Book Review: Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz

When one reads a book published by Future Tense, one should expect to feel willingly uncomfortable with the author’s honesty. No matter the specific subject matter, there will be at least one moment, a feeling, a crash into clarity that makes one realize: I’ve been here too. Reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s excellent memoir, Excavation, is an experience no different.

Starting with her eighth grade English class, Ortiz recounts the five-year-long relationship she had with her teacher, a man fifteen years older who immediately catches her attention with his encouragement of her writing. She is not a teenager easily impressed, and with a distant father and an alcoholic mother, she’s spent her childhood wrapped up in worlds of her own imagining, only sharing her writing with a few trusted people. And now, here’s this man whose eyes fix on her in a way that make her feel powerful, so when she receives his phone number, she only briefly hesitates before calling.

Two and a half hours quickly passed.

I had been talking, laughing, hooting with Mr. Ivers, my eighth grade English teacher. A constant smile on my face threatened to break when my cheek muscles quivered.

We talked about my writing, which he raved about, having read the contents of the red binder, my novel in the making. Films we hadn’t seen but wanted to see. Museums he wanted to check out now that he lived in Los Angeles. He talked about his hometown and his ex-girlfriend, the college where they met, my own plans for college.
[…]
Over an hour into this conversation, this conversation that forced me to listen, reply, and think swiftly to keep up with the speed and flow of it, he used the word “crush.”

He said “crush” like I said it in sixth grade when I was talking about Marc Hendricks.

He said, “you” like I was the embodiment of some kind of dangerous elixir threatening to seduce him, forcing any control he might have over himself underground.

Cover of "Excavation: A Memoir" by Wendy C. OrtizThe conversation takes a sexual turn, and she is thrilled, confused, and overwhelmed. And she wants more. Though Mr. Ivers — later she calls him Jeff — loves her writing, he insists that she never write down anything about their conversations or times that they meet. Ortiz tells him that she is not, but knows how fervently she has committed every last detail to her journals. It’s almost as though she can hardly believe that it’s really happening, and so romantically inexperienced is she, that it doesn’t immediately occur to her that twenty-eight-year old men should not be pursuing thirteen-year-olds, no matter how mature.

His frame was stocky; his thick, pale skin sprouted black hairs. He exuded a masculine energy that framed me in a more feminine light, something I grappled with as my hips expanded, my breasts filled out. I wanted to stand beside him, or better yet, in front of him, just close enough to hook up with the energy flow, the unspoken promise of sex, with someone bigger, heavier, more solid than I felt myself to be.

Their relationship soon moves beyond the “promise of sex,” and though Ortiz indicates that other people in their lives have suspicions about what was happening, no one ever directly acted upon them.

They meet up with each other when they can be alone, and they continue to talk late into the night. They order food, they drink. Get high. They fight and grow distant, only to weaken for another round of his desperate love declarations and her enjoying (yet, not) that he can’t quite seem to kick the habit of her. For five years, she hates the mention of his (not always-)ex-girlfriend, that sometimes he is condescending, and that whether directly or not, he affects every single other romantic relationship she has. Even once the relationship is done, when she is eighteen and off to college, he is the barometer against which she measures all others.

Though the memoir is mainly chronological, Ortiz intersperses it with short chapters about the decades after him. After years of burying the meaning behind her teenage life, she uses her journals to uncover how she became who she is today — a teacher, a mother, queer, interested in therapy.

For nearly three years I met a Jungian analyst weekly, then twice weekly, in an office of West Los Angeles.

One of the times we met, she said, “It seems as though your natural state is one of hiding, secrets, shame; it is where you possibly feel most comfortable. From the moment you began hiding your parents’ alcoholism from others,” she explained, “you drew the cloak of secrets and shame around your shoulders so that it became something you would wear, always.”
[…]
The veil had been pulled back for a moment on all the situations I had participated in after Jeff. There were the infidelities, always preceding breakups with boyfriends and the periods of stable, pleasant and even fulfilling relationships I exchanged for thick lust with someone else, like a smoke I could, and did, get lost in. For as long as I could remember, there were the secrets I found myself weaving with a lover or potential lover, man or woman, the co-conspiratorial air that forced such strange intimacy.

Ortiz’s writing is matter-of-fact, yet drowning in longing. In her loneliness, I found myself discomfited by how This could have been me. Teenage me wrote stories collected in red binders distributed to carefully selected friends, and I delighted in their anticipation of reading them. Teenage me was often attracted to people more than a decade older — celebrity crushes, mostly — and I embraced how this differentiated me from my friends. Teenage me enjoyed believing that I was the more powerful one in my relationships (whether that was true or not), and I routinely wondered how I could bring my desires to fruition.

Teenage me had a chaste, brief, and inescapable bond with a high school teacher, and though it was nothing even remotely like what happens in Excavation, we got along during school hours in a way that didn’t resemble how I felt about other teachers. He was good at his job, weakened by his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he loved my hair. Others would notice how he would relax and joke around me, when he was often prone to classroom strictness and how he needed to write on the blackboard just so. My friends made jokes about a “secret relationship,” jokes I encouraged by responding not with embarrassment, but with lines like, “Wouldn’t you like to know.” And yet, for all the love sixteen-year-old me had for this man who was old enough to retire by the end of that year, it wasn’t sexual desire that fueled my longing. There was something about his barely-concealed brokenness with which I identified, and within that life, still that sense of romance. He was smart, unusual, and recognized that in me. When I heard that he’d died a few years later, I ached as though we’d had more than a school year. The loss of never meeting him as an adult still fills my chest with undefined sadness.

Though he was not the only older person for whom I had strong feelings, and though my tastes for attraction continued to be varied, Excavation reminded me of every formative relationship I’ve had — romantic or yearning-to-be so — that continues to inform how I operate today. Like Ortiz, I’ve been the unfaithful girlfriend, the person who had to learn to embrace my queerness in ways which were not hidden and obsessed over in journals alone. The very first person with whom I ever fell in love was person I would never date, yet she was a unyielding presence in my mind, my writing, and my deep-rooted need to have constant, capable person in my life. I’ve married a man who good-naturedly teases me about my love of “Olds,” and who knows about and accepts every person I’ve ever let affect my standard operating self. I realize I’m fortunate, yet still have trouble shaking off the feeling of being fucked up.

What Wendy Ortiz’s writing does is startle me. It makes me want to at once confess and hide. Like fellow Future Tense author Chloe Caldwell, her writing makes me feel vulnerable within its truth. It’s difficult to say that I loved this memoir, for it’s like loving the most difficult parts of oneself. Yet, Excavation is indeed one of the best memoirs I’ve seen. I read along knowing that her relationship with Jeff was wrong, but I squirmed over knowing how similarly I would’ve acted in her situation. Everything I’ve read from Ortiz makes me want more, to keep poking at those wounds, to see how we both keep on living. If one must use that desire as a measure of a book’s success, then let it be so.

 

Full Disclosure: An advanced reading copy of this book was provided by the author. Excavation: A Memoir goes on sale Tuesday, July 15.

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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