On Leaving: A Conversation

Nonfiction / Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Jill Talbot

:: On Leaving: A Conversation ::

A con­fes­sion: I think it is always me who caus­es the leav­ing. A scene: she lies in my bed. I’ve moved from an apart­ment we shared, and she is between that place and her next place, hun­dreds of miles away. She asks, can we just try again? I tell her that’s not what she real­ly wants, that she’s the one who end­ed things. I’m lying when I say this: I don’t know that we’re who we want each oth­er to be. A fear: I won’t unlearn how to ask her to leave.


I’ve been won­der­ing for weeks how to respond—to you, to end­ings and unlearn­ings, to the way I keep find­ing ways to use the word “belea­guered.” I read a sto­ry of yours, lin­gered on that line about tak­ing trips to get away from what we have to run from. I imag­ined you in an air­port, seat­ed on a stool of some bar at an under-con­struc­tion gate. I don’t know why. A scene: he cries in a chair of the last apart­ment we shared, announc­ing his deser­tion aban­don. Maybe the word is “bewil­der­ment.”


It’s been months, but I still wake up to find my arms reach­ing for her, to press my nose to her hair. In that sto­ry, there’s the impulse to lock one­self away from the world until it becomes remade and we emerge into it the same, the world altered. That’s not the way. What we face is our own fear of move­ment. Do you ever won­der if you asked him to go? I vis­it­ed her in Boston, and each night I lay on the couch, and she said good­night, and she would leave the bed­room door open. Invi­ta­tion is not what that was, but instead a lie she told. An open door can some­times be the strictest prohibition.


I think of a ques­tion in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”: Why hold onto all that? Then: Where can I put it down? I think of your ques­tion, how it reads like a reck­on­ing. My won­der­ing mem­o­ry unknow­ing (yes, that’s it) rum­mages through the liv­ing room where he and I lived fif­teen years ago. I open a clos­et door and stare at his work­boots (I do that often). Or I’m (again) wait­ing at a win­dow in the dark, hold­ing my breath for his head­lights to pull into the dri­ve. Or I’m shuf­fling to the kitchen to stop the sink’s drip, lis­ten­ing to loss with each note of the water’s cadence. It’s unnerv­ing, stand­ing inside the after­math before the event even arrives. But I haven’t answered your question.


Leav­ing is a ques­tion. A ques­tion of: How did it come to this? And: What will you do now with what you hold? I don’t know if I want you to answer. My unknow­ing: wak­ing up to a new dai­ly unrav­el­ing. My unknow­ing: see­ing in the unrav­el­ing some­thing we expect­ed all along. The bed I sleep in is the one we shared. It is too small, too closed in. How a thing changes in the after­math. How that leav­ing is embed­ded. I lie down and the bed for­gets her con­tours, her shape. A fear: I will stop feel­ing the unsettling.


I wrote this stan­za years ago—months after he left:

I’ve seen ticket stubs in wallets, 
the way these words will be
folded up in a drawer with leadless pencils, 
the matchbook with one match left.
Statues of paper pinned to bulletin boards,
tucked into frames. A suffocation,
this poem, a memory of something we saw once, 
like the man missing his train.


I keep going back, revis­ing the lines:

I’ve seen ticket stubs in wallets, 
the way these words will be
settled in a drawer with leadless pencils, 
the matchbook with one match left.
Faded receipts folded between book pages. Such suffocation,
a forgotten secret, a memory of something we saw once, 
like the man missing his train.


What changes—memory or its meaning?

He used to tell me I mum­bled (or some­times sang) when I wrote. He’d come to the door and lis­ten before under­stand­ing I was some­where else. Maybe that’s one way to ask some­one to go.

One after­noon dur­ing those days in Col­orado, I checked our account and found a charge from a gas sta­tion in Okla­homa. I didn’t even know he had gone.

Such mys­tery mis­ery fear—the dis­tance that arrives only after so much has been lost.



From the writer

:: Account ::

On Leav­ing: (A Con­ver­sa­tion about) A Conversation

JT: Let me know if this works as a begin­ning. These are the words Justin wrote to me in an e‑mail on the day he sent the first sec­tion of “On Leav­ing.” That was Novem­ber 16, 2017. Usu­al­ly when Justin or I send each oth­er a seg­ment, we respond with a day or two, some­times with­in the hour, as if our words tremor across the dis­tance until an answer set­tles them. Our respons­es are reac­tions, all instinct and echoes. And while I answered—Oh, yes, I can work with this. Con­fes­sion, lies, fears. Def­i­nite­ly—I wasn’t sure. His con­fes­sion felt insu­lat­ed, as if an answer might unset­tle his words some­how. So after almost two weeks, I typed, I’ve been won­der­ing for weeks how to respond, then watched the cur­sor blink in the blank space. After a few moments I real­ized my words meant more than my response to what Justin had writ­ten. They were a response to this new real­i­ty, to new ques­tions, to an anchor on a cable news show who used the word “belea­guered.” I wrote to Justin, asked if we might approach the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment subtextually.

JLD: So often, for me, what I com­pose in response to Jill feels like a rever­ber­a­tion. It’s not sim­ply response, but it car­ries her words as they hit me and echo, ric­o­chet. So often, these begin­nings feel like they’re respons­es even though I’ve writ­ten the first lines, or Jill has con­fessed a begin­ning seg­ment. As she says, this begin­ning was some­thing dif­fer­ent. I was more insu­lat­ed, as Jill points out, than in ear­li­er essays. It’s true. But, what she sent me pushed me hard­er and real­ly felt like it reached into the ache I was describ­ing and height­ened it. We were writ­ing to each oth­er, but also writ­ing the sort of con­cus­sive feel­ing of the present moment. It was ear­ly in the emer­gence into this real­i­ty, yet, but I think we wrote with a sort of ener­gy that fed of that con­fu­sion. I’ve felt dis­placed, in a way, since Novem­ber, and I think that shows here.

JT: My respons­es to Justin invari­ably rely on reflec­tion, as in mir­ror­ing, or per­haps it’s bor­row­ing, so in this essay I picked up the ______: of his first seg­ment, but what I was real­ly after was a gesture—I didn’t want him on the page alone in his loss, so I offered my own. When we write togeth­er, I bend the writ­ing more than I do in my own work, risk the edges, so when I was grasp­ing for the word to describe that morn­ing, I stopped delet­ing words and instead crossed them out to show the strug­gle of my search, though still, all these years lat­er, I’m unable to name what hap­pened.

JLD: The cross­ing out and even­tu­al land­ing on bewil­der­ment feels like the heart of the essay to me, and it drove me in writ­ing in response. I think my sec­tions in the rest of the essay find me grap­pling with how to approach and live in that moment, to search for answers in Jill’s rev­e­la­tion. I often think that essays that work best find the author search­ing for some­thing with­out maybe ever actu­al­ly find­ing what they’re look­ing for, or not quite find­ing the right thing, and I think that’s what func­tions in our work togeth­er. We are try­ing to locate our­selves in the world through our work in response, and I think we both want to make sure we’re still search­ing in the final lines.

JT: I don’t think Justin has ever asked me a ques­tion in our col­lab­o­ra­tions, and we’ve been writ­ing togeth­er since 2013, so when I read, “Do you ever won­der if you asked him to go?,” it was as if he stepped out of the para­graph and stood in front of me ask­ing the ques­tion I didn’t real­ize I’ve been chas­ing in my writ­ing for years. I couldn’t address it direct­ly, so I turned to anoth­er writer, to her ques­tions, then I leaned into the par­en­thet­i­cals to sig­nal what lurks between our words, lingers behind them. I was also teach­ing “The Glass Essay” at the time, telling my stu­dents that in 7,875 words Car­son men­tions his name, Law, only eleven times. We write around the ache. I thought I might come back in a lat­er seg­ment to answer Justin, but when he wrote, “I don’t know if I want you to answer,” I felt relief, a reprieve.

JLD: Even when I asked the ques­tion, I had a hope that there wouldn’t be an ulti­mate answer, and I knew that Jill would write toward it even if she didn’t answer. I think the writ­ing is stronger because we nev­er locate our­selves in the world of the essay, but still try and fail as we do so. What mat­ters is the ache, not its ori­gins. What strikes me most when I re-read this essay is that we nev­er answer each oth­er or def­i­nite­ly say ______ about the world as we find it, but that we’re still attempt­ing to answer, and that feels impor­tant. The spell is bro­ken for me in essays that land too hard on defin­i­tive mean­ing, and I think this essay, as with much of our writ­ing togeth­er, tries to main­tain the spell. I want the spell to linger, and am less sat­is­fied when I know for sure what it conjures.


Justin Lawrence Daugh­er­ty lives in Atlanta. His nov­el, You Are Alive, is forth­com­ing from Civ­il Cop­ing Mech­a­nisms in 2018.  He is the Co-Pub­lish­er of Jel­ly­fish High­way Press, the Found­ing Edi­tor of Sun­dog Lit, the Fic­tion Edi­tor at New South, and he co-pilots Car­tridge Lit with Joel Hans. His work has appeared in Bar­rel­houseCat­a­pultElec­tric LitThe Nor­mal School, and more.

Jill Tal­bot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Mem­oir (Soft Skull Press, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addic­tion (Seal Press, 2007).  She is the co-edi­tor, with Charles Black­stone, of The Art of Fric­tion: Where (Non)Fictions Come Togeth­er (Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Press, 2008) and the edi­tor of Metawrit­ings: Toward a The­o­ry of Non­fic­tion (Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2012). 

Justin and Jill’s col­lab­o­ra­tive essays have appeared in The Chat­ta­hoochee ReviewFourth GenreHobartPas­sages NorthThe PinchPit­head ChapelThe Rum­pus, and more.