From Issue 22: "The Ice Cave" by Gabriela Denise Frank (Nonfiction)

The Ice Cave                                                          

Gabriela Denise Frank

Reading Time: 24 minutes

This essay originally appeared in Issue 22 of Tahoma Literary Review. This essay is a remarkable example of what you can achieve with vivid writing, scissors, and a willingness to let go and experiment. Here, there's no such thing as out of order. The work was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2022, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2023Read it here, or listen to Frank read it:

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Ann Beman
Nonfiction editor


What causes us to suffer is not in the past or the future: it is here, now, in our memory, in our expectations. We long for timelessness, we endure the passing of time: we suffer time. Time is suffering.

Carlo Rovelli


  1. The morning of my forty-fifth birthday, I decided to quit my job. Not immediately, but soon. 


  1. My husband had been begging me to quit. Michael had a heart attack at my age; he didn’t want the same to happen to me. He wanted me to be happy, to finish writing my novel.


-7. The idea of torching the prison of my life made me feel buzzed.


  1. Of my many misapprehensions, this was a minor one.


  1. I was coming unglued.


  1. Before we went to Iceland, events happened in order: 1, 2, 3. I wasn’t prepared for time to melt like a Dali clock.


  1. Even reasonable people do crazy shit in middle age. The membrane thins to clarity: there’s no point to life, no avoiding death. It’s too much to face. A warning: the rest is madness.


  1. The perfect life, meaning one without compromise, doesn’t exist. There’s no happiness for which we don’t suffer in exchange. The problem is, we view suffering as punishment rather than part of life.


  1. Out of nowhere, my pulse raced, my chest felt tight. Tension spread across my chest down my left arm. Was it anxiety? A heart attack?


  1. I needed time away. Not a vacation—a physically grueling, purifying quest.


  1. Iceland was one of few places Michael hadn’t traveled to. He was intrigued.


  1. I suspected our trip wouldn’t change a thing.


  1. Change is superficial. Transformation is deep. It alters our perception of reality and causes our life to shift.


  1. I was the director of marketing at a high-end design firm that everyone gushed over. Inside, I felt like an imposter. 


  1. The slippage of hours and days made me question my sanity. I kept thinking back to the moment I adjusted my watch while our plane taxied down the tarmac. Was I the one who broke space-time?


  1. In ten years I had gained twenty pounds and suffered from insomnia. My right eye (and sometimes my left) twitched uncontrollably. Google said it was stress or too much caffeine. I had trouble remembering things. There was nowhere to hide from work, not even Instagram. My bosses messaged me on my personal account—Hey, look into this—at all hours.


  1. Upon arriving at the office each morning, I downed a quad-shot Americano to wake up.


  1. There was no dulling myself at the end of the day without risking a hangover—hot flashes, congestion, migraines—from a single can of beer.


  1. In retrospect, one can piece together the progression of a midlife crisis. Predicting the moment of explosion before the cinder cone blows is an imprecise science.


  1. Could the metaphor be more plain? If I survived the ice cave, I could change my life. 


  1. Michael was dubious. Our outdoor forays usually ended with me crying.


  1. “How about we climb Machu Picchu or walk the Camino de Santiago?” I said.


  1. Each morning, my alarm buzzed at 4:50. At 5:00, I drove to the gym. On days I was too exhausted to stand, I snoozed until six, then rushed to shower, dress, and depart by 6:30. Any later and there’d be no parking spots at the train station.


  1. I wept randomly: on the train, walking to work, in the shower at the gym.


  1. No matter how much I got paid or what my title was, nothing I did was good enough.


  1. On particularly low days, I scrolled through job postings, shuddering at descriptions of ideal candidates: dynamic, enthusiastic, ideas-driven, flexible. Translation: we’re gonna burn you the fuck out.


  1. My eyelids drooped, heavy as sandbags. My last thought: Is this trip a mistake?


  1. Michael was wise to my ideal travel scenario: museums, restaurants, markets. Paris. London. Venice. Places with cafes and paintings, not pine sap. 


  1. What had I gotten us into?


  1. I was chained to the wall of a dark cave. At forty-five, what else was I qualified for, except my same job elsewhere? I could change companies, but like Vivian says to Edward in Pretty Woman, “That’s just geography.”


  1. A midlife crisis is volcanic. Molten pressure and heat build beneath the surface. Conditions seem stable and self-contained—until the magma blows. 


  1. On a typical day, I was away from home between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. The few hours Michael and I spent together, I was irritable or asleep. 


  1. To be clear: I wasn’t having a midlife crisis. The problem was my job.


  1. I sat in meetings for nine hours straight, my inbox filling with emails that I skimmed while wolfing down lunch standing at my desk. The record: seventy new messages in an hour. I couldn’t keep up.


  1. I often fell asleep on the train. 


  1. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head. No-no-no. I can’t do this.


  1. My work life mirrored my upbringing, I realized: high pressure, impossible standards, elusive praise. It felt like home.


  1. Tectonic forces peeled past from future. Once in motion, I was powerless to stop them.


  1. A rare week passed in which I didn’t have migraines, alcohol or no. “Welcome to middle age,” my boss laughed.


  1. Menopause is adolescence all over again, only you are an adult and have to go out into the world.  You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause. You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. This, and other behaviors, will horrify you. You will feel as if your life is over and you will be absolutely right about that, it is over. Nothing can prepare you for this.


  1. “How about Iceland? We could hike every day,” I said. 


  1. Near Svínafellsjökull, we scrambled through a scree field overlooking a milky blue glacial lagoon. Arctic breezes from the snow-capped peaks numbed my cheeks. “Imagine getting stuck here overnight,” I said, shivering. Michael grinned. “That would be amazing!” 


  1. I had it all, as my mother’s generation said. Somehow it wasn’t enough.


  1. That’s what structures did, crumble and fall, yet I buttressed my life with them. Career, marriage, house, things. The more I acquired, the more vulnerable I felt; the more vulnerable I felt, the more I bought.


  1. I tossed a fuchsia base layer top into my online shopping cart. “I want to walk 10,000 steps a day,” I said. “I need to see icebergs. Mountains. Glaciers.” I bought a fitness watch that would count my steps and monitor my heart rate.


  1. On landing in Iceland, I roused from seven hours of not-sleep with a splitting headache. A bad omen or my body’s inflammatory response to one can of Gull lager?


  1. On the road, we ate the equivalent of Persephone’s pomegranate seeds: trail mix, turkey jerky, power bars, dried fruit, black licorice. We avoided the ancient Icelandic foodstuffs—hákarl (rotted shark) and harðfiskurdried (bacteria-cured dried cod)—that hung in gas station refrigerators.


  1. I didn’t tell anyone I planned to mark this transition into freedom with a tattoo: a phoenix, rising from a field of dahlias.


  1. It was difficult to pinpoint my precise fear: falling, failing, death, dying. They were kind of the same. As the SUV slipped backwards, I wondered, Is this what it’s like to be on an airplane going down?


  1. At Þingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament, the rock cliffs cleave apart like the corolla of a stone flower. Continental plates yawn open, North American plate from Eurasian plate. From inside the earthen petals rises the gloriously putrid hell-smell of sulfur.


  1. The natural world thrills Michael to his core; he doesn’t fear being consumed. I admire and resent this about him. He jaunts over skinny land bridges, whistling, while I’m paralyzed by fear of deathly falls, broken bones, animal attack, starvation.


  1. “I don’t think I can do this,” I groaned, burying my face in the pillow. 


  1. How could I quit the stable job that saved me from crushing debt? That helped me get a home loan? That paid for writing classes, yoga classes, tattoos, base layer tops, heart rate monitors, tickets to Iceland?


  1. Michael shrugged. “You wanted to challenge yourself.”


  1. Our itinerary was planned by an Icelandic travel agency whose brochure encouraged us to Prepare for adventure! Each day would be a mix of driving, natural sights, and hikes; each night, a different hotel along the Ring Road.


  1. For ethical (moral?) reasons, we refused to eat whale or puffin. Instead, we consumed the ubiquitous arctic char for dinner most nights. We ate at our hotels for the convenience of drifting upstairs afterward to collapse.


  1. I’ve always confused morals with ethics. You might say that’s part of my problem.


  1. I marveled at Michael, always yards ahead, as steady on ankle-twisting terrain as he was on a surfboard. He logged Oskar’s number for a return trip—a glacier expedition, which would involve ice axes and tent-camping in snow—meaning it would not involve me. 


  1. “Doesn’t tour mean browsing casually?!” I yelped.


  1. I tried to convince myself that living outside my comfort zone was fun. I buried my trepidation in complaints while Michael hummed uphill and down, pointing out purple wildflowers, shaggy horses, velvety hillocks of moss.


  1. Fuck-fuck-fuck my fucking fuck!


  1. Michael radiated wonder and sorrow at melting glaciers—nature that would disappear in our lifetimes—while I fretted over finding bathrooms. I nervously anticipated the “special excursions” our tour company had arranged: kayaking on Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, whale watching in Húsavík, and the Lofthellir ice cave tour.


  1. We were lost in an endless ribbon of grayed asphalt and yellow road lines. Blowing blindness of snow. Iceland wasn’t paradise; it was a Bizarro World Hawaii.


  1. I couldn’t imagine that, one day, time would have no meaning.


  1. People misdefine a midlife crisis. They confuse the outburst with the anguish. The crisis isn’t the breaking point everyone sees but the preceding months and years of subterranean turmoil, the shifting tectonics by which a person actively undermines her life.


  1. I had entered an alternate universe. My heart rate monitor said it was Monday, although it was Tuesday. (Or was it?) 


  1. The calving earth leaves crumbs in the whorls of your fingers: the fate of every living thing. A person must confront, at some point, that her source and destination is the dust she brushes off herself.


  1. Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.


  1. I peered into nothingness. It blinked back.


  1. What if our breath melted the ice and the cave folded in on itself? What if another earthquake struck?


  1. “I have to pull over,” Michael slurred, waking me.


  1. The allegory of Plato’s cave—we’re chained so closely to pain that we can’t separate reality from shadow—is simple and obvious. It’s also kind of true.


-8. A critical fact: there are never eggs in a phoenix’s nest. She is mother and child to herself. 


  1. My mother, from the other side of death, demanded to know: why did I cling to misery for so long? For thirty years, I’ve wanted to ask her the same question.


  1. I was supposed to be navigating. I had passed out without realizing it.


  1. The desolate lunar landscape was dreamlike: an endless undulating carpet of olive-and-crimson sedum. Dry hoary grasses; muddied sheep. Life and bleakness caught in the same tawny palette.


  1. The tour company’s brochure had me picturing crisp bluebird skies, grassy hills, and frothy fosses surging beneath yellow sunlight. I didn’t anticipate dark thunderclouds and torrents of snow, hail, rain.


  1. The lake town of Mývatn stunk of sublime sulfurous farts belched from thermal mud pits. Ten of us assembled at the visitor center for the ice cave tour—Michael, me, a sixty-something German couple, a family of six Austrians—and Oskar, our guide.


  1. Michael was thrilled by Oskar’s all-terrain monster truck, its three-foot-high tires thick as dinosaur hide.


  1. Of course—Michael was having fun.


  1. At home, I managed stress through an ever-tightening noose of control. Here, I was at Iceland’s mercy. I clutched the road map while Michael munched on snacks, content to be lost.


  1. A crevasse split the center of my forehead, chiseled by a horn-helmeted Viking. I scowled at five plucky hikers clad in head-to-toe Gore-tex basking in the steam of a thermal vent. The gray-white skies gloamed with twilight though it was barely noon. How the fuck was it dim and bright at the same time?


  1. Our twisting path wound around lava cairns that pooled upwards into torsos, faces, limbs: Bilbo’s trolls turned to stone by the sun.


  1. Michael shuddered the SUV over the safety grooves on the shoulder. Bah-bah-bah-boom.


  1. I onlooked uselessly, wringing my hands. We didn’t have cell service to call for help.


  1. When the rear wheel finally caught, PUNCTURE! flashed on the screen. Michael guided the SUV to a flat spot to change the tire. “If this tire iron snaps, we’re screwed,” he said. 


  1. I gritted my teeth on the nerve-racking fifty-mile trip down the mountain to Egilsstaðir, praying the donut of a spare wouldn’t pop, too.


  1. I was haunted by the SUV’s rear wheel slipping, spinning, yearning for grip. I really thought we were going to die. 


  1. I had since forbidden Michael from driving on F-roads, Iceland’s network of unpaved, rutted routes. 


  1. The weather was not cooperating. In the rare dry hours, we pulled off for short hikes. The temperature hovered at thirty-three degrees, the kind of gelid dank that seeps into your bones.


  1. Two days earlier, we popped a tire on an F-road outside Egilsstaðir. The road crew, in the process of graveling the mountain pass—building the road as we drove on it—waved us to pass their heavy equipment on the shoulder of a precipice—sans guardrail.


  1. Our fifty-something guide, Oskar, worked in search and rescue. He was warm and self-assured, the sort of capable daredevil who’d rescue a baby from a burning building without blinking.


  1. Oskar turned onto an F-road jutted with deep grooves. Michael elbowed me, beaming.


  1. After an hour of jostling us up, down, and around, Oskar lumbered the white mammoth to a halt on a muddy jetty of land.


  1. The lava field was studded with sand and stones—Frodo and Sam’s path through Mordor—ringed by craggy peaks. A fiery eye flickered atop the highest spire. No, wait—it was the sun.


  1. “Okay, folks, from here we walk,” Oskar said.


  1. What?!” we cried in unison.


  1. We lumbered behind him to the edge of an open pit. A metal ladder leading down was bolted to the rock.


  1. The formation we were about to enter was a lava tube, formed when volcanic crust cooled and hardened while boiling lava flowed beneath, hollowing out a passage. 


  1. An experienced spelunker, Oskar pulled himself up to the lip of the crevice using a thick rope tethered to the boulders.


  1. My lungs compressed like someone tightened a strap across my chest. My temples pounded. My pulsing eyeballs threatened to explode. I breathed deep and slow, in through my nose, out through my mouth, chanting I’m okay, I’m okay inside my head until the panic subsided.


  1. “A recent earthquake loosened a few bolts, but the ladder is perfectly safe,” Oskar promised, “as long as only one person descends at a time.”


  1. Quit your goddamned crying and get in there, my father growled.


  1. The morning of our ice cave excursion, I read the fine print: This tour is not suitable for young children, people with claustrophobia, or those not in reasonable physical condition.


  1. I needed to know my suffering held purpose; that, in suffering, I would find my worth. Maybe the ice cave was the test I was looking for.


  1. I descended into the pit and discovered how misplaced my relief was.


  1. An online reviewer warned, The entrance is very intimidating. It is a crevice the width of a human body and you literally have to wriggle and squirm your way in through the small crack, so psych yourself up!


  1. It sounded appealing when we booked the trip, me charging up mountains like Rocky, but nothing I bought—balaclavas, neck gaiters, wool socks, insulated pants—prepared me for the reality of Iceland.


  1. I couldn’t let go and enjoy myself. I kept checking work email. I was ruining a very expensive vacation, focusing on the negative, and I was driving us both crazy.


  1. “Are you coming?” Oskar called.


  1. A locked metal trailer held the tour company’s stock of baggy waterproof pants and ten-pound rubber moon boots heeled with steel spikes.


  1. At five foot four, my legs were shorter than the span between boulders that Oskar scaled effortlessly. I crab-walked up the scramble, boosting myself to the lip of the crack with everything I had: hands, feet, fingers, arms, legs.


  1. Oskar instructed us to climb down the ladder, one by one, into the open pit. 


  1. It turned out the pit was merely the foyer. The entry to the ice cave was tucked high in a corner, a tiny slit atop a scramble of boulders. “He can’t mean we’re going in there,” someone muttered.


  1. “After an earthquake, the boulders shifted, revealing the opening to the cave,” Oskar said. “You’re about to see the largest natural ice sculpture in Iceland. The cave is over 3,500 years old.”


  1. Of course it was a team of dudes who decided there had to be something inside that Lilliputian crack worth braving death for.


  1. Michael’s jaw dropped. It pleased me.


  1. Don’t freak out. Hundreds of people have been on this tour. Thousands. They’re all alive. Probably.


  1. “It’s okay,” Oskar chuckled. “We usually lose one or two.” 


  1. The Germans hesitated. So did Michael. “I’ll go,” I said, stepping forward. 


  1. I bellied up to the boulders, feeling everyone’s eyes. If I chickened out, it would confirm Michael’s reservations about the trip—and me. 


  1. What the $%@! was I doing? The rock could shift a little and pulverize me—pin me, trap me, crush me inside. 


  1. I looked up nervously, watching the ceiling drip. “That’s just surface water,” Oskar tsked, waving off my pantywaist worries. “Come on! You’re perfectly safe!” 


  1. With a whoop, Oskar disappeared inside the lava tube. “Who’s first?” he called from inside.


  1. The snowmelt leaked through my scarf, chilling my neck. Beneath me, the rock was wet. Ice-cold runoff soaked through my gloves. I shuddered at the idiocy of the risk. What kind of nut job would see a tiny hole leading to death and think, Let’s lead people down there! What kind of idiots would follow him?


  1. I neglected to mention the Austrians were tall. 


  1. The crevice was barely wider than my body; what if one of the sons stopped up our escape?


  1. I inched forward on my elbows down the coffin-like tube. When I tried to lift my head, my helmet hit rock. The red-brown walls, illuminated by my headlamp, closed in. My father’s calloused hand collared me. Stay down or I’ll knock you down.


  1. There was no turning back. I had entered the allegory of the cave as described by my college philosophy professor, a waistcoated German who scribbled NQR—not quite right—in red ink on all my term papers. How could they see anything but shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads? I bet Plato never crawled into a fucking ice cave.


  1. A shadow is never created in darkness. It is born of light. We can be blind to it and blinded by it. Our shadow asks us to look at what we don’t want to see.


  1. Once assembled inside, we beetle-walked behind Oskar to a chamber spacious enough for even the Austrians to stand. Crusty white crystals carpeted the surface of the cave. Oskar encouraged us to explore nooks stained with hyper-colored sulfur—saffron, fuchsia, cobalt blue—and pose for photos next to stalagmites.


  1. The Austrian sons sprouted upwards of six-four. Their father, six-two and broader at the chest, glanced at the crevice and shook his head. Nein. He ascended the rickety ladder into the sunlight.


  1. Oskar set lit headlamps inside the ice to make it glow. I slip-slided up the grade, clutching Michael’s waist, to pose for our commemorative photo. We looked like Michelin men, Michael suited in azure, me in green. “Isn’t this cool?!” he said.


  1. You can do this, I assured myself. I tried not to hear the drum beats. Tried not to imagine what humanity’s greed had awoken in the dark.


  1. I crawled forward, inch by inch, my breath shallow and jagged, until my gloved hand met Oskar’s. He pulled me, wet and disoriented, into a craggy, low-ceilinged antechamber.


  1. The cave had calved me inside itself. Gross.


  1. Cold fuzzed the edges of my vision. They say hypothermia is the best way to die. You just fall asleep. Sleep sounded pretty good.


  1. Meanwhile, the pressure builds. The fear of death drives people to panic. They see and hear things that don’t exist.


  1. It seems I plan for all the wrong catastrophes.


  1. “You’re doing great! Keep coming. You can do it!” Oskar called cheerfully from the abyss.


  1. Humans now wriggled where molten rock once streamed.


  1. Wriggling through the dark tube, I wondered, When did I become this exhausted, sagging, middle-aged thing?


  1. Oskar wanted us to enjoy the darkness, but I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t stop shivering. My body heat ebbed in waves.


  1. We followed him into a third chamber, lowering ourselves backward down a slick grade with a span of grayed rope. The steel cleats of my moon boots dug into the ice with a satisfying hold. A flutter of exhilaration unsettled my heart: a fragile, fledgling joy. Michael was right: This was kinda fun.


  1. “Don’t worry,” Oskar chuckled. “You’re safe—remember? Put one hand on the wall and turn off your headlamp with the other.”


  1. Water plunked on our helmets from the top of the vault, which Oskar said was only a meter or two thick.


  1. The writer Nikos Kazantzakis says the real meaning of enlightenment is the ability to gaze with undimmed eyes at the darkness. I was sixteen the night I woke to find my mother’s skin icy, hardened to blue. She was forty-five when she died of brain cancer. I’ve been gazing into the darkness ever since.


  1. We snapped off our headlamps, one by one. Click. Click. The cave was blanketed in black velvet. Oskar shushed our nervous chattering. “Quiet. Listen.”


  1. Oskar clicked on his headlamp. It was him playing the hollowed stalagmites with his fingertips, tapping on clear, colorless shafts of water-glass. The cave’s echo worked like the pedal of a piano, extending the notes. It hits in unexpected moments, that the rest is silence.


  1. The cave walls shifted from exposed rock to a sweeping cathedral of ice. A nebula of our breath-clouds hung in the brittle, frigid air.


  1. I pulled off my gloves and tapped a stalagmite with raw-pink, trembling fingers. Booong! Booong! From human hands rose a symphony of bright tones, our steam-breath weeping down the walls.


  1. “We call this formation the altar,” Oskar said, “and here is the priest.” His hands rested on the shoulders of a human-sized stalagmite.


  1. I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. Is that normal? Is it normal to notice the enormity of everything and just go blank?


  1. Iridescent peals of music filled the abyss. A sob caught in my throat.


  1. Fuck claustrophobia. I was done. Time to propel myself out of the lava tube and into the world again.


  1. On landing in Seattle, I reset my watch, which was more fitness monitor than timepiece. It wasn’t meant to be set back and forth. The clock could only be adjusted backwards, an inherent design flaw. To return it to Pacific Standard time meant reversing the chronometer to the previous day. I didn’t consider the implications of peeling back those hours.


-6. They say a resurrected phoenix is a wilder bird. In dying, she’s reunited with her essential ferocity.


  1. I don’t know what I expected Iceland to do for me. Outside the cave, life looked the same, but something felt off.


  1. My looping routine delivered me home each night at 7:00 p.m. where Michael had dinner waiting. I was too tired to talk, so we watched TV while we ate. Before bed, I packed my gym bag for the next day. I lived like a firefighter, in shifts and on edge, though I was saving no one.


  1. Urged on by my working-class parents, I spent my life pursuing individual advancement: white-collar jobs and private offices; titles, promotions, raises; health insurance; a 401(k); a good credit score; a house, a car, furniture, clothes. Within reason, I could afford whatever I wanted. I had far more than my folks did at the same age, yet I didn’t feel fulfilled. What had I done wrong?


  1. I hadn’t made a career in marketing. I had made a career out of killing myself.


  1. The heart rate monitor measured my pulse at 107 beats a minute though I was sitting on the couch. Before Christmas, several colleagues traveled to China and returned with the flu. They said they couldn’t stay home sick—they were on deadline—so they came into the office, feverish and coughing. Had I caught something from them?


  1. Legend says the phoenix lives 500 years before combusting into oblivion. She rises from her own ashes, her death-and-life cycle symbolic of the sun’s daily resurrection.


  1. Michael added me to his health insurance. I was nervous about quitting without another job in the wings. This would be the first time I’d be dependent financially—dependent in all ways—on a man. What seemed like liberation was starting to feel like regression.


-4. The phoenix awakens to the reality of her nest: It’s a prison rather than protection. She’s not safe but kept. At that moment, the fire is lit.


  1. I adjusted my watch again to match the backwards fall of daylight saving without knowing how long the winter would last.


  1. “I wish I could help,” Michael said. “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been miserable in this job.”


-5. Was it really the job, or was it me?


  1. On the train, I dreamed of paradise: black sand beaches, glaciers blue as robins’ eggs, soft emerald pastures, snowy cliffs, rippling lagoons. Surging waterfalls spilling down craggy mountain faces.


  1. “You okay?” Michael asked.


-1. The phoenix lives to burn. She knows nothing of fading away. She's all rage and pain, all coming out at once.


  1. I faked a smile and nodded. 


-14. I saw the tattoo artist in secret over four sessions. A phoenix began rising on my arm; no one saw the fire coming.


  1. Bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes: either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.


-11. Most people begin thinking about their next tattoo after they get their last. The immune response and healing that accompanies a tattoo stimulates the body’s pain/pleasure response. A flood of macrophages swarms the affected area, yielding a high that can become addictive, which is why people with tattoos often have more than one. The phoenix would be my fifth.


  1. What the hell was I doing, chasing prodigal labors set by my parents? They had both vanished from my life by my eighteenth birthday—my mother dead, my father disowned me. Thirty years later, I was still measuring myself by their standards; it was the only legacy I had to cling to.


-12. The phoenix is many things. A mythic bird that reinvents itself. The promise of a new day. The city where my mother died, where my imagined future was destroyed. The fiery emblem on my father’s crimson Firebird Trans-Am, which I loved in place of loving him. 


  1. After I returned from Iceland, two members of my team gave notice. A third unshackled herself in December. I felt obligated to mind the nest until I could find their replacements, but I promised myself: I would leave by Michael’s birthday in February. We had a vacation to New Zealand planned.


-3. The mind is a fragile thing. It takes only the slightest tap to tip it in the wrong direction.


  1. Sunday nights were impossible to bear, laced with the looming suck of Mondays. It’ll all soon be over, I assured myself.


-10. The way we respond to crisis becomes a part of it, they say.


  1. How laughable, thinking I would quit my job, and everything would get better.


-9. Suffering isn’t punishment. It isn’t evil or avoidable, nor is a life without suffering the point. The goal is the wisdom to discern what’s worth suffering through and for, and what isn’t.


  1. “I could justify an angiogram,” the doctor said the day I gave notice. Even then, I couldn’t see.


-19. She dug in, the electric needle buzzing like bees. I closed my eyes, skimming the wet, craggy cave walls with my fingertips. How much pain would it take to convince myself I was worthy of none?


  1. Worry is a way to pretend you have knowledge or control over what you don’t—and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.


-20. Tightness spasmed across my chest. This couldn’t be happening.


-2. The legend of the phoenix glosses over a critical detail: when she bursts into flame, she annihilates her nest along with her body. She smolders it all to sticks and cinders.


  1. “I’m fucked,” Michael gurgled.


  1. Time frayed, then unraveled. I had mistaken the basecamp for the peak. Trials I was poorly outfitted for, ones I couldn’t bear to view unblinkingly, were yet to come.


  1. The day I tendered my resignation, we learned it wasn’t my heart but Michael’s that needed repair.


-18. The buzzy pricks on my flesh felt rainbow-delicious. For an hour, the tattoo artist dug in on the pale swath of tender triceps waddle. My left arm burned from the toothsome, confidential rite. I merged with the pain.


  1. For months Michael had been saying he felt lethargic, but how could I believe him? He outpaced me at everything. The thoracic surgeon looked at the blockages on the monitor and said, “I can’t stent these.” He would need open-heart surgery: five bypasses, and a new aortic valve. I felt the back tire of our SUV slip off the mountain. 


  1. We knew Michael had inherited heart disease from his father, a celebrated novelist who died at forty-seven from a widow-maker heart attack. Decades later, thanks to an angiogram, Michael’s cardiologist found and prevented the same blockage in his own heart at the same age. Without that angiogram, and the stents that followed, Michael and I would never have met. To me, it was ancient history, a story that concluded happily; a story that was over because it happened in the past.


-17. I lay on the treatment table for four hours each session, basking in exquisite pain. Prick by prick, the needles pierced the veil of my flesh; they cracked open the vault beneath.


-15. My tattoo artist said the phoenix is one of the most popular designs. I felt sheepish. I thought I was being sneaky and symbolic—I thought I was being original.


  1. We think, in our anthropocentric way, that irony means you’ve transcended something. Actually, it means you’ve realized you’re stuck in something.


-16. She laughed, “Hey, man, it’s none of my business, but no one gets a phoenix tattoo unless they’re going through something.” She made it plain she didn’t want to know.


  1. Ironic: of my manifold worries, none came true.


-13. The tattoo I envisioned was dollar-sized; the one I got is a half-sleeve. Fiery dahlias engulf my upper arm in flames. The phoenix launches, skyward, from them. No one but Michael has seen it.


-21. Michael’s surgery fell on the day they closed the hospital to visitors due to coronavirus. I sat alone in the waiting room scrolling through a list of symptoms on an Instagram post that I had bookmarked multiple times without realizing it. Signs of burnout: headaches, feeling negative, unexplained exhaustion, irritability, insomnia, endless anxiety, neglecting self-care, feeling inadequate and hopeless. I saw myself clearly for the first time.


  1. Said one way, what I was doing sounded optimistic and brave, a libertine embracing her dream: I’m quitting my job to write a novel. Said another, it sounded crazy. I was past the point of knowing which was which.


  1. Obviously, I was wrong: nothing was the same outside the cave. An aberration galloped free thanks to our curiosity, our breath having thawed the chains of its ancient gaol. Someday, it will show up on my doorstep. There’s nothing I can do to stop it from coming. It’s a matter of time.


-22. —or, more accurately, a midlife crisis isn’t what torments you at 1:46 a.m. It’s your conscience. In the witching hour, your heart faces its ultimate betrayer.


  1. Time, a Janus of suffering and delight. How do I embrace what I love while allowing it to slip through my fingers? How do I sit with suffering, yet not harden into cynicism, nihilism, self-hate? 


  1. The night before his surgery, Michael does a dance in our kitchen. I can’t help but laugh at his shenanigans, his magnificent capacity for silliness in spite of everything. As it’s happening, I think, This is one of the moments I’ll love him for without remembering the details exactly. I shelter inside its warmth, try not to mourn the memory’s passing before it’s gone. This is what people mean by fleeting, by bittersweet.For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.


  1. At the end of a long passage, the crackling fire beckons. Its red embers spiral upwards in thick, billowing soot. Outside the cave the world is bright and heartbreakingly beautiful—there’s room to bend and move, to lift and turn your head, even extend your wings—yet, however open its skies, the world outside is hardly kind. Maybe the point isn’t to be free from pain, but to feel everything.
Reprinted with permission of the author

The author had this to say about her piece:

I started writing this essay in 2019 after a vacation in Iceland. Despite five attempts, I couldn't get it to work. I knew I had to do something different, but I wasn't sure what. In a moment between frustration and desperation, I numbered all the sections, cut them into individual strips, tossed them into the air, and re-assembled the pieces as they fell, at random with very little changes to the order. It turns out, breaking up the chronology set the essay free.

Gabriela Denise Frank is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. She is the author of Pity She Didn’t Stay ‘Til the End, a prose chapbook from Bottlecap Press (February 2022). 


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