the kitchen table. It slumped under its milk glass cover like a cow in the distance. Rounded, humped. I attacked it horizontally, skimming the edge. Not a straight up and down slice.

I remember the pleasure of biting through that thick layer of butter, which was no biting at all, the way that clenching a feather pillow in one’s mouth is both taking it and being taken. The luxury, the glamour, a quarter-inch of butter on those small crackers shaped like the dials on our Zenith.

Tune in.

The boys were crying in their nursery. I let them. It is an art, knowing when a whimper is a nightmare or a prelude to a second sleep. I grew—had grown—comfortable—confident—in making this distinction.

I ate, looking at the tree limb, heavy on my husband’s car. He was in the habit of riding in with Richard down the block. And I was in the habit of admiring the buckskin frock of the Land O’ Lakes princess while the salt-sweet milk icing got me salivating all whorish, the opulence of excess. This is happiness, I realized, mundane, manageable, here it is.

Why did I feel so horrid?



                                    So leaned on.

                                                 So rested.

                                                            Fatly munched––

and watching the static aftermath of the storm, the mild destruction suffered by our stupid Buick. Car the color of a prairie dog.

What is so bad about this? I thought. I moved to the couch. I stretched my long calves, preening and admiring my taffeta house shoes. I winked my ankles, la-di-da. The sun would emerge. The boys would wake up. We’d walk. I could open my change purse, dime them, and like that they would have cake cones with squares scoops of mint chocolate chip and raspberry royale and New York cherry from Cock Robbin.

I held a Ritz cracker like a compass and went outside.

The sky was sfumato and the air on my bare legs was cool and delicious. A patter of raindrops pearled the car. The sky veined with waning electricity, gently illuminating the wrens feathering in the puddles on the street. 

The branch was five feet long, thick as a can of Coca-Cola. At either end, it was jagged and snarly, toothed with thick splinters, like the clawish nails of the wood. The rain had come to a stop. The morning had come to a lull. I looked at the car, and I could feel a weird, distant expression screwing up my face, stiffening my mouth.

Across the street, the one-eyed standard poodle, Catie, began to bark. I petted her often, and the boys liked to scratch her ears, which her owner said were extra sensitive, but she was ruffing, worked up, like the king rooster of Sanborn Avenue. New day, she barked, new day, new day.

Yes. Panic drenched me.

I put the cracker in my mouth whole and struggled a little, chewing. The butter sat too much on the roof of my mouth.

The dog knew me, but she did not recognize me, I realized. I must have looked off, unusual, foreign, estranged from myself, split. I did not recognize the branch, entirely, amputated from the elm, and it was no surprise the dog did not recognize me. I had been staring, and it was very long, so long that I kept staring even as my body-self went into the backyard and stood at the base of the rose-apple tree.

It is not in my nature to know what I want, but at that moment I felt certain I had to unmake my world. I envied my grandmother––what must it feel like to have your capillaries buck with voltage? I must have looked as though I were recognizing this exact image from a dream.

I touched the trunk. It was damp, spongy.

In the family tree, I was fungible. One unsteady lady’s fingers become another.

Shit something something, shit, I whispered. I tasted cracker crumbs in my lipstick.

Because yes. I was the sort of woman who wore lipstick alone. Yes, I wanted to look nice for the milkman. The paper boy. The plumber. I combed my ravenette hair one hundred times a day so it would gleam when I yanked the boys through the turnstile at the zoo. I wanted the lions to slather me with their rough tongues and the lion trainers to cage me up. Madness. Utter madness.

This was when I knew I could leave. I couldn’t hear if the boys were crying.


It needn’t be such a mystery. A woman packs her valise with fruit and crackers. A woman sends her sons off to school. A woman picks out a tie and kisses her husband goodbye, telephones a taxi, stands on the curb, smiling and smiling her itchy smile. Her shoulders back and proud.

Now I read the waves like a worm reads the soil. Slashed with whitish foam. Choppy. Shoreless.

Another orange. I toss it, underhanded, into the water. Another. Another. I think of the sea parting totally for the fruit, fruit down a chute, a tube, a gene through the ages.

The canoe stinks awful, the sealskin reeking like old pork, rank and blood-muted. Ritz wrappers, goodbye. Then, I rid myself of the kumquat. Now all that’s left are the letters.

Reburying my diary was one matter: erasing a diagnosis like writing a check in invisible ink and tucking it inside a grandfather clock. Dear sons––. Rereading my husband’s letters is another matter. He wrote from Burma. He wrote of the Hump. He wrote of knowing in his bicipital soul that he had the stamina for solo flights.

He is a good man.

Confronting these letters, I am sure that I should feel a deep love. I am sure that I should feel like a woman of value, steadfasted to an earnest man. Two boys that smell like chocolate and raisins, easy, sleeping side by side. When I let the past go, I suppose I should feel rebuked by god, or whatever force turned branches into oars. But I don’t.

JoAnna Novak’s debut memoir Contradiction Days will be published by Catapult in 2022. Her short story collection, Meaningful Work, won the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and will be published by FC2 in 2021. Her third book of poetry, New Life, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You and two previous books of poetry: Noirmania and Abeyance, North America. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.

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