2019 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction:
True Blue

Hannah Withers

We were both only twenty-one and I had graduated early but Alice still had another year at DePaul. We found a drafty little apartment in a big yellowbrick on the border of the Vietnamese part of Uptown and the rest of Uptown. We told our friends it was in Andersonville because close enough. Because there we were, the straight queens of queerville, grabbing Pho and Q-Tips from the convenience store under the El on our ways home from, for her-school or for me, the frozen yogurt place off Millennium Park. 

I needed Alice to go with me to the Baha’i temple in Wilmette because she’d agreed to model in a photo series I was doing—white girls co-opting global cultures. I was calling it Multi-Culti, and it was one of several attempts I was making at establishing myself as creative thinker, a public intellectual, a doer of projects. 

So I needed Alice to come with me to the world’s oldest Baha’i house of worship so she could appear in my art, but Alice hadn’t really left her room in two days because she and Tim had broken up again. I say she and Tim had broken up, fact being that I’d broken them up, basically, wedged myself in like the pea under their mattress, but it was for good reason and for everyone’s benefit. Except maybe Tim who was an asshole and deserved to suffer. For Alice it was the crying again, the smell of sad candles from her room. Her boilerplate heartbreak which, let’s be honest, was wasted on a guy who pronounced it nuke-u-lar, and who wished there was a way to tell people that he’d gotten his Arcade Fire tattoo before they’d won the Grammy. 

I told Alice, let’s get out. I said let’s go look at some Baha’is. She said nothing and then she said no, and then she put on some pants and said okay, Roxanne, okay. 

I tried to jump on the momentum and got my things together as quickly as I could. 

Threw my phone, sunglasses, wallet, whatever else I might need in the old leather satchel Alice had given me my last birthday. A book because I always brought a book. Sunscreen because Alice was pale, being from Pennsylvania, and I was even paler, despite being from Texas. Our friend Argos (whose name was James, but who we called Argos because The Odyssey, because of supreme faithfulness and puppy dog eyes) had a habit of calling me Dad because I took care of all of us and wore a lot of flannel. The nickname had caught on, and I thought it was funny but I also: didn’t. 

I went to check on Alice and found her face down on her bed, wearing only the pants she had just put on. She hated clothing—she was famous for it. 

“C’mon, champy,” I told her, trying to pry her up off the bed. She groaned back, buried her face in her arms, shouted something into her quilt. I slapped her twice square on the back, trying to pocket the air between my palm and her unshowered skin for maximum whipcrack. She shouted again, this time not even trying for words. 

I went to the pile of clothes at the bottom of her closet and found a crop top, a button-down, threw them at her muted body. “C’mon asshole,” I shouted. “We’re leaving in five.” She groaned, pulled the shirts under her body like a starving amoeba. But there she was five minutes later at the door, clothed, her greasy blonde hair spaghettied into a bun on top of her slick skull. She was crying a little. I asked if she had her train pass, handed her some sunglasses, and we were out the door. “Let’s go, Daddy-o,” she said, and I said “That’s the spirit.” 

It was a Tuesday and she had no classes; I had the day off from Yogurt. Ten forty-five am. The Argyle Red Line platform was empty, newspaper wafting. Waiting for the northbound train, which we never took, Alice huddled in the shade on a bench, chipping what was left of its paint off with her blunt, bitten fingernails. I leaned over the tracks to look for an oncoming car down the line, and Alice yelped “careful! Don’t die, ya freak!” Misinformation about the third rail, counter-drafts, human imbalances made her chronically nervous, and she hated it when folks got too close to the platform’s edge. I hadn’t even realized she was watching me. 

I stepped back into the shade with her and sat down on the splintered, decades old bench. I could already feel my jean shorts getting thick with sweat, a mid- September heat wave. I elbowed her gently in the ribs, using more the flesh of my arm than the knobby bone. Baby fat still clung to my frame, despite all my best efforts at dieting, sporadic bouts of exercise, experimentation with self-loathing. I wanted so badly to be a skeleton version of myself, and all my flesh felt like excess past necessity. I wanted, in all parts of my life, to figure out what was at the real center of me and trash the rest. But my figure always seemed to stay soft, my convictions: irresolute at best. 

Alice elbowed me back with no resolve. “Five good things,” I said. 

“We’ll be dead by the time the universe experiences heat death,” she responded. 

“As always,” I said. She habitually started with that one. 

“That’s about it.” 

“You can rely on old standards for this round,” I said. “You don’t even have to think of new ones.” 

“Dogs exist,” she said. 

“Right on.” 

“My skin isn’t on fire.” 

“Great one.” 

“High-waisted jeans are back in fashion.” 

“Excellent point,” I said. “One more.” 

“That’s it. That is the sum total of positive events in my life right now.” 

A breeze scolded the train platform, reminding my skin about its dampness, exposure. The automated voice, a calm woman who sounded eerily satisfied with the choices she’d made and her quality of life, told us our northbound train was coming. “I mean there’s always being done with the asshole who’s been ruining your life. That’s a win.” 

“Right,” she said sarcastically as we stood up to board the silver car now in front of us. “Best thing ever.” 

Love, I knew, was a hell of a thing or whatever. 

On the ride up she showed me some proofs from the shoot she and Argos had done over the weekend for the mixed media class they were taking together. Argos was still only seventeen; we’d met him the semester before when he was still in high school and taking some studio art classes in his free time. That fall he became a fully enrolled and comically young college student, and spent all his time trying to get Alice to teach him how to make art and me to teach him how to make love to a woman. Alice was more obliging than me, which isn’t to say I didn’t fuck him. I just didn’t bother trying to teach him anything about it. 

The pictures were all of her, naked and covered in paint, standing on the street in front of different houses at night. Alice, painted blue and green like a swimming pool, stomach and face and thighs hanging with monster shadows from the street lamps. Her breasts, fuller than they seemed from the regular vantage outside her shirts, drew my focus, brought to mind apples, high tide, headlights. Brought to mind a light brushing of knuckles, lips. In one or two of the pictures you could see people in the windows of the houses, making dinner or watching football, content with the yellow light of their little interior lives, looking anywhere but at the swampy nude girl in their front yards. She didn’t smile in any of the pictures, and something about the light made her face look anatomical, impersonally sad. 

“You don’t look human,” I said on the train that day. 

“That’s the point,” she said. “It’s about being swallowed up by something that isn’t you. Little green invisible gremlins that we don’t like to see, so we don’t see them.” 

“That your artist’s statement?” 

“The only people who think they need artist’s statements are the ones who aren’t acquainted with any artists. It’s about how spectacular things become monstrous when you lock them out. Duh. De facto. Highly visible.” 

She had a way, always, of saying things that made no technical sense but the way she said them, they hung in the air and rang, and if afterwards you wondered what the hell they meant, it felt like your own shortcoming. Her explanations made your not liking her art feel like you didn’t get her art. She was more about impressions than she was about explanations. 

“So who are we, then, that we can see you?” I said. 

“You mean the viewer?” she asked. “Us?” 


“I don’t fucking know. God?” 

“Right,” I said. “God.” 

This was how she got when her brain was too loaded with the business of being sad to talk about craft or semantics. Fussy, flippant. 

A week before, Tim had canceled their plans or at least pushed them back so late that it wasn’t even worth her going out anymore, was the only feasible thing for her to sit at home and wait, make herself busy with some painting or project that made her seem independent and unperturbed, an uncaring non-victim of his thoughtlessness, a woman with things to do, until eventually he’d arrive like always at some late hour, smoke-smelling and excited to see her, arms wide for her, both of them smiling their twin smiles as though his lateness had been a storm they’d both weathered, an inevitability that they, through their love, had conquered and now were through with, frustrations forgotten if they’d ever even existed at all. He’d ignore me on their way to her bedroom, ignore me the next morning, and be on his way to keep her waiting all over again. 

She was the hugest person I’d ever met, and he made her seem so small. 

While she was waiting for him, that night, she repainted an old table we’d salvaged from an alley behind the Christian bookstore. I sat down next to her on the couch with the quesadillas I’d made for us—soy cheese and tofu and broccoli because I was insisting on punk veganism as an inroad to enlightenment that fall. She leaned back toward me on the couch with her plate and sunk into the cushions like a soft zeppelin crash. She wore a light blue bandana to halo back the loose hair from her ponytail. “You look like Pollyanna,” I told her. 

She laughed and burrowed her face into my arm. “I don’t wanna talk about it. Sometimes function over form, you know?” 

“That’s ridiculous,” I said, pulling her red bra strap back onto her shoulder. “And uncouth.” 

“You’re right. Gotta suffer for fashion.” She sat back up and pulled off the bandana, leaving her ponytail cockeyed and her flyaways suddenly abundant. She pulled off her filthy wifebeater and the pair of Tim’s old jean shorts she’d been wearing, then her bra, then her underwear. “Pollyanna can suck my dick,” she said, stepping up to the bay window. 

“Polyanna shaped the children of a generation,” I said. “I didn’t know your dick was a cornerstone of American optimism.” 

“You’re the scholar of mythic phenomenology,” she said, staring out at the street. 

“You know every dick has its role to play.” We’d both come to DePaul to study Studio Art. I’d switched over to American Studies, because I liked tall tales more than anyone in Illinois seemed to like my photography. 

“You know you’re about five hundred percent visible from the street, right?” I asked from the couch, only semi-concerned for the privacy of her areolae, more concerned with their visibility and proximity to me. 

“There’s no one out there,” she said, turning back to me. “And who cares if they see. Doesn’t cost me anything, doesn’t hurt. You’re welcome, sickos,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. “Oh, there’s Argos,” she said, stepping away from the window. “Must be here for band practice.” She walked to her room, tugging lightly at my tiny orange stub of a ponytail as she passed. 

“When’s Tim coming?” I shouted from the couch. 

“Who knows,” she called from her closet. “Whenever the north wind rattles the sill or whatever.” 

“Right, I forgot your boyfriend is a turn of the century witch.” 

She stepped back into the living room, wearing the silk kimono I bought her a couple birthdays ago. “He is spooky, anyway.” She picked up her notebook from the floor and went to look out the window again, chewing an old Bic that floated around the apartment. The door buzzed and I got up to answer, but turned and went to Alice at the window. I put my hand on her shoulder, the thin silk already warm from her skin. She turned to look at me, pen still in her mouth like the nib of it helped her think. “Yeah?” she asked, and I just looked at her, hoping that whatever it was that I couldn’t figure out how to ask, fizzing in my throat like spiritual Pepto, would be visible and interpretable by her. I looked at her and she looked back at me. I wanted her to tell me the things it was too hard for me to figure out about myself. I wanted her to pull me apart piece by piece like a rubber band ball until she got to my center, could tell me what creepy thing was in there. 

“Are you okay?” I asked. 

A doe-eyed discomfort that I didn’t recognize in her spread across her body. I could feel it. She laughed. “You better get the door, right? Keeping the suitor waiting?” 

I went to the door. Argos, lanky and out of breath as ever, guitar over his shoulder like the true teenage dirtbag from all our lackluster dreams.

“Hey Dad,” he said, pushing past me into the apartment. He liked to spend time in our place because he still lived with his parents in Portage Park and we represented for him a kind of bourgeois hedonism. Shoes on indoors, cigarettes by the window, books more expensive than our cookware and tops optional. Plus two older women and I suppose, looking back, the thrill of available pussy. We were real fuck ups just the two of us, but Argos made us glamorous. 

“Hey Al,” he said, still walking through to my room. He turned back to me when he realized I wasn’t following him. “We jamming?” he asked me. 

I looked over at Alice in repose by the window, more a feature of art than an author of it. She looked back at me and I saw the depth in her look, but I chose to ignore it because I thought to myself she’s choosing this, she’s choosing this sadness and she knows she is, which makes it all worse and which is the whole fucking thing. And besides, Argos wanted to make music with me, as though he didn’t understand that real, grown men always asked Alice to be in their bands even though I was the one who played instruments, and I was the one who knew how to sing. 

“Don’t worry about me,” Alice said, smiling like a porcelain vase. “I’m having an art experience here.” And I left her there, sad and waiting, because I didn’t have to not. 

That night when I fucked Argos, sloppy against the bedroom door, I was especially loud. 

Late that night, while Argos was asleep, I heard Alice let Tim in. I slipped out of bed and found Argos’ phone, took a few pictures of myself naked below the neck and texted them to Tim. I deleted the sent texts and blocked Tim’s number, then went back to bed. I knew Alice checked Tim’s phone, especially texts that came late at night. 

By the next morning, Tim and Alice were no more. I was like the good witch, wand-waving and trailing glitter. I was the brief god of clean resolution, putting an end to the worst waste of Alice’s time using only my tits and a camera phone. Tell me black magic doesn’t exist. Tell me I wasn’t put on this shit earth for a reason. 

“Tell me about Pecos Bill,” she asked, on the train to the Baha’i temple. I loved tall tales, and she knew Pecos was my favorite. Even then I thought about how the convalesced always end up having to take care of you, when the discomfort of your not being able to make their pain go away becomes too hard. 

“Well to start he was raised by coyotes,” I said. “After he fell off the back of Momma and Daddy’s wagon in the Texas wild.” 

“And his whip?” she asked. 

“It was a snake. His snake named Shake. And Shake was so big and so strong that Bill lassoed a twister with him once, rode it across Texas.” 

“And his horse?” 

“His horse was named Widowmaker because no other man on earth could ride him. But old W-M and Bill were sympatico and true blue, and he let Bill ride him up and down the Lone Star, because love and because Widow knew a true cowboy when he saw one, knew that the bond between a true prairie horse and a true frontiersman is nothing to sniff at, is a real and good and eternal thing.” 

“And his gal?” 

“Well obviously Pecos had a lot of gals, being essentially a handsome superhero of the western USA. He was reported to have married a dozen or so times, which really probably goes to show that he had more of a personality disorder than anything else. But his first wife was named Slue-Foot Sue, and she was tough as fucking nails and a weirdo legendary cowgirl to boot. Love at first sight the way that happens in tall tales, and they married the next day. After the wedding Sue asked Bill to prove how much he loved her, because women are insecure and men don’t communicate, and Bill said how, darlin’? And Sue said let me ride Widowmaker. And Bill said sure, darlin’-such the fucking badass was she that he presumed she could handle the ole W-M. But Widow was Bill’s original dude, and he didn’t love sharing any attention with Sue’s bustle. So as soon as Sue got saddled up, Widow went on a legendary wild west style tirade, and bucked Sue straight into outer fucking space, where she promptly hit her head on the actual moon. After a couple days of star gazing with something that I imagine was like concern, Bill realized that Sue was doomed to starve up there in the stratosphere, so he whips out his six shooter and, being the best in the literal west, pops her one between the eyes to put her out of her misery.” 

“Did she turn into a star?” 

“It’s likely.” 

“And he married a dozen times after?” 

“He did, because of course he did. But none of the wives worked out, and not for similarly whimsical reasons. They just didn’t last, because none of them were Sue, and Sue was his true gal.” 

“True blue gal,” she said, and rested her head on my shoulder, either because she wanted me to know she loved me or because she didn’t want me to see that she was crying, or probably both. She had told me before that the great value of Tim was that here was a man who wasn’t scared to hold her while she cried, wasn’t even uncomfortable doing it. She’d thought that was so profound, the pinnacle of love, of feeling valued. 

I’d thought that maybe if she weren’t dating Tim, she wouldn’t cry so much. 

We transferred at Howard to the Purple line, and watched the suburbs fill out with trees as we rode on to Linden. We got off at the last stop and suddenly there we were, experiencing true family life in the heart of Wilmette, Illinois. It was the kind of place you’d expect to see a little boy in a straw cap chasing a hoop with a stick, Mom and Dad looking on proudly, everyone’s a doctor. I’d been there before, to see the Temple. It was my secret place I came to in crisis, a little slice of solitude when it felt like all that was expected of one’s life was confusion, routine, furtive tears. I remember feeling, in my twenties, in the city, like there was absolutely nowhere to cry and nowhere to look for God. I went to Wilmette to do both, because no one would have expected either. 

Another white girl finding solace in someone else’s shit. 

I bought us some bourgie sandwiches from a place that spelled shop ‘shoppe.’ Hers was named after a European philosopher, mine after a racehorse. Looking back, it’s possible that hers was named after a racehorse that was named after a philosopher. We ate them in the park by the train, because to eat them at the Temple seemed gauche. We splayed out on the grass like emperors and spilled fancy mustard and prosciutto and dried cranberries onto the ground, laughing 

about the time freshman year she fell off a bunk bed giving Tony Heugher a blowjob, the time junior year the chair of the History department walked in on me and Jack Alanis dry humping in the third floor single-occupancy ladies’ room in the Liberal Arts building. 

“We shouldn’t be allowed to pick anymore,” she said. “Our licenses should be revoked.” 

“Hey speak for yourself,” I said. “I’m not the one actively seeking men who’ll treat me like trash.” 

She went quiet, and I regretted saying it. I’d meant it as a joke or, I don’t know why I said it. But I hadn’t meant it how it came out. We cleaned up our papers, tossed them in the trash even though the recycling was only ten feet further. She looked at me over the trashcan, then turned and started to walk, and I had to catch up to her because I was the one who knew which way to go. 

The walk to the Temple was short, and trees, and a little bridge over a stream. Wilmette, the sanctity of the suburbs. I didn’t look at Alice, but I could hear her breath go uneven, the soft sniffing. We passed a flattened squirrel and I worried that she saw it, then realized it wasn’t my worry to have, and I stared it down as we walked by, daring the stain of gore to be bloodier, wishing the mat of fur to reveal more brain, more cracked bone matter. We saw the white dome over a roof and I told here “there it is,” even though of course she could see it too. 

And as we approached I noticed like I always did-as though it were somehow each time a surprise-how weird and ornate and beautiful the thing was. Unreal. Curving white lacey stone along the dome, pillars and crests and loops circling the bright white, blinding ivory paleness of it. Green shrubs and still reflecting pools set around it concentrically, like arrows pointing to the doomsday button at the center of the desk. I loved this thing, and in that moment I wanted with brute force to explode it. 

I was halfway up the second set of steps, making my way to the bright glass double doors, before I realized Alice had stopped at the front of the path, was standing still looking up at the hulking sight of it. I went back to her, expecting a tantrum or some passive aggression, a refusal to go on with me, some female shittiness. 

I got to her, and she didn’t turn toward me.

“I knew it was you, ya know,” she said, looking up at the dome. 


“You have a birthmark on your left tit. Duh. Easy. Clear as day.” 

We hung still in place like we were tied to the ground, bodies weighted down in a swimming pool. I felt my stomach drop out of my body, my guts a limp loop on the ground. I tried to think of a response, but all that went through my head was his lasso was a snake named Shake and it was so big and so strong that Bill lassoed a twister with it.

“I couldn’t figure it out. I mean I’d wondered if he was sleeping with someone else. But this was so especially shitty. And I thought you didn’t even like Tim. Why would you have done that, that way?” 

I felt like I was blacking out, bucked into space. The sky might have cracked open and dripped its black yolk all over us for all I would have noticed. “Why didn’t you say anything?” 

“I loved Tim because he made me feel special and after this, he couldn’t have anymore. That’s hard, but it’s true. And I love you because you’re my fucking best friend. So what am I supposed to do, asshole? You tell me.” 

“You acted like nothing had happened.” 

“I’ve been acting like someone I loved ran through me with a hunting knife.” 

“But you came here with me…” 

“You asked me to!” She spun to face me with her huge sunglasses. I saw my own face in stereo. “What’s more fucked up there? Why should I have to do all the work of dumping my best friend when I’m already the heartbroken one? Do I have to lose everything just because you, what? Wanted the thing I had? Or just wanted me not to have it?” 

She took a deep breath and turned back to the temple. Her shoulders lowered, her back straightened. The wind picked up again and shushed the trees. There was that awesome calm, that art experience. “It’s possible for people to love you even though you hate yourself, Daddy-o. Besides,” she said, “you’re right. This place is very, extremely beautiful. You have a better eye than me for that stuff.” 

She took off her sunglasses. She was looking up, crying still, indeterminate streams pouring from her packed blue Pollyanna eyes. What really horrified me was the amazement in her face, not a look of someone in search of something, someone with anything to figure out or solve or answer for. Just a look of vivid, burning knowing. She was unable to take in everything she felt, unable to contain the sweet pity this God, this beauty took on us. She was inaccessible to me as ever, glowing with the way the universe tapped her, leaving her broken bellied and grinning. She was the artist, the feeler. 

“Sometimes I do things, and I don’t know why,” I said. 

“I know,” she said. “But we always do, later. What’s that called?” 

“Hindsight,” I said. 

“No,” she said. “Fucking storytelling.” 

I asked her to prove that she loved me, and she let me ride the widowmaker. I reached out to touch her angular elbow, knowing I could press as hard as I wanted and I’d never really feel her.