Gabrielle Montesanti: I Used To Run In Kalamazoo (essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Like Missouri, a state considered both midwestern and southern, much of my work revolves around my clashing identities. Having lived in Alaska, Michigan, and Ohio, moving to Missouri to pursue an MFA in creative nonfiction afforded me space and distance to see these collisions more clearly. Here, I can negotiate what it means to love both math and the humanities; to be both Catholic and gay; to be raised in a working class family and choose a life in academia.

I Used To Run in Kalamazoo

right into places I’d been warned never to go. I punctured City Center, where South Westnedge meets West Vine, beyond what visitors called a “friendly college town” and past the metal wind chime fences that rattled like bones on dead days. I ran circles around El Sol, where there were more cop cars than school buses. I gave swimming lessons to the poorest of the bilingual kids in our college pool, most of them Hispanic and terrified to go under. They learned early from their parents how to keep their heads above water. One of their mothers offered to teach me Spanish. She overheard I could barely keep a B- in Spanish 201 and she wrote her phone number down on the back of a gum wrapper. Then she took her two kids and drove back into the real Kalamazoo, the poor Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo I ran through because it looked so different from high on Chapel Hill. I had the keys to an art studio downtown and I used to strike up a conversation with homeless men on Tuesdays before class, before I used my key to unlock the building and paint naked people on non-white paper. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes look behind me after saying hello, if I didn’t intend for my hello to really mean goodbyedon’t fuck with me. The art students called the McDonalds down the block “sketchy,” but they really meant “black,” and
“poor” and “convenient.” I used to go there mid-run to ask for a cup of water. I know how you can make some money real quick, one man said to me. He was blocking my way to the water. No, I said. Thanks but not today. (I actually did thank him.) Then I ran past factories, a smokeless Gibson Guitar smokestack, a castle turned bed-n-breakfast, a psychiatric hospital that swung open its doors to usher me in. I ran back onto campus, where my classmates shaved the bottom half of their heads, smoked cherry flavored e-cigarettes, got punctuation neck tattoos and called themselves heteroflexible, androgynosexual, platoniromantic. This woman sometimes came onto campus begging for money for a Happy Meal. I have a child, she said. He’s so hungry. I gave her a 5 once, pulled it right out of my sweaty bra and pushed it into her hand and held it longer than I needed to. When I told the story to a trans guy, he hugged me and I felt the little molehills of his breasts. (They’d be gone in a year.) Then he pushed me back and said I can’t believe you fell for the Happy Meal ruse. She’s been pulling that shit for a decade. She probably doesn’t even have a kid. I should have said to him: this woman, she constructs herself too. Not everything is as easily hidden as your breasts. Maybe she’s just frozen like Kalamazoo.