Because the spring tide comes in on its own time, because the earth goes on turning and the moon goes on circling around us and the ocean eddies unevenly but inevitably between them, because the seawater rises even in the desert latitudes of the world where scorching winds blow dust in the eyes of sailors, the tide came in on the seventh day after the Ever Given lodged slantwise in the throat of the Red Sea like a crust of dry bread. It was because the seawater welled in the deep trench men cut between continents, because the seawater poured into the furrows men scratched into the muddy banks where her bow sank into the sand, because the seawater flowed under and around her steel hull, that this colossal obstruction, this beached vessel vast enough to be seen from space, this ship of shipments simply buoyed up and floated away, as light as the plastic dross she ferries across the world to waiting hands. And so you too can wait, ever grounded and ever grateful, as long as it takes for the tide to lift you out of the mud and clay when all your clawing at the earth cannot.
Sara Davis (@LiterarySara) is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia with two elderly cats. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She has previously published essays on food history and culture, and currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.
Through the COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, people were buying everything in sight. During a visit to my local supermarket, the empty shelves were familiar. In my youth, in communist Czechoslovakia, empty shelves were a norm, not the result of a pandemic.
A memory flooded in. I had to put my hand over my still unmasked mouth to hide the smile as I joined a line of people waiting for a new supply of toilet paper. I came back to the apartment empty-handed and told my husband how we dealt with toilet paper shortages back then.
Under communism, toilet paper was quite often a scarce item. There was never enough of it to store up, so we used newspapers. We children were tasked with tearing the pages of the newspaper into squares, then crushing them in our hands before putting them into a shoebox that was then taken to the WC and placed within easy reach for the would-be occupant of the throne. The idea was to make the paper softer and to get most of the ink on our hands, which we washed much more often than our behinds.
There were certain pieces, with photographs of the government officials and members of the communist party, that my father kept for himself. And the pages with Brezhnev and his Czechoslovak lackeys’ pictures on them he saved for special occasions. My father was lactose intolerant but loved cheese. Every so often he would bow to the demands of his taste buds, with the predictable results. Then it was Brezhnev and his crew’s time.
My American husband was astonished by my story and rejected the idea on the grounds that the newspaper would block the drains, though I have to say he scored points in my book because he did not object to the idea, in principle, of using the newspaper. Perhaps there were particular politicians he had in mind. There was no doubt in my mind who my Brezhnev and his enablers would be. Thanks to the narrow pipes of our civilized nation, however, such justice has remained but a dream.
Anika Pavel was born Jarmila Kocvarova in Czechoslovakia. She became a refugee when the Soviet Union invaded her homeland. She lived in England, Hong Kong, and Monte Carlo before settling in New York City, where she is a writer. She writes in Slovak and in English. Her short stories have been published in BioStories, Potato Soup Journal, Tint Journal, Nixes Mate Review, and Ariel Chart. Her story “Encounter With The Future” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More at www.anikapavel.com.
Here are the ways I have heard it happens: in bed, waking to wheezing, breathing in loose clumps lining your pillow. Out with friends, falling into your Cobb salad, your Pinot. In the pool, raking waters in a panic, clawing to clean up the unhinged mess you have become. Wiping sweat away from your brow after removing your garden hat, now filled with clumps. In the conference room, before a presentation, onto your notecards. With windows down, enjoying a summer breeze until you see it in the rearview mirror, whipping and whirling away and out of your car. Fast, far, and away, anywhere and everywhere, because it defies boundaries.
Here is how it happened to me.
I am finished running. There was no sun, but my scalp burns, it itches. I didn’t expect this process to be painful down to the follicles, but it only makes sense. There is always pain when there is an abandon. I am trying to relieve the screaming in my scalp, Ma, so I stand in the shower, palms on either side of the spigot, head bowed in submission.
I knew it was coming, Ma, I saw it thinning all weekend, so I am ready, I promise. I have been walking within a warning, and I will do it right. I am making a proper sacrifice by bathing before a butchering, by washing before an offering. And so, I open my eyes. I see pieces of me that detach, that fall away, that coil around the drain, my tears mix with the water, Ma, pushing them all the way away.
There is a shaking in my hands when I shut off the shower, a shaking as I wrap one towel around myself and when I reach for another. This shaking does not steady nor cede but there is a deadpan I maintain, until I feel an effortless removal, when I pull the dampened towel away.
There is an animal noise that comes from somewhere inside my apartment, Ma, some deep yet distant carnal wailing I cannot track nor translate. There is a widening of my eyes, a tremor growing with violent ferocity. I ride its jagged lightning, flinging the matted mess away from me.
There is a mirror and a spastic swiping of steam, but this is a mirror that is not true, because in it is not me—instead there is a woman I have never seen. The left side of her head is completely bare, Ma, her scalp a pale slice of skin; a raw slab of meat.
This woman in the mirror, Ma, she looks confused. She frowns and I frown back, so I walk away, but she does too. She is following me through my apartment—from the mirror on my door to the mirror above my bed. So I move faster, running to the mirror in my living room, my bathroom, my bedroom, but there she is again and again and again.
I blink at her and she blinks at me. I raise my left hand and so does she. I reach to run my fingers through soft waves, but I feel only a headstone scalp—bald and bare. Then she is panicking, Ma, reaching frantically for hair. She is always reaching for what is no longer there.
This woman, she runs back to the bathroom where she finds the towel she cast aside. She lays it in front of the full-length mirror, her tears a torrent in her eyes. She kneels before it like an altar, with short and choppy breaths—she begs, “no, no, no,” her only prayer a pathetic lament. She lines up lost tresses before her where she sits, and the rest, Ma, she remembers in snips.
There is a shaking hand that calls Aimee, that calls you. There is an earth-quaking voice that manages, “the shaver,” until she goes dashing back to every room. There is the consulting every mirror for a contradiction, but they all tell her the same truth: “the woman in the mirror is you.”
There is the bedroom floor, mirror and altar again. There is the rocking back and forth, eyes oscillating between who she is and who she’s been. There are heels of hands pressed into eye sockets, pads of fingers tapping and padding toward a precipice, shrieking at the feeling of skull through skin.
There is the hair that falls around her from only bowing her head, there is the frantic picking up of pieces, of salvaging severance from stem. There are nail marks that draw blood from fists too tightly clenched, there is trying to make the shards hers again. There is the desperate holding up of them—first to the woman in the mirror, then her mother who walks in.
There is incorrigible sobbing that turns to incoherent blubbering when you find me there, holding up pieces of myself I have lost so that you may see. There is a falling of your face and then your body to your knees as you watch what happens when I cannot let go of what has let go of me. There are my hands, Ma, and then there are yours—yours—reaching for not what I have lost, but for what you have: me.
There are hands, pulling me into you, rocking me as long as I need, my muffled mumblings spit-soaking your shoulder until they cease. Hands holding my face out from yours, wiping my tears instead of your own, your eyes a red-rimmed graveyard of grief. You tell me you’re sorry, tell me you know, tell me to breathe.
There are your hands, not forcibly removing what I am not ready to release, but holding soft a death grip that opens gradually. Your hands, pulling me up when I cannot stand or see, raising my arms above my head, out of this towel and into something warm despite my pleas. Your hands, helping me rip the mirror off the wall to take outside with me, even if you don’t understand why this is something I need to see.
Your hands, I let lead. Into structured slaughter, to the dark dock where the water rushes beneath. Where Aimee takes the mirror and puts it in front of my seat. Where there is a single red rose in a vase upon a table, where there is a candle with a flame that flits in fits but does not flee. Shadows that flicker over a shaver conjure a gnash of teeth, waiting to cut and cleave, and in the dance of light, Ma, I swear it’s smiling at me.
Courtney Elizabeth Young is a 32-year-old rape crisis counselor and sexual assault survivors’ advocate pursuing an MFA at Southern New Hampshire University while in her second battle with triple-negative breast cancer. She has lived on and backpacked six continents and over thirty countries alone so far—but isn’t done yet. A proud owner of both the DRD4 and MAOA gene, she has lived out loud her wild ride through life on everything from cocaine to camels, from crocodiles to cancer. She won the Emerging Writer’s Grand Prize through Elephant Journal, was the featured travel photographer and writer in DRIFT Travel Magazine, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Palooka Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, and Tipping the Scales: She Speaks and Hour of Women’s Literature.
i only exist in spectrum extremes
floating amongst personality binaries
hard cut offs…….. prescription intimacy
learning to top
the in betweens dusting for my own
fingerprints in a house made up entirely
of stained glass ………………………of sunday
bath mat moldings …………….erotic velvet
blue flame rage
my marionette hands
hillscapes folding in on
underwater, ……spot lit
i am only wallpaper
self-gaslighting, a welcoming
Savannah Slone is a queer, bipolar, and disabled writer. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Homology Lit and the author of An Exhalation of Dead Things (CLASH Books, 2021) alongside two chapbooks. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions.
The native mums told me it was inevitable, ……………………………………………………..nobody’s fault. ………………..In the changing room ………………………..……………………………they swapped ………………..uniform jumpers and caps.
Soon I saw my sons scratching their skulls. ………………..Sesame seeds,
……………………………………………………..had claws attached to hair ………………..where it was warmest— ……………………………………………………..the nape of the neck ………………..or around the ears.
They laid nits, ………………..ten or so a day.
The brown pinheads hatched, ……………………………………………………..first into nymphs, ………………..then adults — left behind empty egg cases ……………………………………………………..glued on. Neat rows
clung with military precision ………………..to the shafts.
Mother swore by mayonnaise ……………………………………………………..to suffocate the tiny ………………..wingless insects, or vinegar ……………………………………………………..to dehydrate them.
Gasoline or kerosene, a less acceptable ………………..alternative, even for her.
I chose disinfecting shampoo, ……………………………………………………..used a fine-toothed ………………..comb to tease them out ……………………………………………………..at night – parsed one section
then the next, egg by egg, ………………..each strand of hair.
We talked about the day at school, ………………..missing Dad, ……………………………………………………at work in America.
Before bed, I soused them ……………………………………..in lavender oil,
their stuffed animals, ………………..too.
Marsha Blitzer has published poems in The American Journal of Poetry, The Banyan Review, and 166 Palms. An alumna of Sarah Lawrence, she completed the coursework for a PhD in Russian Literature and Linguistics from Georgetown and holds a JD and a MS in Education. She has practiced law in Moscow and London and now lives with her husband in Tucson, Arizona.
I don’t remember who suggests skinny dipping (me?), but none of us have our suits on anymore. At least I don’t. I am twelve, and we are at a friend’s remote lake property for a swim team picnic. It’s after 9 PM—many families have left already—and dark, so there’s not much to see, just the occasional fleeting glimmer of something pale beneath the lake’s surface. Flesh, ghost, or fish, it’s hard to tell. It smells like the end of summer—tang of smoke from burnt bluegrass fields, the day’s heat evaporating from boulders and docks, pine needles crushed in dirt beneath bare feet. Naked bodies slip through the water around me like otters.
On shore, our parents shake their heads and laugh and hold towels for when we decide to emerge. Some of the less intrepid swimmers huddle in sweatshirts or wrapped in towels. A bulbous half-moon hangs above and the sky feels massive and close at the same time, like the whole universe is right here with us.
I am giddy with the water’s cool touch on my body, all of my body, the thrill of someone’s leg grazing mine. The crescendo of laughter and voices builds in my chest until I am slithering out of the water, onto an inflatable raft, and standing, clumsily, on its undulating surface. The night air envelops me; my skin erupts in goosebumps. Someone on shore points a flashlight at me.
The white glare catches my dripping pubescent body, transforms me into someone else, or maybe someone more than I am on land. The night sounds—rhythmic lap of waves, occasional mosquito whine, nervous giggles of naked kids, chorus of bewildered parents’ voices—fall silent.
Am I thinking about everyone watching? I don’t think so. Not yet. I raise my arms, triumphant, and cry, “I’m not ashamed of my body!” My voice crashes into the quiet, sending sound waves rippling through the night. For one glorious moment, my body is a beacon, then I dive into the water, mooning the moon before I disappear into the underwater hush and the shock of my own declaration, something I didn’t know how much I wanted until I said it. Later, I will turn each word over in my head, examining them from every angle, searching for hidden meanings. But here, submerged in lake water, the words drift around me, flickering with hope and possibility. Then another thought slips in: what except shame could elicit such a declaration? My words begin to sink toward the dark lake bottom as my body begins to rise.
When I surface, all I hear is laughter. But it’s not the same laughter that lifted me onto the raft. If I were wearing a bra, this laughter would snap the strap. If I were walking to class, this laughter would thrust out its foot and trip me. I become acutely aware of a group of still-clothed swimmers sitting together on shore, away from the parents. They are my age and a couple of years older. I can’t look at them, but I feel every one of their eyes on me. Near the raft, heads bob and limbs splash, oblivious, and only now do I notice that everyone in the water is younger than me. I am the only naked one with breasts, the only one with pubic hair, the only one who failed to understand some unspoken rule about which bodies should stay hidden. Even in the cold water, my face burns.
I debate how long I can stay underwater, consider how far it is to the other side of the lake, how long I can swim in the dark by myself. The younger kids begin to get cold or bored and paddle to shore, where chuckling parents wrap them in dry towels.
Submerging myself again, I wonder how much the older boys saw and what they thought. As I float underwater, I still feel their eyes on me, but something has changed. My skin prickles with a feeling I can’t yet recognize, a shapeshifting mixture of pleasure, power, and shame. I kick my legs slowly to feel my body against the water, the water against my body.
Later, after I wait as long as I can, after most people have disappeared into their sleeping bags or gone home, when I am pruny and shivering and alone, I tiptoe out of the water and, as quickly as possible, wrap a towel around the body of which I am not ashamed. Over the next few weeks, moms will stop me on the pool deck or in the locker room and say things like, “Good for you!” and “You tell ‘em!” while not quite meeting my eye. I don’t know how to reply. I want to ask them how they learned to hide their bodies, what other rules I should know. I want to ask how many ways our bodies can surprise us, betray us, thrill us, mislead us. I want to know who makes the rules, what happens when we break them. I want to ask them if women have always worn shame like skin. I want to ask how long I will feel exposed and if it’s worth that moment of standing naked and brave in the spotlight. Please, I want to say, tell me I will always remember the light on my skin, before everything changed, even when my perspective shifts and I can only see her from shore. Isn’t this how a girl grows up—by offering her body to the world?
Lindsay Rutherford is a writer and physical therapist in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Lunch Ticket, The MacGuffin, Mothers Always Write, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Every Korean girl I know freaks out about going back to Korea. Some are yuhaksaeng, the Korean born who study, work, and live abroad. Some are like me, American born and returning to Korea for the first or third or one hundredth time. We represent a range of the diaspora, living in various states of exile.
“I’m so ugly,” we sigh, pulling at our faces as we peer at ourselves, our noses close to the mirrors, examining every pore, every hair, every line, imagined or no.
“Oh, I’m so fat,” we moan, pulling at our arms, our thighs, our middles. “I’m going to get an earful. My mother/my grandmothers/my aunties will be so angry that I’m so fat.”
We count calories. We run for miles. We sweat to YouTube workout videos with cheerful, taut-bodied White girls, bouncing up and down, hopped up on endorphins and hairspray. We do snail mucus face masks. We max out credit cards, buy new clothes we can’t afford, even though we know we’ll need to buy more in Korea because people dress better in Korea than in America. Bring some nice clothes.
But it’s too little too late. This is an exercise in futility. We know there isn’t really anything we can do about it. It’s too late.
I’m about to go live in Korea.
The last time I was in Seoul, my uncle took me to brunch at the Ritz-Carlton. I sat gaping over his shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” He turned around to see.
She could have been eighteen or thirty-eight, it was impossible to tell. Tiny and delicate, her face mummified with huge white bandages, a sling holding up her chin, another thick piece of gauze and metal across the bridge of her nose. At first I thought she was wearing eye shadow until I realized they were bruises. Her eyes were blackened like a prize fighter’s. Her nails were perfectly manicured, a pale blush except for one nail on each hand, encrusted with crystals that sparkled as she daintily held silver tongs, plucking two perfect slices of watermelon from the extravagant buffet table, laden with fruit like jewels, crab legs and roast beef and bacon and eggs and cakes and pastries.
My uncle shrugged, and with a rueful chuckle he said, “It’s shocking, huh? You probably don’t see that in America, do you?” And then, “Welcome to Gangnam.”
The ideal Asian female form and countenance is highly standardized and uniform. We see this ideal across all manner of Asian countries. In a world where medical pilgrimages are made to worship at the temple of manufactured perfection, South Korea is the mecca, the epicenter for cosmetic surgery.
The Gangnam district is one of the most expensive and desirable pieces of real estate in Seoul. The hustle, the urgency, the skyscrapers, are so overwhelming they make New York City seem like a backwater, a country town, slow and lumbering when compared to the sleek, modern efficiency of Seoul. Everyone is well dressed, everyone is on a mission, in a hurry. Everyone seems to be moving as fast as they can.
When you emerge from the immaculate subway station, the first thing you notice are the signs. The giant pictures everywhere, above and below ground. Beautiful Korean girls, large eyes, tiny perfect noses, pale translucent skin, pointy chins, glossy hair. Even I can’t tell one from the other, they are so uniformly lovely. I gaze past these images, at the endless signs up and down the sides of these immense buildings. Storefronts advertise plastic surgery procedures, every window a portal to a prettier face, a better body. A better life, a step up the ladder.
A chance to improve one’s destiny.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have double folded eyelids. If you mention double folds to White people, they look at you like you’re crazy.
“What are you talking about,” they ask as they peer closely at your face. “What fold?”
It never bothered me or even occurred to me to notice it until my best friend mentioned it once. She was Korean, too. “Rub your eyes,” she said, miming a finger over her eyelid. “That way your eyes will look bigger.”
I went home and rubbed my eyes and, wouldn’t you know it, it worked. My eyes seemed to double in size. But the trouble was the folds didn’t hold overnight. When I closed my eyes to sleep, they would vanish and I would wake up to the same eyes, now small. I could no longer ignore that my eyes were ugly. To make things worse, the folds were asymmetrical—sometimes one side would hold and the other wouldn’t, giving my face a lopsided look, like a stroke victim.
I learned all of the tricks. I learned to rub my eyes raw and bright red. I would stand in front of my full-length mirror, stomping my feet when the folds didn’t appear, a panicky feeling rising in me as I saw one round eye emerge and one flat one. The best days were when they folded neatly and stayed; on those days, I felt pretty.
I learned about the glues and the sticks to poke the skin back. I learned to cut tiny crescents of scotch tape and sleep with them on, training my face overnight. No more lost hours, these were literal beauty rests. I still travel with a spool of scotch tape in my makeup bag.
“How prepared you are,” people say backstage when their sheet music falls apart, relieved when I hand them the familiar clear tape.
My eyes are now folded. I don’t know if it’s the result of years of scotch tape and willing them to be rounder.
“You had the sanggapul surgery, right?” my female Korean friends ask me.
“No,” I say, and their eyes widen.
“Oh, how lucky you are.”
At Juilliard, a White boy once asked me: “You’ve had that surgery right, the eye one?”
I was unprepared for how to answer—I knew it wasn’t any of his business, but I was blindsided by his question. Years later, I still think about how I was both ashamed to be asked and relieved that I could honestly say no. No, I hadn’t altered my appearance—at least, not to that extent.
Many of my female Korean friends have had the surgery. In Korea, matchmakers demand pictures of their female clients from when they were in elementary school to verify whether their double folds are authentic. I don’t think they ask the same of the men. It used to be that getting sanggapul suseul was a gift your parents gave you as a high school graduation present, with the understanding that college was the most valuable time. The time when you would meet your future husband, so you should be the prettiest you could be. You can tell when they close their eyes; you can see the deep groove where the incisions were made, often they’re still red. Sometimes, drinking brings up the redness.
A tell-tale mark. The permanent scar that makes their eyes round.
An American surgeon, a White man, David Ralph Millard, developed surgical procedures after the Korean War to make Asian eyes rounder, redistributing cartilage to elevate Asian noses. Soon, this surgery was performed on Korean women, war brides and sex workers, stitching up their eyes to make them more appealing to White men.
Known as an upper eyelid blepharoplasty, this procedure is done to reshape the eyelid to create a double fold. It’s the most common cosmetic procedure done in East Asia and in parts of India. And it’s the third most requested aesthetic procedure amongst Asian Americans. This procedure is also one that can be deemed medically necessary, for example, for heavy eyelids that can block vision.
The earliest recorded documentation of this kind of procedure is from 1895, when an unnamed reporter wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the surgery as it then existed in Japan: “In their efforts to acquire recognition in the civilized world, the Japanese have found their greatest barrier in the unmistakable mark of their Mongolian origin. The prejudice against Mongolians is undeniable, and among the Japs, the slanted eye being its only evidence, the curse is being removed.”
About 50 percent of East Asians do have double folds, we insist, so it’s not necessarily that we want to look more White. It’s that we want to look more pretty. We want to be prettier. We aspire to a “universal beauty.”
But what the hell does that even mean? Pretty according to what? According to whom?
The idea of the innocent vixen-lady in the streets, freak in the sheets is even more exaggerated in Korea. Women are infantilized; just take a look at the K-pop girl groups for a glimpse of this distressing message of hypersexualized prepubescence. And across Asian porn is this idealized figure, this woman-child waif who weeps and wails in a performance of protest as she gives in. The man’s role is to push her, to override her protests. Her repeated denials are not meant to be taken seriously, but instead, she is meant to be fetishized. The message is this: the Asian woman’s body is meant to be raped and plundered, her protestations are flimsy and false, her conquest inevitable. It is the man’s role, nay, responsibility, to command the Asian woman, to take over, to pillage and seize what is rightfully his.
I can’t think of a clearer metaphor for the West’s colonization of the East.
One Sunday, when I was small, my mother took me to church alone. A Korean church, where, of course, the congregation whispered and stared at this new parishioner, this young mother with her small daughter. They speculated that my mother had married a White man, the easiest explanation for both the father’s absence and my light brown hair and round eyes. A White husband would also explain other invented stories in their minds: that my mother was a single mother—unusual even in 1980’s America and a scandal in Korea—and a White man would have likely been a GI during the war and my mother would have been from a poor background, because everyone knows that only prostitutes or poor girls married White soldiers as a way to get out of Korea, to escape poverty or a bad family, or even worse, a broken hymen.
They invented a whole narrative, based on my face, my hair, my skin, my small body.
So, the next Sunday, when my mother returned with my father holding my other hand as we walked into the church, the hostile, suspicious congregants gave a collective sigh of relief.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” they greeted our young family differently this time, with respectful bows, a full ninety degrees from the waist instead of the insolent head bobs of the week before, and warm smiles, the women bustling around my mother and me, the men slapping my father on the shoulder. The fact of my parentage—Korean on both sides—transformed my light hair and round eyes.
“How pretty,” the church parishioners cooed at me, stroking my hair that glinted nearly blond in the light as I stared up at them with my eyes, round as coins. To have a fully Korean baby who looked like she could be part-White: what had been tainted the week before, was, this Sunday, my family’s great good fortune.
In the years following the Korean War, South Korea was swept up in “American fever,” which peaked in the decades of the 1970’s and 80’s, a cultural tsunami that infiltrated and watered the underlying cultural beliefs of the country. The ongoing and substantial US military presence in South Korea gave rise to the idealization of all things American, this belief that America was powerful, wealthy, and modern. Superior.
The brutal years of Japanese occupation, and then the devastation of the Korean War, a “forgotten” war, overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War, a war of containment that the US implemented as its Cold War privilege in its ongoing battle to beat back communism. It left the country literally broken, divided in half. Korea, 4 million dead, war-torn and impoverished, looked to America and Americans as an example to be emulated.
After all, Korea relied completely on America for what remained of its economy. Why would I want to be Korean—small, pathetic, impoverished, sitting bewildered in the rubble of a war-torn country, with nothing to eat or wear, no future to hope for—if I could be American, walking its streets paved of gold?
America as pathological liar.
I wonder if this is where it really began, this elevation of Whiteness in the Korean psyche. Is this a dot on the timeline of the toxic obsession with Westernized beauty that continues to dictate and oppress Korean women? Is this how we learned to despise our own culture and aesthetics in favor of chasing after Whiteness, the all-American beauty? And perhaps it makes sense.
After all, if the land of your birth is also the foundation of your trauma and pain, where the very intergenerational inheritance is one of self-loathing, oppression, and colonization, of course then, it makes sense. I, too, would reject myself in order to strive for the other, so that I might have a fighting chance in a world that I’ve learned, generation after generation, will always forsake me.
If I am perfect enough, good enough, maybe then I don’t have to grieve. Maybe I can be perfect enough that I won’t have to look back. If I’m perfect, if I’m beautiful, then maybe I can stop running, stop chasing so hard.
Maybe then I can finally rest.
In Korean there’s this way of saying, my heart aches too much so I cannot express it. Wordless heartache. A heartache so big that it catches in my throat and I cannot speak it.
When I am in Korea, I feel a peculiar longing, this strange feeling of, oh, this is almost it. This is almost belonging. This is almost beautiful. I am almost home, but not quite.
I think of the ways my parents don’t belong anywhere. The Korea they left no longer exists, philosophically and even geographically, and so there is no way to return.
And what is returning, homecoming, homegoing, really? Is it actually possible?
And I think about the ways America will never be home either, not for me or for my parents. How assimilation is both impossible and entirely too costly.
Because to assimilate would mean to disappear, to sound and look and act so White that our Koreanness would no longer exist. And the material impossibility of this; after all, no amount of plastic surgery will ever make me White.
And I think of all the Korean parents who deliberately never taught their children Korean, fearing that their children might have an accent, might not sound American enough. How we relinquished our identities in the hopes for a better future. And how this created yet another loss, another chasm there, between generations and culture and language, separating all of us.
Tricia Park is a concert violinist, writer, and educator. Since making her concert debut at age thirteen, Tricia has performed on five continents and received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is the host and producer of an original podcast called, “Is it Recess Yet? Confessions of a Former Child Prodigy.” Tricia has served on faculty at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa and has worked for Graywolf Press. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. She is a Juilliard graduate and received her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2021, Tricia was awarded a Fulbright Grant to Seoul, Korea, where she worked on a literary and musical project. Her writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and F Newsmagazine. She was also a finalist for contests in C&R Press and The Rumpus. Tricia has served on faculty at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa and has worked for Graywolf Press. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. Currently, Tricia is Associate Director of Cleaver Magazine Workshops where she is also a Creative Non Fiction editor and faculty instructor, teaches for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and maintains a private studio of violin students and writing clients.
Teenagers found him washed up on the sand, bloated and bright in his favorite Hawaiian shirt. A crowd gathered and called the police, but not before those who found him took his wallet, wedding ring, car keys. The car itself. Authorities appeared, took pictures, bundled him up and drove his body past the palm trees and liquor stores to the morgue in Oakridge on 31st. There were several other bodies already there so he waited his turn, something he’d always found difficult.
Around dinner time, a Broward County detective came to Marv and Lorraine’s condo in Plantation with two shoegazing deputies. He told her he wished everyone had their names sewn into their clothing because it would make his job a lot easier. Lorraine just looked at him with her mouth open. It was late when they left. She drank a whole bottle of Lakeridge Southern White and lay on the couch staring at the ceiling until daybreak, when she loaded herself and another bottle of Lakeridge Southern White into the Volvo. She transported what tears she could muster to the beach and spent an entire day rusting in the sun next to an ocean she couldn’t stop thinking briefly, fatally contained Marv. She sat there cradling her grief like a baby, careful not to break it or fray its edges as it was suddenly and without ceremony her only possession of any consequence.
She rocked gently back and forth, ignoring passersby, recalling certain details about her husband, a big, booming man in flip-flops born in Romance, Arkansas. She made a list in the air with some whispering. He loved to golf. He was kind to animals and children. He could drain a double gin & tonic fast. He was impatient. He served in the Coast Guard and had three missing fingers, as well as a human skull he found in an abandoned rowboat and kept for himself. She spoke the empty platitudes and idioms he’d liked best. Quick as a whip. All that jazz. Drunk as a skunk. Life isn’t always fair. Big deal, champ.
And this: he’d taken special interest in their new neighbors, a mother and son from Indonesia with whom they shared a wall. A very special interest and a very thin wall. She picked up several more bottles of Lakeridge Southern White on the way home from the beach. She bought a whole case, which is twelve bottles.
She had a list of complaints and spit them one-by-one into the phone at her hunched mother listening in Bali. Uh huh, her mother said.
The boy will only eat food that has been deep fried. He grows sullen if there isn’t anything deep fried close at hand for him to devour. America is ruining him. He is only age thirteen. He is inflating like a balloon. And sugar. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his breathing becomes heavy with little exertion. We are having disagreements over food and video games and school.
Silence on the phone.
He is failing school, Mom.
I told you about Marv already. He’s dead, it was on the news. Before that, he was helping and there was some hope, but now Marv has disappeared just like Mauli’s father—well, he drowned—and there does not seem to be any more hope. What Marv would do; he would take Mauli on walks. To get his heartbeat up. And he would pay him one quarter for every block. And he would talk to me. And his wife hates me. And I’m scared to tell Mauli he’s gone.
Uh huh. Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Putri’s mother’s voice dipped to its lowest possible octave.
The teenagers took the Cutlass on a lengthy joyride, and she had to retrieve it from an impound lot on the edge of Pine Island Ridge. The attendant, too animated for such a quiet place, looked at Lorraine with vast, watery eyes. He’d seen it on the evening news. That man your husband sounded nice, I like the way they say about him, just a nice guy all over. He was really sorry, sincerely sorry. His wife wasn’t dead, but his parents were, he offered. He said they were murdered right in front of him when he was only seven. He made a stabbing motion with an empty hand. The teenagers had slashed the seats and ceiling of the Cutlass, which Lorraine now considered an ironic name for this particular car.
Before she could tell him, a note was slipped under their door.
Perhaps you’ve heard Marv has drowned is gone. Whatever agreement you had is now null and void. Please return any belongings he loaned you by leaving them outside the garage. Your neighbor, Lorraine. Mauli stood in the foyer gripping the note with both of his thick hands and began to sob.
Putri worried at how depressed, how angry the boy had been since Marv didn’t show up Friday night to take him to dinner as promised. She worried about the secret time in his room. She worried about the fact that he was a teenager, a huge sullen teenager with no friends and a thick accent. She worried even more when she checked on him in the middle of the night and found him snoring in the glow of his night light, holding the skull Marv gave him to his chest, his eyelids open, his eyes rolled back in his head.
Lorraine’s shopping list was brief and sundry: onion rings, lube, cough syrup with codeine, a Komodo dragon. She veered onto 842 West from Plantation toward the shopping centers of Fort Lauderdale, reveling in a claptrap serenade: air conditioner drone, ice in her gin & tonic as castanets. She shook her head to the feral rhythm, the landscape a swerving, indistinct blur; a whoosh of charcoal pavement decorated with cerulean smears of rippled sky.
She looked at the coupon. 20% off select reptiles. The passenger seat occupied by several empty cans of gold spray paint. She had a lot of spray paint on her face, around her mouth. She rolled down her window and shouted something incoherent to even her at a passing car. Its driver frowned, as did she.
She turned on the radio full blast. Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue: The deafening distorted squeal was just a whisper to her. Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies. Give me no reasons, give me alibis. Tell me you love me and don’t let me cry. Say anything but don’t say goodbye. She ran her fingers through her loosening perm, ripping roots, and opened her mouth wide in a full-throttle yawn that turned almost seamlessly into a deafening scream.
Marv had been dead for thirteen days. Thirteen days since he’d waded into the Atlantic. She remembered the garish Hawaiian shirt and a blank look when he left the condo. She imagined his face framed in seaweed, his lungs spilling their last effervescent treasures, his body softly sinking to the ocean floor. She took a big sip of her drink. Fort Lauderdale loomed on the horizon. The Cutlass still reeked of weed and musky cologne. Long strips of ceiling fabric billowed in the wind, occasionally touching her face, covering her eyes. Oh Marv, Lorraine muttered sorely brushing it away as she steered unevenly past Galaxy Mart, Firewood City, Pump & Go, Sandy’s Place Too.
The night Marv drowned, the deputy had said, We’ll do everything we can to help you, ma’am. We know you’re feelin’ pretty bad, and I would, too. Do you have a friend or neighbor that can come sit with you? Neighbor. Lorraine frowned bitterly at the word and the thought of Putri. She thought of the day Putri moved in, not wasting any time sucking up to Marv. In her tiny white shorts and halter top, prancing shoeless in the kitchen, showing speechless, grinning Marv how to dance the Topeng while Lorraine and Putri’s son Mauliwarmadewa stared unhappily at each other over bowls of melting sherbet.
She stretched out on her bed in the afternoon, thinking of Marv, imagining him walking out of the ocean, covered in seaweed, mouthing words she almost knew as the ocean receded behind him. She fell asleep that way, and her dream carried the vision forward: Marv taking her by the waist, kissing her neck, suggesting with his soft brown eyes that she might consider loving him—at least consider it—as he guides her into the waves, under the ocean surface. Putri wanted to say that she had done more than consider it, but the words came out in a clump of oblong bubbles: Lorraine.
She woke and felt a presence, and the presence was her son. He was in the hallway, just outside her bedroom, where she sat up, squinting. He was moving in sweeping gestures. He was dancing? Mauli?What are you doing, please? Why are you awake? She rose and went to embrace him, but he shimmied away into his room and locked his door behind him.
Lorraine About five minutes from downtown, a highway patrol car pulled her over. Lorraine ducked and drained her gin and tonic, watching the officer in the side mirror as he approached, muttering into the radio clipped to his stiff blue shirt. She attempted a sweet smile and rolled down her window. What did I do, officer, she slurred.
Do you remember me? He adjusted the angle of his broad-brimmed hat. His teeth were huge. She felt her scalp crawl. With pursed, spray-painted lips, she shook her head and fidgeted with the tortoise shell clip in her hair. She couldn’t remember meeting him, but there had been so many policemen in such a short amount of time.
Ma’am, I was at your house three days ago. Your neighbor called us for the noise? The pounding on the wall and cursing?
Lorraine nodded slowly.
You were swerving pretty good back there. Can you please step out of the car?
What did I do?
You’re driving recklessly, endangering yourself and other motorists. We’ve had several complaints. Let’s step out of the car, okay? You got spray paint all around your face, you a huffer? Have you been drinking?
Of course not, it’s only one in the afternoon, Lorraine spat, her demeanor turning sour. She struggled out of her seat belt and, once she was out of the car, rushed past the officer and ran clumsily down the side of the highway until she collapsed in a bawling heap. As the officer carried her to his cruiser, she stared into the cloudless sky, her head rolling limp from side to side like a rag doll’s. The patrolman spoke into his shoulder radio as Lorraine sat handcuffed in the backseat of his cruiser. She squinted out the window into the sun, let its enormous glare swallow her whole, let herself float briefly, blissfully into a blinding white vacuum as they hummed down the highway.
She told her mother the truth about her arrangement with Marv, about the condo, the skull. Her mother wanted to know where she’d met him, and Putri surprised herself by admitting that Marv had contacted her on the internet. There was silence. And that is how I am in Florida, Mother, not working.
Uhh nnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Her mother’s voice found the bottom of the well.
At the Broward County jail, Lorraine was issued a thin, scratchy sheet and an outfit like she’d seen on TV. She scrubbed her face hard over a sink. There were too many women in her cell so she’d have to sleep on the floor. She curled up next to a radiator and watched a group of unpleasant women play cards and roll their eyes at each other. She wondered who else among them had been awake for five days straight. The TV was on but nobody was watching. Something about a new kind of microwave oven: The convenience will simply. Blow. Your. Mind.The speed is incredible. And listen to that … total silence. See? Total silence! The studio audience exploded.
There was an argument between several of the women playing cards, and Lorraine asked them to speak more softly. A burly one with matted hair and bloodshot eyes struggled to her feet and loudly explained that she’d jam a pipe up Lorraine’s ass if she didn’t shut the fuck up that instant. Lorraine shut the fuck up. She retreated back to her blanket by the radiator and lay there, watching the last bloodless remains of daylight struggle through the milky-filmed window of the jail cell, angry at Marv for the shabby circumstances she found herself in. The Lakeridge Southern White and gin & tonics and gold spray paint had worn off completely. Her head throbbed. She pulled the sheet over her face and considered how wide-open her eyes were, how cavernous her expression likely looked. She felt the crazy electricity that comes with days upon days of vigilance, of keeping your eyes wide as saucers, anticipating every single molecular vibration and total catastrophe, the world coiled at the ready like a pit viper.
Putri. She took Mauli to the beach at night. They drove there in the car that would be repossessed. The car payments his wife would find out about if she hadn’t already. They went to see the place Marv died. They sat in the sand and cried. They had come a long way to be with Marv. She’d done some things for Marv, physical things that didn’t make sense to her. But over time something had begun to tug at every corner and curve of her, a little at first, then more. A fondness and a warmth and something else. But the plan was now dashed, as they say. Mauli’s head fell and his shoulders shook, silhouetted by bright moonlight.
When they returned home, she sat outside on the front stoop after the boy went in to sulk or sleep in his room. She heard someone call out for their cat across the lake behind the condo. She saw a tiny lizard scamper up a drain pipe next to the garage. It stopped here and there to cock its head at something only it could see. It went up, it went down. It had nothing in mind or everything at once. Maybe it just liked the feeling of its tiny claws scraping the painted metal of the drain. Maybe its son or daughter spent too much time cradling a stranger’s skull. Maybe it had just gone too long without sleep.
Someone sat down nearby and touched her hip.
I’m Shari. There’s no cause for concern.
Lorraine was extremely concerned.
All you need to do here is let it go, tell someone. See, I have done some unthinkable things.
She poked her head out. Shari was long and tough, buck teeth shining in the stripe of early-morning light the triple-pane window allowed. She had long, dirty hair and little wire-rimmed glasses. Lorraine sat up. So my husband always had this skull, skull of a little girl he thought. And he found it in a rowboat. He was in the National Guard and had missing fingers. I’m not sure, but I think he paid someone, a woman from Bali, to come live next door to us. And he spends…spent a lot of time with him, this woman’s son.
Shari said, Okay?
And then my husband, he died. I think he took his own life. And I don’t know if it was out of guilt or what. But I’m going to figure out how this bloodsucker got ahold of him.
Shari, sitting cross-legged, casting a thin shadow against the yellow-painted cinder block wall, asked, And what exactly are you going to do?
Lorraine had no time to answer that question, as the sergeant came to inform her she was to be released immediately. She looked at the big metal clock above the lunch table. The place that sold reptiles opened in twenty minutes, and it just happened to be only two blocks away.
Putri. She and Mauli sat on the sofa looking away from each other. On the coffee table was the skull Marv gave him. Putri wanted nothing to do with it. But then again it was a gift from Marv, and Marv had paid for a lot of things over the last six months. There was a sound coming from the air duct high on the wall for the last day or so. The vent cover was off. It was a wheezing sound and scratching, then almost a hissing. And the room smelled foul. If Marv were alive she would call him, let it ring five times then hang up. He would use his key, and she would ask him to see what’s wrong, get on a ladder and poke around with a golf club. With Marv dead, they just sat silent until dinner and its necessary arguments began. Then the foul odor and hissing would be the least of her worries, at least she assumed so.
Marc Tweed’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON Annual, New World Writing, The Normal School, Juked, X-RAY, and more. Marc has recently completed a collection of short stories. He lives in North Seattle, USA and also creates paintings, drawings, and music. www.marctweed.com
My daughter tells me her dream while I pack her lunchbox. What a terrifying nightmare! I say and kiss the top of her head. She narrows her eyes. Mom, she says, It was not a nightmare. It was a dream. She smiles, showing off two lost teeth.
I do not correct her. Even though it is polite, when you dream up terrible things, to pretend that they are unwanted. But she is still learning, still puzzling over the sound an ‘o’ makes. When is it a short exhale? When is it a sharp howl? I add a sticky note to her lunch and make myself proud. Motherhood is contained in small gestures. Later, I get the call. My daughter has decided today the ‘o’ makes the howling sound.
When I arrive at her school, the teacher says, Your daughter is crying because she cannot read the sticky note in her lunchbox. She pronounces love like loaves of bread. I bristle. She is very fragile, I say. I collect my daughter from the timeout corner.
As we are leaving, the teacher grabs my arm and says, I’m worried about her dream. I say, It was just a nightmare. No, the teacher says, It was a dream.
I drive to a department store. What are we doing here? asks my daughter. I maneuver the minivan into a parking space. We are shopping for a solution, but I just say, Shopping. Inside, I let her ride in the cart’s basket and she pokes her fingers through the holes. Which do you prefer? I hold up two nightlights. One is pink and pig-shaped. The other is a white rabbit. Bunny, my daughter decides. I agree.
Look what Mom bought me! my daughter shouts, at home, holding the gifted light out to my husband. He takes it, studying the high gloss packaging and the color-coated cardboard, and hands it back. It’s my money, he says, Mom did a very nice job picking it out. My daughter wraps her arms around his legs and says, Thank you! Thank you!
Then she plants herself in the middle of the kitchen and holds Bunny at eye level. They stare at each other, and she lisps words I cannot understand. Sometimes, she falls silent so that Bunny may respond. I want to sit with her and speak her language, as I had imagined we would commune before she was born, but I sense that Bunny holds answers which I do not. This must be how she feels when I spell secrets to my husband. I-c-e-c-r-e-a-m. B-e-d-r-o-o-m.
Eventually, she forgets the novelty and leaves the nightlight on the hardwood floor. When I tuck her in for the night, I pull it from the inside of my bathrobe, like a conjurer performing a trick. Look who’s back! I say. She yawns, waves lazily, and drifts off to sleep. I leave Bunny in the electrical socket. Light radiates from his nose.
I had the dream again! my daughter tells me on our way to school. Everyone was burning! she announces. All my teachers and all my friends! With each word, air escapes from the spaces her teeth left behind, filling our car with morning breath and a low whistle. She continues, My best friend Hannah said she saw the light, so that’s where I put her. Now that she is dead, she is going to live with us. With each detail, my daughter defeats me. Bunny was meant to soak up her nightmares like a sponge, leaving me an untroubled child, the clean surface I was promised.
I swerve to the side of the road and turn around to face her. Do not tell Hannah about your dream, I say. The fire would frighten her. Not everyone is as brave as you. My daughter laughs. Don’t worry Mom, she says, I won’t tell her. But I do not trust my daughter’s judgment. She is a child without pity. Or, she is without pity because she is a child. Either way, I cannot stop myself. I clean the kitchen. I make her bed. I launder her clothes. I worry.
The phone rings. My finger hovers over ‘accept call’, the sound echoing in our high ceilings. I am a brave woman. I answer. I say, Hello, who’s calling please? and I am glad, at first, that I do not hear my daughter howling. Instead, I hear the cries of a dozen children. I’ll be right there, I say, thinking the teacher must be on the other side, although she has not spoken since I picked up.
Blue mats are spread out on the kindergarten floor. The children have tired of screaming and instead rest their surprising weight on the ground. Some snore. My daughter is wide awake, sitting upright in the corner. When she sees me, she averts her eyes, burying them into her knees which pulls close to her chest. She is scared. She has disobeyed.
I go to her, crouch down, stroke her hair, do not ask what happened because I already know. What could scare them more than death? Most of them are so young they have not encountered it. Maybe they have squashed a beetle. Maybe the cat has brought in a mouse.
My daughter clings to me as I carry her out of the classroom, and I allow it, because she is only now learning that there are things our family can stomach that other people can’t. Tragedy is our common trait. I blame my husband. He is an oncologist who specializes in a rare form of cancer. He makes a lot of money off dying people, which makes death seem advantageous, joyous even. Although he would blame me, I’m sure.
In the hallway, we pass a weeping mother speaking softly to the principal. I eavesdrop. I gather the story. A child gone missing in the night. No windows left open. No doors unlocked. You never think it will happen to you, says the mother, dabbing tears with her shirtsleeve. This is how I confirm my fear; Hannah is gone.
I have no words. As we drive home, my daughter is the one who breaks the silence. I didn’t tell Hannah, she says, All you told me was not to tell Hannah, and she wasn’t even there today. This is true. So I forgive her and ask, Where is Hannah? even though I do not want to know. My daughter chews her lip. When we arrive home, we sit in the garage for a long while. Finally, my daughter offers an answer or at least, an action. Upstairs, she says. So we go upstairs.
She disappears to her room without me telling her. In this way, she is a good child. She knows when she needs to be punished. I drift to the backyard. I smoke a cigarette, a habit I kicked before I had kids because it was classless and repulsive, and which I picked up again for the same reasons. Sometime later, she pads her way down the stairs and peeks around the corner. Yes? I say, inviting her over. An object is held behind her back. Here, she says, placing it in my lap. It’s Bunny.
Your daughter did a very bad thing today, I tell my husband at the dinner table. He looks down at her and cocks his head to one side, silently asking our child if I am lying. Well, he says, I’m enjoying my meal. We will talk about this after. But we never do.
In bed, my husband says he’s sorry. He tells me, Sometimes I have to limit the day’s amount of sadness, and I nod, Boundaries are important. He is not a talkative man. His mouth is a straight line. I removed a patient from life support today, he tells me. I fondle his earlobe. You pulled the plug, I muse, That must be a hard decision. He closes his eyes, nudging my hand with his cheek, resting his face in my palm. It was sad, he tells me, But it was easy.
Tonight, I sleep with Bunny on my nightstand, and when I wake in the middle of the night he is the first thing I see. He has circular eyes and an X-shaped mouth, like a stitch sewing shut a wound. There is something strange about his milk-white body, how the usually luminous plastic has dulled. I flip him face down and shut my eyes but cannot shake the image of the metal prongs affixed to the back of his head, like the tines of a fork in soft meat.
I give in. I get up. I kneel down at the wall, feel blindly for the socket, and plug him in. Light floods his face like water fills a footprint. Then, the thread of his mouth comes loose, opening wide. I peer inside. It is like a dark tunnel. It extends so far backward that it collapses into a single point.
And from this blackness emerges a pinprick of light, like an eye floater. I rub my eyes with fists. The bright white circle grows larger. Now, it is the size of a match head. Now it is the size of a cheerio. Now, a wedding band. Now, a bottle cap. Now, a clementine. A coaster. A compact disk. A pancake.
I jerk away for fear I might be absorbed or go sunblind. The light grows and grows. Until it is no longer circular. Until it sprouts appendages. Until it takes the shape of a six-year-old girl. I know before the face forms that it is Hannah.
With a soft thud, she steps out of the mouth and lands on my carpet. I am kneeling and she is standing and so we are around the same height. Her torso is flesh. Her head is flesh. When she reaches out to see if I’m real, I feel her hands, and they too are flesh, mushy, fat, and balmy. I cover my mouth but cannot stifle the scream.
I yank Bunny from his socket. The light goes out. And so does Hannah.
My husband lifts his head, searching for the sound.
Night terrors, I explain, and crawl back into bed.
Morning beats on slowly. I watch my husband stir awake. The wrinkles around his mouth return first, then the ones on his forehead. The bags under his eyes fill up, like Michelin tires, with exhaustion. Of course, I get up first. I make breakfast. He eats and is gone before I rouse our daughter. I move to lunch making. No sticky notes. Just peanut butter and Wonder Bread and fluff.
I am glad when I drop my daughter off at school. We are lucky they let her return at all. I count my blessings. An empty house, erotic fiction. I chain smoke. I hide the remains. I have dug dozens of pits in the backyard that hide orange butts and several with other substances. Those holes are deeper.
Today I do not expect a call. I don one of my husband’s oversized undershirts, with armpits that smell like men’s deodorant. I lounge in bed. I pull the duvet over my head. I read a woman’s magazine. Bunny still sits where I left him, underneath the outlet. I ignore him successfully for half an hour. Then, I cannot resist. I get up. I go over. I plug him in. Legs crossed, as if I am meditating, I wait for Hannah.
This time, when she asks where she is, I have an answer. My house, I say. She looks around. It’s big. Where I live now is not so big. She begins to cry, tears tinged like ash, which she catches by pressing her hands to her cheeks and crushing the murky droplets like beetles.
I lean in, envelop her in a hug I have perfected as a mother. The cotton of my shoulder absorbs her sobs as I rub her back, remembering this same methodical motion drew her out of the nightlight and landed her here in my bedroom. She sniffs and says, You smell like my dad. Would you like something to eat? I ask. She smiles and her face glows orange, like a finger held against the warm, vibrating surface of a flashlight.
Do you know how I got here? she asks, sitting at the kitchen island. I set a glass of chocolate milk in front of her. It clinks on the granite countertop. Drink up, I say. She vanishes the liquid and then inhales, suctioning the empty cup to her face. Stop that, I say, grabbing it by its plastic bottom and pulling it off with a pop. You’ll leave a ring around your mouth. She shrugs. Does it matter?
I have no answers for Hannah but am working on several for myself. My daughter was scared. It was unintentional. Already, I am making excuses for her. I remind myself this make-believe danger has tangible consequences.
The microwave flashes half past one. Hop in the car, I tell Hannah, We’re late to pick up my daughter. But we do not make it to the minivan. Hannah is stopped by the threshold. She goes through the motions of walking but only manages to kick her legs out faster, as if riding a treadmill while the belt picks up speed.
I weigh my options. I tsk, tsk, tsk, in contemplation. Upstairs, Bunny still sits in his socket. I hate to do this, I tell him, But I cannot take any more disasters. I wish my husband was here because I do not limit my sadness and it is not easy when I pull the plug. Bunny dulls. Circular eyes stare blankly ahead. Is she inside you? I ask, already certain that she is. My daughter has always been gifted. Before I pocket him and Hannah, I hold his four-inch face up to mine. Tell her I’m sorry.
The longer my daughter stays at school the greater the chance of calamity. I am a good driver. I take stretches of road at seventy miles per hour. I put on the radio to revel in tragedies that eclipse mine. An oil spill in Lake Erie. A series of three celebrity suicides. A civil war in a country the US does not recognize as legitimate. All these to distract from signs tacked up to every telephone pole. Have you seen our Hannah?
I drive home slowly, pointing each one out to my daughter. Count them, I tell her, Count how much they miss their child. Don’t you see the consequences of your actions? My daughter counts. One, two, five, twenty. She has a good grasp of numbers. Maybe she will be a mathematician. On thirty-three her lip begins to tremble and I ready myself for a flood, securing hazardous items, seeking higher ground. How, she sobs, How, How, How, How many would you put up for me? I do not have a definitive answer. I do not know the ratio of signage to loss.
At home, I plug Bunny in, rub his nose, and will Hannah into existence again. My daughter squeezes her in a hug. When she is finished with sentimentality, she announces she is hungry. I make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut diagonally, and serve them on plastic dishware.
Now can we talk about it? I ask my husband before bed. He massages his bagged eyes with his ring fingers and says, I bet this is the rarest condition in the world. He searches his nightstand. Leaves the sex dice but takes the stethoscope. The girls are playing dress-up. I gave Hannah all my long skirts, even the sarong I bought for the Bahamas. Leave them be, I tell him, Her heart can wait. He’s already inserted the eartips, he must listen to something. I unbutton my blouse, reveal my clavicle, my breast bone, my bra, so he can press the cold metal bell to my skin and diagnose my heart murmur for the millionth time. What is it saying? I ask. He retracts, winds the tubing in wide circles and returns the instrument to the drawer. He says, It’s saying no.
Out of fear that the missing person posters might have multiplied overnight, I keep my daughter home from school. To entertain your guest, I explain, doling out playdough and washable paints. On slabs of blank paper, Hannah and my daughter finger paint pictures. Hannah draws a yellow crescent. My daughter, a yellow disc. That does not look like the sun, my daughter critiques. I know, says Hannah, This is the moon. My daughter dips her index finger into yellow and turns the half-circle full. There, she says, I fixed it.
Hannah begins to cry.
I shut myself in the living room to watch subtitled television, as if I can keep Hannah’s disappearance from even herself.
The newscaster announces a vigil. Tapered candles to be provided. Hannah’s parents stand on screen. Her mother fidgets with her wedding band, working it on and off her pale finger. At one point, she drops it, its hollow toll echoing on camera. When her husband bends down, his hand feeling blindly for precious metal, she snaps, Leave it, and the broadcast cuts. I touch my own rings. Not the ones we exchanged vows with. My husband bought these later, after graduating med school, and I feel a pang for the original.
The door rattles, and I investigate. My daughter’s eye sits in the keyhole. What are you doing? I demand, A shut door means a private room. I breathe deep. Remember she does not know love from loaves. How could she comprehend their grief as it scrolled across the screen? As if to prove me wrong, my daughter wonders, Does this mean Hannah has to leave? My heart swells. A tender bruise. She is brighter than I thought. These things take time, I tell her, which makes her happy. She darts off, and I no longer want for my wedding ring. Just a cigarette.
On the stoop, I revise my theory: besides the rush of nicotine, what I like about smoking is its meditative quality. Forced deep breathing. Thinking in repetitive pairs, In and Out, In and Out. Letting myself gather and assess. It is like in sleep when we solidify all that is significant and discard the junk. My daughter slept so deeply her dreams calcified, a bone among soft tissue. I grind the butt into the ground.
Tonight is moonless. I drive to the community park. Tomato plants climb chicken-wire and koi swim counterclockwise in their ponds. Those mourning Hannah amass in front of the gazebo, holding candles which they flame by passing a lighter like at a concert. Some of the mothers carry meager gifts: lasagnas, casseroles, hams. I hold my candle with both hands.
On stage, a portrait of Hannah sags under the weight of floral wreaths. Her parents shuffle towards it, wearing slippers instead of shoes. The crowd murmurs. I bow my head and channel my husband, how he soaks up sadness without spectacle. It is his practice, listening without feeling too deeply.
Please come forward if you have any information, finishes her father.
We queue to present our condolences. The mother in front of me brought a lasagna. The mother in front of her, a casserole. My candle still burns in my hands. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, says Hannah’s father, relieving the woman at the front of the line of her ham. It is the least I could do, she tells him, honestly. The way Hannah’s father shoulders the ham, it appears he is holding a baby in a football hold. He looks so lonely.
I know why my daughter brought Hannah into our world. It is the same reason I brought her into this one. I was lonely. I had a secret I needed to share. I head home, to my child. The light of my life. The porchlight is left on, as I requested.
It’s well past my daughter’s bedtime. I sneak upstairs and peer through the crack in her door, casting a pillar of light onto her shag carpeting. There is my daughter, and there is Hannah, asleep like spoons, a shape my husband and I will form later that night. I know we are all holding onto something, but my daughter is simply too young to hold so fast.
That is for the adults to do. My husband has left a note on my pillow. He has an early shift at the hospital but wants me to know all is forgiven. He does not believe in anger for it has no healing properties. I stare at Bunny’s luminous face. When I exhaust sleeping positions, I pace. It must be done, I decide. The second time is easier than the first. I do not apologize, just pull. Bunny separates easily from the wall, his metal prongs warm to the touch.
Breakfast is hard-boiled eggs, prepackaged. I cannot bear boiling water or hot surfaces. On TV, new disasters are announced every minute, and I do not keep them to myself. How can a fairy sink if they have wings? asks my daughter. A ferry is a kind of boat, I explain. Where’s Hannah? she asks, and I place Bunny on her plate like a leftover yoke. I say, It’s time for Hannah to go home.
I make my daughter carry Bunny with two hands while I ring the doorbell. Careful, I say and she pets his furless face with her thumb. Before the door unlatches, we hear the rustle of slippers, the clink of fork to plate. Hannah’s father answers with a mouthful of ham and eggs. His wife appears behind him, resting her chin on his shoulder to peer out at us. Her wedding ring has returned. She fiddles soundlessly, on and off, on and off. Have you found our Hannah? she asks, the words dry in her mouth, as if she has been reciting this question in her sleep. My daughter holds Bunny out towards them, as an offering. Yes, she says, Here she is.
Lizzy Lemieux recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English. Her work can be found in the Best New Poets of 2018, The Massachusettes Review, and Penn Review.
Every evening before we climb into the car,
I tap the hood politely, and wait for the street cats
to leap out underneath—gray cloudbursts of mist-
matted fur, supple flash of muscle and sinew.
Even in the winter, slices of sunlight
butter the walls, caress the faceless
square windows. Last night I dreamed
about laughing with someone I missed,
the cold trickle of fear when I felt myself
stirring awake. In English class, my student
signs his letters to his mother with
—softly, your son— and I don’t attempt to
correct him. The cats are screaming
hoarsely in the night, so crazed with joy
in each other’s thin warmth, they long
for the whole world to know.
If only everything could be a little bit
softer. The snow falls soundless
in the golden light, blurring every edge
to a gently rubbed-out mistake.
Esther Ra is the author of book of untranslatable things (Grayson Books, 2018) and the founding editor of The Underwater Railroad, a literary reunification project. Her work has also been published in Boulevard, Rattle, The Rumpus, and Border Crossing, among others. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize and the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry. In writing, as in life, she is deeply interested in the quiet beauty of the ordinary. (www.estherhaelanra.com)
They sat the way they wished they could always sit: together, with wine at their fingertips, a cooling breeze in the air, and the fading day’s light sparkling like magic across the terrace’s gold fixtures. Cleopatra told a story.
“He was so funny, you know. Well, of course you know, you knew him. This one time, he told me, he said to me, he said, ‘Hey, Clea: workin’ hard or hardly workin’?’ Oh, so funny. Too funny.”
“That’s—kind of funny, I guess.” Antony took another sip from his cup.
“And so wise. This other time he said to me, ‘Clea, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ So true, you know? So wise.”
“Oh. Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”
“Are you OK? You seem, I don’t know…bored.”
“I’m not bored. It’s just—”
“I just don’t know what you ever saw in him.”
“What I saw in him?”
Antony was undeterred. “Yeah, I mean—he wasn’t much to look at. Like, literally. Just by proportions. Next to other people he looked like he was drawn to scale. Small guy, is all I’m saying.”
“He was Julius fucking Caesar, Marc. Demolished Gaul? Crossed the Rubicon? Came, saw, conquered? Jesus Christ.”
“Look. If you’re jealous… Jules is dead. He’s gone. You are all I see and all I want. You have nothing to worry about. It’s just you and me against the world. Ride or die. You and me.”
They both smiled then pulled together for a kiss, Cleopatra slowly lifting her chin for a tender, playful peck against Antony’s forehead while he barreled forward, straight for the mouth that was rising half an inch higher than his aim. The unexpected impact with her lower jaw crushed his lips against his teeth.
“Um, OK,” said Cleopatra, slightly sobered. “So, um, what do we know about what they’ll do next?”
“Who, the Romans?”
“No, the Nile United Club Team. I hear their top defender is up for transfer.”
“Yes, the Romans.” Cleopatra paused to stay focused. “What have you heard about their next move? What’s that upstart insecure little bastard Octavian up to?”
“I mean, he’s got a lot of ships. I don’t think he’s messing around.”
“What do you think he wants?”
“You. This. The Mediterranean.”
“Right, but access for trade with Egypt? Or total control? Like, am I a partner who just needs to submit to better terms? Or am I so 46 B.C. and he’s totally over it?”
“I think he’s over it. I think this, you—he wants this done.”
They looked at each other, this time with the same impulses, the same intentions. Anger. Sadness. Resolution.
“Well, I’m not done.”
“I know you’re not. That’s what I love about you. That’s why I’m here for it.”
“And that’s what I love about you.”
“Ride or die?”
“Ride or die.”
On the horizon, a cluster of ships’ masts crowded out the setting sun. In the garden, an asp slipped back into the dusk shadows.
Christine Muller grew up at the South Jersey Shore and currently lives in the Philadelphia suburbs. She earned a BA in History and Psychology and an MA in English at Villanova University, as well as a PhD in American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. In her academic life, she has published cultural analyses of contemporary US film, television, and literature. In her emerging fictional life, she is interested in stories that explore the blurred boundaries between history and hearsay.
The Reckoning is a 22-page full-color visual narrative, that illustrates our planet’s stark environmental crisis on a visceral gut level in words and images. It explores how our sustained misuse of natural resources is intertwined and connected, on micro and macro levels, impacting everything from climate change to how the Covid 19 Virus was transmitted from animals to humans. It imagines how we can do better.
The Reckoning, supported by a grant from The Studio for Sustainability and Social Action, Penn State University, was created in response to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Responsible Consumption and Production.
Emily Steinberg is a multi-disciplinary artist with a focus on painting and visual narrative and her work has been shown across the United States and Europe. Most recently, her first cartoon and Daily Shouts story were published by The New Yorker. Since 2013, her visual narratives have been regularly published in Cleaver Magazine. In 2019 she became Visual Narrative Editor at Cleaver and now curates submissions. Her memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine. Steinberg teaches visual narrative at Penn State University, Abington College, and Drexel College of Medicine, where she is Artist-in-Residence. She did her undergraduate and graduate work at The University of Pennsylvania where she received an MFA in painting and lives just outside Philadelphia.
To submit graphic narratives for consideration in Cleaver, contact Emily at [email protected].
They were cooling off in Amanda’s pool—three women submerged to their necks. With the moon behind them and in the ungenerous glow of the stringed lights on Amanda’s porch, Amanda’s and Louise’s faces were silhouettes. Toni had the most unfortunate position, facing the moon. Light beaded her skin like sweat as she listened to Amanda talk about whether or not she should break up with Boone, whom they’d referred to for months as The Hot Chiropractor, even after Amanda had started dating him.
The problem with Boone was that he was boring. “When he talks, my mind drifts,” Amanda said. “I try to focus, but it’s like trying to listen to my CPA, or to Miss Engler, my PreCalc teacher back in high school. I actually had to dig my nails into my arm to stop myself from falling asleep in her class. It was a first-thing-in-the-morning class, but still: there was something about her voice, droning like a bee, like the waah-waah grown-ups in the Charlie Brown specials. I would leave class with these gouges in my arm.”
As the married one, Toni felt her life was shorter somehow than her friends’ lives. She pictured herself as a squat succulent surrounded by ivies trailing their long, glossy stems all over everything. Amanda’s and Louise’s years were broken into so many different chunks demarcated by who they were involved with at the time. Toni had only had one “relationship” before Nick, and that had hardly lasted a year, not to mention it was so long ago, and she’d been so young, that it didn’t count in the way that her friends’ adult relationships counted.
“Does it really matter that Boone is boring?” Louise said. “I mean, he’s good-looking. And he’s good in bed, right?”
In the dim light, Amanda’s blush was only visible because she pressed her hands against her cheeks. In Toni’s opinion, Amanda could have been a hand model. Her fingers were long and tendrilly and looked like something one would sculpt. Amanda said, “It’s fine when he isn’t talking.”
“There are skills to deal with boring people,” Louise said. “I can teach you. Seriously, I have the most boring patient ever, I’ve been honing my repertoire.” Louise was a therapist. “And there are plenty of people in your life whom you can turn to for interesting conversation: me, Toni. Boone doesn’t need to fulfill every need. This is the biggest cause for unhappiness: people expect their romantic partner to supply everything—stimulate them, soothe them in that fucked up Plato ‘you complete me’ way. It’s delusional.” Louise looked to Toni. “You don’t expect Nick to fulfill all your needs, right?”
Toni manufactured a laugh. “Are you kidding?”
When she talked about Nick with her friends, she did so gingerly. She might admit, for instance, that Nick’s slovenliness drove her crazy and that sometimes she asked him questions she already knew the answers to just to get some attention. There was so much about marriage that she didn’t tell them, wouldn’t even know how to explain.
Like the fact it had made her a suspicious person.
She was suspicious, for example, that Nick timed their fights to serve ulterior purposes. Last night he’d picked a fight with her at the end of the second straight day of record-breaking high temperatures. Their bedroom was the hottest room in the house, the most impervious to air conditioning, and their home office was the coolest, with by far the prettiest nighttime view—a skylight through which one could see a splash of stars. The couch was a pullout bed but tricky to pull out—you had to untangle the legs from zippered pockets. Toni lay in their bedroom alone, staring at the ceiling that badly needed repainting, and imagined Nick, if he wasn’t sleeping soundly, looking instead at those strewn stars. She felt certain that Nick had picked this more-than-stupid fight just so he’d have an excuse to sleep on the couch. It was too hot to sleep in the bedroom. Toni sweated, brooded, and contemplated the word “suspicious”—a strange word, in that to be a “suspicious person” implied both that one suspected and that one was a suspect.
It takes one to know one.
Here and there, a bat fluttered over their heads, gobbling up mosquitoes. The jerky, mechanical way they flew made the bats seem unnatural somehow. “Human” was the word that came to Toni. Every time she went to see Boone for an adjustment (Toni had introduced Amanda to Boone), after pressing his weight into her five or six times along various parts of her spine and neck and hips, he said, “Stand up and give that a go.” Then he watched Toni as she took a few steps across the room. She always felt self-conscious in this moment, but also, weirdly, she felt a separation from her body. It was a vehicle she took out for a spin, and Boone understood more about how it worked than she did.
Amanda is ungrateful, Toni thought suddenly, disloyally. What one wanted in a partner was someone who understood one’s body, how to soothe it, fix it, please it; not someone cunning and selfish, someone who strategically picked fights like picking ripe loquats from a tree, who slept soundly while one irradiated and burned, so even a pool in the Arizona evening couldn’t cool her off. “Interesting” was entirely overrated. Toni looked up to calm herself, to swallow the rage she felt now not only towards her husband but also towards her best friend. But the sky felt wide and shocking, full of bats with meaty wings and strange, kitten-ish faces, and behind them, aggressive stars.
Kim Magowan is the author of the short story collections How Far I’ve Come, forthcoming in 2022 from Gold Wake Press, and Undoing (2018), winner of the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award, and the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.www.kimmagowan.com
Michelle Ross is the author of the story collections There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award, and Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (and forthcoming in 2021). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and other venues. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.
The cork shoots out of the bottle, bounces off the wall and loses itself behind the sofa.
Don’t bother, she says.
It’s too late. He’s already clasping the curved arm of the Chesterfield and trying to shift it away from the wall, one grunting millimeter at a time. He’s puffing, face screwed up. He makes the same face when he’s on top of her. She almost laughs but manages to keep her voice steady.
Why are you…?
Corks attract mice, stupid, he says. Your happy little furry family. He points a fat finger, laughs at his joke. His nickname for her is ‘Mouse’. It never used to feel this heavy, Ms. Mouse, he grumbles, wrestling with the sofa.
We haven’t got rodents, she says, staring at her toes. They have no pattering of small feet, of any description.
Leave it to you to wish for an infestation, he says.
Yes, leave it to me.
Anyway, remember I got you the swivel-head Dyson, he wheezes.
She sighs, pretending not to love the thing. What she loves is the way it breathes between her thighs. He goes into a mood because she doesn’t show a sufficient amount of gratitude for his expensive gift. She is grateful, but if she lets him know, he’ll find a way to break it.
Not that you bother using it, Mouse.
I’m hopeless, she says.
His face is puce with the effort of talking and shoving. Her face a locked room.
Think of your heart, she murmurs. The doctor advised…
There’s nothing wrong with me, he gasps, not pausing for breath.
Let me do it, she says. I moved it just this morning after losing an earring. It was rather light. Really, you should take it easy. In your condition.
He growls something she can’t interpret. Goes such a funny color when he’s angry. He grapples the sofa, pulling harder and harder. His face takes on a frozen look. There’s a noise, a pop, like the snapping of a weak branch. Like a woman’s water breaking.
Meg Pokrass is the author of six flash fiction collections, an award-winning collection of prose poetry, two novellas-in-flash, and a new collection of microfiction, Spinning to Mars, recipient of the Blue Light Book Award in 2020. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Washington Square Review, Wigleaf, Waxwing, and McSweeney’s. She is the Series Founder and Co-Editor of Best Microfiction.
Rosie Garland writes long and short fiction, poetry and sings with post-punk band The March Violets. Her work appears in The Guardian, Under the Radar, Spelk,Interpreter’s House,New Flash Fiction Review, The Rialto, Ellipsis, Butcher’s Dog, Mslexia, The North, and elsewhere. New poetry collection What Girls Do In the Dark (Nine Arches Press) is out now. Latest novel The Night Brother was described by The Times as “a delight…with shades of Angela Carter.” In 2019, Val McDermid named her one of the UK’s most compelling LGBT writers.
These works are from two distinct series of digital paintings, Framework and Dark Oddities. I enjoy the clash of the man-made and the organic, the grids contrasting with the shape-shifting blobs.
The Framework series asks one of those short questions that begs a long answer: Am I inside or outside? The pictures offer seemingly objective experiences that turn uncomfortably subjective on the viewer. Does being on the “inside” mean being trapped or incarcerated, or does it mean being in the know and accepted?
The drops and splotches in the Dark Oddities are likewise objectively/subjectively charged. Alluding to specimens on microscope slides, they suggest things observed—scrutinized—and then make a U-turn on the viewer. The question they pose to me is whether their seemingly bloody forms are healthy or diseased. I find that my response depends on the size of the blotch or drop, and especially its shape. The simple fact that they’re red is a clincher for my recoiling nearly every time. The experience always hits me as a form of bigotry.
All art is contrast—light/dark, high note/low note, wide/narrow—but objective/subjective is the contrast with which all art begins. The artist adopts a point of view and works from that angle. These two series were made independently but they share that objective/subjective polarity. They lure with curious shapes and then ask discomfiting questions.
My abstract digital paintings are made from either new blank Photoshop files or from poor quality photographs that I’ve taken that I call, unimaginatively, “source photos”. The subjects of the source photos are as irrelevant as their quality. In the process of “painting” them with the software, they become entirely different from what they were. It’s a painterly approach, not a photographic one.
I’ll occasionally leave a trace of the source photo, if it adds something special to the work, but my goal is to generate a new image. I want the pieces to be otherworldly, a bit out of the realm of photography.
Dark Oddities Series
Joe Lugara took up painting and photography as a boy after his father discarded them as hobbies. His works depict odd forms and objects, inexplicable phenomena, and fantastic dreamscapes, taking as their basis horror and science fiction films produced from the 1930s through the late 1960s. He began creating digital paintings in the 2010s; they debuted in a 2018 solo exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art in his home state of New Jersey.
Lugara’s work has been featured in several publications and has appeared in more than 40 exhibitions in museums and galleries in the New York metropolitan area, including the New Jersey State Museum and 80 Washington Square East Galleries at New York University. You can visit his website at joelugara.com
She is bent over the sink. The ends of her long dark hair dip in and out of the bubbles as she circles the sponge slowly over the already clean pan.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she says, watching a single tear drop into the sink and disappear under the soapy water. I’ll have to remember this feeling, she thinks, in case I ever need to play a woman with a broken heart. As an actress, only half of her attention is ever in her actual life. The other half is watching, directing, mining moments to use later in her work.
“I can tell something is wrong, Juliet. Just tell me.” He reaches over her to take a glass from the drainer. She flinches when his chest brushes her back. “Really? I can’t even touch you now?”
“You hurt me.”
“Just now? When my chest touched your back for a split second? Really?”
“No, you hurt my feelings when you said I was stupid.”
“I never said—”
“You did, just a minute ago—”
“I said you were acting stupid.”
“Yes, you said I was stupid.”
He sighs loudly and crosses to the freezer to pour two fingers of vodka. “I can’t have a conversation with you if you’re not going to be precise.”
“Fine,” she says through gritted teeth. “It hurt me when you said I was acting stupid.”
“That’s better,” he says, a smug smile spreading across his handsome face. She feels for the cast iron skillet in the drainer behind her. She could wipe that smile off his face with one swing. No jury of women would convict you, her girlfriends always say. They also offer to bury the body. She is lucky in her choice of friends.
He crosses to the table and sits down. “Now, why don’t you come over here and we can talk like adults.” He pats the chair next to him like he’s calling a dog.
“I don’t want to sit down.”
“Come on, sweetie. Don’t be petulant.”
“I’m not being petulant, and please don’t call me pet names when we’re fighting.”
“Is that what we’re doing here? I thought we were just talking.” With a smile, he adds, “Sweetie.”
Her grip tightens around the handle. “I’m just trying to tell you that you hurt my feelings.”
“No, that’s not what you’re doing, and you know it. You’re blaming me based on incorrect facts. And you know what? That hurts my feelings.”
“I’m just saying—”
“No. Stop it.” He jabs his pointer finger at her then downs the last of his drink in a single gulp. “You do this all the time. You get upset about something I never even said and then expect me to apologize for it. I won’t. I won’t apologize for something I didn’t do.”
She takes several deep, shaky breaths and says, “You called me stupid.” She can hear how small her voice sounds, and she hates herself for it.
He slams his hand down on the table with a loud BANG! Then he is up and moving toward her. In two strides he is inches from her face. “I did NOT call you stupid. I said you were acting stupid. Get. It. Right.”
She feels his breath on her face; the alcohol stings her eyes. She is trapped between his body and the sink. She grips the pan for stability, tries and fails to meet his gaze. I can use this feeling, she thinks. I can remember this moment when I’m playing a woman who is trapped and scared, who has no way out. I can remember the feeling of not being able to breathe, of choking on my own rage.
“Come find me when you’re done with your little tantrum,” he says, spraying spittle on her face. “I’ll be in the living room when you’re ready to grow up and apologize.”
She loathes him. She loathes him with a burning, searing passion. She hates him almost as much as she will hate herself a few moments from now when she goes in to beg his forgiveness in exchange for a few days of peace. She has nowhere else to go, and they both know it.
In the movie, it will be different. In the movie, she will grip the cast iron pan in two hands and swing it in a powerful arc, knocking the smile off his face and his brains across the room. When she—her character—calls her friends, they will come over to help her bury the body. “You had no choice,” they will say. “You did the right thing.” Then they will join hands and dance on his grave. The camera will slowly pan out. She hopes the studio will pay for Girl on Fire for the closing credits.
Courtney Thorne-Smith has spent most of her professional life as an actor who dabbles in writing. She is now in the midst of the radical transformation into a writer who dabbles in acting. To that end, she is currently a full-time online student at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on Creative Writing. She lives and writes in Los Angeles, California, where she gets her best ideas while walking her dogs.
Light airs! Light airs! A pierce of angels! Theodore Roethke
…it is not the skill of the hand / That writes poetry, but water, trees, / And the sky which is clear to us even though it’s dark. Czeslaw Milosz
I was torn between the desire to show how well I was dealing with things and the imperative to show that I was not O.K., that this man’s actions had derailed my life in a thousand ways. Rebecca Makkai
Each time, Greta recreates her grief from scratch. There is no mercy for time served. She bobs to the surface like some stupid laughing doll.
Well, what did he know? How many times had he been raped? Greta could tell him that you went numb and left your body to float somewhere near the sparkly sprayed-on ceiling. That way, you weren’t really there. But afterwards, your body bled and bruised. You hit your head against the wall to shake out thoughts: how you wanted to die, how you should die.
Then, two days later, you walked around as if you were just like everyone else: worried about exams and what you were going to be when you grew up. Greta could also tell him you were never the same. The rapist coiled inside like a snake, and no matter how many times you made love because you chose to, the rapist had always been there first.
This is one more narrative about a young woman, a child really, trying to navigate a fucked-up predatory world. I dream I’m in some kind of ceremony where I am free to shout at the top of my lungs as I’ve never shouted in my life. Girls aren’t supposed to shout.
With rape, I see this again and again. The girl (Greta) marches off bravely to her rape, although of course she never anticipates that’s what she’s marching off to. During the assault, she hunkers down, hoping not to be injured or killed or even to offend. Either she doesn’t tell anyone because she’s so ashamed or she tells lots of people. They say (a) it didn’t happen, (b) what happened wasn’t rape, (c) he used the oldest ruse in the book, or (d) girls are meant to be raped.
All I ever wanted was to be a forest bodhisattva. Writing about rape, my own and that of one of four girls and one in six boys before we reach eighteen, I feel empty, like death. If my partner or a friend turns away for one instant, I feel abandoned.
As a child, I wasn’t safe. When I was in elementary school, a houseguest fondled me. When I told the family friend who brought that guest, he told me that men did that. Then he started in too.
My college was a predator’s playground. Many male faculty members, single or married, had relationships with students. While writing this, I called four of those faculty members I most trusted, even revered. What they said was off the record, I assured them. I just wanted to know their thoughts. One asked, “Do you think it hurts students to have affairs with married faculty members?”
As I headed off to college, the man who molested me as I was growing up asked, “Do you think what I did hurt you or damaged you?”
Of course not, I assured him.
And I believed it.
Turns out the professor who asked whether affairs hurt students fathered a child with one. He refused to acknowledge her pregnancy. Later, the son turned up on campus to confront his father. They looked like twins.
Many who are assaulted don’t blame the assailant. We blame ourselves. There’s something wrong with me, I thought as a child, as a teen.
Though for the years I counseled survivors of rape and assault, never once did I blame the woman. Or the girl.
When I arrived at college, I was still a child. Although I believed myself ancient and wise, able to handle anything, I knew little about the world. My confidants were my journals and books. I felt and still feel safest surrounded by wilderness and the calls of wild creatures. After I was assaulted on campus, lacking loving mirrors, I failed to comprehend how severely I was injured. Predators stalk easy prey.
The male plot line in so many novels and stories: I saw her. She wanted me. I fucked her. She loved it.
My plot line: when walking in the forest or writing, I feel the best or almost the best that I ever feel. Time vanishes. Writing is anesthesia. The forest heals.
At first, I could only write about being raped if I used third person. Sometimes, to further distance myself, I wrote third person in Spanish. I was ashamed to admit I was so incredibly naive. When my college work-study supervisor asked if I was interested in art modeling, I was flattered. The wage he quoted was three times what I earned baby-sitting for professors, waking at dawn to serve bacon and eggs in the campus food service, or collating and stapling course materials in the print shop.
My roommate modeled for the art department. I was already jealous. She must be prettier than I and certainly sexier; she had a boyfriend, and I did not. When I told her I didn’t want a boyfriend, that I came to college to learn, she told me I needed to surrender. But when she and her boyfriend had sex a few feet from my head in our tiny shared dorm room, it didn’t sound fun. I’d rather be buried in a pile of books, reading my way through the nights.
“Boring,” my roommate said. “Posing in the art department? So fucking boring.”
I heard about classmates jumping from windows. As our dorms were only four stories high, I wondered how they died. I became obsessed with literary suicides. I read journals and letters of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. I was angry they died instead of sharing secrets for survival. Assigned a literary biography for a class, I dressed as Virginia Woolf and reported her life story as if it were my own. The prof asked me to stay after class. He said the presentation was brilliant. “If you ever need a rec, come to me,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant and was too shy to ask.
I wrote my research paper on the Artist as Madwoman. Plath and Woolf again. A+ on that one.
Six years ago, graduates from my college were invited to participate in something called the Memory Project. The four editors, two of whom I knew, provided prompts: Who were you when you were a student? Who were your friends, enemies, or nemeses? What was the craziest, funniest, or most memorable event from your college years? What were the most important themes of your studies and the most valuable skills gained from your undergraduate experience?
Describe a pivotal learning moment.
“Expect classmates to respond to your story from their memories and version of events, which will also become part of the public record,” the invitation concluded.
Although grateful to attend college at all, I’d never felt much affection for my alma mater. As I responded to the prompts, I found myself waking at three in the morning frozen in terror. At random moments, I would cry. When I called those four professors, the ones I’d trusted most, I learned our campus was much darker than I’d known, and that few had perfectly clean hands.
All four assured me I must share my memories. “I’m glad you’re finding closure,” one said.
After I was assaulted, I rode my bicycle to a remote cottage maintained by the college. With a blue fountain pen, I filled a spiral notebook with self-blame. I began with, “how can I live after this?” I ended with a poem about mosses, which I was studying in botany class. After being crushed underfoot, I wrote, moss springs back.
I wrote about Greta. I wrote in Spanish. I wrote in third person.
Although devastated, Greta was strong.
When I sent my pages to the Memory Project coordinators, one responded that my contribution reminded him of our “attempts to find freedom and joy to replace fear and coercion.” Then, a few days before I was to set off to share my piece with other contributors, I received a call from someone I’d never met: the new college dean.
“I have bad news for you,” he said. “Your piece can’t be included in the Memory Project.” He’d showed my contribution to university counsel, he said. They said it could be libel. “Maybe you don’t care about that,” he said.
“The rape?” I asked. “Or the student who harassed me afterward?” I pointed out I’d written only in the most general terms. I’d used no names or identifying details. As for the student who pounded on my dorm room door afterward, shouting that I was a whore and should fuck him too? He’d dropped out of school, only to later confess he and his roommate had placed bets on whether they could get me to kill myself.
“I’m asking you to withdraw your piece,” the dean said. “I don’t want to be discriminatory, but if you don’t pull yours, the Memory Project can’t go forward.”
As I’d already made reservations for the event at my college, I headed north with my husband and our ailing collie. We parked a few feet away from where the assault began. My collie peed on the very spot.
The dean and others gave speeches about why alums should donate financially to the college.
“Rape isn’t good for fund-raising,” my husband whispered.
A student of color described how the college had empowered her. I wondered if she was safe. In the restroom, stacks of poppy-colored cards listed nine places to contact “if you experience sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or other sexual misconduct.”
Later, sleeping in our rented room, I awoke gasping, as though a gigantic foot was planted on my chest.
Jonathan Shay writes that Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a kind of moral injury, a “betrayal of what’s right in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Traumatic memory enters the body and “stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical process that not only changes the physiology of the victims, but the physiology of their offspring.”
Hortense Calisher says, “Speaking out loud is an antidote to shame.” Nancy Mairs disagrees. “I know the rules of polite discourse,” Mairs writes. “I should have kept my shame, and the nearly lethal sense of isolation and alienation it brought, to myself.” Dorothy Allison describes how she tried to kill herself, because erasing the self meant erasing the shame.
Yearning to die, writes bell hooks, is about a “longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill the self in writing.”
“If every cell / inside my brain / is replaced // after seven years, / then why can’t I excise this,” writes Cathy Linh Che.
“I am a savant of survivor mode,” writes Jessica Knoll.
I wore a baggy brown dress I’d sewed myself. I was scheduled to meet my work-study supervisor in the dorm parking lot at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. It was April 9th, my mother’s birthday. In my teenaged cocoon of magical thinking, four details rendered me safe: Nothing bad could happen at ten-thirty in the morning. Nothing bad could happen on my mother’s birthday. A baggy brown dress rendered me sexless. My work-study supervisor was a college employee.
Also: Tuition had just tripled. My savings from high school and college jobs were nearly gone. If I couldn’t make tuition, I’d have to drop out.
As a counselor/advocate for rape and assault survivors, I heard my own story from an eighteen-year-old first raped at eleven. She described how the man tossed a bill onto her bare belly. Another was later murdered. Many said they needed money to put themselves through college or to support their extended family.
When my former classmate called to confess his roommate’s plot to make me commit suicide, I laughed. Or maybe Greta laughed. “You picked the toughest person in the school,” I said. I had other things to do. A life to live. I wasn’t going to let him or anyone derail my life. I didn’t yet know derailing can happen in other, subtler ways. I wanted the rape never to have happened. My solution was to devote myself to healing everyone else.
My husband wondered why I engaged with the Memory Project at all. “The invitation says we’re going to have a dialogue,” I said. I wanted to share my experiences with the people who’d been there. Maybe my story would help someone else.
As naïve as confiding in my former mentors turned out to be, even more naïve was my belief that someone might want to get to the bottom of what happened when a college employee used his position to lure young work-study students, already in need of funds to attend college, into danger. Because I’d also learned that I was not the only one.
Five months after the alumni event, while washing dishes in my sink, I overheard an NPR news clip. My alma mater was the subject of a federal investigation for Title IX Civil Rights violations. In April, shortly before the new dean’s call to head me off, a local news source had announced the investigation for failure to respond appropriately to reports of campus sexual abuse. If one of five women is assaulted on campus, the news source stated, that meant four hundred assaults on my former campus each year.
In the preceding three years, the report continued, only twelve reports were filed. Of those, three resulted in disciplinary action.
The school was further accused of silencing survivors of sexual violence by dismissing their cases. When one contacted a campus office listed on the poppy-colored card, they were told (by a man) that crying, going numb, or being silent did not mean that what happened was rape. Another had to face her assailant when she walked into her first seminar the next academic year. According to the local news source, the young man saw himself as the victim.
While serving as counselor/advocate for survivors, only three of fifty women I met with in a two-year span chose to contact the police. I was courtroom advocate for one of the rare cases that went all the way to court. The fifteen-year-old was badly beaten as well as sexually assaulted. As I saw it, the defense attorney objected to almost anything asked of the defendant, while the young woman was questioned endlessly. Why did she go into the house with him? How was she dressed? Was she a virgin? How many other men had she slept with? Did she lead him on?
Only two jury members were women. After the assailant was found innocent, I asked one why she voted for acquittal. “Who hasn’t been knocked around a bit?” she asked.
As a college student, I helped start a women’s group. One night someone suggested we each describe how we lost our virginity. Maybe I was still working msyelf around to sharing what had happened to me, but at the last minute, I dodged. I described not the rape, but my first voluntary sexual experience a year later. I did learn, though, that of nine smart, ambitious young women, only one described her first experience as positive. I envied her. She was my age yet absolutely confident about her sexuality, her right to occupy her own body, and to use that body as she chose.
I still have my spiral notebook filled with self-blame. For years afterward, through helping others, I sought to dispel my horror. “Conquering the rapist,” my psychiatrist called it. I want survivors to tell their stories and be heard, to speak out with courage and strength. I enjoy my alma mater’s prize-winning magazine featuring campus programs. Yet amidst the smiling faces and world-class accomplishments, I’ve never read a single reference about how to address campus assaults. I get it. Rape isn’t good for fund-raising. Neither is hiding the truth that adversely impacts students’ lives.
KC Pedersen’s writing appears in numerous journals and includes nominations for the Pushcart and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. More of Pedersen’s writing can be found atwww.kiriepedersen.com
Matt felt the morning dew jump against his legs as his feet flattened the seagrass in his way. He had his fishing pole slung over his shoulder like a bindle and his tackle box swinging at his side. The sun had crested over the ocean, already strong and getting stronger as the light shifted from orange to white.
On a good day, no one bothered him on this beach. He could expect to see one or two old retirees fishing too, but they usually kept their distance and never said anything to him besides the obligatory “How’re the fish today?” to which he’d respond with either “Not a nibble” or “Got a few keepers.” Beyond that, they all had a tacit agreement to keep the peace by keeping to themselves.
Matt baited his line with some baby squids he’d picked up on his drive to the shore. He had a good feeling about today. High tide was just about to peak, so the fish would be caught up in the swell and dragged in towards the coast. That was the theory, anyway. Matt believed in it when it was working and blamed his luck when it wasn’t. He cast his line out about a hundred feet from the water’s edge to test it.
He wasn’t alone. Overhead, he saw a hawk circling, stirring the wind. Matt supposed the hawk saw something moving in the grass. Both of us are looking for something to eat out here, he thought. Further down the shore, a man, also fishing, kept stealing glances in Matt’s direction. Beneath the man’s baseball cap and behind his sunglasses, Matt felt smugness radiating off him. He didn’t appreciate any of the judgments this man must have been making about him, that that’s not how you should stand or cast your pole, that a teenager like Matt was too young to know how to surf fish anyway. Matt averted his eyes from the man and spat into the water lapping at his ankles, in and out. He tried to sync his breathing to the pull of the waves.
Still, he could feel that man getting deeper under his skin every time he looked over. He rested his fishing pole against his hip to free a hand for him to pull out his phone. He texted his girlfriend Good morning 🙂 and snapped her a picture of the sunlight glaring on the waves. He knew it would be a few hours before she woke up and saw the messages, but he wanted to make sure that she knew that he was thinking about her. He flipped through a few notifications and picked his phone again, returning to earth. He was back where he started—nothing on the line, Peeping Tom, and the hawk. But he didn’t mind the hawk so much; his stalking wasn’t anything personal.
He reeled in, hooked some new bait, and cast again. After he did, he noticed that the man did the same. Copycat. Soon, Matt saw his fishing pole bend over like a tree in the wind. He twisted his feet deeper into the sand to stabilize himself as he gave the pole a sharp tug to sink the hook into the fish’s cheek. He cranked on the reel to bring it in, each turn only bringing him a few inches closer. Eventually, he saw the waves frenzy as the struggling fish surfaced.
Matt held it up by the line and studied it. He’d caught a fluke, and a nicely sized one at that. Fifteen, maybe twenty pounds. Looking to his right, he made sure that the man saw him, that he caught the first fish, and he gave him a smirk. Serves you right, Matt thought. He didn’t need to fish anymore for the love of the sport. He had his lunch and that was enough, so he stuck his thumb in the fish’s mouth and carried it back to his car.
There, he dropped it on one of the wooden podiums where fishermen cleaned their catch. Now the necessary part. He took out a hammer and with one deft swing he hit the fluke in the head to kill it. He accidentally hit its eye, which popped and leaked a creamy white juice. Some of it landed on his shirt’s shoulder, but he just flicked it off and moved on. He took out a knife and started cleaning, first cutting off the head and then spilling the guts. He tossed the remains into the seagrass, hoping maybe the hawk would find it before the seagulls got to it.
Matt threw his catch in a cooler he’d brought with him. A new car pulled up with a new retiree fisherman. “Fishing’s good today, I take it?” he said with a smile.
By this point, Matt had lost his daily patience for nosy old men. “Good enough,” he said.
Scarlett rolled over, for good this time. She had already partially woken up a few times but none of them had stuck. She was in the middle of a dream where she was rock climbing, where one day she’d grabbed a hold of a rock wall and was able to pull herself up as if she were weightless. She liked the feeling enough to want to stay in for as long as she could. Now, she reached her hand out into the half-light and searched her bedside table for her phone. 12:10 PM. It always gave her a great sense of satisfaction to get more than nine hours of sleep.
At the bottom of her notifications was a good morning text from Matt. She replied good afternoon 😉 and sifted through all the other messages she’d gotten.
She went to the kitchen to pull out some leftovers to eat for breakfast. Or was it lunch? It didn’t matter to her; she wasn’t very pedantic. She put two slices of pizza in the microwave for thirty seconds (she didn’t like her food hot, just warm) and started aimlessly scrolling through her Instagram feed. The sliding glass door to the backyard whined open and Irv walked in.
“Look who’s finally awake,” he said. A necklace of sweat was saturated into his shirt. “Sleeping Beauty.”
“Like I’ve said, I don’t have anything to wake up for these days,” she told him.
“You’re missing half the day! Don’t you want to get out there and do something?”
She hated that moralistic sense of superiority felt among people who wake up before seven. It was things like this that made Scarlett tolerate Irv’s presence rather than enjoy it. “I’ve worked and worked and worked. Now, I’m resting.” The microwave beeped and she took out her pizza.
“It’s not about work,” Irv said, pivoting, “it’s about getting out there and seeing some of the world.”
“I see plenty.” She was a little muffled by the food in her mouth.
“Just try to wake up before noon. It’s the least you could do.”
“Don’t tell me what’s the least I could do. I promise you I could do less.”
Irv pointed his finger at her. “Don’t talk to me like that in my own house. I’m only trying to help you.”
Scarlett had meant it as a joke, but if he wanted to argue, so would she. “You don’t boss me around if I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s not your life, so leave me alone.”
“Now’s the time in your life when you should be forming good habits instead of bad ones. Once you’re in college, you won’t have us there to help guide you.”
“Oh, how horrible my life’s going to be without you breathing down my neck every day. I wonder how I’ll survive.”
“I’m sure your mother agrees with me on this.”
“I don’t care. I can disagree with her too.”
As if she’d summoned her, Scarlett heard her mother walk in through the garage door carrying groceries. “Hello, hello!” she chirped.
“Maureen, we were just talking about you,” Irv said.
“What about me?” she said, unpacking items one by one onto the kitchen counter.
“I was saying that you’d agree that Scarlett should be up and dressed before noon. Wouldn’t you?” Irv said.
“And I said that it’s no big deal,” said Scarlett.
“Well, neither of you are wrong,” Maureen said. Irv looked at her, lowering his gaze and raising his eyebrows. “But Scar, it wouldn’t hurt you to get up a little earlier.
“Please don’t raise your voice at me,” Maureen said.
“The both of you are overreacting,” said Scarlett.
“Don’t talk to me like that in my own home.”
“I didn’t choose to live here, Irv. Give it a month and I’ll be out of your hair anyway.”
Scarlett grabbed her plate and retreated back into her room. She scrolled through her phone between bites of pizza. She got another text from Matt, a picture of the fish he’d caught fried up with some rice.
looking good, chef, she replied.
Still good for later?
of course 🙂
A soft knock on the door told her that her mother was there. “Can I come in?”
Maureen shuffled in and sat at the foot of Scarlett’s bed. “I think you owe Irv an apology for what you said to him.”
“What did I say to him, exactly? He’s a big boy. I’m sure I didn’t hurt his feelings that badly.”
Maureen cleared her throat. “That’s not the point. The point is—”
“What is the point, Mom? Illuminate me.”
“That’s it. I don’t want any more lip out of you. And you can cancel any plans you might have.”
“That’s not happening,” Scarlett said with a laugh.
“It is if I say it is.”
“Are you going to let me go to college?”
“Excuse me?” said Maureen.
“Answer me. Next month, are you going to let me go to college?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Because when I’m in Boston you won’t have any control over me anymore. So either make your peace with that now or help me look for secretary jobs.”
Maureen huffed and scowled, chewing on some thoughts before leaving without saying a word of them.
mom and irv are really up my ass today, she texted Matt.
That’s shocking, he sent back. Tell me about it later.
After their dinner, Matt and Scarlett walked along the beach. The sun had recently set, and the last swathes of orange and pink were evaporating over the western horizon. The dividing line between the sea and the sky was blurred into a deep blue-black, but there were still plenty of lights twinkling along the shore and, up north, from New York City in the distance. No moon.
As usual, they weren’t holding hands. Their friends thought it was a quirk of their relationship that was an indication of some latent problems. In truth, neither of them really liked it. Holding hands got too warm and clammy, and they both felt like it attracted undue attention since nobody likes PDA. To them, the fact that they both hated this mawkish little thing was proof that it was all working.
“You see that?” Matt said, pointing out into the ocean.
“That light flickering out there.” He waited for Scarlett to focus on the ocean. Then he grabbed her by the shoulders and, lovingly, tilted her in towards the water, threatening to push her in.
“No!” Scarlett yelped. “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Matt pulled her back in and Scarlett gave him a gentle slap on the arm and smiled at him. “Bad boyfriend.”
“What, afraid of getting a little wet?” he said.
“You know I’m jumpy.”
He knew. The pair kept walking until they didn’t feel like it anymore. The wind picked up, wiping away the last scraps of warmth for the day. They made their way to an overturned lifeguard stand and used it as something to lean against. Scarlett rested her head on Matt’s shoulder, and he rested his head against hers.
“I should really try night fishing out here sometime,” he said. “That’s how you catch striped bass.”
“I don’t know how you do that,” she said.
“Like not the fishing itself. I don’t get how you can just kill them and eat them like that and not feel bad about it.”
“They’re fish. They don’t have rights.”
“I know. But to kill them with your bare hands like that. It’s brutal.”
“That’s how I get my kicks: brutalizing fish,” he said.
“Stop, you know what I mean. And you love fish, too, which is the part I really don’t get.”
“I don’t think it’s that strange.”
“Tell me about all your pet fish again,” she said, nudging him.
“I’ve told you that story a million times.”
“And it’s still funny. Tell me again.”
He told her about his three fish, all named Rex, which had all killed themselves in quick succession. The first two leapt out of their fishbowls in the middle of the night, leaving Matt to find them flat and crunchy on his floor the next morning. The last Rex, somehow, buried its head in the neon pebbles at the bottom and drowned itself. “I never understood why my dad kept giving me another fish.”
“And now you’re the expert in killing them.”
“See? Now you’re catching on.” Matt turned his head to smell her hair, clean with a whiff of salt. She felt his hot breath spilling out of his nose. “You know, it’s never too late for you to go to Rutgers instead. If you change your mind.”
“I think it actually is too late.”
“What are you gonna do in Boston anyway? Throw yourself a little tea party?”
“My dad went to B.U. I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“And that accent, Jesus. It’s unbearable.”
“Pahk ya cah, ya chowdahhead.”
“Matt? Look at me. I know this isn’t exactly how we pictured things, but this is what’s happening. Hey.” She put her hand on his cheek, and he recoiled from the cold. “I’m sorry. You know I wish we had more time too.”
Matt sat there, breathing. He almost felt like he was being lied to, so he tried listening to the ocean instead, still saying the same thing it had been that morning. “You don’t really think that.”
“Of course I do,” she said. To Matt, it sounded like a beg. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it because that was the reassuring thing to do, and he didn’t have any words for that at the moment.
They sat like that for a while, seconds or minutes, it was hard to tell. Scarlett lifted her head and turned to face him. Her eyes were too dark for him to find any emotion in them. He leaned in and started kissing her, sweetly at first and then with purpose. He was trying to sap as much out of this moment as he could. Scarlett pulled back to catch her breath and look at him. There was something shiny in his eyes that felt off to her. He looked frustrated.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“I know when you’re lying. Just tell me.”
He sighed and looked away, then turned back and kissed her on the head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do out here in Jersey without you.”
“You’ll be perfectly alright. You’ve survived this place without me before.”
“But it’s different now,” he said. Scarlett focused on the measured in and out of his breathing. Once she felt the rhythm change, she knew he was about to speak again. “I really think you should consider staying here.”
“I told you that’s not happening.”
“Rutgers would be so much cheaper, and it’s still a great school. You see how much of a problem student loans are. I don’t want you to have problems with that down the road.”
“That’ll be my problem. Not yours.”
“Your problems are my problems.” He kissed her head again. “I just care about you.”
“I think right now you only care about yourself,” said Scarlett, and she already regretted it. She was usually a bit more careful with her words.
“What was that?”
“Do you really think I’m that selfish?”
“I didn’t mean it. I’m upset too, so I wasn’t thinking. I know you’re not selfish.”
“Good.” He started running his fingers through her hair. “It’s okay, I’m not mad. You’re lucky you’re cute,” he said. His father used to say that to him, but he’d only recently realized he could use it on Scarlett.
“Who knows,” she said after a minute or two. “Maybe I won’t like it in Boston. Maybe I’ll go there for a year and hate it and want to come back.” With her head against his cheek, Scarlett could feel Matt’s face tense up into a smile.
“That would be nice,” he whispered.
They sat there with the sound of the waves. It was fully dark now, and the wind had wiped away the last shreds of warmth from the day, bringing in cool, salty air.
“We should get going soon,” Scarlett said. “I won’t want to be out too late.”
“If you insist,” Matt said groggily. They got up and shook the sand off themselves.
“I can drive if you want. You got up so early; you must be exhausted.”
“If you want. Do you know the way back?”
“I think so. But you can be my GPS if need be.”
“I’ll just drive,” he said. “I could spin you around and you’d get lost. And I feel fine.”
“Alright,” she said. On the drive back to her house, she counted the turns in her head. She knew them all.
A good morning text from Matt was waiting for Scarlett again. She swiped it to the side so she could deal with it later. She had gotten up early, around ten, and he wouldn’t be expecting her reply for another hour at least.
In the kitchen, Scarlett scanned the fridge for food. There was nothing immediately appealing for her to simply heat up. There were eggs and pork rolls and other things she could make, but she decided that she wasn’t hungry enough for the effort to be worth it.
She went back to lay on her bed, already bored with the day. It was Monday, so both her mom and Irv were out at work. Not even anyone around to bother her.
Flipping through her apps, she realized she hadn’t spoken to her father in three days. She sent him a text, and her phone started ringing soon after.
“Hi, Daddy. Aren’t you working?”
“I can’t take a break to talk to my favorite daughter? I’ve been meaning to call you anyway. I booked a house in Lavalette this weekend. It’s right on the beach; it’s beautiful. What are your plans for this weekend? I know I should’ve asked you first.”
Scarlett thought about Matt. She couldn’t remember having any specific plans. “No, that’s fine. That sounds great.”
“Wonderful. I can’t wait to see you. I actually do have to run, but talk to you soon. Love you, sweetheart.”
“Love you too.”
Scarlett went back to her messages. She finally texted back Matt. good morning! i just talked to my dad. he’s coming down for the weekend
That’s nice, Matt responded almost immediately. When? We usually get dinner on Sundays.
we can move that around. it’s not like we have anything else going on lol
On the other end, Matt scrutinized every letter of her texts. He didn’t want to sound too pushy about their Sunday dinners, even though it did bother him. Should it bother him? He paused on that thought. What were they as a couple without their routines and habits?
Sure, he sent back. That should be fine.
Matt pocketed his phone and started pacing in his room. Before too much time had passed, he picked up his phone and added, It would’ve been nice if you said something first though. He liked that. It was the shortest summary of what he was thinking. He put down his phone again and it buzzed.
this is me saying something, Scarlett wrote.
He swiped the notification aside. He could deal with it later.
He got up to make himself some lunch. His father worked mornings, so he had just gotten home. Matt took out some sandwich materials.
“You alright, Matty?” his father asked. There must have been something about the way he was slathering mayonnaise on his bread.
“No reason. You just seem a little aggravated.”
“That’s odd,” Matt said. “I feel fine.”
“If you say so.” His father took a beer from the fridge and plopped onto the couch. “You gotta learn how to relax like your old man. You’re so stiff.”
“Maybe,” he said on his way back to his room. He tore through his sandwich without tasting it.
Lou pulled up to his ex-wife’s house to pick up his daughter. He kept his eyes on the garage door since he knew Scarlett would come out of there instead of the front door. He saw the door list, and Scarlett walked out. He craned his neck to see if he could catch a glimpse of Maureen. Not to be nosy, just curious. But he didn’t see her.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said as Scarlett dropped a bag in the back seat before climbing into the front.
“Hi, Daddy,” she smiled at him. She wished he weren’t wearing his sunglasses so she could actually see him.
“This summer’s going too fast. I can’t believe you’re off to Boston next month.”
“I know,” she said flatly.
“Where have all the years gone?”
Scarlett had been asked this question so many times recently that she’d made the blanket decision to not answer it. Lou drove the familiar route to Lavalette. The way he always drove with one hand made Scarlett nervous, even though it had never been a problem in the past. They pulled up to a little bungalow with a white pebble lawn. It was decorated appropriately with shells and anchors and kitschy signs about how life is perfect down the shore. They put down their bags and went to the back patio to sit in the Adirondack chairs and plan the weekend.
Lou went on: “So we have this next two days, but I gotta see you a few more times before we send you off.”
“Whatever you have time for. I’ll be back soon for fall break. And Thanksgiving’s early this year,” she said. She had been studying the B.U. academic calendar a few days before.
“Sure, but you’ll probably want to spend that time with your friends.”
“I can always save some time for you, Dad.”
“Well aren’t you sweet,” he said, mockingly and lovingly. “Speaking of, how’s Matt doing? I haven’t heard anything about him in ages.”
“Oh, he’s fine,” said Scarlett. The last time she’d seen him was also the last time she’d seen the ocean. Here, twinkling under the sun, the water didn’t seem like it could be the same. “He’s upset that I’m leaving.”
“Are you gonna try to keep it going into college? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I think so,” she said. She and Matt had avoided that particular conversation for so long that they both assumed the answer was yes.
“You have to do what makes you happy, Scar. So if that’s what makes you happy, then go for it. And there are so many ways to keep in touch with people these days.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she said. He turned to her and flashed a winning smile. She didn’t want to talk about it any further than that.
They spent the afternoon idling around their little beach house. Lou had brought some drop lines, which he baited up with chicken and threw over the dock on the edge of the property. It was too late in the day for them to catch much of anything. A few crabs here and there, but nothing worth keeping, so they threw them back.
“I’m hungry,” Lou said after a while. “And there are easier ways to get crabcakes.”
They went to a restaurant on the water where everything was cheap and greasy and served with fries. Lou watched Scarlett eat her scallops carefully, as if she didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Scarlett watched her dad eat in big mouthfuls and finish his crabcakes in a few minutes.
“Take your time, Scar,” Lou said. “I’m in no rush.”
Scarlett covered her mouth so she could speak between chews. “Thanks.”
“You remember Dr. Fiore? Your old dentist?”
“I read in an article that he’s got assault allegations against him from one of the technicians. His whole practice is already shut down and everything.”
“Oh my god, that’s horrible,” said Scarlett.
“I know. He was a good dentist.”
“I meant for the technician.”
“Oh yeah, her too,” Lou stammered. “That is horrible. It’s just crazy how someone can make a few claims and like that,” he snapped his fingers, “your whole career is over.”
“It’s not like he didn’t deserve it.”
“Sure, but you never know if someone just has an axe to grind and’s saying that you’re a creep just because they know it’ll ruin your name.”
“I think that’s pretty rare,” Scarlett said, trying to sound flat so she’d be taken more seriously.
“What if someone said something like that about me? What, would you jump on their side right away?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” Scarlett gritted her teeth. “What if I told you Matt did something to me. Would you say there was room for doubt?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Matt’s a good kid. I know he wouldn’t do anything, like you should know that I wouldn’t do anything.”
“You don’t know Matt that well. I don’t think he’d do anything either, but you can’t be that sure.”
“You’re right, you’re right. You know I would believe you, sweetheart. But I hope that you’d believe me too.”
“Well let’s hope that it never comes to that,” she said as she drank some water to cleanse her mouth. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Me neither.” Lou reached over to grab a small fry from Scarlett’s plate. “Do you know what classes you’re taking for your first semester?”
Scarlett sat up straighter. “I do, but they’re all introduction and requirement classes, like writing and calc I and stuff. The only one I’m really looking forward to is intro to anthropology.”
“I thought you were doing archaeology.”
“No, it’s always been anthropology. We’ve talked about this before.”
“So is anthropology the Indiana Jones one or the Jurassic Park one?”
“It’s neither, really,” said Scarlett. She had answered this question for him once or twice before, so she wanted to answer it this time in a way he’d remember. “It’s like… You know how scientists go into the jungle to study frogs or birds or something? Anthropology is doing that for people. So I want to study how humans work as a species, if that makes sense.”
“Sure it does,” Lou said. “You want to be like an alien studying people from outer space.”
Scarlett half-smiled. “Something like that.”
“You should still take some business classes, though. Just to make me happy. It’s always good to have some business smarts about you, and I really think you’d like it.” Lou watched his daughter shovel in her last few bites. The sun was set, and the ocean was unusually rough. Wave after wave fell over the sand with a violent hush. The ocean knew it was going to rain before either of them realized. “We should get going soon.”
Lou looked at their waitress and snapped his fingers in the air to get her attention. Scarlett looked down at her phone, embarrassed to be around someone beckoning a person like they would a dog. She quickly texted Matt: this is gonna be a long weekend
How so? he replied quickly.
i’ll explain later. it’s like he doesn’t know me. Scarlett paused on that last thought before sending, considering if it was fair for her to say that he didn’t know her or if she was expecting too much. She sent it anyway.
Matt was lying on his bed when he read her texts. He wanted to go fishing in the morning, so he was already half asleep, but now he felt a bit more awake. He got an odd satisfaction from knowing that Scarlett wasn’t wholly enjoying her time with her father, especially since it was impinging on their time together. This is perfect, he thought. He realized that all he had to do was be Scarlett’s better option. If she came to him whenever she didn’t feel great, he’d always have her crawling back.
Tell me about it over dinner, he sent her. I want to hear all about it.
He rolled over and slept well.
Lou and Scarlett had been holed up in the beach house for the entire weekend waiting for the rain to pass, and by the time it did the weekend was over. Irv was outside pulling weeds when Lou came to drop her off. Scarlett hated every second that the both of them were in each other’s presence. Maureen was the only thing that the two of them had in common and knew about each other, so they always acted like they were in a silent competition with each other, sizing each other up with their eyes, even though there was nothing to win.
Lou got out of his car to hug Scarlett goodbye. He waved to be nice. “How’s tricks, Irv?”
“Same old, same old. And yourself?”
“Great. Just great.” Lou turned to Scarlett and pinched her chin with his thumb. “See you soon, sweetheart.”
Scarlett lugged her bag towards the house as Lou sped off.
“So how was your weekend?” Irv asked.
“Fine,” Scarlett said.
“I said it was good,” she huffed as she passed through the storm door in the garage. Irv tossed his weeds into the garbage can and then set up a sprinkler to water the grass. He went back inside and found Scarlett lying on the couch with her phone suspended over her face.
“Your mother’s not around tonight,” he said. “I was wondering if you wanted to get dinner later. Wherever you want.”
“I can’t. I’m seeing Matt later.” She didn’t look up.
“That’s still a thing?”
Scarlett let her phone fall on her chest with a thud. “Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?”
“I know you don’t like me, Scarlett,” he said. “And I don’t know if you’ll ever like me, so at the very least let me speak my mind and be honest with you.”
She rolled her eyes.
“You should think about calling it off with that boy. Going to college with baggage like that is only going to hold you back.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m eighteen. I can make my own decisions.”
“You can, but you can still make the wrong ones. I could be wrong too.”
“Thanks, Irv, but I don’t need you meddling in my business.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Have fun later.”
“I can’t believe he didn’t remember.”
“You’ve always wanted to study anthropology.”
“I know. He can never keep track of those things.”
“Well I remembered,” Matt said. He tightened his arms around Scarlett. It had been a week since they were in that same place, on the same beach, leaning against the same lifeguard stand. The water was so gentle that it was almost silent. It was this calm after the storm that Scarlett preferred.
Matt was in good spirits. His fishing in the morning had gone well, and all-day he had the night to look forward to. Now, he could relish in the moment. It all seemed to be falling into place.
“I really like the idea of you coming back after a year in Boston. That’ll be a nice change of pace for you. And a year we can manage,” Matt said.
Scarlett didn’t respond immediately. She was trying to remember if and when she’d agreed to something like that. “Yeah, a year can go by quickly.”
“So you’ll get some time in a new city, and I’ll be here patiently waiting for you.” He tightened his arms again, but Scarlett didn’t feel comforted, she felt fastened down. She squirmed away from him.
“Sorry, it was getting too hot,” she said.
He tried to decode the expression on her face. “Something’s wrong. Tell me.”
“I can tell when you’re lying. Tell me.”
Scarlett turned to face him. “I don’t want to make a promise that I’ll only be in Boston for a year, even though I do want to be with you. I just don’t know how things’ll go.”
“I think this can work. But you have to want this to work. You do want that, don’t you?” Matt said. Scarlett could see the muscles in his neck tense up as he swallowed. She waited a moment too long. “Don’t you?”
“Right now, I think so. But I can’t promise what I’ll think a month or a year from now.”
“That’s not the plan.”
“Maybe it’s not your plan.”
“It’s our plan. We work as a team.” Matt wrapped his fingers around her arm, just above the wrist, and squeezed.
“Let go,” Scarlett said. He didn’t. She slapped the back of his hand. “Don’t grab me like that.” She started shifting her weight to stand up.
“Where are you going? We haven’t figured out anything.”
“I’m done for tonight. I want to go home,” said Scarlett.
“Okay, we can talk on the car ride back.”
“I can take an Uber. I’m out of your way, anyway. And you’ve had a long day.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Scar. We’re not done here.”
“For tonight we are at least.” She got up and swatted off some sand. Matt got up to follow her. She pulled out her phone to call an Uber. “I don’t want to eat the cancellation fee. Go home, it’s okay. I’ll see you soon.” She put her hand against his cheek to make him feel fine enough for the moment.
He walked off, routinely checking over his shoulder to steal looks at her. Scarlett sat down on a bench and waited for her ride. The wind picked up until it was louder than the waves on the shore behind her. She held her skirt down with one hand and hugged herself with the other, occasionally removing it to comb down her hair with her fingers. It got cold enough that she was shivering, but she didn’t mind because the breeze felt crisp and clean.
Dylan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied creative writing and biology. He’s often reading and writing, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a genetics lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
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The day of Chuseok,
I remember that you wanted
to cut my dress and how
you made confetti of silk on
the basin with the remaining
the cloth of my hanbok jagged.
I had closed my eyes,
and when I woke, darkness
descended through the window
panes and eomma
was wearing an apron and
looked at me oddly.
I cannot hear her words
from the pounding rain
outside, I can see the shadows
hanging in between the skinned
branches of an oak tree.
Mother is now cleaning
the dishes and I hear your
footsteps receding before
you find me, you are holding
on the silk I had planned
to wear today, smiling
as if you had forgotten.
Soheon Rhee is a thirteen-year-old student who is currently attending International School of Manila. During her free time, she likes hanging out with her friends and reading books such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Her works have been accepted in Second Chance Lit, Stone Soup, and others.
The no-nonsense, middle-aged Filipino nurse tells me, pushing up her smudged glasses, that I need to clean up a bit down there. She waves her tiny hands dramatically around her own groin area and then shuffles over to me, all action. Am I embarrassed? Maybe. For some reason I feel like I’ve let her down. On day three in the hospital, day three with no breasts, day three of forcing a smile each time a visitor says knock knock out loud like it is funny, I guess it is time to get back to life.
I simultaneously hate her and feel bad for hating her because she is only doing her job. Vera, her name is. I see the pleasant serif font on the RN badge dangling around her neck. As instructed, I stay as still as possible while she hustles. Does she know how hard it is to do anything other than stay as still as possible? I am staring at the cheap tiled ceiling, and she is moving around me, adjusting IV lines hither and yon, preparing for the big adventure of cleaning my crotch. Now she has pulled the remote off of the bed, oh great—and now she has turned off the House Hunters International that I’d been enjoying very much, thank you. I’ll never know whether Ken and Elaine in London will settle with the cozy, updated mews in Kensington or the expansive, sunlit flat in St. John’s Wood. She closes the door. Knock knock, I think to myself. She yanks the privacy curtain closed, and the metal hooks pull along the top with a long, mechanical scratch.
I have to sit up; I have to remove my gown; I have to stretch both shoulders in a way that hurts too much. Are you serious? I want to shout, but Vera is only doing her job. And I’m not a big yeller, especially at strangers. Vera doesn’t uncloak me all at once, which is kind. Right arm first. Then left, the painful one. I stare at the ceiling as the warm soapy water slides all over me and becomes icy in a second flat because it’s June and the air conditioning is cranking. I stare at the ceiling and look at all the holes and remember when all the boys in eighth grade would toss their pencils up there and try to get them to stick and I wonder if anyone has ever done this in here. I stare at the ceiling and try to remember those boys’ names. I’m sure Jamie and Paul and maybe Doug were involved in the tomfoolery, and I wonder if my daughters have yet seen that trick in elementary school. The holes make deep pockmarks in the foamy tiles. I see the shape of my chest, the concave-looking basin that I guess is me now. My bandages are in full view. I see them and have nowhere else to look because Vera turned off House Hunters.
Tracy Rothschild Lynch has written poetry and creative nonfiction for more than twenty years. She holds an MA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. When not writing or reading, she plays mediocre tennis, watches movies, and divides her time exploring the surrounds of her home in Glen Allen, Virginia and in London, where she currently resides. Tracy recently completed a memoir about her mother’s sudden death as well as a collection of flash essays exploring micro-moments of breast cancer treatment.