Otto, Otto everywhere.
That was how I felt
for a while, biting into wax
crusades in miniature,
hills to die on.
Otto cuts some meat with a knife.
Otto and that unspeakably
Otto and that exquisitely
Otto and did you know that
bone china is made of bone?
It’s true, though.
Unlike almost all things
one might encounter
I miss you, playing
your bones like flutes. You were very
wrapped up in your brilliance.
Some perversion of a Tesla Coil.
I guess this is a love poem.
Now I listen to gamelan.
And I revisit the Zurburans
at the museum. All those
all lashed up,
longing is just
loneliness in translation
Allison Hummel is based in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her work has recently appeared in Rougarou, Anastamos, and GASHER, among others. It is forthcoming in SLANT, The Operating System, and PacificReview.
Mary counts the ships. Rodney has just broken her heart.
“You’re like the ocean.” He points to the blue water carpet. “You will ebb and flow, you’ll see.”
There are five ships. A mother duck ship and four little ducklets. Last night, the radio talked of an oil spill.
“I hope those are rescue ships,” she says, “for the poor oily birds.”
She moves closer to the ocean. Foam tickle of water rushing towards her.
“The little black bird eyes,” she says. “Blacker now with sludge.”
“Think of it this way,” Rodney says from the shoreline, “they’re only birds and really won’t know the difference.”
She looks at the last of the ducklet ships. She hopes they can save the birds and towel the goop off the ocean skin.
Rodney keeps talking, but really he is just a memory now. This time, the foam tickle of water, pulling away.
Sarah has a weakness for ice cream and so she buys a cow. She slips her landlord a twenty, and he agrees to let Sarah keep the cow in her closet.
Mornings, Sarah gets up, pulls the cow from her closet, and tugs the milk from the cow teat. Then she turns the milk into ice cream, and for dinner, she has a giant bowl of it.
This goes on till she meets Dave. Handsome and tall, but lactose intolerant. So much so that he can’t even say the word “cow” without feeling ill. However, Dave has such heart-stopping blue eyes that Sarah gives up her ice cream routine.
Besides, Dave lets her sleep till noon.
One day, the cow gets hungry and starts to bang itself against the closet door. Sarah tells Dave that it’s just wind.
Dave doesn’t believe her. “Besides,” he says, “the wind doesn’t moo.”
In the end, Dave leaves her for lying.
Sarah cries for a while—big, gloopy tears that eventually stop.
Then she opens the closet and feeds the cow.
Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two flash fiction chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Café Crazy, has recently been published by Kelsay Books. She is a reviewer, blogger, and photographer. She is a former English teacher. She lives in NYC.
For a time I felt harmonious and whole,
if you know what I mean. Ringing bells alone
could make a Christmas and when I climbed
the red rungs of the fire tower to survey the tree line,
there wasn’t any smoke visible on the horizon.
Every good despot remembers things this way—
that stretch of time that precedes the pageant’s end.
Before is always better, but I am not indiscriminately
nostalgic. I always know when a moment will be mourned
while it’s happening. And along came a discordance,
something that broke me thoroughly, irreparably,
you might say, the way objects forged from a single piece
can never be fixed, only patched. And patched I am.
Isn’t it strange straddling these two centuries the way we do?
When I was young I was in love with “Wanderer
Above the Sea of Fog.” Now I have claustrophobic dreams
of trying to push through the crowd to the doors
of the train, and wandering through the Gap,
looking for chinos in that length but this color,
and do they have it in the back, which I’ll never know
because I leave to catch the last train back to waking
before dream clerk returns from the stockroom.
Nowadays, I think I’d like to see that painting’s face,
to name those mountains. I’ve grown to like specifics.
In Coshocton, Ohio there’s a roadside attraction
called Unusual Junction—an old depot famous
for housing the original sign from the Price is Right,
autographed by Bob Barker. I can picture it now:
the mass of light bulbs, a blinking incandescent dollar sign
in the Unusual Junction just as an archipelago of clouds
begins its procession around the moon, and below,
the closest thing to moorland in America lies still.
The foothills of Appalachia take shape in the distance,
giving way to steep mountains that drape the continent’s breast
like a sash carved from 500 millions years of glacial drift
and tectonic collision. I knew then that I would remember
the splendor of the moment, as I do tonight, sitting
on a balcony in Newport News, Virginia, bitten repeatedly
by mosquitoes—the buzzing, swarming little shits—
as they come from the marsh below this apartment.
I swat at them casually, as if they weren’t responsible
for killing more humans than any other thing in history—
as if right this moment they weren’t spreading malaria,
West Nile, Zika. Our ancestors were passed over
by mosquitos like a final plague, which lead me here to Virginia,
sitting on this porch, staring across the dark farm where all day horses
grazed in the pasture. An orange Sunkist machine sits next to barn,
so startling and gorgeous, and I had to travel here to find it,
beneath the din of every insect in the marsh calling out for a mate.
I am here because of my discordance. I am here because mosquitos
let my ancestors live, allowing me to travel to this remote peninsula,
and there are worse places to be exiled. I look to you, strange machine
in the dark, and paraphrase Virgil when I say that one day I’ll come
to remember even this moment fondly, when it is completely behind me.
Christopher Blackman is a poet and educator from Columbus, Ohio. He received his MFA in poetry from Columbia University and his poems have been published in the Atlas Review, Typo Magazine, EuropeNow, and Muse/A Journal. He has been an instructor at the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, and currently lives in New York.
Every night, after a long day spent creating the universe, God removes His talents from inside His chest, like a handful of featherless baby birds, glossy with blood, and lays them on the bedside nightstand before turning out the light. “He’s a genius,” everyone says. “What He’s done with the universe, it’s just great. Can’t wait to see what His next project will be.”
I’m so happy for God. I really am. We went to grade school together. Then I went to a public high school and He (of course could afford) an expensive private school. His success is nothing but a blessing. His talents are incomparable.
I remember as a kid, God would look at my drawings in art class. He said they were really good. He can create anything with a flick of His fingers. But I think my drawings really made an impression on Him. He saw something in my work.
Most days, I read about His exploits in the tabloids I stack at the front of the grocery store. I’m stacking when I’m not bagging. My success doesn’t match that of my esteemed classmate’s, but had circumstances been a little different, I think we (God and I) could have been considered contemporaries. In another universe. He still invites me over for dinner at His home sometimes, which is very nice. But I just feel like a third wheel when I’m there, sometimes a seventh or eleventh wheel.
When He goes to sleep, God takes His talents out and lays them on His nightstand, where they softly pulse and coo. You won’t read about that in the tabloids, but I know this because I’m a personal friend. He keeps me in the loop about His various habits and complexities. I have access to His private phone.
One of these nights, when God has peeled back His breastbone and exposed His damp, fleshy talents, placing them beside Him to sleep, I will grab the key hidden in the potted fern and creep into His bedroom. I’ll take His talents. And then, given every advantage, I’ll slough off the grimy patina of grocery clerking, and rejoice in my true potential. Oh how they’ll exclaim that mine is truly an infinite genius. And they’ll wonder, what will He do next?
Yaki Margulies is a writer, actor, comedian, and musician, originally from Seattle, WA, now living in Los Angeles, CA. His writing has previously appeared in Word Riot, Flash Fiction Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and other publications. He also creates the webcomic, Moose Hoopla.
On a rainy morning in October my son erased me during craft time at the library. We made a wind chime out of old spoons and gray yarn and colored beads in green and purple and orange and a jar lid with pre-drilled holes. The pencils were there to sign up for mommy/baby yoga the following day. A new three-year-old, Milo no longer qualified for mommy/baby yoga, but he still helped himself to a pencil. Ignoring the pointy end, Milo scrubbed the eraser over the ring finger of my left hand until the finger disappeared. Using my other hand to help the mother next to me attach the final string to her and her daughter’s wind chime, I didn’t notice until it was too late.
I shook my left hand like trying to wake a body part from pins and needles, but I could see right through it to the Dr. Seuss poster on the wall opposite and I had to come to terms with the fact that I now only had four fingers on one hand.
“I hate when that happens,” the other mom said. She lifted her long hair and showed me a blankness where her ear should have been. The baby in the stroller next to her began to cry. “Thankfully it helps with that!” she grinned and nodded at the source of the noise.
“Her no spoon,” Milo said and pointed at the other mom’s mess of a wind chime. She had used butter knives instead of spoons, which I didn’t even know was an option. She must have arrived early.
I thought I had hidden all the pencils in the house, but Milo managed to find one while I was in the shower and another while I cooked dinner and another when I had to take a shit and wouldn’t let him keep me company. He erased my hair while I slept, he whittled away at my toes while I chit-chatted with my friend Lucy at the coffee shop (who, despite not having kids, was conspicuously missing an ankle), and we said goodbye to my left hip during a repeat viewing of Thomas the Train, episode 32.
“You’re wasting away,” my aging father said when I dropped Milo off for a few hours so I could go to the dentist. Dad let Milo watch too much TV and fed him sugar exclusively, but I was trying to give Milo some solid male role models and while my dad may have been indulgent, he was also kind, intelligent, witty, and curious. “Are you eating?”
Dad looked sad, as he usually did when he saw me, I imagined less for how I looked than for how much he missed my mother and for all the things we couldn’t seem to say to each other.
“Who has time to eat?” I asked.
The dental hygienist talked my ear off (not literally, it was already gone) about dating apps while she cleaned what remained of my teeth, but when the dentist came in she let him do all the talking. It’s a chatty office. His current topic was the town’s schools.
“People move here because of the schools. Did you know that?” I did. Everybody did. “Immigrants. You would not believe how aggressive these moms get,” he continued. “And poor people. They rent apartments in town so their kids can go to our schools and get a better life. So their kids don’t have to grow up to be like them, cleaning houses,” he paused, “or cleaning teeth.”
I had two gloved hands—I knew the dentist had four kids and yet all of his fingers—in my mouth or I might have protested that the dental hygienist did not seem poor or uneducated or in any way lacking. My eyes flicked over to see her reaction, but she just handed over the cotton pliers with a blank expression.
“You know?” He looked at me, his hands still in my mouth, waiting for an answer. I shook my head back and forth so slightly he could have mistaken it for a burp. It wasn’t until the hygienist reached for the mouth mirror that I saw her missing lumbar. I wonder who’d done it to her, the dentist himself or an old boyfriend or some ancient, “old school” professor or her father or someone completely unpredictable like some random guy on the corner waiting for the light to turn and saying, “You should smile more.”
Later, when the receptionist asked if I wanted to schedule my next appointment, I told her I’d call her, but we both knew I never would.
Hannah Harlow has published stories in Vol. One Brooklyn, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She promotes books for a living and lives near Boston. Find her online at hannahharlow.com.
A girl at a house show expresses surprise and delight that I am from the Philippines. Her academic concentration is in environmental studies. She talks to me about conservation pursuits for American students on the rivers and shorelines. I say, ha ha, yeah, we could use the help. Too glib: she thinks I mean it, or she just thinks I’m mean. Two years from that moment I write tongue-in-cheek poems about my mother, who waded in those rivers simply to scratch the red welts leeches left on her skin. How when she visits home now the tap water makes her stomach curdle.
I haven’t been to those rivers myself. Instead I hold between my brain and my skull the memory of the tiles in her old Laguna house, sticky with damp dust, nineties squares in squares. The heat waves feel like mine, the dead wasp husks in the doorframes and the hindquarters of cabinets mine. The language belongs to someone else.
But any island place I go I watch the ocean to see if that feeling can withstand revocation. I mind the sea in screensavers and Windows 10 default desktops. I bought a ticket to Moana, less a cinematic experience and more a Kodak film carousel corollary to in fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In the movie a girl of color from an island nation makes her people into explorers again, but outside the AMC, Google Earth gently dispels the illusions of places still left to see.
For my part I didn’t learn to swim until adulthood. My parents crossed an ocean to get here just to worry I would drown in a swimming pool.
The statuettes in front of my colleges have nickel-bronze faces but our future I think we immigrants chip from granite, and sometimes with bare upturned hands. Its contours stark, featureless, brazenly unscripted: where your nose would be rests my confusion. The site of your brain is the site of my language loss. This world we build from the wet scuffed sand. In the midst of work that does not end I stop to ask what other path should my hand have taken, my voice. Where was left to go. What ocean blue untouched. What have you left for me other than this. What have you left for us.
Isabel Theodore is a writer and adventurer, but most of all a ham-fisted and mad-as-hell all-around bad sport. She was born in the Philippines and currently resides in Atlanta, and her poetry has recently been featured in LEVELER and WUSSY. She can be found @docfission.
perched on spindles of the branching spring
the wren with conspicuous brow, the buff sparrow with its
white appetite, ravishing the seed, the tweet-tweet-tweet of hunger
quickening the delinquent, like Proust’s madeleines in tea. The earlier
received, the more vivid the doting on what’s set like concrete. The synapses
snapping, crackling like the sugar-sweet cereal of sleep, that first dreaming
we were older, after prom, on Jeter’s farm, waking to the slick of summer skin,
the starch in sheets, our bodies tuned instinctively to bird-sound after frenzied heat.
A neuro-autobiography, the bulb’s proximity to what lights up emotion, the birds
outside the window like little time machines.
Kathleen Hellen is the author of The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin (2018), the award-winning collection Umberto’s Night, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net, and featured on Poetry Daily, her poems have been awarded the Thomas Merton poetry prize and prizes from the H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square Review. Hellen’s poems have appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, North American Review, Poetry East, Seattle Review, the Sewanee Review, Witness, and elsewhere. For more on Kathleen visit www.kathleenhellen.com.
Instead of getting on the highway, Jake starts to drive deep into the woods, past the Savage Funeral Home and out 147, past Iona’s Country Bar. I can tell by now that this so-called spontaneous road-trip has been meticulously planned. I think, Iona’s in there, so is Lucky, so is Fran. I give a quick squeeze to my red rubber stress ball. Jake’s got his box cutter handy, for just in case we get into an accident and need it to free ourselves from our seat belts.
He says, tell me about your celebrity crushes, now and before. Go!
I say, well, I had a giant crush on Led “Zeppo” Zeppelin because he wore very tight pants and Larry Hagman…
Hm, says Jake, adding click sounds, almost not like a human, the way you’d expect an insect to talk if it were five foot nine inches tall.
…Larry Hagman in I Dream Of Jeannie with his military haircut but not in Dallas (too shallow). I show him my binder full of pictures of dapper Mr. Peanut, which luckily I have stowed in my duffel bag. I still totally have a crush on my one cousin who is a legit local celebrity, he’s in insurance. I surprise myself with how all in I am with this evolving excursion as I reminisce with Jake, our faces lit up by occasional headlights from oncoming traffic. Twiggy, Princess Grace. I would like to have dinner with Twiggy. I confide that I always swoon over actors playing the bad boy and sporting an F. Scott Fitzgerald haircut and champagne habit. I’d like…
Scott!—my companion yelps and immediately starts to melt into my grilled cheese sandwich. I start to intuit that being late for work at the Chef Boyardee plant is the least of my worries. But I like Jake. He has a great name. We’ve been dating for at least two hours.
Rules For the One-Armed, Two-Person Rowing Race
Let’s call the two rowers Mary and Melody. Mary is on the left (L). Melody is on the right (R).
They are seated next to one another in their small boat, facing the center of Lake Harmony.
The person on the left (Mary) will use her left arm to row. The person on the right (Melody) will use her right arm to row.
The slight northerly wind adds tilt, intrigue.
Mary (L) has her left hand on her oar. Melody (R) has her right hand on her oar.
Count to establish a rhythm, begin.
Row. Row. Row.
You might remember at summer-camp as a youngster taking part in a “three-legged race.” This isn’t really like that. But it isn’t exactly not like it.
Mary brushes the right thigh of Mel, and Mel brushes Mary’s left shoulder-bone, where, underneath her calico blouse, it joins her arm.
Mary is laughing so hard that she has her eyes closed. Melody is laughing so hard she is practically melting into Mary, but not lunging. Melody is composed.
There is no clear-cut finish line, but if there were it would be Mary (if you are Melody) and Melody (if you are Mary).
Open your eyes, close your eyes.
Now you are well away from the shore.
You have chosen your partner with care.
The winner is not necessarily the team that finishes first.
Valerie Fox’s most recent book is Insomniatic [poems] from PS Books, and her other volumes include The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and The Glass Book (Texture Press). Her poems and stories have appeared in The Cafe Irreal, Juked, Sentence, Across the Margin, Hanging Loose, Apiary, West Branch, Ping Pong, and other journals. She has a chapbook, The Real Sky (Bent Window Books), which features art by Jacklynn Niemiec.
The Mouse Named Ralph Created the Mouse Machine Named Ralph
This was his third story,
the one after the one about dinosaurs
turning to glue and the ship trapped in a raindrop
sputtering back to life.
The kindergarten teacher did not
understand, but the boy knew
how it had to be. Mouse machines. Ralph.
I was sipping beer from a paper cup.
The music was an old adagio.
People were watching videos downstairs.
I had driven past the office building where
I used to work, and it struck me,
something about proximity, the meaning
of occupying space, the perspectives
maintained whether you are passing by
or holed up. How one can become
a machine that is used. I held dreams
of becoming a writer, I wrote a story
about a man driving, his hands melting
into the steering wheel, his feet
turning to glue. Showed it around, no one
liked it. Said it had been done already
or something or needed to be crisper, as in a cold
bite of lettuce you take late one night
after running in the heat a long time. But keep
trying, it was said. I was sinking into a forest
of mud. My dog had come to drink
the little pools of water
that sat on top of the mud. The moss
crawled along the banks of the stream,
and the sun struck the moss
in an image of such softness it made memory
a tangible thing. I was walking with my son.
We discussed the ins and outs
of woods, and wooden-ness,
how ticks drop from trees
and burrow into the scalp,
though baby ticks aren’t bad, he said,
nothing that is a baby is bad,
they are peaceful, harmless, food for birds.
Numb inside their chitinous slumber,
a whole colony of them growing under the bark
the way a bruise spreads over the skin. .
. . Mist Moving on in The Guise Of A Cow
Under the canopy:
a storm, a dogsled, a ghost
with no shoes
trying to make noise.
A good place
would be on the other side
of where he came to be
as the wind curled
into his eyes, slug-like,
snapping in two.
A certain flamboyance
crept into the boathouse.
A curious candle
drove off in a strange buggy.
He crawls into a space
and leaves there,
on Sunday afternoon,
a desolate dance number.
There is no room for flowers,
no room for the wind
through a flower,
or the field it’s in. .
. . Brainscape with Parasite
When the worst is imagined
and whether it has grounds
in reality, the floss gets stuck
between the teeth that
have known too many gummy worms,
prefiguring a nightmare
of the teeth. There are lice out there,
and slugs. Which does
one conquer first, lice,
slugs, or gummies. A continual debacle
in the textbook version
of debacles is what has hooked me
to this: my friend Jenny fills me
with great desire when she’s talking
on the phone or just walking
around or sitting there. I imagine
terrible things. The dog has fleas,
a terrible flea, and it’s in his ear
and driving him crazy,
and because he can’t speak
I am haywire about what
I don’t know. I think of babies
who have suffered the same fate
as the dog. It seems there’s no way
out of these things, the oracle says.
She’s not a classical oracle,
wears a bandana in place of a bra,
and with one of her boots missing, well.
She wonders where on earth
is that boot it was there
a minute ago, how did it
get away from me, as if it were life
that was getting away, and then
a dust mote and its assemblage of horrors
appears to keep things
whole. Like a good, honest king . . .
setting off for a night of debauchery,
disguised, but suddenly checked,
wondering what makes the sky so hot,
why is separateness
disparate from unification,
like moveable type, or a horseshoe
thrown as if the thrower meant
to throw it at somebody’s head,
and it almost makes it
because we’re human, not animal,
a fact which enables
figments of the imagination
to gain great weight
such as found in a madman
or a saint. She attempted saintliness
and it brought doom.
The threshold of existence
sways as the slug meanders
his odd way forward, and the wind
is late in coming. Wind is
wind, the voice of someone
vengeful, and such thoughts
can’t be let go of, or imagined from,
to make way for a huge mist
spreading across life
like an elephant who wants
to push his onerous bulk
James Grinwis is the author of two books of poetry, The City From Nome (National Poetry Review Press) and Exhibit of Forking Paths (Coffee House/ National Poetry Series), both of which appeared in 2011. His poems have been relatively quiet since then, though recently have made appearances, or soon will, in journals including Hotel Amerika, Bennington Review, Poetry Northwest, Rogue Agent, and Willow Springs. He lives in Greenfield, MA.
Like you’re supposed to hate winter, with its cold and mountains of snow and how slip-walking on ice is a bitch and all that shit. Honestly, I love it. Honestly, I’d move to Alaska or the Arctic Circle or the South Pole if anyone would let me. In another life, I’d beg to be a penguin. Or a polar bear, except they’re going extinct.
Jase is staring at me like he always does when I’m not talking, like I’m supposed to entertain him with “scintillating” chatter 24/7, and whenever I’m not doing that I’m only a girl who’s failing in some deep and significant way.
He’s my best friend, and he’s the one guy at school who talks to me with purpose, and I want that to keep going, so I say, “I was thinking about winter.”
“I didn’t ask,” he says. “Think about whatever.”
“Well, right this minute it’s winter I’m thinking about,” I say. “And penguins and polar bears.”
He says, “God, I hate winter.”
“You cliché, you.” I smile like it’s a good-natured joke, like at heart I’m a good-natured person, which I’m not. I’m about ready to dissolve into a thousand-million-trillion specks of dust, something someone swipes away with a broom without noticing.
He says, “Stop talking like we’re in school. We’re not in school.”
I look around. We’re in the school library or “media center” where there are some books and posters and shelves and random displays someone set up, shit everywhere. I see computers and carrels and buzzy study groups hunched around tables and slouched legs-over-chair-arms across the good chairs, popular kids gossiping about their dreary lives in whispers.
I open my mouth to tell him he’s a fucking idiot, but I snap it shut. Maybe Jase is right? What if we’re not in the school library or “media center”; what if we’re actually huddled on a massive iceberg drifting through the Arctic Sea (yes it’s Ocean but Sea’s prettier). We’re pressed close, sharing one sealskin parka, quarreling over the pocket, floating through shadowy arctic daylight, gently freezing to death as our minds skid and slide through insanity—like, imagining being in the school library or “media center.” What if Jase is invented by my mind, and I’m freezing to death in the Arctic, no one close by except the world’s last, lonely polar bear, and I’m adrift, alone in the gloom, we’re—
Jase has been talking this whole time, possibly something important but probably not, and finally I hear my name, him saying, “Stephanie, you’re so far away. It’s like you’re traveling this abundant distance without me.”
I laugh because he’s always showing off words in italics and spouting stuff that ends up all awkward. But he’s still staring at me, and I lean in, making sure I’m not wrong, and I’m not. Glittery tears balance in both eyes, then one glides along his cheek. It’s real. Jase is crying in the school library which I didn’t even think could be a thing.
I say, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what? That’s not a real response.” We wait through a tiny moment of silence. “In fact, that’s a stupid response,” he adds, sounding back to the real, non-crying Jase I know.
So I say, “Are you crying?”
“Goddamnit.” He sends his head flopping forward onto the table with a low thunk. His too-long black hair feathers down like lacy curtains.
“Is something wrong?” I ask. “I mean, something real?”
“You’ll never understand,” he says, voice muffled.
“Are you suicidal?” I don’t know why I ask that. The words scare me. The iceberg that was in my mind is a million miles away now. The AC hitches on and cold breeze prickles every hair on my arm, lifting them to attention. Like fur. Like an animal. Like a going-extinct polar bear.
He hasn’t answered.
I whisper, “Jase, do you want to hurt yourself?”
He doesn’t know that I know he did, once, when he was eight, before we were friends—he flung himself off the roof over the garage and broke his leg. The story is that he wanted to fly.
But in the secret journals we kept last semester in creative writing class that I shouldn’t ever have snoopily read, he wrote how he jumped because he wanted to die. He could have been bull-shitting because he’s the world’s biggest bull-shitter and has to be bull-shitting now. He could pop up his head and go, “Gotcha,” laughing his ass off at me and my whisper.
Finally, he looks up, his red-rimmed, teary eyes glowing like a lab rat’s. “Does it ever feel like you’re all alone? Like maybe you’re the only one here? Like everyone else is frozen in place except you, like you’re the only one?”
One word pulses neon in my head. “No,” I say.
He releases a long, even sigh. “Me neither.”
His hand rests on the wooden table. A mom or teacher or even probably a girlfriend would grab hold of it, grab on and rescue him, like hauling in a long, heavy rope. I want to do that. But I keep staring at that hand, mesmerized, watching it the way earth’s last polar bear might, I imagine, thinking, meat; thinking, survival; thinking, me, me, me, me. Can there be something else?
“Gotcha,” Jase says.
“Got me good,” I agree.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Silver Girl, released in February 2018 by Unnamed Press. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Washingtonian, The Collagist, and Cincinnati Review.www.lesliepietrzyk.com
one month I am in philadelphia reading the Andrew Durbin book that describes this club The Spectrum, and the next month I am at The Spectrum watching women flog one another in an affectless way. that’s sort of how it is in new york, I guess, I say to someone later, ha ha, to read something is to conjure it. this is no safeguard against emptiness
I wonder at length whether writing always has to stake out a new and special way of seeing. I just wanted to talk about how bored they looked even as the leather began to break skin
I plant the hyssop. I wait it out.
I think about how far we are into this century and still I know three women named Geraldine, which G. #2 described to me as a man’s name suffixed diminutively.
all three are gay and one of them would like to fuck me. it doesn’t work that way,
even the best smartest scholar most critical of SM’s whiteness still refers to spanking as producing “a reddening”
…………….“Silvia Federici?” yes! …………….“squeeze of lime?” Yes! …………….“Forget This Network?” yes, Yes!
this isn’t abundance. Maybe I missed orientation day
I fretted. I undressed. I heeded all best citational practices!
I tried to avoid balkanization but the architecture of The Couple was of course very enticing
it is difficult to be a lesbian when you fuck men, but it’s not impossible. ask me anything.
if you’ve never heard of orange wine, it’s what happens when they just do all the stuff they normally do for white wine but instead of separating out the grape skins from the rest, they leave the skins in and let the skins stay and the skins and the juice all together, it ferments, it funks, one is left with skin-contact alcohol.
…………….“ok!” I shout. “Yes!” this is exactly what i’ve been looking for.
Heather Holmes is a writer and editor. Her work about art and embodiment has been published by or is forthcoming in The New Inquiry, Art21, The New Museum, Art Papers, and OnCurating. She writes about exhibitions digitally here.
Over dinner the Brazilian painter says she doesn’t believe in time, or maybe she says she’s skeptical about the measuring of time—I can’t be certain as we meet haltingly between languages. We are painters and photographers and musicians and one writer, me, in a crumbling Catalonian farmhouse at the foot of a mountain that looks like a pile of noses.
We are broken and wanting, drinking red wine until sunrise, some of us not sleeping at all.
I’m the serious one until the night I drink a shocking amount of sangria and dance like a Fraggle in an actual cave. Later, Javier asks, “What do you do with all that energy? Where does it go?” I’m not a great swimmer and as a child I broke my face on the ice trying to skate—hell, I broke my arm on the couch trying to stand—but when music hits me in a certain way I’m light through a prism that cannot be stopped.
I thought Catalan was a Spanish dialect, but it is closer to French or Italian and in town they speak it with pride. After a few weeks the women who run the flexitarian restaurant with the brightly painted chairs start calling me “guapa,” which is not Catalan but Spanish, and I think, we should tell people they’re beautiful all the time, in all the languages. Why don’t we do this?
Somehow, Spain is halfway. Canada is home, and my husband and cat and all our belongings are in an Indian city that makes me sick and sometimes crazy. We wanted to have a baby but I don’t feel safe there, where the air is toxic, where the hospitals are unpredictable.
The body listens to the head.
Still, I feel I’m an adult now, for the first time, at thirty-four. A person of no clear country, writing alone in a bedroom in El Bruc. Morning sun on my face all I need.
On a Saturday I go to the city to see Picasso. I stop for coffee and watch the barista give a bag of day-old bread to a man with a suitcase and a bed roll and a little dog afraid of everything.
The museum is a series of medieval houses with courtyards, all attached in mysterious ways. It’s a relief to see how long it took Picasso to become Picasso. There is a tiny sketch, “The Artist’s Eyes,” from Paris: a few lines of clean fire. And another, a gored horse with an infinite neck reaching to the sky.
Time happens, and I know there’s a certain power in my hips, my height, my stride. I wonder where it goes when I shrink, I thicken, I slow.
Eyes wild, legs splayed, spike piercing that horse in the heart.
When Monet was obsessed with his water lilies, he wrote to a friend that despite his advancing years he would continue to try to render what he feels. But Modigliani is my favorite; my heart understands the black slits of his eyes. He died at thirty-five, leaving his portraits behind.
I’ll turn thirty-five this year, and until now I’ve hidden my work. In computer files, in emails to myself, in dreams.
But Picasso. Those mad planes of color. Shapeless pigeons and geometric breasts. The human figure split open like an egg. I refuse to experience the gallery in order. I move forward and backward through births and deaths, through successes and failures, through the blue period and the rose period and the period where everything mixes into a mucky brown. I wander the museum for two hours or maybe two years and when I finally leave I am two inches taller.
Nicole Baute grew up in rural Ontario and currently lives in New Delhi, India. She recently won the 2018 Pinch Literary Prize for Fiction and came in third in Wigleaf‘s Mythic Picnic Prize. Her short stories and essays have been published in Joyland, River Teeth, carte blanche, and elsewhere. Nicole teaches creative writing online at Sarah Selecky Writing School and is pursuing her MFA at the University of British Columbia.
is always visible, no matter where we are, it doesn’t even matter what we’re looking at. Tapered at the tip, lifting up without lifting off like the gathering before the spurt, smooth on the surface—smooth and clear as an idea you don’t even need to think about because everyone has the same idea. It is never out of position, never in the wrong place, it’s about the most accurate thing there is. Not attached to anything—a tower isn’t a leash or a collar. Not showing off—the tower isn’t an ornament or a loose translation. When something happens we turn to the tower, we point to the tower as if this is the real reason, asking the tower what are we supposed to do? What is going to happen to us? What have you done to us? Rising straight up into the sky the tower doesn’t waver or swing like a pendulum, never moves to one side or the other, as if it has an idea, or bends at the waist as if it has a different idea, or leans toward us in sympathy—it’s the kind of stability we are attached to and depend on and are also tired of at the same time.
Peter Leight lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has previously published poems in Paris Review, AGNI, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, FIELD, Raritan, and other magazines.
Christmas morning two years ago. Cold and snowless. My father hauled a leather instrument case through the front door and set it at my feet. Next to its handle was a little gold plaque, its logo embossed in fine script. Martin & Co., Est. 1833. Up close, the case smelled like his car: a mixture of coffee, Red Bull, and sweat. I unfastened its buckles and pulled the top open. Inside was a new guitar. A particularly beautiful one, smaller than a dreadnought. Black, gourd-shaped mahogany body with ivory binding along its waist and edges. Cream-colored, vintage-style tuning pegs, pearlescent fret inlays.
I lifted it by the neck and set it on my leg. I started playing an old Beatles tune. Blackbird, I think it was. The chords echoed warmly through the house. I could feel the windows vibrating.
In the year after I got it, I brought the guitar wherever I went. To town, to school, halfway across the world, back home. It would never complain if I strummed too hard or plucked too softly. I’d play it under trees, on park benches, in my room until my fingers smelled like rust. I’d think about it whenever it wasn’t with me, the measured jangle of its strings, the way it would grow warm against my body.
My friends always joked that I was in love with it. If that was true, then they were, too. Whenever I played with them, we’d all undulate back and forth, as if the guitar itself were a great sea vessel cruising on sounds that ebbed like briny ocean swells. During school breaks, we’d sit around campfires, and I’d pluck Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver songs, and everyone would sing along. Our collective noise would swing and reverberate and die out in the dark beyond the flames.
When we all went to bed, I’d lie down with my guitar. I’d stare at it in the dark. I’d touch its strings. It would help me fall asleep.
It’s become quite battered. I’ve dropped it on the ground, scraped it against walls, and hit it on household items dozens of times. The first injury was the most memorable. I was improvising a melody on a chair in my room, swaying with my eyes closed, when the body smacked the edge of the desk in front of me. It gave a deep, hollow groan that made me cringe. The divot is still there, shiny and triangle-shaped, directly below the bridge.
I initially hated these injuries and wear marks, but as more have accumulated, I’ve become comfortable with them. I’d even say I have a few favorites. The first three frets are crusted with dead skin that won’t come off even when I scrub them. A series of wormlike pick furrows extends about three or four inches below the pickguard, markers of hours of aggressive strumming. The bottom left corner of the body, where I usually rest my forearm, is slicked with grease and a few shades darker than the rest of the guitar. There are many other dents and scratches, some of which I don’t know the origin. I’m sure there are more I haven’t noticed.
Even though it’s never been there, the guitar has come to smell like the attic of my old house. Like damp wood and must and boxes of forgotten memories. I’ve wondered what I’ve done to make it smell like that. Maybe I haven’t been as caring with it as I should have. Maybe it’s just a normal part of the aging process.
Despite the hardship it’s been through, the guitar doesn’t seem to mind. It takes it all in stride, like a graceful, singing, dancing woman. A woman I’ve decided to name Marlowe.
Sometimes I stare at Marlowe and wonder what she’ll look like in five years. In ten. In twenty. I can’t imagine all the stains I’ll give her. All the dings and dents she’ll accrue. I wonder how close she’ll come to breaking.
I feel like I’ll always be young, but time is playing me like an instrument, too, plucking and shortening my strings. What’ll I look like in five, ten, twenty years? What’ll I smell like? How many wrinkles will I have? How many scars? How many more memories?
I’m not sure. But I do know that Marlowe will be in my hands. And together we’ll be singing.
Andrew Jason Jacono is a senior at Wesleyan University majoring in English and French Studies, and he has been writing ever since he could hold a pen. A proud Manhattan native, he is a mountaineer, guitarist, Francophile, and wine enthusiast. His work has previously appeared in Short Fiction Break, Reverberations Magazine, and the Vignette Review.
To learn more about Andrew and stay updated on what he’s working on, you can visit his website: www.andrewjacono.com.
Now, I’ve got
one eye seeing
forever thru an extra
lens of margin,
the moon’s side inside
of the book’s binding.
A string from my bonnet
pursues fact, bends
into view. I am dusk
opened, compressed ink
off a library pad,
the holes of punched
O’s. Write this she eloped
No change #2943.
The bluing wind around my visage made room for me
Michelle Matthees’ poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Memorious, The Baltimore Review, J Journal, The Prose Poem Project, and Superstition Review. In 2016 New Rivers Press published her collection of poems, Flucht. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s MFA Creative Writing Program. More information about her work is available at michellematthees.com
Since preschool, our girls have been kindred spirits. They are on the brink of young adulthood, buds pressing through tee shirts, splotches of pink and red in a constellation across their hairlines, limbs long and gangly.
“Is Kate able to come to the park? The one by your house?”
I pause, like cold water pouring over my naked brain. It’s taking time to not panic about letting my daughter venture to the park alone, with a friend. I worry. Perverts. Sunburns. Crazy mothers.
“By the way,” she types. “They found her in a bathtub full of water.”
I know this friend’s relationship with her own mother is estranged. Alcohol. A slew of dysfunction fueled by addiction. My friend’s mother’s issues, like mine, are rarely discussed, but there, under the surface, boiling and festering. An unnamed force connects us as friends, as mothers.
“How devastating,” I respond.
It’s been two weeks since a similar image of my own mother slithered across my mind’s eye. Bathtubs, beds, another intimate piece of one’s life.
“She’s alive, but barely. They’re going to take her to a hospital,” she types back. I tell her I’m sorry.
“She doesn’t have long,” she responds. “It’s the alcohol. Her systems are shutting down.”
And they do. A week or so later, another text alerts me that her mother passed away. Two women, one in Missouri, one Tennessee. Mental illness. Substance abuse. Both estranged from their daughters. Gone.
“The girls are at camp this week; we have a lot to process. Let’s do lunch,” she says.
The shabby chic tea room sits nestled in a valley among corn fields and gravel roads. I’m late. Maybe a little lost.
“I’m here,” she texts, “Should I get a seat?”
I’m behind a transport shuttle for old folks, the sprawl of the Chicago suburbs under my tires, stop lights and road construction. Building up, breaking down. The bus is white. The emergency door reads, “Children. Caution.” The words are stacked on top of each other, printed in big, black lettering. I see a woman’s body inside, her head, neck, legs jutting into the middle of the aisle, leaning forward, eager, anticipating her stop, her next statement. She’s gesticulating, waving her hands back and forth, frantic. I think she is telling the driver where to turn, where she needs to go. And there’s this part of me saying, turn around, look at me; I need to see your face. But she doesn’t. I don’t need to see this woman’s face; I know it looks like mine.
The horizon begins to look familiar. The green fields. The sign. I follow the gravel road laced with pits and potholes.
My friend dresses up a bit, sandals instead of tennis shoes. A flouncy shirt. And immediately I’m glad to see her, sisters in estrangement. The hostess leads us to our table. We sit and lean forward, peer at the menu, handwritten with seasonal favorites, peaches and blueberries, smoked applewood meats, croissants and peach tea. We order.
She pushes the cranberries around her salad and makes a pile of candied walnuts. Nothing’s wrong with the food; it’s us. Our emotions are out of whack; the part of our bodies that digest food are processing the aftereffects of death. A thought crosses my mind: is it okay for me to be here, enjoying food alongside a friend in the summer’s sun while our mothers rot and decay in ground beneath our feet?
I take a bite. I chew methodically.
“She had a slew of cats, at least twenty” my friend says. “They’ve been taken to the shelter. It’s the best thing.”
“Some were sickly, dying. Others hungry, mangy. It wasn’t a good situation. No way was she was caring for them, even when she was alive.”
I know how substance abuse is: nothing matters except you, your fix.
“And the smell. Cat barf. Overflowing litter boxes. Garbage.”
The candied walnuts disappear. The peach iced tea. The fruit cobbler is delivered. Each in its own crock topped with vanilla ice cream and a dusting of cinnamon. The spoons are frosted. A hot wind blows. Do they know we are here, together, left-behind daughters talking of their collective loss, the hurt and estrangement?
The ice cream melts on my tongue. I eat greedily, scraping the bowl with my spoon, filling myself with the sweet taste of freedom. And then she leans forward and says, “I have her money. But I don’t want it. It’s tainted. It’s no good.”
My mother had nothing to give. Instead she left a mountain of debt. Scraps of material. Patterns. Dust. Broken promises. I push the dessert away.
“He was terrible to me: her husband.”
I don’t know if I can stomach what comes next, but I must. For those tender, delicate formative years of my friend’s life, he crept into her room and did unmentionable things. She tried to tell her mother, but she sided with him, always.
My skin prickles and I wince. It’s deplorable. I know nothing, not a single utterance will make the truth any less bitter. I know what it’s like to be stripped of one’s innocence, of one’s childhood, because it happened to me, but in a different form.
We’ve lost our appetite. We ask for the bill. We praise the food, the setting, and deep down inside, we are empty.
To our right, a large barn is filled with trinkets and treasures made by artisans and craftsmen. A vintage market is being held at the tea house. A white tent flaps in the wind. We need a diversion, and so we go, leaving behind grief and hurt. Our first stop is a jewelry maker whose booth is filled with pendants and earrings, bracelets. I pick one up that catches my eye. An enameled disc with a four-leaf clover embedded in the middle. I spin it around, inspecting each leaf, slightly bent and broken, but intact. I note the price and feel it’s too high.
The artist notices my interest and steps forward, “You can place this on a necklace of any length, a bracelet, whatever.”
“These are genuine four-leaf clovers, sourced from Ireland.”
I’m not sure if she’s being honest, or hinting at a sale. Perhaps she went out in her backyard and searched for them herself? Maybe they blossomed over my mother’s grave? “Thanks,” I say, and place the item down.
We stroll through the lavender-infused tent. Soaps. Lotions. Hair ties. Baby bibs. I tell my friend I am looking for miniatures, “You know, like for a dollhouse?” It strikes me that I am looking for diminutive things that represent home and hearth, comfort and security. Small, smaller. Infinitesimal. The ones I need are so minuscule, a grain, if they ever existed, and I know they are nowhere to be found.
I ask anyway. “Any dollhouse miniatures,” I venture. “Fairy garden items?” The woman with a nametag on her shirt shakes her head. “Nothing like that.”
Sometimes I imagine my mother on a remote island where she sews doll clothes and sells them to rich tourists on the street. The idea tumbles in my mind, bitter and calculating, like spinning a plot for a novel.
Could it be that in her final act on earth, she was giving us a gift? One in which she removed herself permanently from our lives?
Yet narcissism defies that. By its very nature, narcissism seeks to draw attention, to bolster its image to that of superiority, to sequester admiration. By not being here, she’s given us a lot to ponder, and, perhaps, miss.
I purchase a pair of earrings, a few hair clips for Kate and Kelly. I smile as the artist hands me the bag filled with her handiwork.
My friend looks at items, holds them to the light, a discerning smile on her face.
“You should get it,” I prod. I’m not sure why I do. I think it’s because I’ve already purchased something and feel she needs to go home with a memento.
She places the soap down.
We both know we need more than a bar of a soap to wash away the years of sand, to slough off the hate and anger, a lifetime of loss. We circle to the front of the tent, hover around the first artisan, the one with the four-leaf clovers. She picks up the pendant, inspects the verdant plant pressed under glass, in a circle the size of a quarter. Along the top, the word luck is inscribed. She tells me her husband’s birthday is St. Patrick’s day. But it’s more than that; this pendant means something to her. She holds it to her chest, near her heart.
“I’m going to get it,” she says defiantly.
Leslie Lindsay is a mother, wife, and writer living in Chicagoland. Leslie is the award-winning author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in The Awakenings Review, Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Manifest-Station, the Ruminate Blog, and The Mighty. Leslie is at work on a memoir about her mentally ill, interior decorator mother and her mother’s eventual suicide. She reviews books widely and interviews authors weekly at www.leslielindsay.com. Leslie is a former child/adolescent psychiatric RN at the Mayo Clinic. Read her craft essay “Is Memoir Automatically Therapeutic” on Cleaver.
I realize I do not wish to fall to the bottom of a well. With no one
to hear my screams (and screams are all we hear). Light is a pinhole.
Dark days, kept on a catheter, a transfusion of blood, poured into beakers,
baked on a Bunsen—I purge the present from the protoplasm.
Loss happens so fast, yesterday it was 1979
and sorry we have no gas made my uncle burn like a country.
So, look sharp, time marches, one step, two step,
next step, goose step. Buckle up your boots.
Everyone here is a skin wrapped circuit of fear—good for a shock
but deadly knee deep in water at the bottom of a well.
Someone thought to bring light from the hollow, but instead they took it
and buried it in their wooden chests. To keep it safe.
My new American blood will be warm. I’ll burn alright.
Like the glare of a rocket. Like a book on fire.
D.R. Shipp, originally from Texas, is an observer surfacing for air, a writer surfacing. His work is found in select anthologies and online with publications or is pending publication in HCE Review, Silver Needle Press, 3Elements Review, and Waxing & Waning. He splits his time between now and then, the US and the UK. He can be found on Instagram @shippwreckage.
He’s a grotesque in primary colors, as much David Cronenberg as Clark Kent. The cartoons and the movies and the coloring books—they usually forget that. The idea of Spider-Man is, at its core, revolting. When it is time to suit up, Superman bears his classically handsome mug. Batman, Captain America, and Green Lantern, at the very least, leave their chiseled jaws exposed. With Spider-Man, everything hides beneath his spandex. Should you be saved by him—hung up in his gangly, yet muscular arms as he swings you off to safety—you’d look into the face of your hero, and there’d be no reassuring grin or playful wink, but, instead, two pupil-less eyelets, teardrop-shaped and alien, staring hugely as if frozen in shock. It would take all you could muster not to scream.
When I happened upon a dog-eared issue of Amazing Spider-Man in my cousin’s basement, I was hooked immediately. At ten years old, I was beginning to recognize that I was different from most other kids. Far beyond bashful, I spent entire school years clammed up, perennially scooched far enough down a lunch table that the only thing I risked brushing elbows with was the applesauce skid along the wall. It was easy to see why I took to Marvel Comics’ resident nerdlinger. Though not yet privy to the exact details, I sensed something about me was off. And, like many kids whose social misfires had been blanketed by the label of “different,” I wanted to believe that my peculiarity was the shadow of some unknown, dormant greatness everyone else was too dense to see.
Just as Spider-Man had been bitten and mutated into something superhuman, I recognized my DNA as similarly scorched. The trouble was I couldn’t figure out what was making me this way—all antsy and shy. The truth of it all, now that I’ve begun to unpack it, is that my parents had been living with undiagnosed mental disorders and balanced out their mania with booze and painkillers. In short, my home life had all the stability of a powder keg. When I try to recall the specific instances of those turbulent years, my memory turns foggy. Paid professionals have explained to me that this is one of the brain’s coping mechanisms. To save you of the gory details, the brain will sometimes splice together long bouts of trauma into a single episode that acts as a prototype of everything that happened. A gruesome highlight package of sorts. If I allow myself to replay my own, I find myself ten years old, frantically dialing 911 on a red, curly-corded phone that my father has ripped out of the wall. Some of mom’s teeth have been knocked out and are sitting in the sink, waiting for her to collect them when this is all over. She is pinned down by my father’s arm, and every time I take a step forward to help, my jelly legs knock over one of the half-finished cans of Budweiser strewn about our living room. When I finally make my way over to them, I grip on to Dad’s forearm and he turns at me with a scowl on his face. He raises his other arm over his head. At this point, the sound kicks in, and I realize everyone is screaming. Dad’s fingers curl in to a white knuckled fist, and, in that moment, the memory gives out. Everything goes black.
Crazy as this sounds, for the longest time I couldn’t source these type of episodes as the origin of my anxiety. I lacked the context. In my shaky understanding of how families operated, this breed of violent episodes was par for the course. Regarding any guilt I could have put upon my parents, my ignorance absolved them. All I could recognize was that, in school, everything seemed to come harder for me than it did the other kids. Without transgressors to charge, my unprocessed feelings weighed on my shoulders like sad-boy barbells halted mid-squat and my guilt turned inward. The problem, I figured, was me. Real life, I’ve come to understand, is hardly kind enough to give the cause of all your problems eight legs and a radioactive glow to ensure your pitiful ass doesn’t miss it. When I started having weekly panic attacks in the fifth grade, the grownups made clear that this was the function of therapy—to waive the Geiger counter, to uncover the elusive cause.
Where Spider-Man factors into the rest of this, I’m sure you can surmise. Throughout everything, issues of Ultimate Spider-Man remained clutched in my hand. (I specify Ultimate Spider-Man as this series focused on teenage Peter Parker. The Amazing series, at the time, had the wallcrawler bumbling around as a thirty-something, teaching high school and rekindling romance with old girlfriends. While I couldn’t recognize the extent of my parents’ abuse of the time, I like to think that some subconscious part of me was aware enough to retool my feelings into a general aversion from anyone older than college age who claimed to be “getting their life together.”) One of my therapists once asked me to identify my role models. While I had yet to understand how problematic my parents’ behavior had been, labeling them a model anything felt like out-and-out fibbing. As I turned over his assignment, my middle and ring fingers instinctively curled inward to reflect Spidey’s web-shooting gesture. When he would later suggest that whatever emotional wound I was tending could be soothed by the presence of Christ, I looked into his ruddy face and quipped that, for his information, the webhead had also resurrected. Twice. Furthermore, I had my doubts the son of our Lord could split a motorcycle in two with his bare hands. Case closed.
I wasn’t this snarky at all of my sessions. In actuality, by the time my parents split up a few years later and my home life calmed down, I’d bought into the idea of the talking cure. Staying healthy all that time, I credit, in part—and I mean this sincerely—to Spider-Man. Not only did his adventures provide a world to escape into but also evidence that there was good to be done by us screwed-up kids. Spidey was a kid who was not particularly handsome or popular, who had a difficult home life, and who tried to always do right while also working his tail off to stay alive. I was happy to count the parallels between his living situation and my own, but I, nevertheless, had struggled initially to consider my own survival at home as something remarkable or even as deserving sympathy. Abused children have a knack for skirting credit that way. In this respect, I suppose, my adoration for the wallcrawler acted as a sort of practice in giving myself praise. Through Spidey, I was teeing up to love myself.
Something I’ve always felt mixed about was the need for a cliffhanger at the end of a comic book. I recognize the need to tantalize the reader, to give them a reason buy next month’s issue, but it always felt like a raw deal that just after Spider-Man had rescued the orphans from the burning building that the Green Goblin decided to break out of jail and start firebombing cars. I always wished for Spidey a day when the police scanner would go hush, and he’d get to perch beside his favorite gargoyle, with his sweaty masked flipped up over his mouth. He’d stay there enjoying the breeze, letting the sore muscles in his back de-clench. So, too, did I hope for a day when my therapist would unlock the door in my head that would let me move past all the trauma that’s now a decade old. I’d slip off the vinyl couch, wet-faced and tired, turning to him as I exited to mention that I’d run out of sad. But I’ve come to learn that the parts of you that have been singed by trauma are still—and forever will be—parts of you. I don’t need a spider sense to tell me that there are panic attacks in my future or that I still have a good amount of rough therapy sessions left in me. All that matters though is that I keep moving on to the next issue, to the next day.
David Marchino is a Philadelphia-based creative nonfiction writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Penn Review and RKVRY Quarterly. His essay “No Goodbyes” won the 2016 Penn PubCo Award for Best First-Person Narrative, and his personal narrative “Going Places” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart. Also in 2018, Marchino served as Assistant Director of the Summer Workshop for Young Writers at the Kelly Writers House. Currently, Marchino serves as a Citizen-Artist on behalf of ArtistYear, teaching a creative writing curriculum at Alexander Adaire Elementary in Philadelphia.
It’s twilight on the fifth floor of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and a weak light seeps from the underside of the plastic-lined blackout curtains. It is growing dark against his wishes, yet Jacob Silbergeld no longer has the voice to catch the attention of a passing nurse who could adjust the transitioning of light he has hated for most of his life. Twilight is when slippery things happen, when one can be led by the hand to unwanted places. Twilight is when buildings surge in the skyline and become otherworldly, a time when one can lose control. Jacob had fought against its demons for years with distractions of all sorts: films, friends, or when all else failed, a good book and a single malt scotch, but he is no longer in control of his environment, and the coming of night frightens him. He brushes his left hand over the blanket in search of the call button.
It had been a regular day at the Southampton cottage. Jacob had built the place by hand after retirement, indulging his architectural whims with ornate, paneled cornices, wild like curls of hair, rounded oak doorways, and a meandering granite walk lined with lily of the valley. He’d sat in the garden watching a colony of red-winged blackbirds getting ready to pull up stakes for the season. It was near dark when he finally stood and his right leg, which hadn’t worked well in years, buckled and caused him to lose his balance. He fell over the sundial onto a weed-covered stump. He heard the thick snap in his right hip socket, which led to an ambulance ride back to Manhattan, then surgery and rehab, and then, two months later—a week before he was scheduled to go home—a left-side stroke with hemiparesis and aphasia.
Breaking a hip was like the corruption of a bearing wall and floor joist, without which any structure, from the simplest barn to the loftiest cathedral, would crumble. Like any floor joist, a hip could be repaired. But the stroke took his freedom, his speech, the right side of his body. Benjamin, his old friend, was out of options. He’d begun the steps to close up the Southampton place and get Jacob permanently back to the city where his doctors were. He was nearly ninety, after all.
“Don’t sell the cottage,” Jacob had said, but Benjamin didn’t understand the marble tongue, the bee-stung muscles of the mouth, the frantic, dog-like look in Jacob’s eyes.
Back in the dark, his hand hits plastic. He fumbles for the call button and presses it. Someone needs to come quickly. Turn on a light. Do something. A panic swells within him at the dimming of the light.
He sees a shadow in the corner, but before it has time to rise, a nurse appears, the short, quick-talking one with the purple clogs, white cardigan, and red, curler-set hair. Jacob knows her because she smells like cinnamon Chiclets. He remembers her name is Penny.
“What do you need, sweetie? We’re busy tonight.” Penny leans in, hand on the doorframe, without committing to the room. He tries to tell her, but his mouth turns sideways in a grimace, and he releases a groan.
“We’ll be back in to get you ready for bed in a little while. You have to potty? You didn’t wet yourself again, did you?” Penny walks over and peeks under his sheet at his withered legs. She pats a hand near his bottom.
“No. You’re dry, praise the Lord. Here, let me turn on your TV.” She leans over his bed, her breasts near his face, a gold cross dangling in front of his eyes, then swings the arm of the small box television towards the bed and aims it at Jacob’s face. Wheel of Fortune announces itself, with its clicking roulette wheel and its stupid sampling of humanity guessing letters to simple riddles. The laughter of strangers calls him into sadness. He had always disdained television, but this set injects a grainy, rainbow-speckled light into the darkening room, for which he is grateful.
“We’ll be back in a little while to turn you, sweetie,” Penny says, and she’s gone, her compact, solid frame and rounded little arms and elbows reminding him of a Degas sculpture he’d once seen of a dancer looking at the bottom of her foot. If this nurse could stop for just a moment and stand in the doorway again, he would see it, he was certain of it—a hint of one thing sitting very still inside another.
The corner opposite him scribbles with moving shadow. He refuses to look there, yet his heart beats hard, like it always does when shadows assert themselves in the night. He looks instead at the television: a silly man in a suit holding a microphone, a contestant jumping up and down and clapping her hands, while her enormous breasts sway two directions at once and nearly pull her down into the pronged wheel. The wasting of time. What they don’t know of waste and of time. What you can never get back, he thinks. Things can change like that.
Once, not long ago, on a cold fall day eight years into his career, he saved a child’s life. He’d been limping across the Upper West Side on his way to the Automat on Broadway. His right fist stung with cold as it gripped the top of his cane. It was hard going on a windy day. Red and gold leaves floated like fires down to the ground, and he was so lost in thought that he almost missed it: the little boy darting after a rubber ball into the street, the woman on the stoop screaming “Stop!” Without thinking, Jacob dropped his cane and grabbed the boy by the back of the coat, swinging him around over the sidewalk just in time to keep a laundry truck from running him over.
He righted the child on the sidewalk and ran his hands quickly over the curly black hair, while the child stifled a sob and cried “Auntie!” Jacob looked sharply at the woman as she rushed from the steps to hug them both. He leaned into them for a moment, then pulled back to look at the boy, his cheeks so red and his eyes so bright and black that he almost swore he saw an echo of his old girl, Alice, in this boy’s face, the small assertion of one thing nested so still inside another, a shading, really. It had unsettled him.
Jacob knelt and hugged the child to him hard, sniffed his hair—it smelled dusky, like fire on a fall day—then peeled himself away, picked up his cane, and continued on his way, limping past buildings he knew like friends, eyes focused on angles and arches and designs across the skyline. He did this to distract his mind. The child would have been about the same age as Alice’s child, he thinks, and that’s when the shadow rose up from behind a row of ash cans in an alley, massive arms bulging, battle-scarred. It stood like a marble sculpture. He panicked and moved toward the street, then held his chest for a moment while his breathing returned to normal. When he looked back, the umbric figure was gone. That evening the darkness pressed against him like a problem, hot and oppressive and he couldn’t wait to get home. Later, he found himself near tears thinking about the child he had saved. About Alice and her child. About the life they didn’t have. He turned on all the lights in his house and stayed awake until the sun came up and relieved him of his fear.
He sees a movement in the recess next to his closet that lifts and surges like a gestural drawing in a nightmare, a boogie man, shoulders the size of a tank, roaring up then settling back down, angling back into the dark, and his heart jumps weakly in his chest. Damn it. He presses the call button again. Nothing, nothing, except wheels of fortune clacking in the dark. Now an orange juice ad, a blonde Nazi child sipping cold juice through a striped straw. The darkness swells, and the shape stirs. He feels a wet sting on his left side. He presses the call button.
It takes an eon for Nurse Penny to come, this time sailing through the door, rushed, annoyed, leaning quickly to turn down the volume of that stupid show.
“What is it, sweetie? Mein Gott!” he thinks he hears her say, like his mother would have.
“You’re sweating. I’ll be right back.” His left hand grips her rounded forearm, and he pulls and says, “Don’t go. Don’t leave me in the dark. Something is in the room! In the corner!”
But the nurse hears a gurgled slur in his throat and peels his speckled claw away from her. She doesn’t like the patients touching her skin. She peers under the sheet again and says, “Uh-oh, I see what you’ve been up to, Mr. Silbergeld. You’re all wet. I’ll be right back with someone. We’ll change you.”
She turns quickly and leaves again, and the shadow lifts and begins to surge and press toward him. Jacob sees a helmet on a molten head, nose like a bull. He calls out for help, but there is no one.
“I will not look at you,” Jacob says to the figure. “You cannot get to me here. Get away!” Its shape is clearer now. It rises up out of the corner, dappled in television light, like the winged warrior on the Mohawk Niagara building.
“Help!” he cries out again. “Mein Gott!” though he hasn’t spoken German since coming to America in ’32 after his mother’s funeral. Jacob had come home from school and found her on the floor, purple in the face, her hands still white with the flour she’d been using to knead bread. He and his uncle set out for the States two weeks later, leaving Jacob’s father behind in the institution from which he would never be released.
It was during the rough, storm-sieged ocean crossing that the beast-like shadow first appeared to Jacob, the night Jacob thought that he, and everyone else on the ship, would surely die in the storm. He believed its apparition was the first indication that he might be taken by dementia praecox the way his father had been. He didn’t tell his uncle. Instead, he quietly braced himself for the beginning of what he expected to be a terminal state of deterioration. Insanity. Institutionalization. But no other sign manifested. Only the dark form that haunted him and appeared when he was most vulnerable, the one he never dared to look at. The one that showed itself during that dangerous boat ride and never went away. Over time, he grew to believe it was the way his mind processed fear, but it didn’t help him feel less afraid.
Nurse Penny returns with another nurse, the big one Jacob doesn’t like, the one with the red nose and rough hands. Their arms are full of sheets, blankets, cloth bed-liners, a nightgown, and towels. The form in the corner softens but stays. Folds inward. Don’t they see it? Jacob, thinks. Why do they not trip over its big feet?
“We’re here to get you ready for bed, Mr. Silbergeld,” the big nurse says in the voice she used for old patients: loud, flat, and condescending. When she pulls the light cord, the room floods with a cold fluorescence and, to Jacob’s relief, the shape briefly disappears.
But after his eyes adjust, the umbra begins to swell and fill the corner once again. There is no getting away from it. There never is. It has eyes and they look at him. For the first time in his life, Jacob looks back, briefly, before turning away. Nothing happens. He has not become a pillar of salt. He has not spontaneously combusted. He hasn’t melted or been possessed by shedim—the demon spirits his mother had once warned him of.
The nurses flank him on either side and begin the choreographed moves they practiced several times per day, first stripping back his blanket and sheet, leaving him bare and wet and branchy on the bed, a hint of his former self, the meat of his muscles eaten by time, his bones picked clean.
“He’s wet,” Penny says.
“Must be 7:30,” says the big nurse, who looks at her watch. “Yep. Every night, like clockwork. Here, roll him toward me. Look at that scar on his leg. Wonder what happened there.” They turn him like a piece of timber onto his numb side, and he thinks he is falling. He calls out, fumbling with his left hand for the bed rail and hitting Penny in the chest.
“Look out! It’s right behind you,” Jacob tells her. A warning, but she doesn’t understand.
“I think you’re getting fresh with me, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says.
“Those days are long gone,” the big nurse says, as she swabs his bottom and rolls the urine-soaked pad under his left hip, then rolls him back on top of it.
But they aren’t gone, he thinks. It was just a moment ago, a week, really, that he took Alice to see the Manhattan Municipal Arts Building the day before he left for basic training. He had suspended architecture school to join the Army after Pearl Harbor and had wanted to show her the magical quality of Beaux-Arts before he left, so he could experience his two loves in one place, one essentially nestled inside the other.
He kissed her under the Gustavino ceiling tiles in the South Arcade, something he had longed to do since he first saw the sweeping curves of tile that rode the building like a wave. He leaned down, smoothed her black curls back from her forehead, and pressed his lips hard onto hers, wanting to brand her with his kisses, leave his mark on her before he left. She laughed when she pulled away to catch her breath, her teeth flashing like small pearls, and this was when he knew loved her. He asked her to wait for him, and she said yes. Later that night they made love for the first time in a cheap motel they rented by the hour. Separating from her to report for basic training was like peeling his skin away from his bones.
Jacob loved Alice through the European theater, writing weekly declarations of his love home to her, and of his promise to marry her as soon as he got back. When the ‘Dear John’ came without warning, telling him she had married another, the shadow returned, looming large, skulking behind every tree, following him into his foxhole, disappearing during battle, but reappearing soon after the gunfire ceased, and his breathing returned to normal. He had gotten himself shot in Bastogne, and during recovery, which took place at a military hospital set up inside an old church, the shadow was so ominously present that Jacob thought he was truly going insane. He confessed to his nurse that he was seeing visions, and she told him not to worry about it, that it was due to fever brought on by infection. He wasn’t crazy, she said. He was just in the middle of a war. But how could he not worry? The beast never seemed to go away.
Jacob arrived home months later with his limp and his cane and his shattered right thigh, to find that Alice had died in childbirth. The door of hope he had always held open closed for good. He finished architecture school like a puppet on a string, automatically, almost without thought, then left for Albany, where he designed large office buildings without passion, without curve, without bravura or swag, without love.
Some years later, he ran into their old cantor, who spoke of Alice.
“She married so quickly,” the cantor whispered. “She had to. She was already with child and the math didn’t make sense, if you know what I mean. She gave birth four months after the wedding. A son.”
“What? Whom did she marry?” Jacob asked. “I must know.” But the cantor said he couldn’t say any more. He had been asked not to.
Jacob pressed him. “Who was it? Who asked you not to say anything? I must know the family’s name.”
The cantor shook his head and made a gesture of locking his lips with an imaginary key, and Jacob knew he wouldn’t get anything more out of this man whose promises stuck like brick and mortar. When the cantor saw the tears in Jacob’s eyes, he softened, saying only that the boy lived with Alice’s husband’s family on the Upper West Side. Later, Jacob noticed the cantor hadn’t said the boy lived with his father. He said the boy lived with Alice’s husband’s family. What did that mean? Was the cantor implying that the father was dead? Or that Alice’s husband was not the boy’s father? Was he the father? Did he have a son? After limping for weeks up and down the entire Upper West Side and seeing no boy with red cheeks and curly black hair, Jacob decided it was best not to meddle. What would it accomplish anyway? He tried to put the idea of the child out of his mind, lest he be driven crazy in a different way. Still, Jacob never stopped looking for the child who reminded him so much of Alice. He looked in restaurants, on subways and buses, in schoolyards and movie theaters and shops. He couldn’t help himself. This went on so long that he eventually began looking for a young man, then an older man, then finally an old man in his sixties. He never found him, but he never stopped looking.
Jacob’s love for architecture returned, and he devoted himself to his work, to creating useful yet lovely things that would loom high in the sky and assert themselves for generations, leave a little of himself for the future, and a little of Alice, too, for he loved her still. He would put a bit of her in each building he created, a hint of her sitting very still inside something solid, tucking carved masonry angels into friezes on gambrels, or whimsical turrets, or between parapets. He made a name for himself, working long past retirement until he was old and bent, closing each workday late in fear of the dreaded dark, and the shape of night, and the beast that waited in dark joints and junctions to terrify him and take his sleep.
The nurses pass him over the wet, rolled pad, and onto his other side, and from the corner of his eye, Jacob sees the giant form by the closet lunge up to where the ceiling meets the wall. In the light it shines a bright gold and is studded with gems. Jacob groans in terror, his right hand unable to grab for the railing or for the nurse. His bowels release in a pool beneath him, and a foul smell soils the air.
“Christ on a crutch, now he’s done it,” the big nurse says.
“Oh, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says, turning her nose away from the bed. “He’s not well.”
“It’s the bloody feeding tube,” the big one says. “It always makes them poo like that. Godawful. Hold him there, now,” and she turns briefly toward the giant form in the corner, which stands gleaming like the Civic Fame statue, golden and frozen, nine feet tall. Why does she not see this creature, Jacob thinks. She’sin its arms.
The big nurse returns with a wet, soapy cloth and cleans his bottom like a baby, and then dries him while Penny holds him stiffly on his side. They lift the corner of the fitted sheet at the bottom, then the top corner of the bed, and roll it under Jacob. Then they place a clean sheet on each corner and tuck it under the soiled, rolled one. They roll him back over the lump, then pull the lump away, fitting the clean sheet over the mattress. They rub lotion into his back, change him into a new hospital gown, and on, “One, two, three,” they hoist him by his elbows to the top of the bed. He is bird bones and air. Nearly nothing. They prop him toward his right side, facing his head toward the corner of the room.
The shadow form makes eye-contact, takes a knee, then bends as if in thought, or as if it is waiting for them to leave so it can finally do something terrible to him. On the television, the sparkling wheel spins in circles. Jacob is nearly insane with fear, but he cannot figure out how to convey this to the nurses. He begins to cry.
“There, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says. “You’re all tucked in for the night.”
“He’s very clammy. He’s grayer than usual. He looks like stone,” says the big one.
“No fever, though. I’ll note it in his chart.”
“Don’t leave me,” Jacob says. “There is a beast in the corner. I don’t feel well. There is a fluttering in my chest. There is something about to break in there,” but all the nurses hear is a wheezing of air through his vocal chords, a chewing of his tongue, the babbling of a very old man.
“Sleep tight, sweetie,” Penny says as she reaches over him for the light cord. He smells cinnamon Chiclets. She turns out the light, and the anemic blue of the television washes the room. At least there’s that.
“I’m afraid,” Jacob says. “Don’t turn off the TV.” But Penny pushes the Off switch, and the room goes dark.
“You done?” the big nurse asks from the doorway.
“Yes,” she says. “I’ll meet you in 516 after I wash up. The smell in here. I think it’s in my hair.” She turns and walks out, leaving the door open just a crack, light from the hall slicing into the room like an upended knife. It isn’t enough.
Jacob screams and rattles the side rail. They forgot to give him the call button. They left him alone in the dark. They left him alone with something in the room. Something is wrong inside him. Something is about to break.
The form grows, golden and blue ice, shoulders like a thunderbird, and the face of the bull has shaped to form something oddly human, battle-scarred, clothed in solid, heavy, studded armor. It expands to fill the area near the foot of the bed, growing past the corner, past the height of the ceiling.
Jacob feels a warmth that floods his feet and an explosion in his belly. The blood fades from his head, and the wings unfold from behind the beast for the first time, sharp and solid, like cutlery, and when he sees the wings, his fear fades. It is not a demon. It never has been. How could Jacob not have noticed all these years? Fear had possessed him so thoroughly he had been unable to see that the looming beast had never meant to harm him, but had simply been watching him, or perhaps watching over him.
The darkness wanes, and the room brims with a golden light. Jacob’s eyes overflow with tears, and he rises up to meet this beast, this warrior angel that has always presented itself in times of battle, the one that asserted its form into every structure he built, the one that came in the night, the one that was with him when he crossed the ocean during the storm, the one that was with him the night he saw the Manhattan light push from behind the General Electric building like a nimbus and told his uncle, “I’m going to make buildings like that when I grow up,” the one that was with him the time he turned impulsively into a bookstore instead of going home and had seen Alice for the first time, wearing a gauzy spring dress, her curly black hair pinned with combs behind her ears, the silk seams climbing up the pillars of her legs, her red lipstick like a neon sign, this angel that was with him in his foxhole, and with him on the day he saved his own son in the street—the angel he had feared was a demon his whole life, the one he need not have ever feared.
A song fills the room. Perhaps it is German or Yiddish he hears, or perhaps Hebrew from his childhood days in synagogue, Hebrew sung in verse by fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, nations of fathers filling a portico, a hall, a prayer service chanted through a tiled sanctuary, the sound swelling in his ears, the corners of the room disappearing, the walls dropping low, joists and struts and columns falling away like folded cloth, rafters turning into dark birds and flying, windows melting like sugar tears, and they lift together, past the fifth floor window, and walk toward the plane of the horizon, up, up to where Alice awaits, her soft curls washed in mist, the golden guardian at his side, wings spread, sword at the ready.
Dawn Davies has an MFA from Florida International University. She’s the author of Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces, which was published by Flatiron Books in 2018. Her essays and stories have been Pushcart Special Mentions and finalists for The Best American Essays. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Narrative, Fourth Genre, Brain, Child, Chautauqua, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, as well as in various anthologies. She lives in weird Florida.
Steam from the shower moves in columns to the ceiling. I’m holding Sean’s hand, and his eyes close with the bathroom door—we twine and twist into sheets of flesh. Sean said the comedown is the hardest, but I’m still electric, can hear a crooning in the static of my fingers on his spine. It’s a slow dance with small movements, and the glow in my bloodstream says sway, so we make the steam vibrate in the small space. My fingers smooth water from the divots of his waist. The lazy warmth of him runs down my legs, floods the pale stucco floor. His curves, his hardness, his breath on my neck all feel ancient and half-remembered, and here I am, touching him for the first time again. We let the water run down the drain, dry off with a shared towel, and crawl under the duvet.
I wake first, watch the shuttered light play on his shoulders. The street outside is three floors down and a busy that bustles during rush hour. Sean was lucky with his room assignment—a queen size bed (instead of the standard twin), and nearly twice as much floor space as his flatmates. We’re both Americans studying for a semester at King’s College, and since my apartment is a half-hour’s walk to Waterloo, most of my nights are spent at his place.
Sean stirs in his sleep, and I bring my arm around his back. I know soon we’ll both rise and get ready for class, but for now, the morning is draped around us, and I’m hard against his back. He stirs again. My eyes drift over his shoulder to the billboard and his newspaper clippings, a smattering of headlines and monochrome stills: Theresa May and Donald Trump in a sombrero, Kim Jong-un playing Xbox with Hillary Clinton. At the start of the semester, Sean had started pinning clippings and funny headlines to the billboard over his desk, a collage of the world formed during his semester abroad. It was one of the first things I noticed when I came home with him the first time, and it caught my eye now, with the comedown kicking in and his hips grinding against my hard-on.
“Morning,” he says, turning on his side. “How you feeling?”
“Great, actually. Coming down still. You?”
“Good.” He plants his lips on mine and I can feel him smiling. I kiss his cheek, his jawline, play his nipples between my teeth before kissing down his navel. The window light casts bright bars on his erection, and the mattress gives a bit under my palms as I take him in my mouth. The sheets and duvet are bundled on my side of the bed, and the sex is quiet and liquid—soft moans, a laugh and breath between positions.
Sean and I met on Tinder a couple weeks earlier, made plans to grab drinks at a pub filled with retro American arcade games. I was on antibiotics for gingivitis, and he was just recovering from a gastrointestinal infection, so very little drinking was done, but the date ended at his place with us having sex to Frank Ocean, and I stayed there most nights after.
Last night, though, was the first time I’d tried ecstasy. Half a pill half an hour before the club, the other half right before entering. Sean had done it a handful of times, said he’d guide me through it. We took the tube to Old Street, popped the second half of each pill on Cowper Street in the line at Club XOYO. Sean had told me what to expect: the euphoria, the tension in the jaw, buzzing in the joints—and I’d done my own research.
A few minutes after we walked in, I started to feel it.
“Hey, Sean?” The club was only starting to fill with people, and we were still on the top floor, dancing to the thump of the bass below.
“You know how you were talking about M-Dick?” He’d told me earlier that night that most people can’t get it up when rolling, a variation of whiskey-dick. But, on the rare occasion, MDMA can do exactly the opposite—orgasm from the slightest touch.
“I, uh, definitely don’t think I get M-Dick.” I was pretty sure it was just precum wetting my boxers. Pretty sure. Sean moved his shoulders back, looked down at our hips locked together.
Now the club was coming alive. I pulled him onto one of the empty couches. We started dancing on the back of it. “You’re feeling it now.”
Oh, I was feeling it. I didn’t know my hips could move like that, watching them jerk and move so loosely, so freely. Usually, when dancing, my arms move in strange, grasping circles over my head like a drugged, drowning shipwreck survivor. But there, on top of that couch in a nearly empty room—still flailing like a drowning victim—I was enjoying it!
“Wanna go downstairs?” Sean in my ear. Oh man, did he feel good to touch. Wherever he was going, I wanted to go. The gum was a good idea. The lockjaw was kicking in, and the rhythm and cushion of the chewing gum was like a feverish game.
Downstairs, the heartbeat of the thudding dance floor sent mine racing. Somewhere on the stairs, we’d run into a couple of Sean’s friends, and soon we were all on the stage at the front of the club.
“How’d we get here?” I shouted across the couple feet between me and Sean. He smiled and blinked and kept dancing–couldn’t hear a word I said. I leaned into his ear to repeat myself, but instead I kissed it, and said, “This is great, man!” He nodded again.
I didn’t expect the high to be so clear. Instead of the lazy high of weed leaving everything hazy and warm, the ecstasy turned everything sharp and flowing, like sculpted glass. The club full of red and blue light, the white of the strobe, the purple of Sean’s shadow pounded into my chest, and we could have stayed like that for hours—rolling walls, connective tissue, this man I loved melting into my bloodstream.
We left the club at 3AM, caught a bus, made a second dinner of Nutella sandwiches, and slid into the shower. The MDMA smoothed out my clumsy self-consciousness but left me conscious of everything. Of the water, of Sean’s curving shoulder blades, of the simple joy of feeling connected. It was a moment of life made vibrant, and we stayed in that shower until the water grew tepid.
The next evening: the comedown. I’m writing a paper, and vertigo is playing through my mind in a panicked spiral. My pupils are arrow slits through which painful spears of light are thrown. I delayed it with a nap and coffee earlier, but this evening the dull roar has become a panic attack in my chest. I expected a painful hangover, but this is a hangover from hell, injected with steroids and anxiety.
Sean sits across from me at the library table. His highs and comedowns are always milder than mine, whatever the drug. I don’t want to let on that there’s a war zone ripping through me, so I take slow, deep breaths.
“How you feeling?” I ask with what I hope is nonchalance. “How was the comedown?”
“Not bad at all. It just hit me a little earlier today.” His eyes drift up from his laptop, calm and blue and watching me. “How are you?”
“Eh,” I say, glancing around the stacks. “I’m still coming down, I think. Pretty anxious right now.”
“Oh? You okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Fine.” My mind was traveling elsewhere, unhinged from the nervous energy gnawing at my legs. Funny, the bundle of anxiety binding my chest shut and my brain murky and stagnant as a choked pond. I reach for Sean’s hand. “Just on edge, I think.”
Later, I would tell him about the panic I felt, after the attack had passed. That’s how I handle things, in the moment—I wait for them to pass like a specter that I’m afraid naming will strengthen.
I don’t know if he understands that, if I do myself, but he holds my hand anyway. The memory of his comfort is stronger than the comfort itself. His lips tighten in a smile, and I do feel better—holding his fingers still holding a buzz.
Blake London’s work has appeared in Euphony Journal, Red Cedar Review, and eFiction Magazine. In 2013, Blake was the recipient of the Wyoming Young Authors Prize in Poetry, and he currently performs spoken word poetry with The Excelano Project. Originally from Gillette, Wyoming, Blake London is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and resides in Philadelphia.
THE GRAVE YOUR AMBITION DIGS FOR ITSELF
by Gabriel Welsch
The ridiculous dissatisfaction with good fortune
begins in shade, when every bit of luck pops up
like a harlequin jammed in a jack-in-the-box,
and the hue of the lip is wrong wrong wrong—
ignoring for the moment the creepy leer of clowns,
or the gut twist borne of a springed lurch, or
the clatter of the trap click and clack when it opens—
and though the arms of the clown spill forth
jasmine blossoms and jars of honey and—hey, why not?
even bags of Krugerrand—though the clown
bearing gifts wobbles on the end of a spring
that will tilt time after time toward you,
that lip is always there, garnet when it should
be ruby when it should be vermillion when
it should be crimson, and you can go on
like this, barnstorming the shades of meaning
in shades, arguing the hewn nature of hues,
noting the carat weight of gilding on every lily,
and no matter how you recognize the pathology,
complain through observation meant as objective
(by all rights, compared to others, you should be happy
with all you have), you know you not only lack
everything you think is yours, there are things
you do not yet know you want. The clown wants
your attention, that bell on his hat a mad clapper
of the proximate, and the spring keeps him right there,
eye level and leering, a St. Vitus dance over the grave
your ambition digs for itself. The last time
you picked him up, had the strength to deny
the lure of that crank on the side of his box,
and could place him out on the porch, the crows
came to have a look. You left his head out there,
in icy November, to glaze over, the bell muted
in its sheath of watery glass, and when the crows
pecked at his head and tore the collar from his neck,
he was brought down to size, nothing left
but a stump of neck impaled on a spring,
the dance lived in every tuft of breeze, and the neck
warmed every day there was sun, the rays
landing on the plastic skin, gold again, and warm
as if alive.
Gabriel Welsch is the author of four poetry collections, most recently The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013). His fiction and poetry has appeared in journals including Georgia Review, Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Missouri Review, on VerseDaily, and in Ted Kooser’s column, “American Life in Poetry.” Recent work appears in Thrush, Gulf Coast, decomP magazine, Rumble Fish Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, and Moon City Review. He lives in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania with his family, works as vice president of strategic communications and marketing at Juniata College, and teaches occasionally at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.
THERE IS MORE TO DEATH THAN LIFE by Dan A. Cardoza
The past cannot be cured –Queen Elizabeth I
Buddy is a good friend but will be an even better Marine. He is open to following directions. He will die face down in Pleiku, far away from his dreams, alone. But today, Buddy is twelve and entitled to his share of dreams. After all, most nightmares are reserved for adults. Buddy’s stepdad had a job for us.
I wait at the bottom of the wooden steps. Buddy bayonets the spring-hinged door, with the tip of his dad’s .410 shotgun barrel, now pointing straight at my big red heart.
Ok, Dan, let’s get this done.
BANG!—As the heavy redwood screen door slams hard against the chipped teal door jam. Dark crows explode off a crooked sycamore branch. I drop my shoulders with relief. Cradling his dad’s Remington break action, single shot in the crook of his elbow, Buddy skips down the steps, flipping the shotgun shell high in the air, ass over tea kettle, catching it in his right-hand palm, just as his feet step to the ground.
Grab her! He croaks in his broken preteen voice.
What the hell? At ten, my voice still rings clear, like a choir boy.
Here, hold the gun then, he barks, tossing the gun at me with a little extra push.
Buddy dives in the shadows, hidden under the wooden steps and snatches up Cat-Cat in his oversized hands. If he were a wide receiver, his fans would be frenzied with glee, chest bumping.
He pushes to his feet, cradling her in comfort. His torn Levi knees stained with lime green and grass rash.
Buddy stands and grunts. Let’s walk toward the tracks.
Why? It’s easy to see Cat-Cat is days from kittens.
You will know soon enough, Dan the man. Then Buddy imagines his stepdad’s cuffed hand, on the back of his neck, like a warm baseball glove. He quickly marches forward.
After about twenty minutes, we reach the railroad tracks. The creosol vertebrae ties and steel rails extend their endless spine deep into the woods, and then evaporate into the forest. We do not speak.
My mind fights a hooked rainbow trout in my skull. As it fans its desperate gills, gasping for water, I wonder why I follow my impulsive friend, without any real knowledge of what he is planning. I feel guilty for something I didn’t do, but I follow.
These are mill town tracks for trains made of steel, for cargos of logs to lumber, then lumber to market. In the August heat, we follow the drifting ghost of tracks through a forest of Cedar and Spruce. The steel tracks mirages flow ahead of us like rivers of mercury. We walk south speechless about something obvious. In another thirty minutes, we reach a bend in the spine.
We are nearly engulfed in a forest of Douglas Fir, Cedar, and red oaks; each tree with its own scintillating electric green address. He stops abruptly.
Buddy gently strokes Cat-Cat’s fur, with the calm of betrayal, he has grudgingly learned from his mother and stepfather over the past years. He then gently places her in tall dried weeds and thistles, nearly ten feet from tracks crushed granite bedrock. She obediently sits and reverently gazes up at him. Buddy knows all too well the nuances of reverence and obedience. He takes two steps back, yet does not call her name, because he is aware she may follow. He slowly back steps several more feet. This hypnotic dance seems to lull the forest back to sleep, if just for a few seconds longer. And, just before the alarm rings. It’s heartache quiet.
I smell smoke, as the wind returns in the tall trees. I see a bloody explosion, in slow motion. And only then do I hear the sound. I view my arms still stiff from holding a now invisible shotgun. Somehow Houdini has conjured the shotgun from my arms. My ears pound steel on steel, then ring like a tiny purple bluebell flowered forest, announcing death in every small tinkle and jingle. From the leftovers of Cat-Cat, newborn kittens pour from her hyaline sack, wriggling desperately for a chance of air and life. They crawl on their slimy bellies, blindly thrashing the thistles and dried witch weed stalks in a sticky, raspy sound, never to be forgotten.
We stare at each other for an abbreviated eternity. Buddy then cracks open the hot barrel, as it ejects a smoking plastic shell with hot brass: his only shell. The casing summersaults to the tracks, smoking hot, cracking the shiny iron rail, then settles to the crushed granite.
Buddy turns quickly, determined, and begins his quick pace toward his home. I follow. We each walk our own I-beam of mirrored steel. As we walk, balancing on our high bar, we faintly hear the dry weeds crackle and rattle manically. It’s the muzzled sound of a mad Guiro. With each step we take, a new bloody thatch of silence grows at our heels. Death will be slow in its mercy, if at all?
Dad said to only use one shell. Buddy quips as he looks down at his rail, concentrating hard so not to fall.
I don’t answer. I only hear the sounds of shuffling sneakers on track, the gathering caws, punctuated only by the intermittent defining silence.
The train tracks river us along, into an imagined shallow lake, all mirage. We slowly wade all the way back. By the end of our trek, I am drowning in guilt and begin mourning a lost friend. We part ways for good at the corner of Sunset and August.
In the haze of midnight, Buddy envisions he is leading troops into battle.
I hike into sleep and listen to the muffled sound of a raspy Giro in tall, dry weeds, the crazed caw of crows.
Dan A. Cardoza is the author of two chapbooks: Nature’s Front Door and Expectation of Stars. His work had been published in Amethyst, Ardent, Better Than Starbucks, California Quarterly, Chaleur Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Curlew, UK., Earthwise, Entropy, Esthetic Apostle, Friday Flash Fiction, Oddball, Poetry Northwest, The Quail Bell, Skylight 47, Spelk, and Vita Brevis.
DRAWING A BLANK
A Visual Narrative
by Emily Steinberg
Emily Steinberg is a painter and graphic novelist and has shown her work in the United States and Europe. Most recently, she has been named Humanities Scholar in Residence at Drexel College of Medicine where she will teach medical students how to draw their own stories in words and images. Her visual narratives No Collusion! (2018), Paused (2018), Berlin Story: Time, Memory, Place (2017), A Mid Summer Soirée (2015), Broken Eggs (2014), and The Modernist Cabin (2013) have been published in Cleaver Magazine. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine, and her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins). She earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a lecturer in Fine Art at Penn State Abington. You can see more of her work at emilysteinberg.com.
WHEN MY MEMORIES BECAME HIS MEMORIES
by Vivé Griffith
My not-yet-stepdaughter sprawled on the couch, laptop open. Annabella was twelve, her long hair parted straight down the middle. That evening I stayed with her for the first time while her father went to a work event. It seemed more normal than I’d imagined, just another evening at home. I read a magazine while she did homework.
Then someone was in the backyard.
It took determination to get there. A chain link fence surrounded the property, and one side of the house was blocked with a garage. Through a single gate hidden in a cluster of bushes, someone had found the way in.
I leapt up and discovered a woman stalking about, dressed in a sports bra and running shorts. I was alone with my boyfriend’s daughter. I was responsible for her safety. But this was a woman who looked like she was out for a jog, with no place to hide a weapon. She climbed the cement steps to the door and peered in the window. When she saw me, she startled, then backed away. I opened the door.
“Oh god, I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone lived here.” She was visibly embarrassed, unsure where to put her hands.
Her name was Merri Gale and she was considering buying a house in the neighborhood. She thought this house was still on the market, still vacant. So she’d jogged over and let herself into the yard.
“We’ve been here a few months,” I said, making of my boyfriend and his daughter a we that included me. “Do you want to come in?”
She followed me. When I went to introduce Annabella, she startled again.
“I know you,” she said, studying her closely. “Yes! I worked with your mom.”
She looked from Annabella to me and back. She threaded together a story she’d tell at the office the next day. But she didn’t say so. Instead she shrugged.
“What are the chances?”
Merri Gale has lived around the corner a dozen years now, and I’ve told this story many times. But tonight it comes up and something is new. Annabella’s dad, who is now my husband, insists he was there.
“You weren’t,” I tell him. “It was just me and Annabella.”
Chris doesn’t bat an eye. “But I saw her through the window.”
I’m not sure when my memories became his memories, his memories mine. So often we fill in the details for each other: where we stayed in Portland, the name of the Thai restaurant with the great lettuce wraps, what year we put the cat down.
I’d been single a long time when we met, living alone in a series of small apartments, working jobs long enough to earn the money for a long trip with a backpack. I considered myself independent, well suited for going it solo. What struck me most about cohabitation in those early months was how we went days eating the exact same food.
We drank Costa Rican coffee, both of us adding sugar and a good dollop of cream, out of identical mugs. We ate oatmeal with raisins, setting the same bowls down on the yellow Formica table. Some weekend mornings one of us said, “Pasta breakfast!” and we boiled penne and tossed it with butter and pecorino. For dinner, chicken curry. My rice on the side, his underneath.
“Hey, do you want some chocolate?” I’d ask in late afternoon, and break him off a few squares, taking a few myself.
Our clothes smelled of the same detergent, our hair of the same shampoo. At night we lay beside each other. The room grew stuffy from each of us exhaling our heat. How could I continue to be one person when my biology was so mingled with another?
We can’t stop arguing. “I know you weren’t there,” I say, “because it was the first time Annabella and I were alone in the house.”
We are making dinner, moving in a familiar dance. I’m chopping vegetables. He’s putting cups in the dishwasher. He taps my hip and I scoot aside to let him grab a spatula from the drawer.
“I stood right there on the den steps and she was looking through the glass,” he says.
“No, she looked through the door. She couldn’t have reached those windows. It’s too high from the yard.”
We are exasperated. I expect him to back down, but he doesn’t.
“It’s like Jackie O.” I remind him of a favorite This American Life story where Robert Krulwich recounts the time he and his wife saw Jacqueline Onassis on the street waving. Krulwich’s wife thinks she is waving at her, and waves back, waving bigger as Onassis waves bigger. Then she realizes Onassis is hailing a cab.
Krulwich’s wife tells the story differently. For one thing, Robert wasn’t there. He had claimed her memory as his own, as Chris has claimed mine.
He remains unswayed.
“What was she wearing?” I ask.
“How am I supposed to remember?”
“Oh, you’d remember.”
I text Annabella, who now goes by B and lives in Los Angeles.
“Do you remember when Merri Gale peeked in the back door?”
“Who was there?”
“Hm… Me…And you?”
I don’t report her hesitancy to Chris. “She says it was the two of us,” I tell him. I return to the texts.
“But not Daddy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She says you weren’t there.” I build my case.
Then she goes further: “Because he probably would’ve known what was up, but I recall being really confused.”
I read this verbatim. “You see?”
Then I ask if she remembers what Merri Gale wore.
“Jogging clothes and some kind of visor.”
“Exactly!” I type. “He would remember that, and he doesn’t.”
She sends laughing emojis and returns to her life halfway across the country. I return to the dinner we are making and will eat together off matching plates.
“If you don’t remember an attractive woman barely dressed in running clothes, you definitely weren’t there,” I announce.
Chris comes from generations of storytellers, people for whom narrative is the family glue. The stories repeat, like this one:
In 1951 Chris’s father was crossing a Manhattan subway station near the Polo Grounds on his way to take a midterm at NYU. He was the first in his family to go to college, made possible by the GI bill. He’d survived months on the front line at the Battle of Anzio during World War II, then eighteen months in a Staten Island hospital recovering from tuberculosis.
He was rushing through the station when he heard his brother’s voice.
Dick and a few friends pushed toward him. They were headed to the stadium to watch the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers in the playoffs, a game the entire city was tuned in for.
“C’mon, Connie, come with us. We’ll getcha in.”
Connie said no. He had a test. In the future he’d forget what class the test was for, but his brother Dick remembered the game for the rest of his life. Bobby Thomson hit the pennant-winning home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,” into the stands just below him.
“It was right there,” Dick always said, his voice resonant into his 80s. “Bobby Thomson hit it right there.”
He could still see the people scrambling to grab that ball a few rows away.
I didn’t grow up hearing this story, and I only heard Uncle Dick tell it once before he died. Maybe it morphed over time. Was Connie really taking a midterm? Was it really an accident that they ran into each other? It doesn’t matter. It’s a great story. I’ve told it at dinner tables, to old friends, at a reception for Don DeLillo, whose Underworld opens at this game.
I’ve appropriated this bit of lore, shaped this memory into my own. But in this case, I know I wasn’t there. And Chris knows he wasn’t either.
After I moved in, I’d pause in the street at For Rent signs. Usually a garage apartment drew me, a tiny place tucked behind a house with stairs to its own front door. I didn’t really think of leaving. I just believed I could only be totally myself in a space that was totally mine.
Yet here I am in a life where our shoes are kicked off next to each other under the Formica table, our bank accounts and vacation schedules synched. Even so, we’re together less than we used to be. I teach a few nights a week, leaving him to eat alone and sink into Netflix. He heads out to open mics and takes Sunday afternoon voice lessons.
A month ago he moved into another bedroom, the one still painted the deep purple B chose as a girl. He wasn’t sleeping much, and his not sleeping meant I didn’t sleep, and we were both stressed. So each night we lie in bed and thank each other for the day’s little sweetnesses, a ritual we’ve held through our entire relationship.
“Thank you for making eggs this morning,” he’ll say. And me, “Thank you for checking in after my meeting.”
Then he shuffles across the house. Some nights I rise to use the bathroom and hear him playing the guitar quietly. My room is still as I slide back into bed.
I worry: Does this mean we’re growing apart? Will we still be close if we don’t wake beside each other? What part of marriage is about proximity?
We make other concessions to aging. Neither of us can drink coffee anymore and our house doesn’t fill with that seductive scent. I brew myself green tea. He makes his potion, blackstrap molasses and coconut oil. When I gave up gluten six years ago he stopped buying English muffins, and it’s been ages since we shared a pasta breakfast.
And yet we are connected in more significant ways. We’ve raised a kid together, spoken at memorial services for each other’s fathers. We’ve sat beside hospital beds while we each had major surgery then helped each other bathe in the weak early days of recovery. Our lives, and indeed our memories, are intertwined.
One afternoon Chris wanders into a furniture store and there’s Merri Gale, selling mid-century modern pieces restored for upscale pricing. Like us, she’s older now, her hair cut shorter. She probably doesn’t take jogs wearing only sports bras.
He asks: “You remember that time you came into our backyard to look at the house?”
“Yeah.” She laughs, still a little embarrassed.
“Do you remember who was there? Was it me or Vivé or both of us?”
Merri Gale pauses and then replies: “It was just Annabella. She was there alone.”
Vivé Griffith is an Austin-based writer, educator, and student advocate. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Sun, Oxford American, Hippocampus, and Gettysburg Review, and her op-eds in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Texas Tribune. She teaches storytelling to activists, poetry to adult students returning to the classroom, and creative nonfiction at Austin Community College. Find her at www.vivegriffith.com
I was born and raised in Rome, Italy. Since the age of four I have been exposed to art, thanks to my Uncle Roberto, who religiously picked me up every Sunday morning to bring me to a museum to contemplate art. At the age of fourteen, I bought my first oil painting set with my savings, and I painted on my own for the next eight years. From 1978 to 1980, I studied at the Scuola Libera del Nudo (Free School for Drawing and Painting sponsored by the Academy of Fine Arts of Rome) under the instruction of the Armenian artist, Alfonso Avanessian. From 1980 to 1981, I was enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, then from 1981 to 1983, studied further under Alfonso Avanessian, during which I experimented with drawing, oil pastels, dry pastels, tempera, watercolor, acrylic, and oil paintings. It was a very productive, creative, and formative period for me.
On December 1, 1983, I arrived in Philadelphia. At the age of twenty-seven, I was beginning the biggest adventure of my life—to be an artist.
When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I worked as a house painter by day and as an artist by night. In 1988 I enrolled in a four-year certificate program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where I studied under Seymour Remenick, who became my mentor and friend for the last ten years of his life. Seymour gave me the support to make my own mistakes and to learn from them. His love for art, painting, and people was contagious. This love is an integral part of my vision as an artist. Seymour reinforced my belief in following my heart and what I love in life.
Since 1997 I have been teaching painting at various art centers in the Philadelphia area. I enjoy teaching and sharing my knowledge and experiences from my studio and as an en plein air painter with my students. I have found teaching to be inspiring, challenging, and creative. My approach to painting is to communicate to the viewer my love for life and humankind. I strive to capture in the act of painting a moment that exists in me, inspired by the light and colors that nature offers us every moment.
I am and always was inspired by light.
I have been painting for forty-eight years and I still remember my fascination for the light in Caravaggio’s paintings when I was six years old, and when I was a young adult I would spend hours watching the changing light from the crest of the Gianicolo over the rooftops of Rome. I would say that light is the subject matter of my paintings, and I still carry the nostalgic experience of light from Rome now in my work.
I paint from life, going on location to paint landscapes and seascapes in the Alla Prima Technique (resolving them in one sitting), or staying in my studio to paint still lifes in the Multiple Sitting Technique. I always paint from direct observation, and this is because I want to have the experience of seeing more than reproducing an exact copy of nature.
I want to describe the experience of seeing that comes to me as the feelings and intuitions I get in the act of painting. I want to express, with a kind of shorthand application of paint, the unspoken aspects of Nature as it is revealed by the ever-changing light. Light transforms objects; light transcends concepts. Light creates space.
As light breaks down forms into masses of illumination and shadow, and as light drains or saturates colors into spaces of moving intensities, the experience of seeing is endlessly changing, infinitely fluid and changeable. I have been painting landscapes and still lifes for such a long time because I see the world with new eyes every time I paint.
Communicating this spontaneity and the immediacy of nature through my process of painting, I hope to inspire others to consider the beauty of everyday life. To be present in the moment is what makes our lives richer.
[click on any image to enlarge]
Ocean City, Big Clouds. Oil on panel, 12.5 x 13.5″
Ocean City, 14th St. Fishing Pier. Oil on panel.
Sunny and Windy Day at the Beach. Oil on panel, 8 x 12″
The Music Pier and the Ferris Wheel. Oil on panel, 10.5 x 13″
Approaching Sunset. Oil on panel, 9 x 14″
Light and Dark. Oil on panel, 7.25 x 11.75″
Cloudy Day on the Delaware. Oil on panel, 12 x 12″
Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Oil on panel, 12 x 14″
The Columbia Bridge. Oil on panel, 12.5 x 14″
Giovanni Casadei was born and raised in Rome, Italy where he studied at the Scuola Libera del Nudo and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, as well as under the instruction of the Armenian artist, Alfonso Avanessian. In December 1983 he arrived in Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under his mentor Seymour Remenick. He has been showing and selling his work in Philadelphia and other major cities for the last twenty years. More at www.giocasadei.com.
Guilt, it has always seemed to Roger, is visceral. It takes up residence inside the body, burrowing or maybe perching there, as much a part of you as your bones or blood or lungs. You sense it waiting even when no one else can see it, even when you stop obsessing and the days and nights slip past on their conveyor belts.
He remembers it clearly—too clearly—even after all the years. He is driving from his childhood home near Columbus, Ohio, to Grinnell College in Iowa, where he is about to begin his sophomore year. He is passing through Indiana and has gotten lost while trying to bypass Bloomington. Earlier he left I-74 and, with a bit of dead reckoning, imagined he might carve a few minutes from the trip on rural roads, but now, with the radio cranked up, his elbow out the window, he is no longer confident of his direction. It is August, dust rising from the tires as he speeds past bean fields and cornfields, and he comes to a slight rise in the road not long after passing over rusting railroad tracks. He hasn’t seen another car for miles, and he is pressing down harder on the accelerator, feeling the impatience of the Camry, and suddenly—in a moment he still dreams about—he sees the girl on the bicycle. Maybe she is ten or eleven, her head swiveling at the sound of the engine. She is neither at the center of the road nor at its verge, but directly in his lane, the afternoon sunlight angling across the narrow ribbon of pavement, the girl’s light hair windblown and snapping behind her like a small sail.
Now, so many years later, Roger carries uncooked bratwurst and buns and potato chips out the kitchen door to the gas barbecue. Earlier he called out the window to offer to make lunch for his son and his girlfriend, and they shrugged their acquiescence, both of them squinting into the noon light. He returns, next, with soft drinks and carrot sticks and brownies purchased from the store, then focuses on cooking the bratwurst to an even brown. His son is handsome—evident in the parade of girlfriends always hanging around the house, including the one on the back lawn now. Louise Miller is her name, or maybe Mueller, Lou for short. She is sunbathing on the trampoline in an orange bikini while Jack is sitting beside her. Earlier they were taking turns trying to outdo each other with back-flips.
And when Roger sits with his son and Lou in lawn chairs, the meal on paper plates in their laps, he looks across to where the girl is sharing the plastic recliner with his son, a white T-shirt pulled over her bathing suit—the orange still visible beneath—and he can’t help but notice how she keeps casting glances toward Jack as though with a kind of unabashed devotion. They are juniors in high school, and all Roger can think about is how she has no clue, none at all. The average length of time his son remains focused on any one girl is perhaps a month or six weeks at most, and the two of them are nearly there.
“Jack tells me you’re a cheerleader?” Roger says.
“Yep,” the girl says.
“That’s why she was better than me at flips,” Jack says.
Not even a week later, Lou is gone from their lives, and Roger’s son passes most of his days—when he’s not staying at his mother’s house—peering into the refrigerator, or with his friends in the backyard, playing poker at the picnic table. Then, almost at once, there is a new girl—this one with short reddish orange hair, and a flush of freckles, and a high giggle that pierces its way through the floor when Roger is trying to sleep. One night when he comes down the stairs in search of his glasses, his son and the new girl are reclining on the living room couch in the dark. Roger coughs to make his presence known, and by the time he returns from the kitchen, the lamp is bright beside them, and both are fully dressed. The television flickers, emitting sounds of explosions.
Perhaps three days later, in early evening, when Roger is just home from work, someone rings the doorbell. And when he opens the front door, Louise is there, her ancient Chevy behind her in the drive. Her hair is tied back from her face in a way that emphasizes even more than usual her youthful prettiness, and her deep summer tan. And the roots of her hair—parted in a jagged line down the center—are darker than the others around it, and she carries both of her flip-flops in one hand, wears white shorts and a teal blouse. The evening sun is behind her, the clouds swollen an angry pink, the wafer of sun half-submerged between the neighboring houses.
“Is Jack here?” she asks.
“He’s working,” Roger says. “Taco Bell.”
“I think his shift ends at midnight.”
“Do you want me to say you stopped by?”
Her eyes narrow into such fine slits it is as though she longs to blot out the world. She says, “No … that’s okay.”
And her voice seems to be coming apart at the seams, and she dabs the back of her hand to her eyes, and after she drives off in her car, Roger opens a Coors from the refrigerator, carries it into the Florida room, and looks through the screen mesh at the backyard and the woods. And later when it is time for bed, he carries still another beer up the stairs, and he reads until the curtains of his eyes droop. Then he turns off the light and sleep swirls around him—like dipping into a brackish pond. He is dreaming, then, and in the dream he sees, as always, the collision sending the bicycle airborne, propelling the girl and the bike far from the road into the grass. At once in the dream he is out of the car, the bike gleaming and broken at the roadside, but the girl, seemingly, has vanished. And at that moment in the dream—and this is often the case—Roger awakes with a start, and he hears the garage door going up then down, which means his son is home.
Roger lifts himself. The green glow of the clock says it’s after two. He slips on his bathrobe, makes his way down the stairs, finds his son at the kitchen table, eating round slabs of bologna from a package.
The words must have been percolating inside Roger as he slept, for they arrive at once. He says, “That girl, Louise, came by while you were at work. What do you do to them, Jack? She was crying a little.”
“What?” Jack says, blinking, his mouth opening in a jagged wound.
“Just try to be a little nicer,” Roger says. Then suddenly he suspects he’s in the wrong here, and he tries to approach his son and to touch him on the shoulder, to tell him it’s okay, okay, but at once Jack is retreating up the stairs, off to bed.
Roger, for years now, has had floaters mostly in his left eye, a detritus that he sometimes mistakes for birds flitting past at the periphery of his vision. The floaters seem to come and go, drifting on their small rafts then disappearing, forever at the ready. It somehow seems that way now with Lou, who, within the week, is back on the trampoline with Jack, back in her orange bathing suit, back nuzzling her face into his son’s neck or leaning against him when they walk into the woods. There is a small stream they can stand beside if the mosquitoes show mercy. And Lou is now on the couch late at night—replacing the orange-haired girl, switching out one for the next—and returned to the kitchen table, returned on the living room floor, both of them on their bellies as they gaze at something existing on the small screen of a cellphone, their shoulders bumping.
Then on a Sunday late in the month, Jack invites a dozen or more of his high school friends to the house for hamburgers and hotdogs and chicken wings cooked on the grill, the boy insisting on doing it all by himself, paying for the food from his fast-food wages, playing host—with Lou—to the guests, fetching them soft drinks and snacks and blaring the music through the open dining room window. Some of the teens test out the trampoline, rising high into the air in defiance—for a few brief moments—of gravity. Others stand and laugh and flirt and squint into the sun. It is a muggy and excruciating day, the heat ranging toward triple digits, and most of the boys have stripped off their shirts, and most of the girls are dressed in shorts and T-shirts or bathing suits. Roger, who peers now and then from the Florida room, notices one girl he doesn’t believe he has ever seen before. She has a veil of dark hair down to her waist, and she is pretty and outgoing, touching the boys on the arms when she speaks, throwing her head back when she laughs, the thin sheen of perspiration making her skin glisten in the sun. Roger sees his son attempting not to look her way, attempting to keep a buffer of distance between them, to follow, instead, closely behind Lou, obedient, his eyes cast down. But now and then Jack’s eyes flit upward, latching onto the new girl as she sips her soft drink through a straw. It is unbearable, Roger thinks, to see his son laboring to maintain this new vision of himself.
Later Roger comes face to face with Lou in the kitchen. He has stepped there to retrieve the checkbook and envelopes from the drawer—bills to pay—and Lou, forever in that same orange bikini, forever with her vulnerable and naïve eyes, speaks to him in a voice that seems far more pressing and urgent than the words imply.
“Are we making too much noise?” she asks.
“It’s nicer in here with the air-conditioning.”
“Yes, it is.”
Roger, in this moment, experiences a sudden and unexpected rush of feeling, so powerful he can’t at first identify it. And he begins thinking—despite that it makes no sense, despite that the girl he struck with his car would have been much older now—that Lou is like that girl—the one he walked into the tall grass to find. And he did find her, of course, her neck and limbs twisted into impossible angles, the bright reproach of blood everywhere. And suddenly Roger wants to warn Lou that she is likely to remain Jack’s girlfriend for the briefest stretch of time, despite that he is trying, really trying, and that girls, for Jack—especially since the divorce—are as temporary as the fireflies blinking on and off around the trampoline after dark. And then the most astonishing thing of all happens. Roger feels other words longing to escape from his throat, words he has never spoken to a single person, not even to his wife when they were married. He imagines telling Lou that, when he was a little older than she is now, he was guilty of vehicular homicide, that he struck and killed a child then drove off and never told anyone, that he took his car to a repair shop a few weeks later and claimed he’d struck a deer. He wants to say this to Lou in this moment, to describe how he knelt before the girl in the grass, how he could not bring himself to touch her, not even to feel for a pulse at her neck or at her wrist, that death was an impediment to the most natural impulse of reaching out. And he wants to tell Lou that rarely a day has gone past when he hasn’t thought about that girl, at least once, the guilt like a dusk sun that stains a lake its same deep red. Roger feels the words gathering within him, preparing themselves, but when his mouth opens something else emerges instead.
He says, “You’re a sweet girl. Jack is lucky.”
Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. His most recent book, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. Individual poems and stories have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Slate, and The Georgia Review. He teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima.
The first thing I do when I wake up is open Evie’s Twitter. I’ve been doing this every morning since she left about a month ago. If one of my patients did this, I’d roll my eyes. But I can’t help it. Evie won’t answer my texts or calls. This is the only way I can hear her voice.
@LeoRising has five new Tweets. (I always thought astrology was nonsense, but Evie treated it with a religious reverence. The rising sign, she told me, is our surface self, our outward appearance. And Leo is the best, she said, and apparently I am one too). I always look at her profile picture first. In it, she’s narrowing her eyes at the camera in a way that never fails to excite me. The look says: I’m smarter than you. It’s the precise face I fell in love with.
The five nighttime Tweets suggests insomnia. When she couldn’t sleep, Evie would take a Klonopin (which I prescribed) and start Tweeting like crazy. The glow of her phone always woke me up, but it never bothered me.
Her first Tweet is: I prefer to date women because I like having orgasms. I smile, then shutter at the memory of having sex with men. The way they’d jab and poke relentlessly. I’d yelp in pain, but disguise it as pleasure because I believed my self-worth was tied to my ability to please men sexually.
The second Tweet throws me for a loop. Hello, my Twizzles. I have some exciting news. @simonschuster is publishing my book of essays in May 2019. For those of you who just want me to shut up: sorry!!!
Fuck. Evie had been writing a book since we met, when I first started treating her, but I didn’t think it was anywhere close to being finished. She’d always been very private about it. All she would say is that she was “turning a mirror on society,” which I found both obnoxious and cute.
I’d always had a vague paranoia that Evie was writing about me, despite her frequent assurances that she wasn’t. But how could she leave me out? A hot young writer has an illicit affair with her sexy, older, psychiatrist. I mean, it’s juicy.
It would also ruin my career.
Listen, I knew that sleeping with Evie was completely inappropriate. I knew I should have referred her elsewhere when I caught feelings, but I couldn’t. Our sessions were all I looked forward to; they became what I lived for. Evie was the first woman who made me feel out of control. When she made the first move, I so wanted desperately to say no. But I didn’t.
I close Twitter and go to the bathroom, where I begin doling capsules into my palm. 20mg Cymbalta, Omega 3, Vitamin D, 5mg Adderall. After gulping them down, I slide out the scale from under the sink. 117, ugh. When I go above 115, I start to feel anxious. It’s ok, I tell myself, I’ll run six miles today instead of five. I’ll eat only vegetables. I’ll drink lemon juice with cayenne pepper.
On the way downstairs, I peek into Evie’s former office. I tried not to interrupt her when she was working, but sometimes I liked to watch—her grey eyes focused intently on the screen, brows furrowed behind fake tortoiseshell-framed glasses. A white fur vest remains draped on her desk chair.
Evie left abruptly, so a lot of her stuff is still here. When I texted her about it, she didn’t respond. It used to drive me crazy, the way she’d leave things around the house. But then I started to like it, the little reminders of her presence. And now I have month-old dirty mugs littered around my house like some kind of derelict.
Rain begins falling just as I open my front door, as if the universe is playing a sick joke on me. I close my eyes and envision my legs galloping through the dusty trails of Elysian Park. Sharp rays of light cut through the eucalyptus trees that tower above my head. I’ve hit my stride, and my mind starts to quiet. Passing muscled men and dogs, leaving them in the dust, gives me pleasure and feels symbolic. Few people can keep up with Fiona Archer.
As I shut the front door, Evie’s Tweet floats into my brain. I try to reason with myself. 2019 is a long time from now, I’m sure she’d change my personal details to protect me. I doubt she wants to ruin my life. But Evie is selfish, and reckless. These are things I once respected about her, but now they feel terrifying. I pick up my phone and think about texting her. Something along the lines of “I better not be in your fucking book!!!” But that would be insane. And besides, she would never respond.
On our first proper date, I cooked for her. Afterwards, we sat close on the couch sipping from a bottle of Laphroaig and talking about the few subjects we hadn’t covered in therapy: namely, me. At one point, she became horrified I had her full name in my phone, like she was still my patient. She quickly changed the entry to Lioness, emphasizing with a stern expression that she never uses a last name when she cares about someone personally and I should do the same. I remember a flutter in my stomach.
She cared about me.
I go out to my cottage where I see patients. I used to see them in the main house, but Evie didn’t like it—she said it disturbed her process to be around all that “deranged mental energy.” I built the cottage about a year ago. And by that I mean I hired someone to build it. I’m not that kind of lesbian.
On the path, Vivaldi brushes up against my pant leg. She’s one of the feral cats that runs through the yard. I named her because I like the name, not because I like the composer. I kneel down to pet her bright orange mane and she opens her mouth to unleash a yawn.
I open the cottage door from the back; patients enter through the front, where there is a small waiting room. I keep it stocked with magazines from before the smartphone era. Since rich people started moving into Echo Park, I’ve been able to charge more. Today, I just have two appointments.
As I start up my desktop, my Five O’Clock floats into my head. My mentor taught me to think of my patients only by their appointment times. Five is a special one, mostly because that was Evie’s time. But I also like the girl who took her place, and I’m pretty positive she wants to fuck me. It’s twisted, I know, but it feels good to be wanted. I think about the day I decided I wanted Evie. She was wearing a pink slip dress completely inappropriate for outside of the bedroom, and kept opening her legs slightly to reveal a sliver of lacy black underwear.
I was taken by her audacity. Most women are so timid, always skirting around what they want. Evie’s an alpha, like me. After she did my birth chart, she just looked at me impressed. Then she kissed me hard on the mouth, which quickly turned into fucking, our Leo manes flying around with abandon. I could never pin down a diagnosis with Evie. I think she just wanted to talk about herself, or maybe she just wanted me.
I refresh my email and a few new ones pop up, one of note: Last Minute Appointment Cancellation. I don’t even read Eleven’s explanation, but I do notice she addressed me by my first name, which always bothers me—I went to medical school for a reason. The no-shows always apologize, as if I care. I respond with my cancellation policy. Evie said that when I treated her, she wondered if a bot wrote my emails—they were so “sterile.”
My stomach tightens after I hit send. I can’t run, I’m fat, my ex-girlfriend is about to publish an exposé that will surely ruin my career, and I don’t have anything to do until five p.m. Before I know it, I’m looking at Evie’s Twitter again, narrowing my eyes back at her profile photo. As soon as my gaze hits @simonschuster, I shut the browser, then open Spotify on my computer and turn on my speakers. I zone out to the robotic thwacking of an electronic composer while watching dust dangle in in harsh beams of light.
My phone begins to ring, and I practically jump. I hate talking on the phone, but I practically leap to answer it. I don’t even care who it is.
“Hello?” I practically shout.
“Hi, Fiona,” says the voice. It’s my sister. Not my favorite person, but I’m desperate.
“Hi, Nicole,” I say. I assume she’s calling about a friend’s child with anxiety or depression again (everyone thinks their kid is mentally ill). My sister only seems to want to talk to me as it pertains to my medical expertise. My whole family. They’re interested in me less as a family member and more as a psychiatrist they happen to know well. I’m obnoxious and unpleasant, but I have special knowledge that can help them. They’ve always made me feel like my personality is something I should take great care to suppress.
“Are you going to Mom’s for Easter?” she asks, surprising me. “I’m asking because she’s being a nervous wreck about it, per usual, and I somehow lost my mind and offered to help.”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I say, which is true. “But yeah, I guess I’ll go.” What else am I going to do?
“Great,” she says with a tone that suggests the opposite. “Also Mom mentioned something about you, err…having a friend?”
I’m shocked. My family has never explicitly mentioned my sexuality. “Friend” may sound indirect, but I assure you it’s the closest anyone has gotten.
When I told my mom I was gay, she pretended not to hear me.
I wonder how my mom knows about Evie, then remember that time Evie and I ran into her at Whole Foods on the way back from Malibu. My mom seemed oddly taken with Evie. She values beauty highly. Also, Evie is a charmer.
“She left me,” I say. Naturally, the one time my family takes an interest in my love life, it’s at the height of my heartbreak.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Nicole says. And then she hangs up.
I awake my desktop. A new email pops up, thank god. I scan it and immediately recognize its kind.
Nearly every day, a patient asks me to prescribe her (I stopped treating men a long time ago—too needy) a stimulant, a benzo, or both.
It typically goes something like this:
A bold patient—borderline personality disorder, a manic depressive in a state of mania—will ask in session in dramatic tones, as if she is delivering a closing soliloquy in a Shakespearean drama. A timid patient—generalized anxiety disorder, manic depressive in a state of depression—will email me, often days before our appointment. If she wants a stimulant, she will say: Dr. Archer, I’m having trouble focusing at work. A doctor in college (grad school) diagnosed me as ADD and prescribed Xmg of Adderall (Ritalin / Dexedrine / Vyvanse). My workload has recently increased, and I’d like to renew my prescription for improved concentration and productivity.
If she wants a benzo, she will say: Dr. Archer, I’m having trouble sleeping. My internist prescribed Ambien (Lunesta), but it results in strange sleep behavior, such as cooking pasta in the middle of the night (and I’m allergic to gluten!). A doctor in college diagnosed me with panic disorder and prescribed Xmg of Klonopin (Xanax / Ativan / Lorazepam). As I’m facing serious stress at work (school / my marriage), I’d like to renew my prescription.
The way Five’s email was worded made it clear the drugs were recreational—too explainy, too polished. It clearly went through numerous drafts, was revised by her pillhead friends. Years of anxiety have resulted in Five’s mild dysthymia, a low-grade depression. Five is a law student, so she’s likely surrounded by stimulants. She probably tried it, experienced that flash of euphoria—like me in medical school—and wants more. I had one law student patient tell me her friends used to snort Dexedrine in the bathroom in between classes. I prescribed her Adderall, so she could use more safely. One time she came into my office with bright blue powder on the edge of her nose. I never mentioned it. I’m sure this would horrify my colleagues, which is one of many reasons I don’t have any. I’d last about seven seconds in a group practice. I find office interaction insufferable. I don’t care about traffic patterns and I don’t watch television.
I pretty much always give my patients the pills they want. Listen, I’m not enabling addiction. I prescribe these drugs in safe quantities—I published a celebrated paper on micro-dosing in medical school. I can spot an addict from a mile away, and I always refer them elsewhere. Science has made astonishing advancements in the last twenty years, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be taking advantage of it. My patients want to feel as good as they possibly can, and who am I to stop them?
But today I’m on edge, and I find myself wanting to say no.
I take a deep breath. I know nothing about this book, I tell myself. Becoming anxious without having all the information is irrational and unhelpful. This is what I tell my patients. But soothing the mind is easier said than done, and that’s why I get paid the big bucks.
“Hi,” Five says when I greet her in the waiting room.
“Hi Fi—Lily,” I say. The words come out scratchy at first because I haven’t used my voice all day. I clear my throat. “Come on in.”
I walk over to my couch, and she sits on hers. The room is cast in a golden glow. The pleasing aesthetics of my office provide a brief respite from my mental chatter. My style inspiration was a Freudian analyst in a 1970s Woody Allen film. But let’s be clear, I don’t fuck with Freud. I’m strictly CBT – that is, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Evie said I’m old school, I should be using Mindfulness. Evie thought she knew everything. In her defense, she was usually right.
“How are you doing?” I ask.
She fingers a lock of thick raven hair, which briefly flickers red in the light. This is always the most awkward part of the appointment, especially for my introverts like Five. The borderlines come marching in—hair frazzled, mascara smudged—instantly ranting about parking ticket that ruined their life. The extroverts are easier, but less interesting. I experience pleasure from extracting the introverts from their shells, from uncovering the brilliance behind the layers.
“I’m good,” she says. Normally I would bring up her email, to spare the introvert the pain of having to initiate a conversation. But not today. “School is stressful.”
I’ve treated too many law students. They love to complain, and none of them want to be lawyers. Many consider themselves artists, others just want to get rich and sit on a beach.
“Oh, yeah?” I ask.
“Well.” Five crosses her pale thin legs. She’s wearing a lavender shift dress that brings out the pink tint in her skin. “Maybe not stressful.” She becomes entranced with a silver ring on her finger, spins it with concentration. “More boring.”
“I had to read a statute the other day for this issue with my neighbor—psychotic dog,” I say, mainly to entertain myself. “Anyway, I couldn’t get through the statute. I just gave up. I don’t know how you do it.” I’m lying. I would never read a statute. I have a lawyer for that. I wonder if I should call her, then take a breath. That would be premature.
Five giggles. “I never really do the reading,” she says as though she’s admitted to committing a felony.
“What would you rather be doing?”
“Painting,” she says, her gaze still cast on her finger.
Suddenly, there is a loud bang in the distance. Five jumps, and so do I. I’m angry at myself for losing my cool. I cross my legs and smooth my hair.
“I think it was one of my neighbors slamming a door,” I say. Honestly, I have no idea, but explanations comfort people.
“The one with the crazy dog?” She looks embarrassed, as if she’s said something inappropriate. My borderlines will ask me about my orgasms, but the introverts act as though they’ve crossed a line just for following up on something I say.
“Probably.” I cross my legs. “So why haven’t you been painting?”
Five looks up at me for the first time, her timid grey eyes meeting mine. For a second, I shiver—mainly because her eyes are almost the exact same color as Evie’s. Gray is among the rarest of eye colors, as Evie reminded me constantly. The women also share the same delicate frame, fair skin, and nearly-black hair. But Evie is more dramatic in her appearance, bolder in her behavior. Five reminds me of people I used to date before Evie. Symmetrical women who were awe of me, who clung to my every word. Women I made orgasm in twelve seconds. Women who never left me.
“I don’t know.” She begins twirling her ring again, then looks into my eyes with a gaze I recognize well: longing.
“How is your anxiety?” I ask. I wonder if she’ll have the balls to bring up her email.
“It’s fine. Same old. It comes and goes.” She pulls at the bottom of her dress. I catch a glimpse of the inside of her pale thigh, then quickly look away.
Soon Five is talking about her low sex drive. We almost always end up here. I wish I could just tell her she’s a lesbian and save us both some time.
The clock strikes six, and Five still hasn’t said a word about the email.
“I’m afraid our time is up,” I say.
She brushes a strand of hair from her face. “Did you happen to get my email?”
“Oh.” I feign forgetfulness. “Yes, of course. Do you remember the name of the doctor who diagnosed you in college?” This isn’t something I would normally ask.
“Um,” she says faintly. “It was student health, I’d have to go back and check—” She reaches into her purse. Pulling out her iPhone, she catches my gaze for a brief second. Her eyes are cold, distant. As she scrolls through her phone, I watch her slip away.
“—Don’t worry about it.” I don’t mean to say this. “You said 10mg right?”
“Yeah,” she says. Her body slackens, and a wave of relief washes over me.
“I’ll call it in tonight,” I say.
She flashes me a brief smile, then—as if embarrassed—stands up abruptly and approaches the door.
“Hey,” I say as she’s almost gone. “I expect at least a painting out of this.”
“You got it, Fiona.”
As I’m filling in Five’s patient chart, an email comes in from tomorrow’s Nine O’Clock. Another introvert wants Adderall. I don’t respond.
In the kitchen, I find myself lingering over Lioness again in my phone, imagining the disappearing typing bubbles. I put my finger on the dialogue box and start crafting and deleting several unhinged drafts about how her book better have nothing to fucking do with me. I set the phone down on the marble counter, and I decide to order Thai. Evie never liked Thai, so ordering it feels like an act of resistance. I know I’m not supposed to be eating carbs, but who cares if my life is about to go up in flames. I order all my favorites: shrimp spring rolls and papaya salad and Pad See Ew.
While I wait, I shower. The pressure of water against my body drowns my thoughts. Afterwards, I slather my body in rosehip seed oil and take a half a Klonopin. In the closet, I run my fingers along the edge of a floor-length fur coat Evie left behind. Just as I drape it on my naked body, the doorbell rings.
“Joey,” I say, opening the door. He’s been my delivery guy since I moved here. About a month ago Evie invited him in to smoke a joint with us. We ended up chatting and laughing for hours, I don’t remember what about. Ever since, Joey always leaves a tiny nug in the bag. “What a treat.”
“Oh…Fiona,” he says. He seems taken by me, staring at where my coat opens and reveals the top of my chest. “I thought you were Evie for a second. In that coat.”
I bat my lashes. “I can be glamorous too, you know.” I feel an immense sense of power in being objectified.
“Right.” He hands me the bags, and my eyes meet his. For the first time, I notice they’re annoyingly beautiful—bright green and almond shaped with thick lashes. “Is she…around?”
As I hand him the cash, rage bubbles up inside me. I’m no stranger to random attacks of anger, but this one feels elucidating. I’d peeled away to bed early that night, leaving Evie and Joey alone on the couch, sitting close and laughing hard. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just like I didn’t think anything of it when Evie told me early in our relationship that she’d cheated on every lover she’d had. But she always left them soon after, she’d clarified, as if this morally absolved her. Lucky for her, I’ve never cared much for morals. Everyone cheats, I remember thinking.
Joey tugs at the bottom of his shirt, flits his eyes. He’s pretty, but dumb. I can tell from the way his mouth hangs open that any sort of meaningful conversation with him would present a serious challenge. “I’d like to say hi,” he says, and I want to punch him in the face.
“She left me,” I say. I tighten the top of Evie’s coat and think of her Tweet—not the book Tweet, but the first one, about the horrors of heterosexual intercourse. “Right after you couldn’t make her come.”
Just as Joey’s face begins to fall, I slam the door in his face. I drop the bags on the floor and charge upstairs. In the bathroom, the other half of my Klonopin crumbles into my sweaty palm, coagulating into a grotesque yellow paste. Without thinking, I squeeze my palm into a fist, crush the pill, then let the dust sprinkle onto the floor. In the cool quiet of my bedroom, I inhale deeply through my nose, exhale through my mouth, calming my nervous system without pharmacological assistance.
Downstairs, I eat standing up at the counter. In between bites, I pick up my phone, linger over Lioness. I think about how, if she happens to be looking at my contact, Evie will be seeing those freakish bubbles. But I doubt she’s thinking of me. She’s surely moved onto her next prey.
I still send the text. Congrats on your book…I’m not in it right? Haha.
I put my phone down on the counter and continue eating. I revel in the sweet and savory flavors, bits of peanut and basil, the gooey bliss of the thick noodles. As I rinse my plate, I think about Lily. It’s probably best she sees someone else. I’ll send her some referrals tomorrow.
My phone alights. A new text from Lioness.
My book has nothing to do with you, Fiona.
Anna Dorn is a writer living in Los Angeles. A former criminal defense attorney, she regularly writes about legal issues for Justia and Medium. Her article on juvenile life without parole was published in American University Law Review. She has written about culture for LA Review of Books, The Hairpin, and Vice Magazine.
He was standing outside the double doors of the restaurant, sweating underneath his blazer. He was exactly on time. He saw a girl walking towards him, a close approximation of the one whose picture he had on his phone. He waved to her. She didn’t wave back.
She waved back. Amelia. She was wearing a puff-sleeved pink fur coat, cropped at the waist. He could tell by the sheen of it—his ex-wife had been fond of mink—that it was faux. She trotted up to him and kissed his cheeks in quick succession without having to tiptoe.
“Nice to finally meet you, Jim,” she said.
“The pleasure’s all mine,” he said.
He chided himself for not preparing a wittier greeting.
“Have you been here before?” he asked.
She shook her head. He liked the way her hair bounced off her shoulders. He wiped his hands on his chinos, fearing sweat, and opened the door for her.
He was relieved she hadn’t been brought here before by some other man from The App, which he felt would have made his choice of restaurant seem unoriginal. He guessed she might be lying, but even that possibility reassured him because it would have meant that she had lied to make him feel better.
Their waiter seated them at the corner table Jim had requested beforehand, and handed them drink menus. Amelia began flipping through the cocktail list. Jim remembered the age listed on her App profile: twenty.
Would she try to order a drink? Would she be asked for her ID? Would he have to argue with the manager to save face? Would the manager assume she was his daughter? Shit. He had been trying not to think about his actual daughter, who was ten, far enough developmentally from the girl—woman—in front of him to soothe his niggling guilt. But he and his ex-wife had had their daughter unusually late. In fact, it was quite possible—very likely, if he was being honest with himself—that he was the same age, maybe even older, than Amelia’s father. He decided to avoid the topic of family.
The waiter was back, expectant.
“The lychee martini for me, please,” Amelia said.
“I’ll have a Maker’s Mark,” Jim said. “Neat.”
The waiter left. Amelia grinned.
“I love fancy restaurants. They never card.”
“Have you been to many? I’m sure you’re popular on The App.”
“I’ve had a few Companionships. Mostly guys in their thirties, a few in their forties.”
“I’m surprised the algorithm matched us up, in that case.”
“I upped my age limit to sixty-five last week.”
“Ah,” he said.
There was a brief silence.
“Your coat’s not real fur, is it?” he said. “I know a great place in the Garment District that–”
“Of course it’s not real fur. I’m against animal cruelty,” she said.
He glanced at the black leather purse dangling off her chair.
“How about you?” she said. “How long have you been on The App?”
He thought about lying for a moment, but admitted, “You’re my first match.”
The waiter set their drinks down. She picked hers up, swilling the pale straw-colored liquid around in her glass.
“Well, cheers,” she said. “Guess I’m popping your cherry.”
He laughed, and then worried that he’d laughed a little too loud. He sipped his bourbon and wished he’d ordered a beer.
For dinner she had the fig salad and the halibut, and he had the beef tartare and the roast tarragon chicken. He learned that she was from Akron, Ohio, but preferred Manhattan (“I’m already such a New Yorker”); that she wasn’t registered to vote (“I’m not super into politics”); and that she hoped to go into marketing after graduating from NYU.
She displayed polite interest in his job (“Do you ever, like, make speeches in court, like Erin Brockovich?”) and in his stamp collection, especially after he told her he owned one stamp equivalent in value to a year of her college tuition. Every so often one of them would make a cultural reference that the other pretended to understand (Juuling, Pasolini). Neither was ever convinced by the other’s feigning. A 2005 Bordeaux helped them both along.
At the end of the meal, buoyed by alcohol and a decaf espresso, he asked her if she wanted to go back to his apartment with him. She spooned out the last of her pomegranate soufflé before answering.
“Definitely. We should discuss terms first, though.”
“You know. T&Cs. It says on The App…?”
He’d forgotten about the The App checklist they were supposed to go through before—what had the phrase been?—“consummating or otherwise advancing the Companionship.”
She pulled out her phone and started reading aloud.
“Consent, blah blah blah…‘Have both parties outlined their expectations of the Companionship?’ So I’m fine with whatever, sexual stuff. That was one of your expectations, right?”
He glanced around the restaurant and prayed the waiter wouldn’t come with the check just yet.
“Cool. Okay, next…‘Have both parties agreed on a mutually beneficial gifting arrangement?’” She looked up from her phone. “Did you have a chance to look through my gifting preferences?”
“I’ll read them out for you,” she said. “So I put down ‘dinners, shopping sprees, surprise gifts to place of work or study, weekend trips’…does that sound good?”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “I’m not one of those girls looking for help with student loans.”
The waiter placed their check on the table.
“Thank you,” Jim said. “Thanks.” He handed his credit card to the waiter. “Thanks so much.”
The waiter left.
“Alright, one more thing. ‘Declaration of any other current Companionships or App-external intimate relationships.’” Amelia paused. “So I’m single in real life, but I’m seeing a couple other guys from The App. You?”
The waiter came back with the receipt. Jim stared at it, not sure how much to tip. He wondered if she was watching him, if she would be able to see the number he wrote down. He wondered how much her “couple of other guys” would tip. Under ‘gratuity,’ he scrawled forty per cent.
“No other Companionships and no…App-external intimate relationships,” he said, stumbling over The App’s clunky phrase. He couldn’t bring himself to repeat what she had said: “single in real life.” He tried not to dwell on her blasé delineation between ‘real life’ and whatever plane of reality he existed in for her.
“Alright. Shall we?”
He held the restaurant door open for her and she stepped out onto the curb.
“So,” he said.
“So,” she said. She smiled at him, which he took as encouragement.
“We can walk to my place, if you don’t mind…”
He realized she wasn’t listening. She was staring at something behind him. He turned to look. He saw a lanky boy with magenta-colored hair and two wan girls with nose piercings. All three were wearing black and all three were taller than Jim.
“Amelia, what’s up?” the pink-haired boy said.
Jim looked at her. He saw her shrink into herself.
The pink-haired boy glanced at Jim, then wrapped his arms around Amelia in a hug that Jim felt went on for a little too long.
The hug ended. There was a silence. Caleb and the two girls looked at Jim and then at Amelia.
“Is this your…?” Caleb said. Jim braced himself for ‘father.’
“This is Jim,” Amelia said. “Jim, these are my classmates. Caleb, Kyra, and Veronica.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jim said. The pale girls smiled at him without much commitment. He didn’t know which one was Kyra and which one was Veronica. He realized they didn’t care if he knew.
“We have to go. I’ll see you guys around,” Amelia said. She grabbed Jim by the wrist and tugged him away.
“See you later, Amelia,” Caleb said. Jim prickled at ‘later,’ unsure if it was a colloquialism or if Amelia and Caleb did in fact have plans ‘later.’ He consoled himself, recalling that she had told him she was “single in real life.”
They were heading in the opposite direction of his apartment. She was walking too fast and he could see her face was red under her makeup. He wondered if he should comfort her, but he felt too hurt himself. He felt embarrassed that he had embarrassed her. He felt ashamed. He felt angry that she had made him feel ashamed. He felt too old to feel ashamed.
They walked for a couple of blocks in the wrong direction before she stopped at a street corner and fished a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She offered him one, and he took it.
“Sorry about that. I was a little thrown off,” she said. “They’re just classmates. Not really my close friends.”
She handed him the lighter. He realized that the time between his first cigarette—snuck in the woods at Andover when he was fifteen—and this cigarette was over twice the amount of time she’d been alive. He lit the cigarette.
“Caleb isn’t a close friend?” he said. He felt a twinge of petty jealousy he hadn’t felt since he first began to suspect his ex-wife was cheating on him. It excited him, then depressed him.
“Not really. My real friends know I’m out with you, that’s what I meant,” she said. “I wasn’t, like, trying to hide it. Whatever. Which way is your place?”
Rather than walk the few blocks back to his apartment, he hailed a cab to avoid the possibility of running into any other NYU students who had ventured into Midtown that particular Friday.
In the taxi, they didn’t speak. He stared out the window. She thumbed through Instagram on her phone.
When he flicked on the lights in his apartment, she purred in approval. She shrugged off the pink faux fur jacket and let it drop onto the floor.
“Your place is gorgeous,” she said. “I love high ceilings.”
She drifted towards the living room window.
“Ugh,” she said. “What a view.”
He looked at her looking at it, and tried to imagine seeing that view for the first time—the shrouded tops of the trees, the black glint of the reservoir at night, the looming silhouette of the Dakota, which he could never look at without thinking of the wintry day John Lennon was shot there, and which he now could not look at without thinking that she was looking at that building now, and seeing nothing.
Naomi Xu Elegant is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies history and English and enjoys eating noodles. She is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.