One day in May you show me a video on your phone. A tsunami hit the Philippines and it’s all over Twitter. On your screen a wall of water plows through a city, lifting sedans like Matchbox cars. I watch things that should be permanent crumple like a child’s diorama.
In June you ask me, again, why I don’t want kids, and I try to remind you of this.
The one with the flood, I say. You shrug.
“I don’t remember that one.”
Late in July, a tropical storm hits. It knocks out our power and so we decide to play Scrabble by candlelight, to huddle together and do our best to ignore the rain that’s rattling the windows. We’ve decided to play themed Scrabble, my favorite of your inventions: we can only play words we’d find on a fancy restaurant menu: filet,reduction, scallop. In between turns, you run down your phone’s battery watching friends’ Instagram stories: people gallivanting across Italy, people singing karaoke in loud bars, people announcing pregnancies with bad body paint and puns. I don’t know why you stay with me when I won’t give you what you (and I) want most. You’re waiting for me to make a move, and I’m staring at a line of vowels that approximates the caterwaul of a cornered animal.
In August, the man on the television with cirrus clouds of grey hair says that countries all over the globe hit record highs for temperature. The map behind him is bright red, like Europe has a bad rash. When you ask me where we should settle down, all I can think of is somewhere that will be habitable in twenty years. In ten. In five.
We stay inside the next weekend because by then the heat has found us. Your phone chirps, warning us it’s dangerous to be out in the sun.
“No big loss,” you shrug. “We didn’t have any plans anyway.”
We settle on marathoning our favorite sci-fi movies with the air conditioning on high. The whole house hums and shudders, straining with the effort of keeping us cool, and I dread the spike in our electric bill. Halfway through Mad Max I turn to you, shivering, and ask, Can you imagine being a kid in a world like this? You nod, never looking away from the TV. I don’t even know if you heard me.
Virginia Eggerton has her MFA in fiction from George Mason University. When she’s not desperately reviving houseplants, she’s writing short fiction, some of which has been published by Wigleaf, The Citron Review, MoonPark Review, and Cease, Cows. You can find her on twitter @eggertonhere.
My sister and I recall that old Stingray
while we sit a vigil in the critical care unit.
She melts into the vinyl cushions
and I lean sideways, balanced like a circus
acrobat one moment before falling.
My bike rolled sweet, balanced
on training wheels I begged my father to remove.
He wouldn’t lift a wrench without my mother’s consent.
Even Steve Reeves could not have popped a wheelie!
Then, one day he disengaged the pair,
and I rode to the park, where on a dare
from Nancy Haver I jackknifed
a set of concrete steps, snapped off my front
tooth and broke my right arm.
My sister dragged me home while I cried
over my broken bike. She laughs at the memory,
which reminds her, she says, of another story.
Just then our mother shakes
the bedside railing, angry at being jailed,
and calls again our father’s name.
“When will he be back?” She cries.
From my side of the bed, I lift her cup
and guide the polka dot straw to her lips
while my sister punches morphine
and holds her other hand to clamp the pain.
Later, she wakes, and once again
bangs the railing, this time
pulling her oxygen line free,
but the nurse arrives and tapes the tubing.
Exhausted, we slump, almost asleep. She turns
on her side, trying to find comfort
and our father, each of us seeking
balance on the body’s thin edge.
John Cullen graduated from SUNY Geneseo and worked in the entertainment business booking rock bands, a clown troupe, and an R-rated magician. Currently he teaches at Ferris State University and has had work published in American Journal of Poetry, The MacGuffin, Harpur Palate, North Dakota Quarterly, and other journals. His chapbook, TOWN CRAZY, is available from Slipstream Press.
I almost had a husband once, but we never made it to the wedding. Now, he’s someone else’s husband, with a baby announcement on Facebook and a house two towns over. Our last date, we went to an Italian restaurant that served brown bread in gold baskets and didn’t list prices on the menu. A couple’s restaurant. You can always tell who the married ones are. The quiet ones who sit like crumpled napkins and don’t share dessert, eyeing everyone but their own lovers with unreserved curiosity. Visualizing each new body, craving them the way my almost-husband would’ve craved someone else if we’d ever married, even if I let him swallow me whole. I lost my appetite and packed the rest of my carbonara to go.
My father has always been a sloppy cheater. He’d come home smelling like cherries and smile too obviously at his phone when his mistresses sent him a lure, cut out of dinner early when a flirty selfie hooked him. My favorite of his affairs was a waitress at a sandwich shop. She’d send him home with overflowing styrofoam boxes full of cold cuts, kettle chips, loaves of soft bread. Perhaps out of guilt, he’d give them to my sister and me. We’d feast on the leftovers, whispering our theories about what the woman must’ve looked like, if she knew he was married, questions we didn’t ask him, but wanted to. My mother didn’t ask questions either, because she had answers of her own to hide. She’s a quiet cheater. Her affairs leave no trace and bring no gifts. For all my life, their marriage has been a game of hide and seek.
The last married man I slept with was my landlord. I came on to him after careful consideration of his features: brown hair that cradled a blooming bald spot at the top of his skull, a secret for only birds to see, or women he lowered beneath; arms like udon, spongy, thick, and stretchy; furry ankles peeking beneath pants that were too short, like he’d had a sudden growth spurt in his forties, or didn’t have any women to buy him properly fitting clothes. The kind of man who blames his dwindling sex life on his wife’s premenopause, who stares too long when I pass by in the lobby wearing the kind of skirt his wife hasn’t since college. Who gulps when I tilt my head and invite him upstairs. The kind I’d flatten myself against the laminate flooring of my apartment for, let him devour me.
I’ve never slept with a man of my own. Even my almost-husband started as someone’s boyfriend, the kind that couldn’t resist me. Something about me screams I’ll be what your girlfriend isn’t right now. I spent years trying to muffle it before I became the girlfriend and realized some other woman would soon take my place. She didn’t have to be hotter than me, or funnier, or sweeter. She just had to be there, wherever I wasn’t, and make him want to be there too. In the months before our wedding, I searched for signs of cheating, clawing through the couch cushions for unfamiliar hair bands, tracing the rims of the dirty mugs in the sink with my finger in search of lipgloss residue. When I found no evidence, I packed my stuff and left my engagement ring on the nightstand, knowing it is better to give something up than to have it taken.
The landlord’s wife was beautiful and kind and deserved a better man than him. Sometimes I’d linger in the lobby just to watch her arrive, ferrying him coffee and a blueberry donut from the shop down the road, kissing his cheek as a treat. Next to her, he was a wax figure at a museum closed for winter. Greying and sweaty and lifeless. Each time he shed his clothes in my living room, he’d carefully set his wedding band on the edge of my coffee table and slip it on as soon as we finished. I’m not going to leave her, he’d say, firm, as though I was trying to sway him. I don’t want you to, I said, and meant it. A year later, his wife left him instead, marrying her pilates instructor. He sold the apartment complex to a new landlord, someone unmarried and dull.
I attend my sister’s wedding alone. At the reception, I sit between my parents, gossiping with my father about snooty relatives we wish hadn’t come. My mother texts her current affair beneath the table, looking up to smile at us every few minutes. I watch my sister’s husband’s every move, counting how many seconds his eyes linger on a server, how close his hand dips when he leans in to hug a bridesmaid. My sister rolls her eyes at my paranoia, but secretly, I think she’s grateful; he was someone else’s at first, too. When my father leaves early with a headache, Mom kisses his forehead gently, and they both nod. We scrape plates when the last dance ends, and as we do, she asks me why I hadn’t yet found someone of my own to commit to. Instead of responding, I focus on the sound of metal against ceramic. Watch the uneaten food fall into the trash, spoil.
Regan Puckett is a writer from the Ozarks. Her favorite leftovers are Indian takeout. Cold pizza is a close second. Her work has been recognized by a multitude of flash fiction contests and awards, and her most recent stories can be found in Fractured Lit, Emerge Literary Journal, and the 2021 Best Microfiction anthology.
Our fathers rise at five and whistle out the door carrying thermoses of black coffee and lunches our mothers have packed for them—bags of corn chips that fat up the blood and sandwiches made of meat and cheese. Our mothers tuck notes into the wrap of waxed paper promising what they’ll do to our fathers later in the dark.
Weekends our fathers box-step us around the living room or somersault us from their shoulders into the deep end of a swimming pool. Sometimes our fathers will lock themselves away and listen to the Tigers on the radio or slide under cars until they’re called to wash up for dinner.
Our fathers are men. What our mothers say when we ask why our fathers never cook or change diapers. Restless men, they say. Later they’ll say it with rolled eyes, but only in the evening after a couple of highballs have unlatched their tongues. Men, they will say. Our only inheritance.
On summer nights our fathers gather with other fathers in back yards to drink and bitch about the asshole foreman, the infernal factory clatter. Enough beer and they brag about the muscle cars they’re building, the flex and thrum of their big engines.
Some of our fathers die drunk in head-ons or face down on the factory floor, their rotted hearts knotted as pine trees. Some of our fathers carry their coffins and try not to cry.
Our fathers circle the padlocked gate of the Ford plant carrying signs they shake at the scabs who have stolen their jobs. Our fathers walk in snow and rain, raise clenched fists at the cars that honk past them. They stay out late drinking beer, roll home long after we’re in bed.
Our fathers are shut down, laid off. They drink beer from cans that they crush in their hands and leave on the coffee table for us to clean up. They watch game shows and talk shows where movie stars share photos of the dogs they buy online and fly first class from Tokyo. Our mothers tiptoe around our fathers, steer clear of their simmer and filth. They whisper over the slosh of the dishwasher about how hard it is for a man not to work.
After the Ford plant closes, our fathers go back to school at night. Shaved raw and choked by neckties, they stare down the glare of computer screens. Other fathers disappear into the dark bars downtown, lit by the flicker of TV screens and the thunder of fights. Sometimes the door will open and burp out the smell of beer and sweat and bullshit.
We grow up, go away, marry men who are not our fathers, men with soft hands and clean fingernails. Men who read stories to their daughters about cloth rabbits and moons and spiders that die alone.
Out fathers get old and then older. Soon enough they’re headlights on a wall, there and gone. Shadows, then ghosts.
Sarah Freligh is the author of four books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and We, published by Harbor Editions in early 2021. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Fractured Lit, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018) and Best Microfiction (2019-21). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts.
SEVEN STARTS TO THE WOMAN WHO WENT OVER THE FALLS IN A BARREL Annie Edson Taylor, 1901 by Frankie McMillan
Picture the cold dark inside of the barrel. Annie feeling her way over the padded mattress to a harness hanging from the side. The barrel sways in the water. Picture her fastening herself upright into the harness, pulling the leather strap tight across her chest. Picture Annie flailing about, she can’t find her lucky heart-shaped pillow. Now picture the barrel picking up speed, with the current, heading straight towards the falls.
It’s not as if falling was something new. Early on, I fell from my crib, I fell through haystacks, I fell from grace, I fell behind the church to kiss the bridesmaids, I fell between heaven and hell then into marriage and when my good husband was taken off to war I fell into despair. When cholera came and took the baby I fell so low I did not know I’d fallen. I fell short of loving men. I fell into debt. I fell about the house; birds beat against the windows, mold grew upon the cheese. Yet in the dark I dreamed that fame could come with falling.
Us boatmen watch the wind fall. Then we anchor by Goat Island so we can get Mrs. Taylor and the barrel ready without too much sway. When she begins undressing, we turn our backs. Let the oars rest in the locks, listen to the falls. We’d done talking. We’d told her no one has ever survived going over in a barrel, it was madness it was. She was killing herself and on her birthday.
We turn around. She stands there, a man’s coat flung over her shoulders. A big flowery hat on her head. Can’t help but stare. The long barrel begins bobbing alongside the boat. Later it’ll have white letters painted on it. Heroine of Niagara Falls. But we don’t know that now.
We spit on our thumbs, hold them up to see which way the wind’s coming.
If I hide my grey hair under a hat, if I lie about my age, I have my good reasons.
My poor head is full of measurements. The length of the barrel staves, the circumference of the iron hoops, the position of the bunghole, the exact weight of the anvil at the bottom so the barrel floats upright during the ride. I look the barrel maker in the eye. I tell him I have every expectation of surviving.
Night comes. I talk to my lucky heart-shaped pillow, I talk about the barrel maker, the boatmen, the beef-faced newspaper men, I talk about their buffoonery, their banter, and blather, I talk about the Buffalo Exposition, the crowds that await me, how lucky the timing was for my stunt, and I go on talking while candlelight gives such a ruby glow to the pillow I push my cheek into the plump mounds of silk and Maude, Maude, Maude I breathe though I don’t know any Maude, not even a bridesmaid Maude and later, to knock some sense into my God-fearing self, I draw my knees up to my chin, listen to the noise of the falls and brace, brace, brace, I cry.
A huge crowd had gathered on the Goat Island bank. Some had been there the previous day when the wind got too fierce to get the barrel out. Over the noise of the falls, we hear snatches of a voice shouting from the wharf. Mrs. Taylor, refined teacher of New York …What are the bets …Will she take the plunge… We head around the inlet into view. The crowd erupts in cheers. Horns blast the air. We pause a bit as Mrs. Taylor stands in the boat, big hat on her head, her arms held out to the falls.
The noise from the falls grows louder. You are in a barrel heading for the plunge. You are still upright in the harness, arms crossed over your chest. Your lucky heart-shaped pillow, wedged under your chin. The barrel begins to spin. You are prepared, you tell yourself. You have planned for this. Below the boatmen are waiting. Below is your new life, fame and fortune. The noise is deafening. Happy birthday, you breathe into the red silk pillow. Happy birthday, you.
Frankie McMillan is a poet and short fiction writer. Her latest book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press), was listed by Spinoff as one of the ten best New Zealand fiction books of 2019.
Remembering, still: Sunday egg scrambles, green …………..peppers and sharp cheddar adorning …………..our fingers, coffee pot chuckling.
Tilt and: our slip of a room …………..in Havana, stumbling on the party downstairs, sweet …………..cake kiss, warm cola in colored cups.
Tilt: our orange kayak flush …………..with the Atlantic, two Coronas propped …………..between us, shared spots of cool.
Now: winter and …………..walking into a corner bar …………..in Little Italy, bare …………..golden bulbs and stained counters and I turn 360,
lost in this palindrome, …………..wanting not wanting.
A bird’s eye view: …………..stranger, stranger, stranger.
But, had her beak hovered …………..on you—I think …………..even, I think that, I think even—
…………..we’d still be a winter …………..each, a hemisphere apart.
Trees can’t be green everywhere. …………..A bird changes direction …………..…………..by beating her left and right wing at different speeds.
Tingyu Liu was born in Huaian, China, grew up in Miami, and currently works in Boston in biotech. She has been published in The Normal School, Four Way Review, Borderlands, Bodega, and elsewhere, as well as various scientific journals for her neuroscience research. She has degrees from Pomona College and MIT.
We have driven east this bright afternoon,
the two of us, young parents on a break from
entropy. I am drowning in something I can’t
define and the day reels out like un-spliced frames
of someone else’s life. We park the car and skirt past
other people’s happiness, past picnic tables and barbecues.
You take my hand and we climb to the falls. The noise
of life filters up: laughter, singing. I am relieved
when the roar of water engulfs the din. I taste the
mist on my anesthetized skin, inhale the green power
of the fall, but do not jump. Something slippery creeps
up by spine, maybe vertigo, maybe hope.
Melody Wilson writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. Recent work appears in Quartet, Briar Cliff Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Shore, and Timerline Review. Upcoming work will be in Tar River Poetry, Whale Road Review, and SWWIM. She has recently been awarded the 2021 Kay Snow Poetry Award and is Honorable Mention for the 2021 Oberon Poetry Award.
Today I am eleven years born! We McClelland Family, Pa, Ma, Sis, and me (plus Joseph, our Mormon frontier scout), strike out from Independence, Missouri. The Oregon Trail is bright before us, our ox-pulled Conestoga laden with sundries (except for the calico dress Ma wanted). Ma grumbles that she should have married the Banker from Boston, while Pa pretends not to hear, but it is an otherwise perfect day.
At Fort Laramie, Ma runs off with a cowpoke. Sis, who is laid low beneath a blankie (she caught dysentery from a vegan hot dog in Columbus), says “I think we’ve been here before.” And Joseph, forever gloomy, mumbles, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Ma appears again (with her hair mussed), so Pa stalks off to hunt, and I no longer feel in charge of my life.
Pa, who has something to prove to Ma―she was unimpressed with the 1,663 pounds of buffalo meat he shot back in 1888―chooses to ford Snakehole River against the protestations of Joseph, who says, “Last time we forded Snakehole River, every one of us drowned and we had to start over in Independence, Missouri.” And Ma says, “I’m never going back to that Missouri hellhole.” And Pa says, “Who’s driving this Conestoga? Me, or you assholes?” So we ford the Snakehole River, and every one of us dies.
I have been eleven years old and on this godforsaken trail for twelve goddamn years―it ain’t natural to know the needs of a man in a boy’s body―and the last time we start over, our family scatters six ways to the wind. Here is how we lived and died: Pa drank himself to the grave; Ma married her cowpoke in Laramie; Sis lit out back east to join a vegan commune; Joseph opened a mink farm in Baker City. I am still in Independence, where we began all those years before. I am lonelier than you will ever know.
Mike Itaya lives in southern Alabama, where he works in a library. His work appears or is forthcoming in New Orleans Review, New World Writing, and Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, among others. He studies fiction at Pacific University and is a member of the arts collective, Mobile Canon.
The pregnancy scare skulks through bay grasses.
It tips us over like cows & drains our peach liqueur.
Flashlights under the bleachers illuminating grope & teen
& tooth & wick, a stick rattling the jellyfish to yield shine.
I was 15, sneaking out to the 7-11 where I had perfected
straddling someone on a skateboard, coming home
a root system of bug bites. My first pregnancy test
all because a boy had fingered me. I think I knew
that I wasn’t pregnant, that I was just practicing,
reverent for the monsters we only face in daylight.
Years later, today & beast bright & the cashier asks
if I want a bag for that & I nod, afraid for others to see
what I carry. She says, I’ve got you, the lighthouse,
the moorless vessel, premonition in high waters, voice
for miles over a body of water like slumber party incantation.
& praise the mornings, revealing our glowing aloneness,
a single pink line balanced on the bones of the clawfoot tub.
Who was that creature I was just beginning to talk to?
Sara Mae is a white, queer poet and fashion witch raised between Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland. Her work can be found in Peach Mag, Pigeon Pages, Breakwater Review, and elsewhere. Their first chapbook, Priestess of Tankinis, is out via Game Over Books. In her free time, she is learning burlesque in the studio or in her bedroom, and writing songs for her project The Noisy. If they could go to dinner with any famous person, they wouldn’t care who it was as long as there was Old Bay on the food.
A FEW NECESSARY HOUSEHOLD RULES FOR SYBIL by Gay Degani
Don’t say a word.
Keep your mouth shut.
Unless he talks first.
And if he talks first, listen carefully.
Listen for his tone of voice, look up to see if he is looking down at you.
Don’t smile if he isn’t smiling, and bow your head. Wait to hear what he has to say.
Depending on what he says, adjust your face accordingly before you catch his eye.
When you catch his eye, you have to instantly assess what’s on his mind and respond accordingly.
If you misread this man and answer him with something he doesn’t want to hear, look down immediately and apologize in a gentle tone.
If your softest, sweetest voice doesn’t work, don’t grovel because that’s what he wants to see: you, with that frightened look on your face and the quiver in your voice.
Stay calm and wait and pray the kids are fast asleep and you remembered to shut the curtains and put away the pots and pans, your favorite vase is tucked under the sink, and the heavy metal Pandora station is just loud enough to cover your screams.
Gay Degani has received honors and nominations for her work including Pushcart consideration, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Her flash and short story work has appeared online, in print journals, and anthologies. She has published a collection of eight stories about mothers, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place.
My sister slept in the laundry room, the door fastened by a
cinch strap and a nail. She painted the cinderblock walls
purple. Some nights tires would slide into the gravel drive and
it was my job to cover. I feigned sleep, confusion, while our parents
banged on the impenetrable door. She taught me to hitchhike,
shoplifted my first bra, considered me a coward.
Freeze, she said, if the cops come. Cry when you’re cornered by a man.
She was the artist, the ringleader, my wildest thing,
my alternate universe, a phone call and some chemistry away. Always trying to be something you’re not, she said, when I
told her I was clean. I should have chugged malt liquor
with her that November day. We could have smoked grass
as she put me in my place,
Melody Wilson writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. Recent work appears in Quartet, Briar Cliff Review, Amsterdam Quarterly,The Shore, and Timerline Review. Upcoming work will be in Tar River Poetry, Whale Road Review, and SWWIM. She has recently been awarded the 2021 Kay Snow Poetry Award and is Honorable Mention for the 2021 Oberon Poetry Award.
JUMPING OFF THE END OF THE WORLD by Kimm Brockett Stammen
Five years ago my niece and I stood at The End of the World, an infamous diving cliff near Kualanui Point just outside Kona, Hawaii. Far below us the ravenous Pacific roiled and crashed against jutting tumbles of boulder. Charcoal clouds cast shadows over the sky. Salt wind whipped hair in our faces.
“Auntie, I want to jump!” Kaley yelled.
Of course she did.
When she was small, my sister’s youngest girl was the one whose pink tennies inched closest to balcony edges, who leaned farthest over the aardvark enclosure at the zoo, who skipped with the most outrageous obliviousness over the slick stones of a mountain stream. Throughout her childhood she was continually recovering from some accident or another; she could and had gone, without thought or warning, in any direction whatsoever. When our two families went on outings together, even though there were six wiggly kids, including my own, it was always the jacket loop at the back of Kaley’s neck of which I kept hold.
“What do you think?” she said.
She had managed to stay alive until the age of eighteen. To celebrate that, and as a companion for our daughter, who was a year younger, my husband and I had brought her along to The Big Island for a week of vacationing. I looked down at the black waves smashing into wicked white shards. Kaley was now a legal adult; I couldn’t really stop her. What was more to the point, she had undressed as she spoke and was now wearing only a bikini and a towel. There was no jacket loop I could grab.
“I think if I lose you off the end of the world your mom will kill me.”
To get here we’d driven until we were sure we were lost. Wound down a narrow road etched over swaths of hardened lava so lean it looked as if wind had blown itself here and solidified. Screeched to a stop in a puff of gravel parking lot, then climbed over razor-sharp boulders until there were no more to climb. Ahead of us now was absolutely nothing but the sea. I stood, at an end and a beginning, imagining I could see the curve of the earth.
To our right, on a flat rock jutting out over the plunge, a darkly muscled young man prepared to dive. He glanced back towards a group of others who stood shivering, waiting their turn. He gathered himself, focused, he leapt. Arms pointed skyward, then curved in a parabolic arc downwards, and with a silent sluice the ocean swallowed him. Waves crashed against rock, recoiled, and then smashed again into more incoming waves. After an age a dark head popped up. The young man whipped wet hair from his eyes, exultant, and began clambering back up.
“Go ask that guy for pointers,” I said.
The drop at The End of the World is, I learned later, only about 35 feet high, which looked plenty high enough at the time, but the distance is not actually what makes it risky. It is the unpredictable surf, which is often simply too high, and the fact that, after jumping, there is no easy way to climb out of the turbid sea and back up. The spot is unsanctioned and considered dangerous. Several people, mainly tourists, drown or are injured there every year.
I didn’t know any of that then. I knew that my niece had become an expert swimmer and lifeguarded at the city pool every summer. I knew that—unlike when she was small and leaping thoughtlessly onto horses and off moving subway cars—she had asked for, if not my approval, at least my advice. That was new.
“He says it’s a good time,” she said, coming back from consulting the dripping diver and his buddies. “They come here a lot. The waves aren’t too high now. He can dive again and then wait down there for me to go after. He says just jump out as far as I can.”
“Just jump, huh?”
But she wasn’t. She was thinking first. Considering the risks, taking reasonable precautions. And only then propelling herself off the cliff, into adulthood.
I smiled, and she grinned back and tossed me her towel.
Kimm Brockett Stammen’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in CARVE, The Greensboro Review, Pembroke Magazine, Prime Number, and many others. Her work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best Short Fiction anthologies, and she won second place in Typehouse’s 2019 Fiction Contest. Before earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in 2019, Kimm was a concert saxophonist and spent twenty-five years performing, teaching, and touring across Canada and the US. Visit Kimm’s website here. Author photo by Emma Stammen.
The fingertips know things. Their ridged
whorls …. confess… the … whole.. body’s
The fingernails know things too, and knew
them even before the teeth.
The left hand arrives like a visitant, held one
arm’s length from the body. The left is a myth
of repudiated power.
The left hand’s five fingers sense a world
different from the right’s.
The left hand is grafted from another gender,
another species, from that one who knapped
the cleverest edges from flint.
The left hand’s arts are other.
We are not born to symmetry. The mouth
turns up one way or another.
One eye is wayward. The other is clouded.
The heart bleeds left. The liver slumps right.
Joints ache one at a time, sometimes in pain
on the right, sometimes on the left.
We dodder into age and our toes skew.
They’re like a child’s milk teeth, growing
The flounder’s two moonish eyes have come
to rest on its body’s left side. The flounder’s
right fin has atrophied.
The flounder is the omen of our toppling
Catch the flounder. Cut it open. Read that
Never forget: hold the votive knife in your
left hand’s fist.
Tom Laichas’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spillway, Aji, La Piccioletta Barca, Evening Street Review, Stand, and elsewhere. He is the author of the collection Empire of Eden (High Window Press, 2019) and the chapbook Sixty-Three Photographs at the End of a War (3.1 Press, 2021).
TELL ME HOW TO BUILD AN AUDIENCE WHILE YOU MOVE YOUR ARMS AND LEGS LIKE SERPENTS & SCARVES IN THE DARK OF A CATTLE RANCH
by Kelly Gray
When I was a kid, I wanted to be famous. I don’t know what I thought that meant other than I wanted to be seen, remembered. In thinking of being famous, I would often imagine my tombstone. I could see it with lichen blossoming across the slate. In my child mind this meant I was deserving of afterlife visitation because I had accomplished my way into worthiness and had a name carved in rock. I can be self-conscious if someone forgets my name. I can be self-conscious if someone remembers it, too. I know I am sensitive. I won’t ever be famous. Once, at a party, a girl I went to high school with called me by a name that wasn’t mine. Not a mean name, just not my name. She had a big family and was well liked and she was prettier than I was. I showed up that night looking like I cared too much and right in front of everyone she called me this other name. I realized how inconsequential I was no matter how perfectly I applied my makeup. But when I looked into her eyes, I knew it wasn’t a mistake. For a moment the bonfire light played the same shadow across our faces and I remembered she didn’t get into art school for dance. Despite telling all of us that she would. Despite all the grown-ups telling her that she would. My uncle had offered to film her application video for the program. He had expensive videography equipment that he said was essential. I was sitting in the community center loft looking down at the two of them. She was dancing hard, moving her whole body like she thought she was Isadora Duncan. His face was flushed behind the camera and he kept saying things that made my stomach queasy. I couldn’t use his words to pinpoint why he made me sick all the way down to my ankles crossed, I just knew I wanted to avoid the soft slur he passed off as affection. It felt like a burden the way my friends and I had to dodge his swollen lips when he wanted to kiss us hello and goodbye. She wasn’t my friend but she was dancing harder and harder. She had on a bodysuit and tights and the feet of a dancer, which are basically flexed hammers with calluses. She looked like she could have been carved of wood except that she was moving like water. I guess that’s the tension of dance. Isadora was driving home to get laid when her scarf got stuck in the spokes of the automobile and she was flung to the pavement and that’s how she died. That’s another tension, that split second between propelling forward and stopping so hard time abandons you as your body breaks. You can look at pictures of Isadora and because you know how her story ends, it makes every picture of her ache, especially the ones of her long soft neck. You just think Jesus, Isadora, you really didn’t know what was coming for you. I looked at this girl at this party knowing she never got into art school, even though I did, even though my acceptance letter had embarrassed me because I was embarrassed to write. Scarves around necks. When I told her my correct name, she laughed too big and I heard how fast she gulped in the cold party night air and I thought she would end up dancing for someone that night, just not for everyone. When she danced alone or for a boy, she felt slighted because no one had taught us yet that we were doing it for ourselves. It wasn’t about being seen but being understood and for that we needed swaths of spectators at our feet. Anyone would do as audience as we were just getting started but even then we knew we needed more. Later that night when I was watching her from the space past the bonfire between the barns and the meadow, I could see that she thought about being famous, too. I guess we had that in common, that and that we both knew my lichen-covered name.
Kelly Gray (she/her/hers) is a writer, playwright, and educator residing on occupied Coast Miwok land. Her writing appears in Passages North (forthcoming), Pithead Chapel, Hobart, Inflectionist Review, The Normal School, Barren Magazine, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for Best of the Net and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. Her book of poetry, Instructions for an Animal Body (Moon Tide Press, 2021) and her audio micro-chap My Fingers are Whales and other stories of Cetology (Moonchild Press, 2021) are available at writekgray.com.
PACKING FOR AN OVERNIGHT AT THE STATE CAPITOL by E. A. Farro
Minnesota State Capitol May 2018 the last weekend of the legislative session
No one likes conflict, but with the smack of a fist I am a million particles of brilliant light. However, tonight, I’m taking the punches. The letter is a direct threat, a blunt whack to the nose. I haven’t been home for dinner in days, and I can’t remember what it feels like to help my boys into their pajamas. I’m tired and mad and for a moment frozen in place. It’s Friday, well past the mid-May sunset. As the Governor’s advisor, my life has been reduced to a countdown to the end of the legislative session Sunday at midnight.
I jump up and look into the hallway of quarter-sawn oak doors. Realizing I’m barefoot, I grab heels from my bottom desk drawer.
The door cracks open: Tenzin’s long black hair and heart-shaped face. She pulls me in.
“When we look back, won’t it be obvious this was another Flint?” I say.
“We shouldn’t negotiate,” she winds her arms into the thin wool of her white shawl.
I smile, relieved that at least she and I won’t be battling each other.
Tenzin grew up as a Tibetan refugee in India, where she pulled water from a well that ran dry in summer. I don’t have to convince her that safe drinking water is a choice we make over and over.
When she immigrated in high school, I was finishing college. I admire her political instincts, and though she’s my younger sister’s age, she mentors me. In our jobs advising the Governor, our peers are our best mentors. It is too hard to trust the motives of anyone else.
“Their constituents don’t believe drinking fertilizer can kill babies?” I ask.
“It isn’t about that,” Tenzin shakes her head. I notice the big circles under her eyes. I wonder if I look as worn out as she does. Maybe worse.
“Studies show links to cancer in adults, too,” I say.
“They need a win,” she says, and hands me a bowl of candy bars. All I taste is sugar and salt. I picture the House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairs dragging dead carcasses down their main streets.
The letter offers the Governor the choice to either sign today their bill that guts his signature buffer law protecting rivers and lakes or, if he doesn’t sign, they will kill his new rule to protect rural drinking water.
Our phones buzz and we look into our palms. The Governor. He wants a draft response.
“I’ll take the first shot,” I say and run out. Agriculture is Tenzin’s portfolio, but the miasma of Buffers, a regulation that doesn’t go far enough for Enviros and goes too far for Ag—that is mine.
I dash downstairs into a deserted hall of the Capitol to sit on a bench. A gargoyle on the base of a lamp gives me a I-just-bit-a-lemon face. To get close enough to knock the wind out of them, I write longhand.
“I am shocked and—” I cross out the words. I used that phrase only a month ago.
“I’m appalled that you are holding a hearing so that you can deny rural Minnesotans their rights to clean and safe water.” The words flow now from the ether of the building.
I run back up and edit as I type. Print. Read aloud. Edit. Repeat.
Tenzin sits at my computer adding her own words. We pass the keyboard back and forth, no laughter, no swears. We’re channeling something deeper. Together, our fists joined for ultimate impact.
To pack from the kitchen: Cut fruit, cut veggies, cheddar cheese. Note: Slicing these gives a sense of control.
I’m tired. I hurt like I did a double shift of my high school waitressing job. I’d woken at five a.m. churning the hundreds of faces I passed in the rotunda yesterday, the tens of people I met with, the endless emails I pounded out responses to. Now, I take in the sounds of my young boys playing a game of sea creatures. I take in the smell of coffee and toast. I need to go back to the Capitol. It is Saturday morning, and I’ll likely be gone until Monday. I have to pack.
“I found the Lego!” my younger son runs into my room. He looks at me, his face falls. He’s been warned not to wake me. I motion with my hand and pull him close, breathe his warmth. As far as work-life balance goes, right now it’s all work. He rubs his cheek against mine like we’re bolts of silk.
My older son comes in, “Mama?” he says, but the question in his voice dies off. I sit on the edge of the bed. Both boys hold onto me. I lean into their wild curls sticking up in all directions. I’m tethered. There are things I pack without realizing it. Tenderness I will discover later and marvel at, but that kind of unpacking won’t happen until I leave the job.
“When did you get home?” my older boy asks.
“Late,” I shrug.
To pack from your room: Sweatpants to go under suit dress, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
I transform before I get out of my car. Last minute item to pack: my smile. Really, most facial expressions. Along with these I pack my desire for a family bike ride, a video call with my niece, coffee with friends, curling up with a book.
I’m usually quick to smile and quick to cry. Good news or bad, it hits me like vinegar on baking soda. But at the Capitol I keep to a narrow range of emotions. The rest I put in the trunk of my car.
To pack from the camping section of the basement: Sleeping pad and pillow.
An invisible umbilical cord reels me down the hill. The sun is out, and the white marble of the building almost hurts to look at. The circle of eagles around the capitol dome look ready to break free.
I start up the wide marble stairs to the main doors, realize it will be like an airport terminal in a snowstorm. The waiting lobbyists and activists will want updates. At the Capitol, information is currency. Its distribution forms and breaks bonds. I weigh the balance of engaging versus avoiding. Engaging could avoid misunderstandings, keep the lines of communication open.
The State Capitol has the fishbowl effect of high school: too many people smashed together. Like high school, clothing is a coded language that signals who you are. Fresh and in style, corporate or philanthropy. Outdated suits that smell of sweat, lobbyists or legislators. People in jeans, fleece vests, or leather jackets, advocates for everything from stopping mines to preventing helmet laws. Older people in coordinated outfits, tourists.
One weapon of the majority is to set the schedule and not share it. This morning both House and Senate members have a roll call. But after? Bills could come to the floor for votes. Or leadership could go into a room to slam together their giant spitball. This mega-bill, the omnibus-omnibus, will combine all program funding and cuts with all policy changes in all areas. Immigration policy with chronic wasting disease in deer with wastewater treatment. A shit show. If you know the schedule, you know when you can nap and eat. Exhaustion and hunger erode resolve, make what was not possible before, possible. Members of the minority party are forced into battle with their own bodies. At some point closing your eyes becomes more important than anything else.
I veer away from the main steps and go in the unadorned doors of the ground floor. Bare limestone walls, no vines or branches decorating them. My right eyelid thrashes, refusing to let me ignore my exhaustion.
Will we negotiate? If they can pull at the Governor’s heartstrings, if they are respectful, if they sit face-to-face with him—I don’t want to think about it. I’ve seen him fold and heard worse.
I don’t know I’m holding my breath until I enter my office. I notice sticky honey stains on the shoulder of my dress. I’m ambivalent about washing off these paw prints of my boys.
Hearing excited chatter I step into the hall. My colleagues are watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding.
We wonder at the whimsical hats and the Gothic buildings of Windsor Castle. “Scones and clotted cream outside the Communication offices!” a colleague shouts. A TV on the other side of the room shows House members assembling, but I turn away to watch the thousands of waving flags. A surge of energy comes from across the ocean. It’s a tailgating party.
To pack from the secret code passed on by the Cabinet Members: Honey Badger Don’t Care.
Tenzin and I, we have the perspective of being outside the state agencies and seeing them from a bird’s eye view. The group of agency leaders seated at Tenzin’s table, they have the institutional knowledge.
“If we offer them—” an agency leader starts. He is lean, strong, and feral. His hair speckled gray and cheeks hollowed with the first tinge of old age. When he agrees with us, he is the best. If he doesn’t agree, he smiles and then he does what he wants. He and I’ve been in a game of cat and mouse all session.
“No,” Tenzin cuts him off.
“We need to offer something,” the leader from another agency says. He’s well-groomed, but not flashy. Always polite. Refined. He speaks in a quiet voice, only his urgency to jump in betrays his anxiety in this moment.
I stand up, pull on my suit jacket, say nothing, and maintain eye contact. To honey badger is a verb. All I need to do is be still. No scowls. More importantly, no smiles. If my poker-faced is pulled correctly taut, their threats and laughter will ding like hail on a metal bucket.
“They’re blackmailing us,” I finally say. The music from the Royal Wedding floats through the half-open door. For a moment, I entertain a fantasy of stealing the box of scones and jar of clotted cream. I’d hide in a closet and eat them one by one. I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be.
“They need a win!” an agency lawyer shouts. Her smile mismatched to her exasperation.
“This isn’t a game. It’s public health,” I snap. I remind myself: arguing back is weakness; we are a team regardless of our anger or belligerence.
Those motherfuckers, I think, their blackmail will break us apart.
“Anna, they have to have something to show. They can’t go home without another shot at the environment,” the refined one says in his calm voice.
The honey badger instinct is natural with opponents. To do it with my own inner circle sends prickles of heat across my body. If I am inert steel, he will become anxious. We are animals made to mirror each other. I let his words sour in the air. Politics is a war of endurance.
The honey badger, Mellivora capensis in Latin, also known as the ratel, a name used for a seventies South African armored military vehicle that combines mobility with firepower, has a literal thick skin. It can withstand bee stings, porcupine quills, machete blows, and animal bites. In a meme, after a honey badger is bitten by a poisonous snake, it passes out, wakes up, and goes back to eating. That is who I need to be.
The Governor’s cabinet hadn’t initially wanted him to unleash a new environmental regulation. They knew it would be a battle, and they would be on the front lines. They’ve traveled the state and fought for it, but I still don’t trust their impulses. With the administration ending, we are all on edge. All about to be on the job market.
Tenzin jumps in, “The Governor was crystal clear, we’re not negotiating. None of you are to negotiate. He sent his response, and now we wait.”
“Of course. We all get it.” The feral one starts up, “We aren’t negotiating. But we need to be ready. Really, this part of the law—”
“It’s not worth keeping if we have to lose something else,” the lawyer jumps in. She giggles in apology. As soon as she goes quiet, her face pinches back to its pained look.
“How is the Commissioner?” I ask. The Ag Commissioner’s daughter passed away only days ago. Earlier in the week, we’d stood in the back of a crowded room, crying for someone we’d never met. Someone who meant something to us because of how we feel about the Commissioner.
No one plasters a smile on their face now. “It’s hard,” the lawyer says.
To pack from the children: Green ninja warrior figure so they will stop fighting over it.
Back in my office, the shouts, songs, and clatter of footsteps come through the walls of the Rotunda. The sound carries, but the marble and oak distort the words. I imagine this is what it would sound like to listen to someone else’s dream. I stand at my desk. I have no hunger, no need for sleep, no memory of bathing wiggly children, wrapping them in towels, or drying their curls. All that is distant. Here I’m part of a different and larger organism. I feel something in my dress pocket and pull out a plastic ninja. I place it on my computer to watch over me.
I’m alert to the ping ping of texts and emails dashing through air currents. The House debates a bill to dismantle government programs on my officemate’s TV. The Senate votes to overrule a Judge with legislation on my TV. My officemate’s phone rings, then stops, my phone rings. I check the number, look across the room to my officemate, and we pass a knowing look between us. A lemon-twisted smile. Neither of us answer.
Without warning I think of the blue sky outside, the way jokes with a four-year-old are silly, not cynical. I flip the telescope the other way. The room gets very small, words on the page ants. The State Capital and everything in it is tiny.
I pour a rainbow of Skittles into my hand, take a breath, and slowly force the telescope around so the photographs of my boys blur and the room snaps into focus.
I’m at the printer when the feral one walks by. “Oh, hey Anna.” His smiles verges on flirtatious. A habit from lobbying, and nothing to do with me.
“So, what have you been up to?” I ask.
“Well we were talking to the Chairman, and he likes our idea. Really, what we have to give up isn’t a big deal.”
“You were talking to the Chairman?”
“We were just talking. It’s good to keep the lines open.”
With the impact a wind rushes through my head.
Things you will not realize you are packing until months later: Smiling in professional settings unless it is a strategic tool, public tears, the existence of children in professional conversation, any suggestion that it is not normal to work without knowing when you will go home.
I trail behind my boss, Eliza, into Tenzin’s office. She wears a polka dot sweater and holds a polka dot water bottle in one hand. The cuteness of dots is in stark contrast to the way she stands with her legs wide, hands on hips, eyebrows arched.
I look at Tenzin but she shows nothing.
“Did you get clear instructions from the Governor to not negotiate?” Eliza looks directly at each of the agency leaders.
“I think my staff has also said this to you today. So, tell me, why are you talking to Committee Chairs?”
“We weren’t negotiating. We were just talking. It’s good to keep open the lines—” The feral one talks fast.
“Well whatever you call it, let me be clear. If the Governor wants you to do something, he’ll tell you.” She walks out with an audible sigh of disgust.
“Anna?” The refined one bites at my name. “What the fuck are you trying? What the fuck is going on? This doesn’t fucking make any sense.” I match Tenzin’s blank face though I feel a surge in my body. Fists clench.
I think of the time this man and I drove to the western suburbs to spend an afternoon with a recently retired CEO of a Fortune 500. It was an icy winter and halfway up the steep mansion driveway the car stopped. As if we could will it with our bodies, we both groaned, but the car slid back into the street. We tried again, slid back. Finally, we laughed and gave in. In it together, we parked on the street with no other parked cars and no sidewalks, and we walked up to the door uncertain of what to expect.
Now, the tension comes off him like a crackling electric fence. Something in me shifts. I’ve always told myself that I’m just the Governor’s messenger. But this, this moment, it’s like when my brother jumped onto the seesaw and sent me flying into the air with the smack of the wood plank on my bottom. This man, he’s never been my friend. None of them have.
I take a breath and say to myself, “Honey badger don’t care.” Because my heart is thudding and my head is roaring inside, I walk out. I stand against the cold marble bathroom walls until it all settles. Until I can send it all up the hill to the trunk of my car where the rest of me is packed away.
Honey badger don’t care, because honey badger knows the prayer: grant me the serenity toaccept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
E. A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art installation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a Nan Snow Emerging Writers Award, Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, an Excellence in Teaching Fellowship at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, and a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series award. She teaches public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and creative writing at the Loft Literary Center.
hot sand and grainy glass
yours is packed like clay
me i grab some seashells
and scrape to the bone
doe deer’s ribs on hard cement
honey fur still clean and pristine
same wet pink thread of mine
in coiled cervine braid
rigid skull, a cratered moon
flakes like chocolate croissant
under silver steak knife
gray matter oozes out
grimy fingers prod the grooves
looking for the right shape
a celtic knot or bunny-eared loops
force the image clear
mold and wet blur
my grassy eyes can’t glare
i send your vision in the mail
watch me bend in the grid
bug bites on my legs
lunulas swelling their bed
overgrown green marrow
or a neck i think you’ll bite
grind me into ash
amaranth slivers of meat
sieve through the desert
skin in the wind
Danny Cooper is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania where he majored in English and Earth Science. He’s originally from South Jersey and is now living in Brooklyn, New York. He spent the past summer working at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities developing climate storytelling workshops.
Mom fell asleep around Labor Day that year and the slumber was deep. Dad bagged the recycling, drove to school on weekdays, spread his papers across the living room floor in the afternoons, and asked me often if I needed anything. I always told him no, but each Sunday when I’d finished my chores, I’d wait at the kitchen table for the chunk-chunk-putputput-whirrrrrr of the lawnmower in the backyard, then venture upstairs to see if Mom had stirred.
One Sunday evening in October, Dad was changing the mower blade out by the shed and I figured he’d be occupied until the stars came out. “Mom?” I called gently from the foyer. “Mom?” She didn’t answer and I quietly mounted the stairs. “Mom, are you awake?”
The bedroom door was open and I crossed the threshold. Twilight sounds stirred in the yard, beyond the drawn shade and the poplar boughs in muted silhouette. The oscillating fan in the corner whirred calmly as I neared the foot of her bed. She was reduced by then to a snoring, pillow-laden mound of patchwork quilts; sometimes on her stomach, other times curled up; sometimes a leg flung free of the bedding, other times an arm. But she was always there, and I stood at the foot of the bed, watching the rise and fall of her breath, uncertain if her presence was a comfort or a disappointment. The clock on the wall, the cicada drone, the fan’s hum all seemed to stretch like a tape cassette when you put a finger on the ribbon. Slower and slower, dragging and slurring, until my ears made it silence and I decided to wake her. I had to wake her. I even moved to touch her leg, but, for some reason, I stopped myself, hand outstretched and fingers spread.
I’m still not sure why.
The best I can think is that I was scared. I couldn’t name it at the time, but I know now that I was wary, especially in those first weeks, of spoiling her solitude, of pinching her while she dreamed, of who she might have become with her eyes closed and how much of it she’d remain if I woke her too early. I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head in that moment, but I hesitated. I held my hand over her leg for a split second, and that was more than I had.
“Shh. Come away from there, Laurie,” Dad said from the doorway. I jumped and drew my hand back, startled. “Your mother’s very tired,” he said, leaning with his elbow on the molding. “Come away from there.”
Mom resumed her snoring and the opportunity stole away with the waning daylight while I watched her and damned my indecision. If I had to guess, I think that was when the idea took root, deep in my belly, that I’d wanted her to keep sleeping, that I’d hesitated because I didn’t necessarily want her awake. She pulled the pillow more firmly over her head and Dad cleared his throat, but I just stared at her, willing away the sudden fear that she might never move again. For almost a minute, Dad and I stood there with the hallway light in a column over the floor and evening gathering in the corners. He sighed and I finally turned to leave, but the idea clung to me. You didn’t want her to wake up, did you? Go on, say it out loud.
I never did say it out loud. It was nonsense.
Dinner that night was reheated chicken over buttered pasta. We ate late, Dad and I, at opposite ends of the table and, when we’d finished, I left the dishes to soak and Dad to wipe down the countertops and went upstairs to finish my homework. Mom snored steadily on the other side of the wall and I blocked it out with headphones full of music. Quadratic equations, I think it was, and I worked and worked while faces stared down from just beyond the dim lamplight; posters of movies, photographs of friends, and caricatures drawn by an amusement park artist on my twelfth birthday in which Mom’s head was too big and my face was cheerier than I remembered being. I worked and worked until, with a pop, the bulb in the desk lamp burned out.
For a moment, nothing moved but the moonlight on the wall. Shadowy branches tickled the pale glow and I removed the headphones and went downstairs. I padded across the dimly lit kitchen to the cabinet where Dad stashed the extra lightbulbs, but none remained, so I wrapped my hand in a dry dishrag and unscrewed the single bulb from the light over the sink. The kitchen went black and, at that very instant, a sudden cough cut the silence. I froze and it came again: close. I opened the back door and found Mom sitting on the porch rail, feet swinging against the balusters.
“What’s that?” she asked casually, balancing a cigarette between the fingers of her right hand. I’d always known she smoked—the house smelled like old pennies and air freshener—but I’d never seen her with a cigarette, never found a pack lying around, never seen her stop to buy them.
“What?” I could feel my face slacken and my eyes grow wide, but she didn’t seem to notice. I felt like an intruder in the night, but she was calm, in control of those parts of herself that were visible in the darkness.
“What’s that?” she said again, this time pointing her cigarette at the rag in my hand.
“Oh,” I said, staring at the red ember as I unwrapped the rag and held up the bulb so that she could see. “We’re out of lightbulbs. My desk lamp died. This is the one from—”
“Ah.” She nodded at the dark kitchen window. “I saw.”
Rustling leaves and the distant, irregular harping of a bullfrog hovered around the edge of the quiet and she raised the cigarette and took a drag. Smoke spilled from the corner of her mouth and I remember her staring back from the shadow, not into my eyes but rather just past them, over my ear or maybe at my forehead or the tip of my nose, like an actress taming her nerves. I started to speak, but she cut me off.
“It’s dark out tonight,” she said.
I stopped with my lips still formed around the word Why and she dropped her gaze. Her feet clicked against the balusters and I looked around.
“Sure,” I said. The sky was a truer black, with a faint silver ripple of cloud in the space where the moon hung earlier. I looked back to her and nodded. “Sure,” I said again. “It’s probably the clouds. It’s just the clouds, I think.”
She took another drag and stared just past me again. As she released the stream of smoke, her face turned slowly from mine until she was gazing over her shoulder, into the night.
“I like nights like this.”
“Dark,” she said.
“Dark.” She tapped the ash from her cigarette, then motioned with it toward the yard. “I feel like I can hear more of what’s out there. I feel like, when I close my eyes, I can see what I’m supposed to. Better than in the daylight.”
I didn’t know what she meant so I just nodded, and she was silent for a long time, staring off into the yard. The quiet chewed away at my ears and I wanted to return to the kitchen, close the door behind me, climb the stairs back to my room. “I like it too,” I said finally, just to hear something other than night. “It’s—it’s nice.”
She sighed and took another pull. “I used to come out to sleep in the yard, under the clouds, on nights like this. A long time ago. Before you were born, before this house, before your father.” The crickets billowed and we were both quiet and I remember being oddly certain that she wasn’t waiting for me to speak so much as for her words to decay, to break down into their component elements and join the earth under the poplar where the hostas grew. So I waited. “It’s been years now,” she said, after a long time. “It’s been many, many years.”
A light flicked on somewhere behind me while I puzzled over her face; old and smoke-carved; half-lit by the feeble moon, freed again from the clouds. How could she be so comfortable, sitting there talking like that? I was still watching her when she ground the cigarette cold on the rail, dropped it into the garden, and slid from her perch. The questions vanished and my mind raced for something to say, something to keep her there; anything, fact or fiction, question or statement, that she might find interesting. “Without a tent or a blanket or anything?” I blurted out. “You just—”
“I should get inside,” she said, as though I hadn’t even spoken. “It’s getting late. It’s really getting late.” She yawned, then glanced from the house, back to me. “See you in the morning.”
The door swung shut behind her and I stared after her and knew that she wouldn’t. She slowly disappeared into my reflection and I watched my pale face in the storm door, counting under my breath until I was sure she was far enough away. The crickets sang and I still held the bulb in the rag as I pushed the door open again and climbed back to my room.
The next morning, I came out before Dad was up and found the cigarette butt in the silent garden. My breath came in clouds and I covered the butt with mulch, then went back to the kitchen for breakfast. That night, I finished my homework early and, once Dad was in bed, tip-toed quietly downstairs and out onto the empty porch. The wide moon winked behind sparse clouds and the night chirped and buzzed and rustled. I sat next to the burn mark Mom had left on the railing and clicked my heels against the balusters, but she never came and I gave up and went to bed.
For months, I repeated the ritual, each night after Dad fell asleep. At first, I obscured my purpose in case he woke. I carried a glass downstairs to fill with grapefruit juice from the fridge, left my backpack in the kitchen so I could pretend I’d come down for a book, or rummaged in the catchall drawer for batteries or rubber bands until I was satisfied he was still dreaming in the guest room overhead. After a week or two, I abandoned the pretense, safe in the knowledge that I’d be alone.
She slept through the falling leaves and rain and cooling weather and, over and over, I watched the moon drift from shining climax, all the way to nothing, and back again. From the porch, I listened to the crickets in the hedgerow, the frogs in the creek bed. With only the shape of the night to mark the hours, I waited and waited, but Mom never came back out.
One night, while frost still slicked the grass, I decided to sleep in the yard. It was March, I think, and I had no way of knowing that, in a few weeks, I would wake to the smell of hot bacon and descend the stairs to find her standing over a popping skillet like she’d gotten a single, wonderful night’s sleep and nothing more; that she would wish me good morning and pass me a plate loaded with avocado, eggs, sugared berries, and sliced grapefruit; that I wouldn’t know what to do but pretend I hadn’t thought about waking her, every night for half a year.
I had no way of knowing, and I let the storm door close quietly behind, dropped the pillow and quilt on the porch, and sat for a moment on the rail, under the moon and clouds. The night whirred and whined and I wondered if Mom would’ve gotten out of bed that evening in October—and every morning since—if I’d just shaken her leg. Might she be stretched out right now, waiting for me on the empty lawn, if I’d just wrenched the blankets from her body and thrown open the curtain?
I hopped the railing and pulled the quilt and pillow after me. Mulch and petals, then grass and leaves cooled my feet, and the crickets breathed. I unfurled the quilt in the quiet and the crickets erupted in song as my head struck the pillow. Staring at the moon, I thought about marching back up the stairs and shaking her awake, but with that impulse came the idea that I might’ve been dwelling on the wrong failure, the wrong opportunity missed. Like a flash, it passed, and I fell asleep and dreamed of daylight in the windows, of roller coasters on my birthday, of popcorn on the couch, and her face under the blue flicker of a movie that I knew in the dream but couldn’t recall upon waking.
Peter Amos lives in Queens, New York with his wife and one-year-old son. He was raised in rural Virginia and studied jazz and classical guitar in college before moving to the city. His writing can be found at The Maryland Literary Review, Eclectica, and on his website, The Imagined Thing.
My shoulder hurt a lot after the second dose and the following morning I found a thorny vine had sprouted from beneath the Band-Aid. It clambered down my upper arm in an emerald coil. I drove back to the CVS in a hurry but the pharmacist insisted that this was less a medical issue and more a botanical one, so I stopped by the flower store across the street. “Water once daily and give it plenty of sun,” I was advised and indeed the vine flourished under this regimen. A few weeks later it blossomed into a hundred tiny flowers, each one a pale and haunted red just like the year had been.
Nikolaj Volgushev’s fiction has appeared in journals such as the Cafe Irreal, Cleaver Magazine, and Cease, Cows. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany where he writes, programs, and does other things along those lines. Before moving to Germany, Nikolaj lived in Denmark, and before that in New England, and before that in Germany. It is unclear where, if at all, Nikolaj lived before that.
Sara nearly dropped the peeling tin box of Grandpa Teddy’s things when she pulled out the yellowed, cracked black and white of Grandma Bea sitting on the wheel hub of their ‘38 Chevy, chubby ankles crossed.
Sara was only sure the picture was her grandmother because of the distinctive contour that had been carved around where her head and upper body should have been. She didn’t remember Bea, who’d died when Sara was barely two years old, so as a girl, whenever she’d visit Teddy, she’d ask to see the heart-shaped picture, the one with Bea wearing a beret over dark, wavy hair. The photograph was tucked into the corner of the mirror of the bureau Teddy shared with Bea for thirty years—the top two drawers hers, the bottom two his. Bea’s smiling face shone out from behind Teddy’s Old Spice aftershave, hair trimmer, and zippered shoe polish kit neatly arranged on the bureau top, a stack of accounting ledgers and a fountain pen off to one side. Bea’s gold locket engraved with the letters “BL” hung from the mirror next to the picture.
“That’s her thousand-watt smile,” Teddy would say, holding the heart in his hands. “When she walked into a room, everyone looked up, men and women. She was a looker, my Bea, and as sweet as can be,” he’d say, chuckling at his own joke.
Sara had been told that her grandmother died of a heart attack, and when she was growing up, Teddy would pat her hand and say, “Take care of that ticker! It’s the only one you got.”
Now that Teddy was gone, Sara was going through his things before the house went on the market. Inside the eave closet that smelled of old wood and mouse droppings, she stared at this lost companion piece, a heart-shaped hole where Bea’s smiling face should have been. A rusty paper clip held the Daily Sun article to the back of the photo. Sara’s eyes were drawn first to the image of a stockier, more serious Bea than the one frozen in her imagination. Then to the headline:
“Local Grandmother Dies in Briarview Asylum Incident”
Sara crumpled onto Teddy’s dusty steamer trunk with its brass latches and leather straps. She’d looked at the tidy, heart-shaped picture dozens of times, but seeing Bea’s disembodied hands and feet against the old car, reading those cryptic words, reality seemed to slip like a wave receding beneath her feet. Bea was institutionalized? What did they do to her? Had Sara’s mother known the truth? Sara tried to imagine the shame and anguish Teddy must have endured for the forty-five years after Bea left him all alone until his own death at just shy of a hundred; what it must have taken for her guileless grandfather to carry that carefully constructed lie all those years and to pass it on to his granddaughter as smoothly as slipping the heart-shaped picture of Bea into her hands.
Kathryn Silver-Hajo writes short fiction, long fiction, and poetry, mostly about life and relationships in the US and Lebanon. She studied in the Creative Writing MFA program at Emerson College, has a degree in Middle Eastern studies, and speaks Arabic fluently. Her stories and poems appear in Unbroken Journal, The Ekphrastic Review,Boston Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The New Verse News, and Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal. She is currently seeking representation for her novel, Roots of The Banyan Tree. Kathryn’s work may be found at www.kathrynsilverhajo.com.
For over a thousand years, menopause has been treated as an illness, something to be feared and fixed. Emily Steinberg’s Men O Pause visualizes the grim history of the treatment and attitudes towards menopausal women throughout history, from the Salem Witch Trials to 19th-century institutionalization for hysteria, to menopause medicalization in the early 20th century. The story ends with her own positive experience of empowerment and self-actualization. In 2021, not only do we no longer need to be ‘fixed,’ but we are quite happy to be living outside the realm of women’s historical natural function.
“Men O Pause” was previously published in M-Boldened: Menopause Conversations We All Need to Have, Ed. Caroline Harris, Flint Books, UK 2020
Emily Steinberg is a multi-disciplinary artist with a focus on painting and visual narrative. 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].
He drove to his mother’s house the morning of Thanksgiving and announced that he just wanted to catch up on sleep, because he wanted to avoid talking to Mom and really wanted to avoid his brother—who had flown in the night before and was the overachiever and overcomer—and did not care much one way or another about Jay, his stepfather—who was nice enough, if not a little too subservient—and because his mother had warned him that he better not use anything on this day, that if he could not even go this one day—Thanksgiving for God’s sake!—without taking a hit then he should really admit he had a problem and get the help she’s been begging him to get, and by the way, she and Jay had decided that they were not going to open any wines this year and also keep the bar cabinet locked—for his sake, didn’t he understand?—because they loved him and supported him and were going to do whatever it took to help him. Now, back in his old room in the house in which he spent one-half of his childhood, he stretched out under the blanket on the old twin bed with his shoes still on, closed his eyes, and pulled the pillow over his face, and he was back in his other old room in the other house in which he spent the other half of his childhood, his father banging on the door, threatening to kick the shit out of him if he didn’t come out and wash up, now! The banging got louder: last warning, buddy, the bird is getting cold and dry, you come out right now or I’ll break down this goddamn door if I have to but you’re not going to insult me and Leila after this great meal she’s made; then his mind slipped further back, to when he was eight or nine, when Mom dropped him off for practice after school on a Friday and Dad was supposed to pick him up for the weekend, except he was running late because he was still at some happy hour and he had just met this wonderful woman, Leila, he said when he finally arrived an hour after he was supposed to, and he was the only one still at the practice fields, watching the ribbons of birds fluttering in the sky before settling on the electrical wires for the night, families together; then he was five, they had stopped at a farmhouse with a riot of animals and Dad was with a different woman then, this one shortly after Mom put his stuff out on the front yard and got the lock changed, and Dad promised him then that as soon as the divorce was final and he had gotten himself a new place, he could have animals of his own, and he wanted chickens and Dad said, sure, we’ll build our own coop and raise chickens and never have to buy eggs again. Of course, this was just one of many such untruths, and over time he had come to appreciate why some people wear sunglasses at night, he had learned to cope with the clarifications of things by learning how to lose clarity itself from time to time, while at other times meticulously memorizing the ledger of untruths he knew he was going to hurl at his father’s face someday; only the fucker then went off and died, and his own life seemed unfair and unresolved, drolly comedic and cryptically disorienting, like a Todd Haynes movie. Now his mother knocked on the door to tell him the turkey was almost done and they would be sitting down soon, that he should come down and if he did he would feel better, that after dinner they planned to play something, dominoes maybe; but all he wanted to do was sneak into the bathroom and open that bag he was determined not to open, then fly, so he pulled the blanket over his head, covering himself head to toe, even though he was sweating.
Suman Mallick’s debut novel The Black-Marketer’s Daughter was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize and published in October, 2020. His fiction may be found in The Bombay Review, The Gravity of the Thing, and Propeller Magazine. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine Under the Gum Tree and received his MFA from Portland State University, where he also taught English and Creative Writing. He may be found at sumanmallick.com, or on Instagram or Twitter @smallick71.
The other evening, on my way home from a violin recital in Gangnam, I missed a step and fell in the Seoul subway station. I caught myself on my hand, twisting my wrist. I fell hard on my foot, sprained my ankle, and skinned my knee. And because I was walking downstairs instead of up, there was a moment of full-fledged, disorienting fear; a moment when the earth underneath me vanished.
In the aftermath, the only sound was the echo of footsteps slowing down on the platform. People stopped to stare but no one offered to help or asked if I was okay. On a torrentially rainy day a few weeks prior, I’d slipped on some water in a different subway station, near an escalator. The same reaction: people stared at me as if I were mad, as if I were a crazy person. As if I’d fallen on purpose. As if there were something wrong with me.
Later, when I mentioned it to my Korean friends, they laughed: “don’t worry, no one will remember you behind your mask.”
In this city of nearly ten million people, I’m invisible most days. On this day, I was finally visible but only because I was a spectacle. I scrambled up as quickly as I could, but I was dazed and embarrassed. And hurt.
Five months ago, at the Incheon airport, the scene at the immigration line was sheer chaos. We’d been waiting for three hours by then, in a room that was loud and hot as we stood, exhausted, clutching folders thick with documents and test results. Several young men dressed head to toe in white hazmat suits and goggles shouted at us in Korean to download an app we needed to pass through immigration. The scene was dystopian and overwhelming, especially after the peaceful cocoon of the plane. There’d only been twenty-nine passengers on the 747 aircraft from New York, and four of us carried violin cases.
I was too bewildered and tired to cry, though I did cry, copiously, at JFK. I felt guilty and ashamed for leaving on this adventure in the middle of a global pandemic that had claimed the lives of more than 3.5 million people.
Suddenly, a middle-aged woman collapsed onto the floor. She carried a heavy backpack, and a jacket was tied around her waist. No one did anything, said anything. We all just stared. Airport officials stared at her, too, crawling on the floor, not moving to help. I caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were unfocused and glazed over. She didn’t appear to have anyone with her, or at least, no one that claimed to know her. We watched her crawl around the floor for a good five minutes before, finally, someone thought to get her a chair. Someone thought to bring her a glass of water.
Being Korean American in Korea is challenging, just like being Korean American in America is challenging. The details are different, but the feeling is the same. It’s the feeling of being conspicuously alone in a uniquely foreign yet familiar country. Because to be fair, while I don’t feel like I belong here, I also don’t feel like I belong in America, either. And in the absence of belonging, I’m a constant observer, an outsider looking in, longing for inclusion and not ever being quite “right.” In America, I sound right, but I look wrong. In Korea, I look right, but I sound wrong.
Being part of the diaspora means always floating, forever looking for a place to land, a place to call home. Perhaps that place doesn’t exist. Maybe homecoming isn’t really possible. Maybe it’d be easier in a completely foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language or know anything about the culture and, most importantly, where there’d be little to no expectations of me to assimilate. I would still feel the pain of loneliness, but minus this unique pressure of feeling like I ought to belong.
Talking about loneliness makes people uncomfortable. I imagine it like a cloud of body odor; when you meet someone who stinks, you avoid them, but you also never tell them that they stink. Similarly, when you meet someone who reeks of loneliness, you walk away, disturbed by the invisible need that oozes off them. The chronically lonely feel stigmatized: the concept of the “loner” or the “loser” is deeply embedded in our culture. If you’re lonely, people assume something is wrong with you.
Loneliness is cloaked in shame, even as research shows that the rise of urbanization, single-person households, and the disintegration of meaningful community all contribute to a growing social construct that makes loneliness and alienation not the exception but the rule. In general, single people living in urban centers are lonelier than people who live communally in lower-density or rural areas.
Loneliness is pervasive, reaching across various demographics. In 2019, 61% of Americans admitted they were lonely and 22% said they were often or always lonely. 44% of the elderly are lonely and while 50% of my generation, Gen X-ers, confessed to chronic loneliness, that percentage rises with each generation, with millennials seeming to be the loneliest of all.
Another article mentions seven ways to alleviate loneliness. I do most of them on a regular basis: I make small talk with strangers, I reach out to friends, I avoid social media, I get to know my neighbors, I invite people over, I engage in creative activity (hello, I’m writing this damned essay, aren’t I?). And while these steps alleviate the loneliness temporarily, in the long run, they aggravate my alienation.
Because what I want, what I miss, is daily connection that I don’t have to initiate, with someone I can fully trust. It’s been a very long time since I’ve felt that kind of closeness. But it seems this is more than I can have and too much to ask, even with the most well-meaning and loving of my family and friends. Daily connection, while fine for other, luckier, and possibly more worthy folks, seems not possible for me.
(Oh, I forgot to mention, the one thing on that list of seven things that I can’t seem to get a hold of: human touch.)
So, I’ve concluded that I’m just too much. I want too much. I’m too greedy, I guess.
Social scientists define loneliness as a liminal space, the distance between the connection one desires and what one is actually experiencing. In other words, loneliness is the gap between what you want and what you have. It’s the distance between the ideal closeness one longs for and the closeness (or lack thereof) that one experiences. It’s the pain of that distance that makes every interaction feel like rejection.
In the struggle to find a “cure” this is the one constant: loneliness is subjective and hard to quantify. It’s a sliding scale of intimacy that varies from person to person, situation to situation, making loneliness a very difficult thing to address and heal, let alone define unilaterally. Because one can be completely alone and be perfectly content while another may be surrounded by people and feel loneliness like a stab to the heart.
Indeed, the effects of loneliness are physical. Lighting up the same parts of the brain that react to physical pain, loneliness registers as a supremely palpable wound. Chronic loneliness is linked to increases in many health risks, including heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Loneliness is also an indicator of premature death, since lacking social connection is a bigger risk factor for early mortality than obesity and is the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
But suddenly, the Covid pandemic made it okay to be lonely. Loneliness was normalized and for once, I felt like I belonged. Ironically, my internal sense of loneliness dissipated as the global loneliness spread. I wasn’t alone and no one expected me to be okay.
Because really, it’s about belonging. Loneliness can be especially potent for immigrants, the elderly, LGBTQIA+, minority groups, and all people living on the margins. We all have a deep need to belong; this is not a luxury, but in fact, an essential human need. Shame regulates how we behave and the tolerances we construct in our efforts to stay within the tribe.
Belonging is not a trivial matter but of biological importance to wellness and our overall ability to contribute in meaningful ways. When we experience perpetual otherness or outsiderness and then, adding salt to the wound, when these experiences of alienation are ignored or negated, we learn to sublimate our needs and, therefore, our internal compass becomes confused, and I believe this leads to intense self-loathing and internalized hatred, when there isn’t any outward way to resolve this loss.
In other words, in the absence of visibility and acknowledgement, our need to belong is so intense and essential that we will shapeshift to fit the tribe, even if this means we vanish and reject ourselves.
So, what can we do? While all research points towards proactivity—putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable to increase the chances of connection—I’m weary of this advice and highly skeptical. Because, at the risk of sounding, truly, like a whiny baby, I have to say that I think I am, more often than not, the one to reach out. But the more I reach out, the more people pull away, increasing the gap between what I want and what I have and, therefore, I feel even lonelier. Over time, I’ve learned to keep my hurt parts hidden from the world, lest someone use this weakness to hurt me later. Better my hurt be in stasis than risk some mortal wound that I will never recover from.
Why am I saying all of this, now, for all to see? After all, people are baffled: But don’t you have a lot of friends? From your Insta, it looks like you’re having a great time! What do you have to complain about? I’m so surprised, you seem to be doing so great. And all of this adds to my shame. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how it appears, it matters how one feels. One is lonely if one feels lonely, no matter what things look like.
Of course, I don’t want the Covid crisis to continue. I’m deeply relieved that, with vaccines, there’s a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. But I do wonder, selfishly, what this will mean for loneliness, moving forward. Will people sweep it under the rug, this moment of global loneliness and trauma, and whisper: “let us never speak of this again”? Like a regrettable one-night stand? From texts and social media posts about how ecstatic everyone is to be reunited with their friends and loved ones, not to mention the promise of a second coming of the “roaring 20’s” and all the hedonism that may provide, it looks like loneliness is a parenthetical nightmare from which most people will soon escape.
Earlier in the summer, I’d texted my friends: “is it pure bacchanalia there in the US?” I was facetious but also green with envy. “Are you all raw dogging it, maskless and 2019 style?” No, they’d said, not yet, though I wondered if they were just trying to make me feel better. After all, one of them mentioned going out to dinner with her partner only to be flanked on both sides by unlikely revelers; two 50-year-olds necking like horny teenagers at a drive-thru and a pair of flamboyantly drunk middle-aged men, swaying atop their barstools.
An hour-long subway ride later, I arrived at my home station. Hobbling up the stairs, I noticed a huddle of people in the corner. They surrounded a young drunk woman who was vomiting profusely; not an uncommon sight at ten p.m. on any given evening in Seoul. Two friends held her hair back, two others stood guard, drunk and unsteady but, nevertheless, protecting her from the eyes of prying Seoulites. And in that moment, I was envious and bitterly resentful; she had friends to protect her in the midst of her own, self-induced drunkenness.
While I’d done nothing more than miss a step.
The next day my wrist and ankle ballooned, and after a visit to the hospital, I called to cancel a gig. The organizer said nothing but, “how am I supposed to find another violinist on 48 hours’ notice?”
To be fair, I don’t want to vilify the Korean people for what I’ve witnessed in these isolated instances of what, I suppose, can be called a lack of good samaritanism. And because I know that people will be tempted to draw binary conclusions, (after all, we feel better when things fit neatly into a box), I want to be clear and say that my loneliness is a constant in America, too. There are shitty people everywhere: New York, Tokyo, Paris, Sao Paolo. Indifference exists all over the world, different lenses on the same telescope.
And years ago in Manhattan, when I was in a coffee shop with a man that I loved very much, who I thought loved me, too, I saw a woman sobbing. She was young and beautiful and so sad, it hurt my heart. I wanted to hug her, but I hesitated and when I turned around to find her again, she was already gone.
My Korean language teacher explains to me that people were likely respecting my boundaries, trying not to embarrass me with attention. She agrees that this is a cultural difference and empathizes with my culture shock. In truth, there’s also something humiliating about a stranger helping you up; it’s just a different kind of theatre. What I long for is not the kindness of strangers. And, in general, Koreans are wary of strangers, so any unknown person, whether they’re falling downstairs or asking for directions, is regarded with suspicion.
And there’s a part of me that understands this: as a country that, since its inception, has been battered by complicated and ongoing unresolved trauma from generations of invasion, occupation, and dictatorship, a continued US military post-war presence nearly eighty years after the Korean War ended and the constant threat of nuclear and civil war from the North, it makes sense that Koreans are always on high alert. That we always feel threatened.
But then there’s also the halmoni’s, the grandmothers who pick fallen flowers out of my hair and give me candy, praising my Korean when I offer to take their picture for them. “Why are you here all alone?” they ask, and I’m grateful for the attention even as my eyes fill with tears.
This is also part of what it means to be Korean, this jung, this feeling of unspoken connection and profound affection that all Koreans experience and feel for one another. But even this specifically Korean concept is fading, migrating from cities and into the countryside with the tidal wave of neoliberalism and cutthroat competition that makes Seoul a global powerhouse while suffocating its citizens. Nevertheless, jung is what connects Korean people across generations and continents, creating a net of solidarity that transcends time and place. I think this is what happens when there’s the fear of disconnection, when you live in a land that’s always under threat of disintegration. When there’s always the possibility that everything you know will disappear. You find ways to connect, and you cling to them. You learn to make home out of nothing, to house your loneliness.
Tricia Park is a concert violinist, writer, and educator. She is a music graduate of The Juilliard School and received her MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tricia is a Fulbright Grant Awardee in Creative Writing and currently resides in Seoul, Korea, where she’s working 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. Since making her concert debut at age thirteen, Tricia has performed on five continents and has 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 Juilliard School, the University of Chicago, and the University of Iowa. She has taught creative writing for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa and is on faculty for Cleaver Magazine, where she teaches writing workshops and is a creative nonfiction editor. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. Tricia also maintains a private studio of violin/viola students and writing clients. Learn more about Tricia and listen to her podcast at: www.isitrecessyet.com. Listen to Tricia play violin at: https://www.youtube.com/c/triciapark.
I can’t believe you haven’t heard this story. I feel like we tell it all the time! Maybe not in class, no, but grad school isn’t all lectures and bad coffee. We do have fun sometimes. Anyway, Lee and I used to come here all the time in our first year, because on Thursdays they had pierogies for fifty cents apiece and we’d have money left over for nasty beer, except I think this happened on her birthday so maybe it was nasty rum instead. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I should try to tell this story without Lee, I’m not going to remember it right. Well, anyway, we were sitting up at the bar over there having some kind of intense conversation. I think it was when we were planning on co-teaching a class about rape culture—I told you, we know how to have fun. So we were just talking with our heads together when out of nowhere this guy thumps down right next to her and says “Hey, you, have either of you read any Russian literature?” I know! Not even an excuse me! He wasn’t from our program. I remember he had really long hair down to his waist, but otherwise he just looked like a guy. Anyway, yes, of course we’ve read Russian literature—not all of it, obviously—but in any case that’s not his business. So we turn away and try to find the thread of our own conversation, but next thing he started in talking about the Frankfurt School. I truly don’t know. Maybe he’d just read a book about it, or maybe he really loves critical theory and that’s always how he chats up strangers. What was funny, though, is that Lee and I had just turned in our papers for that first-year course on critical theory. We could talk about Althusser all day. Even though he did strangle his wife. Maybe that’s the class we should be co-teaching: all the philosophy guys who killed their wives. So this guy started talking to us about ideology, and I was trying to catch Lee’s eye like, is this okay? Are you okay? I mean we were still getting to know each other then, I didn’t know if she would enjoy the attention, but it was her birthday and she was still talking about interpellation, so I tried to be chill. When you get to critical theory next term, you’ll see how Althusser describes interpellation: if a policeman says “Hey you.” to a person walking down the street, that person—regardless of how they feel about it—is transformed into a subject of the state. Maybe when a guy says “Hey, have you read any Russian literature?” to women at a bar, they are incorporated into his own ideology, like they’re not people in their own right but mirrors reflecting back his own self-image. Or so he thought, but Lee was verbally batting him around like a cat with a mouse and he was getting more and more agitated. So finally the guy asked Lee what she wanted to do, like when she grew up I guess, what she wanted to do for a job. And Lee said she wanted to teach, because that’s the dream, right? That’s what we all come in wanting to do. And the guy, who was pretty worked up by this time, slammed his hand on the bar and roared “That’s bullshit!” And Lee said, “I’m sorry?” Because that’s what women do, isn’t it? A man walks into a bar and says ouch; a woman walks into a bar and says I’m sorry. And I leaned across her and said, “Did you just call my friend’s vocation bullshit?” And he said, “Yes, your job is to tell people what to think, and that is bullshit.” I know! So funny. Like sure, yes, we are tools of capitalist indoctrination, and that’s why we are celebrating Lee’s birthday by pooling our quarters for all the pierogies we can eat! And, okay, Althusser does not believe in the liberating potential of education, but if education is oppression then what do you call bothering women with philosophy at a bar? Not that we are giving much weight to Althusser’s opinion of how to talk to women; I did say he killed his wife. Find me a philosopher who was a good man, though. Like everything else, we take the parts that are useful to us and leave the rest. Anyway, I’m sorry, I’m so bad at telling this story. I don’t remember telling the guy to leave, but Lee says that’s what I did. Like: that’s not what teaching is, and also that’s not what ideology is, goodbye. But the man must have said “That’s bullshit!” a few more times, because for the rest of the year Lee and I would yell “THAT’S BULLSHIT!” and collapse into laughter. But he did leave and the bartender gave us each a plastic token for the entertainment. I still keep it in my wallet. It was supposed to be good for a lifetime discount but the new manager won’t accept it. You missed a chance there to say “That’s bullshit!” But the pierogies are still fifty cents on Thursday, and they come with a whole basket of condiments, so you can really make a meal out of them. You’re welcome. That’s what I’m trying to tell you: in this program, we have to look out for one another.
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 flash in Cleaver Magazine, Toho Journal, and CRAFT literary magazine, and she currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.
AUTOPSY OR, THE HOUSE OF YOUTH (LIKE A RUSSIAN MOUNTAIN)
by J.M. Parker
I kept a hand-written note, on creased but still clean typing paper, wedged into the pages of a book
You’ve got the tv program and today’s newspaper―
some white wine in the fridge,
and the end of a bottle of red one on the table, and another one and pastis in the kitchen― I don’t know what time I’ll be back but until that moment I kiss you―
Also, if the phone rings
let the answering machine answer―see you―
I’d kept a photo of the two of us grinning while cutting up a dead rabbit to put in a stew, after which, as I remembered, we’d sat on Fred’s couch, and I told him I had a boyfriend in America. “I love him,” I’d said, “But he isn’t in love with me.”
“Without love, it’s like a day without sun,” Fred said―and this had sounded romantic, or even sympathetic.
After pulling his note out of the pages of that book and then a phone call, I stood in the atrium of Fred’s office, looking up at his desk. Fred sat at a monitor, smiling at something on his screen until he glanced down to see me. “Sorry I’m a little late,” he said downstairs, meaning he was sorry I’d been standing in the lobby in view of his colleagues instead of waiting by the door, as he’d suggested.
It was gray outside, boats along the canal St. Martin battened down for winter, tarps sagging with water. In French, as in English, people are expected to ask each other how they are on meeting, then to reply pleasantly before inquiring all over again more methodically. If they’re interested. We were. Sitting down in a café, Fred talked about Abriel. “Abriel is complicated,” Fred said. “I’m complicated myself. It isn’t easy for complicated people. Every week is like a Russian mountain.” Fred made up-and-down movements with his hand, I supposed to illustrate the shapes of mountains in Russia.
Two years earlier, Abriel’s name had come in the same moment Fred taught me the French word for “magpie,” one morning, sitting on the couch. As Fred explained that Abriel had spent the night in the courtyard downstairs trying to call, a magpie had landed on a chimney outside, catching my attention. “What is it, that bird?” I’d asked, and Fred told me. I’d never seen a magpie. “They’re fascinated by bright things. To steal them,” Fred said, explaining the magpie’s personality. I’d thought of the two of us there on the couch with the sun and coffee, of Abriel waiting in the courtyard, and of a long-tailed bird who steals bright things that catch the light. “Look,” Fred had said, “With Abriel, things have been getting more serious lately.” Then Fred had put me on a train and we’d said goodbye.
Will you have wine? Fred asked. Will you? Up to you, he said. I don’t mind. A carafe, then.
We sat discussing our story, discussing how we felt about it, the way you’d talk about a film or a book and what you thought of it. Fred didn’t mind if you looked at his face, but if you looked into his eyes, he shifted them slightly so they changed their way of looking to something more blank. If you persisted, he looked away. “You look a bit sad,” he said.
“You always say that,” I said. Then there was a silence between us, after this reference to an “always” that covered only a few distant days. I waited to see what he would do with that silence.
“I wonder,” Fred said, “What you think about us.”
“Us?” I asked. His face puckered in disgust at my pretending not to understand.
“It was two years ago, wasn’t it?” he said.
“When we met. Was it October?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was in October.”
“I wonder what you think about that now?” The strangest thing happened now, something that hadn’t ever happened to me before and hasn’t since: without moving in the least, my line of vision suddenly fell perfectly level with the tabletop, so I saw everything on it, our plates and glasses with their sharp outlines, from their undersides. It was difficult to draw away from this vision, but his face above it all waited for an answer.
My answer, completely unplanned, was completely familiar. “I came back to Paris because of the sentiment I had here with you. Now I’m here, and never see you, and miss you.”
He sighed. “I didn’t know your thoughts then. I wasn’t sure of you.”
“You didn’t expect me to stay, so you took me to the station and put me on a train.”
“Yes, it was like that,” he agreed. “But you are here now?”
“You can call my office when you want to have lunch.” Full of wine and caffeine and energy, I walked across the canal, wanting to think. Fred and I had always been honest with each other. It felt good to say the truth.
I put my hands behind my head on a park bench on the other side of the city, watching a tiny black poodle walk alone across the wide dusty paths and, for the first time, saw I wanted something that wouldn’t be simple to get and that if gotten, wouldn’t be because of anything I did myself to make it happen. A low fog made everything close grainy, everything faraway closer. An hour with him made it easy to remember how he made his coffee, the cup he drank it from, the noise he made falling asleep. Above the Champ de Mars, Eiffel’s tower stood, clipped from a painting, pasted over the chestnut branches, hanging there. The drug-like sense of everything being an option intensified: an option for happiness, an option for sadness, one of a thousand spaces somewhere in between. I’d fallen in love with Fred two Octobers ago. This fascinated me.
That autumn two years before, backpacking across Europe, I’d prepared for France. Handing my passport to the receptionist at the youth hostel, I’d been the only person in line who spoke French. “You are American?” she’d asked. “Yet you speak French?”
“Yes,” I’d said, “I’ve also recently purchased a métro pass―want to watch me smoke a cigarette?” I put Paris’s neighborhoods on different sections of my tongue, moving them around slowly―sweet, salty, sour, bitter. I’d drunk watery lattés and eaten greasy croissants at the youth hostel, found Shakespeare & Company full of American divorcées with loud purring voices, and Gertrude Stein’s house in a street where gusts of wind brushed the granite facades, pouring along ankle-level, like a beach. From Montmartre, the sun withered behind the city, the clack of roller blades passing up through the trees. A Paris sunset.
I took the subway to the Marais, feeling foolish and happy. In a bar, two men stood together laughing, one stout with glasses and a pasty complexion, the other shorter, blond, a silk blazer hanging off his shoulders, shaking as he laughed. After a beer I said hello. The men exchanged a startled expression which read―a foreigner! The blond, curious, stepped closer, clearing his throat, turning his face up into the light so you could see it. It was a nice face, drawn around the mouth with a smoker’s wanness. Turning to his companion in a furious whisper that seemed to generally establish shock between them more than to seek a response, he turned back to me. “Tu parles Anglais?”
“Oui. Pourquoi? Mon français, c’est mauvais?”
He turned to his companion again before answering. “Ah, non! Your French―it is vary, vary good!” He’d taken some care in selecting his clothes, you could see, his hair neatly brushed: a professional. They both smiled. He turned back to his companion, who was making a blowing noise with his mouth, then to me.
“My name is Frédéric,” he said. “This is Jean-Pascal.”
“Max,” I said, putting out my hand. Frédéric and Jean-Pascal had had a little chuckle together. Max: the monosyllabic glamour of the American first name―yes, a real American. Frédéric shook with laughter.
“We are going to another bar,” he shouted over the music. “You might like it. A bar for―lesartistes―yes? You will come?”
At the bar for artists, glaring, middle-aged men and goateed boys with glasses danced slowly, foot to foot. A mustached Turk in a baseball cap looked on, shuffling his feet now and then. Jean-Pascal and I danced. Frédéric got drinks. I stood holding mine to my lips, watching Frédéric pound the floor with his shoes, scrunching his shoulders under his blazer. After a while I sat down and he sat beside me.
“Sleepy?” he said. Green eyes. Eyebrows flecked with blond.
“Oui, un petit peu.” I said, mimicking his pronunciation.
“Can I take you home?” he asked. We looked out to where Jean-Pascal was dancing by himself.
“He’s having fun,” I said.
“Yes,” Frédéric said, “Jean-Pascal likes to dance.”
Outside, the street quiet and dark. He hailed a cab. “My things―” I said, “Mes affaires―sont à l’ostello―à la . . . la maison de jeunesse, the house of youth, non?”
“Oui, oui. Où est ton auberge, your things?”
“Bastille,” I told the driver, kissing Fred, then remembering that we’d already kissed in the bar. Frédéric waited in the cab as I came downstairs with my bags, smoking, a hand hanging out the window. “I never waited for a boy in a cab before,” he said, bemused. “I didn’t know how long to wait―one cigarette, or two . . . three.”
“Was I long?”
He nuzzled me. His hair was the softest thing I’d ever felt. “Richard-Lenoir, s’il vous plaît,” he said.
The next morning, children played in his courtyard. Women called across balconies as they hung out their wash. The sun through the skylight came across Fred. I went to test his shower, smelling like a tourist―paté, beer, dust, and smoke. Fred climbed down from the loft, taking me by my shoulders to dance on the tiles in his bare feet. “Je t’aime,” I’d said. Then Fred was prostrate on the couch with a cigarette, ashing into the blue ashtray.
“Je t’aime,” Fred explained, isn’t a phrase one unleashes on a new-found lover. “Je t’aime” is très serieux.
The second time I called for lunch, it rained again. The canal boats’ plastic tarps dripped and sagged. He wore the same brown turtleneck, face red from the cold.
We ordered plats de jour, getting warm. “Abriel is jealous now,” Fred said. “I always tell after I’ve seen you, but never before we meet.” He paused. “When I describe you, I must make you out to be rather the ideal boy.” I smiled, hating myself―easy flattery. “With us, it’s always like a Russian mountain. Last month we broke―I think the same in English―‘broke up’?”
“Two weeks not seeing each other.” He paused, lit a cigarette, offering me one. “I was happy with you,” he said, going off in a slew of French he must have been saying for its own sake, seeing I didn’t understand. Rain spattered in waves across the window behind him, a pure gray, as gray as the city looks from an airplane window in winter. Normally his eyes were so sharp that I was surprised every clerk in every store, every waiter, every person on the street, didn’t realize how amazingly alive he was and jump on him, all at once. Looking at me carefully now, his eyes went dead, with nothing in them.
“Listen.” I’d had too much coffee now. That we only had an hour together―and how much time apart after that―terrified me. “If it gives you trouble, I don’t want to see you anymore. But if there’s anything in your heart that gives you any indication that you feel something similar to what I do, please think about it.” Unsure what I was saying had been true half an hour before, it seemed true now. Fred picked up his glass and set it down again. “The last time you asked what I thought of us, you didn’t say what you thought,” I said.
“I would ask you not to ask me that. Let’s eat our lunch. You’ve hardly given me a moment to think.” The waitress came for our plates, and that was the end of it.
At the third lunch he explained that he had a tank of fish that were slowly dying. He and Abriel lay in bed watching them swim. Every few days another dead body had to be scooped from the surface of the water. It was Abriel’s birthday recently. I said it was my friend’s birthday, too. What day, he asked. Ah, well, that was also Abriel’s birthday. But he couldn’t understand why his fish were dying.
“Did you get your tank new or used?”
“Did you clean it before you put the fish in?”
“No. Perhaps it is that.”
“I have sympathy for the inhabitants of your aquarium. Because you killed some of me, too.” Learning a language, drunk on the options of things you can say, you sometimes say anything that comes to your head.
“Oh? I killed some of you?” Fred smiled, turning away, the smile still on his lips, enjoying it to himself for a moment.
“What did you do after I left?” I asked.
“There’s no sense talking about that.”
“I’ll say what I did,” I said. “I sat in that train for five hours, feeling sick. Once the train stopped, I walked all over whole cities feeling sick. Then I took another train, a lot more trains, and buses, and a plane, feeling sick some more in all of them. I bought a bottle of Pastis, drinking it every night to make myself sick again. After a while, I didn’t miss you anymore. I just made myself sick.”
“I didn’t mean to make you sick,” Fred said. We were quiet for a while.
“Abriel is in Province,” he said finally. “I don’t know if he’ll come home tonight. I hope not. He always wants to go out, and I love to go to bed early. I like to get up Sunday morning―at ten, say, or eleven. Abriel isn’t easy to live with. But I’m very difficult, too.”
“I never thought so.”
“Oh, yes. I’m always afraid of losing someone. If they say anything―for example, Abriel and I were at a restaurant, and I asked, ‘Are you happy?’ and he said, ‘Happy about what?’ and I”―Fred pulled a sad face, glancing back over his shoulder like a scolded dog. “I can be sad for no reason. Just sad. I’m very difficult to live with, I’m afraid.”
“You were never afraid to lose me.”
“No. Perhaps because I knew I would. There’s some irony for your story,” Fred said, putting his glass down. “Does your friend travel very much, too?”
“Tonight he leaves for Strasbourg.” Our eyes met without either of our faces saying anything.
I thought he might call; I thought I might call him; but I didn’t see him again for two years.
He was “content de me revoir”―de m’avoir retrouvé, he corrected himself, explaining that content, a strong word, which most people used to mean “satisfied,” meant “fulfilled.” Our original fifteen days together―he’d counted them―had been a dream. At three in the morning on the Boulevard Sebastopol, our hands in each other’s pants trying to hail a taxi, Fred said he was falling in love with me. I wasn’t falling in love. I was already in love. He was my destiny, Fred said. I’d been pretty close to thinking it was my destiny to be with someone else, I told him. That wasn’t my destiny, he said. I should get myself used to that idea, Fred said. He’d been alone, mostly alone since Abriel left, and wasn’t ready for me yet. But if I went back to America for three months, he’d be ready when I came back.
Over the months I was gone, I received notes like this:
I’m a little drunk
I’m not going to say anything now because you will think I say that because
I have a lot of things to tell you
you will see if you ask me…………..
you have to ask yourself questions concerning abriel, ask me, I will answer
and you will see that you REALLY are in my heart and in my LIFE
I love you and it’s not a joke
as Carmen would say, “et si je t’aime prends garde à toi” fred
I had no particular questions to ask. He wrote back: “Why don’t you write? Did you meet someone else?” I sort of had.
We agreed to meet in New York. This story doesn’t have a happy ending. Imagine it like this:
A guy gets off a plane with that dopey, expectant look people getting off planes have, waiting for a face to come up out of the crowd at them, too shy to look at every head in the terminal, the whole fluorescent-lit crowd, the features of each a pang of disappointment. Imagine the guy walks past the crowd, his gullible ears perked up, waiting for his name to be called, like a half-hopeless dog, steeled for the surprise. At the back of the terminal, he pretends to be just a guy in the crowd, watching the heads coming off the plane from behind. Imagine him walking toward the exit, that same goofy half-grin on his face making people want to smile back at him, though they can’t because he’s avoiding all eye contact like hell.
Imagine that half-grin gone by the time he stands outside, his jacket collar (someone else’s) tugged up to his ears (he thinks leather jackets look good on him), smoking cigarettes and scanning the inside of each passing bus. He’d never fly into Kennedy in a million years if it wasn’t that the guy he’s supposed to meet found a cheap flight from Frankfurt and was afraid he wouldn’t find the hotel. But with construction at the airport, finding an address in Manhattan is easier than finding the right terminal at Kennedy, it turns out, because the hotel’s night staff tells him his friend the European checked in two hours ago and is waiting for him at the bar next door. There he is, not looking him in the eye.
He’s since sworn never to travel with the French again. For all their railing against American-style homogeneity, they want everything the same wherever they go. Any fluctuation―in coffee, food, prices, smoking regulations―becomes an item to deconstruct.
They drink beer sitting up in bed, sleep coming fast, that nice effortless kind you learn to appreciate, curtains left open to a view of barren Midtown wasteland. Imagine that last night in a cab or a bar, when Fred said he wasn’t in love anymore. “But touch me,” Fred said in the cab, “Like that,” the cab speeding up the avenue, past a statue he’ll see years later, then again more years later, and again after that, first with pangs, then with simple familiarity.
Imagine, when things start going wrong, he calls someone else who lives in New York. Imagine, one night when things start to go wrong, he meets this someone else in front of a theater, goes back to his apartment, explaining nothing of what is going on in a hotel room twenty blocks south and saying nothing to Fred when he comes back to it. Imagine the next morning he gets in a taxi and leaves Fred eating breakfast on a Broadway terrace.
Imagine a long line of gauzy curtains against a bay window the size of a ship’s prow, someone else asks, “Why did it end between us?” And imagine he can’t really think of a reason.
J. M. Parker’s fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review, Segue, Foglifter, Gertrude, and SAND, among other journals, and been reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2015. His novel Seattle or, In the Meantime was recently published by Beautiful Dreamer Press. He lives in Salzburg, Austria, where he teaches creative writing and American studies.
If I had clocked Kenny Vicarini we would have kissed. Not at that point, of course—I would have waited until the swelling went down. In fact, I would have swung for the gut, stole his air so he had to collapse into me.
He was an asshole looking for someone to stand up to him, from a long line of assholes looking for someone to stand up to them. But he was first in my line. His daddy had a boat and land. Kenny had cocaine and cheekbones so sharp you could have done lines off them.
Cooper McKenzie, he said, with the intimacy of any good curse, low enough that the jeering onlookers couldn’t have heard him.
Cooper. The name of an oil scion, perhaps, although the closest my family got to that was mom’s job at the Super America. Cooper—their best effort to give me an opulent future. Here’s a name worthy of a legacy. Go build one.
Maybe I would have swung if I wasn’t the eldest child. Maybe if I wasn’t co-captain of the wrestling team. Maybe if I hadn’t signed that DARE anti-drug pledge, which we all made fun of, but I did sign it with a spastic little signature, and it made me nervous to go against my own name, about the only damn thing I had in the world. My name wasn’t worth anything yet, but it could be.
I tucked my fists in my pockets and walked away. Kenny called out insults to my back because he had to. You can’t let someone walk away for free. The ring of people wanted violence, but you can’t get blood from a stone, and you can’t squeeze guilt out of a boy who has rid himself of want.
No one remembers a stoic demeanor or cool temperament. No one falls in love with even-keeled. No one has sex in the back of a Toyota Corolla Hatchback if their hands are burrowed, their jaw clenched shut, their thoughts adrift as they measure the value of a name.
I put my name on everything now. Endorsements, nameplates, email signatures, condolence cards, business lunch checks, another condolence card, this time for an employee I’ve never heard of, mortgage down payments, dating apps—with a first name and last initial like a partial staking. An object, a tool, more stamp than identity.
I don’t remember what the fight was about. Fundamentally, it was the invitation to fight, whether you accepted or declined, who you trusted to swap skin with. Kenny’s chin was cocked, mine drooping towards my chest. The fight would have been perfunctory.
If I could do it again, I would have clamped his chin between thumb and forefinger, hard enough to stop him from talking. I would have pressed my lips to his and then released before he could enjoy it. I would have given him a reason to remember my name, just as I’ve remembered his.
Alex Juffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. Recently, they have worked at Southern New Hampshire University, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota, teaching literature, creative writing, and public speaking. Their work has been previously published in Epoch, The Red Line, Maudlin House, and more.
29 REASONS WHY THERE WILL BE NO REPLY
by Chelsey Clammer
You didn’t visit me for fifteen months.
I know, pandemic and whatnot, and we live three states apart, but why isn’t your lover in your “circle”?
When we did finally see each other, it was only because I came to see you, but even then
You didn’t spend the night with me because
You didn’t want to tell your wife I was in town, meaning that
You spent the day fucking me, then lied to her by coming home at night and saying work was fine that day, which also means you, yet again,
Put your wife’s emotional needs (to continue denying the ongoing affair you finally told her about) before not just my relationship needs, but also your own.
Because you are a fucking spineless coward, or it’s possible that
You’re lying to me about wanting to leave your wife to be with me, which isn’t a terribly baseless accusation because
I have witnessed you lying to your wife for over two and a half years, so
How can I trust you?
Because it’s like my mom said: “He’s either a liar or a fool,”
And I don’t know which it is.
But whether liar or fool, you have your self-proclaimed dream girl right here and you won’t jump through some hard, emotional hoops with your wife to be with said dream girl.
After two and a half years of your unfulfilled “I’m leaving my wife” promises, you have finally lost your dream girl.
Because I have lost respect for you.
Also, because you never replied to my last text (re: “I can’t keep holding on to something that’s never going to happen,”) which means I guess we’re no longer together, which also means
You gave up.
And yet, you’re ‘liking’ my Instagram posts a few days of silence later as if, what? We’re friends?
Excellent point my real friend made when I told her that you ‘liked’ my Instagram-posted selfie: “He is a TURD. A floater turd that will not be flushed away.”
The most excellent of all excellent points my real friend made when I told her you ‘un-liked’ my Instagram-posted selfie about an hour after you had ‘liked’ it: “If that’s not a lack of commitment, then IDK what is.”
I deserve to be liked without any hemming and hawing about it.
I also deserve to be treated like I matter.
Re #25: I’m remembering the last time I saw you. In the Aubrey hotel, room 1602, when you arrived the morning I was leaving, and I had been crying the night before, alone, because I had a realization, and when I told you my realization (i.e., “No matter what I need or want or what I do, it doesn’t matter any in this relationship.”), you got real quiet, then finally looked at me and said, “I don’t know how to answer that.”
Because it was the truth—I don’t matter, no, didn’t matter in our affair-ship.
Thus, if you ever do text me back, silence will be my reply.
At least that’s the plan.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017), and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing and is a freelance editor.Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. www.chelseyclammer.com