Separate by Laura Story Johnson
Black and White
There is a road that I return to when I am home. Before the pavement becomes gravel, the farm houses go back in time. I slow down and let irritated trucks pass my station wagon. They lurch forward in a hurry that, in many ways, has been forced upon them. Impatience grows in the drought. Tires spew gravel dust into the faces of horses drawing the buggies where I seek barefoot resistance. Eventually the air settles and I roll down my window, letting the orderly rows of lettuce, tomatoes, beets calm me. A gentle breeze blows the long blue dresses on the laundry line, the same dresses they have worn for generations.
Perhaps it is because the Amish keep so many things private that their laundry lines feel so personal. I count impeccably white diapers and wonder at the toil. I see women my age hanging an occasional pale pink dress next to the endless blue shirts and consider that everything is not the same because everything is the same. I grew up here; I’m not a tourist. Still, there are moments when I, too, see simplicity as idyllic. I can feel the weight of my grocery bags toted down steps to basement dryers: it’s easier to breathe here. Until another engine roars by and I race to roll my window up against the suffocating white cloud.
In Ulaanbaatar, the winter air was tactile with grime. Γэр sat in the silt-ridden valley, white jewels of the past amongst the grey monotony of Soviet blocks. I watched smoke rise from the center and wondered if poverty couldn’t be mistaken for resistance. My own defiance of modernity was deliberate. I was a tourist; I wasn’t poor. Still, I lived there for a year and felt my simplicity was idyllic. I refused to trudge down the hill with the laundry and instead washed everything we owned in the bathtub. The water would be black by the time I finished.
I strung a laundry line across my balcony and hung jeans, sweatshirts, T-shirts. Below I watched a woman in a дэл, the dress Mongolians have worn for generations. She used a silver spoon to fling milk in all directions, a ritual that went back in time. Around her, children rushed against the cold, perhaps against the happenstance forced upon us all. I shivered and forced numb hands to continue their labor.
Visiting their farm with my dad, I leave my cell phone in his vet truck, cringe at my bare knees. Later I selfishly wonder if judgment would make me special. I seek curiosity in their smiles, but see only an indifferent acceptance of my difference. I wander from the barn, leaving the conversation about animals behind. Outside Amish children play a game near the garden of decayed cornucopia. Sheets flutter in breathtaking beauty. I want to take a picture of the laundry lines under the autumn sky, but I already feel sinful. I can feel brown eyes, like my own, watching us drive away.
At my wedding, I secretly hope friends will not know unwritten rules, that they will photograph the Amish couples in the crowd. I am trying to document the difference that makes me special. After the reception, one of the Amish wives asks if she can take home a program, take home the wrappers from her lunch box to show her children. She, too, wants to remember. We both want a portrait of the happenstance of each other’s lives.
I was folding my children’s diapers, stained and warm, when I found out she had been killed. A bull took her life, trapping her on the shit-covered floor of the barn. Her children found her. I stared at the discoloration in my hand and imagined her blood, imagined the terror of running to find a neighbor, imagined the hurry against time. They didn’t have a photograph to remember her.
In the morning, when I returned to the balcony to remove our clothing, everything was frozen. I set the jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts around the living room like modern sculptures. They stood on their own against the hot pink of our couch. We took pictures and laughed. I had to run socks under warm water to unfold them, start the toil over again.
Years later, the photographs, developed at a Mongolian shop by the black market, have lost color. The couch is a pale pink against bodiless blue shirts. The cold petrified ghosts of the living lurch forward into the past. I stare at my colorless blond hair and realize that everything is the same because everything is not the same.
Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her work has appeared in the South Loop Review. She currently resides in Chicago with her husband and two young children.