Amy Beth Schneider
Sarah Lawrence College, 2012, MFA
I earned my Master of Fine Art in Writing with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College in December of 2012, and was fortunate to study with Jo Ann Beard, Vijay Seshadri, and Nick Flynn to complete my thesis. In February of 2013, I was one of four finalists, from ninety-five applicants, for the Cheryl Strayed/VIDA Memoir Scholarship to attend the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat. I am also currently an adjunct professor in the Writing department at SUNY Purchase, as well as a teaching artist in the New York City public school system with Marquis Studios and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. I attended Oberlin College for my Bachelor of Arts in English and Dance. I am also a yoga teacher, certified through Yogaworks.
The collection of autobiographical essays that I am currently writing examines a long migration from youth to adulthood through the lenses of physicality and interiority. During one’s twenties, the compass shifts toward a more precise notion of individuality. Dance was the realm in which I first sought to define and express myself, and as a collection, these essays shape a self-portrait of a disembodied self, orienting around a body, and a disembodied interiority confronting the needs and demands of bodily orientation.
I. "border town," excerpt, October 2012
II. "I'll Come Find You Before It Gets Dark," excerpt, December 2012
III. "all water erodes rock," excerpt, March 2013
IV. "nocturne," excerpt, essay in development proposed for expansion within the Georgia Fee residency.
I. Excerpt from “border town,” completed October 2012
My stepfather’s upper body rounds when we sit, and he rests his forearms on the table. He wears a white cotton windbreaker the same shade as his hair, which has been white since I have known him.
The waitress has appeared. “Drinks?”
He says, “I’ll have a Tequila Daisy. Don’t have that? How about a Bearded Lady?” He looks at me mischievously. He is unshaven, white stubble on flushed skin. My mother also looks at me. “The new normal,” she says. On our mantel is a picture of my stepfather that was taken in Juárez, Mexico. He narrows his eyes just enough for the viewer to summon a comparison with James Dean. A cigarette dangles from the very ends of his lips. A tarnished silver bowie knife is also on our mantel, its sheath made from two pieces of dried, battered leather that are held together with tacks. The bowie knife is inscribed, the letters formed from swirled hot liquid metal that lies atop the blade: “Me gusta dormir con luz aunque se apague la vela.” I like to sleep with light even when the candle is not lit.
“What is a Tequila Daisy,” I ask.
“Something he had in Juárez sixty years ago,” my mother replies.
My stepfather moved in shortly after my father moved out. I was first taken by his size; his frame fully occupied the doorway to our townhouse. He had braces on his teeth and snow-white hair, and wore V-neck collared shirts that showed his suntan, and the medallion of a Rolls Royce grill on a gold chain around his neck. My father moved out when I was four. When my mother and I first lived alone, I would enter her bedroom upon waking, and get into bed beside her. My stepfather started showing up in the mornings with a brown paper bag of bagels tucked underneath his arm, actually having spent the previous night and then woken early and gone out. On those mornings, I would notice her underwear on the carpet of her room when I went inside, and she so still in bed, her naked legs visible above the sheets. I would stand at the foot of the bed, and then leave the room. My father had a queen size mattress on the floor of his new apartment. He wore a rust-colored bathrobe the same color as our suede couch that had gaping holes in the armpits, the fabric run in horizontal lines like stockings do, but he held onto it. He called me every evening and said Hey babe, how are you, and in truth I did not know who he was during the first few phone calls. When I understood the voice to be my father’s, I looked forward to his call. When he and my mother had fought, yelling loudly while facing off in the kitchen of our townhouse, I watched television.
Once, shortly after my stepfather moved in, my father came by to pick me up. My mother stood at the top of the staircase with her bathrobe cinched around her waist. She protested something, and he looked around moodily and then suddenly charged up the stairs. He breathed audibly, like a runner might at the end of a sprint. They both ordered me downstairs, where my eventual stepfather sat at the end of our couch, one leg crossed over the other. The end table next to the couch was black, but cracked with putty colored canyons and smaller gorges of red. It’s good, he said. They need to talk. He put his arm around me, and continued watching a recording of a Fleetwood Mac concert. The camera pans directly below Mick Fleetwood’s face as his drumming intensifies and sweat pours from his forehead down his cheeks and soaks his white dress shirt. Mick looks to the camera and bares his teeth and opens his mouth like a man in a cage roaring.
Juárez was Boys Town. We went there for “R and R” when I was stationed in Roswell. Everything was very cheap. You could get mixed drinks for fifteen cents, a bottle of beer a quarter. Juarez Avenue was nothing but honky-tonks and whorehouses. Of course, the guys frequented them. You could buy sex very cheap, it was three dollars. They gave you a prophylactic kit. I had my favorite spot, on a back street, not on Juarez Avenue. It was a clean place, and sometimes they had a three- piece band.
From Roswell, it was a two hundred mile drive, all in desert. The closest town in any direction was two hundred miles. El Paso was two hundred miles. Santa Fe was two hundred miles. We parked in El Paso and walked across a bridge over the Rio Grande. Kids, little Mexican kids, would be in the river begging for money. The Rio Grande was dried up--too thick to drink and too thin to farm. When you went into Mexico they didn’t even ask you to show identification.
You had to be back over the border by eleven o’clock on Sunday night. If you couldn’t make it you’d stay in Juarez. It happened to a friend of mine. Four guys showed up at the car in El Paso and he was missing. We had to leave him. We went back to Roswell and covered for him. Monday morning they had a head count, in formation. I went to the first sergeant before that and said, “Hey, we got a problem.” They flew us down to Biggs Air Force Base and we got a couple of air police. We went down across the border and found him. He was in jail. He’d been drinking pretty heavily. He caused a commotion and the local gendarmes called him off. You should have seen that jail. There was no toilet. There was just a trough and you squat over it. We flew back to Roswell and nothing was ever said.
II.Excerpt from “I’ll Come Find You Before it Gets Dark,” completed December 2012
I never hugged Al. Never once. Al was overweight. His khaki pants adhered like riding chaps, bunching slightly around his calves, and his chest was broad and portly in his black turtleneck. At the funeral service, I recognized a few women from Al’s office in Manhattan. One was the receptionist, whom I had met many times, but she did not see me and I did not remind her. I introduced myself to Al’s partner. He towered over me, more than six feet tall.
“Ah,” he said, and smiled. He then said, “Wow, you look so young,” which took me by surprise. He followed that with, “You’ve been to our house, right?” and then, “You saw him for a long time.” Talking with him soothed me. I had no sense of having mattered to Al, and being recognized allowed me to believe that our relationship held meaning for both of us.
“You were only one of three or four people he saw anymore,” his partner told me. I had not known this. I had also not known that Al might be close to dying.
When Al called me, a few days before his death, my initial impulse, not a fully formed sentence in my head before I answered the phone, was that he called to tell me that he couldn’t see me anymore. There are times where you know many things in one moment but try to not look too closely at them.
“Hello, how are you,” he began.
“Fine, I am actually in Florida.” I’d gone to visit my grandparents. The long sprays of palm fronds roiled in the breeze. Each frond is tapered to a sharp end, and if I look closer I see it is thicker and harder than it appears at a glance.
“Oh, you are. Well, I wanted to let you know that I am going into the hospital tomorrow, for a little procedure. And I should be home next week so won’t be available until at least then.”
“Are you okay,” I asked. I see myself as a taker, and I have with Al, for a long time. I inquired as to his state at each session, but we both knew it to be reciprocity that was decent—I was there for me. The way that Al is patient is a way that I have always understood. There would be a time to go further into every feeling—time for things to move through you very slowly. I imagined him wearing the same thing he wore the last time that we spoke in person, the melon colored polo and khaki shorts, the tan Crocs, and I envision his legs slightly bowing beneath his desk. I imagine him fixed to that desk and that I could hold that moment as Al at times advised me, Hold the pain, when I could not see the other side of a feeling. This image--of holding a feeling until it moves through you to something else—is for me one of being at the edge of the shoreline. As the water recedes, the soaked, heavy sand accepts the strain of the water falling through it, then dries to be intact and light. I try to imagine what Al was feeling on that day, if he felt frightened or alone, if his partner was supportive enough, who drove him to the hospital for his surgery. I try to feel as if it is my own brain, the part of his mind that remembered me on that day. I wonder if he felt we might speak more explicitly about the risks, if I had only been more open to where the conversation might go.
“Well, I’ll give you a call next week for a session,” I said, as if looking straight ahead when driving on a rural, dark road to fix only on what exactly is before me. Looking to the side, that day, was unbearable for me, and I didn’t have to anyway because in this I could take, I have never been expected to give, and I hung up. I knew that he was patient enough to not reveal his own fear to me.
The mountains are like two hands separating the land into broken pieces that could be refit together. The clouds are white and silver and gray-- inclusive of all-- and billowing as if I stand on a prairie, not an elevated road heading toward a mountain. Every so often there is a flash of a brighter color. The leaves are mid-process and it is as though they have frozen for me—held the crossing strains of color within each leaf, before relinquishing the moist green of summer to variegated reds, before surrendering entirely to searing orange and impassable yellow.
Ahead, in the distance, the trees cling to one another. They nestle, suggesting the beginnings of dryness and desiccation. The trees wind the path of the river. Green retreats and reveals, shepherding the entry of rust and clove and clementine. I see detail, the intricate separations where green still fiercely coats the broken limbs.
The man at the inn had traced a path with his pen, and told me where I could turn back if I felt uncertain. The map is ivory paper that softens and conforms to my hands. I hear the thunder in the distance, a growl like an intestinal shift, a cramp forming and loosening. I see a family of five approaching the trail, and I dally until I can walk in some measure with them.
The trail winds down and then further down as if I am descending into a canyon. A channel of water glides between two walls of granite, formed when an upsurge of lava forced the granite apart and quickly cooled. These boulders fell after the ice age. They weigh over three hundred tons. I photograph the downward cant of the trees, a pillow of green cover. I look behind and ahead, towards the trees bowed and hovering to create lamps and porches over the water, the water conjoined to rock. The air on my skin at once is water, and the water resolves itself into air. The chamber narrows, the planks we step ride the wall of granite, a slip between two ancient walls, a low closet to trace the root path of all that emerges slowly and surges. I am stilled on the planks, the auditory hiss of water is enough. Water over rock, low leaves glisten like sparse holiday lights, thoroughly moistening the soil and now, my skin, water even on my neck, the frame of my face, the tops of my hands. The trees break, the rocks settle permanently into the dirt, the water cools and heats on the rock, slides over the glades of moss, and wearies itself into the soil. The water films on my skin, and I think of how I almost went back and did not see any of this.
III. Excerpt from “all water erodes rock,” completed March 2013
At the end of our day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we drove an eighteen-mile downhill route to the sea called the Chain of Craters. The largest overlook is the Mauna Ulu site, where lava from the 1969-1974 eruptions lies intact and planetary, a vast plain of gray broken lava interrupted by fallen pods. Fountains of lava landed in giant clumps like boulders, seemingly porous and sponge-like, much like coral but charred and rusted, oversize teardrops sunken into the earth. This site is intact and planetary, as close to resembling a land of the future—or the past—as I have ever come. If Derek keeps venturing forward into this field I imagine him vanishing into a horizon, a wall of gray secreting him into an unknown but harmless landscape. I again fear falling into the open breaks, being absorbed and sightless. I pretend that I am in a garden of sculpture, that this is art and not science or geology.
As we approach the water, my ears begin to pop. The lip of the sea is visible. At one of our first stops, Puhimau crater, still high from the hike into the Kilauea Iki crater, I found a webpage about the Kilauea Iki overlook on Crater Rim Drive. I read to Derek about the 1959 eruption, which lasted for thirty-six days with seventeen episodes of lava fountaining. Kilauea Iki is on the Ai-lauu shield, a vent to the Kilauea volcano that is fed by a shallow magma chamber a few miles beneath the earth’s surface. Prior to the 1959 eruption, Kilauea Iki was nearly 600 feet deep and heavily forested. The eruption filled the crater with 390 feet of new lava, and created the Puu Puai cinder cone. Three-quarter million visitors visited the site before the end of the thirty-six days.
After I read five short paragraphs to Derek he responded, “Okay, I’ll give you a quarter if you will stop talking.”
In the Kilauea Iki crater I marveled at his precise camera work, his tight hold on the device between two very deliberately placed hands, his very rounded spine as he crouched to photograph the ōhiʻa lehua flower, soft but with many delicate spikes, emulating a strawberry pink sea urchin. “I would never say anything like that to you,” I said, stunned.
He put his arm around me and said, “It was a joke, just a joke, obviously a stupid one.”
The words now replay as the road narrows, flanked by grassy breaks and petite embankments of lava frozen in free fall. A small footpath leads downhill one mile to rocks where the first Hawaiians scrawled petroglyphs, drawings on rock to honor the goddess Pele, the deity of fire said to live in Halema’uma’u crater at Kilauea. I’ll give you a quarter if you will stop talking. We park and walk to the dunes of black volcanic rock that form cliffs above the propulsive water. The surf has chiseled sea caves, curved impressions in the cliff where water has stricken the same place repeatedly and defeated the stacked rock into wending curves. When the lava from Kilauea drops into the sea, over a period of years, new land is formed. Since 1983, five hundred acres of land have been added to the island of Hawaii. Enough lava flows from Kilauea in one day to resurface twenty miles of a two-lane road.
Seven miles in the distance, a plume of steam containing hydrochloric acid and seawater shoots upward into the air. The rebound off of the water is shocking, in that the steam plume maintains its volume, dispersing infinitesimally. Derek takes a picture of a yellow sign with black print that reads, Caution: Avoid the steam plume it is hazardous to your health and may be life threatening. There is no orange glow on the hillside that precedes the plume, but there is a trail of evenly wafting steam, the hovering jet its crescendo. A Japanese tour bus is parked on the asphalt road alongside the cliff, and tourists are scattered on the rocks photographing the distant plume. Their guide stands alone, her jacket wrapped around her waist, and I have this thought that she is likely a great tour guide, because she is gazing at the voluminous opaque mass in the distance as if she has never seen it before. I envy her posture, the fit tone of her legs, the absence of excess weight on her form so that her skeleton is free. As if her form is the essential human form, well, unhindered and efficient.
“Why would you say that,” I ask. I know that the moment when we are seeing something we may never see again, the muffled refraction of an inferno, a spontaneous combustion that billows silently in the distance, I risk degrading the memory we will have of it. “Are you uncertain about us? As a couple?”
“I love us,” he says. He repeats, as he has said before, “We are on our path.”
“Well I have no idea what that means.” I sit on one of the many rocks that are stacked on the cliff like charcoal briquettes.
“Why do you always choose these inopportune moments,” he begins. Three days later, in Maui, I understand what he means with the kind of clarity that could have precluded my asking anything at all. I know that I want to share all of this with you. And I want to keep going. When I think about my parents, who divorced when I was four, I think about the world that you cannot see, shifting underneath. The Kilauea volcano is not high but broad. The mantle thins forty miles beneath the surface, where hot magma melts rock within the mantle and pools in reservoirs a mile beneath the earth’s surface. It crests and vents through the surface of the earth, and trickles toward the sea at a rate of at least two hundred thousand cubic meters per day, forming new land, which will ultimately be shaped by water, a force whose totality is inescapable.
IV. Excerpts of "nocturne," an essay in development. **Proposed for development within the Georgia Fee residency.
I saved three thousand dollars for the move to New York, and spent half of it before I arrived, on rent, a security deposit, and a futon bed with a cherry wood frame. A few days after I arrived, my new roommate asked me for the security deposit. I reminded her that I had sent it to her old roommate and she said, “This is very awkward for me, but she actually decided to keep that money.”
“Why?” I asked. I’d only spoken with her old roommate on the phone. I just need to get out of here, she’d said. A popular choreographer at the time, who had a large following, had connected us. I can, fifteen years later, still execute a dance I learned from him during college, which resembled lyrical kickboxing, the swaying and falling interrupted by sharpness and attack. I latched onto him for advice about moving to the city, when, after attending a performance of his work, he invited me to dinner with his company. At dinner, the dancers, just beginning the second half of their evenings, ordered dirty martinis. He told me the dancer he knew was “leaving New York for good.”
“She considered it a ‘finder’s fee,’ because you did not have to go through a broker for this apartment.” He had also said to think about working in a restaurant, so I could dance during the day and work at night. I paid the deposit again, directly to the landlord, and walked around the corner from the brownstone into an Italian restaurant, the smudged pink walls covered generously with gilded mirrors and photographs of the owner’s family. The hostess wore a pretty floral dress with lace capping the shoulders. The ornamental curlicues at the top of the gilded mirrors are blackened inside. I trained the following weekend, and carried home a warm tin of eggplant parmigiana. I stayed awake in front of the television, unable to slip into deeper breath, or sleep. I needed an air conditioner, and soon purchased one with cash. I had brought with me to New York a green plastic crate with all of my journals, a blonde wood bookshelf, a small television that my stepfather bought me during college, and a three-drawer dresser that my father hefted three flights up, into this lonely apartment.
I submitted a trio I’d choreographed in North Carolina to a studio showcase in Manhattan. My first show was on my twenty-fifth birthday, and the dancers flew up from North Carolina to perform. A new friend from the restaurant, an actor, came to the show, along with my father and stepmother. The first night I trained, he pulled a coffee mug from the back of the beverage station and tipped his head back while he drank. “Time for my eight o’clock cocktail,” he said, and I thought that he was joking. After work, he suggested we go out. “I want to hear about your choreography,” he said. At the bar I ordered a dirty martini.
My stepmother brought a chocolate cake to the performance, for my birthday. The dancers and I and my father and stepmother traipsed around Times Square after the performance, uncertain of where to settle with the cake. In the dance, three women lie on the floor, side by side and in silence, their breaths synchronous. Two of the three bend their knees toward the third, like a folded wing on an origami crane. The two stand, and the one who is left behind dances a sequence that occurs sometimes with a partner, and sometimes alone. A gentle gong begins, and then a slow, streaky fiddle. The music, composed by Zhang-fu Quan, is a Chinese tea ballad entitled “Light as Rosy Clouds.” The dancers wrap their heads around one another’s spines like polecats, and then lift their feet from the floor to be carried. When a dancer is lifted she relaxes her head and closes her eyes, as if she is being transported in the night.
Amy Beth, hold my hand, Jimmy yelled when I went into the kitchen. I had once put my hand on the metal shelf of the pickup window and said Hold my hand, to Jimmy, who reticently held my four fingers with his fingertips, and then let go. Come on, he said. Over time he took my hand, in weird intermediate moments where we stood in a frozen handshake. He squeezed harder just before letting go. I rested my other forearm against the metal shelf, and dropped my head and closed my eyes. I did this in the bathroom sometimes; I sat on the lid of the commode with my forearms on the edge of the sink, and rested my head on my arms.
When I arrived at the start of a shift, John was already standing in the back, chopping tomatoes in long swipes on a white cutting board almost the size of the table.
Every day, it is as though yesterday did not happen. On the second floor, I mix chocolate frosting. The sidewalk below is littered with chewing gum and flattened discs of tar. A sandwich board for a restaurant across the street reads, “A Small Feast,” and I consider naming my new dance company, “Small Feast.” I go to ballet class every morning at ten, but not until I lived in New York for almost four years. I might have known the discipline of routine and commitment to routine—known what I was working on—stability on my feet or upside down on my hands, breathing while dancing a longer sequence, expecting the scrutiny of my teacher, of the strong men leaping in nylon, satin pants and long sleeve cotton tunics, the women in biker shorts and billowing bell-bottom pants, so fashionable to feel the clothing move with the body. I might have known breath as I moved among them, and gotten myself there not once a week, not once a month, but every single day. Two years after I arrived, I started my own dance company. However, I initially moved to New York because I needed to unbury myself. Part of me was like an owl on my shoulder, watching myself do everything. Dance was the avenue through which I first discovered this, and then tried to reshape it; dancing is how I learned of my inhibitions and defeats and passivity.
A sequence ultimately tumbles together to lodge as a complete memory. I don’t remember my campaign for success—sending out videos, renting dance studios, making postcards, carrying them around, selling raffle tickets, asking strangers for money. I don’t remember the words I used to describe what was so unique about dance to me—so pure and almost spiritual in the body as completely honest, the body as having no intermediary.
In my last few months at the restaurant, we hired a new employee, Max. We became confidantes, both somewhat displaced from our first idea of what we might be doing in New York. He burned me several CD’s in the course of our friendship, one of which was David Gray’s “Life in Slow Motion,” which was released in 2005. The cover of the album features a pocked arrangement of mountains and cliffs drenched in snow. Snow covered rocks occupy the lower half of the album cover, a sunken village sewn with stark indentations. I dropped my waitressing shifts but stayed on as the hostess on Saturday evenings. I started to have a few sips of wine before leaving my home to hostess. I ate mostly meat as my meal when I was there—meatballs in marinara, linguine with meat sauce. In my last six months of working there, I put white wine with seltzer in a thick ceramic mug and tucked it into a shelf at the beverage station.
I would run into a neighbor on the train who was also a dancer, both on our way to ballet class. She closed her eyes when she held the pole of the subway. I had a lot of fear about ballet class in New York—the same fear I faced in any dance class, but in ballet I anticipated encountering the best of the best dancers, the strongest, the most propulsive. I anticipated speed—and falling behind—and as I did stagnating and slowing as I pieced together the sequence.
In a summer class years prior, while I was still in college, the ballet teacher taught from his chair and indicated with his hands the steps we should execute with our legs. I never knew what his hand gestures meant, and he said the sequence just once, as if reading it off of a checklist, and then clapped once, and nodded to the pianist to begin. I ultimately started stepping into the hallway when I felt confused, instead of dancing across the floor with my group. I read the bulletin boards covered with postcards for auditions and performances, and came back into the studio when the exercise ended. On the last day of class, from his chair, he waved me over.
“Amy, right?” he said. “You have a very nice way of moving. A very nice quality.” That bit of encouragement clarified above all of the disorientation and uncertainty I’d felt in the hallway.
When I finally did make it to ballet class in Manhattan, I found that everybody lay on their backs on the floor to begin, the arms and legs extended and relaxed. The teacher talked softly, and encouraged the breath to deepen, the face to soften, and for us to envision the great volume within the body. Her voice was nonintrusive, the voice one might expect to hear during hypnosis. We pictured ourselves in different classical positions, mentally aligning our shoulders over our hips, the hips over the knees. Once I started going I was not sure why I had waited. She talked with each dancer at the barre, walking from one to another when an exercise concluded. I wanted to be watched at all times, except for when it actually happened; I blanked, it feeling more familiar to falter than to follow through. The first day that I attended, she watched my port de bras, my carriage of the arm up, then toward the barre, and then in an arc behind. She gently touched two fingers to my sternum, barely pressing on that thick fusion of bone that gates the heart, and said, Try to imagine that the movement is starting from right here.