I want to put my head down …………………….and sleep like I used to know …………………….………..how to sleep. …………………….I want my brain to be less
like a rained out game …………………….of hopscotch, the lines all running.
I never want to forget how the axolotl grows back its limbs. …………………….…………………….…………………….And the starfish. And the lizard. …………………….…………………….…………………….Snakes and their skin. …………………….………..I want to write a poem about …………………….a time I was brave and have you believe me.
I want my mother to call me without my mother knowing …………………….…………………….…………..I want …………………….…………………….…………..her to call me. …………………….……………………I want to say I’m sorry and not sound condescending. …………………….…………………….…………..Same for I love you. …………………….…………………….……………………………………….Same for please stay.
I never want to do what the pot does ……..……..……..to the lobster. The scream ……..……..……..……..……..……..…….. ……..……..of all that red.
…………………….……………………I want you to read me without spoiling the ending. …………………….……………………………………..……..I want an ending. One where we all live …………………….…………………. ……………………and nobody is left to cradle the gasp …………………….…….. ………….. ……………..of our bodies.
I want my body to be more like a galaxy and less …………………….…………………. ……………..like a meat-packing plant. I mean, ……………………………. …………………………………………..…………. ……………..disorderly. I mean free.
Brenda Taulbee is a queer poet living and writing in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Los Angeles Review, and The San Diego Poetry Annual, among others. These days, she spends more time talking to cats than people, and that feels ok.
“Right there,” I say, pointing to the spider on the wall before leaving the kitchen. I’d rather not kill things, so I make my husband do it.
My only complaint is that he doesn’t kill faster. He has this habit of pausing an inch over the target, then moving in slowly with a gentle scoop and a delicate squeeze. I never understood why he prolongs the trauma. He says I shouldn’t criticize unless I want to do it myself.
But today I leave the room for the moment of death. I sit on the sofa and scroll through my newsfeed while I wait for the deed to be done. It’s been reminding me too much of my own mortality. How easy it is to kill and be killed.
Plus, there’s that mouse still lounging in the attic, nestling undisturbed in the insulation. Jake doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s thinking I’m some sort of hypocrite.
It was almost a week ago that I sent him to the attic with one of those humane box traps with the skylight on top and the chunk of peanut butter inside. In less than a day, I found the mouse-bearing box on the kitchen counter, which really annoyed me because why did he think I wanted to see the damn thing?
I peered through the glass, and the mouse peered back, its dark beady eyes reflecting kitchen light. Its tail was repulsive but its ears were adorable, and that had me feeling a bit disjointed. Yanked in different directions.
To quell the guilt, I fetched a larger box, black Amazon tape still adorning the sides. I filled it with bits of mozzarella cheese, two generously sized lettuce leaves, and a handful of peanuts.
“A mouse hotel,” Jake joked. Why did men never see the gravity of the situation?
I asked him to release the mouse into the bigger box and then drop it off in the park down the street.
“You know he’ll probably get eaten by an owl, right?”
I ignored his comment and grabbed the dishtowel from the kitchen sink. Placed it the box for added warmth.
That night was tough, and tougher still at 11:30 pm. That was the time I was used to hearing it—the faint scratching and rustling in the attic above my bed. The stirring and stretching of my mini Mickey Mouse as he commenced his routine of nocturnal activities. I missed the alignment of our opposite schedules. Against my will, the picture formed in my mind—the little mouse shivering in the November cold, sharp owl eyes tracking from above. I cursed Jake for putting the image in my head.
But the very next night, I heard it again—the same exact rustling in the same exact spot. Fumbling for my phone, I consulted Google and quickly discovered that mice are geniuses. They can find their way back over a mile after being relocated.
I smiled at the ceiling as my husband snored.
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer from Canada with recent work appearing or forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Maine Review, Ellipsis Zine, Idle Ink, Cabinet of Heed, Lost Balloon, and others.
quotations, marked: “I know all about your standards…” Because July: ………….Music Man.
last month was June’s ………….Carousel
(If I… )
Next month: ………….State Fair
(Iowa, again, my home
state). “…Irish imagination…” I know
he is drinking red “…Iowa stubbornness…”
wine “…library full of books…” for his heart.
September, December ………….Fantasticks.
May, always ………….Camelot
Last line, un-
punctuated: Don’t you ever think about being …?
almost like being: it’s always
Brigadoon Groundhog Day.
A graduate of Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, Julie Benesh is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Grant, and her writing can be found in Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Tin House Magazine (print), Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Gulf Stream, Hobart, New World Writing, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and many other places. Read more at juliebenesh.com.
I do one bump right before I pee and then another after I’ve washed my hands. I suck the lingering white crumbs off the tip of my apartment key like a rapacious baby. I was anticipating this for the entire bus ride across town. I look at myself in the mirror, and the horror and humor hit me at once: Ma’am, this is a Noah’s Bagels.
It is eleven in the morning, and my expensive therapist awaits down the street. He knows about my brain, but the rest is out of his clinical reach. I leave Noah’s Bagels without buying anything. I light up a cigarette and decide that today is the day I tell my therapist about me and the mirrors I inhabit. The cocaine might be relevant, too.
“Every one of us has had a mirror moment. We take our drugs, then look in the mirror and think, ‘what the hell am I doing?’, or worse, ‘who the fuck is in my bathroom?’” The leader of the Hollywood Narcotics Anonymous chapter keeps our large, diverse group rapt with his booming voice and charred gaze. My various lassos of identity—white, bisexual, ridiculous, lazy Pretty Woman, honor student, Pisces—have never roped me as securely as that of addict.
The N.A. leader has a lot to say about accountability. He doesn’t have any time for excuses or sob stories or young lady doe eyes—sweeping my cheeks with damp lashes won’t cash in any sympathy here. I came to N.A. voluntarily, so I don’t know why I’m already scheming about how to flee—and who to take down with me.
I’m too tired to keep hurting myself, so I’ve found a man to do this important work for me. He reprimands me about my coke problem but drinks eight to ten beers each night. This seems reasonable because he is in his mighty thirties and I’m stuck at lonely old twenty-four.
The night with the hatchet and his hands and my throat is the first night I think I am going to die under the weight of a blue-eyed man. Twin bruises remain the morning after, and I name them horror and humor.
My first L.A. boyfriend introduces me to the tattoo artist who will shape much of my early-twenties angst into black-inked manifestos. I get a small tattoo for my mother on my right shoulder blade: little boxes. Two words whose coupled meaning only she and I understand. She is exasperated when I show her.
My first L.A. boyfriend introduces me to cocaine. He is, in his own small and clumsy way, a bottom-feeder drug dealer. He is the bouncer at The Viper Room and a brilliant musician in his own right. He keeps the vast majority of his life just out of my touch but leaves his heart safely in my grasp for the duration of our relationship. Mistake.
August 17th, 2007
The percocet pills are gone, and I wonder if I’ll ever get that close to heaven again. When does wanting become dying? I wonder. Welcome to college, my reflection answers. I’m a sophomore.
August 10th, 2007
My college boyfriend shows me the pills twice before I try them. What a bore, I complain. Why can’t we just keep drinking straight vodka and pretending we like it?
Finally, I take one of his mother’s percocets. She had her hip surgery so many years ago that the stupid things probably won’t work anymore. After I swallow one—no, two (good measure and all)—I begin to sink and fly at once. Guilt does not come for me.
I see an ad for smokeless tobacco in an obscure fashion magazine. I do not bother to research its safety—if I’m not setting the stuff on fire, it must be less carcinogenic. I do know that it contains fiberglass so the inside of your nose is cut in a thousand tiny places with each use, but this is not suspicious because it’s only to let the nicotine enter your bloodstream faster.
The first time I try it, I almost fall over. This is my first high, and it is thoroughly unintended. My instincts tell me to throw my dwindling dignity to the wind and just snort the stuff in long lines with dollar bills.
I’m a freshman in college and smoking is allowed just about anywhere on campus because a). it’s 2005 and adults are still allowed to be adults and b). this is Baltimore.
I decide to honor my newfound maturity with a pack of Virginia Slims. I choose this particular brand of cigarette because my name is Virginia, and I am slim.
I sit at a table outside my dorm building in an unusual September chill and take my first drag. I see colors.
It’s almost winter, but I want to take a walk in the woods near my house. My parents are out being stupid; their Yuengling beer is in the fridge looking much the same. Suddenly, I decide that the time has come for me to try alcohol.
I’m unclear about the mechanics of bottle opening, so I end up with a furious cut and a frothing fount of beer from which I take one feeble sip. I force myself to swallow it because while I can handle the Lord’s wrath, I can’t possibly contend with His disgust—finish what you start. After one sip I pour the rest down the drain and rush off to the woods. Good thing I’ll never try that again.
I am fourteen years old and am thrilled to have a Troubled Friend. We hang out at our church’s youth group but don’t talk in school. She made a real splash at Episcopal camp over the summer when she showed up two days late with platinum blonde hair, dangle earrings that proclaimed BITCH, and—wait, now—birth control.
One Sunday, during youth group, she smuggles me out behind the church to teach me how to smoke. I am horrified when I agree to try a drag of her Marlboro Red—the same brand that will kill her mother in ten years. I cough and spit out the satin tar that coats my tongue. Good thing I’ll never try that again.
I wish this was the first time he saw me. I finally got contact lenses and I’m wearing the halter top Mom doesn’t know she bought me. Plus the lipstick I stole from my nanny. She left us over the summer because I’m too old for a nanny now, so I had to take her lipstick. She’s gone and so am I.
He’s watching me from his window, stupefied by my feminized transformation. He has always been The Boy Next Door, but I—? Good thing I’ll never be her again.
I see my reflection in the window of his dad’s car. For once, someone is happening. I can pull a mirror out of anybody this way.
His eyes are on me, and he does not know why. I have achieved something, but I want more. I keep on walking.
Virginia Petrucci is the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Salt and the Song and Recipes and How To’s. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Short Stories, and the Best Small Fictions anthologies. Her work has appeared in Terrain, Mom Egg Review, and Best New Writing, among others. She lives in California with her family.
I have no recollection of being bathed before the age of five. Doubtless, long forgotten nannies took charge of that. But growing up in an old farmhouse with a French mother and an unreliable well water supply, I knew nothing of showers until I went away to school at age eleven. In the meantime, my younger sister and I bathed together in the upstairs tub on our own, squealing, fighting, and splashing. It was a Saturday ritual, before we dressed for Sunday mass. Our mother washed our hair separately in the kitchen sink, as we stood leaning over, submitting our heads to her massaging fingers. If we sullied ourselves between baths or just smelled bad, my mother would discreetly advise us, “Vas te laver le poum!” I have not managed to find poum in any French dictionary, although in Creole French it may refer to testicles. Did my mother, unlearned in the vocabulary of the underworld, pick up Creole slang while in Baton Rouge, her first stop in America at an age of discovering both her own body and that of children? To us children the word distinctly meant “behind.” Go wash your privates.
At my second boarding school, a British institution in Switzerland, each girl was allotted a specific day and time to bathe in the large enamel-covered detached iron tub in our bathroom shared by eight boarders. I loved watching the vessel fill with clean, clear hot water, steam hovering over the surface. Slowly, I lowered myself in, allowing the warmth to inch its way to my insides, until I was submerged to my chin. After scrubbing my body with a soapy washcloth, an initial film on the water’s surface introduced itself, a combination of exfoliated skin and dirt. I dunked myself to rinse off, then gently pushed the scum away, knowing that as I resurfaced the oily film would once again adhere to my body.
The final component of the bath, washing the hair, presented the greatest challenge. By then the water surface was thick with dirt, soap scum, and other unknowns. The first wetting of the head was of no concern since the second would chase it all away. Even the second backward head dunking went without consideration. My hair was quite long then and required time to loosen the shampoo from the scalp and beyond. Now, as I sat up, I was surrounded by shampoo suds in addition to the scum. Again I pushed it away from behind me to create a clearing, then sank backward for a second and final rinse. I became quite efficient at gauging the time it took for the scum to close in, the time I had to submerge my head and pop it out without collecting the filth. Then the final emergence from the bathwater itself, now thickly layered. I pushed away the dirty bubbles, creating a clearing around myself, and quickly rose to climb out of the tub. Maybe it’s a blessing it only happened once a week.
With great delight I discovered showers at my next boarding school, in the US. My sense of hygiene was shocked, however, to simultaneously learn that the other girls showered daily while I considered two showers per week sufficient. That may have had something to do with the teasing I received as a freshman, the slap-in-the-face introduction to American culture. Showers became a default manner of cleansing, and I was relieved when my parents added these to our farmhouse.
When I moved to my grandmother’s apartment in Paris, however, I was once again faced with a detached tub on feet, no match for the five-gallon water heater which barely dispersed two inches above the base. This would never do. I took to filling the largest pots I could find in the kitchen and heating them to boiling on the stovetop, then lugging them through the dark corridor to the bathroom. These, combined with cold water, would yield a half tub, enough to allow a repeat performance from my days in boarding school. As for washing my hair, I revived the tradition from my youth, opting to lean over the kitchen sink and use the faucet.
These hygiene practices prepared me for those in wait as I engaged in years of living in rural villages of northern Pakistan for fieldwork, where there was no running water, no tubs or shower stalls. I was lucky to find a moment of privacy in the toilet shack and to have someone heat some water in a small pail, my bathing ration, prepared on Thursday nights and accompanied by a change into clean clothes in readiness for Friday, holy day of visits. As if on cue, my child’s nanny called out “Scrub behind your ears!” Of course, everyone did the same and smelled the same, so no questions were asked or noses turned. Apart from the odors of sweat, no one ever trailed any hint of missing hygiene. Muslims are sensitive to cleanliness, and toileting is always followed by rinsing one’s privates from a receptacle dangled along for that purpose—an announcement of intention. Some traditional mountain women once even treated me to their own hygiene practice; after I had washed my hair they poured generous amounts of mustard oil onto my scalp and massaged it thoroughly through the strands and, once satisfied, set about creating thirty braids of my hair, hence ensuring it would remain oiled and plastered in place until the next washing, possibly a month away.
“Alert the media!” cried out my American husband on days when I announced I would be showering. He accepted the infrequency of my bathing habits, even if he did mention it in a teasing putdown to company. But he admired that when out in nature, I was not ashamed to pull over and take care of business, using leaves to wipe myself. I taught my children and grandchildren to do the same. And when we were out of water at home, I showed them how to brush their teeth using a single small cup of water. To this day, I am satisfied with a washcloth bathe standing at the sink, wiping rather than pushing away the scum, and my aging joints much prefer to wash grandchildren’s hair at the kitchen sink than to bend over them in a bathtub.
Benedicte Grima’s anthropological research, The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women, was first published in 1992. She self-published a collection of fieldwork-related essays, Secrets From the Field (2004), which won her an Eric Hoffer finalist award in 2019. Based on work among immigrants in the US, she then self-published a historical fiction novel, Talk Till The Minutes Run Out: An Immigrant’s Tale from 7-Eleven (2019). Her second historical fiction novel, Heirlooms’ Tale was published in 2020. This piece is from a collection of memoiristic essays, Tableaux Memories, currently in progress, some of which have been featured in ROVA Magazine and Entropy LitMag.
Someone must have peed in the pool. From the vigor of the lifeguards’ arms waving us out, I figured that someone must have peed a lot. I tried to keep my head above water as I made my way to the end of the lane, thinking about all of the sweat, saliva, and mucus that’s already a part of the liquid-based exercise experience. At any given time, someone is spitting into the gutter, and at all times, lap swimmers exert themselves enough to be soaking wet on dry land. Swimming is funny that way; it can look clean, even though it’s probably the workout that most fully immerses you in other people’s excretions. I tried to look at it philosophically: Nietzsche says whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And The Joker says whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger. I wondered which way this might go for me as I pulled myself forward.
I noticed that my earnest but so-slow-am-I-actually-going-backward breaststroke wasn’t getting me out of the water fast enough, so I decided to walk instead. This was the instructional pool, after all. At 85 degrees and never more than 4.5 feet deep, it invited amateurs like me who relied on temperate, shallow water the way a novice cyclist relies on flat, empty roads. A few months after learning to swim, the adjacent competition pool, at 78 degrees and a depth up to 13.5 feet, still scared the shit out of me.
Finally, I hoisted myself up on deck. As I stood dripping and chilled, waiting for the chlorine blast to neutralize any insurgent bacteria, I overheard other swimmers say that a child had pooped. Well, then. Maybe something scared the shit out of that poor kid. I scanned the recreation area, now more alert to what the lifeguards were doing. But I didn’t see much going on. If there was an incursion, they probably extracted it while I journeyed single-mindedly to the wall. I thought about unwelcome fragments mingling with the less alarming substances that usually passed through my mouth and nostrils. I wondered, if the lifeguards were to find something, where they would put it. The toilet or the trashcan—either way, the process had downsides.
I had heard that the University of Maryland built this natatorium during a failed bid for Washington, D.C. and Baltimore jointly to host the 2012 Olympics. A failure, indeed, if the organizing committee could have witnessed the pool at this particular instant, so far from ambitions of glory on the international stage. The win for me, as a graduate student on the College Park campus, was inexpensive access to world-class swimming facilities I had only recently felt comfortable using. After all, it wasn’t until my early thirties when I had the time, money, and resolve to begin evening lessons off-campus at a YMCA, far enough from school to avoid recognition. I’d show up weekly at the Y, braced against terror and bedecked with blue arm floaties.
The thing is, I actually love water. I love the feeling of soft, teasing ripples lapping against my bare skin. I especially love the beach: the coastline, the ocean’s horizon. I love the intrigue of an expanse that connects continents, wields overwhelming natural power, and harbors untold, unseen mysteries akin to those of unexplored planets. I also fear being at water’s mercy. Even if it’s only a cold indoor pool too deep for my feet to touch the bottom, I fear the loss of control to which gravity has accustomed me. I understand the deep end as the potential to fall rather than to sink. I no longer fear water on my face, but if I still can’t tell the difference between sinking in water and falling in air, then I still have a lot to work out.
In shallow water, though, I could contrive a modified corkscrew, competently spinning from breaststroke to right sidestroke, then to backstroke, then to left sidestroke, then to breaststroke again. Maryland’s Eppley Recreation Center pools had speakers above and below water, tuned to Top 40 during open swim, so as I dipped in and out and around, I never missed a bridge or chorus from late-aught Justin, Britney, or Rihanna. It was a joy. No fear; only delight.
My dad, a strong swimmer, says you never should fear the water, but you must respect it. He also says he learned to swim in a rain-filled bomb crater during his 1940s German childhood, which is an amazing story about a different kind of fear and not at all like mine. At my lessons, I noticed everyone around me the way one does when apprehension heightens the senses. The swim-capped women in aerobic unison pumping their water-weighted arms. The children bapping each other on the head with foam noodles exactly the way they are not supposed to. The man removing his prosthetic leg before starting his laps. The warm practice pool welcomed all, had room for all.
And then there was me: a five-foot, six-inch adult woman, responding hesitantly but affirmatively as the instructor patiently coaxed and encouraged me at every step from basic safety to deep-end plunges. I am even now astonished at the first time I launched, because I crossed a threshold that night and I don’t know why then and not the week before or after, becoming weightless as my feet finally left the floor and I propelled myself forward without pushing off anything, without holding onto anything.
So, am I stronger or stranger for surviving what I feared could kill me? Nietzsche and The Joker both made fair points; the world gets scary and messy and weird and we all have to find a way to live in it. Or a way to swim in it, if we think of the world as a scary, messy, and weird community pool where sometimes people pee and poop, sending the rest of us into a scramble. But I think Machiavelli comes closest to how I view swimming when he asks whether it is better for the powerful to be feared or loved. I both love and fear the water, and perhaps this will always be true. But by will and a certain nonchalance about foreign bodily discharge, I’ve managed to wrest a little more space for love.
Christine Muller is a writer, researcher, and educator based in the Philadelphia area. She is especially interested in stories that explore the blurred boundaries between history and hearsay. Read her flash fiction “Antony and Cleopatra” in Cleaver’s Issue 35.
The right hand middle finger middle joint swollen. I can almost see it. And hurt. Three times I try to open a bottle and hurt. Struggle. Will I need to ask for help? And who? There is the caretaker and I do so little. Last night the bulk the sheer bulk of him in bed. I move and it is a truck. A seismic dinosaur. The bedclothes shifting. Bedclothes. How many he saved. And all the tolls. He took tools he saved from his raggedly van. Sad. How sad. We did sleep in it and once I shivered shivered shivered big me. On skyline drive where there were deer and I saw them in the misty morning. And that boy hitchhiking with his dog. I don’t remember their names, the boy or the dog. Might have been Australian. He drew us both. Not what I think I look like. Yet my braids are gone now. So many shears. Years. It would not harm be me now to grow them back. How could it? This is this is a draft. Automatic s writing with a malfunctioning finger. Will it improve if I go faster? If I exercise it? Too cold to walk outside. Pain pain burning cold blueness. Poems and pines. Turning pines to omens. Poems to ounces. That’s good and if my fingers slside on the ssskeyboard well. This could all be interesting and now.
Pediatrician Kelley White has worked in inner-city Philadelphia and rural New Hampshire. Her poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Rattle, and JAMA. Her most recent collection is A Field Guide to Northern Tattoos (Main Street Rag Press). She received a 2008 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant and is currently Poet-in-Residence at Drexel University College of Medicine.
It was an exceptionally hot Saturday in April when my sister and I zombied our way through the tedious chore of packing Mom’s house. A twisted, cruel part of the grieving process, but we refused to give in. No tears were shed as Wendy carefully bubble-wrapped the brown-stained coffee mugs we gave her as children. And I didn’t break down as I folded and packed her clothes even though her smell was dizzying. Wendy and I hadn’t spoken in hours—each sweating in a separate part of the house to avoid nostalgia and the “remember when’s”—when I heard my name.
“Everything okay?” I was in the middle of tossing out towers of junk mail catalogs.
“Just come here.”
When I arrived in the doorway of the den, Wendy was holding a framed photograph. The one from Yosemite. Dad, Wendy, and I sitting around a campfire holding up bent metal hangers. Dad’s marshmallow a blazing ball of fire. His smile, open-mouthed. Always the clown. But before I could say anything, she turned the frame over and handed it to me. On the back, taped with small squares of masking tape, was another photo. A smaller one. Creased and faded. It was Mom. Mom and a guy. A guy that wasn’t Dad. They looked to be in their early twenties. Both his arms were around her as he held the camera out in front. She, nestled into his chest, beaming.
“OK,” I said. “But this was before us.”
“Not before Dad.” Wendy shook her head with resolve. “And there’s another one.” She pointed to an overturned frame that lay by her feet.
We held eye contact. Wheels turning. Questions rising.
“Do you think…” but I let my eyes finish the sentence as I scanned the room. The walls of the house were suffocated with framed pictures. Our lives, the four of us, documented in frozen five-by-seven moments.
Wendy and I began tearing them down one by one, ripping out nails and screws and chunks of drywall. We couldn’t claw at the walls fast enough, white paint embedding itself deep under our nails.
Each and every frame we pulled off the wall held a photo on the underside. Every one meticulously held with four square pieces of masking tape in each corner. Once we unchoked the walls of the den, we moved to the living room, then the bedrooms, the kitchen, the bathrooms, even the long hallway, especially the long hallway.
Pictures of Mom and this guy at baseball games, restaurants, peeking out from under hotel sheets, sitting on trunks of cars that overlooked a lake or a beach or an IHOP. In some photos they were glowing, youthful. In others they were graying, tight-lipped. In some pictures there was only my mother, smiling in places we had never been. In others, there was only this man, smiling at a woman we no longer knew. His clean-shaven face a stark contrast to Dad’s unruly beard. His blue eyes were kind but didn’t hold the warmth of our father’s brown eyes. Wendy criticized his clothes. I called him short. Reduced to pettiness, but this is all we had.
By the time the sun had set and the sweat on our backs had started to dry, we had all the photographs laid out, lined up, and ordered in our best guess at chronology. The trail of photos started at the front door and wound its way past the armoire where Wendy once chipped her tooth on the corner and down through the living room where we used to eagerly sit cross-legged on the floor on Christmas mornings, and then down the hallway, through the laundry room, and up to the edge of the back screen door, the one Dad would fix every time we burst through it. A trail of photos. Like a long winding vein. Underneath the surface, hidden. Keeping you alive.
Eric Scot Tryon is a writer from San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Willow Springs, Pithead Chapel, Los Angeles Review, Fractured Lit, Monkeybicycle, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Longleaf Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Eric is also the Founding Editor of Flash Frog. Find more information at www.ericscottryon.com or on Twitter @EricScotTryon.
In the hemostasis phase, blood vessels constrict to stop blood flow. Platelets fuse together to form a seal. Coagulation binds the wound on a molecular level. If a wound doesn’t clot, it bleeds out. After thirteen years as the director of a women’s shelter, I know: the ones who don’t clot are the no-chance girls. These are the girls with loose teeth and rib bones poking through their tank tops. These are the ones who don’t make it past their stepfathers. The ones who are always found a few minutes too late.
Krysta’s wounds were raw. At 15, her mother started pushing her to get pregnant. Babies mean child support checks. 24-year-old Krysta had two elementary school-aged children and a baby by her last landlord. When I did my nightly checks at the shelter, she stuck two spoons in a gallon of ice cream and advised me to invest in sexier pajamas. During the day, we sat at my desk planning imaginary weddings on TheKnot.com. I helped get her son into a special school for children with behavioral needs. We had conversations about why it’s not okay for her 6-year-old daughter to sit on Krysta’s boyfriends’ laps. Eventually, she ran off with a guy because the shelter wouldn’t let her stay out overnight. Last year, I saw her on the front steps of a housing project in a bra and cutoffs, a bottle of Wild Turkey between her knees.
Will these wounds bleed out?
Next, it has to hurt.
In the inflammatory phase, blood vessels secrete water, salt and protein. The wound swells. Bacteria and damaged cells are flushed out. White blood cells rush to the area. The wound turns red. Pain is initiated. These are the girls banging on the shelter door. Grit teeth, wet eyes. Enraged. How much pain can one body take? The black eyes? The broken lips? The miscarriages? Watch them walking their kids to K-4. Watch them bagging fast food at the drive-thru. They’re sleeping on their ex-boyfriend’s couch. They’re washing up in the bathroom at the 7-Eleven. Much easier, you know, to lie back and close their eyes. A needle, a bottle, no condom. A bathtub and somebody’s old Lady Bic.
Pain made Nina walking chaos. She screamed her texts to her ex-husband out loud. She threw dishes away instead of washing them. She got fired for pushing a coworker. Nina sat for hours in the shelter office reeking of menthol, waving her cracked knuckles, telling stories of her childhood. When she was ten, her dad stuck a joint in her hand and told her to shut up and watch cartoons. When she was seventeen, her brother choked her against the living room wall until she blacked out. When she was twenty-two, her husband told her he had gotten another woman pregnant. To this, Nina’s pastor said she should love God first, her husband second, and her kids third. Nina is nowhere on this list of people to love.
“Is he right?” she asked me outside her room one night.
“No,” I said.
She had tears in her eyes. I hugged her and swallowed mine.
When will the pain stop?
After that, the wound has to be rebuilt.
In the proliferative phase, new tissue grows. A new network of blood vessels forms. Myofibroblasts cause the wound to contract, oxygenating the cells. Epithelial cells reface the surface. It takes time, but some women get here. They keep a job, save some paychecks. Their kids make coloring pages for the fridge. These women have stopped listening for footsteps outside the door in the early hours of the morning. No one calls them a stupid dirty bitch for burning dinner. If you drive by the shelter, you can see them pushing their kids on the swing set in the backyard. From my office window, I sometimes see them lying in the grass under the sun, eyes closed.
Salma had to start over. Wrapped in a hijab, eyes lowered, she said: “I must make a confession. I am not legal.” She told us about her life in Morocco. She showed us how her mother lined her eyes with kohl. She told us how her grandmother taught her to cook. Salma made couscous for everyone in the shelter and when we said shoukran, tears streamed down her cheeks. She had two daughters who loved watching old He-Man cartoons. Jumping up and down in footie pajamas, they wanted me to stay in their room and watch with them. Salma had escaped with them from a forced marriage, risking their lives, leaving everything behind. She had friends and a fiancé in the local Muslim community, but her wounds were still healing.
One day, she stopped me in the hall outside the office. “I must make a request of you,” she said.
“When my fiancé comes, will you please hide your hair?”
“We are all sisters here.” She took my hands in hers. “We must protect each other.”
Each week, her fiancé brought groceries up to the porch. He drove her daughters to school. He took them all to the movies. When they got married, Salma planted marigolds in the window boxes of her new apartment. She bought a tea set that reminded her of home. When they came back to visit the shelter, her older daughter waved her mathletes trophy at me, shrieking.
Does healing beget healing?
Finally, the wound closes.
In the remodeling stage, the injured area is fully repaired. Damaged cells and scar tissue are removed through the process of apoptosis. Collagen fibers absorb water forming cross-linked bonds. This strengthens the new skin, makes it flexible. These women strain like baby birds from the nest. They look beyond the backyard of the shelter. They have savings accounts, job certifications. They ask, “Does the shelter have an iron?” so they can iron their pants before they go to work. Pull up a lawn chair and you’ll see them with the other moms at school soccer games. When they move out, these women pack their boxes with care. For them, there are no more trash bags, no more middle-of-the-night escapes. They’re going to a home of their own.
When I met Jasmine, she was like a rose about to bloom. She came to the shelter with her one-year-old daughter, shy and barely bilingual. Her ex-boyfriend had threatened her with a knife when she was eight months pregnant. When he was admitted to a psychiatric ward, she was left homeless. After her daughter’s birth, Jasmine often thought of suicide.
“Is she better off without me?” Jasmine asked.
“No one is better off without you,” I said.
I included myself.
Bad in school, unable to articulate her thoughts, everyone called her “slow.” But Jasmine was determined to earn her high school diploma. She had plans, ideas. She wanted to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. She wanted to design jewelry. She wanted to start her own childcare business. I bit my tongue, not wanting to get her hopes up. Together, we pored over the pages of her GED practice book until they were wrinkled with tears. I found a counselor for her; I helped her file for child support. We filled out job applications until 2 a.m. Jasmine’s sister in Puerto Rico told her she was too stupid to work anywhere but a warehouse. But Jasmine passed the GED test. She became an assistant at a daycare, moved into an apartment of her own. Her daughter says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
Once we’re healed, can we finally be new?
Bree Smith is a women’s homeless shelter director and emerging writer. She holds a master’s degree in Psychology with a specialization in Childhood and Adolescence. She is currently working on dual master’s certificates in Neuroscience and Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. “Shelter” is her first creative nonfiction publication.
We’re going to jail for Christmas. Sing Sing. Ossining, New York. My brother Bobby and I ride in the back seat, the both of us held captive by images of branch, stone, sky going in the other direction. Our mother and father—the both of them, together—ride up front, not talking. It’s supposed to snow.
“Kate, crack your window a little to get the smoke out,” my father says.
She does. It is immediately freezing. Bobby, whose seat is behind the front passenger, my mother, looks at me as if it is my fault. I got sick once in a car a million years ago and nobody ever forgets it. He wouldn’t dare complain to them—not today. Not after getting thrown out of Bishops High School for the latest infraction. Smoking cigarettes. That’s what they told me. I know it was smoking, but it wasn’t cigarettes. I let them think I don’t know it was pot. They need me to be innocent.
“How is the wind back there?” my mother asks, even as she is rolling up the window. “Claire, don’t read. You’ll get sick.”
“Don’t get sick in this car,” my father says to nobody, everybody.
“She wasn’t reading, Jack, I was just reminding her in case she was thinking about it.” My mother looks back at me as if she is examining me for signs of future criminal behavior. I open my lips, mouth What? This gets a smirk out of Bobby.
The sky looks puffy with snow just behind it. Shapes seem to be pressing down, making land feel closer to sky than usual. Up ahead, a white blob meets the horizon, and I imagine it is already snowing up there. It is especially quiet outside; a combination of the mummy sound of almost-snow and the geography of upstate New York.
Since we left the city, there are only a few cars on each side of the road. It’s a monotonous view. Row after row of trees jut out from woods held back by huge boulders and stones, surrounding us, on either side. Every once in a while, ice clings to the branches, making them look sculptured and eerie. We’re the only people on this four-lane highway; it looks like someone hacked it out last night, pouring white broken lines over black, flattened silly putty.
We are doing so many unthinkable things in this car, on this Christmas Eve, for this family, that it’s better if we are all just rolling along, stunned silent. First of all, we’re going to jail for Christmas. No, first of all, my brother John is in jail. Christmas is just the after-effect.
My father is driving us to the prison in one of his cab driver friend’s cars. He has been upbeat, even almost in charge since we left. This is what he does—drive—and he seems to really know what he’s doing about getting on highways. I hear him, but I can hardly see him over the high back of the front seats. From the rearview mirror, I can see the top of his cap. And the smoke of his cigarette drifts back here in skinny, horizontal lines. Not like my mother’s smoke, which blasts through the car like we’re in Vietnam and we have to run for cover.
They will be—my mother and father—in prison with John tomorrow—Christmas—while Bobby and I wait back at the motel. I imagine John in his cell wearing grey clothes, looking like himself except he can’t open the locked gate. When he first went away, I used to have cartoon bubbles in my head of him wearing black and white striped pajamas, and a ball and chain around his ankle. That was a year and a half ago, and this is not a freaking cartoon. This is John.
We can’t ask direct questions about anything because we’ll get them nervous, then they’ll just yell at us. So Bobby and I have pretty much figured out the way it’s going to work. We also know that when the time comes, we’ll just be given directions and that’s that. We figure we’ll probably stop by the prison on the way to the motel for visiting hours. Me and Bobby’ll wait in the car. Hopefully, there will be a window we can wave up to so John can see us. We only got as far as that. We figure the way it’ll work is they’ll drive to the parking lot, then tell us to be good, and they’ll be back in, probably we think, an hour or so. Bobby and I have talked about it, so we’re used to the idea.
“Can you put the music on?” Bobby asks. I whisk my head over to him, are you crazy?
My father doesn’t make a big deal of it; he just says, “No.” But my mother’s shoulders wing back a little. She says nothing.
“Oh, man. Why not? Come on,” Bobby whines.
My mother starts: “Are you driving this car? Are you trying to find the exit when it’s about to snow all over the place and the road is unfamiliar? Do you think we should stop this car and break out our dancing shoes because you feel like a little music in the backseat there? Do you…”
“All right, Kate, I said no. That’s all,” my father says. He sounds like he’s trying to be gentle, but he can’t because his voice has a rumpy coughy rolling in it. Like he has never been able to clear his throat.
Bobby’s hands are shoved inside his new pea coat, his head against the bumper next to his window. His eyes are slits. I peek at him now that my mother has been startled into one of her nervous machine-gun ravings. Bobby always messes up timing with her. He doesn’t remember to gauge the level of whether it’s going to be immediate or take some time for her to become hysterical. I’m so much better at timing her than he is. But she is much, much more loving to him than all of us. It used to work. Now he gets angry all the time, about nothing.
Here it is….here they come. We are surrounded by little tiny flakes in hundreds and thousands of swirls. “Bobby!” I say, shaking his arm. “It’s snowing.”
“Cut it out!” Bobby swings and punches me, hard, in my shoulder. I scream and lunge for him across the inches that divide us. I am punching his head and neck, he grabs my right arm and twists it right up my back. It goes beyond regular hurt. He keeps twisting, twisting. I am begging. God. God. Stop.
My mother is halfway into the backseat along with us, her arms tearing at Bobby. He lets go. I curl up into my side holding my shoulder and arm. My mother is chanting, “What is wrong with you? How can you hurt your sister like that? What is wrong with you?”
Bobby’s reason is that I woke him up. I startled him. I think I can do whatever I want. I am a spoiled brat. He hates me.
My father opens the window, spits, closes it. “I won’t have this goddamn behavior in this car, do you hear me?” He shouts. In the mirror, I can see how red his face is, and we are all stunned at how mad he is. “You keep your hands to yourself, boy, and you stop with all the chatter, miss. Goddamn kids.”
I have made things worse than they are by forgetting to think before I act. I forgot that Bobby can’t take sudden movements; I forgot that I can’t win a fistfight with him.
“I’m sorry,” I say, forcing myself, my head against the window.
Bobby is crazy and I am the only one in the car who knows it. If I can bend my behavior around him, I am safe. The long quiet softens the pulsing inside the car. We drive forever.
After a while, my father says, “I have to stop for gas. We’re almost there, but I don’t want to get caught on empty. Tell me when the next exit is, and we’ll stop there.”
“Yes. All right. Maybe we can stop at a restroom, too. Claire, do you have to go to the bathroom?” my mother says. Then as an afterthought, “Robert?”
“Okay,” Bobby murmurs to the bathroom idea. I don’t have to look at him to know he looks exhausted, sick. He always does after he goes crazy.
“We’re stopping for gas and for a quick bathroom visit, period,” my father says. “No lollygagging around.”
I twist my head to Bobby, who twists his head to me. I do my lollygagging face—stick a pretend lollipop down my throat, choke, gag, panic—until I see Bobby’s face cave into a mime man’s laugh. We make no sound but snort one at a time through our noses. I catch my father’s eyes in the rearview mirror; he winks at me.
It looks darker out than before, as we drive through a turn that’s cut in the middle of two lines of giant trees. They’re so tall and this road is so narrow, the tops of the trees seem to be bent toward each other, like ladies talking over a clothesline.
My father is hunched up right next to the wheel with both hands on it, looking ahead at what’s coming. My mother looks like she’s ready to shovel out the whole country if she has to; she is sitting upright, one hand on the door and one hand firmly placed on the console in front of her. If there’s a gas station anywhere, she’ll dig it out.
The main road is empty, and we make a right turn onto it. We are slowly, slowly moving through the sheets of snow down this deserted road, surrounded by trees and quiet.
“Up ahead,” my mother points. “There’s a town, and I see orange lights. Exxon is orange, isn’t it?”
We all strain forward to see if we can see it. “It’s on the right, after that church steeple, see it? It looks like that’s a post office or a government office across from it, it’s right up ahead,” my mother tells us.
We can see the town ahead on the downward slope of the road, how it just appears out of nowhere. A bunch of dirty-white, two-story buildings in the clean snow. A frayed American flag pointing straight out, flying with its head down. Old cars half on the road, half up on a rise. Crooked Christmas lights nailed over a broken screen door. Not even one person on the street.
My father rolls up to the orange sign with no words on it, and we enter the gas station as if we were a boat, rocking back and forth and finally settling into place in front of the only pump. It feels like the dead of night.
The fattest person I’ve ever seen comes out of the doorway to the office, where the windows are so dirty it’s not possible to see inside. He moves toward the car in thundering steps. He wears no coat; only a plaid shirt over a big undershirt, inside the widest pair of jeans overalls ever made. His hair is thin, light, wispy. His face is pink, stretched, wet-looking. He could be, but he’s definitely not, a fatter Santa Claus. He’s not smiling.
“What do you need,” he demands.
“Fill ‘er up, pal,” says my completely-at-home father. “Do you have a john we can use?”
I am not going in that john, no way. I am not getting out of the car.
“Inside,” he indicates with his head. His eyes are so wide apart, they could be on either side of his temples, like a great sea animal. They have no color.
“All right, let’s get this show on the road,” my father says.
“Come on kids, out of the car, let’s use the toilet,” my mother says as she is opening her door and stepping out. Bobby is stepping out, too. My father is already out. Snow is slanting down at them.
“It’s okay, I don’t have to go,” I say. I don’t either, or at least not much. I can hold it, I don’t care how much farther it is to the prison.
My mother bends into the car, “Come on, now. Let’s-go-inside-together and then come-back-out-together.” I know what she means, but I can’t move.
“No, go ahead, I’ll just stay here.” Bobby sticks his head in the front seat side. “What are you doing? Come on.”
“I’m staying here! Just go.”
My mother shuts the door as she and Bobby straighten up. Her head reaches only to his shoulders. She starts inside. Bobby follows, then turns around. He goes back to the side of the car and gets in next to me.
“What are you doing?” I demand.
“Staying here,” Bobby says, bunching his arms up under his shoulders and pushing himself against the seat, hunkering down.
I peek out at the gas station guy. He’s capping off the hose, ready to replace the nozzle. His eyes are blank, his face is closed. I turn to Bobby, evil on my face. There’s a macaroni commercial that Bobby and I always scream laughing at. This poor fat kid is playing on the street and his mother starts yelling for him out the window. He doesn’t answer her, but then she tells him it’s spaghetti day. The fat kid drops what he’s doing with a big moronic smile on his face and runs home. I am making that face now as Bobby turns to look at me.
“Hey, Anthony, it’s Prince spaghetti day! Come on, I got a barrel of macaroni for you! Open up those overalls, Tony, because you’re gonna need more room. Anthony, wait, here’s a fork…Anthony, take your head out of that pot of macaroni…”
We are both giggling as the doors open on either side, and my mother and father look at us accusingly before they settle back in.
There’s no big street sign telling us that we are nearing the prison. We just reach a corner of the town, turn left, head toward it. Here, the road slopes downward to the Hudson River, a liquid neon sign in the snow, glinting at the end of the white road. We ride down this sloping, quiet, empty street until the fortress of Sing Sing Prison rises up to stop us. It braces against land on the edge of the river. It’s a hulking structure, all turrets and stone, with two tacked-on wings spreading from the center. It looks like an over-fed eagle turned to stone as it was about to crash into the river.
Inside the iron-gated entry, we are directed to the parking lot. Another guard directs us to a parking space and to a tiny door in the body of the building. A paper sign, taped to the door, says, Visitors entrance. My father puts the car in park, then turns to my mother for further instructions.
“Bobby, Claire, let’s go,” she says.
“We’re going inside?” I’m the first to get the words out.
“Did you think we were going to leave you outside in the car?” my mother says.
We get out, walk together toward the door. I feel like I am walking inside a bubble of gum. I am blinking to clear my eyes, to feel awake. My words come out slower than usual, whispery. “I thought you said we couldn’t visit.”
“No, you can’t, but there is a waiting room for children. They told us it’s a nice room where you can wait for us,” my mother looks at both of us as if she just told us someone died.
I’m blinking and slow. “Is there a bathroom there?”
“I’m sure there is. And you’ll both be together in the room. There’s nothing to be frightened of,” she says.
“Ma, we’ll be fine. We are fine,” Bobby says. To me, he says, “I have to go to the bathroom, too. I’ll find out where it is and take you there. Don’t worry.”
I want to tell them that I’m not worried. Words form in my head but they get stuck in my throat.
My father is blowing his nose, turning his head away from us. My mother seems smaller than her usual five feet, two inches. She stands there in her cloth, three-button winter coat, holding the handle of her pocketbook in the crook of her left arm, her forearm stiffly pointed up as though she just donated blood. Her old white dress gloves, buttoned at both wrists, cover her clenched hands. She sewed a button on the left glove last night. She is wearing her old navy blue suit underneath that coat; it’s always the same skirt but she changes the blouse and puts a sweater with it sometimes to make it look like a whole new outfit. She’s clever like that. My mother stands like she’s always telling us to: keeping her spine line-straight and squaring her shoulders. On her head, she wears a small hat, really just a fabric-covered thick headband with a gathering of tiny glass beads on one side. She has short hair but a lot of it, dark black, dipped in white by the scalp. She doesn’t wear any makeup, ever, on her lined, dry face. I am looking deep into her strong brown eyes, which look back from her clumpy lashes that huddle together at the corners. Her eyes are bright, clear, sober.
My father shuffles behind her as we walk. Although he was a soldier, my mother is the General in this army.
Bobby and I are deposited in a room full of brown, white, black children. When the guard calls for the visitors, my mother is the first to line up, head up, for the walk to the prisoner visiting area. Everything about her says, It’s Christmas. I’m here to see my son.
Maggie Hill is a writer in Rockaway Beach, New York. She has an MFA in Fiction and was a fellow at BookEnds manuscript mentoring program. Her essays and non-fiction have been published in The New York Times, The New York DailyNews, and Scholastic professional magazines. Current publications include Flatbush Review, Persimmon Tree. She teaches creative writing and literature at CUNY-Kingsborough. HOOPS is her first novel.
Dustin, whose adolescent spine curved gently to the right. He hardly ever wore his corrective brace to school because it was so obvious under his polo shirt. Whose bedroom equaled comfort, Phoebe Cates on the wall and Steve Perry looking vaguely Asian with his long black rock star hair. He searched for his face in the poster.
Dustin, who rode his bike downtown and asked the barber to curl a wave in his straight Asian hair, because he thought it might make him more like the white kids. Who washed his Levi’s five times on Saturday afternoon so they would fade. Whose father grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him against the mudroom wall because he was wasting water, and the utility bill was already so goddamn out of control.
Dustin, who liked his mother’s slow-roasted curry, the soft carrots and the fatty clumps inside cubes of short rib that melted in his mouth. Who folded his hands on the dinner table and told his father that no, he completely disagreed, Hispanics and Blacks are not inherently lazier than the Chinese, as his mother spooned more curry into his bowl, and his father raised a fist and told him to shut up because he was just a dumb teenager who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, then screamed Get the fuck out of my house. Who lay in the storage shed, next to the rusty chainsaws, and squinted up at the rafters looking for black widows because he read that black widows live in outdoor shacks.
Whose mother stepped into the shed in her nightgown, blanket in her arms. She slid his shoes off and made a nest in the dirt for the two of them.
“You don’t deserve it, the way he treats you,” she said, holding on to his toes.
Dustin, who chose Cal Poly over UC Berkeley, because Cal Poly was a longer, four-hour drive south along 101 rather than fifteen minutes up 580. “You’re a moron,” his father said. “Would’ve flunked out of Berkeley anyway.”
“I’m not a moron,” he whispered, loading the last suitcase into the car.
Dustin starts a job as an English teacher in Okinawa. He buys posters from Takashimaya, covers the walls of his classroom with Arashi, Morning Musume, and other J-Pop stars with flamboyantly styled hair. The boys in those bands have his face.
The night at the Izakaya hanging out with the other teachers. He towers over them. “Hearty American diet,” they say. “My mother’s curry,” he replies.
Would’ve been even taller if you wore the goddamn back brace.
Yumiko, the math teacher, cinches the cherry blossom tie around her hair and touches his shoulder. They eat taro-flavored soft serve. She giggles and dabs her napkin at the purple spot on the tip of his nose.
Dustin, who holds her on the tatami mat in his apartment. Who marvels at how the spiders in Okinawa are as big as his hand. He’s watching one under the eaves, shiny belly with yellow stripes, vibrating on its web.
Dustin, who writes his mother a letter, wonders if she’s well. Prays that she’s safe. Who’s sorry he can’t come home but knows she understands. Who tells her how he almost cries when he eats the local donburi, so delicately prepared, the way the ikura salmon roe bursts in his mouth, leaving a splash of ocean water on his tongue.
Eliot Li lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Flash Frog, Gordon Square Review, Lunch Ticket, The Margins, and others. He’s on twitter @EliotLi2.
When my infant daughter turns her face from my nipple and stiffens in my arms, I panic, imagining my lungs filling with water. I’m drowning on my living room floor, where I sit topless, still in my pajama bottoms. As the afternoon sunlight slants across the room, I need help, but no one is coming, not yet. It’s too early in the day to expect my husband, who isn’t my husband at all, but a man I barely knew before we made our daughter, made a home; but we’re trying, so I try to nudge my daughter back to my breast, then try a little harder, while she grows stiffer, more resolute, but she has to eat, and I have to feed her, and no one told me how hard this would be, so I pump and pump some more, then feed her with a bottle.
While she naps across my chest, I Google, and when my husband-not-my-husband returns home, I explain the rebirthing process.
After filling the tub with warm water, I’ll get in and lie back. He’ll float the baby on her back beside me while I softly talk to her, gently stroking her at the same time. When she relaxes, calm at last, calm in a way she seldom is at three months, for she is always howling, always hungry, he will move her, now on her belly, to my belly, where she will stay—for as long as it takes—until she begins moving toward my nipple. If the rebirthing works, she will resume breastfeeding.
“It’s worth a try,” he agrees.
Everything we try and fail at is worth a try, so with a heart full of the kind of hope that keeps you believing in something much longer than you should, and with lungs slowly draining, I prepare the bath, strip down, climb in, and call for him.
My baby and I float side by side while he watches, his index finger lightly pressing into her back to help her float, while I whisper, “I love you, sweet girl, only girl, please let me give you what no one gave me.” Let it be enough. Enough to save us both. Save him too. I try not to sound frantic, desperate, not knowing it’s too late, the damage done, and I’ll be pumping for twelve more months.
For a few glorious moments, it is not too late, and when he places our daughter on top of me, she inches her way toward my breast. It takes everything I have not to move, not to shriek, it’s working, it’s working.
When she latches, finally drinking, he whispers, “Stay still, don’t startle her.”
I am the startled one, but somehow I stay still, so still, until she’s had enough, until she lifts her head.
Margaret MacInnis writes and raises her daughter in Iowa City. Her recent work appears in Brevity, Diagram, Fifty-Word Stories, Ghost Parachute, Mutha Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, The Rye Whiskey Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and Tiny Molecules. Other work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast Review, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Nominated for three Pushcart prizes, she has received notable distinction in Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading. Since 2010, MacInnis has worked as personal assistant to Marilynne Robinson.
Today is my father’s birthday and I am making a chocolate Guinness cake.
I am making this cake by hand because I do not have a stand mixer and do not want to spend two-hundred and seventy-nine dollars on a twenty-pound gadget I will only use once a year.
I am making a cake even though I do not really like cake and do not have a stand mixer because my dad is turning seventy which I know is not so old but feels very old when I watch his hands shake as he pours his beer into a tall glass.
Three years ago on his sixty-seventh birthday when we found out why his hands were shaking I got so drunk off wine and port that I do not remember if there was any cake at all.
I am making a cake but I have gotten distracted by a video of a baby eating vanilla ice cream and now there is flour all over my phone but I do not wipe it off and I wonder when or if I will have babies and when or if my father will get to hold them.
Yesterday he walked into the kitchen and told me that his friend is dying and he usually does not tell me these things for example he never told me that his mom tried to commit suicide when he was nineteen.
Last week my friend got on a plane to visit his mother in Hungary who can no longer swallow and is planning to kill herself and he would like to sit by her side when she does.
Today is the first day of spring and soon my father will dig his shaking hands into the soil and plant lettuce and in the summer we will make salad and if we don’t wash it thoroughly enough we might bite into an insect who had thought they’d found a home.
I am making a cake because my dad is turning seventy and his hands are shaking and his friend is dying and he is planting lettuce and my friend’s mom is killing herself and when I was six years old I slipped out of my dad’s hands in the ocean and I thought I might drown and that my lungs would fill with water and wouldn’t that be a terrible way to die but then he picked me back up and I did not die and now I am making him cake.
Grace Kennedy is a writer, cook, and educator based in Philadelphia. She has previously been published in Bon Appetit, Oh Reader, and more. For pictures of the food she is making and the books she is reading, follow her online @gkennedy18.
Her mother used a foot mask. The package promised that in five days, the skin on her mother’s feet would molt, bubble white, and peel off in shreds, ziiiiiip. The daughter swore her mother’s eventual demise began there. You never knew what was in those foot booties with their stinking chemical aroma and lack of safety information.
“Did you feel something different, Ma?” she asked.
“Tingling,” was all her mother said.
By then her mother’s eyes were wide like moons, pupils dilated. She appeared the opposite of dying, instead very, very awake, but her daughter knew better. The skin all over her mother’s body was shedding, as if those booties had covered her entirely and she was transforming.
The end was near; the daughter called relatives, made preparations for last rites. The priest in black, pearl collar pressing against his Adam’s apple, kissed the purple sash before putting it over his head while her mother gazed heavenward, like a misplaced saint waiting for ecstasy. The priest was young, but his eyes had seen everything. Still, he balked halfway through the “Hail Mary” and dropped her mother’s hand. “She’s like a newborn, so smooth,” he said.
“Yes, that damn foot mask,” her daughter said. Now, all her mother’s skin had peeled off.
Her mother’s sisters arrived. They didn’t cry, they never did, because tears only water feelings and make them grow. By then, her mother had begun to float, suspended in mid-air like a balloon. The aunts tied a string to her mother’s ankle, and, holding the other end, reached their arms upwards to touch her little feet, interlacing their fingers through her toes. “Forgive her this once,” Aunt Petula said. “Let her have her vanity.”
Was that it? the daughter thought. Was she jealous because her mother’s attention was elsewhere? It was true, she realized; her mother’s preoccupation had ceased to be earthly.
The daughter remembered the peachy pink plastic tub where she’d been bathed as an infant, also used for her mother’s pedicure baths. Emory boards and pumice stones and files and bottles of acrid polish. Her mother’s toes in the ocean, red rubies nestled in the sand. Once a crab, nearly translucent, visible only through his movement, side-walked up to her mother’s feet and stayed right there, unmoving, just two beautiful beings in one another’s presence.
The aunts left to make a casserole. The daughter stayed by her mother, holding the string. Her mother was so high her head bumped against the plaster ceiling. She looked down, her palms lifted towards the heavens. “Those beautiful feet,” her mother said, gesturing to the daughter’s bare toes, naked of polish, tanned from the sun. “I made them. I made every part of you.”
Her mother raised her fist and broke through the ceiling. Plaster dust, wood planks, and cloudbursts of insulation rained down. The daughter slipped onto the ground, the bottoms of her feet folded together. She wiggled her toes—her mother’s toes.
Gabriella Souza received the 2021 Carlisle Family Scholarship from the Community Writers and won the 2020 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. She received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, where she was a recipient of an Eloise Klein Healy Scholarship. Her work has appeared in North American Review,The Adroit Journal, New South,Lunch Ticket, and Litro, among others. She is Nonfiction Editor at Little Patuxent Review and at work on a novel.
Men watch her from her ceiling,
Cepheus and Hercules,
pressed there by a girl
on the top bunk.
Their luminous hands
connect the dots of her
now teenage body.
The screen glows like
the Northern Lights
beneath her bedspread.
Night to night, unmoved,
We measure the parallax.
She is further from us now.
Month to month, she brightens
and fades. Even in morning
her skin is a white light
through torn shorts.
The sun has been reduced
to a clementine.
She gathers rainbows in her room,
presses them back into the prism.
We bag it all up, the old moons,
smiling, their violet songs.
She is a projection now,
an image on paper.
She is a spot in our closed eyes,
a red flare that seems fading
but rages bright enough,
shrinking into her radiance,
her core pure power.
She is nuclear.
A hard look.
A locked door.
A native of Ohio, Karin Wraley Barbee currently teaches composition and creative writing at Siena Heights University. She lives with her two children in Adrian, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Natural Bridge, Swerve, Fjords Review, Columbia Review, The Diagram, Whiskey Island, Found Poetry Review, Glass, Sugar House Review, The Rupture, and others. More info about Karin’s work can be found at karinwraleybarbee.weebly.com.
Alexander calls me to the front of the beginning pas de deux class to demonstrate positions. A tour de promenade: he coaches me to grip his hand and lift my leg in an arabesque, then orbits around me as I turn. His tights ride low on his hips and his palm radiates heat. I feel like I am flying, except for the blister on my big toe. During the break, as I retie my shoes, he leans down, says, Rain, you can be full of light. Be the moon to my sun. I glow. If I could read auras, his would be sticky hot, like summers at the beach, smelling of sweat and coconut lotion, tingling of the terrifying ecstasy of a rogue wave. Instead of taking the bus home from the studio, I slip into his car and we drive hairpin curves up hills to an overlook. The city below shimmers with heat, skyscrapers ablaze. His kisses scorch me. I place my hand on his chest and feel his heart beat. I could easily claw it out. The next day in pas class, he doesn’t smile at me. I grow cold. He holds Jill’s waist as she attempts a pirouette and whispers in her ear. Jill tells me that he promised to be the moon to her sun. She blushes. My friends say it’s impossible to die of a broken heart. Perhaps that’s true, we’re not like Giselle, dead because she loved Albrecht too hard and too deep. Just watch her, still protecting him from the spirits who’d dance him to death. What a wimp. When Jill cries before class, I tell her to fix her mascara. To dance in pointe shoes, the shoes must be broken. We let our skins’ warmth and sweat shape the shoes. We darn the toes so we don’t slip, we slam the shoes in doors, we bend the shank back, we crush the box.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Tin House Flash Fridays, The New Orleans Review,Craft, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 and Best Microfiction 2021 anthologies. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.
When I was in eighth grade, I had a terrible eating disorder and was hospitalized for most of it. When that didn’t work, I was admitted to a treatment center in Utah called The Center for Change, three thousand miles from home and everything I’d ever known. Eventually, I got out, but I still looked like a scarecrow with braces. My parents, bless them, decided to give me a fresh start, sent me to a private school, an artsy, alternative one where I could hopefully be myself, whoever that was. Ms. Johnson was my English teacher, and she introduced me to poetry, to form and meter, a structure for my feelings. She encouraged us to keep a journal, a marbled composition notebook—you know the one—and write in it every day. “Fold any page you don’t want me to read,” she said. At first, the book was all folds, an accordion of secrets. I asked for another book. At about the same time, I was gifted a CD of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair read aloud to the soundtrack from the movie Il Postino, and I think the combination of those two things that year may have saved my life. Let’s be honest, who knows. Recovery took years. But it set something in motion inside my ravenous heart, gave it words to eat. I remember sitting in front of the plastic Sony CD player in my room, door closed, propped up on my hipbones, scrawling in the notebook, “Those first faint lines. Pure nonsense, pure wisdom,” just like Neruda said. It was probably a lot more nonsense than wisdom. In fact, I distinctly remember a poem called “The Sounds of Silence” and thinking I was an absolute genius to have come up with such a phrase. But listen, there was also a poem I wrote about a tulip, a pale pink tulip that wasn’t ready to open, so everyone should just give it some water and sunshine and leave it alone, and that was the first time I felt something break loose inside of me, just as I imagined it had for Neruda and just as Ms. Johnson hoped would happen for us ninth-graders, for us poets in the class, whoever we were, if we just kept writing, kept writing, kept writing.
And writing is what I’m still doing now, these thousand years later, a grown woman with a husband, a house, three children, and five bags of groceries, home now from Trader Joe’s, sitting in the driveway, motor running, listening to a single surviving Neruda/Il Postino read-aloud from a YouTube video that just surfaced, my two-year-old still buckled, wondering what’s going on, and tears are welling up in my eyes, rolling hot down my cheeks. That little girl in her room. The notebook. I want to unfold all the pages.
Cassie Burkhardt lives in Philadelphia with her husband and three small children. She teaches kids yoga in schools and is a long-time student of The Writers Studio, started in New York by Philip Schultz. She writes poems and flash, and she is working on a collection.
SPONTANEOUS BUNGEE JUMP IN SWITZERLAND
by Cassie Burkhardt
Twenty-six years old. Pink cutoffs. Barefoot. Day trip to Lugano with friends when we see a sign with an arrow: James Bond Golden Eye Cliff Jump. No one else wants to do it, but I do, so we hop in the VW Golf, make our way up to the tiptop. My husband can’t even look out the window. Rocks, some jagged, others smooth as elephant backs, peek from glacial water, turquoise but stop-your-heart cold. Twenty minutes later, I’m poised, arms to a T, toes on the very edge, ready to dive headfirst off a pirate’s plank on the lip of a dam so thin it’s like a giant grin in free-floating space above the world and 720 feet of sheer vertical concrete down. Someone counts. One. Two. Three. I let out a primal scream and dive off the face of it. It’s horrible. My heart is in my tonsils. I’m eating wind. Cheeks liquid, I’m dying. Nothing to save me from glacial rock death but a bungee on my ankle, when one millisecond later an incredible lightness rinses over me because I am not dying, I am flying. Slow and fast at the same time. I am a delicate female body, so light, like an earring, a charm dropped into the abyss. A heartbeat, hair, breath, a flash of pink fringe in the sky. I am unburdened and intensely me. Edgeless, boundless, elastic me. The bungee bounces me up and down like a human yo-yo. I twirl up on the rebound, plummet again, knowing now what to expect, relishing it, breathing into it, adding style even. How quickly I can adapt to my new lifestyle as a bird! I point my toes, flex my wrists, eyes wide open, wingspan stretched to its fullest capacity, and I am calm, I am found, I am high on the purest rush amidst rock and river and sky, and so I quickly exhale all the sadness pent up inside me, every drop of it as fast as I can until I am empty, watch it fall like a lint pebble from my shorts into the deep goodbye before they call, OK, it’s over! and reel me up.
Cassie Burkhardt lives in Philadelphia with her husband and three small children. She teaches kids yoga in schools and is a long-time student of The Writers Studio, started in New York by Philip Schultz. She writes poems and flash, and she is working on a collection. This is her first publication.
WHY DON’T YOU SHUT UP, WHY DON’T YOU SPEAK UP?
by Amy Savage
“What do you call the men? Ballerinos?” Sophie’s mother asked at intermission, frowning. “Some of them need another layer down there. You can see all their parts.” She ran her fingers through her bushy gray bob and sighed. “I’m just so lusty for men,” she said. “I’m never satisfied. And I’m dog-tired of being teased.”
It was Sophie’s turn to sigh. She’d saved up as a receptionist at the women’s clinic downtown to take her mom to Swan Lake for Christmas, and this was the first thing her mother thought to say? That the bulges had unfairly aroused her? In the recent years since her parents had divorced, Sophie often felt her mother shared too much, treating Sophie as a friend, or worse, a therapist.
“Why don’t you try online dating?” Sophie now asked. They’d had this conversation before. Marguerite had posited that Sophie was treating her like merchandise. “Would you put my picture up in a store window?” she’d said, aghast.
This time Marguerite ignored the question. Her voice weary, Sophie’s mother said, “I don’t know if I have much clitoris.” The man seated in the row ahead of them shifted in his seat and scratched his bald spot.
Sophie didn’t want to doubt another woman’s experience in her own body, but… really? Sophie couldn’t believe she was about to go there, but she did anyway. “You should get a toy, Mom. Then you’ll know.” When her mom didn’t smile, Sophie took on an apologetic tone. “I think it’s just that you’ve only had bad sex.” Sophie’s counselor at college had warned her about this: as much as her mother wanted her to be her friend, Sophie was her daughter. Now she’d fallen farther into the trap and had criticized her father’s lovemaking. Gross, Sophie thought, I’m turning into her. Thirty years too soon. Marguerite, however, was completely unfazed by Sophie’s breach of boundaries. She did look crestfallen, though, at the thought that it all could have been bad sex. The better option might just be clitorisless-ness. But Marguerite also had a pondering look. She was considering her daughter’s advice.
When the curtains closed, Sophie and her mother left through the side entrance of the theater to walk back to the car. They heard a bell and soon saw the ringer. An old man in battered fatigues and signature red Salvation Army apron stood next to a large red cauldron and rang his tiny bell. Marguerite fished a dollar out of her wallet and dropped it into the dark hole.
“God bless you,” the man said. He took two miniature candy canes out of his apron pouch for mother and daughter. Marguerite blushed and pocketed both candies. Later that evening, Sophie saw three texts from her mother:
Was just thinking about that Salvation Army volunteer.
He seemed so nice.
Wonder if you could find him on social media? [Halo emoji]
Two weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Sophie went out dancing. While her friends were buying drinks, a shaggy-haired guy with an overbite approached her and got close, fast. He slid a hand into her back pocket and tried to kiss her. Sophie reared her head back and held up her ring finger like it was her middle. “My fiancé wouldn’t like that,” she lied.
Since age seventeen, Sophie had ironically worn the modest diamond purity ring her parents had given her to bribe her into celibacy. The ring had failed to keep her a virgin, but now, surprisingly, it did ward off this douchebag. The stone glinted in the strobe lights. Overbite held up his hands in surrender and, turning toward the bar, said he respected other people’s property. Sophie sought haven in the women’s bathroom. She checked her phone. Her mother had texted two hours ago asking her if she was having fun and one hour ago to ask if she was safe. Sophie didn’t respond. She was both annoyed by her mom’s anxious protectiveness and ashamed that the truthful answer to both questions would be Not really. A few minutes before midnight, Sophie saw more messages from her mother. You must be having a ball. Send selfies! Just before midnight, Marguerite sent Sophie a text for every number counting down from ten.
The next day, Sophie met her mother for their traditional New Year’s brunch at a diner. “Remember what we talked about at the ballet?” Marguerite said furtively, a fleck of yolk on her lower lip.
Sophie’s head pounded from the previous night’s rum-and-Cokes. She remembered her mother ignoring her suggestion to try online dating again.
Sophie took a sip of her coffee. She tried to think of who these nice guys were that her mother had in mind.
“So,” Marguerite continued, “can you take me to the store?”
“Wait,” Sophie said. Did her mother think she should actually put her picture up in a store window? “You need groceries?”
“No, sweetie, the other store,” Marguerite stage-whispered. “To buy a toy.”
“Oh my god,” Sophie said, remembering. “Mom. Why can’t you just look online?”
“I don’t want those things in my browser history, Soph. I’ll start getting ads.”
Sophie resisted the urge to remind her mother that she’d recently asked Sophie to online-stalk eligible veterans on her behalf. Sophie didn’t even want to think about what kind of ads that could lead to.
“Is that really worse than being seen,” Sophie said, mocking Marguerite’s whisper, “shopping for dildos? In public?”
“Sophie,” Marguerite said, taking a bite of toast. “You’re so contrary. You’re the one who suggested this. Anyway, we won’t see anyone you know. But maybe we’ll make some new friends!” Marguerite laughed and nearly choked on her toast. It was a laugh Sophie hadn’t heard before.
The following afternoon, Sophie drove her mother to Zebra, a gentleman’s club and sex toy shop which she knew about only because she’d had to drive past it to get on the highway. Zebra was a grim, squat, concrete block structure that looked like it should have been a garage or a very small prison. When they pulled into the pitted parking lot, Sophie’s rusty Escort hit a deep pothole, so suddenly and violently that there was a loud bang and she and Marguerite were jolted violently in their seats. It didn’t help that Sophie was already nervous. Despite Marguerite’s request to bring her here, Sophie still didn’t want to look too experienced to her mother, or too inexperienced to the staff. To be discovered as a dildo-procuring amateur! Imagine them trying to educate her on best practices for donning a strap-on! Or giving her a tutorial on the range of vibratory strengths! And then her mom would start asking questions… Just something simple, please!
The parking lot was flanked with filthy mounds of gravel-flecked snow. Sophie’s windshield was covered with a mottled gray film of salt. As new snow began to fall silently in fat flakes on the glass, it melted, leaving drops of water so pure they only served to emphasize the grime. The winter sun was setting. It would be dark soon. Sophie heard a car’s wheels spinning in the distance, an engine revving. Someone out there was stuck in a snowbank, trying to flee.
Above the building, a large sign featured a white woman’s prominent, round, air-brushed buttocks cleaved by a fluorescent pink thong. The ass sat astride black-and-white striped haunches. “Zebra,” Marguerite said, squinting at the sign. “They don’t use animals here, do they?”
Sophie fiddled with her ring, sliding it up and down to the first knuckle, switching it to her right hand, then back to her left. She stared at the woman’s ass on the sign for Zebra. She wondered what the woman’s face looked like. She turned off the car, pulled on her hood in a last-ditch attempt to hide her own face, and hurried inside with her mom.
In Zebra’s lobby were two doors. Behind the left one could be heard loud music and men’s laughter. On the right one, taped a little higher than Sophie’s eye level, was a white paper which read MERCHANDISE. Inside, a middle-aged man with a yellowy comb-over sat behind the counter at the register. Behind him, a young woman Sophie’s age, in her early twenties, came out of another door with a bottle of Windex and a rag, her hands bare and visibly red from chilblains or excessive washing. “Wiping the poles now,” she said flatly to the clerk. He looked up from his newspaper but did not acknowledge the girl otherwise.
Marguerite turned to the girl and said, “You should really be wearing gloves, shouldn’t you?” The girl looked at Marguerite and smiled apologetically. Sophie smiled apologetically at the girl.
The shelves boasted anal plugs, pleather gloves, handcuffs. Flavored condoms ranging from jalapeño to cinnamon bun. Edible panties in assorted tropical fruits: mango, banana, kiwi. And the merkins! Sophie didn’t even know pubic hair wigs existed before. There was a broad array of colors, textures, and cuts.
“Are these toupees?” Marguerite called out loudly to the clerk.
The clerk’s eyes stayed on his paper. “Basically,” he said.
Sophie hurried away from her mother toward the vibrators. The size range alone was baffling. A sampler vibrator chained to a discount shelf had two stickers. One read: DISPLAY ONLY. The other, over the power button, read: TURN ME ON. Sophie pressed the button. The vibrator had one setting, which was so strong that after five seconds Sophie’s hand went numb. Next to it was a glass piece, reasonably priced. Sophie couldn’t understand how that could be comfortable, but obviously there was a market for it.
“Mom, look,” she said, holding the glass phallus out to Marguerite. “It’s dishwasher safe. You can even put it in the microwave and freezer.”
Marguerite’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “But what if I drop it? It could chip. That wouldn’t be safe.”
Her mother could talk herself out of anything. “You could probably fix it with epoxy,” Sophie muttered.
Marguerite flipped over all the packages to see the prices before she inspected the actual items. The clerk decided to attend to his customers. “There’s also Christmas clearance, honey,” he called out, jabbing his finger in the direction of a huge cardboard box hand-labeled 70% OFF NO RETURNS.
“Did you hear that, Soph?” Marguerite said, loud enough that Sophie knew the clerk could hear. “He called me honey.”
Sophie followed her mother to the bargain box. Christmas overstock. There were gingerbread vulva cookies, a sexy elf blow-up doll, golden star pasties. And there, a sizeable silicone candy cane vibrator (complete with red and white peppermint-scented stripes), the curved end designed as a handle. Sophie looked at the price and calculated the discount. A little under thirty dollars. A steal if it meant no more Mom Sex Comments. She showed it to Marguerite, who grabbed it from her, overcome with delight.
When they approached the register, the clerk looked at their choice and nodded in bland approval. Sophie felt queasy and hoped he’d hurry up. Marguerite put two twenties on the counter. Letting the vibrator rest there between them bothered Sophie, so she picked it up while Marguerite fumbled to put away her change.
“Who do you belong to, sweetie?” the clerk then asked, addressing Sophie.
“What?” It seemed to come from nowhere. Belong to? Did he think she had a John? Or did men bring their wives here? Or did she need to show someone’s membership pass to pay, like at a wholesale club? The clerk pointed at her hand. She looked down at the thin band on her left ring finger. Ah.
“She’s mine,” Marguerite said.
Sophie, a little too emphatically, said, “That’s my mom,” to clarify they were not engaged. She couldn’t believe they’d come here together. She’d had enough. “And, for your information,” Sophie said to her mother, “I don’t belong to you.” She took off the ring and handed it to Marguerite, who looked stunned. Sophie turned to leave.
The clerk, embarrassed, said to Marguerite, “Well. Must be a lucky guy. Whoever he is.” Before the door shut behind her, Sophie heard her mother’s voice.
“I didn’t raise her to be so rude. And, by the way,” she said, “we’re both single.”
Sophie braced herself against the cold and stepped out into the parking lot, the box with the vibrator still in her hand. Her car looked strangely crooked, sagging toward the rear. She had a flat tire. She groaned, remembering the enormous pothole they’d hit. Sophie got in the car and called Roadside Assistance. She pulled the vibrator out of the box and cursed it. She never should have come here. She threw the toy on the passenger seat and dropped her purse on it so she wouldn’t have to look at it. A floodlight suddenly illuminated the dim parking lot, casting a harsh white light over the grimy snowbanks.
Then she noticed a man walk around from behind the corner of the building. He saw her and started toward her car. They made eye contact. Fuck. Sophie pretended she hadn’t seen him. She locked her doors, looked at her phone as if she were busy, and prayed he wasn’t interested in her.
When the man was just outside her door, Sophie couldn’t help it—she looked again. He had lank greasy hair hanging over his ears, an untrimmed beard, and a tawny moustache. He wore a black nylon jacket and jeans. She knew it would be better to avoid eye contact. Or maybe eye contact would humanize her? He leaned down to look her in the eye and smiled with stained teeth. He tapped her window with his knuckle. “Hey beautiful,” he said, loud enough to make himself heard through the glass. He was practiced at this. Whatever you’re thinking, she thought at him, please. Don’t. Despite being locked in her car, she felt exposed. She pretended she hadn’t heard him and looked down at her hands. Her ring finger was bare. She couldn’t even pretend to be taken. “You work here?” he asked.
He would think that, wouldn’t he. Not that there was anything wrong with the profession! “No,” Sophie said. It was the only word she would say to him, she told herself. But by speaking at all, she knew she had already said too much.
She didn’t look up at him but heard the smirk in his voice. “I know a lie when I hear one.”
It was against her better judgment but, because she hated not being believed almost more than anything else, she looked at him with her best don’t-try-me face. She desperately hoped her mom would come out and save her, then realized it would leave Marguerite outside the car with the man.
“Okay. But if you’re not a dancing girl,” he said, “then what are you doing here?” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, and lit it as if he were settling in. Then he smiled again with the cigarette tight in his teeth. He laughed. “You like to watch, don’t you,” he said.
“What do you want?” Sophie said. It was like she’d been programmed to engage, even to please. Why was she like this? Why was he like that?
“Look,” the man said, “I’m not asking for a ride. I just need to get downtown.”
Sophie said nothing. The man stood there, waiting. Sophie was slightly relieved by the change of subject but alarmed by his unpredictability, fearful of what he really wanted.
“I’m not asking you for a ride,” he said again. “I would never do that. I just need to get the bus once I get downtown. I went for my treatments at Saint Mary’s,” he said, referring to the nearby hospital. He pulled up his right pant leg to reveal a skinny, bruised shin.
Sophie glanced at his leg, then back at his hairy face. Memorize his face, she told herself, just in case. “I can’t offer you anything,” Sophie said. “I’m sorry.”
“Look,” the man said, his voice louder in his impatience. “Six bucks never changed anybody’s life. If you needed it, you’d want someone to give it to you.”
Sophie wished she didn’t know that it only cost two dollars to catch the bus downtown. She wished it for his sake, embarrassed on his behalf for his overreach. If she opened her wallet, the man would see there was a little more cash in there than he’d asked for. If she was a good Samaritan like the Bible said she should be, he might even demand more. Blame her for resisting to begin with. Blame her for wanting to keep her hard-earned money. She hated that she was poor and yet still felt guilty about how much more she had than he probably did. And he was right—if she needed it, she would want someone to give it to her. How much compassion do you show for someone who threatens you? Was she a capitalist scrooge? Sure, it was only a bit of money, but it mattered to her. It mattered how he’d approached her. It mattered that he assumed she would give it to him. It mattered that it was hers to give.
Sophie looked back at the man and took a breath. “I told you,” she said, more loudly, “I don’t have anything for you.”
“Just six fucking dollars!” he yelled. Then he raised his fist and slammed it like a gavel on the roof of her car. The car shook. “If you needed it,” the man growled lewdly, “you’d get it.”
Should she call 911? Where was Roadside Assistance, for fuck’s sake? Sophie didn’t know how to deal with this kind of violence. Sophie knew silence. She knew passive aggressive. She didn’t know slamming fists. She should have taken self-defense. There had been fliers on practically every bulletin board throughout every semester in college. Why hadn’t she done it? And although Sophie was locked inside the car, what about her mom? At any point, her mother could come out of those doors and into the path of this man’s rage.
“I said no!” Sophie yelled through the glass. She looked around frantically. “I have nothing for you!”
She was going to text her mom to stay inside. If only her trembling hands could get her phone’s screen to unlock. She turned the screen away from the man and entered her passcode incorrectly. As if in a nightmare, she entered it wrong a second time. Sophie considered her options. She could threaten to call the police. She could try to play nice and lie, saying her dad had the same leg problem and what was it called again and do you see the same specialist at Saint Mary’s and what is their name again? Maybe she could divert long enough if he had answers or maybe he’d leave if she called his bluff. But no matter what she did, more than one person would blame her for whatever would happen. Just give him what he wants, she heard the voices say. It’s your fault for coming here, for just existing in this parking lot, putting yourself and your mother in danger. Why don’t you shut up? Why don’t you speak up? Sophie prayed her mother would stay inside a little longer.
Then it occurred to Sophie that maybe she did have something for this man. She forced herself to smile. She turned away from the window and broadened her mouth to feel like what she imagined a killer’s grin would feel like. “I told you, I have nothing,” she said, as she reached under her purse and grabbed the striped proxy cock. She turned back to face him. “Unless you want this!” she screamed, shaking the vibrator like a demented toddler with a rattle.
She widened her eyes so that, she imagined, they would show far too much white above the irises. Her smile was too wide, enough to hurt, stretched to surpass the openness of desirability and thus enter the realm of ruination. Sophie’s mouth and jaw were so tense she felt a sharp cramp in the left side of her neck. She thwacked the phallus against her window as if casting a spell. It made a rubbery thud on the glass. “Eat,” Sophie said. Thud. “Mint.” Thud. “Dick.” The vibrator wobbled, then went still.
The man was quiet a second. His eyes narrowed. His lip twitched. He stared at the vibrator’s head. Then he seemed to recover from the surprise. He reared back a half step but not before slamming his fist once more on her roof. “Crazy cunt!” he shouted. He turned and headed for the corner of the building where he’d first appeared.
At that moment, Marguerite came outside. Sophie watched as the man turned his head, saw Marguerite, paused, and then headed toward her. Her mom. Her mom who couldn’t help but engage, ceaselessly. The man smiled at Sophie’s mother. Marguerite’s face brightened. She smiled at him. No, Sophie thought. Please. She bargained that she would tolerate any and all boundary-breaching clitoris comments if only this man did not con, or seduce, her mother. Marguerite might even offer him a ride.
But then her mother smiled at Sophie and waved. The man glanced from mother to daughter. His stare lingered on Sophie. Marguerite looked back at the man, expectantly. Sophie threw the hackneyed phallus-turned-sword down on the passenger seat and laid on the horn. She held her hand there and made the machine scream for her until the man realized it wouldn’t end. Marguerite looked back at Sophie and frowned. The man made a quick salute to Marguerite and headed off toward the other side of the building.
When he was out of sight, Sophie let go of the horn. Her arms and hands trembled with adrenaline. She took deep breaths, hoping to appear calm by the time Marguerite reached the car. At least her mother would be safe. This time. Sophie told herself maybe it wasn’t so bad that she’d brought her mom here after all. They should be able to come here if they wanted, damn it. And she’d exercised courage. And won! But still, Sophie knew she wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened—someone would inevitably judge her, not take her fear seriously. Someone might even find the whole thing funny.
Marguerite opened the passenger side door, her mouth hard. “Really, Sophie,” she said. “The horn? You shouldn’t be so aggressive. I was only an extra five minutes.”
Marguerite moved Sophie’s purse to the console and then picked up the candy cane vibrator like it was any other toy her child had left lying around. “Had a nice chat with Burt,” Marguerite said, pulling on her seatbelt. “He gave me this loyalty card.” She tapped the hole-punched card twice on the dashboard. “When we complete it, we’ll get a 20% discount.”
Marguerite then wiggled Sophie’s purity ring off her own pinky finger where she’d stored it and handed it to her daughter, her grip lingering a beat after Sophie had grasped it. Marguerite raised her eyebrows at Sophie to remind her of her recent display of insolence and then released the ring. Sophie slid it back on her finger. She felt a surprising sense of relief. Her finger had grown used to the thing. While it was still a failed bribe to keep her abstinent, Sophie now welcomed her parents’ intended protection. The vibrator would be a similar charm for her mother, she thought, to stave off bad sex, bad men. Even if Sophie had originally suggested it to silence her.
“By the way,” Marguerite said, pointing to the corner of the building, “did you see that man?” Sophie’s mother’s cheeks were pink from the winter air. She was glowing, even smug. “He wanted to talk to me, didn’t he?”
Amy Savage’s fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review,The Carolina Quarterly, BlazeVOX, and Euphony. Her nonfiction has appeared as a guest blog on Discover magazine’s Inkfish. Honors include selection for AWP’s Writer to Writer program. When not writing, she translates, teaches medical Spanish, and performs in medical simulations. @asavagewriter
We’ve just arrived at prom and already I want to leave.
Should we take a photo? Chris asks.
I clock the long line, my classmates barely recognizable without their signature Hollister t-shirts and hoodies, skin-tight low rise jeans. We just took a bunch of photos in my backyard, me in my coral floor-length gown from the thrift store, he in a borrowed tux and bowtie. Around my wrist the corsage his mom made.
Nah. I don’t feel like waiting in line.
I find my friends seated at a round banquet table, introduce them to my date. An acquaintance, not in attendance, is throwing a party we’re planning to catch afterward. I wonder what’s the minimum amount of time we’re expected to stick around. One song? Maybe two?
We’ve been hanging out most days since prom. Chris has the entire basement to himself, a penthouse by teenage standards. Tonight, he shows off his limited edition Beck album pressed in blue vinyl, too precious to play. He puts on The Beatles instead. I love everything after Abbey Road. None of their early pop stuff.
Before we know it, it’s past curfew and I need to get home. You know how my parents are. On my way out, I run into his kid brother, who comes up to my shoulder and is unexpectedly blonde. Chris introduces us, we exchange hellos. When I get home I receive a text:
My brother asked if you were my girlfriend.
Yeah? And what’d you say?
The theme for this year’s prom is ‘Masquerade,’ but you wouldn’t know it by the lack of masks. We leave half-finished plates at the table and make our rounds, snapping photos with my digital camera. Bass thumps from the adjoining room. People begin to file onto the dance floor.
It’s literally the equivalent of liquid cement, the stylist assured me as she sprayed my hair. Now, just a few hours later, the curls have fallen straight.
I turn eighteen two weeks after graduation. Chris throws me a party at a place he’s housesitting, invites his older friend to bartend. The friend offers people their choice of Jim Beam and Coke, Skol and Sprite, straight shots. Tabs of acid to those who want it. It all feels very grown up, playing house in an actual house, serving alcohol to guests.
Later that night I’m lying in the grass, waving around a neon green butterfly net from the dollar store, attempting to catch the stars. Reality heightened to its purest form. The way we’re meant to experience it. When we’re alone, Chris gifts me the bird charm from the necklace he always wore. I want you to have this. I wear the charm around my neck for the rest of that summer.
A visit home from college. I’m in my old bedroom, the glaring orange walls with creased posters of Jim Morrison, The Beatles, a dozen AOL free trial discs arranged in a spiral pattern. I’m about to enter my twenties. No sense in hanging onto childish things. I go through my old jewelry box. The decisions come quickly and easily, so sure I am about what needs to go.
Guitar pick earring? Keep. Bird charm from Chris? Trash.
We should talk about what’s going to happen to us when we leave for college, he says.
We lie under a tarp that’s been fastened to a tree branch, a makeshift tent. The fire is dying. It’s surprisingly chilly for a summer night.
I should’ve known better than to get involved with someone. But I really like you.
It catches me off guard, the directness of this question. But I’ve already planned what to say. I think it’d make the most sense to break up when we leave. I mean, we’ll be in different states.
Yeah, he agrees. I was thinking that too. I’m open to long-distance if you wanted to. But yeah, breaking up makes sense. We’ll just have to make the most out of this summer.
We carry on until the night before my parents drive me down to campus. It’s for the best.
Six months out of college. I drive to my parents’ house after work, on a mission.
I check the plastic tackle box where I keep my old jewelry. I open a plastic pencil case covered in Lisa Frank stickers, finger the broken number 2 pencils, slim packs of .5mm lead, a stale pink eraser. I open box after shoebox, through a mess of pen caps, loose buttons, neon shoelaces, floppy discs, USBs.
UMMA! I scream, as I’m told I often did as a child.
My mom’s at the door in seconds. What’s wrong?
Remember that bird charm I used to wear? On a necklace? I can’t find it. Did you throw it away? It’s really important and I can’t find it where is it I NEED IT NOW!
I kick the stupid boxes that I know don’t hold what I’m looking for. But maybe she can somehow work her Mom-magic to summon it. She rifles through some boxes to appease me, probably wondering why her 22-year-old daughter finally came for an unexpected visit only to throw a tantrum. It’s bound to be around here somewhere…
I don’t tell her why I suddenly need this charm, and she doesn’t ask.
I find my old journals in the closet, stacks of spiral notebooks—the kind always on back-to-school shopping lists. They’ve been sitting here in my childhood bedroom through all four years of college, the entirety of my twenties. I bring them to my apartment, set them on a shelf in my current bedroom closet next to a pair of strappy black heels I only ever wear to weddings.
They stay untouched for months.
Another couple rides in the backseat on our way to prom. A hand appears between the driver’s and passenger seat, presenting a marbled glass pipe. Wanna hit this?
I take the pipe, hold it up for Chris, who’s driving. He shakes his head and smiles when he catches my eye. No, I’m good. I want to remember this night.
Where did they come from? The man’s gaze pans over us like we’re vermin infesting the train. It’s 3 a.m., and we’re crammed like cattle in the middle section between two cars, where passengers can enter and exit. The last train home from the city, and every single seat is full. The conductor, standing guard as if to protect the other riders, scoffs as he names our suburban town. Oh, you know, future drug addicts, alcoholics.
They speak as if we’re not here, as if we don’t count. Shame surges up my spine, blooms on my face. I try to keep my feet planted in the magic of the evening, but their words make me unsteady. I feel stupid, herded into this in-between space. Too old for the body glitter, the temporary tattoos littering my skin.
To be completely honest, I’m really nervous playing for you.
We’ve stopped by his house to change out of our prom-wear and into our regular clothes for the afterparty. He’s perched on a stool in the garage, acoustic guitar in hand. A metal rack around his neck holds a harmonica in front of his lips. Fingernails graze the metal strings, thin strips of brass vibrate with each inhale and exhale. An impromptu private concert during the evening’s intermission.
Freshman year of college, my first weekend in the dorm. The girl from across the hall and I are playing a drinking game with a pair of boys in their room, two floors below. A modified version of Ring of Fire—like Russian Roulette, if you swap out the gun for an unopened can of Mountain Dew, replace the bullets with shots of vodka. We take turns wedging the corner of a playing card beneath the unopened soda tab, praying that our card isn’t the one to trigger its release. Hold your breath. Insert. Exhale. Hold your breath. Insert. Exhale. Hold your breath. Insert. Psssst. Fuck.
After the sixth, seventh, eighth shot, fluorescent orange spews out of one boy’s mouth, a slurry of Cheetos, Mountain Dew, vodka. He ducks his head in a trash bin and jabs his finger towards the door. The girl and I run out of their room, exchange glances like two outlaws escaping a crime scene. We race down the hallway, sandals clip-clopping against the glossy linoleum floor.
I throw open the door to the stairwell that will lead us to the safety of the girls’ floor and run into a boy wrapped in a bedsheet toga. Neon green bandanna across his forehead, startled grin on his face. This is the boy who will make me forget about Chris.
Over winter break, we catch up over dinner and a movie, a dating cliche we mostly avoided when we were actually dating.
Afterward, we return to his house. He has something for me. He grabs a folded piece of cloth and unfurls it, revealing a paisley-patterned peasant skirt he found in his student housing ‘free’ box. I’ve been holding onto this for months. It reminded me of you.
A Christmas tree emits a warm glow from the corner of the living room. His dad and brother are there, wearing excited grins. They want to show me something. I peer through a pair of cardboard 3D glasses. Each light on the tree magically turns into a tiny snowman.
Have you seen Chris’s Facebook?
Chris… from prom? I log onto Facebook during my lunch break at work.
RIP Chris. God. Damnit. You were one of the good ones.
There is no words. Im gonna miss u brother. rest in peace.
Dozens of messages, going back almost six weeks. Details for a memorial that has already passed. I send a message to someone I don’t know. Someone who entered his life after that summer, just over four years ago now. I learn that after a night of partying, Chris fell asleep on a friend’s couch and never woke up.
I think of all the times I’ve let myself sink deep into a friend’s couch, into unconsciousness, trusting my body to wake up in the morning.
I click out of Facebook. My lunch break is over.
I get back to work. Check my emails, double-click on desktop icons, make some phone calls, schedule meetings. I’m twenty-two, fresh out of college. This is what adults do. My thoughts hover in the space between all those posts I just read, careful not to touch. Eventually, I land on this: Whatever happened to the bird charm?
I head to my parents’ house after work, back to my old bedroom.
We head to Denny’s the morning after prom, my hair a tangled nest, stiff from the liquid cement. We each order a coffee and a Signature Slam. I’m not big on sweet breakfast. Yeah, me either. I can’t believe they banned indoor smoking. I could really use a cigarette.
When I get home, I grab my notebook, write down every detail I can remember from the previous night. I transcribe memorable bits of dialogue like I’m writing a movie script.
Chris: You’re so cute.
Me: I know. But you’re cuter.
Chris: I’m not cute, I’m burly and gnarly and pretty legitly the beefmaster 3000 yo!
Nine months into the pandemic. I peer into my bedroom closet for the hundredth time, hoping to find something to organize. It’s too cold to hang outdoors, and I’m desperate for an activity that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.
I spot the spiral notebooks, next to the heels I’m not sure I’ll ever wear again. My handwriting then was much the same as it is now—the rushed scrawls of someone trying to lay down their thoughts before the onset of a wrist cramp.
May 23, 2000. Dear Journal, Hi! This is the first time writing in you. School’s almost out!!
May 7, 2001. BAD NEWS. 5th-grade graduation… ON MY GOLDEN BIRTHDAY!
December 3, 2003. Was called “semi-ugly” today.
March 15, 2005. Just had 4 shots of vodka. God dammit that shit tastes fuckin gross.
October 21, 2007. Wow. Van Halen concert. Wow.
May 8, 2008. So I’m going to prom with Chris.
There’s a long-stemmed rose and a handwritten note tucked under my windshield wiper.
Prom? Chris 🙂
The cute boy with chin-length curls I sometimes meet at the burger place near our school to get weed. I’ve never been asked to a dance, never been interested in attending. But this is senior prom, a big deal.
Chris wants to know if he has a chance with you, a mutual friend texts.
Yea, he seems cool.
Great. I won’t have to break his little heart. Prom will be cute. He was really nervous about asking you.
Bird charm from Chris? Keep.
In an alternate timeline, I save the charm. I stumble across the Facebook posts during my lunch break. Each time I hit refresh, they multiply. I tag him in a picture from prom, so people know. RIP miss you Chris. I pen the details for the upcoming memorial in my planner.
I return to my old bedroom, locate the charm in the plastic tackle box where I store retired jewelry. I bury it in my fist, feel the tips of its wings dig into my palm.
At his memorial, I wear it on a sterling silver chain instead of knotted hemp. I approach his family, brandish the charm like a VIP pass. Of course I kept it.
I see familiar faces, greet them with nods or hugs. I’m the type to keep in touch with old friends, eager to reminisce. Wasn’t expecting a highschool reunion so soon, someone says. We swap stories, seamlessly weave together the past through laughter and tears. Hey, remember our bonfire jams? Yo that Flaming Lips show was fire. Show off our NA recovery chips. I’ll have six months in February. One year for me.
In this version, he’s won the race to the end, the only one to cross the finish line. Awarded the most tears shed, crowned as my muse. I cherish my participation medal. Wear it around my neck in remembrance, on a silver chain.
My eighteenth birthday. The night retains just enough of the afternoon heat to make the air feel like a warm bath. Plush grass cushions my back, prickles my shoulders.
I grip the flimsy plastic handle of a neon green butterfly net, wave my arm into the night sky. The stars are dancing fireflies, elusive, impossible to catch. They tease, blink on and off, beckon us to pursue. The brightest one leads us to the edge of a cliff. I peer down into nothingness, one foot firmly planted in the dirt, the other flirting with the edge. Solid ground or reality in its purest form?
I summon my wings, jump into the stars.
When the spell wears off, we turn into ghosts.
I never recover the bird charm.
I miss his memorial service. I never reach out to his family. I briefly consider sending his mom and dad the awkward prom photos taken in our backyard, but I’m not sure how they’d be received. Our time together so brief, too insignificant to warrant a reemergence in the lives of those closest to him. Just one summer out of his twenty-three. I barely talk about him at all, with anyone.
As if he were never here. As if he doesn’t count.
Just one boy out of many. One summer out of thirty and counting. The charm a piece of metal, mass-produced and cast into the shape of a tiny bird.
Chris isn’t the one that got away, the great love of my life, or even my first—it doesn’t take a decade of hindsight to see that. But that summer, I believe he could be. And so I write down everything I want to remember, on those wide-ruled pages with the pale blue lines. Each entry becomes a way back in.
We’re trapped in the space in-between, traveling with more bags than we can carry. Riding the track towards the only future we can imagine. I stand at the edge of a cliff, look out into the starless night. Feet planted, no longer enchanted. From here, I can almost feel the warmth of that summer radiating through the shadow of what will come to pass. Almost, but never quite.
I want to dip early from prom to attend a friend’s afterparty, where booze will be plentiful. But he insists on staying for at least one slow dance.
I step gently into this moment, a ghost from the future, and approach my younger self. I plead with her to wait out the Top 40 dance hits, that the party and booze can wait another half hour. She doesn’t hear me.
After a song or two, the boy, perhaps sensing her restlessness, agrees to leave. He takes her hand. They disappear without saying goodbye.
Dhaea Kang is from Chicago, IL. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, So to Speak Journal, Passengers Journal, and The Grief Diaries.
“So what do you do?” George says, then winces. “Sorry! Reductive question.”
“At least you waited until we each had a glass of wine.” Cora examines her hands, the body part she used to be most vain about, though now even the candlelight picks out age spots. “Since that question always involves paying jobs, I’ll start with what I did.”
She tells him about the newspaper, the many years when she felt like one of the lucky elite who actually enjoyed her job. Then, more recently, the grim years, the waves of layoffs, the newspaper itself thinner every year, more cheaply made, the newsprint smearing onto one’s fingers: a smudgy, emaciated thing that embodied the withered job. After escaping three rounds of layoffs, Cora quit.
George grimaces. “You should never quit! What about severance? What about receiving unemployment?”
“But I maintained my dignity!” Cora snaps a breadstick in half. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore. It’s the strangest experience, watching one’s profession become obsolete, in real time. I felt like a manufacturer of carriage wheels or a lady’s milliner.”
“So what are you doing now? You’re too young to retire.”
Broken at the bridge, George’s nose looks as if someone carefully shifted it two millimeters to the left. His glasses sit crookedly, which gives him an intriguing askew look; he’s a subtle Picasso. In person, he’s more attractive than his Match.com profile picture, where he wears a banana-yellow polo shirt. Her daughter Josie bullied her into responding to his email.
“I keep busy,” Cora says and tells him about the Rita Hayworth biography she’s writing. “I always wanted to write a book, and now I have vats of time.”
“Caskets of time,” says George. “Vats are industrial. Caskets have their own character, which they impart onto whatever they hold. But why Rita Hayworth?”
“Oh, she’s fascinating. For one…” Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, changed her name after being cast in only “exotic” roles. She dyed her hair dark red to look more Anglo, got electrolysis to broaden her forehead. Cora shows him pictures on her phone, Margarita with her black widow’s peak, then Rita with her wide, white forehead.
“She has so much makeup. I can’t tell what she looks like,” says George.
Cora remembers how Josie reacted to that electrolysis information. “Ouch!” Josie had said and then told her mother that Finn, her live-in boyfriend, “Wants me to get electrolysis on my pussy.” When Cora looked horrified, Josie said “Good grief, Mom, you’re such a prude! Fine, my nether region.”
“I’m horrified by the concept, not that word. Did you agree?”
Josie laughed. “I told him only if he got branded,” and then laughed harder when Cora recoiled.
“You have no filter,” Cora said, and Josie raised her feathery eyebrows and said, “Look who’s talking!”
Cora tells George that Hayworth married five times, the second time to Orson Welles, the third to Prince Aly Khan. Hayworth was candid about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, bringing publicity and awareness to a disease that had been misunderstood for years, regarded as shameful.
“But why write about Rita Hayworth today? Why does she matter to you?” says George.
To think she almost vetoed George because of that unfortunate shirt, only replied to his message because Josie forced her. Josie snapped her profile picture, insisted that she wear her garnet earrings.
“Well, I relate to her,” Cora explains. Her father, like Rita’s, had immigrated, Cora’s from Venezuela. Her mother was American, like Rita’s, Swedish-looking; more than one rude stranger asked if Cora were adopted. Like Rita, Cora felt pressured to follow her father’s professional footsteps. With Rita, it was dance, with Cora, journalism, which her father made glamorous. Cora demonstrates the way he’d bang his fist against the table when he talked about freedom of the press. “I adored my father.”
“The thing I’m proudest of in my life is being a good father,” George says. “I wasn’t perfect when they were small—too obsessed with making partner. But after Suzanne died, I had to step up.” He pulls out his phone to show pictures of his son and daughter. “And this is May, my granddaughter. She’s three.”
Without her reading glasses on, the child is blurry, so Cora can tolerate looking at her.
“Do you have grandchildren?” George says.
George’s phone is still in her hand; May’s eyes look like holes. “Yes, two. Griffin and Iris, my daughter Amy’s kids.”
Amy goes by Amelia now, Josie told her. Ironic, since Cora always complained about her daughters allowing their beautiful names to be shortened, made frivolous.
“Do you have pictures?”
“Not on my phone,” Cora says. She leaves out the rest—that she has never met either child. That she only knows what they look like (Griffin has a long ballerina neck like Amy’s, Iris’s ears stick out) from snooping in Josie’s house. She rifled through a stack of holiday cards while Josie basted a chicken.
Another fact about Rita Hayworth: she had two daughters but was estranged from the older one. Yasmin Aga Khan was with her when she died, but her older daughter Rebecca Welles went seven years without seeing her. Why? Not due to Orson Welles, who described Rita as the sweetest person he’d ever met.
Probably Amy disliked her for years before she withdrew altogether. Late at night, Cora often replays the Christmas of 1998, a few months after she and David had separated, when Amy was thirteen. Amy gave her a green leather journal with a clasp and tiny key for Christmas, and Cora refused it because she knew David had helped Amy pick it out. Amy had cried. “Why are you so cruel?” she said. But Cora couldn’t give David the satisfaction. She had such a limited capacity to hurt him, so she had to snatch any opportunity available.
It was only recently that Cora understood what Amy meant: why was Cora cruel to her? Why can’t Amy understand it had nothing to do with her?
“Don’t put me in the middle, Mom,” Josie said more than once. “I won’t discuss Amelia.” Unfiltered Josie, who talks about her boyfriend wanting her to zap her pubic hair. “I’m never having children,” Josie likes to insist. “I’d just screw them up.”
A book explains the difference between “no contact” and “low contact,” which is how Cora now understands those years preceding Amy’s complete withdrawal—Amy’s refusals to come home for Thanksgiving, her terse responses to every tenth email. What instigated the move from “low” to “no,” what lever switched the track? Somewhere in the Rita Hayworth archives there’s an answer to why Rebecca Welles refused to visit the sweetest person Orson Welles knew. Somewhere, Cora has to believe, there is a tiny key.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. She is the author of the short story collection How Far I’ve Come, forthcoming in 2022 from Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the short story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.www.kimmagowan.com
Squeeze my thigh to feel
the plateau of un-muscle.
Shaving my legs for the first time
was pressing a blade
If my pain was a keyboard
it’d be the lowest note,
uncaring, deep, monotone,
a whale’s cry
many leagues under
the eroded coastline.
The doctor touches my toes
with chilled prongs
A cold fish in
one of those pedicure shops
where the fish devours
the dead skin off your toes.
When I was born the fish gnawed away
at nerve endings in my left leg.
My leg is snapped telephone pole
no current pulses
through it and my brain
I am covered
I am covered in
cafe au lait birthmarks
Stained in coffee
that indicates disease.
Now that I have been touched in fear
by a doctor
who does not even know my name,
for a bill in my mailbox
My mother’s texts
sound like co-star horoscopes.
Sometimes erosion is fixed
Around the crash pad
I dream about becoming a scarecrow
stuffed with cotton
Meaty, and upright
along the coastline.
Maddie Baxter (she/her) is a poet and copywriter living in Charlotte, North Carolina. She graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She’s a fan of poetic constraints, surrealism, and public bathrooms. You can read more of her work in recent issues of The News Station, Unbroken Journal, and Drunk Monkeys.