Brood X is the largest brood of 17-year cicadas. This brood is found in three separate areas centering around Pennsylvania and northern Virginia, Indiana, and eastern Tennessee. The largest emergence of Brood X appears as adults only once every 17 years.
—National Park Service
Back then, everyone still called me Gwendy, so it was in the body-in-progress of thirteen-year-old Gwendy that I first encountered the cicadas of Brood X. The emerging insects, like my boy cousins, were four years my senior. I was intrigued but disgusted by the intricate carapaces the cicadas left behind, and a delicious tingle of fear shivered across my skin when the living bugs slapped against my legs or tangled in my hair, their unwieldy, red-eyed forms a harbinger of anxieties that had not yet surfaced.
I spent a lot of time alone in those days—meandering through the town that is, even now, defined by the train that hums through it without stopping.
Once, as I examined a hard little sculpture—I always thought of them as sculpted, if not by a human, then by some other intelligent design—that clung to the bark of an oak, one of my cousins slipped up behind me, plucked the abandoned husk from the tree, crushed it in his palm. He laughed, just as he did when he caught lightning bugs and smeared their lit bodies on his cheeks for the fleeting effect of glow-in-the-dark warpaint. The fragments of the husk’s leg curled like clipped fingernails in his dirty palm, and the crushing of the empty vessel that once held the insect’s soft body felt deeply personal. I wanted to apologize for something I didn’t understand.
The year of that cicada summer, I learned to avoid being alone with that particular cousin, even as he endeavored to draw me to him, even as I longed to be touched.
Now, at forty-seven, I flinch at the damp, scratching smack of the living cicadas as they wing toward immortality, blinded by lust and light, though I no longer fear them or their abandoned exoskeletons. Just yesterday I came upon one of their husks, and I allowed myself to be lost for a moment in examination in the same way I had when I’d been called Gwendy. There was the amber bulge that covered the cicada’s scarlet eyes, the opening in the back as decisively split as my own body when my children came screaming out.
I examine the husk in my palm, turn it this way and that in the light.
I am thirteen again, my grandmother calling me in for a summer supper of fried potatoes and slices of red tomatoes whose sides have fissured with swelling flesh. My hair is long and never quite clean, and I am as awkward and vulnerable as the cicadas before their wings have set and their new bodies have hardened. All through that summer, I sought out the absurd molts of the insects, collecting and marching their dried forms along a windowsill until my aunt, dust cloth in hand, let out a mild shriek at the sight of the cicada menagerie and swept them all into the trash.
“They carry germs,” Auntie insisted.
I didn’t tell her that my cousin Taffy Shea and I played with them, along with our Barbies and my discount-store Dolly Parton doll. The brown husks served, depending on the scene we created, as devoted pets, attacking marauders, miniature ponies, or, occasionally, the roast beast at dollhouse dinners, and broken bits of their whisper-crunch bodies mingled with the tiny plastic shoes and staticky toy hairbrushes in a box Taffy Shea had covered in pink glitter and gold heart stickers. Something about the form of the dolls, with their perfect but sexless manufactured shapes, next to the bulging eyes and menacing foreclaws of the cicadas made us delightfully uneasy, just like we felt when we examined a half-formed, bruise-eyed chick coiled beside the broken but still bluely exquisite robin’s egg.
Beauty means nothing in a vacuum.
The wind picks up, and I am thirty. Rather than parting branches, pointing at delicate brown husks so that my young children could marvel at the ugliness left behind by the nymphs after their seventeen-year hibernation, I work toward a promotion at a job I will never love, under a boss I probably shouldn’t be. My marriage stumbles under the weight of unspoken-yet-somehow-still-broken expectations. We argue over how to teach our son to fold towels and who’s in charge of dinner on Wednesdays and how much to help with our daughter’s science project that’s due tomorrow. My husband’s heart collects plaque, steady and silent. The screams of the cicadas echo the brooding in my own head, and I am consumed by fears of mediocrity and mortality, as if fear and loathing could make such human notions less menacing.
Like my mother and grandmother before me, I am mired in a cycle of eating procreating and striving striving striving toward a goal that, unlike the cicadas, has not been encrypted in me and yet shimmers, teasing, at the edges of my vision in the quiet moments before sleep. The weight of the frenzied, corporeal demands of work and children and sex and what passes for love bury me in obligation. These are the hard years, and I understand why the cicadas spend so much of their lives underground, their skin thickening with each passing year, growing silently toward a dream of light, of purpose.
It’s hot outside, or perhaps it’s only hot flashes again, but I am, at last, only me, the same age Kerouac was when he died, and I know that beauty is only enhanced by that which is broken and unbeautiful.
The cigarette burn on my grandmother’s green watered-silk blouse.
The silver-capped teeth of a laughing child raised on Mountain Dew and saltines.
The slow-healing scar on my husband’s chest from where they cracked him open to replace his clogged arteries.
The brittle husks, the wet flapping bodies, the red eyes that almost seem to glow.
These things seem designed to be as ugly and divine as my own soul. Bugs and Barbies and cousins and lovers conflate, and I see, finally, that beauty is not relative, as I thought when I was thirteen, as I still thought when I was thirty. Beauty, is, I think, an obsolete notion.
I recall an old songwriters’ voice made husky by cigarettes and gas-station whiskey and the sticky, unfragile wings of the cicadas when they first unfurl.
The cracks around my heart and the creases around my eyes remind me of the dark times when I neglected to pay attention, to appreciate the gifts of sunlight and yellow-tipped leaves and coffee-scented mornings.
I don’t know if I’ve always known this truth, or if I learned it from the cicadas of Brood X, but I am both broken and whole.
Gwen Mullins’ work has been selected for the Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2022, and her stories and essays have been featured in New Ohio Review, African American Review, The Bitter Southerner, The New Guard, PANK, and Green Mountains Review, among others. She is currently working on her second novel as well as a short story collection. In the winter of 2020-21, she served as the Writer in Residence for the Kerouac Project in Orlando. She works with writers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
There is an image etched in my childhood memory from Haiti, which I find hard to erase. I admit I never try to block it out because it looks like a natural backdrop in my field of vision. It is indeed a troubling view but one from which I cannot escape. Therefore, I grow accustomed to it, absorbing it, despite myself, into my world of thoughts, dreams, and aspirations.
My vision of the image has altered over time, dimming some details, such as the age of the little boy it features, sitting on a school bench, sobbing inconsolably, under the menacing eyes of an exasperated teacher waving a leather whip. I do not recall the circumstances which prompted his punishment. But I remember the mournful tune of his lament, hovering over the dissonant sound of a merciless whip searing into his flesh. Finally, when his agony subsided, this desolate soul stretched out his little arms to feel his battered posterior. His short blue pants adorning a pair of skinny legs were soaked in blood, sticking to his skin. For days, he refused to take the pants off, dreading the discomfort of peeling his skin. Soon after, his wound got infected and did not heal for many weeks. Following his recovery, he suffered several epileptic seizures due to the constant stress he faced at school. One day, he recalled experiencing a seizure attack at the exact moment the teacher was about to hit him. He tried asking for help in vain, managing only to mouth the words without any sound.
Most victims of violence, namely children, suffer from three different kinds of pain: physical and emotional pain, and a feeling of guilt originating from their inability to rationalize their ordeal. They believe there is something wrong with them, which elicits deservedly the punishment they receive. I am the little boy represented in that image, and I have suffered from the same kinds of pain. My parents later told me that the school would have terminated the teacher who had so cruelly punished me had they not intervened on his behalf. They conceded they were indeed distraught by the ordeal, but they did not want me to lose the opportunity to get an education, provided at the time only to a select few in the country.
For many years, the trauma of my childhood experience haunted me, not only in my dreams but also in my daily life. It altered my attitude towards people, towards love and friendship, leading me to reevaluate the purpose of knowledge. Hence, I predicated every enterprise in my life upon the operant conditioning of reward and punishment. Thus, I was afraid to fall in love, to go to college, and to start a family, dreading a chastisement that no longer existed. I did not know what fueled my fear to explore life and uncover its hidden promises until a peculiar incident happened in my final year of undergraduate studies.
Following an acoustics final exam, which I thought I had not done well, I went into the course teacher’s office to inquire about the results. Seated behind a small desk with his hand solemnly folded, the latter directed a severe look at me standing at the door before inviting me to come in. I burst out in tears, asking for his forgiveness, convinced I had miserably failed the exam. It was an impulsive reaction, prompted by the fear of reprimand I had come to expect for “missing the mark.” I was relieved to find out later that I had passed the exam. But most importantly, I discovered from that experience that my motivation for learning was sadly the fear of punishment.
I often wonder why we are so hung up about maintaining order, discipline, and the fear of authority in our schools. It is evident we have structured our educational system with a military approach, assembling students in a geometric enclave, requiring them to wear the same uniform, and teaching them antiquated knowledge to maintain order and continuity. If any of the students fail to conform to these conditions, they get severely punished.
The framers of early childhood education such as Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, and Maria Montessori understood the fragility, the uniqueness, and the limitless potential of children. For that reason, they laid the foundations for an education that primed above all their humanity and their individualities.
In my native tongue, we use a poetic term to describe children. We call them “timoun,” which means: “little world.” That is because we believe that children hide within themselves an intimate world of thoughts, longings, and ambitions associated with the realities of their life. However, the endless potential for growth they possess is affected when they experience traumatic situations that are too complex for them to rationalize. When that happens, their memory often compresses that experience in a snapshot image. My snapshot image is that of the little boy sobbing on a school bench. To escape the anguish that vision provoked in me, I took refuge in teaching music. In that capacity, I try to repair the wrongs that I endured as a child. I see the face of that little boy in my students, who I try to provide with the love, attention, and understanding he did not receive. Even in the most stressful situation, I try hard not to injure their pride, crushing their motivation for learning. I repeat to myself, like a litany: they are just “timoun,” planted seeds entrusted to me for their cultivation and personal growth.
I learned two decades ago with relief that corporal punishment was no longer allowed in Haitian schools. Coincidentally, as if by magic, my nightmares and daytime visions suddenly stopped. Thus, the mournful lament of the little boy has turned into an aubade, which today inspires the adult he has become.
A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Richard Casimir graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with both Masters and Professional Studies degrees in Violin. He worked as a violin instructor at the Preparatory Division at Temple University and as a String teacher in the Philadelphia Public Schools before moving to Spain in 2006. Until that time, Richard focused his attention mainly on teaching music and performing. But the recent social and political upheavals taking place in his native country have awakened in him an irresistible urge to write. Recently, his essays on arts and culture in education have been published both in his home country and in the United States. He believes that opening a debate about the usefulness and the adaptability of these topics to the challenges of our times can help foster tangible social changes.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PACKING FOR AN OVERNIGHT AT THE STATE CAPITOL by E. A. Farro
Minnesota State Capitol May 2018 the last weekend of the legislative session
No one likes conflict, but with the smack of a fist I am a million particles of brilliant light. However, tonight, I’m taking the punches. The letter is a direct threat, a blunt whack to the nose. I haven’t been home for dinner in days, and I can’t remember what it feels like to help my boys into their pajamas. I’m tired and mad and for a moment frozen in place. It’s Friday, well past the mid-May sunset. As the Governor’s advisor, my life has been reduced to a countdown to the end of the legislative session Sunday at midnight.
I jump up and look into the hallway of quarter-sawn oak doors. Realizing I’m barefoot, I grab heels from my bottom desk drawer.
The door cracks open: Tenzin’s long black hair and heart-shaped face. She pulls me in.
“When we look back, won’t it be obvious this was another Flint?” I say.
“We shouldn’t negotiate,” she winds her arms into the thin wool of her white shawl.
I smile, relieved that at least she and I won’t be battling each other.
Tenzin grew up as a Tibetan refugee in India, where she pulled water from a well that ran dry in summer. I don’t have to convince her that safe drinking water is a choice we make over and over.
When she immigrated in high school, I was finishing college. I admire her political instincts, and though she’s my younger sister’s age, she mentors me. In our jobs advising the Governor, our peers are our best mentors. It is too hard to trust the motives of anyone else.
“Their constituents don’t believe drinking fertilizer can kill babies?” I ask.
“It isn’t about that,” Tenzin shakes her head. I notice the big circles under her eyes. I wonder if I look as worn out as she does. Maybe worse.
“Studies show links to cancer in adults, too,” I say.
“They need a win,” she says, and hands me a bowl of candy bars. All I taste is sugar and salt. I picture the House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairs dragging dead carcasses down their main streets.
The letter offers the Governor the choice to either sign today their bill that guts his signature buffer law protecting rivers and lakes or, if he doesn’t sign, they will kill his new rule to protect rural drinking water.
Our phones buzz and we look into our palms. The Governor. He wants a draft response.
“I’ll take the first shot,” I say and run out. Agriculture is Tenzin’s portfolio, but the miasma of Buffers, a regulation that doesn’t go far enough for Enviros and goes too far for Ag—that is mine.
I dash downstairs into a deserted hall of the Capitol to sit on a bench. A gargoyle on the base of a lamp gives me a I-just-bit-a-lemon face. To get close enough to knock the wind out of them, I write longhand.
“I am shocked and—” I cross out the words. I used that phrase only a month ago.
“I’m appalled that you are holding a hearing so that you can deny rural Minnesotans their rights to clean and safe water.” The words flow now from the ether of the building.
I run back up and edit as I type. Print. Read aloud. Edit. Repeat.
Tenzin sits at my computer adding her own words. We pass the keyboard back and forth, no laughter, no swears. We’re channeling something deeper. Together, our fists joined for ultimate impact.
To pack from the kitchen: Cut fruit, cut veggies, cheddar cheese. Note: Slicing these gives a sense of control.
I’m tired. I hurt like I did a double shift of my high school waitressing job. I’d woken at five a.m. churning the hundreds of faces I passed in the rotunda yesterday, the tens of people I met with, the endless emails I pounded out responses to. Now, I take in the sounds of my young boys playing a game of sea creatures. I take in the smell of coffee and toast. I need to go back to the Capitol. It is Saturday morning, and I’ll likely be gone until Monday. I have to pack.
“I found the Lego!” my younger son runs into my room. He looks at me, his face falls. He’s been warned not to wake me. I motion with my hand and pull him close, breathe his warmth. As far as work-life balance goes, right now it’s all work. He rubs his cheek against mine like we’re bolts of silk.
My older son comes in, “Mama?” he says, but the question in his voice dies off. I sit on the edge of the bed. Both boys hold onto me. I lean into their wild curls sticking up in all directions. I’m tethered. There are things I pack without realizing it. Tenderness I will discover later and marvel at, but that kind of unpacking won’t happen until I leave the job.
“When did you get home?” my older boy asks.
“Late,” I shrug.
To pack from your room: Sweatpants to go under suit dress, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
I transform before I get out of my car. Last minute item to pack: my smile. Really, most facial expressions. Along with these I pack my desire for a family bike ride, a video call with my niece, coffee with friends, curling up with a book.
I’m usually quick to smile and quick to cry. Good news or bad, it hits me like vinegar on baking soda. But at the Capitol I keep to a narrow range of emotions. The rest I put in the trunk of my car.
To pack from the camping section of the basement: Sleeping pad and pillow.
An invisible umbilical cord reels me down the hill. The sun is out, and the white marble of the building almost hurts to look at. The circle of eagles around the capitol dome look ready to break free.
I start up the wide marble stairs to the main doors, realize it will be like an airport terminal in a snowstorm. The waiting lobbyists and activists will want updates. At the Capitol, information is currency. Its distribution forms and breaks bonds. I weigh the balance of engaging versus avoiding. Engaging could avoid misunderstandings, keep the lines of communication open.
The State Capitol has the fishbowl effect of high school: too many people smashed together. Like high school, clothing is a coded language that signals who you are. Fresh and in style, corporate or philanthropy. Outdated suits that smell of sweat, lobbyists or legislators. People in jeans, fleece vests, or leather jackets, advocates for everything from stopping mines to preventing helmet laws. Older people in coordinated outfits, tourists.
One weapon of the majority is to set the schedule and not share it. This morning both House and Senate members have a roll call. But after? Bills could come to the floor for votes. Or leadership could go into a room to slam together their giant spitball. This mega-bill, the omnibus-omnibus, will combine all program funding and cuts with all policy changes in all areas. Immigration policy with chronic wasting disease in deer with wastewater treatment. A shit show. If you know the schedule, you know when you can nap and eat. Exhaustion and hunger erode resolve, make what was not possible before, possible. Members of the minority party are forced into battle with their own bodies. At some point closing your eyes becomes more important than anything else.
I veer away from the main steps and go in the unadorned doors of the ground floor. Bare limestone walls, no vines or branches decorating them. My right eyelid thrashes, refusing to let me ignore my exhaustion.
Will we negotiate? If they can pull at the Governor’s heartstrings, if they are respectful, if they sit face-to-face with him—I don’t want to think about it. I’ve seen him fold and heard worse.
I don’t know I’m holding my breath until I enter my office. I notice sticky honey stains on the shoulder of my dress. I’m ambivalent about washing off these paw prints of my boys.
Hearing excited chatter I step into the hall. My colleagues are watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding.
We wonder at the whimsical hats and the Gothic buildings of Windsor Castle. “Scones and clotted cream outside the Communication offices!” a colleague shouts. A TV on the other side of the room shows House members assembling, but I turn away to watch the thousands of waving flags. A surge of energy comes from across the ocean. It’s a tailgating party.
To pack from the secret code passed on by the Cabinet Members: Honey Badger Don’t Care.
Tenzin and I, we have the perspective of being outside the state agencies and seeing them from a bird’s eye view. The group of agency leaders seated at Tenzin’s table, they have the institutional knowledge.
“If we offer them—” an agency leader starts. He is lean, strong, and feral. His hair speckled gray and cheeks hollowed with the first tinge of old age. When he agrees with us, he is the best. If he doesn’t agree, he smiles and then he does what he wants. He and I’ve been in a game of cat and mouse all session.
“No,” Tenzin cuts him off.
“We need to offer something,” the leader from another agency says. He’s well-groomed, but not flashy. Always polite. Refined. He speaks in a quiet voice, only his urgency to jump in betrays his anxiety in this moment.
I stand up, pull on my suit jacket, say nothing, and maintain eye contact. To honey badger is a verb. All I need to do is be still. No scowls. More importantly, no smiles. If my poker-faced is pulled correctly taut, their threats and laughter will ding like hail on a metal bucket.
“They’re blackmailing us,” I finally say. The music from the Royal Wedding floats through the half-open door. For a moment, I entertain a fantasy of stealing the box of scones and jar of clotted cream. I’d hide in a closet and eat them one by one. I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be.
“They need a win!” an agency lawyer shouts. Her smile mismatched to her exasperation.
“This isn’t a game. It’s public health,” I snap. I remind myself: arguing back is weakness; we are a team regardless of our anger or belligerence.
Those motherfuckers, I think, their blackmail will break us apart.
“Anna, they have to have something to show. They can’t go home without another shot at the environment,” the refined one says in his calm voice.
The honey badger instinct is natural with opponents. To do it with my own inner circle sends prickles of heat across my body. If I am inert steel, he will become anxious. We are animals made to mirror each other. I let his words sour in the air. Politics is a war of endurance.
The honey badger, Mellivora capensis in Latin, also known as the ratel, a name used for a seventies South African armored military vehicle that combines mobility with firepower, has a literal thick skin. It can withstand bee stings, porcupine quills, machete blows, and animal bites. In a meme, after a honey badger is bitten by a poisonous snake, it passes out, wakes up, and goes back to eating. That is who I need to be.
The Governor’s cabinet hadn’t initially wanted him to unleash a new environmental regulation. They knew it would be a battle, and they would be on the front lines. They’ve traveled the state and fought for it, but I still don’t trust their impulses. With the administration ending, we are all on edge. All about to be on the job market.
Tenzin jumps in, “The Governor was crystal clear, we’re not negotiating. None of you are to negotiate. He sent his response, and now we wait.”
“Of course. We all get it.” The feral one starts up, “We aren’t negotiating. But we need to be ready. Really, this part of the law—”
“It’s not worth keeping if we have to lose something else,” the lawyer jumps in. She giggles in apology. As soon as she goes quiet, her face pinches back to its pained look.
“How is the Commissioner?” I ask. The Ag Commissioner’s daughter passed away only days ago. Earlier in the week, we’d stood in the back of a crowded room, crying for someone we’d never met. Someone who meant something to us because of how we feel about the Commissioner.
No one plasters a smile on their face now. “It’s hard,” the lawyer says.
To pack from the children: Green ninja warrior figure so they will stop fighting over it.
Back in my office, the shouts, songs, and clatter of footsteps come through the walls of the Rotunda. The sound carries, but the marble and oak distort the words. I imagine this is what it would sound like to listen to someone else’s dream. I stand at my desk. I have no hunger, no need for sleep, no memory of bathing wiggly children, wrapping them in towels, or drying their curls. All that is distant. Here I’m part of a different and larger organism. I feel something in my dress pocket and pull out a plastic ninja. I place it on my computer to watch over me.
I’m alert to the ping ping of texts and emails dashing through air currents. The House debates a bill to dismantle government programs on my officemate’s TV. The Senate votes to overrule a Judge with legislation on my TV. My officemate’s phone rings, then stops, my phone rings. I check the number, look across the room to my officemate, and we pass a knowing look between us. A lemon-twisted smile. Neither of us answer.
Without warning I think of the blue sky outside, the way jokes with a four-year-old are silly, not cynical. I flip the telescope the other way. The room gets very small, words on the page ants. The State Capital and everything in it is tiny.
I pour a rainbow of Skittles into my hand, take a breath, and slowly force the telescope around so the photographs of my boys blur and the room snaps into focus.
I’m at the printer when the feral one walks by. “Oh, hey Anna.” His smiles verges on flirtatious. A habit from lobbying, and nothing to do with me.
“So, what have you been up to?” I ask.
“Well we were talking to the Chairman, and he likes our idea. Really, what we have to give up isn’t a big deal.”
“You were talking to the Chairman?”
“We were just talking. It’s good to keep the lines open.”
With the impact a wind rushes through my head.
Things you will not realize you are packing until months later: Smiling in professional settings unless it is a strategic tool, public tears, the existence of children in professional conversation, any suggestion that it is not normal to work without knowing when you will go home.
I trail behind my boss, Eliza, into Tenzin’s office. She wears a polka dot sweater and holds a polka dot water bottle in one hand. The cuteness of dots is in stark contrast to the way she stands with her legs wide, hands on hips, eyebrows arched.
I look at Tenzin but she shows nothing.
“Did you get clear instructions from the Governor to not negotiate?” Eliza looks directly at each of the agency leaders.
“I think my staff has also said this to you today. So, tell me, why are you talking to Committee Chairs?”
“We weren’t negotiating. We were just talking. It’s good to keep open the lines—” The feral one talks fast.
“Well whatever you call it, let me be clear. If the Governor wants you to do something, he’ll tell you.” She walks out with an audible sigh of disgust.
“Anna?” The refined one bites at my name. “What the fuck are you trying? What the fuck is going on? This doesn’t fucking make any sense.” I match Tenzin’s blank face though I feel a surge in my body. Fists clench.
I think of the time this man and I drove to the western suburbs to spend an afternoon with a recently retired CEO of a Fortune 500. It was an icy winter and halfway up the steep mansion driveway the car stopped. As if we could will it with our bodies, we both groaned, but the car slid back into the street. We tried again, slid back. Finally, we laughed and gave in. In it together, we parked on the street with no other parked cars and no sidewalks, and we walked up to the door uncertain of what to expect.
Now, the tension comes off him like a crackling electric fence. Something in me shifts. I’ve always told myself that I’m just the Governor’s messenger. But this, this moment, it’s like when my brother jumped onto the seesaw and sent me flying into the air with the smack of the wood plank on my bottom. This man, he’s never been my friend. None of them have.
I take a breath and say to myself, “Honey badger don’t care.” Because my heart is thudding and my head is roaring inside, I walk out. I stand against the cold marble bathroom walls until it all settles. Until I can send it all up the hill to the trunk of my car where the rest of me is packed away.
Honey badger don’t care, because honey badger knows the prayer: grant me the serenity toaccept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
E. A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art installation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a Nan Snow Emerging Writers Award, Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, an Excellence in Teaching Fellowship at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, and a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series award. She teaches public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and creative writing at the Loft Literary Center.
The other evening, on my way home from a violin recital in Gangnam, I missed a step and fell in the Seoul subway station. I caught myself on my hand, twisting my wrist. I fell hard on my foot, sprained my ankle, and skinned my knee. And because I was walking downstairs instead of up, there was a moment of full-fledged, disorienting fear; a moment when the earth underneath me vanished.
In the aftermath, the only sound was the echo of footsteps slowing down on the platform. People stopped to stare but no one offered to help or asked if I was okay. On a torrentially rainy day a few weeks prior, I’d slipped on some water in a different subway station, near an escalator. The same reaction: people stared at me as if I were mad, as if I were a crazy person. As if I’d fallen on purpose. As if there were something wrong with me.
Later, when I mentioned it to my Korean friends, they laughed: “don’t worry, no one will remember you behind your mask.”
In this city of nearly ten million people, I’m invisible most days. On this day, I was finally visible but only because I was a spectacle. I scrambled up as quickly as I could, but I was dazed and embarrassed. And hurt.
Five months ago, at the Incheon airport, the scene at the immigration line was sheer chaos. We’d been waiting for three hours by then, in a room that was loud and hot as we stood, exhausted, clutching folders thick with documents and test results. Several young men dressed head to toe in white hazmat suits and goggles shouted at us in Korean to download an app we needed to pass through immigration. The scene was dystopian and overwhelming, especially after the peaceful cocoon of the plane. There’d only been twenty-nine passengers on the 747 aircraft from New York, and four of us carried violin cases.
I was too bewildered and tired to cry, though I did cry, copiously, at JFK. I felt guilty and ashamed for leaving on this adventure in the middle of a global pandemic that had claimed the lives of more than 3.5 million people.
Suddenly, a middle-aged woman collapsed onto the floor. She carried a heavy backpack, and a jacket was tied around her waist. No one did anything, said anything. We all just stared. Airport officials stared at her, too, crawling on the floor, not moving to help. I caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were unfocused and glazed over. She didn’t appear to have anyone with her, or at least, no one that claimed to know her. We watched her crawl around the floor for a good five minutes before, finally, someone thought to get her a chair. Someone thought to bring her a glass of water.
Being Korean American in Korea is challenging, just like being Korean American in America is challenging. The details are different, but the feeling is the same. It’s the feeling of being conspicuously alone in a uniquely foreign yet familiar country. Because to be fair, while I don’t feel like I belong here, I also don’t feel like I belong in America, either. And in the absence of belonging, I’m a constant observer, an outsider looking in, longing for inclusion and not ever being quite “right.” In America, I sound right, but I look wrong. In Korea, I look right, but I sound wrong.
Being part of the diaspora means always floating, forever looking for a place to land, a place to call home. Perhaps that place doesn’t exist. Maybe homecoming isn’t really possible. Maybe it’d be easier in a completely foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language or know anything about the culture and, most importantly, where there’d be little to no expectations of me to assimilate. I would still feel the pain of loneliness, but minus this unique pressure of feeling like I ought to belong.
Talking about loneliness makes people uncomfortable. I imagine it like a cloud of body odor; when you meet someone who stinks, you avoid them, but you also never tell them that they stink. Similarly, when you meet someone who reeks of loneliness, you walk away, disturbed by the invisible need that oozes off them. The chronically lonely feel stigmatized: the concept of the “loner” or the “loser” is deeply embedded in our culture. If you’re lonely, people assume something is wrong with you.
Loneliness is cloaked in shame, even as research shows that the rise of urbanization, single-person households, and the disintegration of meaningful community all contribute to a growing social construct that makes loneliness and alienation not the exception but the rule. In general, single people living in urban centers are lonelier than people who live communally in lower-density or rural areas.
Loneliness is pervasive, reaching across various demographics. In 2019, 61% of Americans admitted they were lonely and 22% said they were often or always lonely. 44% of the elderly are lonely and while 50% of my generation, Gen X-ers, confessed to chronic loneliness, that percentage rises with each generation, with millennials seeming to be the loneliest of all.
Another article mentions seven ways to alleviate loneliness. I do most of them on a regular basis: I make small talk with strangers, I reach out to friends, I avoid social media, I get to know my neighbors, I invite people over, I engage in creative activity (hello, I’m writing this damned essay, aren’t I?). And while these steps alleviate the loneliness temporarily, in the long run, they aggravate my alienation.
Because what I want, what I miss, is daily connection that I don’t have to initiate, with someone I can fully trust. It’s been a very long time since I’ve felt that kind of closeness. But it seems this is more than I can have and too much to ask, even with the most well-meaning and loving of my family and friends. Daily connection, while fine for other, luckier, and possibly more worthy folks, seems not possible for me.
(Oh, I forgot to mention, the one thing on that list of seven things that I can’t seem to get a hold of: human touch.)
So, I’ve concluded that I’m just too much. I want too much. I’m too greedy, I guess.
Social scientists define loneliness as a liminal space, the distance between the connection one desires and what one is actually experiencing. In other words, loneliness is the gap between what you want and what you have. It’s the distance between the ideal closeness one longs for and the closeness (or lack thereof) that one experiences. It’s the pain of that distance that makes every interaction feel like rejection.
In the struggle to find a “cure” this is the one constant: loneliness is subjective and hard to quantify. It’s a sliding scale of intimacy that varies from person to person, situation to situation, making loneliness a very difficult thing to address and heal, let alone define unilaterally. Because one can be completely alone and be perfectly content while another may be surrounded by people and feel loneliness like a stab to the heart.
Indeed, the effects of loneliness are physical. Lighting up the same parts of the brain that react to physical pain, loneliness registers as a supremely palpable wound. Chronic loneliness is linked to increases in many health risks, including heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Loneliness is also an indicator of premature death, since lacking social connection is a bigger risk factor for early mortality than obesity and is the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
But suddenly, the Covid pandemic made it okay to be lonely. Loneliness was normalized and for once, I felt like I belonged. Ironically, my internal sense of loneliness dissipated as the global loneliness spread. I wasn’t alone and no one expected me to be okay.
Because really, it’s about belonging. Loneliness can be especially potent for immigrants, the elderly, LGBTQIA+, minority groups, and all people living on the margins. We all have a deep need to belong; this is not a luxury, but in fact, an essential human need. Shame regulates how we behave and the tolerances we construct in our efforts to stay within the tribe.
Belonging is not a trivial matter but of biological importance to wellness and our overall ability to contribute in meaningful ways. When we experience perpetual otherness or outsiderness and then, adding salt to the wound, when these experiences of alienation are ignored or negated, we learn to sublimate our needs and, therefore, our internal compass becomes confused, and I believe this leads to intense self-loathing and internalized hatred, when there isn’t any outward way to resolve this loss.
In other words, in the absence of visibility and acknowledgement, our need to belong is so intense and essential that we will shapeshift to fit the tribe, even if this means we vanish and reject ourselves.
So, what can we do? While all research points towards proactivity—putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable to increase the chances of connection—I’m weary of this advice and highly skeptical. Because, at the risk of sounding, truly, like a whiny baby, I have to say that I think I am, more often than not, the one to reach out. But the more I reach out, the more people pull away, increasing the gap between what I want and what I have and, therefore, I feel even lonelier. Over time, I’ve learned to keep my hurt parts hidden from the world, lest someone use this weakness to hurt me later. Better my hurt be in stasis than risk some mortal wound that I will never recover from.
Why am I saying all of this, now, for all to see? After all, people are baffled: But don’t you have a lot of friends? From your Insta, it looks like you’re having a great time! What do you have to complain about? I’m so surprised, you seem to be doing so great. And all of this adds to my shame. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how it appears, it matters how one feels. One is lonely if one feels lonely, no matter what things look like.
Of course, I don’t want the Covid crisis to continue. I’m deeply relieved that, with vaccines, there’s a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. But I do wonder, selfishly, what this will mean for loneliness, moving forward. Will people sweep it under the rug, this moment of global loneliness and trauma, and whisper: “let us never speak of this again”? Like a regrettable one-night stand? From texts and social media posts about how ecstatic everyone is to be reunited with their friends and loved ones, not to mention the promise of a second coming of the “roaring 20’s” and all the hedonism that may provide, it looks like loneliness is a parenthetical nightmare from which most people will soon escape.
Earlier in the summer, I’d texted my friends: “is it pure bacchanalia there in the US?” I was facetious but also green with envy. “Are you all raw dogging it, maskless and 2019 style?” No, they’d said, not yet, though I wondered if they were just trying to make me feel better. After all, one of them mentioned going out to dinner with her partner only to be flanked on both sides by unlikely revelers; two 50-year-olds necking like horny teenagers at a drive-thru and a pair of flamboyantly drunk middle-aged men, swaying atop their barstools.
An hour-long subway ride later, I arrived at my home station. Hobbling up the stairs, I noticed a huddle of people in the corner. They surrounded a young drunk woman who was vomiting profusely; not an uncommon sight at ten p.m. on any given evening in Seoul. Two friends held her hair back, two others stood guard, drunk and unsteady but, nevertheless, protecting her from the eyes of prying Seoulites. And in that moment, I was envious and bitterly resentful; she had friends to protect her in the midst of her own, self-induced drunkenness.
While I’d done nothing more than miss a step.
The next day my wrist and ankle ballooned, and after a visit to the hospital, I called to cancel a gig. The organizer said nothing but, “how am I supposed to find another violinist on 48 hours’ notice?”
To be fair, I don’t want to vilify the Korean people for what I’ve witnessed in these isolated instances of what, I suppose, can be called a lack of good samaritanism. And because I know that people will be tempted to draw binary conclusions, (after all, we feel better when things fit neatly into a box), I want to be clear and say that my loneliness is a constant in America, too. There are shitty people everywhere: New York, Tokyo, Paris, Sao Paolo. Indifference exists all over the world, different lenses on the same telescope.
And years ago in Manhattan, when I was in a coffee shop with a man that I loved very much, who I thought loved me, too, I saw a woman sobbing. She was young and beautiful and so sad, it hurt my heart. I wanted to hug her, but I hesitated and when I turned around to find her again, she was already gone.
My Korean language teacher explains to me that people were likely respecting my boundaries, trying not to embarrass me with attention. She agrees that this is a cultural difference and empathizes with my culture shock. In truth, there’s also something humiliating about a stranger helping you up; it’s just a different kind of theatre. What I long for is not the kindness of strangers. And, in general, Koreans are wary of strangers, so any unknown person, whether they’re falling downstairs or asking for directions, is regarded with suspicion.
And there’s a part of me that understands this: as a country that, since its inception, has been battered by complicated and ongoing unresolved trauma from generations of invasion, occupation, and dictatorship, a continued US military post-war presence nearly eighty years after the Korean War ended and the constant threat of nuclear and civil war from the North, it makes sense that Koreans are always on high alert. That we always feel threatened.
But then there’s also the halmoni’s, the grandmothers who pick fallen flowers out of my hair and give me candy, praising my Korean when I offer to take their picture for them. “Why are you here all alone?” they ask, and I’m grateful for the attention even as my eyes fill with tears.
This is also part of what it means to be Korean, this jung, this feeling of unspoken connection and profound affection that all Koreans experience and feel for one another. But even this specifically Korean concept is fading, migrating from cities and into the countryside with the tidal wave of neoliberalism and cutthroat competition that makes Seoul a global powerhouse while suffocating its citizens. Nevertheless, jung is what connects Korean people across generations and continents, creating a net of solidarity that transcends time and place. I think this is what happens when there’s the fear of disconnection, when you live in a land that’s always under threat of disintegration. When there’s always the possibility that everything you know will disappear. You find ways to connect, and you cling to them. You learn to make home out of nothing, to house your loneliness.
Tricia Park is a concert violinist, writer, and educator. She is a music graduate of The Juilliard School and received her MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tricia is a Fulbright Grant Awardee in Creative Writing and currently resides in Seoul, Korea, where she’s working on a literary and musical project. Her writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and F Newsmagazine. She was also a finalist for contests in C&R Press and The Rumpus. Since making her concert debut at age thirteen, Tricia has performed on five continents and has received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is the host and producer of an original podcast called, “Is it Recess Yet? Confessions of a Former Child Prodigy.” Tricia has served on faculty at The Juilliard School, the University of Chicago, and the University of Iowa. She has taught creative writing for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa and is on faculty for Cleaver Magazine, where she teaches writing workshops and is a creative nonfiction editor. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. Tricia also maintains a private studio of violin/viola students and writing clients. Learn more about Tricia and listen to her podcast at: www.isitrecessyet.com. Listen to Tricia play violin at: https://www.youtube.com/c/triciapark.
Because the spring tide comes in on its own time, because the earth goes on turning and the moon goes on circling around us and the ocean eddies unevenly but inevitably between them, because the seawater rises even in the desert latitudes of the world where scorching winds blow dust in the eyes of sailors, the tide came in on the seventh day after the Ever Given lodged slantwise in the throat of the Red Sea like a crust of dry bread. It was because the seawater welled in the deep trench men cut between continents, because the seawater poured into the furrows men scratched into the muddy banks where her bow sank into the sand, because the seawater flowed under and around her steel hull, that this colossal obstruction, this beached vessel vast enough to be seen from space, this ship of shipments simply buoyed up and floated away, as light as the plastic dross she ferries across the world to waiting hands. And so you too can wait, ever grounded and ever grateful, as long as it takes for the tide to lift you out of the mud and clay when all your clawing at the earth cannot.
Sara Davis (@LiterarySara) is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia with two elderly cats. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She has previously published essays on food history and culture, and currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.
Through the COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, people were buying everything in sight. During a visit to my local supermarket, the empty shelves were familiar. In my youth, in communist Czechoslovakia, empty shelves were a norm, not the result of a pandemic.
A memory flooded in. I had to put my hand over my still unmasked mouth to hide the smile as I joined a line of people waiting for a new supply of toilet paper. I came back to the apartment empty-handed and told my husband how we dealt with toilet paper shortages back then.
Under communism, toilet paper was quite often a scarce item. There was never enough of it to store up, so we used newspapers. We children were tasked with tearing the pages of the newspaper into squares, then crushing them in our hands before putting them into a shoebox that was then taken to the WC and placed within easy reach for the would-be occupant of the throne. The idea was to make the paper softer and to get most of the ink on our hands, which we washed much more often than our behinds.
There were certain pieces, with photographs of the government officials and members of the communist party, that my father kept for himself. And the pages with Brezhnev and his Czechoslovak lackeys’ pictures on them he saved for special occasions. My father was lactose intolerant but loved cheese. Every so often he would bow to the demands of his taste buds, with the predictable results. Then it was Brezhnev and his crew’s time.
My American husband was astonished by my story and rejected the idea on the grounds that the newspaper would block the drains, though I have to say he scored points in my book because he did not object to the idea, in principle, of using the newspaper. Perhaps there were particular politicians he had in mind. There was no doubt in my mind who my Brezhnev and his enablers would be. Thanks to the narrow pipes of our civilized nation, however, such justice has remained but a dream.
Anika Pavel was born Jarmila Kocvarova in Czechoslovakia. She became a refugee when the Soviet Union invaded her homeland. She lived in England, Hong Kong, and Monte Carlo before settling in New York City, where she is a writer. She writes in Slovak and in English. Her short stories have been published in BioStories, Potato Soup Journal, Tint Journal, Nixes Mate Review, and Ariel Chart. Her story “Encounter With The Future” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More at www.anikapavel.com.
Here are the ways I have heard it happens: in bed, waking to wheezing, breathing in loose clumps lining your pillow. Out with friends, falling into your Cobb salad, your Pinot. In the pool, raking waters in a panic, clawing to clean up the unhinged mess you have become. Wiping sweat away from your brow after removing your garden hat, now filled with clumps. In the conference room, before a presentation, onto your notecards. With windows down, enjoying a summer breeze until you see it in the rearview mirror, whipping and whirling away and out of your car. Fast, far, and away, anywhere and everywhere, because it defies boundaries.
Here is how it happened to me.
I am finished running. There was no sun, but my scalp burns, it itches. I didn’t expect this process to be painful down to the follicles, but it only makes sense. There is always pain when there is an abandon. I am trying to relieve the screaming in my scalp, Ma, so I stand in the shower, palms on either side of the spigot, head bowed in submission.
I knew it was coming, Ma, I saw it thinning all weekend, so I am ready, I promise. I have been walking within a warning, and I will do it right. I am making a proper sacrifice by bathing before a butchering, by washing before an offering. And so, I open my eyes. I see pieces of me that detach, that fall away, that coil around the drain, my tears mix with the water, Ma, pushing them all the way away.
There is a shaking in my hands when I shut off the shower, a shaking as I wrap one towel around myself and when I reach for another. This shaking does not steady nor cede but there is a deadpan I maintain, until I feel an effortless removal, when I pull the dampened towel away.
There is an animal noise that comes from somewhere inside my apartment, Ma, some deep yet distant carnal wailing I cannot track nor translate. There is a widening of my eyes, a tremor growing with violent ferocity. I ride its jagged lightning, flinging the matted mess away from me.
There is a mirror and a spastic swiping of steam, but this is a mirror that is not true, because in it is not me—instead there is a woman I have never seen. The left side of her head is completely bare, Ma, her scalp a pale slice of skin; a raw slab of meat.
This woman in the mirror, Ma, she looks confused. She frowns and I frown back, so I walk away, but she does too. She is following me through my apartment—from the mirror on my door to the mirror above my bed. So I move faster, running to the mirror in my living room, my bathroom, my bedroom, but there she is again and again and again.
I blink at her and she blinks at me. I raise my left hand and so does she. I reach to run my fingers through soft waves, but I feel only a headstone scalp—bald and bare. Then she is panicking, Ma, reaching frantically for hair. She is always reaching for what is no longer there.
This woman, she runs back to the bathroom where she finds the towel she cast aside. She lays it in front of the full-length mirror, her tears a torrent in her eyes. She kneels before it like an altar, with short and choppy breaths—she begs, “no, no, no,” her only prayer a pathetic lament. She lines up lost tresses before her where she sits, and the rest, Ma, she remembers in snips.
There is a shaking hand that calls Aimee, that calls you. There is an earth-quaking voice that manages, “the shaver,” until she goes dashing back to every room. There is the consulting every mirror for a contradiction, but they all tell her the same truth: “the woman in the mirror is you.”
There is the bedroom floor, mirror and altar again. There is the rocking back and forth, eyes oscillating between who she is and who she’s been. There are heels of hands pressed into eye sockets, pads of fingers tapping and padding toward a precipice, shrieking at the feeling of skull through skin.
There is the hair that falls around her from only bowing her head, there is the frantic picking up of pieces, of salvaging severance from stem. There are nail marks that draw blood from fists too tightly clenched, there is trying to make the shards hers again. There is the desperate holding up of them—first to the woman in the mirror, then her mother who walks in.
There is incorrigible sobbing that turns to incoherent blubbering when you find me there, holding up pieces of myself I have lost so that you may see. There is a falling of your face and then your body to your knees as you watch what happens when I cannot let go of what has let go of me. There are my hands, Ma, and then there are yours—yours—reaching for not what I have lost, but for what you have: me.
There are hands, pulling me into you, rocking me as long as I need, my muffled mumblings spit-soaking your shoulder until they cease. Hands holding my face out from yours, wiping my tears instead of your own, your eyes a red-rimmed graveyard of grief. You tell me you’re sorry, tell me you know, tell me to breathe.
There are your hands, not forcibly removing what I am not ready to release, but holding soft a death grip that opens gradually. Your hands, pulling me up when I cannot stand or see, raising my arms above my head, out of this towel and into something warm despite my pleas. Your hands, helping me rip the mirror off the wall to take outside with me, even if you don’t understand why this is something I need to see.
Your hands, I let lead. Into structured slaughter, to the dark dock where the water rushes beneath. Where Aimee takes the mirror and puts it in front of my seat. Where there is a single red rose in a vase upon a table, where there is a candle with a flame that flits in fits but does not flee. Shadows that flicker over a shaver conjure a gnash of teeth, waiting to cut and cleave, and in the dance of light, Ma, I swear it’s smiling at me.
Courtney Elizabeth Young is a 32-year-old rape crisis counselor and sexual assault survivors’ advocate pursuing an MFA at Southern New Hampshire University while in her second battle with triple-negative breast cancer. She has lived on and backpacked six continents and over thirty countries alone so far—but isn’t done yet. A proud owner of both the DRD4 and MAOA gene, she has lived out loud her wild ride through life on everything from cocaine to camels, from crocodiles to cancer. She won the Emerging Writer’s Grand Prize through Elephant Journal, was the featured travel photographer and writer in DRIFT Travel Magazine, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Palooka Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, and Tipping the Scales: She Speaks and Hour of Women’s Literature.
I don’t remember who suggests skinny dipping (me?), but none of us have our suits on anymore. At least I don’t. I am twelve, and we are at a friend’s remote lake property for a swim team picnic. It’s after 9 PM—many families have left already—and dark, so there’s not much to see, just the occasional fleeting glimmer of something pale beneath the lake’s surface. Flesh, ghost, or fish, it’s hard to tell. It smells like the end of summer—tang of smoke from burnt bluegrass fields, the day’s heat evaporating from boulders and docks, pine needles crushed in dirt beneath bare feet. Naked bodies slip through the water around me like otters.
On shore, our parents shake their heads and laugh and hold towels for when we decide to emerge. Some of the less intrepid swimmers huddle in sweatshirts or wrapped in towels. A bulbous half-moon hangs above and the sky feels massive and close at the same time, like the whole universe is right here with us.
I am giddy with the water’s cool touch on my body, all of my body, the thrill of someone’s leg grazing mine. The crescendo of laughter and voices builds in my chest until I am slithering out of the water, onto an inflatable raft, and standing, clumsily, on its undulating surface. The night air envelops me; my skin erupts in goosebumps. Someone on shore points a flashlight at me.
The white glare catches my dripping pubescent body, transforms me into someone else, or maybe someone more than I am on land. The night sounds—rhythmic lap of waves, occasional mosquito whine, nervous giggles of naked kids, chorus of bewildered parents’ voices—fall silent.
Am I thinking about everyone watching? I don’t think so. Not yet. I raise my arms, triumphant, and cry, “I’m not ashamed of my body!” My voice crashes into the quiet, sending sound waves rippling through the night. For one glorious moment, my body is a beacon, then I dive into the water, mooning the moon before I disappear into the underwater hush and the shock of my own declaration, something I didn’t know how much I wanted until I said it. Later, I will turn each word over in my head, examining them from every angle, searching for hidden meanings. But here, submerged in lake water, the words drift around me, flickering with hope and possibility. Then another thought slips in: what except shame could elicit such a declaration? My words begin to sink toward the dark lake bottom as my body begins to rise.
When I surface, all I hear is laughter. But it’s not the same laughter that lifted me onto the raft. If I were wearing a bra, this laughter would snap the strap. If I were walking to class, this laughter would thrust out its foot and trip me. I become acutely aware of a group of still-clothed swimmers sitting together on shore, away from the parents. They are my age and a couple of years older. I can’t look at them, but I feel every one of their eyes on me. Near the raft, heads bob and limbs splash, oblivious, and only now do I notice that everyone in the water is younger than me. I am the only naked one with breasts, the only one with pubic hair, the only one who failed to understand some unspoken rule about which bodies should stay hidden. Even in the cold water, my face burns.
I debate how long I can stay underwater, consider how far it is to the other side of the lake, how long I can swim in the dark by myself. The younger kids begin to get cold or bored and paddle to shore, where chuckling parents wrap them in dry towels.
Submerging myself again, I wonder how much the older boys saw and what they thought. As I float underwater, I still feel their eyes on me, but something has changed. My skin prickles with a feeling I can’t yet recognize, a shapeshifting mixture of pleasure, power, and shame. I kick my legs slowly to feel my body against the water, the water against my body.
Later, after I wait as long as I can, after most people have disappeared into their sleeping bags or gone home, when I am pruny and shivering and alone, I tiptoe out of the water and, as quickly as possible, wrap a towel around the body of which I am not ashamed. Over the next few weeks, moms will stop me on the pool deck or in the locker room and say things like, “Good for you!” and “You tell ‘em!” while not quite meeting my eye. I don’t know how to reply. I want to ask them how they learned to hide their bodies, what other rules I should know. I want to ask how many ways our bodies can surprise us, betray us, thrill us, mislead us. I want to know who makes the rules, what happens when we break them. I want to ask them if women have always worn shame like skin. I want to ask how long I will feel exposed and if it’s worth that moment of standing naked and brave in the spotlight. Please, I want to say, tell me I will always remember the light on my skin, before everything changed, even when my perspective shifts and I can only see her from shore. Isn’t this how a girl grows up—by offering her body to the world?
Lindsay Rutherford is a writer and physical therapist in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Lunch Ticket, The MacGuffin, Mothers Always Write, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Every Korean girl I know freaks out about going back to Korea. Some are yuhaksaeng, the Korean born who study, work, and live abroad. Some are like me, American born and returning to Korea for the first or third or one hundredth time. We represent a range of the diaspora, living in various states of exile.
“I’m so ugly,” we sigh, pulling at our faces as we peer at ourselves, our noses close to the mirrors, examining every pore, every hair, every line, imagined or no.
“Oh, I’m so fat,” we moan, pulling at our arms, our thighs, our middles. “I’m going to get an earful. My mother/my grandmothers/my aunties will be so angry that I’m so fat.”
We count calories. We run for miles. We sweat to YouTube workout videos with cheerful, taut-bodied White girls, bouncing up and down, hopped up on endorphins and hairspray. We do snail mucus face masks. We max out credit cards, buy new clothes we can’t afford, even though we know we’ll need to buy more in Korea because people dress better in Korea than in America. Bring some nice clothes.
But it’s too little too late. This is an exercise in futility. We know there isn’t really anything we can do about it. It’s too late.
I’m about to go live in Korea.
The last time I was in Seoul, my uncle took me to brunch at the Ritz-Carlton. I sat gaping over his shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” He turned around to see.
She could have been eighteen or thirty-eight, it was impossible to tell. Tiny and delicate, her face mummified with huge white bandages, a sling holding up her chin, another thick piece of gauze and metal across the bridge of her nose. At first I thought she was wearing eye shadow until I realized they were bruises. Her eyes were blackened like a prize fighter’s. Her nails were perfectly manicured, a pale blush except for one nail on each hand, encrusted with crystals that sparkled as she daintily held silver tongs, plucking two perfect slices of watermelon from the extravagant buffet table, laden with fruit like jewels, crab legs and roast beef and bacon and eggs and cakes and pastries.
My uncle shrugged, and with a rueful chuckle he said, “It’s shocking, huh? You probably don’t see that in America, do you?” And then, “Welcome to Gangnam.”
The ideal Asian female form and countenance is highly standardized and uniform. We see this ideal across all manner of Asian countries. In a world where medical pilgrimages are made to worship at the temple of manufactured perfection, South Korea is the mecca, the epicenter for cosmetic surgery.
The Gangnam district is one of the most expensive and desirable pieces of real estate in Seoul. The hustle, the urgency, the skyscrapers, are so overwhelming they make New York City seem like a backwater, a country town, slow and lumbering when compared to the sleek, modern efficiency of Seoul. Everyone is well dressed, everyone is on a mission, in a hurry. Everyone seems to be moving as fast as they can.
When you emerge from the immaculate subway station, the first thing you notice are the signs. The giant pictures everywhere, above and below ground. Beautiful Korean girls, large eyes, tiny perfect noses, pale translucent skin, pointy chins, glossy hair. Even I can’t tell one from the other, they are so uniformly lovely. I gaze past these images, at the endless signs up and down the sides of these immense buildings. Storefronts advertise plastic surgery procedures, every window a portal to a prettier face, a better body. A better life, a step up the ladder.
A chance to improve one’s destiny.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have double folded eyelids. If you mention double folds to White people, they look at you like you’re crazy.
“What are you talking about,” they ask as they peer closely at your face. “What fold?”
It never bothered me or even occurred to me to notice it until my best friend mentioned it once. She was Korean, too. “Rub your eyes,” she said, miming a finger over her eyelid. “That way your eyes will look bigger.”
I went home and rubbed my eyes and, wouldn’t you know it, it worked. My eyes seemed to double in size. But the trouble was the folds didn’t hold overnight. When I closed my eyes to sleep, they would vanish and I would wake up to the same eyes, now small. I could no longer ignore that my eyes were ugly. To make things worse, the folds were asymmetrical—sometimes one side would hold and the other wouldn’t, giving my face a lopsided look, like a stroke victim.
I learned all of the tricks. I learned to rub my eyes raw and bright red. I would stand in front of my full-length mirror, stomping my feet when the folds didn’t appear, a panicky feeling rising in me as I saw one round eye emerge and one flat one. The best days were when they folded neatly and stayed; on those days, I felt pretty.
I learned about the glues and the sticks to poke the skin back. I learned to cut tiny crescents of scotch tape and sleep with them on, training my face overnight. No more lost hours, these were literal beauty rests. I still travel with a spool of scotch tape in my makeup bag.
“How prepared you are,” people say backstage when their sheet music falls apart, relieved when I hand them the familiar clear tape.
My eyes are now folded. I don’t know if it’s the result of years of scotch tape and willing them to be rounder.
“You had the sanggapul surgery, right?” my female Korean friends ask me.
“No,” I say, and their eyes widen.
“Oh, how lucky you are.”
At Juilliard, a White boy once asked me: “You’ve had that surgery right, the eye one?”
I was unprepared for how to answer—I knew it wasn’t any of his business, but I was blindsided by his question. Years later, I still think about how I was both ashamed to be asked and relieved that I could honestly say no. No, I hadn’t altered my appearance—at least, not to that extent.
Many of my female Korean friends have had the surgery. In Korea, matchmakers demand pictures of their female clients from when they were in elementary school to verify whether their double folds are authentic. I don’t think they ask the same of the men. It used to be that getting sanggapul suseul was a gift your parents gave you as a high school graduation present, with the understanding that college was the most valuable time. The time when you would meet your future husband, so you should be the prettiest you could be. You can tell when they close their eyes; you can see the deep groove where the incisions were made, often they’re still red. Sometimes, drinking brings up the redness.
A tell-tale mark. The permanent scar that makes their eyes round.
An American surgeon, a White man, David Ralph Millard, developed surgical procedures after the Korean War to make Asian eyes rounder, redistributing cartilage to elevate Asian noses. Soon, this surgery was performed on Korean women, war brides and sex workers, stitching up their eyes to make them more appealing to White men.
Known as an upper eyelid blepharoplasty, this procedure is done to reshape the eyelid to create a double fold. It’s the most common cosmetic procedure done in East Asia and in parts of India. And it’s the third most requested aesthetic procedure amongst Asian Americans. This procedure is also one that can be deemed medically necessary, for example, for heavy eyelids that can block vision.
The earliest recorded documentation of this kind of procedure is from 1895, when an unnamed reporter wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the surgery as it then existed in Japan: “In their efforts to acquire recognition in the civilized world, the Japanese have found their greatest barrier in the unmistakable mark of their Mongolian origin. The prejudice against Mongolians is undeniable, and among the Japs, the slanted eye being its only evidence, the curse is being removed.”
About 50 percent of East Asians do have double folds, we insist, so it’s not necessarily that we want to look more White. It’s that we want to look more pretty. We want to be prettier. We aspire to a “universal beauty.”
But what the hell does that even mean? Pretty according to what? According to whom?
The idea of the innocent vixen-lady in the streets, freak in the sheets is even more exaggerated in Korea. Women are infantilized; just take a look at the K-pop girl groups for a glimpse of this distressing message of hypersexualized prepubescence. And across Asian porn is this idealized figure, this woman-child waif who weeps and wails in a performance of protest as she gives in. The man’s role is to push her, to override her protests. Her repeated denials are not meant to be taken seriously, but instead, she is meant to be fetishized. The message is this: the Asian woman’s body is meant to be raped and plundered, her protestations are flimsy and false, her conquest inevitable. It is the man’s role, nay, responsibility, to command the Asian woman, to take over, to pillage and seize what is rightfully his.
I can’t think of a clearer metaphor for the West’s colonization of the East.
One Sunday, when I was small, my mother took me to church alone. A Korean church, where, of course, the congregation whispered and stared at this new parishioner, this young mother with her small daughter. They speculated that my mother had married a White man, the easiest explanation for both the father’s absence and my light brown hair and round eyes. A White husband would also explain other invented stories in their minds: that my mother was a single mother—unusual even in 1980’s America and a scandal in Korea—and a White man would have likely been a GI during the war and my mother would have been from a poor background, because everyone knows that only prostitutes or poor girls married White soldiers as a way to get out of Korea, to escape poverty or a bad family, or even worse, a broken hymen.
They invented a whole narrative, based on my face, my hair, my skin, my small body.
So, the next Sunday, when my mother returned with my father holding my other hand as we walked into the church, the hostile, suspicious congregants gave a collective sigh of relief.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” they greeted our young family differently this time, with respectful bows, a full ninety degrees from the waist instead of the insolent head bobs of the week before, and warm smiles, the women bustling around my mother and me, the men slapping my father on the shoulder. The fact of my parentage—Korean on both sides—transformed my light hair and round eyes.
“How pretty,” the church parishioners cooed at me, stroking my hair that glinted nearly blond in the light as I stared up at them with my eyes, round as coins. To have a fully Korean baby who looked like she could be part-White: what had been tainted the week before, was, this Sunday, my family’s great good fortune.
In the years following the Korean War, South Korea was swept up in “American fever,” which peaked in the decades of the 1970’s and 80’s, a cultural tsunami that infiltrated and watered the underlying cultural beliefs of the country. The ongoing and substantial US military presence in South Korea gave rise to the idealization of all things American, this belief that America was powerful, wealthy, and modern. Superior.
The brutal years of Japanese occupation, and then the devastation of the Korean War, a “forgotten” war, overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War, a war of containment that the US implemented as its Cold War privilege in its ongoing battle to beat back communism. It left the country literally broken, divided in half. Korea, 4 million dead, war-torn and impoverished, looked to America and Americans as an example to be emulated.
After all, Korea relied completely on America for what remained of its economy. Why would I want to be Korean—small, pathetic, impoverished, sitting bewildered in the rubble of a war-torn country, with nothing to eat or wear, no future to hope for—if I could be American, walking its streets paved of gold?
America as pathological liar.
I wonder if this is where it really began, this elevation of Whiteness in the Korean psyche. Is this a dot on the timeline of the toxic obsession with Westernized beauty that continues to dictate and oppress Korean women? Is this how we learned to despise our own culture and aesthetics in favor of chasing after Whiteness, the all-American beauty? And perhaps it makes sense.
After all, if the land of your birth is also the foundation of your trauma and pain, where the very intergenerational inheritance is one of self-loathing, oppression, and colonization, of course then, it makes sense. I, too, would reject myself in order to strive for the other, so that I might have a fighting chance in a world that I’ve learned, generation after generation, will always forsake me.
If I am perfect enough, good enough, maybe then I don’t have to grieve. Maybe I can be perfect enough that I won’t have to look back. If I’m perfect, if I’m beautiful, then maybe I can stop running, stop chasing so hard.
Maybe then I can finally rest.
In Korean there’s this way of saying, my heart aches too much so I cannot express it. Wordless heartache. A heartache so big that it catches in my throat and I cannot speak it.
When I am in Korea, I feel a peculiar longing, this strange feeling of, oh, this is almost it. This is almost belonging. This is almost beautiful. I am almost home, but not quite.
I think of the ways my parents don’t belong anywhere. The Korea they left no longer exists, philosophically and even geographically, and so there is no way to return.
And what is returning, homecoming, homegoing, really? Is it actually possible?
And I think about the ways America will never be home either, not for me or for my parents. How assimilation is both impossible and entirely too costly.
Because to assimilate would mean to disappear, to sound and look and act so White that our Koreanness would no longer exist. And the material impossibility of this; after all, no amount of plastic surgery will ever make me White.
And I think of all the Korean parents who deliberately never taught their children Korean, fearing that their children might have an accent, might not sound American enough. How we relinquished our identities in the hopes for a better future. And how this created yet another loss, another chasm there, between generations and culture and language, separating all of us.
Tricia Park is a concert violinist, podcaster, and writer. She is a music graduate of The Juilliard School and received her MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tricia is a 2020-2021 Fulbright Grant Awardee in Creative Writing and currently resides in Seoul, Korea, where she’s working on a literary and musical project. Her writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and F Newsmagazine. She was also a finalist for contests in C&R Press and The Rumpus. Since making her concert debut at age thirteen, Tricia has performed on five continents and has received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is the host and producer of an original podcast called, “Is it Recess Yet? Confessions of a Former Child Prodigy.” Tricia is on faculty in the Music Department at the University of Chicago and also maintains a small private violin studio. She has taught creative writing for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa and currently teaches writing privately and for Cleaver Magazine, where she is a Creative Non-Fiction editor. Tricia is also the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. Learn more about Tricia and listen to her podcast at: www.isitrecessyet.com. Listen to Tricia play violin at: https://www.youtube.com/c/triciapark
Light airs! Light airs! A pierce of angels! Theodore Roethke
…it is not the skill of the hand / That writes poetry, but water, trees, / And the sky which is clear to us even though it’s dark. Czeslaw Milosz
I was torn between the desire to show how well I was dealing with things and the imperative to show that I was not O.K., that this man’s actions had derailed my life in a thousand ways. Rebecca Makkai
Each time, Greta recreates her grief from scratch. There is no mercy for time served. She bobs to the surface like some stupid laughing doll.
Well, what did he know? How many times had he been raped? Greta could tell him that you went numb and left your body to float somewhere near the sparkly sprayed-on ceiling. That way, you weren’t really there. But afterwards, your body bled and bruised. You hit your head against the wall to shake out thoughts: how you wanted to die, how you should die.
Then, two days later, you walked around as if you were just like everyone else: worried about exams and what you were going to be when you grew up. Greta could also tell him you were never the same. The rapist coiled inside like a snake, and no matter how many times you made love because you chose to, the rapist had always been there first.
This is one more narrative about a young woman, a child really, trying to navigate a fucked-up predatory world. I dream I’m in some kind of ceremony where I am free to shout at the top of my lungs as I’ve never shouted in my life. Girls aren’t supposed to shout.
With rape, I see this again and again. The girl (Greta) marches off bravely to her rape, although of course she never anticipates that’s what she’s marching off to. During the assault, she hunkers down, hoping not to be injured or killed or even to offend. Either she doesn’t tell anyone because she’s so ashamed or she tells lots of people. They say (a) it didn’t happen, (b) what happened wasn’t rape, (c) he used the oldest ruse in the book, or (d) girls are meant to be raped.
All I ever wanted was to be a forest bodhisattva. Writing about rape, my own and that of one of four girls and one in six boys before we reach eighteen, I feel empty, like death. If my partner or a friend turns away for one instant, I feel abandoned.
As a child, I wasn’t safe. When I was in elementary school, a houseguest fondled me. When I told the family friend who brought that guest, he told me that men did that. Then he started in too.
My college was a predator’s playground. Many male faculty members, single or married, had relationships with students. While writing this, I called four of those faculty members I most trusted, even revered. What they said was off the record, I assured them. I just wanted to know their thoughts. One asked, “Do you think it hurts students to have affairs with married faculty members?”
As I headed off to college, the man who molested me as I was growing up asked, “Do you think what I did hurt you or damaged you?”
Of course not, I assured him.
And I believed it.
Turns out the professor who asked whether affairs hurt students fathered a child with one. He refused to acknowledge her pregnancy. Later, the son turned up on campus to confront his father. They looked like twins.
Many who are assaulted don’t blame the assailant. We blame ourselves. There’s something wrong with me, I thought as a child, as a teen.
Though for the years I counseled survivors of rape and assault, never once did I blame the woman. Or the girl.
When I arrived at college, I was still a child. Although I believed myself ancient and wise, able to handle anything, I knew little about the world. My confidants were my journals and books. I felt and still feel safest surrounded by wilderness and the calls of wild creatures. After I was assaulted on campus, lacking loving mirrors, I failed to comprehend how severely I was injured. Predators stalk easy prey.
The male plot line in so many novels and stories: I saw her. She wanted me. I fucked her. She loved it.
My plot line: when walking in the forest or writing, I feel the best or almost the best that I ever feel. Time vanishes. Writing is anesthesia. The forest heals.
At first, I could only write about being raped if I used third person. Sometimes, to further distance myself, I wrote third person in Spanish. I was ashamed to admit I was so incredibly naive. When my college work-study supervisor asked if I was interested in art modeling, I was flattered. The wage he quoted was three times what I earned baby-sitting for professors, waking at dawn to serve bacon and eggs in the campus food service, or collating and stapling course materials in the print shop.
My roommate modeled for the art department. I was already jealous. She must be prettier than I and certainly sexier; she had a boyfriend, and I did not. When I told her I didn’t want a boyfriend, that I came to college to learn, she told me I needed to surrender. But when she and her boyfriend had sex a few feet from my head in our tiny shared dorm room, it didn’t sound fun. I’d rather be buried in a pile of books, reading my way through the nights.
“Boring,” my roommate said. “Posing in the art department? So fucking boring.”
I heard about classmates jumping from windows. As our dorms were only four stories high, I wondered how they died. I became obsessed with literary suicides. I read journals and letters of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. I was angry they died instead of sharing secrets for survival. Assigned a literary biography for a class, I dressed as Virginia Woolf and reported her life story as if it were my own. The prof asked me to stay after class. He said the presentation was brilliant. “If you ever need a rec, come to me,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant and was too shy to ask.
I wrote my research paper on the Artist as Madwoman. Plath and Woolf again. A+ on that one.
Six years ago, graduates from my college were invited to participate in something called the Memory Project. The four editors, two of whom I knew, provided prompts: Who were you when you were a student? Who were your friends, enemies, or nemeses? What was the craziest, funniest, or most memorable event from your college years? What were the most important themes of your studies and the most valuable skills gained from your undergraduate experience?
Describe a pivotal learning moment.
“Expect classmates to respond to your story from their memories and version of events, which will also become part of the public record,” the invitation concluded.
Although grateful to attend college at all, I’d never felt much affection for my alma mater. As I responded to the prompts, I found myself waking at three in the morning frozen in terror. At random moments, I would cry. When I called those four professors, the ones I’d trusted most, I learned our campus was much darker than I’d known, and that few had perfectly clean hands.
All four assured me I must share my memories. “I’m glad you’re finding closure,” one said.
After I was assaulted, I rode my bicycle to a remote cottage maintained by the college. With a blue fountain pen, I filled a spiral notebook with self-blame. I began with, “how can I live after this?” I ended with a poem about mosses, which I was studying in botany class. After being crushed underfoot, I wrote, moss springs back.
I wrote about Greta. I wrote in Spanish. I wrote in third person.
Although devastated, Greta was strong.
When I sent my pages to the Memory Project coordinators, one responded that my contribution reminded him of our “attempts to find freedom and joy to replace fear and coercion.” Then, a few days before I was to set off to share my piece with other contributors, I received a call from someone I’d never met: the new college dean.
“I have bad news for you,” he said. “Your piece can’t be included in the Memory Project.” He’d showed my contribution to university counsel, he said. They said it could be libel. “Maybe you don’t care about that,” he said.
“The rape?” I asked. “Or the student who harassed me afterward?” I pointed out I’d written only in the most general terms. I’d used no names or identifying details. As for the student who pounded on my dorm room door afterward, shouting that I was a whore and should fuck him too? He’d dropped out of school, only to later confess he and his roommate had placed bets on whether they could get me to kill myself.
“I’m asking you to withdraw your piece,” the dean said. “I don’t want to be discriminatory, but if you don’t pull yours, the Memory Project can’t go forward.”
As I’d already made reservations for the event at my college, I headed north with my husband and our ailing collie. We parked a few feet away from where the assault began. My collie peed on the very spot.
The dean and others gave speeches about why alums should donate financially to the college.
“Rape isn’t good for fund-raising,” my husband whispered.
A student of color described how the college had empowered her. I wondered if she was safe. In the restroom, stacks of poppy-colored cards listed nine places to contact “if you experience sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or other sexual misconduct.”
Later, sleeping in our rented room, I awoke gasping, as though a gigantic foot was planted on my chest.
Jonathan Shay writes that Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a kind of moral injury, a “betrayal of what’s right in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Traumatic memory enters the body and “stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical process that not only changes the physiology of the victims, but the physiology of their offspring.”
Hortense Calisher says, “Speaking out loud is an antidote to shame.” Nancy Mairs disagrees. “I know the rules of polite discourse,” Mairs writes. “I should have kept my shame, and the nearly lethal sense of isolation and alienation it brought, to myself.” Dorothy Allison describes how she tried to kill herself, because erasing the self meant erasing the shame.
Yearning to die, writes bell hooks, is about a “longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill the self in writing.”
“If every cell / inside my brain / is replaced // after seven years, / then why can’t I excise this,” writes Cathy Linh Che.
“I am a savant of survivor mode,” writes Jessica Knoll.
I wore a baggy brown dress I’d sewed myself. I was scheduled to meet my work-study supervisor in the dorm parking lot at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. It was April 9th, my mother’s birthday. In my teenaged cocoon of magical thinking, four details rendered me safe: Nothing bad could happen at ten-thirty in the morning. Nothing bad could happen on my mother’s birthday. A baggy brown dress rendered me sexless. My work-study supervisor was a college employee.
Also: Tuition had just tripled. My savings from high school and college jobs were nearly gone. If I couldn’t make tuition, I’d have to drop out.
As a counselor/advocate for rape and assault survivors, I heard my own story from an eighteen-year-old first raped at eleven. She described how the man tossed a bill onto her bare belly. Another was later murdered. Many said they needed money to put themselves through college or to support their extended family.
When my former classmate called to confess his roommate’s plot to make me commit suicide, I laughed. Or maybe Greta laughed. “You picked the toughest person in the school,” I said. I had other things to do. A life to live. I wasn’t going to let him or anyone derail my life. I didn’t yet know derailing can happen in other, subtler ways. I wanted the rape never to have happened. My solution was to devote myself to healing everyone else.
My husband wondered why I engaged with the Memory Project at all. “The invitation says we’re going to have a dialogue,” I said. I wanted to share my experiences with the people who’d been there. Maybe my story would help someone else.
As naïve as confiding in my former mentors turned out to be, even more naïve was my belief that someone might want to get to the bottom of what happened when a college employee used his position to lure young work-study students, already in need of funds to attend college, into danger. Because I’d also learned that I was not the only one.
Five months after the alumni event, while washing dishes in my sink, I overheard an NPR news clip. My alma mater was the subject of a federal investigation for Title IX Civil Rights violations. In April, shortly before the new dean’s call to head me off, a local news source had announced the investigation for failure to respond appropriately to reports of campus sexual abuse. If one of five women is assaulted on campus, the news source stated, that meant four hundred assaults on my former campus each year.
In the preceding three years, the report continued, only twelve reports were filed. Of those, three resulted in disciplinary action.
The school was further accused of silencing survivors of sexual violence by dismissing their cases. When one contacted a campus office listed on the poppy-colored card, they were told (by a man) that crying, going numb, or being silent did not mean that what happened was rape. Another had to face her assailant when she walked into her first seminar the next academic year. According to the local news source, the young man saw himself as the victim.
While serving as counselor/advocate for survivors, only three of fifty women I met with in a two-year span chose to contact the police. I was courtroom advocate for one of the rare cases that went all the way to court. The fifteen-year-old was badly beaten as well as sexually assaulted. As I saw it, the defense attorney objected to almost anything asked of the defendant, while the young woman was questioned endlessly. Why did she go into the house with him? How was she dressed? Was she a virgin? How many other men had she slept with? Did she lead him on?
Only two jury members were women. After the assailant was found innocent, I asked one why she voted for acquittal. “Who hasn’t been knocked around a bit?” she asked.
As a college student, I helped start a women’s group. One night someone suggested we each describe how we lost our virginity. Maybe I was still working msyelf around to sharing what had happened to me, but at the last minute, I dodged. I described not the rape, but my first voluntary sexual experience a year later. I did learn, though, that of nine smart, ambitious young women, only one described her first experience as positive. I envied her. She was my age yet absolutely confident about her sexuality, her right to occupy her own body, and to use that body as she chose.
I still have my spiral notebook filled with self-blame. For years afterward, through helping others, I sought to dispel my horror. “Conquering the rapist,” my psychiatrist called it. I want survivors to tell their stories and be heard, to speak out with courage and strength. I enjoy my alma mater’s prize-winning magazine featuring campus programs. Yet amidst the smiling faces and world-class accomplishments, I’ve never read a single reference about how to address campus assaults. I get it. Rape isn’t good for fund-raising. Neither is hiding the truth that adversely impacts students’ lives.
KC Pedersen’s writing appears in numerous journals and includes nominations for the Pushcart and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. More of Pedersen’s writing can be found atwww.kiriepedersen.com
The no-nonsense, middle-aged Filipino nurse tells me, pushing up her smudged glasses, that I need to clean up a bit down there. She waves her tiny hands dramatically around her own groin area and then shuffles over to me, all action. Am I embarrassed? Maybe. For some reason I feel like I’ve let her down. On day three in the hospital, day three with no breasts, day three of forcing a smile each time a visitor says knock knock out loud like it is funny, I guess it is time to get back to life.
I simultaneously hate her and feel bad for hating her because she is only doing her job. Vera, her name is. I see the pleasant serif font on the RN badge dangling around her neck. As instructed, I stay as still as possible while she hustles. Does she know how hard it is to do anything other than stay as still as possible? I am staring at the cheap tiled ceiling, and she is moving around me, adjusting IV lines hither and yon, preparing for the big adventure of cleaning my crotch. Now she has pulled the remote off of the bed, oh great—and now she has turned off the House Hunters International that I’d been enjoying very much, thank you. I’ll never know whether Ken and Elaine in London will settle with the cozy, updated mews in Kensington or the expansive, sunlit flat in St. John’s Wood. She closes the door. Knock knock, I think to myself. She yanks the privacy curtain closed, and the metal hooks pull along the top with a long, mechanical scratch.
I have to sit up; I have to remove my gown; I have to stretch both shoulders in a way that hurts too much. Are you serious? I want to shout, but Vera is only doing her job. And I’m not a big yeller, especially at strangers. Vera doesn’t uncloak me all at once, which is kind. Right arm first. Then left, the painful one. I stare at the ceiling as the warm soapy water slides all over me and becomes icy in a second flat because it’s June and the air conditioning is cranking. I stare at the ceiling and look at all the holes and remember when all the boys in eighth grade would toss their pencils up there and try to get them to stick and I wonder if anyone has ever done this in here. I stare at the ceiling and try to remember those boys’ names. I’m sure Jamie and Paul and maybe Doug were involved in the tomfoolery, and I wonder if my daughters have yet seen that trick in elementary school. The holes make deep pockmarks in the foamy tiles. I see the shape of my chest, the concave-looking basin that I guess is me now. My bandages are in full view. I see them and have nowhere else to look because Vera turned off House Hunters.
Tracy Rothschild Lynch has written poetry and creative nonfiction for more than twenty years. She holds an MA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. When not writing or reading, she plays mediocre tennis, watches movies, and divides her time exploring the surrounds of her home in Glen Allen, Virginia and in London, where she currently resides. Tracy recently completed a memoir about her mother’s sudden death as well as a collection of flash essays exploring micro-moments of breast cancer treatment.
I lie in bed, my eyes fixated on the fruit trees outside my bare windows. I do not have insomnia. I am bone tired. Recently, my pain is nocturnal. My body waits until my head makes contact with the pillow before fireworks burst in my pelvic cavity. I bend my knees like an upside-down V and press my feet into the mattress. V is for vulture. violence. victim. vampire. vagina.
The other day, my friend Melissa told me about the fund-what-you-fear philosophy. Her words bloat several text bubbles. They remind me of our distended stomachs: agitated, acting out, hardened. There’s something like less than one dollar a day that goes toward endometriosis research and when the medical world is predominantly men … it’s easy to see why they never push money towards diseases that only affect people with a uterus.
Is this a philosophy or just reality? I google “Fund What You Fear Philosophy.” The first entry is the 80s English pop duo Tears For Fears’s Wikipedia page. Other entries include a punk band, a first-person shooter video game, and a 2013 British psychological horror film where the characters are trapped in the same place regardless of what road they take to escape. Knowing these subjects weren’t what I was searching for, Google suggests I drop the word “fund.” “Missing: fund | Must include: fund.”
I met Melissa while interviewing sources for an article I was writing about energy work and endometriosis. She told me it took twenty-one years for her to be diagnosed. At that point, endo had eradicated her right ovary, covering it with black disease her surgeon described as “rotten fruit.” She had a tumor on her right fallopian tube, two endometriomas on her left ovary, clusters of adhesions on her diaphragm, eighth rib, abdominal sidewall, bladder, uterus, and lower pelvis. The disease had chewed a hole through her rectum requiring two layers of separate stitches.
My boyfriend holds onto my left arm; the other dangles off the bed, clicking a control button up and down, the settings high medium low. For other interviews, endo women have shared photos of burn marks on their bodies from extended use of the high setting. If I fall asleep with the red light on, I worry the bed will go up in flames. But sleep never comes to me. I coax my legs to stand and walk to the living room couch which doubles as a sickbed, the heating pad’s electric wire dragging behind me like an umbilical cord attached to no one.
Melissa’s diagnosis is horrifying, but it does not shock me. It reads like one of my own post-op reports, cysts and adhesions covering my pelvic region, digestive tract, and rectum. I stare at my sweatpants’ elastic waistband cinching my stomach and wonder what’s growing inside me right now. Which of my organs looks like rotten fruit? Our front yard is littered with deformed oranges in black, gray, and green mold fallen from a neighbor’s tree. At night, rats feast on the decomposing fruit. We pick them up, but there are always others to replace them.
Melissa and I are getting to know each other the way people with chronic, invisible illnesses do. Once alone, we now know someone who understands our pain, confusion, anger, isolation. We stick together like magnets, offering up our insides, in case one of my pieces fits with hers and we discover something new that could alleviate some of our pain. She is a painter and educator. We are both accidental activists, doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists, social workers, researchers, nutritionists, healers.
If a room of men in powerful positions who are in charge of allocating funds for research on diseases or treatment, they are more likely to fund things they can empathize with. This isn’t new information, but knowing it is unjust, someone gave it a name. I take a highlighter to it, write it on a sticky note. Every time we are seen, I underscore the words so they will glow in the dark. I imagine a million tiny pieces of paper illuminating unlit hallways from beds to couches or guest rooms across the globe. We are guests in our homes and in our bodies. We have no control over when the pain arrives or checks out.
Sometimes I wrap the plastic heat around my stomach. Other times my pelvic muscles cry for me to loosen them from their vice grip. Recently, I’ve been fastening the hot rectangle between my legs like a giant maxi pad. In the medicine cabinet, there are countless bottles of antidepressants and opioids in fuzzy peach, butter yellow, and baby blue pastels. I am not sad or bereft. The capsules are dress up costumes of people I don’t want to be. They’d grow fuzz inside my head, mask the pain, my personality, creativity, identity. Their child safety locks go unchallenged.
In 1990, Ellen Goodman wrote an article about a congressional hearing of the House subcommittee on health and the environment and how in scientific and medical research, testing is primarily done on white male rats. Females are “usually excluded because of what might be called ‘raging hormonal imbalance.’ Not only are men studied more, so are their health problems. All in all, about 13 percent of NIH’s $5.7 billion budget goes to study the health risks of the half of the population that is female.”
In the living room, I prop myself up with a pillow to write a fairytale about a place and time when there was no pain. The truth seeker in me is offended by my attempt to wring out the blood stains and backspaces to the beginning when women were set on fire for claiming to be sick.
In another article, “Endometriosis Sufferers Long Blamed,” Dr. Camran Nezhat, a Stanford University gynecologist, suggests that our 4,000-year history of blaming women for their “angry uteruses” has perpetuated the medical belief that pain with menstruation is normal.
My boyfriend pads into the room and rests his hand on my forehead. You okay? he asks. Mmm hmm. Okay, I nod. He’s told me he can see the pain on my face even when I try to hide it. I fear that if I complain too much, I’ll sound like a hypochondriac or he’ll think that I’m depressing to be around. Too much time on the couch and I’ll appear lazy or privileged. How people imagine bedrest: woman in silk pajamas eating pints of White Halo, online shopping, writing in her journal while binge-watching insert your favorite show. What bedrest actually looks like: unshowered woman in ripped sweatpants not sleeping, not eating, not journaling, crawling out of bed to press her head against the hardwood floor when the pain is too much.
According to Dr. Nezhat’s research, women were strapped into straight jackets, sent to asylums or prisons and subjected to leeches, hanging upside down, and bloodletting because they were attention seekers, experiencing “love sicknesses,” nymphomaniacs, drug addicts or suffering from mental illness. Others were deemed witches and burned at the stake. It is now believed that these women most likely had endometriosis.
I guess I never directly answered his question. I am not okay. What I meant was I will be okay because I can’t not not be okay.
Plato believed a woman’s desire to have sex was intrinsically tied to her innate need to have children. If she does not fulfill this desire, the womb will wander around her body “like an irrational, roaming animal” that will cut off her breathing. In the 1700s, this suffocation was rebranded as hysteria. Women were still hysterical until The American Psychiatric Association ceased using the term medically in 1952.
My GI doesn’t think the burning sensation I liken to someone pouring acid on my heart is endometriosis-related. He suggests I go to the emergency room the next time I have a flare-up and buy some Miralax, the equivalent of liquid Tums, from Costco. The one with the purple cap, he adds as he pats my back on our way out of the examining room.
The Ob/Gyn says he can’t see it, but my endometriosis has most likely grown back because I haven’t been taking care of it. When I decline his script for the hormone injection Lupron developed for chemotherapy, he shrugs his shoulders and suggests pregnancy because it would be the best of both worlds. He never asked me if I wanted to have children (I do), so I have no idea what two worlds he’s prescribing to all of his endo patients.
In pristine white scrubs and a halogen light above her head, my urologist Christine looks like an angel. A decade after my diagnosis, she is first to acknowledge my pelvic floor myalgia, another condition common for those with the disease. Reading the prescription for daily doses of Macrobid in my chart, her forehead wrinkles like a folded fan. Stop taking that. Immediately. And while she can’t help with my endometriosis, I should make appointments with other GIs and Ob/Gyns who have better advice to give. We have to work together as a team. It’s both a pep talk and an admission of what little information is available to women, even female doctors.
The Endometriosis Foundation of America confirms that pregnancy as a cure for endometriosis is a myth. There is no cure for the 200 million women staring out their windows at night while others are sleeping. Many who had taken Lupron developed osteoporosis, permanent joint pain, and nerve damage. A few days after my Ob/Gyn appointment, I read about a woman in Atlanta suing the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture it when her body began attacking her bones after two injections and is now confined to a recliner.
My pain comes in waves, small ones that break into white water before swallowing the shore. Other times they are four-to-six footers, rising, curling into themselves. I paddle wildly to get on top of them, stand up, and ride safely to land. Instead, they pull me under, dragging me like a rag doll. Suddenly, I am without breath and it feels exactly like almost choking to death. I struggle to resurface and find air again. When I do, my mouth opens wide to let all living things pass through—minnows, clams, stingrays, jellyfish. I breathe sharply like a black key, slippery, discordant, jarring, burning. It is my siren song.
Melissa sends me a Facebook group invitation connecting me to 50,000 endometriosis sufferers. Late at night, I stop writing stories and read all the things I could have done to receive better care and take control of my condition. It’s my daily shaming hour. If only social media existed back then, maybe I would have been able to have children. Maybe I would have slept more nights than not. Maybe it could have is the most painful symptom of all.
It’s five in the morning, my boyfriend tells me. In ninety minutes his alarm will fire. I follow him back to bed, grateful he is warm and there is no fire. I lay on my side, abandoning my heating pad to watch him drift into sleep like a dream. I am still wide awake.
Marnie Goodfriend is a writer, activist, installation, and social practice artist. She is a 2018 VCCA fellow, recipient of the Jane G. Camp scholarship, and a 2016 PEN America fellow. Her memoirs: Birth Marks, a coming-of-age story about a black market baby illegally sold by an infamous baby broker, and The Time It Takes To Leave My Body, chronicling the double rape of two young women by a serial rapist dubbed The Top Gun Rapist, are forthcoming. Her essays, articles, and other writing appear in TIME, Washington Post, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Marnie is essays editor at The Nervous Breakdown.
They say I should write you a letter. As a goodbye, they smile sadly, for closure. They say closure like it’s a literal thing I can touch, can put in my Amazon cart and click, it’s here. Aha! Now you’re closed. But how do you close a life? Maybe it’s like sending guests home after a party. Thank you for living, I say quietly, as you stand in the doorway not looking ready to leave. I gently push the door in your direction, biting my lip to stop from changing my mind. It’s late, and my kids are tired, I plead, so you step back but keep staring—sadly, silently, into the warm house. Now I push hard and fast, heart-pounding, sweaty fingers turning the bolt frantically. As if you might push back. As if it really matters. As if you’re not a ghost. I sink to the floor—back against the door, head in my knees—and sob. Wait, I scream, come back. I’m not ready. You never respected my privacy anyway.
The official cause of death is an overdose of carfentanil, but cocaine metabolites, fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and a positive screen for cannaboids all played a supporting role. I think that means you were high AF, but I also hope it means you were peaceful. I hope you were dreaming of floating on your back in a wide, sleepy river, arms and legs spread generously, sun on your face. A current lazily carrying you downstream, breaths deep and rhythmic, each exhale releasing tension that gets carried away by the ripples. Completely content, at last. Of course, that’s also the guided meditation my new therapist uses to keep fear from hijacking my mind, so, you know, take it for what it’s worth. While you survived the wounds of our childhood by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, I relied on anxiety and perfectionism. It turns out one of those coping mechanisms has higher odds of survival. The unfairness of that threatens to shatter me daily, a sledgehammer of guilt, suspended.
In 2017, the year you died, the U.S. Department of Health and Human services declared a public health emergency to address the national opioid crisis. More than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose that year, and Ohio (where you were cut open at 9:05 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October) was the state with the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths. The heart of it all, we’d roll our eyes as kids, unimpressed by our pedestrian Midwestern life. A heart stopped by the opioid epidemic, apparently. I know these details because in an attempt to make sense of, or maybe find meaning in, your death, I tried to find its place in some larger narrative. Like a puzzle piece, useless in isolation. Oh, I see, he fits right there, that spot—there’s a pattern to all this dying. It’s okay now. I’m okay now. Right? Unsurprisingly, it all still feels meaningless. Did it feel as meaningless to the medical examiner, I wonder, when she coldly cataloged your clothes?
White adult male received in white short-sleeved V-necked t-shirt, pair of white on black plaid boxer shorts with waistband of black, white and blue checked fabric, pair of white Nike sneakers, and pair of short white socks with gray heels and toes. Did she wonder what happened to your pants? Why you had on shoes but no pants? Why is there a description of the waistband of your boxers but no question as to the location of your pants? Maybe she was too busy noticing how clean your white Nikes were, a fellow shoe aficionado. Or maybe when she documented the cutaneous tattoo of a lion with an axe and crown in the lateral upper right deltoid, she thought of her own ink work and questioned the story behind yours. When she charted that your scalp was brown with scant gray and mild bitemporal hairline recession, there’s a chance she thought of her own husband’s impending baldness. Likely though, she kept her mind blank, focused solely on the medical undertaking, professionalism giving her the distance required to do her job. And yet, I can’t help but feel defensive. Did she describe the kind old man who died of natural causes, surrounded by dozens of friends and family, with the same detached tone? Or when she looked at you, did she only see another dead junkie?
I wish I could show her the pictures of you as a child, the ones I collected for your funeral slideshow, the tow-headed toddler with bright eyes and a disarming smile. Sitting confidently on our mother’s lap, looking curiously at the camera. Look, I’d say, at him here. Before all this. Isn’t it obvious he mattered? Don’t you see who he could have become? I also want to show them to the doctor who saved your life the summer before you died, the one I assume now realizes his effort was wasted. All that time, all my talent, for what? Six months? I imagine him thinking, and I resent him for that illusory judgment. Anger always feels better with a target. But also, I can’t shake that first impression.
That summer it had taken your girlfriend days to find you. She knew something was wrong, a sixth sense, and she tried to get everyone to worry. She called every hospital in Cincinnati (blind optimism ruling out morgues), and finally, there you were. You’d been there for at least a day already, brought in after calling your own ambulance when you realized you couldn’t walk. Confused by the searing pain in your arm and leg, you’d waited until you felt like you actually might die. You were dying, it turns out, rhabdomyolysis setting off a chain reaction of muscle death and kidney failure. It’s hard to imagine the pain you must have been in, how much you suffered in the name of self-sufficiency, or embarrassment, or fear of breaking parole, before finally asking for help. I blew through the drive from Chicago to find our parents already in the ICU (together! at the same time!), hovering helplessly over your cord-entangled body, while staff reminded us you were lucky to be alive. Or maybe I just sensed that, as the beeps and dings and whooshes crashed against the walls, a cacophony of uncertainty. So much support, to keep one heart beating. It seems ironic now.
They’d come suddenly to take you to another surgery, and you’d already had a few, so this one was risky, but without you’d die. Not much of a choice, and anyway, they said after we’d know better whether or not you’d live, and what kind of life that might be. A surgeon spent hours cutting out all the dead tissue and muscle from your body, saving whatever he could, giving you the best chance. Of what, we’ll never know. We spent hours in a massive, impersonal waiting room, getting on each other’s nerves and looking at our cell phones. It was more of a lobby, really, with a fireplace and a front desk and hundreds of chairs. So many chairs. A seat for every memory. I didn’t know it was possible to feel claustrophobic in such an open space, and I thought about that time we got in a fight and you ran away and swallowed an entire bottle of Benadryl. How scared I was trying to visualize what it looked like for a 12-year-old to have their stomach pumped, how mom screamed at me, Nowlook what you’ve done!
Sometimes, I’m caught in that space, in those hours, still waiting for you, checking in relentlessly with the woman at the information desk. A memory stuck on loop. The doctor knows we’re here, right? I ask, over and over, frustrated by how much time has passed without a single update. Hoping she might sympathize with the agony of spending hours not knowing. Because what if you’re back there, dead, and I’m out here, sipping a latte? Sighing, she repeats the line about the note she put in your chart asking the doctor to come out and brief us. (S.O.S., it probably said.) Please, I implore, shoulders sagging. It’s a long surgery, she finally softens, and my system shows they’re still in there. Eventually, I exhaust every gossip magazine on every table in that cavernous room, worn out by trying to equalize the time I sit near each parent, neither comforted by my presence. I make another approach. Don’t be rude, our dad hisses. Asking for information isn’t rude, I snarl back, before switching to what I hope is my most polite smile. She’s typing before I even ask, your patient number memorized. I’m so sorry, she greets me, eyes wide and apologetic, it actually looks like the surgery is over and the doctor has gone home for the day. What in the actual fuck?
My mind spins, and suddenly the room feels small, options closing in around me. I feel like I’m going to pass out, the effect of three cups of coffee and my inability to control the universe threatening to bring me to my knees. The elevator bings loudly, the noise interrupting my spiral. Two men in white coats get off, and I focus on the details to slow my heart rate. Breathe in: they are talking familiarly, an ordinary end-of-day exchange. Breathe out: white rectangular hospital name tags still attached to their pockets. Wait—it’s your surgeon, I realize, and beeline. Tell me everything, I demand, hoping my anger is more apparent than my terror. He frowns, tilting his head to one side. Unprepared for an ambush at the elevator, he apologizes to his colleague. His father, it turns out—they are both doctors and sometimes work at the same place. It’s sweet actually, but in that moment I hate him for it.
He asks calmly (too damn calmly) what I’m talking about, accustomed to anxious family members insisting on answers. I watch his face as I regurgitate all the details, the girlfriend-couldn’t-find-him, just-got-out-of-his-halfway-house, really-trying-to-get-better-this-time, two-boys-who-need-him, I-asked-the-front-desk-over-and-over, they-said-you’d-talk-to-us details, and finally, I see it register. Oh, she’s talking about the addict. But he says slowly, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize he had family here. And I translate internally, I didn’t realize anyone gave a shit. He does, and we do, and we’re here now. Tell us about the surgery, tell us about my brother, their son, her partner, their father. Tell us about the kid who collected baseball cards and Smurf figurines, a tiny pink-onesie-clad baby Smurfette on all fours his favorite. Tell yourself he’s important. And he does tell us all the details, kindly. It’s not enough to make me like him, though later you tell me he’s pretty nice. Thanks to his skill, you didn’t die then, though I think you might have wanted to.
You lost the use of your right arm and leg, and somehow it fell on me to break the news. You called yourself crippled, and useless, and unlovable, and mourned that you wouldn’t be able to wait tables—one thing you were always good at, one job you could always count on. Tears welled up in your eyes, and you asked, Why does this stuff always happen to me? I felt like the obvious answer was because you keep using, but saying so felt cruel, and I figured you knew that already. But the metaphorical question was one I didn’t (never will) have any answers for, so I mumbled something about how this time would be different, would be okay, you’d get through this, you had to, for your boys, and we both pretended to believe it. Both desperately wanted to. Would the exact right words have made a difference? If I had been able to explain God or the meaning of life, would you still be here? Did I even say I love you?
And then they let you leave, which surprised us all. But healthcare isn’t free, and you don’t get insurance on a server’s paycheck. Or in prison. And I know, I know, you tried. You always tried. I found a letter recently you wrote to dad right before you got out of prison the last time, lamenting over how much you’d missed with your boys. I’m going to use this to make a change and live a whole different life, you optimistically scrawled. I have plenty of time to make it right. It wrecks me still, reading that. And even though I spent most of my life waiting for the inevitable call, I thought you had plenty of time too. It’s ironic, how even though the brain uses hope to protect itself from trauma, that same hope can blind us. When I actually got the news, I refused to believe it. That’s not true, I told dad, I talked to him yesterday. Are you sure, I asked him, because sometimes they are wrong?Remember, this summer they thought he would die.Please, I pleaded, have them check again—too blinded by my own grief in the moment to consider his.
In the day/weeks/months that followed, I wrestled with this constantly. How much grief do I get? What is the allowance, for a sister? I am not your parent, or your partner, or your child. I didn’t know that kind of loss—the parent, partner, child kind—and felt greedy taking more than my share. As if grief were a pie, limited in slices. (Although, as an aside, dad died last spring. Presumably from lung cancer but also, I think, a broken heart.) I googled “sibling death” and “sister grief” and “my brother overdosed,” but only one article offered even the tiniest solace. I found a therapist and begged for homework that would help me get over it. Getting over it seemed like a reasonable goal at the time. She suggested the letter. I left when she couldn’t stop the hurting.
It hurt to talk about it, and it hurt to not talk about it. I blame Joseph Heller, because blaming you might crush me. When you do talk about death, after the pleasantries, the requisite I’m-so-sorrys, people usually ask questions. What happened? Were you close? The shame those questions surfaced surprised me. Well, we talked for a couple of hours the day before he died, I’d stammer, not offering up that despite our shared blood, sometimes it felt like we lived in different universes. You were worried about parole, and rent, and feeding your kids. I was worried about piano lessons, and date night, and Netflix. But we understood each other, always, bound by shared history. That counts for something, right? Telling them you overdosed, that was harder. Was I worried what they’d think of you or of me? He overdosed, I’d say quietly, eyes misting. It was terrible, I’d hurry on, before they might think it wasn’t. He was really trying, you know. A friend stopped me once, told me I was reminding her of a grandmother in her building who’d recently lost her grandson to gang violence. The grandmother was fumbling around for the right words to say about her grandson, and her pain, and how the way he lived was connected to his death. Listen, my friend had said to her, you don’t have to apologize for loving your grandson. I caught my breath at that part of the story, empathetic already. She waited until I looked up to personalize it. You don’t have to apologize for loving your brother. You don’t have to be sorry for your grief. Something cracked open in my soul, and I stood there weeping silently, relieved.
My grief is cyclical, the scab picked open again by a song on the radio or someone else’s tragedy. By our birthdays coming up next month, exactly one week apart. You would have been forty-three. Instead, you are dead. And I’m turning forty, the age you were when you died. My seven-year-old self would have thrown a thousand pennies into the mall fountain to be the same age as my older brother, but my almost forty-year-old self just feels sad. It’s disorienting to realize I’m the same age as you, physically impossible, except that death has frozen you in time. And time, for me, has moved mercilessly on. Mercifully too, of course, as distance softens the edges of hard memories, amplifies the tender ones. Even though we were only three years apart, you always felt so much older. Maybe because you were already here when I was born, and I never knew life without you. When you died, forty still felt so far away, like an age I couldn’t possibly imagine. But now, on the precipice, it seems so young. Too young. Too vulnerable. Too much left to do. It’s not fair, I want to scream into the wind, it wasn’t enough time. Is it ever? It wasn’t enough time for you to beat the odds, to find a sponsor who changed everything or have some meaningful experience that somehow resuscitated your will to live. It wasn’t enough time for the right prescription or right therapist to change the distorted patterns in your brain, for doctors to discover an addiction treatment that actually works. It wasn’t enough time for you to watch your boys grow up, teach them all the important things, leave them a legacy marked by redemption. It wasn’t enough time for a happy ending. Maybe it never would have been. That’s the hard thing about death. It steals the possibility of a plot twist, finishes the story, ready or not. Even if a turnaround is improbable, with life, there is hope. With death, there is nothing. More than anything, I wish your story had a different ending.
But in the beginning, you were my brother. And I loved you.
Ali Kojak is a writer, storyteller, and oversharer who frequently realizes she said too much. After spending nearly two decades as a nomad courtesy of the US Air Force, she and her husband put down roots in Oak Park, Illinois, where they are currently raising three wild children and a naughty French Bulldog. You can connect with her at alikojak.com.
On the walk home from the bakery, spelt loaf in hand, I look back—because this is the part of town where you look back—and see a guy. He’s late thirties, soft looking, salt and pepper hair, very familiar. Familiar from where? He doesn’t make eye contact, but if he was a serial killer, would he? A real serial killer would feign disinterest and appear much like a normal stranger, maybe even exactly like a normal stranger. I run the rest of the way home. Safe in my room with all the doors locked, I roll a joint and blow the smoke out the window, stinking up the whole place, too worried to go outside. It’s rude to smoke inside. If it wasn’t an extreme circumstance, I would never. And then I roll and smoke another joint, and another, and another, and try to sleep. Who was he? I recognized him. From where? Memory so bad of late. Has he followed me before?
I begin to get concerned.
Smoking on the apartment’s stoop the next morning, I get concerned for real. What’s the deal with this killer? I’m barefoot on the concrete in front of our door. Cold rain starts to fall, the wind-blown drops landing on my toes.
My lungs ache. Breathless. Black goo. All that paper and resin. I keep burning my lips.
But this serial killer. I get to thinking about how he’d attack. My roommate, Angie, wouldn’t be able to save me. She manages the vagina waxing place downtown, and is a saint, but she’s no martial artist. This killer probably came up in the clandestine services. Tours in the Middle East. Wet work squads. He’ll glide in during the darkest stage of night, having watched me for weeks, months even, and no one will stop him.
I start sleeping with an old utility knife under my pillow. A birthday gift from my dad. There’s black tar on the blade from when I use it to scrape resin from pipes. The first night, I keep the knife folded closed under the pillow. The second night, I keep it open.
If you want to be high all day every day, it’s important to plan ahead. Have water, rolling papers, already busted up flower, at least five lighters, bagged snacks. Small sober patches need to be sprinkled throughout the week for grad school. It’s getting difficult. Brain fog. Lethargy. The killer always on my mind. First semester I write epistolary stories where the protagonist runs over a child with their car and is awaiting trial and writing deep meaningful letters to the kid’s parents. Because that’s how you heal.
I’m forgetting more and more words when trying to talk to people. Easy words. Basic nouns like road or pomegranate. Writing’s still going okay, at least. Novel progress. Ideas. But feeling like a fake writer, basically just copying Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and it’s so fucking obvious, all the stuff I’m stealing from that, and anyone who reads the book will know and shame me. Usually writing at like 3 a.m. or later, the single lamp hot on my eyes, weird auras on everything.
I try quitting weed. Again and again, I try. It’s disgusting. Smoke so hot it hurts. Marks on my teeth now. Can’t remember the day of the week. And when I run out, kneeling on the carpet looking in the fibers, sure I dropped some earlier, at some point. Running a playing card or knife along the inside of empty bags—the knife works better, yellow crystal dust in a thin line down the blade, carefully scraped into a pipe, so strong, reeling. But no one at school has mentioned anything. They are so kind to me. And as long as I keep the knife under my pillow and stay vigilant, as long as I consider all the angles, I’ll get through.
The killer might be in for a surprise. Can he possibly know I grew up reading every Tom Clancy novel in print? Devouring them. Tradecraft, reversals, secret skills.
I start to place a door trap when I leave the apartment. In case the killer wants to sneak into my room. What you do is: take a small bowl, fill it with loose change, and when you leave whatever room you don’t want someone snooping in—the door must open inward— you close the door most of the way, kneel down, and put the bowl of coins against the door such that anyone who opens it will knock over the bowl. But this isn’t everything, no. Leave one coin on the carpet next to the bowl.
We’re studying the short form with Lorna Crozier. She’s brilliant, gentle in the right ways, firm in the right ways. Her husband comes in and says I look like a novelist, and it’s the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. The other students are smart and can talk about technique and publish in journals. I try to keep up, writing weird shorts about a drug dealer who made us smoke weed off a homemade contraption of blowtorches, shorts about brewing vodka in university bathtubs, shorts about the girl I had a crush on in 5th grade telling her mom, in front of me, that I was the class clown, and how that felt unfair, and good, and mean.
The paranoia stays. I know they are delusions by now, but I’m still afraid. Knowing, and still. Each day when I get back from the university, I check the coin-bowl and the single coin on the floor, and each day it is unchanged. No one has been in my room, no girls, no friends, no one. Sometimes I forget about the trap and knock the coins everywhere, unable to know for sure if, that one time, the killer had been in there.
Squads of spiders are the only thing sneaking into my room for sure. There must be a gap somewhere, in the window, in the baseboard heater. Big spiders, maybe the size of a tablespoon, are invading. I’ll sometimes feel them on me in bed and have to get up, turn on all the lamps, and put socks on my hands to smash them. It’s the thing where you have a vague sensation something is on you, a brush, a tickle, and then rationalize that, no, it’s nothing, nothing is on you, but recently, when I’ve turned on the light, there has been a real spider. The spiders are real.
The spiders are real.
I almost never leave the apartment, and when I do socialize, like at a bar, I black out. Sometimes also doing cocaine with an old Whitehorse friend who is in Victoria for school. He gives it to me for free because he knows my brother or he feels sorry for my having had cancer, maybe, I don’t know. And then me and him and whoever else is there will yammer and talk circles for an hour, the drip in my throat a split-open battery, and then we do more cocaine, and so on, in the way of cocaine, until much later, and then it’s morning and I’m back at the apartment in my room, naked, grey light spilling through the blinds, and I’ve peeled an orange and impaled it on my thumb and I just sit staring at it, unable to blink, sticky juice down my arm like thread.
Jason Jobin was born and raised in the Yukon. He completed an MFA in writing at the University of Victoria. His stories have won a National Magazine Award and been anthologized in the 2018 and 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. He has been a finalist for American Short Fiction’s Halifax Ranch Prize for Fiction and The Fiddlehead’s Short Fiction Contest. He won The Malahat Review’s Jack Hodgins and Far Horizons awards for fiction. Jason was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He is at work on a novel, a memoir, and a collection of stories.
My little brother held a trout, a rainbow burning bright enough to eclipse reflections. The fish did not reflect, but the stream did, and he took a mighty brown watery rock to spill the brains of the flesh, white and red onto the grey wooden dock, a spilling of color all over the dock, and when I screamed he said, Fish feel no pain.
I told him he could not know fish’s mind, not at ten or twenty or a thousand years could he know the inner worlds of slippery things, but that day I learned eating took no feeling.
He picked up the dead limp thing that once swam bravely, meant to be swallowed by dolphins or sharks, whales singing underwater, pelicans that fly without invention, alligators who were also dinosaurs, flamingos that were too, and asked if I’d like some.
When I screamed, he told me, Pipe down, for what was it but the way of things? Then he killed a mother trout, hooked by her tail and reeled her in backwards. No fisherman could bait her.
She was gutted and her eggs served beside the flesh—red eggs, white flesh.
Michelle Renee Hoppeholds a BA in English from BYU, where she ran a nonprofit for struggling students. She was a NYC Teaching Fellow in special education and a top private educational therapist, working on cases for disabled students. Her work won court cases against the NYCDOE. Her written work can be found in Saw Palm, South 85 Journal, and HoneySuckle Magazine, among others. She is the founder and Creative Director of Capable, a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting and funding the voices of disabled and chronically ill authors and artists. She lectures in Saudi Arabia, where she lives down the street from a Bedouin tribe and a Starbucks. She recently adopted two wild desert kittens.
One thing I did when I was twenty was fall in love with a Roman Catholic boy and get all confused. I was a half-Jew-half-gentile quasi-Lutheran atheist, led as in a trance to the burly God of Ceiling Paintings like a little girl in a gossamer nightgown. The boy was a convert himself, and his zeal was real. He tried to baptize me (baptise; he was British) using the water pitcher in his college dorm room. He cited doctrine. I said no; I hadn’t gone completely off the deep end of the holy water pool. But I did cherish plans for baptism, someday, in my already-flayed heart.
Another thing I did when I was twenty was rise early, brush my teeth in the cavernous bathroom of the 1964 Rome-Olympic-village-turned-youth hostel, dress and pack and leave with a hunk of unsalted bread in my hand, and hasten to the Vatican Museums. I shuffled with the crowd through room after room of staggering opulence, all as prelude to the best room of all, the Sistine Chapel.
I knew the Sistine Chapel was a big deal, but when I summoned thoughts about it, all I really pictured was Michelangelo in the act of painting it: wearing some sort of burlap poncho, yelling at his assistants, getting paint in his eyes and a great stiffness in his neck. I didn’t know that the recently restored colors would flow in saffron and cerulean waves; that the portraits of prophets and sybils and the scenes from Genesis would play like the arias and choruses of Handel’s Messiah; that it was so full of living, fighting, striving people, so full of thigh meat and flippy little penises and women with fantastically muscled arms and shoulders. The prophets and sybils wore the faces of a dozen grouchy uncles and disappointed aunts at Thanksgiving or Passover. They made me think for the first time about the terrible loneliness of prophets. My group was ushered in and allowed fifteen minutes of astonished communion. Then we were ushered out.
When I was in my forties, I revisited the Sistine Chapel. It happened during the coronavirus pandemic, during the interval between Christmas and New Year’s. I found myself toiling over a one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, one of a series of famous paintings. Neighbors had exchanged some puzzles via porch-drop some months before, and I’d ended up with this one. Work took a break, school took a break, and I took a break. I lacked the intellectual energy for a new knitting project or even for watching a new TV series. So I opened the box and began staring at tiny puzzle pieces.
I didn’t know I needed to see my heavy-hearted friends Joel and Zechariah once again, and all the bizarre cruelty of the Old Testament God who created and then punished humankind, and dared Abraham to cut off his son’s head, and sent a fish to swallow Jonah (who faces his fate with bravura foreshortening). All while lads and lasses with finely-turned ankles and tennis-pro hip flexors cling to trompe-l’oeil plaster and gawk and giggle and gasp. It is such a deeply weird work of art. And the weirdness drew me right in. Michelangelo, as usual, shows us worse suffering than our own, deeper despair than our own. Even the rampant nakedness—all those sassy babies and imps and tennis pros—gave me something approaching gratitude for the numbing rotation of hoodies I lived in night and day that winter.
I still check in with the Roman Catholic boy. We’ve video-chatted every few weeks since we’ve been in isolation. He’s still Roman Catholic; I’m once again a half-Jewish half-gentile quasi-Lutheran atheist, after a good run at clinging to the rock face of faith. Maybe it’s a ceiling. Maybe it’s only easy to cling to it when you’re paint on plaster, when you’re sitting on a plinth with a scroll in your lap, and nothing ever happens to you but five hundred years of stunned faces staring up at you. Conservators have always wished those staring faces were wearing masks, because their breath is slowly killing you. But you love them (even their breath) because, somehow, you still love humanity.
Sarah Berger is a writer and classical singer living in Baltimore. Her essays and stories have been published in Prometheus Dreaming, Shards/Glass Mountain, Big Whoopie Deal, Passengers Journal, and The Nasiona. She is writing a novel about a cohort of music students graduating in 1965, and she’s currently in the University of Baltimore’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts. More of Sarah’s writing can be found at www.sarahbergersoprano.com/writing.
Of when my father had polio, I’ve heard disjointed details but no narrative. Scalding baths, quarantine, how many adults held him down for the spinal tap, the iron lung, paralysis that one day disappeared.
In the world outside, my grandmother lengthened his Hebrew name with Chaim,Life, and my grandfather delivered bread through the night. Under the covers, his sister plucked the braces from her teeth with scissors.
Each time visiting hours ended, my grandparents stood outside the hospital staring up at a window.
Polio came to him in 1954. The vaccine came to him in 1955.
We’ve spoken of 2020 itself as a golem. We’ve started posting pictures of injections or envious responses to others’ pictures of injections.
No social media archive exists indicating whether my grandparents dreamt of a vaccine/knew it was coming/raged it had come belatedly for their kid/had never felt such relief when it came, even when they thought they could feel no more relief than three of them leaving the hospital, six legs walking.
There’s one photograph of the bicycle bought for him after, with pooled money, and in it my father’s blurry with motion.
We’ve let words into our hourly vocabulary: quarantine, distancing, strains, herd, cases. Daily math problems so vast we can’t see each individual number. We’ve said/meant we, but we’ve been mostly wrong.
Both of my parents remember waiting their turn at school for the shot. When I ask them for memories of receiving the vaccine, that’s the only one: standing in line.
My mother tells me I had the Sabin oral vaccine—drops on my tongue—rather than the Salk injection. She tells me to google, just for curiosity’s sake, the sugar cube version. My mind conjures an image of children not chewing or sucking but letting the cube slowly, slowly dissolve. Thinking of it, I can feel it. A year of sheltering has been something like this: mouth, tongue, et cetera, holding still but activating in anticipation of the sweet.
We’ve reached for metaphors.
Salivating sounds bestial, carnal, silly. I mean more like a waiting that demands all focus. I mean more like a wanting that can’t be helped.
Rebecca Entel is the author of the novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners. Her short stories and essays have been published in such journals as Catapult, Guernica, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Joyland Magazine, and Cleaver. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches U.S. literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. You can find her at rebeccaentel.com, on Twitter @rebeccaentel, and on Instagram @rebeccaentel.
I did not know anything about whales until I became one. In the first trimester of my pregnancy, I transitioned, changing into a creature that was part meat and part ocean. My pregnant body was flush with proteins, ions, and nutrients for the first time since my childhood. Like a whale’s, my body produced massive amounts of progesterone, a hormone that blasted through me like tropical waves. My twenty-three-year-old heart refilled my capillaries, deadened from heavy drinking and drug use. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that I was actually glowing, the way pregnancy is said to imbue a halo around you while you’re gestating. My cheeks were pink all the time, as though I was permanently post-coital. I sweated more. My body felt like it was filling out, as though my cells were plumping up like pillows of sweet ricotta-filled ravioli immersed in hot water. I floated, swollen, into the next phase of my life.
At the time, I was working in a bakery. I woke up every morning at three to go turn on the ovens and start rolling out pie dough. I could barely stand at the counter, and prepping food, baking, and buttering sandwiches made me dry heave. My hands had become awkward flippers, and the smell of cinnamon stuck to me like a barnacle. I measured sour cream, streusel, crystallized ginger, and berries while my body expanded, making room for my son.
Weighing a whale is nauseating business. No scale on earth is big enough. Weighing a whale requires transgression; it makes the assumption that the human question “how big is it?” is more important than the sanctity of the whale, which carries the answer to that question in its very name. How big is the whale? Very.
Long ago, the only way to guess one’s size was to wait until it washed up, dead, on a beach. Whoever found its bloated, gaseous carcass cut it into pieces and loaded them individually onto a balance. Chunks of whale were dragged by horses or loaded onto trucks and heaved onto weighted platforms that were quickly stained with whatever chemicals leak from a corpse that has been preserved in salt water and then roasted in the sun. The stink and blood must have been unimaginable. Yet, whoever was doing the measuring must have been willing to breathe it. Some days, I sagged against the pastry counter, struggling to breathe. I was out of my element. My own body was too oppressive on land. It was only getting worse.
In most mammals, blood content more than doubles in the first weeks of pregnancy, increasing from twenty percent to 100 percent. In the beginning, each vein blossoms with plasma and grows luscious as the placenta forms against the budding embryo. Plasma is what you sell to pay your rent at the end of the month; back then, I didn’t know that there was more than one part to my blood. Platelets and blood cells and plasma rushed through me and into the miniscule veins that connected me to the growing dot that would one day be my son.
At least I wasn’t doing it alone, in the beginning. I didn’t wear my plain silver wedding band in the kitchen but left it at home so it wouldn’t be ruined. If I said that I was married, nobody believed me. I was too young, too surly, and too wild. Nothing about me suggested I could be a wife or mother. I wasn’t feminine in that way; what I was, was sexy.
I lost my job in the first month of the pregnancy because of my morning sickness. When he fired me, my boss said, “That’s what you get.”
“What did I do?” I asked.
He looked at my chest and trailed his eyes down my front, “You did it.”
I thought pregnancy protected mothers from the awfulness of men. Naive, I believed that marriage was an exchange: you chose one man’s bad behavior, and it absolved you of having to deal with any of the others. Wedding rings, too, were supposed to repel negative attention. They signaled respectability. I’m not available. I blushed when my boss pointed out my condition. Desire was always the blood in the water. When his eyes lodged in my cleavage, I knew what he was seeing: a barely-legal sexpot who was playing at being an adult. He stuffed a few bills into a plain white envelope. Taking it, I felt as though he had paid me for a trick. I put the money in my purse, conscious of the way my shirt buttons stretched over my new, expanding body.
Fuck you, I thought, though I didn’t say it.
Fucking was how I got into this mess.
Pregnancy is the only period when the mother and child are the same. One body. One conjoined system of nerves and veins. The baby moves, and the mother senses its vibration. The mother eats, breathes, sleeps, and rides the waves of hormonal change, and the baby responds to it. They are linked in every way. There was a brief window in my life between when I stopped being part of the “we” of my family and entered the “we” of my marriage and then straight into the “we” of my pregnancy. I was rarely myself; I was always part of some other family, chosen or biological. I didn’t question this or even notice it. I simply accepted it as natural. The whale who lives does not wonder, why me? Wondering is for people; we are born to second-guess ourselves. So many facts we know about whales are the outcomes of fantastical theories. We cut them, thinking we will find their secrets inside. In fact, we’ve learned most about whales by studying them without interfering. Because we watched, we learned the position of the calf inside its mother, tailfirst, the way they are born backwards so they will be saved from drowning. The mother’s body goes to great lengths to deliver them, healthy, into the sea.
I called my mother to tell her about the baby, like I was supposed to. I didn’t mention the lost job or the morning sickness that engulfed me in waves of bile.
“Mom, I have good news,” I said, “I’m going to be a mother.”
The longest pause in the world, so long I thought my phone had dropped the call.
“Are you still there?”
“I went and sat down,” she said. Her voice was flat and bleak.
“I guess we can skip the champagne,” I joked weakly. She didn’t laugh. Within two weeks, she and my father came to visit us in Portland, Oregon. On their second day in town, they took Matthew and me to lunch. I was more than a little green around the gills and exhausted, too sick to eat. Matt and I fought constantly, but we put things on hold in front of my parents. I picked at my food, we managed to sit side-by-side in the restaurant’s plastic booth without touching, and then we walked home.
Matt and my father stayed out on the sidewalk while my mother, under some pretext, went upstairs with me. I slumped on the carcass of the linen-upholstered loveseat that was a gift from our decadent San Francisco cousins. The unmade Murphy bed was still pulled out from the wall with my grandmother’s double wedding ring quilt on it, covering a wad of stale sheets and wool blankets. Matt’s school papers and our tabby’s kitty litter mingled on the floor. Folded laundry covered our only chair. The trash hadn’t been taken out. The apartment was less than 400 square feet, but I couldn’t muster the energy to care about cleaning. I was too tired to do more than limp from the bed to the bathroom.
I was struggling out of my coat when my mother leaned toward me from her seat on the bed. Her hands were clasped together, and her face looked earnest. I couldn’t follow what she was saying. My stomach hurt. I wanted her to leave so I could go back to sleep. She told me that it wasn’t too late for me to change my mind, and that I had so many good things going for me. My education, my future, all that they’d worked to give me, these gifts would work in my favor. I listened, trying to understand what she meant, when suddenly, Matt burst in like a fist and slammed himself into the seat next to me. To my surprise, he took my hand. On the day I told him I was pregnant, he’d thrown our mattress at me because I had slept with another man weeks before our wedding, lied about it, and then all of a sudden I was pregnant. I was an animal to him, not a person. We hadn’t stopped fighting since my positive test; he refused to touch me. Facing off with my mother, though, he was suddenly protective. His hand enfolded my fingers and for a moment, I felt safe because I thought that he might love me again.
“I think you should go,” he said to my mother.
Her mouth snapped shut. She frowned, then said, “We are having a private conversation. It’s between Claire and me.”
“No, it’s between all of us. I think you should leave before any of us say things that can’t be unsaid,” he told her.
She was angry when she stood up and gathered her purse. She gave me a rough kiss and a squeeze on the shoulder and left in a huff. As soon as the door closed, Matt let go of my hand and got up. My sense of security evaporated. He went into the kitchen and ran some water into the kettle. It was almost time for him to go to work, or else school: I can’t remember; he was always leaving for one or the other.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Your dad and I were standing on the sidewalk, and I asked him what you two were talking about inside, and he said, ‘Susy is going to tell Claire to get an abortion.’”
“She didn’t say that.”
“She was about to. You saw her face. If I hadn’t come in and said something, she would have talked you into it.”
“I could never,” I said. But I’d broken a lot of promises to Matt by then, and we both knew my word was worthless. “Thank you for what you did,” I said.
“I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know,” I told him. “I’m still grateful, though.”
He didn’t love me, but he loved me. He didn’t want to stay with me, but he stayed. He didn’t want to be married, but he married me. I was his second wife, younger than the first one; gangly, blonde, clueless, and wise. I would have killed myself to have this baby, and my rift with my parents was the result of putting my own desires first for a change. I could not continue being their child at the expense of having my own. When they asked me to pick up the ax or chainsaw or stick of dynamite and carve into my own flesh, cut myself into manageable pieces, I could not do it. I would have lost my power; the corpse of a whale is the husk of a planet that used to be like ours. In pieces, it ceases to be the muscle that churns the waves and dives into darkness holding its breath.
I didn’t call home for a while after my parents’ visit. I let myself drift out on the waves of my pregnancy. I was lonely and in pain, and I swam in circles, reorienting myself around the possibilities represented by my son.
My pregnancy made me feel massive and invincible; I would never give it up. Having experienced a love of this size, how could I cut it out, slice it into inferior proportions, and rob myself of its wholeness? From the first moment of my transformation, I accepted the consequences and dove in without hesitation. By the end of the first trimester, I was fully cetacean. I was a whale, not a woman.
If you’d put me on a scale, you would see that my body was more than simply meat and bones. For the first time, I contained potential. Anyone who has seen a real whale, swimming in the ocean or maybe as a distance flume that spouts up a few miles off the coast, knows that whales are more than meat; they are incarnations. Although I was alone and scared, I was finally connected to an inland sea. It made me lighter, somehow. With an ecosystem of water and air inside me, I was growing to be more than myself.
I felt my son rocking inside me and, beneath my fear, I sensed a certain kind of peace. There were people, and there were whales; both of us relied on the unpredictable balance of luck to keep us alive, still moving, and making babies. I cradled my body and the growing fetus inside it and sang in the soft moans that whales sing deep in the sea—as though that would raise the dead or change the tide, as though wishing was enough to make it so.
Claire Rudy Foster is an award-winning queer, nonbinary trans author from Portland, Oregon. Foster’s critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever was an O: The Oprah Magazine pick for 2019. Their essays, fiction, reporting, book reviews, and other writing appear in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Allure, on NPR, and many other places. Foster is Senior Features Editor at The Rumpus. They still believe in the power of well-written sentences.
THE MOMENT I KNEW I LOVED _________
by Sydney Steward
My Grandmother I look up from my phone, scouting the street signs for a match—Madison Avenue. I turn left, quickly glance across the road for oncoming traffic, and press on. The air is cold; it’s late January. My feet ache against the concrete, but nothing can stop me. A happy panic propels me forward. This is the day we have been waiting for. The hospital sign begins to peek into sight. Once I arrive at the lobby, I pause to unzip my coat. I ask the receptionist for directions to her room. The hallways feel familiar: high ceilings, bright lights, a chemical shine along the tiles. After navigating a maze of elevators and corridors, I spot my mother through the glass window, and she motions me over. Surrounded by my entire family, there she sits. Tubes and drains and cords dangle from nearly every orifice. She looks up and flashes her gummy smile.
“Sydney, I knew you’d make it! Your Meme got a new kidney.”
Bubble Tea I walk into the foyer of the dining hall. On the right I see a mysterious brown canister positioned on top of a table. A dining hall staff member sits nearby with a ladle in hand. I walk over to her and inquire about the contents of the dispenser. She explains that today is “Cultural Appreciation” day and the item on the menu is bubble tea. She further explains the drink, adding new words to my adolescent vocabulary—boba, milk tea, tapioca, Taiwan. Who knew an entire culture could be captured in one cup! “Can I try it?” She scoops clear boba from a bowl and plops it into a cup. She presses the handle on the canister, and a tan liquid rushes from the faucet. Handing me the concoction, she invites me to choose a straw. I grab a white one, noting its diameter and wondering Why is it so big? I insert the straw and take a sip. The textures collide on my tongue—the squishy boba floats along the smooth river of milk tea. I am chewing and somehow swallowing all at the same time. It’s so confusing, but so sweet.
I think about bubble tea for the rest of the day.
My Mother We bob our heads. We flail our arms. We scream together, “It’s over…” She turns the key in the ignition, and the radio abruptly cuts off. Reality rushes in. I.S. 211 is nowhere in sight. I look out the window and spot a street sign reading East 84th Street. We are parked in our usual spot across the street from our new apartment. Salena sits next to me, her L.L. Bean backpack tucked behind her legs. My mother reaches to the back seat to grab her purse and discovers the puzzled look on our faces. “What’s wrong?” My sister and I share a glance. Speaking for the both of us, I ask, “Can we finish the song before we go in the house?” She smiles. She slides the key back into the grooves, and the engine rumbles. The dashboard lights up, the CD icon blinking. My mother twists the volume dial to 28. My sister curls her fingers to strum the notes on her imaginary guitar. I hold my sticks and bang every drum, from the snare to the cymbal. My mother grabs the microphone to take the solo. The song picks up exactly where it left off:
“It’s over…Leave it!”
Muriel The alarm jolts me from my sleep, snatching me from my dream. I tap the ‘stop’ button on my phone screen and lie back in bed. I consider the tasks for the day and feel them flood my mind, one by one. The long to-do list sits on my chest, holding me hostage in bed. I organize a makeshift schedule. I release a long sigh and decide to do my best. I swing my legs out of bed and stand up. Salena is still asleep, so I slowly open our bedroom door and slide through the doorway without a squeak. The sun fills the living room, leaving bright splotches on the floor in the shape of the window pane. I walk up to the window sill and pick up a white ceramic pot. I peek over the edge and see nothing but dirt. I begin to return the pot to the ledge but stop midway; a speck of green catches my eye. I lift the pot closer and count three sprouts poking through the soil.
Salena Broom in one hand and Lysol in the other, I am armed and ready to fight. Salena stands behind me cowering in fear. I crack open our bedroom door and spot the flying blob blending into the curtain. We consider the possibilities. Is it a squirrel? A bird? A flying cockroach? We choose the final theory. The roach crawls across the dreamcatcher hanging above my bed. Salena yells, “Well, go in there! Kill it!” Fear swells in my gut; I know she is waiting. My sweaty palms clutch my weapons tighter as I advance into the battlefield. With hesitation, I swing…and miss. Dodging the attack, the insect flies across the room and lands on my sister’s One Direction poster. Salena bolts to the adjacent room and I follow, finding her at the top of the bunk bed. Before I can close the door behind me, the unrelenting enemy enters the room and zips into Salena’s face. She screams. Her features crinkle as tears slide down her reddened cheeks. I have failed. I am powerless.
I am enraged.
Peter It is 2:28 AM. I lie back in my bed, his oversized t-shirt hanging off me. I softly gaze across the room, my eyes outlining his back. He is in front of my wooden desk, sitting in a chair way too small for him. Sam Smith floats in the air. Rather than shy away from the challenge, Peter belts the words. His falsetto croak follows along, shamelessly struggling to keep up. I remember that these memories are fleeting. I open my phone camera, the flash obnoxiously illuminating his dark brown skin. Without missing a beat, he looks over his shoulder, his glossy eyes meeting mine. My lips curl up into a smile. He turns back to face the desk.
“Everyone prays in the end!”
Erykah Badu The room is noisy—hundreds of people having hundreds of conversations. I scroll through Instagram, mindlessly liking the images on my screen. I toss a couple of stale popcorn kernels into my mouth. I check the time; she’s two hours late. Still, I am patiently waiting. The yellow house lights dim. Tiny white dots speckle the theater, the audience eager to record this moment. I toss my phone into my bag and slide to the edge of my seat. Fully engaged, I take it all in. Blue smoke rolls across the stage. Strobe lights beam in a circle as the retro instrumental begins. My heart claws at my ribcage. From stage left, I see her. Grey sweatpants with a matching top, black heels, and a fur coat. Her brown hair hangs from her beanie. The crowd roars as she waltzes to center stage and declares, “But you caint use my phone!” The beat drops, pulling me out of my chair.
My heart shatters my chest. My soul transcends.
Big Macs I am standing in line with my father and Salena at the McDonald’s on Rockaway Parkway, the one down the street from the house. I scan the colorful menu. The options are endless: burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, McFlurry. I tell him what I want—what I always want—a Big Mac. Before we make it to the register, a tall, slender man with shades, a Kangol, and a brown suit walks through the doors. My father smiles, knowing the surprise in store. I run up to him and shout, “Hi Uncle Unique!” He squats down to embrace me. “Hey Sydney!” I wrap my arms behind his neck as he lifts me up in a hug. Before I know it, he puts me back down and says, “Whoa….niece…you should lay off the Big Macs…”
I promise myself that I will never eat a Big Mac again.
Dubois It is 11:32 PM. I can still hear my mother’s voice from our conversation. She’s ignoring me, doesn’t look at me…I expect that we’ll move out of the house in the next couple of weeks…this is why you can’t trust anyone. *click* I pause the painful replay and check into the present. I am sitting on his bed, back against the wall, facing the TV. My eyes are sore, and my cheeks are warm. The tears dried hours ago, but a tightness lingers in my chest. Dubois is lying flat, arms propped behind his head, watching me through the dark. I am silent. He is listening. He reaches for the remote control and clicks YouTube. 8 Hours of Deep Space NASA Footage. Planets, stars, and galaxies pan across the screen in slow motion. Enraptured by the universe, I barely notice the tugging on my sleeve. “Come closer.” These college dormitory beds are not built to fit both of us, but he always makes room for me. I crawl across the tiny mattress and sit on his lap. He asks, “Do you want to listen to Spotify?” I nod my head. He presses the power button on his Bluetooth speaker, and it quietly pings as it pairs with his iPhone. After a quick scroll through his library, he selects a playlist entitled Contemporary R&B. The first song on the queue: “Get You” by Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis. It’s a love song, one of my favorites. I sing the beginning line with my eyes closed. The melody lifts me, sending me to a new plane. I am existing in a space beyond my body, a dimension where love is forever and divorces don’t exist and life is a little kinder. My voice tethers me to reality. Kali Uchis starts the final verse, and I drift back to Earth. I open my eyes and remember that I am not alone. I look down. Dubois is smiling up at me. I smile back and sing the last line (to him):
“Boy, you’ll lead me to paradise.”
Being a Black Woman The main avenue of the richest, whitest neighborhood in Brooklyn is packed with black and brown bodies. Colorful signs of all sizes bounce in the air. Black Lives Matter. Fuck the Cops. Breonna Taylor. The humid air leaves sweat on the back of my neck as I march forward with my black sisters at the front of the crowd. The men stand at the back. This march is for us. A band plays drums and tambourines. We clap our hands to the beat and dance down the street. A short woman with long black braids shouts into a bullhorn: “Fire, Fire, Gentrifier!” We repeat her words in response. Our voices rise and reach the ears of the tenants in the brownstones above. I look to the sidewalk and watch as our audience watches us. A black man rolls down the window of his car and raises a fist in the air. A white clerk leans on his storefront, grimacing. I smile under my face mask and think, “The revolution is coming.” The crowd turns down a residential side street and the woman changes the chant. As I scream in response, she turns to me and asks, “Do you want to lead?” My heart flutters with excitement as she hands the bullhorn to me. I take a deep breath and yell with all the fire in my soul:
“Black women don’t owe you shit!”
Hot Baths (and myself) The steam in the bathroom is thick. I flip the light switch, sending me into comfortable darkness. I slide out of my flip flops and approach the tub. Balancing on my left side, I dip my right foot into the water. My skin tingles. I keep my foot suspended as such, waiting for my nerve endings to quiet down. I plunge further, hitting the bottom of the tub and following up with my left foot. I am standing here, alone, in the dark. Thinking. I squat and sit, porcelain against my skin. The water sloshes up and over the rim. My body is throbbing. I do not flinch. Now, I feel it all.
I pull my knees to my chest and hold myself.
Sydney Steward is a senior at the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. Outside the hospital, she has many creative pursuits—writing being one of them. For her, writing is healing; it is an art of self-preservation. Although poetry is her usual mode of expression, creative nonfiction has recently piqued her interest. The two genres inform each other, making each piece even more intentional, vulnerable, and experimental. For questions or inquiries, reach her at [email protected].
CHRIST (OR MAYBE JOHN LENNON) IN A PRISON WAITING ROOM
by Maya Savin Miller
In small town Georgia, the prison plays Christmas music over the waiting room speakers on the Fourth of July. My mother hands my brother and me two dollar bills for the vending machine. We buy Snickers bars and then lay down on the floor to watch the moths clicking in the light fixture slowly grow still. I will tell my father about the ramen we cooked in the motel coffee pot the night before. He will say something like: sounds like a feast to me or I wish I could have been there. We will talk about small things for the next three hours—my father’s voice muffled and tinny, wrung through the broken speaker at the bottom of the plastic phone. I will tell him about the crabs I am going to catch with a chicken leg and some twine—how the man who owns the dock said he would boil them for me. My father will say he remembers the Fourth of July last year: You kids frying in the sun like eggs on the pavement. The dogs making messes of their water bowls—the way their fur smelled like Fritos and coconut shampoo. Later that night, the air still so thick I could swallow it whole, I will listen to John Lennon sing Happy Xmas (War Is Over) as fireworks light up the bluff.
My savta, rendered mute long before I was born, could not speak in words other than “time to change the batteries,” but she could sing. I remember my mother’s voice in my ear the first time we went to speak with Judge Kelley: Don’t tell them we’re Jewish. Dad can come home sooner if they think we celebrate Christmas. At a time in my life when everything felt confusing and unpredictable, when the lines that had previously defined my existence became increasingly blurred, this rule made survival seem easy. And so I started listening to Christmas music when I was angry, when I was afraid, when I felt powerless, when nothing else made sense. My savta, trapped in a sentence, found her way out through song—and I intended to do the same. During the time of my father’s incarceration, I used up all of the remaining space on my hand-me-down iPod downloading Christmas music.
I do not remember the day my father returned home from jail, but I remember the day before. I sat across from my childhood best friend, thighs sticking to the linoleum-covered booth, as she told me that she was planning to become a famous singer when she grew up, and so we couldn’t be friends anymore once my dad got home. She had heard that associating with criminals could hurt her career, and she wasn’t willing to take any chances. When the waitress came to take our order, I asked if the peppermint pancakes were any good. She responded, “I don’t know. I don’t eat at this shithole.” Once the waitress was gone, I asked if we could still be friends for the rest of the day. And then, for no reason, we both started to laugh—we fell apart like that, cracking up in the back booth of the Waffle House. I asked my mother to pick me up from the restaurant. I remember her humming from the front seat of the car on the ride home, her voice punctuating the song playing softly over the stereo. Like my savta, she listens to Yiddish music when she’s afraid. Like my savta, she never admits when she’s afraid. That night, I found I Want to Come Home for Christmas by Marvin Gaye and emailed my best friend the link.
A year later, I found my iPod resting in the top drawer of my dresser next to a photo of my dad, my brother, and me. It was wrapped up in a sock, the way someone might wrap up a knife. The battery had begun to ooze, leaving the iPod frosted over with sulfuric acid residue. The specific model had been discontinued in 2007, and it took about a month for the replacement batteries to arrive in the mail. But when I finally changed the batteries and when the small screen flickered on, I could not bring myself to press play. Just like the music, my reliance on this iPod, loaded with Christmas music, with proof that we were not Jewish, with reasons why my father should be allowed to return home, had been seasonal.
Maya Savin Miller is a highschooler from Los Angeles, currently living in the mountains of Colorado. Her prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Cargoes, Up North Lit, Hadassah, Battering Ram Journal, Bluefire, Skipping Stones, Polyphony Lit, and the Sierra Nevada Review. Her writing has been recognized by Princeton University, Hollins University, Columbia College, Rider College, Library of Congress, and Blank Theatre, among others. She was a 2020 finalist for Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, and her short story, “Trudie’s Goose,” has been adapted into a film by Israeli filmmaker Liran Kapel.
I stand at the kitchen table, poking at a lump of raw bread dough.
“I don’t understand why it’s not rising,” I say.
My roommate wants to be helpful. “Sometimes it’s the temperature of the room,” she says. “It likes a dark, warm environment. Maybe put it in a cupboard for a while.”
Working with yeast is a negotiation; the yeast is in negotiation with the temperature and humidity in your home, and with the other ingredients you mix with it. My recipe tells me to combine the ingredients—salt, yeast, flour, water—and leave them alone for a minimum of twelve hours, preferably eighteen. Actually, the phrase used is “let dough rest,” as if the dough is feeling tired. I’m tired too, but I have a restless need to act in response to crisis. It’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that some things should be left alone.
I spend a lot of time in my room. I also like a warm, dark environment. I feel sick at the thought of the need that must exist outside my door, invisible to me for now, but terribly real. I think about all the people who don’t have health care and all the people who won’t make rent this month. Wanting to feel anything other than powerless, I’ve joined a mutual aid network that formed in my neighborhood. Nothing makes me feel useless and inadequate like organizing does, but nothing else I do feels as necessary. We create a Slack to organize communication, but I turn off notifications. So far, my contribution to the conversation has been suggesting we have another Zoom Meeting.
I text my mother and ask her what to do if my bread isn’t rising. I ask her if it’s possible there’s something wrong with the yeast. She responds:
ok so put a little water in small cup with a little sugar and heat a little so it feels warm on wrist
then put a little yeast in and see if it looks active after 5 min or so
if it does you should be able to use it in your bread
I try it and the yeast sinks to the bottom of the cup. After five minutes, it’s doing nothing. I explain this to my family over our weekly group Zoom chat. I tell them how the yeast came in foil packets, but I dumped it all into a plastic container because I thought it would be easier to have it all in one place. Who needs all that foil? I didn’t realize the airtight seal of the foil packet was keeping it alive.
I want to believe that something is happening that I can’t see, that there are invisible, elemental processes working on our behalf, even if it feels like nothing else is. I want to go to sleep and wake to find that the lump of matter on my kitchen table has doubled in size.
When my friend Ali left New York for a farm in Massachusetts, she gave me an aloe plant and a snake plant, promising me they were impossible to kill. The snake plant was dead within two weeks, but the aloe held on. It has an amazing ability to turn brown and shriveled and still somehow be alive. About six months ago, I realized there were at least four separate aloe plants in the pot, and I separated them into two pots with two plants each. I used new pots and a potting mix just for succulents. I watered every two weeks. The plants turned bright green and plump, and I felt very competent.
But the aloe slowly turned brown again. I suspect this is not another one of its fake deaths. This is the real thing. It’s eerie and wrong that it’s dying in the spring when it’s supposed to be coming to life.
Like everyone in New York, I hear sirens all day long. The Q58 bus is running limited service and no longer stops outside my window. It used to be that every morning at seven I would hear the gate on the first floor go up, and I would know that the coffee shop below me was open for the day. The gate has been pulled down for weeks, with a handwritten sign taped to it: GOOD LUCK OUT THERE! WASH YOUR HANDS AND COME SEE US APRIL 1 TBD. There are long passages of time, or maybe it’s just twenty minutes, when all I hear is birds, calling to one another from branch to branch.
The mutual aid network comes together in a matter of weeks. Systems and procedures are thrown up like scaffolding. Maybe we’ll come up with something better later, we say, and I feel excited to be involved in the creation of something new and urgent.
There is a new sound: the police will drive around the corner and make threatening announcements over a loudspeaker. “You are ordered to disperse. Stand six feet apart in order to maintain social distancing.” Then: “You, on the corner, in the red jacket.” I look out the window as the man in the red jacket hurries away. I’ve heard the police fine and arrest people for failing to properly observe social distancing, but I haven’t witnessed this myself. There’s only so much I can see from one window.
It’s hard to do anything that requires careful thought. My brain, like this city, has been reduced to all but essential functions. I can follow recipes; I take on some back end administrative work for the mutual aid network, keeping track of donations in a spreadsheet. I shower, eat breakfast, wash up, read emails, and decide not to answer them. I feel shame at not being able to rise to the moment.
Think about yeast or any simple organism: it doesn’t have a brain, but it knows what to do. I imagine it working in the dark and in silence, slow but determined, eyeless but endlessly sure of itself.
Here are some things I love about bread: the way it tastes; the way it smells; the sloppiness of dough; the way it comes together from so few ingredients it might as well be made of nothing; the way dough rises; the way it resists rising; the fact that it’s alive.
Our kitchen, like our living room, has bright orange walls. When I moved into this apartment almost seven years ago, I couldn’t get over the orange, which felt absurd but also a little oppressive. The kitchen’s walls are smooth, but the living room walls have a stucco texture. Any attempt at decorating is doomed to lose a battle to the death with orange stucco.
There’s one window in the kitchen, right above our building’s front door. The window’s always been a little broken; it never completely closes, and it lets in cold air in the winter. Sometimes it escapes the frame and I have to pound on it with my fist to get it back into its proper place. In the morning, the kitchen fills with light, and the orange walls glow, warm and beautiful.
Every third loaf refuses to rise, and the exact cause of this failure is still mysterious. If social media is to be believed, overconfident stay-at-home workers have collectively decided that making homemade bread is an easy, fun way to pass the time. I should have known better: this is work. It’s skilled labor, demanding skills I don’t actually possess, but I turned to it as if it could provide a kind of comforting escapism or an easy sense of accomplishment. There is no easy sense of accomplishment.
It can take eighteen hours for yeast to transform sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, forming pockets of air inside the dough. I could spend the entire time waiting quietly at the kitchen table. But I fuss about the dough. I tend to it like a household pet. I can’t help lifting the tea towel to peer into the bowl, as if this precious thing might be lost, as if left to itself it might grow legs, maybe fur, and crawl away forever. There is, of course, no detectable change.
Louise Barry has been a visual artist, a curator, an administrator, a podcast producer, an organizer, an amateur baker, and a writer. She grew up in Northwest Pennsylvania, spent most of her adulthood in New York, and currently lives in Philadelphia.
Nine months into the global pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 lives in the US, it was finally my turn to go to the doctor. However, despite the ever-present fear and paranoia that turns every cough into COVID-19, the virus wasn’t my main concern: it was eczema, those dry, cracked, red, itchy patches I’d suffered for years. Flare-up after flare-up on the backs of my knees, the crevices between fingers, my elbows, and nearly everywhere else, with only weak, over-the-counter ointments providing scant relief.
Insured at last and thirty-five, I figured now might be a good time to establish a regular relationship with a doctor.
It was early September in Chicago, and the summer was still holding firm. But as a Midwesterner, I knew that could change at any hour. My wife, pregnant with our first child, drove me to the appointment and decided to stay in the car to limit her exposure to the omnipresent virus. My wait was short; I went through all the pre-doctor foreplay with the nurse: temperature check, height, weight, blood pressure, etc. The doctor arrived, sixtyish, with long, blonde-white hair, blue eye shadow, a studded bracelet, and a relaxed demeanor. We talked about what brought me in today.
A little embarrassed, I told her about my microscopically small annoyance amidst the global health crisis, and we went through my health history. I spoke about my depression, alcoholism, and allergies but assured her that I’m sober now and doing alright with my mental health, all things considered. Discussing all this was no small feat—my alcoholism and depression are still hard for me to talk about, but I thought it was important to be open and honest with this person who might play a large role in my health for years to come.
The doctor listened closely and eventually wrote a prescription for my eczema, then exited to grab some paperwork. She returned with a copy of my visit summary and a question. Pointing to the printout, with the information that the nurse had gathered, which we hadn’t discussed, the doctor asked, “Has your blood pressure been a concern before?”
The topic of my blood pressure had indeed come up every so often over the years, but I had routinely dismissed it. So much so that it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring it up in my earlier attempt to be open and honest with this doctor whom I was vetting to be my primary care physician. I’m not overweight, don’t smoke, don’t eat red meat, don’t drink anymore, and I run marathons. Aside from the stress stemming from having a child on the way, a presidential election with fascism on the ticket, the mishandled pandemic, and myriad stresses associated with being a Black man in America, I felt as healthy as ever.
The doctor began to lecture me on the overriding strength of genetics with these things. When she didn’t bring up the well-known prevalence of heart problems among Black men, I did.
She then shared an unnerving story about a popular marathoner who dropped dead due to a family history of high blood pressure. She continued, informing me that taking an individual reading isn’t always an accurate representation of the overall state of one’s blood pressure. Many things can affect any one reading: proximity to eating, my morning coffee, the stress of a doctor’s office, and so on. She recommended I keep an eye on it, perhaps make the occasional trip get it checked for free at one of the blood pressure monitors in front of pharmacies I usually see children playing with. Better yet, I could purchase an in-home blood pressure monitor. If in a few weeks I didn’t see the numbers trending down, we would have to look at some medications that could help.
While I’d suppressed and even written off the potentially grave dangers of high blood pressure, I had not been able to ignore the noisy flare-ups of my eczema: dry, itchy, annoying cracked skin. I’d chosen to address the easy problem while ignoring the grave issue of my blood pressure and heart health, which could ultimately lead to my untimely death.
This is precisely how white America has chosen to address our country’s central problem: race.
White America acknowledges the individual instances, the “flare-ups,” usually from an officer(s)’ murdering Black people for anything and nothing, like in 2020, 2016, 1992, 1968, 1919, 1859, 1831, 1739, 1619. George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, all lynched. For “possibly” passing a fake bill, for sleeping, and for jogging. Those are the names we’ve all learned nationally this year, but every city has their own list of names that are known more regionally. In my home city Chicago, it’s most recently Marcellis Stinnette, Laquan McDonald, Bettie Jones, Rekia Boyd, and many, many more stretching to Emmett Till and beyond.
In the pursuit of our incarceration, our murder, this past summer, our country has seen “flare-ups” in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Kenosha, Portland, Chicago, and more, which may result in a review of “this” officer or “that” department. Flare-up after flare-up, this country, sick to the core, chooses only to address the most immediate and “annoying” problems while not addressing systemic and institutionalized racism, a disease that may eventually kill it.
The “flare-up’s,” in response to these racist murders, many of which have gone or will go unpunished, have resulted in hundreds of thousands protesting in the streets across the world, statues falling, looting, a few buildings set aflame, pitched battles between protestors and law enforcement, and as drastic as these reactions may seem, they remain disproportionate in response to the crimes against Black Americans.
For this, white America is lucky. One simply has to ask, what is the proportionate response to hundreds of years of slavery, murder, a prison-industrial-complex with us in its crosshairs, and the looting of billions of dollars in Black wealth?
This country only addresses the issues that are on the nightly news or those that break through algorithms to the top of our social media feeds, which both love to chase blood spilled and buildings burning. They need excitement; they want entertainment. While eruptions titillate, they can also distract and obscure the underlying issues that caused them. When the drama fades, the majority of white America will continue on as they had before, their outrage never having the sustaining force to create change as the only changes against systems of oppression in this country have ever been driven by those most oppressed.
Walking back to the car, juggling thoughts of my long-term mortality with the immediacy of COVID-19 and police violence, there isn’t much relief in getting this damn prescription for my eczema. In the car with my pregnant wife, I vent to her about my blood pressure, how I’m not sure what more I could do to manage it. We can all eat less salt, but when balanced against the major lifestyle changes I’ve made, this doesn’t feel like it would do very much.
In this case, as well as our country’s history of racism, the answer is less what I can do as an individual but rather as a part of a collective. As I must work with a doctor, pharmacist, and a network of supportive family and friends to take care of my health, those truly concerned with the state of racism in our country must find like-minded individuals to work with. It is only as a collective that people in this country can fight against the myriad forces determined to maintain the status quo, whether they be our local/federal government, workplaces, and complicit corporations.
As for me, I’m addressing the individual flare-ups of my eczema along with monitoring and treating the much bigger issue of my heart health with the urgency and action it demands. This country is running out of time to do likewise with race.
James Stewart III is a Black writer from Chicago. He earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA from North Central College. He is currently finishing a novel about a multiracial working class family’s daily struggles and the costs they pay for loving each other. He also co-curates the text-based performance series “The Guild Complex presents Exhibit B” and is a managing editor of the magazine Critics’ Union. Stewart’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 580 Split, Pangyrus, Another Chicago Magazine, and Cowboy Jamboree.
If there was a fly on the wall right now, my eyes would be following it. As there isn’t, I resign myself to banging my feet against the chair leg and watching my pencil roll across the table before I reach out and stop it with a finger.
Then again—roll, and then stop.
And again—roll, and then stop.
I like it.
I look at my dad. There’s a map of the Korean Peninsula. Goguryeo, Silla, Baekjae. It all seems like a long, long time ago.
I rest my hand in my chin, pencil sitting still in front of me now as I listen to him lecture about some kings or emperors.
“Oh,” I say, sitting up when I remember something. “Is this when the guy in the historical drama put on a blindfold and then shot a bunch of arrows and he threw them into the ground and it looked really cool and then he got them all really accurate?”
My sister snickers. My dad smiles. He looks stressed.
“Kind of, yes. Now pay attention, there were a lot of kings. When I was in fourth grade, we had to memorize all of them—”
I wish there were a fly on the wall.
We don’t get past the 6th century before the at-home Korean History lessons stop.
I sit on the couch, leaning forward until I’m almost falling into the television screen. The boar that rolls up in front of my eyes is gross and terrifying as it chases the protagonist through the woods. Some words are spoken, and letters flash across the bottom of the screen, too fast to follow.
“Mommy!” I shout, turning back to look at her where she’s standing in the kitchen. “Hurry up and read the subtitles for me!”
With a sigh, she wipes her hands on a towel. “Jisoo, you read the subtitles for your sister for a little bit while I finish up.”
“No, I can’t read that fast,” she complains, sitting back on the couch. “Just read it yourself.”
“But I can’t read Korean,” I whine. The characters are saying things to each other, but my eyes can only drink in the greens of the painted grass and the blues of the sky for clues.
The colors are nice, though, and the boy is cute.
I like it.
“There’s a curse, and he has to go do stuff.”
Eventually, my mom comes and reads the subtitles for me through the rest of the whole movie. I still miss the first ten minutes.
It doesn’t stop me from claiming it as my favorite movie.
It’s always hot in Korea. But maybe that’s because we only ever visit in the summer. I don’t like visiting my mom’s family because Masan Grandpa (Grandpa who lives in Masan, my mother’s hometown) always pinches my nose really hard and I can feel my boogers crush against the sensitive skin inside and then he shakes it and says some stuff I can’t really understand and it smells like cigarette smoke.
And Masan Grandma isn’t a very good cook.
I like visiting Busan Grandma (Grandma who lives in Busan, my dad’s hometown). She smokes, too, but she never pinches my nose and doesn’t smell very bad. She cooks really well, and she has a cat, sometimes, and if I walk down to the corner store with somebody older than me I can get one of the ice cream cones where you rip the paper as you unwrap it, layer by layer, and the radio will always be playing that pop song that gets stuck in my head but I can never remember.
Sometimes, there are comic books.
I like it.
Busan Grandpa doesn’t exist. Sometimes I wonder if he ever has. Usually, I forget that he’s supposed to.
This year when we visit Busan Grandma, she isn’t at her apartment.
This is nice, because it means I can keep Teddy Bear all to myself. My sister got a bear, and I got a bear, but for some reason, Busan Grandma kept my bear but not my sister’s, which so totally isn’t fair. I forget about Teddy Bear every time until we visit again, but when I do remember it’s not very fair. Busan Grandma says it keeps her company and reminds her of me, but I don’t need that, I just want my bear, and it’s dumb that she keeps mine instead of my sister’s when she could keep my sister’s instead.
We visit Busan Grandma in a hospital, and she comes out in a wheelchair and gives me and my sister each a brand new bill (and it’s new, new, because apparently the government only decided to start printing the 50,000 won note in June this year, which makes my dad mad because she shouldn’t have been going to the bank when she should be in the hospital). It’s bright yellow and has a picture of an old lady on it, who looks a lot like Busan Grandma.
Maybe it is Busan Grandma. I don’t get a chance to find out, because it disappears into my mom’s wallet.
My sister and I are wearing matching dresses, and there’s a bench in front of the hospital. We take turns jumping off the bench, holding our hands in front of us as the skirt flies up and we pretend, for a second in the middle of our fall, that we are Marylin Monroe.
I like it.
Busan Grandma watches, with a smile, before she has to go back inside.
Inside the hospital elevator, there is no button for the fourth floor.
This, my sister tells me, is the equivalent of not putting thirteen in hotels.
“Four means death, in Korean,” she explains. She always acts like she’s smarter than me, just because she’s older.
I mean, I didn’t know, but it’s still annoying of her.
There are some things happening, and I don’t really know what it is or if I remember it all, but later my sister will tell me that she saw our dad crying, for maybe the first and only time in our entire lives, but I didn’t, but it doesn’t matter because that would have been lame or weird or something because our dad never cries.
There is a warm drink, though, that I think I remember but maybe I don’t. It is creamy and smooth, made from powder that’s sweet and savory.
I like it.
It comes out of a vending machine, warm, and I’ve never had warm drinks from vending machines before. Korea holds a lot of firsts.
Busan Grandma dies.
She was sick. She had cancer. Don’t smoke cigarettes.
I think, maybe, this means I get to keep Teddy Bear. For real this time, without forgetting it again and leaving it behind at Busan Grandma’s house.
That will be nice.
I like it.
I wonder what will happen to her cat.
The funeral is… I don’t really know. I think, mostly, that I am tired. It is my first funeral. Another first.
There are many faces. Most, I don’t recognize.
The eternal question, “Where did you get so tan?”
“America.” The sun is bright and hot in America. There’s less pollution to hide the sun’s rays.
“You look like a country bumpkin.” Followed by the ever-persistent pinching and patting.
“Daddy’s an orphan now,” my sister tells me as we eat. That’s not very nice. But orphans are always the main characters in books—like Harry Potter. And Batman.
Somebody, a Masan Aunt, maybe, offers me some cider. It’s just Sprite, but Korean and sweeter. Sah ee dah.
I like it.
“Can I have some more?”
She says yes. I sip it, slowly to make it last. It’s gone too fast anyway.
I think I fall asleep against the floor mats. I don’t ever remember falling asleep, though. Ever.
Sometime between being awake and falling asleep, I realize that I don’t feel sad or want to cry. I wonder if I should feel sad. I wonder if I would feel sad if I became an orphan, too.
One time, when Busan Grandma visited us in America and became just Grandma for a while, we went out for a walk.
There were lots of lakes around my neighborhood, and lots of geese living in those lakes.
Grandma carried me on her back, running through the sidewalk covered in goose poop as we both yelled, so that I wouldn’t get any goose poop on my shoes.
I must have been very small, for somebody as old as her to carry me.
It was nice of her.
I liked it.
Jinna Han is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Mathematical Economics with minors in Classical Studies and Actuarial Mathematics. Originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, she enjoys writing and playing music in her free time.
“Abstinence,” my health teacher says. “It’s the only guaranteed way to avoid STDs and pregnancy.” My mother never gives me the talk; my father’s girlfriend slides a book to me about changing bodies. Mine has already developed; I have the biggest tits in town.
“Sweet,” I think. I am eighteen, pre-rape. A boy picks me up in his convertible Mustang, newly-cut hair combed back, and I feel all 1950s. He comes to the door; doesn’t honk like the others. He brings me softly pink roses and packs a picnic of turkey sandwiches and merlot, and we eat under the stars, surrounded by people and music. We are at the Hollywood Bowl and I feel spoiled. It takes him over four dates just to kiss me. He is too nice for me.
“None of your business,” my boyfriend who doesn’t call me his girlfriend says. I ask him if he’s sleeping with Olivia. He’s the first guy who’s seen my naked body. The only man I’ve slept with; the second guy I’ve kissed. I am naive enough to say things like, “Well he looks Black but he’s actually Puerto Rican.” He’s old enough to drink.
“Rape,” I don’t say. I am sitting in a therapist’s home-slash-office, a few minutes down the street from where this non-assault occurred. I tell her something weird happened but I don’t really know what. She asks me to describe it. I cry. I answer her questions: He went to my high school, a few years above me. Read about my new apartment on a Myspace post. Invited himself over and I said okay. I pushed his hips off me, I didn’t want it, I didn’t know him, I might have whispered no, it might have only been in my head. I cry more. She calls it an unwanted sexual encounter, not that four-letter word though. Phew. I’m not part of the statistics. I don’t tell another human for over a decade.
“Slut,” people think. The men I’ve slept with, the ease of acquiring them, the places I’ve done it.
“Boring,” I say when I am in my twenties and sleeping with frat boys. Their fat tongues are grimy with beer and they don’t know what to do with themselves, or with me. I am blonde and thin and pretty enough to be acceptable and considered fuckable. I am practice.
“Harassment,” the lawyer in China calls my most recent assault. I’ve searched for a long time to find a lawyer who speaks English, who would take my case, who knows something about sexual assault. “We can send him a letter to tell him to stop bothering you.” I describe again the event of waking up with my male coworker’s hands all over my own body in my own bed; I tell her it is not harassment. I’ve lived on this Chinese island for less than three months. I’d planned to stay for two years to teach English at this school, but I leave in the middle of the night back to California after my principal tells me perhaps it was all a misinterpretation. Most important, though, is to keep a lid on all of this.
“I love you,” he says. It’s the first time a boy says this to me. It’s during sex so I can’t really count it. He says it over and over, rhythmically, so it cannot count. But he says it again on our way back from getting groceries. He pulls the car into the driveway, leans over to kiss me. He’s slow to get out; I worry about the defrosting fish. He whispers it in my ear and bolts out of the car, slams the door shut. “What!” I am giddy and grin dopily. I am beaming. I am floating. I am all the cliches and love songs and rom-coms. I want to dance in the streets. A boy loves me. My boyfriend loves me.
“Not a big deal,” most people say. Take it as a compliment that men holler at my body, that it’s just boys being boys, this is just how things are. These men aren’t actually doing anything. The professor who emails me to say that he is in the mood for a warm bath and half of a juicy peach. The hot dog vender who scrutinizes my womanhood: How old am I? Am I married? Do I have any children? Am I a virgin? The Uber driver who tells me how sexy I am, why am I going home alone when he knows a place where I can keep the party going. The police officer who takes the report about my stolen purse and texts me later that night to tell me what a fine ass I have. The masseuse who breathes into my ear how lucky my students are to have such a hot teacher. The coworker who presses his dick against my back when I’m trying to ring in an order. The boyfriend who quietly masturbates next to me when he thinks I’m sleeping. There’s nothing anyone can do, so whatever, smile smile smile, it’s fine. It could be a lot worse. It’s not a big deal.
“Un-fucking-believable,” I breathe out. My new coworker is the best lay I’ve ever, ever had and he knows it. Four years younger than me, he’s wholesome in an unsettling way, from Georgia, a teacher but training to be a doctor; studies bodies. He gives me such intense pleasure I feel empty of something yet filled with everything.
“Romantic,” I think. I meet a pilot at a bar in Greece. I was finishing a pizza and washing it down with a tourist-blue cocktail, when another loud drink was placed in front of me. The bartender nods to the man across from me. He winks. I feel beautiful. He holds my hand as we walk along the beach. We swim in moonlight and saltwater. In the morning, he rents a car for us to drive along the coast, visit as many beaches as we can. We dance in the sea, marinate in the sun, make out with urgency, and do it again at the next beach. He feeds me, massages me, buys me a Grecian blue ring, and we say goodbye. This sustains me for a while.
“Grandkids!” my mother says. I am the youngest of her four children in their 30s; none of us are married or have turned her into a grandmother.
“Wherever you go, there you are. There they are,” I realize. These assaults and flickers of misogyny and degradation: is it me? Is it men? The Bedouin man who shows me and my friend his tent, his village, who grabs my ass, grabs her tits, when we are in Jordan. We tell each other later that night, laughing nervously: It happened to you too! The frat boy who roofies me in Berkeley. But I was lucky that time; my boyfriend took me back home after I blacked out. The boy in Texas who can’t use condoms because he’s allergic, and, well, we are already here. The Venezuelan in New York who dances with me all night, who discreetly slips off the condom, comes inside of me, laughs and says he is so fucking drunk, man. Wasted. Ha. Ha. Ha.
I am the soft fruit they pick at over and over until one day there will be nothing left but my rotted core.
Christina Berke is a graduate student, teacher, and a Libra. Previous work appears in Literary Orphans and Ed Surge. In her spare time, she looks at dog adoption websites and adds air-purifying plants to several online shopping carts. Follow her sporadic tweets @christinaberke.
Cars are backed up two blocks in line to pull into a big-box store. It’s still cold in the suburbs of Chicago and a frenzied mob of people rushes into the store in puffy coats to fill their carts with non-perishables: 12-packs of toilet paper, tubes of Clorox wipes, bags of rice, arms full of assorted canned vegetables. An argument breaks out between two people staking claim to the last box of tissues. A woman berates a worker in the chemical aisle because all of the disinfectants have disappeared from the shelves.
I work as an automotive technician in this big-box store, a one-stop-shop for everything essential: frozen hamburger, fish oil capsules, adult diapers, flat-tire repair. In late March, I clock-in five minutes late, as usual, and strip bare in the dank dressing room that smells of oil and used socks. I ease the crisp polyester pants of my automotive uniform over my knees. The uniform is oversized, made for a man’s body. It swallows my curves, broadens my shoulders, makes me look stronger than I really am. When I walk into the auto shop, the manager tells me that our department is closed indefinitely. Climbing in and out of other people’s cars is unsanitary and has become dangerous. The manager spreads the auto technicians across departments to help with a store-wide effort to disinfect the shelves. He hands me a towel and a spray bottle of a bleach-water solution. Start scrubbing.
Thirty-five workers crowd into a small break room, shoulder touching shoulder, nerves frayed, tired feet. The city is shutting down. The store manager tells us that we will receive a letter indicating that we are essential. We are to carry this letter with us at all times and to report to work unless we are sick. This is not business as usual. We are not to take ibuprofen and work through chills or a sore throat. If we are sick, we must stay home for 14 days without pay. Unless we test positive. We will get paid time off if we test positive. We are essential. Families need their groceries and the company needs our sacrifice. I look over at Lee while the managers start praising each other for their sacrifices. Her brow is furrowed and she is playing with the rings on her fingers, twisting and removing them, rubbing them between her hands. Our eyes meet and she leans over and whispers. I have COPD. Does that mean that I could die if I get it? I take her hands in mine and squeeze them. Feeling the warmth of her well-rubbed rings, I realize that my fingers are freezing. Two managers lead a company cheer at the front of the room and insist that our mouths do the chanting.
The cleaning only lasts for two weeks. We scrub floors and clean behind shelves, scrub oil-caked banisters, disinfect cash register keys. And then, we are finished. We are passed from one department to the next, completing menial tasks. I work in nine-hour shifts moving merchandise forward on shelves. Management says that items look more attractive to customers if they are neatly stacked, perfectly flush with the outermost edge of the shelves. Under the stark glare of fluorescent lights, I declutter hanging displays of Gorilla Glue in hardware, straighten out boxes of light bulbs: 60-watt incandescent, 40-watt incandescent, 60-watt LED…
Cashiers start rationing the plastic gloves that management places near the registers. The front-end supervisor warns against wastefulness, insists the cashiers share a single box of gloves per shift. Lee tells me that she has been quietly hoarding gloves. She hides them in her coat pockets, shoves wads into her purse when no one is looking. She is worried about getting sick, but she can’t afford time off without pay. She starts wearing a mask that her niece sewed her from the cloth of a pillow case. One day, a supervisor scolds her for violating the dress code. He orders her to remove her mask. You are scaring the customers.
In the break room, I sit with John from maintenance who is complaining that his knees are hurting him again. On television, we watch nurses weeping into masks, goggled men in plastic suits carrying stretchers, bare-chested patients who are unconscious, some gurgling, some hooked to tubes. John mutes the volume with the remote and cuts into his microwaved Salisbury steak. I just can’t with this shit today. It’s too damn much. I want to ask him how he’s coping with all this. Does he miss the little things, like going to the diner across the street after late shifts, drinking his coffee slow with a plate of steak and eggs? Does the stench of disinfectant linger on his clothes, does it follow him home? Does he wake in the night, like me, with nightmares of the dead, with his chest burning? I start to ask but I stop myself, realizing that John has a distant look on his face, like he’s there but not there. His hands are moving, but his mind is somewhere else, a quiet defiance that helps him survive long shifts on his knees scrubbing toilets and wiping up dust. Later he tells me that his father is trapped in a nursing home in a neighboring suburb. Forty patients tested positive, and the whole building is on lockdown. They won’t let the patients leave their rooms, and family visitations are banned. John fears that the loneliness might kill his father. Every Sunday, he holds his son on his shoulders in the yard outside the nursing home. John swears that through the tint of the thick paned windows, he can see the life fading from his father’s eyes.
I wake up one Saturday with a raw throat, shaking with chills. I wrap my face in a scarf and drive to Urgent Care. I take deep breaths in and out while the doctor listens to my lungs. She checks my throat for strep but refuses to give me a Covid test. I plead with her. I am worried about exposing my coworkers. What if I’m spreading it to people in the aisles? She tells me that because of a shortage of tests, they are only testing patients who can’t breathe. She sends me home with a note to quarantine, and I stay home for 14 days without pay. I lie in bed thinking about what I would do if I had children to feed.
After I return to work in late April, the company starts implementing new safety measures. Neon green arrows are taped to the floor to direct the flow of foot traffic. Plastic shields are installed in front of cash registers. All workers are now required to wear masks. Before clocking in, we stand in line and wait for a manager to hold a scanner to our foreheads to take our temperatures. Every day, she repeats the same questions to each person in line: Do you have a sore throat, fever, unexplained cough? Have you lost your sense of taste or smell? Have you tested positive for Covid-19? Sometimes she abbreviates: Any symptoms? Tested positive? Sometimes, only: Yes or no? The company hires a wave of new temporary workers, and they cut everyone’s hours. The store is so short-staffed, we can barely keep the shelves stocked. One day all but four chairs in the break room disappear and one of the microwaves is missing. We stand in line to warm our food, hover in corners to eat, sit on the floor to rest our feet.
Management calls a group of us to the backroom to unload the truck that comes daily with more merchandise. I see John, hear him cursing to himself after he is ordered to abandon his cleaning to unload the truck. He climbs into the pitch-black truck bed and starts pulling down boxes, loading them onto a conveyor belt. The rest of us wait for the boxes to float down the line so we can shove them onto pallets to take out to the aisles. It’s summer and the backroom is sweltering. We’re all sweating and struggling to breathe under our masks. When John pulls down his mask to catch his breath, I see a manager bolting from across the room towards the truck. John, pull that damn mask up! If I see that mask down below your nose one more time, you’re outta here. John pauses and looks him hard in the face. Without a word, he pulls his mask up slow.
In mid-summer, I get a call from an old friend. Except to go on walks and pick up groceries through a curbside service, she hasn’t left the house in months. She works from home for her nonprofit job, stares at a screen eight hours a day. She tells me she is going stir-crazy. She misses museums and getting lost in crowds. She started pacing the house for exercise, and she’s been baking a new batch of cookies every three days. Stress baking, she calls it. When she comes home from picking up groceries, she strips off all her clothes and leaves them in a pile by the door. She sanitizes door handles. I can’t help but laugh in shock when I hear this, realizing for the first time that there are people who’ve actually been experiencing the last four months from the confines of their own homes.
The crowds at the store never die down. We work through them. We push past hordes of frantic hands to pull items forward on shelves: boxes of tea, bottles of salad dressing, cans of condensed milk. The green arrows directing foot traffic are peeling off the floor and some of the plastic shields by the registers have fallen down. The managers stopped putting out gloves for the cashiers. Lee doesn’t wear her rings anymore. She complains that her hands are dry and cracking from the sanitizer. There’s a tired look on her face all the time now, and the wrinkles around her eyes are more pronounced. She tells me that she could deal with the exhaustion if she could just see her grandbaby every now and then. Her daughter thinks that her job is a hazard and won’t bring the baby over because she’s afraid Lee will get sick and spread it.
Sometimes I put on my old automotive uniform when I need to feel stronger. Greg, who was just hired to work in hardware, compliments me on how I wear it. He asks me if I miss working on cars. I tell him that I don’t miss the smell of oil that lingered in my hair, nor the stinging cuts that always marked my fingers. But I yearn for the satisfaction of physical labor—the feeling that my work is useful and the joy of going to sleep with aching muscles. I tell him there is a hidden strength that I conjured in myself after months of climbing beneath cars, working beside men who intrinsically expected my failure. How one day, with my right arm extended into the bowels of a truck, my hand feeling around blindly for an oil filter, I heard bones in my back cracking. I stretched further in and grabbed hold of the filter. Oil dripping down my armpit, I could feel my spine straighten after a lifetime of slouching.
Later, Greg and I stand beside each other and pretend to work, moving extension cords and surge protectors around on the shelves. He tells me he plays the piano. He taught himself on a cheap keyboard, saved up for ten years to get the real thing, with marble keys and red wood. Music, he tells me, is the only way I know how to get lost completely. He likes to play in the early hours of the morning, while his kids are asleep and the apartment is dark and still. He pulls out his phone and shows me a video of himself playing Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor in low light. Eyes closed, he sways back and forth, his fingers falling heavy, pounding on keys.
As the months drag on, monotonous hours blend into one another and I can no longer distinguish the days of the week. The store manager tapes motivational quotes to the break room doors, hoping to boost morale. Hauling a heavy cart stacked with boxes, I pass John in one of the grocery aisles. He is sweeping up glass from a bottle of orange juice that was left broken on the floor. He tells me that his hours were cut again and he’s struggling to pay his bills. One day, I’m not gonna stand for this anymore. One day, I swear, I’m gonna lay down this broom and walk out for good.
Beneath the rumble of crowds and the beeping cash registers, a faint murmur is rising. I tell John that sometimes, when I close my eyes and listen, I can hear it. Drowning hands stretching toward shore. Backs bent but chins lifting. A clamor of voices.
Samantha Campagna is a writer and educator born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has degrees from Columbia College Chicago and North Carolina State University and has worked as a waitress, a public school instructional aide, a flight attendant, a retail cashier, and an automotive technician. She currently resides in Christiansburg, Virginia, and is working on a short story collection.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR COHABITATING WITH AN AGING PARENT by Susan Hamlin
Number of people required:
One still-independent ninety-year-old mother
One more-than-middle-aged child
10 x 12-foot guest room that used to be your brother’s bedroom (yours is now “the computer room”).
6 x 8-foot guest bathroom that used to be yours and now has meticulously arranged, starched cotton hand towels that you are not allowed to use.
One twin bed of the pair inherited from your grandmother’s front bedroom.
Half a closet with hangers foraged from other closets in the house all full to the brim with parent’s seasonally color-coordinated warm-up suits.
A couple of drawers cleared out of a dresser that normally holds Christmas wreaths, centerpieces, and the sixty-year-old green and red felt elves whose heads won’t stay on anymore.
A 6 x 13-inch space on bathroom counter to arrange your toiletries since cupboard space is occupied by backstock of abovementioned not-to-be-used towels. Electric candle, perfume bottle collection, and other knick-knacks must not be moved.
One shelf, high up, in kitchen cupboard for your tea and other “weird stuff” i.e. flaxseed, raw honey, etc. Same for fridge—one tiny corner for yogurt, kombucha, and crème fraîche.
One end of dining room table for use as an office.
Step 1: Adapt to daily schedule
6:30 a.m.: Bring in newspaper off damp lawn. Turn on heater.
7:15 a.m.: Do not insist on making fresh coffee because “decaf instant warmed up in the microwave is just fine.” Plus, French press that you bought takes up space on the counter.
9 a.m.: By this time newspaper has been read cover to cover, including the funnies, obituaries, and bridge problem, which must be solved on Saturdays. Parent will still be in her bathrobe.
12 p.m.: Eat lunch whether you’re hungry or not, otherwise you will hear “Have you eaten anything yet?” over and over until you do.
5:30 p.m.: Cocktail hour (do not be late). A moment in the day to be savored.
6 p.m.: Prepare dinner, which is always appreciated and described as “gourmet.” Parent will make salad and sit at kitchen table to keep you company.
6:30 p.m.: Watch local news, suppressing comments about newsworthiness of lost puppies. Then watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” back-to-back. You will be beating contestants in no time.
8 p.m.: Load dishwasher only after pre-washing every plate, glass and utensil. Follow strict stacking rules that are shouted from the family room each night.
8:15-9:30 p.m.: Watch Netflix. Do not argue about how it works.
Step 2: Get involved
Her friends Listen to stories about them, even about ones you don’t know. Become invested in their children, the children of their children, their jobs, their health, their marriages and their divorces (a word spoken in a hushed tone, along with “gay” and “lesbian”).
Drive them to their bridge games. Help set up card table and folding chairs when it’s parent’s turn to be hostess. Then get out of the way. Use free time to get work done, uninterrupted.
Don’t take it personally when she tells them “It’s so nice to have someone in the house,” as if you could be anyone and she’s just happy to have anybody’s company.
Never answer landline when she’s not home. It might be one of the friends you do not know, but awkwardly, they know everything about you (except that you’re a Democrat and how many times you’ve been divorced).
When lunching at their homes (an excuse to get their good china out), reminisce about times spent with them when you were growing up. With the hope that their hearing aids are turned up, ask after their children, most of whom you haven’t seen in forty years. Some, however, are your lifelong friends. This makes everyone happy, even you. Avoid expressing political opinions.
Make Appointments Insist (she procrastinates). Don’t talk to repairmen or doctors as if she were not there. Allow her to be charming while you take notes and ask occasional questions.
Step 3: Navigate the family
Your cousins Talk about family taco recipe and whether it should still include American cheese like grandmother used or if it’s acceptable to switch to cheddar. Also discuss how the naval base has been turned into a park and shopping center (both subjects may elicit strong viewpoints but are always safer than talking politics).
Your brother Go for early morning walks along the beach with him and his dogs, Duke and Mason. Wait until he’s in a good mood to ask for help around your mother’s house.
Step 4: Dress to go out
Try to remember which outfit your parent said you looked pretty in so you can wear it when you see her friends. If, when you wear something else, you notice a disapproving look on her face, do not say, “What? Mom, I’ve been dressing myself for fifty years.” You will not win this one.
Step 5: Visit your father’s grave
Enjoy view of harbor and listen to sea lions barking. Talk about how he loved to dance and how gently he teased the grandkids. Do not come here on overcast days.
Step 6: Find time for yourself
Go to yoga class. This helps with Patience requirement.
Repot patio plants that have grown into a jungle. Plant an herb garden. It will come in handy when fixing “gourmet” meals.
Invite old friends over for cocktail hour. They adore your parent, who was their Brownie leader and went to school with their parents, as well as their aunts and uncles.
Step 7: Learn from her
The skill of shopping for specials. Never pay more than ninety-nine cents per pound for tomatoes.
How to make coq au vin (even though you’ve lived in France, hers is the best you’ve ever tasted).
What the neighborhood was like before. Drive past the house where she was born and check to make sure that the Torrey pine tree her father planted in their front yard when she was five has not been cut down. Try to imagine that the hipster bar on the corner of Newport Avenue used to be the soda shop where she worked after school.
How not to take things too seriously. Laugh about the taillight you broke backing out of the garage and the dead car battery in the grocery store parking lot.
Step 8: Don’t take any of this time for granted.
Originally from California, Susan Hamlin has lived in Paris since 1989. She studied dance at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her BFA, and earned her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. After working in New York as a choreographer and in several art foundations, Susan moved to France where she has been teaching dance history at Sarah Lawrence College, Paris for the past twenty-eight years. Her written work has appeared in the New York Times Travel Section, several travel blogs, and the online art magazine Critical Read. Her short story, Portrait of the Artist’s Family at an Exhibition, appeared in the anthology Where We Started, edited by AM2 Bruxelles in 2019.
ELEVEN MICRO-MEMOIRS FROM THE PANDEMIC
by Freesia McKee
1. To mix the kimchi, I used two precious latex gloves, so that later, I could take out my contact lenses.
2. Took a long walk by myself. At the crosswalk on Biscayne, someone in a white work van held an N95 mask out the driver’s window in the hope that sunlight would kill the virus. I finished crossing the street, then burst into tears behind my own face covering. Such a safety measure is so inadequate, and yet, this seems to be about all we can do.
3. First COVID death here in Miami-Dade County yesterday. Early this morning, I saw Dmitri walking his dog. He said that the guy who died was his workout buddy at the muscle gym they both belonged to. “He was in his 40s, completely healthy, didn’t have HIV or nothing.” I wonder what it means to escape one pandemic and succumb to another.
4. Talked with her on the phone today. She’s waiting to postpone her wedding.
5. On my walk, I saw two men helping each other cut down a large tree with a chainsaw. Not only were they not wearing masks, they weren’t wearing any kind of eye protection, either.
6. Trump said a few hours ago that he thought injecting Lysol into the body might kill the coronavirus. On a scale of “it’s worse than I thought” to “it’s better than I thought” to “I told you so,” where are you, now, in relation to the level of personal horror you experienced in late 2016?
7. At a demonstration in Wisconsin denying the science of our sad reality, one suburbanite held a sign reading, “I WANT A HAIRCUT.” I downloaded the image from the Internet onto my phone. Using my finger as a stylus, I carefully altered the text of the woman’s sign to the words I thought reflected an accurate description of her message’s trajectory: “I WANT YOU TO DIE.” I texted the photo to my partner Jade in the other room, and we both got a good laugh. During the first weeks of social distancing, my friend Will said on Google Hangouts that people in situations like the pandemic develop a gallows humor in order to cope. I responded that gallows humor was a variety of humor I would never be able to identify with.
8. My cousin in Bellingham texted that he thinks he has the virus right now, and he’s doing okay. I’m going through another cycle of anxiety, of not being able to read. I’m spending entire days online. One of the bad feelings is reaching nightfall and feeling like I have nothing to show for it. Why am I taking so long to text back my cousin?
9. Our neighbors have become an integral part of our lives. Pat dropped off six fish she caught in a canal in Northwest Dade. Jade spent several hours on the phone trying to help Mary apply for unemployment. Paula bought us milk with her grocery delivery. Jade’s been doing yardwork behind our place so the landlord doesn’t have to come too close to our apartment. Mary wears a mask. Kenny wears a mask. Marvin sometimes wears a mask. Marvin’s kids don’t wear masks. Dmitri doesn’t wear a mask. We wear masks. Outside, we all talk with each other every single day.
10. I’m planning to wake up early tomorrow. But tonight, vodka with lime and honey and salt. We’re eating curry. I have been thinking about the last normal day before we parted from each other. It was the occasion of a personal milestone, and the small room was crowded with people there to support. I remember vigorously washing my hands every hour, all day. No hugs.
11. Every morning, I walk or jog past the Arch Plaza Rehab and Nursing Center, and I think about the residents inside. Sometimes, I can see the silhouettes of residents and nursing staff through the second-story windows. I think it must be a scary feeling, to live in a place like this where the only people who can visit you are dressed like astronauts. For the first month of social distancing, I cried for the residents every single morning when I passed their building. But now, I don’t cry on my walks anymore. When I get home, I set an intention for my meditation practice, who I want to meditate for or in honor of. Only sometimes, I remember them, my inside neighbors. We will never meet.
Author’s note: I was not much of a diarist before the pandemic, but I felt that such a crisis would present some important moments to document, so I started keeping a daily journal when I began social distancing on March 13. These micro-memoirs are based on entries I made during my first three months of experiencing the pandemic, March 13 to May 30, 2020. I filled up a whole notebook during this time, 100 pages, front and back.
Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press). Her words have appeared in Flyway, Bone Bouquet, So to Speak, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Virga, Painted Bride Quarterly, CALYX, About Place Journal, South Dakota Review, New Mexico Review, and the Ms. Magazine Blog. Freesia’s book reviews have appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, Pleiades Book Review, Gulf Stream, and The Drunken Odyssey. Freesia was the winner of CutBank Literary Journal’s 2018 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, chosen by Sarah Vap. Find her online at freesiamckee.com or on Twitter at @freesiamckee.
REPARATIONS WINE LABEL
Text by J’nai Gaither
Illustrated by Phoebe Funderburg-Moore
Click on images for full-size.
Full Text of Label:
Blacks in Wine Matter
Reparations Red Wine
United Colors of America
401mL 16.19% by volume
To be acknowledged and included in this White wine industry is all people of color have ever wanted. Though wine is as global as industries come, it has never been welcoming to people of color. Even in South Africa, on the Mother Continent, most wineries are owned by White South Africans, though there has been a push to put the economic opportunities of winemaking into the hands of Black people. After 401 years, time is up. Drink and protest responsibly.
Reparations is made from Petite Sirah and Tannat, two thick-skinned black grapes that offer a hearty and savory liquid meal to the adventurous imbiber. With hints of espresso, blackberry and cocoa, Reparations gives back to the drinker what’s been stolen from them: the freedom to enjoy wine uninhibited. Aged in oak for only six months since we have already waited long enough.
Government Warning: (1) According to people of color, wine should be more accessible and less pretentious. It should not divide, and consumers and hiring managers should get used to seeing people of color in the wine space or risk losing a significant portion of the $1.2 trillion that is Black buying power. (2) Consumption of this alcoholic beverage may wake up the world to a bitter racism that has persisted in the industry for decades.
401mL Contains Anger & Indignation
J’nai Gaither is the hungriest of storytellers, always foraging for the next, excellent food and beverage story, or the most delicious of ad campaigns. When not consuming copious amounts of champagne and burgundy, she’s usually planning her next meal while listening to opera. Her work has appeared in Plate Magazine, New York Magazine’s Grub Street, Eater, Dining Out Chicago, Vinepair,From Napa With Love and other books and publications. You can see her work on Amy’s Kitchen website and packaging, as well as on current Sargento Cheese commercials. She has also been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
Phoebe Funderburg-Moore is a Philadelphia-based illustrator, screen printer, and graphic designer. Her work is focused around self-discovery, love of nature, and observational humor. Recently Phoebe has been teaching herself animation and digital illustration. To view more of her work, visit phoebefm.com and follow along on Instagram at @phoebemakesart.
TO MAKE AND EAT TIME:
Pork Rillettes in a Pandemic
by Greg Emilio
And one day, just like that, you will make time.
You will make time to dust off the cookbooks you’ve never used. You will pick up the fat French tome and crack it open and it will smell like your grandparents’ kitchen. The papery redolence of oil, roasted chicken. The splattered windows of grease stains as holy as stained glass. Time to finger the recipes their pencils annotated. Time to make, and make do, to use what you have: time trapped in a half-forgotten bottle of Muscadet.
You will make time, because suddenly, you, and the rest of the world, will have time.
Lured by economy and the blind contingency of time and place, you will come to a recipe for rillettes. Pâté-tender pork preserved under a layer of lard. Peasant’s butter back in the day, the fat cap keeping the meat for months. (Time to seek out foods that will stand the test of time.)
After a perilous excursion to the grocery store and a trip to the butcher (by comparison paradisiacal), you will be ready to set the cure on your inch by inch chunks of pork shoulder: salt, garlic, ginger, coriander, black pepper, and white wine. Plus the unexpected warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.
And this is how you will set the cure. And this is how the beginning of time is made. And now, you must wait three days.
And on the second day, you will find time right on the edge of spring in your part of the country, cool mornings giving way to lengthening days of high fresh light.
Light ladling down over the reemerging canopies, limbs bursting diminutive green flags.
Light catching the green-gold drifts of pollen sifting down from the trees like flour from a baker’s sieve.
Your eyes will ravel and water and burn, the air perfumed with wisteria, purple evanescent blooms that will already be withering by the time you eat the rillettes.
You will pass time walking the block, jogging, getting reacquainted with your body. The neighborhood teeming with children as if it were summer. Neighbors reading on front porches. A legion of box gardens seemingly sprung up overnight. It will seem as if you’re living in a bygone time.
On this, the second day, you will institute a nightly cocktail hour with your partner. After a day’s work reading, grading, cleaning the house, you will come to savor the crawl of dusk, Negroni in hand, the person you love best in this world by your side.
You will find that by using your stockpile of time wisely, thoughtfully, you are actually making more time. Building a bank of memory to fall back on in tougher times.
(They will come.)
And on the third day, the cure thoroughly set, it will be time to finish the rillettes.
Low and slow is how time works wonders in a poor kitchen. The pork, pungent with the aura of its spices, will cook for three hours in the melted lard.
10,800 seconds at 225 degrees to make a tender miracle of the meat. Roughly shredded, spooned glistening into small mason jars, each topped with a thin layer of lard.
After waiting three days, you will crave a fast forkful. But you will wait. (What you are losing in time, you are gaining in patience.) You will let it rest.
On the third day in the Book of Genesis, God parsed out light from darkness, invented sun and moon and a ceiling of stars and set the whole thing spinning: “To serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.” This is the day that time was made.
You will mark the dusk on your third day of rillettes in a time of pandemic with a glass of thin red wine, earthy and reasonable. The early spring air will be fragrant, full of the throb of new life, and the pulse of life coming back.
You will spread the rillettes over the face of a toasted piece of craggy bread. Top with some pickles or a thinly sliced radish.
And the clink of your glass against your lover’s glass will ring out into the deepening evening, and your teeth will tear into the crackling toast, lush and otherworldly with the richness of rillettes, and the tongue of time will catch (just for a moment) in the imponderable jaws of God.
A food writer, poet and teacher, Gregory Emilio has recent work out in Best New Poets, Gastronomica, Nashville Review, North American Review, [PANK], Permafrost, and Tupelo Quarterly, among other journals. He won Georgia Poetry Society’s 2019 George Herbert Reece Prize, White Oak Kitchen’s 2020 Prize in Southern Poetry, and earned his PhD in English from Georgia State University. He lives in Atlanta.
Maybe behind your house was a rock garden where you ran when your mother shooed you away where you loved the rosebush but hated the thorns and always the bees buzzing a secret you didn’t know but still it made you cry in the cubbyhole under the stairs where you could hear in the kitchen your mother tell her mother she was done having sex she didn’t care if he was her husband and what was he going to do about it anyway and maybe the years go by in single file like the poet says and maybe at night you read her poem over and over in a book of poems the pages edged in gold and hold onto it like the rabbit’s foot you’ve outgrown hidden in a shoebox and every night he’s in your room the sweet smell of tobacco the scrape of bear paws and you wonder does she know and he says love says a secret says don’t tell says there now that wasn’t so bad and maybe when you cry at night the wallpaper blooms red roses and in your head the bees buzzing a secret too big to fit in the cubbyhole because he will find you he always finds you and he gives you books on your birthday which your mother forgets then tells you nothing she buys will fit you’ve grown as big as a house and maybe he gives you a book of best-loved poems bound in red leather you run your fingers down the pages edged in gold and maybe he is the only man who will ever love you and maybe this is what love means and even though at night you look past him find your spot on the wall like your ballet teacher taught you to keep from falling as you twirl spot twirl and maybe you’ll tell someone but you never do and the years go by in single file and when they call you come quick he hasn’t much longer maybe you sit and stare at the telephone on your desk and don’t leave work until your boss says take as much time as you need and maybe he’ll be dead by the time you get there and you stop at Bloomingdales and waste a few hours trying on black clothes until it’s too late to catch a flight and the bees buzzing you can’t sleep and ransack the basement closet find an old black blazer with mothballs in the pocket run your fingers down four buttons on each cuff how he taught you what to look for when you buy a blazer that afternoon in Brooks Brothers and how he always wore the same blue robe when he said goodnight and maybe you miss the smell of his cherry tobacco and wonder if it was you that wanted it all along and none of it was his fault which is what your mother said except when she said it never happened and maybe when you get to the hospital your mother will pick up her handbag and coat and say at last I can get some sleep and push past you and maybe there’s an empty coffee cup on a bed-tray which you carefully examine like it holds the secret meaning of life and after the morphine drip you run out of things to look at it’s the two of you and maybe his big green eyes look like the sea cove where he lifted you on his back when he was a whale and he said hold on hold on and maybe you squeeze his hand and say hold on hold on and together you watch the years go by in single file until maybe just maybe the white wall blooms red roses and bees gather above the body spilling a secret to the living and the dead.
Roberta Beary lives in the west of Ireland where she is the haibun editor for Modern Haiku. Her work has won Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, Best Fifty British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) awards, and is featured in New York Times Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less. She recently collaborated on One Breath: Reluctant Engagement Project, which pairs her writing with artwork by families of people with disabilities.
It is midnight in early March and I am on the phone, pacing the wood floors of my sweet, single-story house on the east side. Since moving in four months ago, I’ve come to love everything about this place, from the nesting red-tailed hawks in the front yard to the train tracks in the back. It’s a weirdly balmy night in Nashville and I’m talking to my musician-projectionist friend back in Virginia, comparing my mother’s old gardens to coral reefs. Before it sold, my friend saw that house for herself: the superabundant lightning bugs, the blooms on the trumpet vine, the fractal canopy suspended above the creek. She gets what I mean about the flowers. I jot down some notes, hang up, and go fill a water glass. I catch a flash of white light through the slats of my blinds and step on the back deck.
Oh hey, lightning.
Minutes later, in bed, I receive a never-before-seen mass text: Imminent Extreme Alert: TORNADO WARNING in this area until 1AM. Seek shelter immediately.
Housemate’s in Bali and parents are asleep and I’m too new in town to have a go-to, deep-help person yet, so I turn into my own go-to, deep-help person. I grab my backpack, my grandmother’s opal ring, and the key to the cellar. This house has one of those outdoor access, cement-stair basements, so I need to go outside to get inside. The siren sounds just like the movies. Trees lash the air behind me as I pull the doorknob tight with one hand and turn the key with the other. It gives and I burst into the basement, rushing over to grab a thick white comforter off my painting chair. Within seconds, the power cuts off and the room goes black.
Okay, okay, okay, I hear myself saying. There is unusual pressure in my ears. I want to watch from the doorway, but I don’t know if it’s safe. From the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I look up into the dark, churning sky. This is not a normal storm. The lights of downtown Nashville, which are usually visible beyond the skeletal winter trees, have completely vanished. Clouds flash the color of split pea soup. Bursts of blue-white light explode somewhere off to the right. I can’t see the hail but now I can hear it. The siren revs up again and I exhale, stretching a single-syllable curse into an entire emphatic sentence.
I slam the door and retreat into the basement. Time to decide which corner is most likely to keep me alive—definitely the creepy interior closet with the breaker box and the hot water heater. I use the faint light of my phone to navigate across the room, knocking into a couple boxes on the way.
Okay, okay. I feel dread pooling my stomach, tension in my lower back. I hear the familiar sound of an approaching train, but I know that this time it is not a train. I wrap myself in the blanket, squeeze into the narrow closet, and pull the door closed. Okay.
The dreams started in my early twenties. It was usually the same clipped scene: me, standing outside, watching gunmetal-green clouds whirl above a forest. Half the time, I had my camera and took pictures of the funnel cloud as it dropped down, expanded, and started to advance.
For the most part, these were not violent nightmares of being crushed or flung into the air—I was just mesmerized and filled with terror. The dreams placed me in a moment of chilling recognition. Whenever I dreamed of a dark funnel cloud moving on the horizon, I saw the shape of absolute danger. The word impending comes to mind.
But what is it, actually, other than a symbol of doom? A tornado is a wild-card weather event, a ferociously spinning vortex of air brought to earth for a short time under exceptional circumstances. When a severe thunderstorm exhibits dangerous rotation in its mesocyclone, tornado formation is possible. But the factors that compel a particular supercell to level up its violence remain a mystery, as only a fraction of such storms actually produce tornados. It’s not yet possible for us to anticipate when or where a twister will touch down, if at all. In the dreams, and growing up back East, I always wanted to keep an eye on the storm.
If you look closely, nature makes for pretty watchable TV. On any given day at my parents’ old house, you might witness the second a hawk snags a starling off right the lawn. More likely, you’d see a groundhog sprint for the shed, an aggressive spat between blue jays, or a towering cloud formation straight out of a dream—but anything was possible. That’s the feeling: endless potential. You could never get to the bottom of it.
My parents raised me and my brothers to take an attentive, reverent approach toward the world: to keep our eyes peeled for oddities and unexpected blips of beauty. We were taught that your day can be massively improved by a brush with the other-than-human world—elements, animals, plants, all of it. Beyond seizing these opportunities, we were encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate them.
Growing up, that meant that we stopped what we were doing to look at an enormous black snake wrapped around the back tire of my mother’s truck. It meant that my brothers and I built bonfires out of cherry tree trimmings and ice caves out of blizzard snow. It meant that I got a full report from one of them after he witnessed a lethal duel between a toad and a praying mantis, and that my mom and I got to brag about the curious fawn that approached us in the car.
All this to say: I grew up with the understanding that human beings are embedded in a field of interdependent relationships. Sunlight, ivy, owl, oak—I wouldn’t be me without them.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m., when the tornado sirens stop, I leave the basement closet to check the sky again. It doesn’t look tranquil, but the freaky, dire feeling in the air is gone. Firetruck and police sirens start up, blaring louder and louder until there are blue lights flashing all over the trees. Nope, I think, exhausted. Too much. I go back inside the house, peek through the blinds to make sure my car isn’t crushed under a pine tree, and fall into bed. No dreams.
In the morning, I wake up to a bunch of texts from friends all over the place. Hey girl are you okay after last night? Call me when you’re up. Just checking in. We are safe. Damage to the property. Did you see?? It’s pretty bad. People died. Love you.
I issue a stream of responses and return a missed call from my brother, who studies, reveres, and tracks bad weather in a way that would make our farming ancestors proud.
“Did you get in the basement and everything?” he asks.
“Dude, I had to. It did not feel like a regular tornado warning. When the lightning lit up the clouds, they were completely green. Never seen that in my life.”
“You did the right thing,” he says, his voice knowing and grave. “You’ve got to respect nature.”
“Yeah,” I say, looking out the window at a line of cars being turned away from my block. The power pylon just down the street is now lying across the road, blocking traffic. “You really do.”
Ten minutes away, my parents’ place has power, so I drive over with an overnight bag. In the kitchen, my dad pulls up the Weather Channel’s map of the tornado path. He points to my house in relation to the green line and I gasp so theatrically you’d think I was joking.
“No way. Dad. It was right there. It was right there.”
“Yeah, it was,” he says. “A couple hundred yards, maybe. Your mom’s gonna lose it. But think about it: as scary as it is, knowing how close it came—how much more terrifying would it have been during the daytime? When you could see it?”
I think of my dreams, get a chill.
Turns out, when I could no longer find the lights of downtown Nashville anywhere on the horizon, it was because the twister was on the ground, heading east, blocking my view of the city. At the time, I thought I was looking into the dark, but I was actually looking at the tornado.
I try to spin the endless potential of nature as a good thing, but I’ll admit that its capacity for surprise is unnerving. At any given time, the outdoor environment you find yourself in may rapidly change. It can put you in a situation that didn’t exist ten minutes ago. Action may be required. Sometimes you’ve got to get involved.
My parents never said this out loud, but they modeled it all the time: my mom once rushed into the backyard to thwart a hawk’s raiding of a rabbit nest; my dad once had to catch a lawn-wandering, dinosaurian snapping turtle in a trash can. So it’s little surprise that when my brother and I encountered a dead white goose on the grass as little kids, we named him Gander and buried the body at the edge of the stream. We were known to scoop tadpoles off the pool cover in the spring, to check the filter for trapped frogs in the summer.
It’s not like doing this kind of shit makes you a saint or something. It’s just common courtesy. If we want to watch geese fly in a V-formation overhead and hear frogs in the summer darkness, we ought to show them some respect. To do what we can when we’re called to.
On Wednesday morning, I get a text from my friend that got hit hard: Let’s document with art. Whenever there is daylight come. There are side streets.
My walk through Five Points is punctuated by a series of stomach drops. The tea and candle store, the art supply shop, the spot where I just saw M sing. The nail salon and CBD store no longer have walls to speak of, and the back of the brewery is missing, along with most of its mural. Next to a stretch of exposed drywall, half of a large, green, cone-shaped hop flower remains.
When I get there, my friend’s house is swarming with people hauling tree limbs and debris into trucks. Her trailer and outdoor tub are lying in a pile of disturbed earth behind the house. Her entire fence is leveled, save for a single painted slat of wood. Three birds and a squirrel lie still in a small patch of the garden. I find my friend and hug her. I take photos and move around.
I find a blue flowerpot in a deep hole under an uprooted tree. I spot two planks of stripped wood stuck straight through a door-sized pane of intact glass. I see buffet tables piled high with free barbeque. I see a woman with a crushed look on her face standing beside a roofless music venue. I see feather tufts in a small circle on the ground.
Later, I try to get back to my house through the park, but it’s still taped off. I leave my car near the entrance, adjust my settings, and set off to see the downed trees.
I come across one pileated red-headed woodpecker, a couple of squirrels, and a single cyclist, but otherwise, the park is still. I feel physically activated and full of uneasy jitters. Full-sized trees are lying on the ground, limbs all over the place. Oak, pine, sycamore, hackberry, hickory, walnut—massive, gorgeous, ripped out by the roots like so many dandelions, strewn across the golf course, piled in crisscrossing heaps.
I swing my camera around and climb up on one huge, horizontal trunk, hopping across to another, shooting the landscape, checking leafy branches for birds’ nests. At the top of the hill, near my house, I see a ragged gap where the tornado crossed the train tracks. Looking down at the sloping hills of the park, I try to visualize an honest-to-god vortex thrashing its way through this quiet, green place. My imagination fails. I still can’t quite grasp it, even as my hand is sticky with sap from a felled forty-foot pine.
Thank you for the oxygen, I murmur again and again, passing from one to another. You were a great tree, tree.
My recurring dreams were visceral and hard to forget. I talked about them, wrote about them, and read about them. All the dream resources advocated for keeping a morning record, so I got in the habit of writing down the scraps.
In this one dream, my mom and I are standing in a crowd on a shoreline, facing the water. There are a dozen white horses in the surf and six or seven waterspouts in the distance. Everyone is watching but no one is afraid. Taking photos, I turn to my mom and say, Can you believe this is real life? It’s just like my dreams! To which she shakes her head, astonished. At that moment, I’m really glad to have both a camera and a witness.
Why is it that most dreams swiftly dissolve in the daylight while others intrude on waking life, commanding our attention? Why does one supercell scare the dog and drench the city while another spawns ten tornados across middle Tennessee? Such uncountable, unknowable variables, these are. The human brain, the mesocyclone. We are subject to them both.
Clearing debris on the north side of town the next day, I come across a small, unharmed tree that looks like it had been dressed with pale pink party streamers or cotton candy. Shreds of insulation hang from each of its thin branches, glinting in the sun like millennial tinsel. From a distance, it could be a cherry blossom or a dogwood. When I try to pick it off with my gloves, the insulation resists, coming apart in grainy tufts. The fine, pink fuzz clings to the bark like stubborn lint. I ache for a hand-held vacuum.
All around me, volunteers in boots and work gloves assemble in droves, hauling wheelbarrows and chainsaws. In the alleys, between towering piles of branches and roof siding, smiling people push carts full of water bottles and snacks. Inside the damaged middle school, folks are boxing up school supplies before the building is taken down. The day is charged with a palpable sense of purpose. The sun is high and bright. I’ve never seen such openness on the faces of strangers.
Checking my phone, I see my friend back on the east side is making plans to host a community drum circle. Local businesses that suffered damage give updates on their status; others that were spared raise money to support them. People share stories, solidarity, and links to donation drives. Music City knows.
I am trying to apply what my parents taught me—to respect the tornado’s right to exist while grappling with the tragic consequences of its power. To be aware, to be grateful. To hold the wreckage and the gathering.
A formidable force of nature tore its way through this vibrant city in the dark of night and the very next day, our interconnectedness suddenly appeared obvious. As if an ancient, secret lamp were turned on, revealing the fragile, knotted web that has always held this thing together.
We look good in this light. We should keep it on.
Rebecca Titus is a writer and visual artist whose work can be found in Mount Hope, After the Pause, Foundry, Susquehanna Review, The Hollins Critic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, reads poetry for Flock literary journal, and draws live music in Nashville.
It’s a damp, drizzly November night—Thanksgiving—and I can’t help but think of Melville’s famous orphan, who sets out from this insular city of the Manhattoes, goes to sea with branded Ahab, and eats hardtack with his shipmates aboard the doomed Pequod. ■ Blinky grew up on a cattle ranch in Miami. As a boy, he spent time in foster homes, on the street. He tells me about his father—then asks me to leave him out of it. Saw his mother for the first time when he was 12 or 13, around the time he started smoking crack. Saw her again—and for the last time—a few years later. ■ Blinky met the love of his life in Central Park. He was sitting on a bench, drinking a forty. Dani was sitting nearby. Hey, she called over, can I have a sip off your beer? No, replied Blinky. “She got all huffy and puffy, started talking shit in Spanish to her friend. ‘This cracker, blah blah blah.’” After a minute or two, he said—also in Spanish—Hey, I understood everything you just said about me. Dani blushed, got flustered. “Then I told her she could have the beer.” Soon, they were dating. She’d tell him about things like Pangaea, ask him about the farm animals back home. She spoke Spanish, English, German, Portuguese. ■ Blinky eventually asked Dani to go to Florida. They spent five years there. “We used to dress up as clowns and do street performances.” What kind? “Do jokes, bug around. Shit that clowns do.” By the time Miami police found Dani’s body, she and Blinky had been together ten years. Something about her death didn’t jibe. “The autopsy says one thing, the cops ruled it an overdose.” What’d the autopsy say? “She had lacerations on the back of her head, bruises running up and down the side of her body.” His voice softens. “She was everything. My best friend…” ■ A crisp, smiling couple stops, hands us each a small bag. Inside are soaps, lotions, Oatmeal & Shea Butter body wash, a single tampon. We thank them. They move on. I look over at Blinky. “We’re gonna need bathrooms and vaginas for all this,” I say. Laughing, he pulls out a small box of Ritz crackers. “I don’t have enough teeth to eat hard crackers. Baguettes, maybe. There’s not much to a baguette. I could just eat the inside.” ■
After kicking heroin in 1999, Jamie Alliotts went on to study writing at Columbia, Oxford, Dartmouth, and Iowa. A native of Oradell, New Jersey, he’s won awards and fellowships for his playwriting and essays, which appear or are forthcoming in Star 82 Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bayou, 40 Towns, and elsewhere. Alliotts is writing a series of stories about the horrors associated with twelve-step recovery, as well as a memoir about his experiences as a heroin addict in the U. S. Navy and on the streets of Manhattan during the 1990s.
THE BIG WARM HOUSE An Essay on the Art of Becoming a Writer
by Emma Sloley
I’m thinking of a particular house, a house whose characteristics vary but whose essential nature remains unchanged. Let’s call it The Big Warm House. I’m not saying this very literary house is benign, necessarily. In some stories, the warmth is a trick, a fatal illusion from which the protagonist must eventually flee. The walls are so thin you can hear every burst of laughter or weeping, or else they’re as thick as a medieval prison. The size is also unreliable. You might assume a big house implies wealth, a certain level of bourgeois status, comfort. But sometimes the house is big because it has had to expand to contain all the terrible secrets.
As a baby bookworm, I spent hours out of sight and hearing of my family, tucked away in some dusty corner of the house, frantically reading as if words were a finite resource and I was close to finishing my ration. I was a slightly odd child, not eccentric enough to be noteworthy, just slightly withdrawn and socially awkward, waiting to grow into my forehead and teeth and the colt-like legs my sisters and I all inherited. My favorite books were about houses. Well, they were ostensibly about the people who lived in the houses, but it was in the corners of the houses that the true drama lived.
I appreciated the cursed fantasy world of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but secretly I was far more interested in the wonderfully gloomy house through which the children entered that world. They had the run of the place without any functional grown-up interference, which struck me as the height of decadence. Though the descriptions of the décor were sparse (I mean, everyone was eager to get to Narnia, understandably), I loved reading about the faded English splendor of the rooms, the gardens, an oak wardrobe big enough in which to get truly lost.
I loved the escape these fictional homes provided, but I also thrilled to their familiarity. I had no trouble imagining the big warm house because reading about it transported me there; I lived inside those houses.
Children’s literature has no shortage of great houses: the chaotic, come one-come-all cheeriness of the Weasley’s Burrow in Harry Potter; the Moominhouse in Tove Jansson’s enchantingly oddball Moomintroll series; the cabin in the Little House on the Prairie books, which in spite of the titular adjective doesn’t feel small at all. Even Bilbo Baggins’ house, though diminutive, fits the paradigm: the hobbit hole from Lord of the Rings is a source of hospitality and comfort, an ad-hoc meeting place for the community where there’s always a kettle on and a pipe to be smoked (if you’re into that kind of thing).
I loved the escape these fictional homes provided, but I also thrilled to their familiarity. I had no trouble imagining the big warm house because reading about it transported me there; I lived inside those houses. My real family’s ramshackle Edwardian family home was a warren of oddly-shaped rooms and surprise doors, of chimneys that went nowhere and chimneys so cavernous the cat sometimes got stuck in them, her plaintive mewling reverberating eerily through the walls. It was a place of dinner parties that never seemed to start or end. Of projects never quite finished, test swatches of paint on walls and windows propped open with books. As a child, I learned early that the temporary can become permanent.
Perhaps that’s partly why I felt an instant kinship when I encountered characters like Cassandra and Rose Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. We didn’t bathe in the kitchen sink, but we weren’t too far off during the many years in which our house was a DIY work-in-progress, our lives a kind of architectural progressive dinner party. Each of us—my parents, me, my three sisters— would live in a room designated our own until the time came to renovate it, then we’d move into another room, and so on until normal meant camp beds in the corner of the lounge room, a piano in the bedroom, piles of scuffed shoes in the walk-in pantry. There were always raucous communal meals and a stream of visitors, and plenty of suitors came to call, even if they were never for me.
Like the ill-fated Berry family of John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, I grew into adolescence nodding knowingly at the many iterations of the titular hotel because the salient aspects of that life felt familiar: how frustrating to mark out a territory as one of multiple siblings; how bourgeois ideals of normality could warp a child’s developing identity; how the roof under which you all lived could come to feel like both sanctuary and prison. All those early Irving sagas—The Water-Method Man, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules—to some degree fixated on houses as a locus of comfort, desire, and betrayal; the bricks-and-mortar manifestation of a hero’s longing for home always too slippery to grasp.
The big warm house represents a bulwark against that pressure, but of course bricks and mortar are no defense against a civilization in peril. Houses might represent civilization, but they are also the first totems of civilization to fall.
During my Brontë years, I loved Jane Eyre madly, but I loved Rochester’s house even more. Even a literal madwoman in an attic can’t dampen the dangerous romance of a home in which you could lose yourself both literally and figuratively. This is the big warm house as liminal space. Standing on the threshold, the reader is suspended between two worlds. Ahead of you, a life of fulfillment and happiness glimpsed through a golden crack in the parlor door; behind, the cold loneliness of the moors where pariahs are doomed to wander forever. Visiting Wuthering Heights was even more treacherous. On the one hand, the promise of a roaring hearth fire and some juicy gossip: on the other, melodramatic ghosts and a host who’s extremely fucked-up, emotionally speaking.
Later, I developed an appreciation of the houses under whose roofs Edith Wharton’s gilded unfortunates played out their fates. They were more like big cold houses, their opulence and prestige a poor trade-off for the chilly inhospitality and betrayals that took place within. There was a constant stream of visitors—a classic hallmark of the big warm house—but chief among the visitors was class anxiety, who always proved a total bitch to evict. The only way to escape those rooms was via death, either social or literal. But they were so lavish and beautiful, the time spent there was almost worth it!
The big warm house doesn’t have to be a mansion. In Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the “residence” is a ramshackle lot called the Pit in danger of being swept away in a hurricane, but it’s nevertheless where familial love and loyalty live, at least temporarily. Abject poverty is recast as a chance to catch up with the whole fam in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Charlie’s home is both a haven and a disturbingly privacy-free zone. In Anne Enright’s The Gathering, the Irish working-class family home is a fulcrum around which its many damaged members revolve, a place where siblings can’t seem to help returning even when they know grief awaits, because something else lives there too—the chance to forgive one another and oneself.
In life, I crave the comfort of the big warm house, but I also need to get away from its demands in order to write. I think many writers are like this, building the house into their stories instead of trying to live in it. To properly capture home, we must leave.
Before I’d even put pen to paper to write my first novel, Disaster’s Children, the fictional house was already built, existing even before my characters did. I knew the survivalist ranch on which these people lived would be a wonder of design, because they were building a utopia, and utopias are always beautiful. The main house is both an architectural triumph and a convivial gathering place. How could a utopia exist if it didn’t involve the comfort of walking through chilly woods at dusk and spotting the golden glow of a house wavering through the trees? The promise of camaraderie, of food and drink, of refuge, of people who finally understand you, of rest.
In life, I crave the comfort of the big warm house, but I also need to get away from its demands in order to write. I think many writers are like this, building the house into their stories instead of trying to live in it. To properly capture home, we must leave.
My stories are often about a world coming apart. The big warm house represents a bulwark against that pressure, but of course bricks and mortar are no defense against a civilization in peril. Houses might represent civilization, but they are also the first totems of civilization to fall. Houses can be flattened, burned down, bombed, swept away. They can squash witches, sure, but they can in turn be squashed. Marlo, the protagonist of Disaster’s Children, understands on some cellular level that in order to become her best and truest self she needs to flee the binds of the ranch, her beloved big warm house.
The thing I believe writers (and perhaps also readers) need to know about the big warm house is that it’s built on a foundation of contradiction. Everyone who lives inside must crave solitude but instead find themselves bumping up against furniture, beds, each other, themselves. They must be forced into intimacy and driven apart by failing to understand one another. The fictional house must always be full of people but also profoundly lonely. The house must represent safety but also danger—a waystation between two worlds, though never exposing in which direction lies folly and which salvation. Most importantly, the inhabitants of the story house must be torn between desperately wanting to get away, and wanting never to leave.
Emma Sloley’s work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Yemassee Journal, and the Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and her debut novel, Disaster’s Children, was published by Little A books in 2019. Born in Australia, Emma divides her time between the US and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and visit her website to learn more. Her novel can be purchased via BookShop.
A man died in Ward G two nights before my father. The man’s name was Trevor. I know because on my first morning at the hospital a doctor wearing purple Nike running shoes squatted by his bed and asked, Do you remember your name? He did. Trevor, he said. Trevor and my father did not know each other, yet their lives converged at the end. Their last days were spent in the same atmosphere of sound and light and air. Now, when I think back to those last days with my father, I think of Trevor too.
Trevor was alone when he died. I keep going back to that, how he died without anyone being there to touch him or speak to him. I could have gone to him and I did not. At the time, my father took up all my inside space.
Afterwards I could not get my head around what Trevor had done. The doctors behaved as if he had performed a simple and explicable trick, as if he had turned off the lights, for instance, or walked out the door. They acted as if his disappearance were temporary and he would reappear whenever he chose. But I could not get my head around it. I wanted to know how it was done. I wanted to say, He was here a moment ago. Where is he now?
Earlier that night, a woman had tried to feed him Sprite through a straw. She arrived late, after Trevor’s usual visitors, and stood looking at him with the can in her hand. He lay on his back with his eyes open. The sheet hung from his puffed belly and his arms lay stiff as branches at his sides. He was breathing badly. The woman put one hand flat on the bed and bent over him, coaxing him to have a sip of Sprite. He would not look at her. When she pressed the straw to his lips he turned his head away and said, Not thirsty. He spoke in a clear small voice, like a child. The woman straightened, setting the soft-drink on the bedside table. She left the room and returned a few minutes later with a nurse.
What’s wrong with him? she said. He wasn’t like this yesterday.
The nurse gazed down at him.
Please do something, said the woman. Why is he breathing like this? I tried giving him a drink and he wouldn’t have any.
The nurse picked up Trevor’s wrist. She pressed two fingers to his pulse and watched his face. After a time she laid his arm on the sheet as she had found it.
I don’t know, she said. I’m not sure what’s wrong.
But he shouldn’t be breathing like this, the woman insisted. It’s not normal. Please do something.
I’ll call the doctor, said the nurse. The doctor will look at him now-now.
I’m telling you, said the woman, this is not normal. He should not be breathing like this.
The nurse nodded.
I’ll call the doctor, she said, and left the ward.
The woman leaned and held her hand flat against Trevor’s forehead. She watched him closely. He panted.
This is not normal, she said to herself. No, this is not normal.
The woman left at seven thirty. Before leaving she kissed him on the cheek.
The doctor’s coming soon, she said. You keep very well. I’m going to leave this in case you get thirsty in the night, okay? She raised the Sprite can for him to see and then replaced it on the bedside table. I’ll be here first thing in the morning, she said.
I never saw her again. Sometimes I wonder about her. I wonder who she was to Trevor and how she took his death and whether, when she thinks of him now, she remembers us four, me and my three siblings, crowded around my father’s bed on the other side of the room. As for me, I remember her. I can’t forget how she spent her last half hour with Trevor trying to feed him Sprite through a straw.
Trevor became restless after she left. Something in the arrangement of his body bothered him. He rolled his head from side to side on the pillow. He fiddled the hemline of the sheet with his thumbs, holding it tight against his chest, and pressed his shoulder blades into the mattress. He parted his legs under the sheet as if he were preparing for a birth. Then he stopped shaking his head and began looking around. His eyes were dark and unusually large, and he looked at things with the keen regard of a man taking a final reckoning of his world. He looked at the ceiling and IV stand and the nurses passing along the corridor. He looked at the can of Sprite on his bedside table. He looked at me.
The last thing he did was push off his sheet. It must have depleted the last of his energy but he did it. But for his nappy, he was naked. His belly, lumpy with deposits of fat, bulged out of him as though stuffed with rags, and his limbs were thin and brittle-looking. He was by this time very still. He seemed an ugly and misshapen doll tossed aside by some long-ago child, who had become bored of him or found some newer plaything, and now lay waiting to be retrieved. Minutes before his death he became fretful again and began feeling his bare skin with his fingertips. He felt his throat and collarbones and chest, as if he knew there was something unusual inside him and wanted to identify it, or as if he were craving the sensation of touch. When I looked up again the nurses had drawn his curtains.
If I had spoken to him just beforehand, perhaps he would have told me what it was like. Perhaps he would have said what he was waiting for or what he was thinking about. But I did not go and speak to him. Now I can only imagine what he would have said, but even that is useless. In my visions of myself speaking to him he only ever looks at me and smiles, his fingers working here and there over the surface of his skin.
There was a small commotion at Trevor’s bedside after his death. The doctor in Nikes had been standing at the foot of my father’s bed, looking through his file and answering our questions, when one of the nurses touched her forearm. She glanced up at him and the nurse gestured come. The doctor looked at us and said, Excuse me a moment, and followed the nurse to Trevor’s bed. They disappeared behind the turquoise curtains. There was a brief silence and then the doctor said, How long has he been like this? I did not hear the reply. The doctor emerged from behind the curtains and went into a storage room that opened off the corridor. She pulled out a machine on wheels, reversing from the narrow room, and turned it about and parked it on the far side of Trevor’s bed.
I was in a camping chair facing the corridor. My brother sat opposite me. My sisters stood at the foot of the bed massaging Nivea cream into my father’s legs. His skin was dry and papery, discoloured by fretworks of shattered veins below the surface. When the doctor brought in the machine, my sister glanced up and made a sound with her tongue.
A resuscitator, she said. The last thing we need.
What? I said.
I too had seen it, but I had thought it was an X-ray machine.
A resuscitator, she said again.
She took hold of my father’s hand and put her head down against his thigh.
I could hear them working on Trevor behind the curtains. There came a low murmur of voices and the indistinct sounds of objects bumped against one another and then the steady pneumatic hiss of the resuscitator. When the doctor spoke again, her voice was clear and calm.
Yes, ward G, I need your help now.
The sound of the resuscitator continued, puffing on and on in the silence of the ward. At last a male doctor came in at a jog and stopped at the foot of Trevor’s bed. The doctor in Nikes came out from behind the curtains shaking her head. He stood looking at her with his hands on his hips, breathing heavily. It was a good healthy sound. Not like Trevor’s gasps or my father’s laboured breaths, rattled with phlegm.
No, she said.
Too late, he said.
Ja, too late. There was a pause and then she said, I told you I wouldn’t need the resuscitator. She laughed again. She was exhilarated, full of adrenaline.
My brother glanced over his shoulder and then looked at us.
That man just died, he said.
My sister nodded and looked at my dad. She held his hand and squeezed it.
What? I asked. What did you say?
Later that night, I said to my sister, Did you see how that doctor laughed? She actually laughed.
It’s a defence mechanism, she said. Sometimes people do that.
It was after midnight when they removed Trevor’s body. By then, everyone was asleep except me and my brother. We were taking it in shifts and my sisters had gone home to get some sleep.
Two nurses came in with a morgue cart and bodybag. They wore white latex gloves. I watched them disappear behind the curtains and listened to the sounds they made. I heard the shiver of wheels and takkies scuffing the vinyl floors and whispering and the rustling of the plastic bodybag. I gathered these sounds, examining them. I seemed to see the nurses moving around the bed murmuring directions to one another as they transferred the body to the bag on the steel cart. Then there came the low resonant whine of a zipper pulled home and I knew they were done. The nurses came out. They opened the curtains and stripped the bed and emptied the dustbin. One of the nurses noticed the Sprite. He took the can to the sink and poured out the contents and threw it away. Then they left with the cart. On it lay Trevor, unborn in his plastic womb.
After Trevor’s death, I felt spared. I felt relieved that it was he who had died and not my father. It was not a noble emotion but it is what I felt. Rising, I lay my forehead on my father’s chest where his breath was. For the first time I understood that he was gathering himself to go and I wanted to feel his breath. I wanted to feel the texture of its movement inside him. Dear father, I wanted to say, we are here. Soon you will be elsewhere and then you can do as you please, but for now let us be here.
My father lived another day and a night. He died on the morning of the 25th of March 2019 while the sun was coming up. My sister was with him. She said he looked at her and his eyes were very blue and clear. He knew what he was doing and was calm about it. My two other siblings and I arrived a few minutes after he died. New sunlight was quickening and shimmering on the white wall behind him. He glowed.
My dear father. We are here.
Kharys Ateh Laue is a South African writer whose short fiction has appeared in Brittle Paper, New Contrast, Itch, and Pif Magazine. In 2017, her short story ‘Plums’ was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Her academic work, which focuses on the depiction of race, gender, and animals in South African fiction, has been published in Scrutiny2 and the Journal of Literary Studies. She currently lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
October 27, 2018 9:07 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Twenty-one-year-old Matthew clicks his tongue in time to each step he takes. Tramping on carpet, he still makes the cupboards rattle as he descends the staircase into the living room. Knowing the clicking signifies contentment, his mother turns over in her bed and allows herself fifteen more minutes of sleep.
It’s the weekend, so Matthew has gotten himself dressed. He’s put his shirt on backwards and his shoes on the wrong feet. He plonks down next to the bookcase where his picture books are lined up. He removes one book at a time, rubbing each glossy page between his thumb and forefinger, and places it next to him, building a neat tower. Matthew is humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, probably inspired by Goodnight Moon, one of his favorite books. Or at least that’s what his mother hypothesizes as she lies in bed half-asleep, listening to him. She can’t know for sure since Matthew is severely autistic and non-verbal.
What she does know is that this sort of repetitive activity centers him, and enables him to block out competing sounds, colors and stimuli all vying equally for his attention.
October 27, 2018 9:40 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Three hundred and four miles away, David Rosenthal, fifty-four, walks through the doors of the Tree of Life Synagogue just as he’s done every other Saturday for decades. Positioning himself inside the sanctuary, he busies himself arranging prayer books and shawls for services. His older brother, Cecil, stands at the back of the sanctuary, greeting congregants. Like many who are intellectually disabled, these brothers appreciate the predictability of a Shabbat service with its routines and rituals.
October 27, 2018 9:42 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew spins in circles, stomps his feet, and shrieks with delight, doing what his mother calls his “happy dance” as she makes his smoothie—frozen pineapple, banana, and mango. He has already asked his mother to tell him the “story of my day” many times this morning, fisting his right hand in a ball while leaving his left hand open and moving them in sync as if he is opening a story book. “You’re going to have a smoothie,” his mother says. “We are going to go for a walk; we will come home and eat lunch, and then you will play with your puzzles and books.”
Had his mother been shown a picture of David and Cecil Rosenthal, she would have taken note of David’s shirt, untucked from the front of his pants, and the way his eyes squint more than the average person when he smiles, as if he is using every available facial muscle to feel happiness.
Their graying hair would make her uneasy. She can’t bear to think of a time when her son will be middle-aged himself, and she too old to care for him.
As she pours Matthew’s smoothie into a glass, she remembers her dream from last night, a recurring dream in which she and Matthew are having a “normal” conversation, although all he is capable of in “real life” are approximations of words that only she and those who know him well can understand. Their conversations in these dreams are lovely, but she never remembers what they were about. Some nights she tries to force the dream, promising herself that this time she will remember the words. But it never works. She doesn’t have that kind of control.
9:54 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
In the neighborhood surrounding the Synagogue, people begin their Saturday morning routines. Some wearing raincoats will walk their dogs as a light mist descends. Others will anticipate the afternoon Pitt football game or prepare lists for their Saturday food shopping.
From the parking lot of the Giant Eagle grocery store, shoppers hear a booming racket piercing the stillness of the morning. What construction is so important that such loud equipment must be used this time of day? they might ask. The popping explosions become sickeningly regular and staccato. Some who know what gunfire sounds like keep track of bursts.
The first 911 call comes into dispatch. “We are being attacked,” the caller whispers.
“Get out of there and don’t let anyone else in,” the operator responds.
9:57 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew’s mother flips on the radio as she puts lemon poppy seed muffins into the toaster oven. The announcer reports about a shooting spree in a synagogue in a quiet neighborhood in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood she might be surprised to know is strikingly similar to her own, with brick and stone homes constructed at the turn of the century, gracing the community like sleepy unassuming giants.
Rinsing blueberries at the sink, she raises her head and stares through the window into the half-eaten eyes of a Jack-o-Lantern. Halloween is four days away. For the first time she notices the jagged bite marks scarring its face. The squirrels seem more aggressive and hungrier than usual this season, as if they and their food source are not in alignment. She remembers a film she saw some thirty years ago called Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” Instead of humanity growing apart from nature, as it did in the film, here in her backyard nature was growing apart from itself. She can feel herself shaping the natural world to the growing unease inside of her.
She turns on the blender, drowning out the radio. The noise is jarring, but she welcomes a reprieve from the relentless news coverage. She can’t bear to think how she might protect her son from gunfire if they were out in the world together. He wouldn’t understand. If anything, he’d be attracted to the overwhelming sensory sensation of repetitive bursts crackling through his body.
She wishes she could talk to him about the shootings, try to make sense of the insanity. Twenty-one years of living with him doesn’t erase this desire in her. If anything, it grows stronger.
Matthew spins in circles again, this time his arms outstretched like wings, bumping into her every so often. He’s laughing too, because for him there’s nothing better than the anticipation of a smoothie and muffin for breakfast on Saturday with his “Mama.” She notices that the front of his shirt has come untucked.
9:59 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Bernice and Sylvan Simon, eighty-four and eighty-six respectively, sit side by side in the pews as they anticipate singing the Sh’ma, an ancient prayer that opens Saturday morning services. Sylvan’s face is all curves: the rounded chin, the bulbous nose, the arches on either side of his mouth. He has the face of a kindly neighbor who picks up windblown trash from neighbors’ lawns. Bernice delighted in singing “You Are My Sunshine“ to her kids when they were young. Hard of hearing, Bernice and Sylvan don’t take in the commotion in the hallway. They don’t see the gunman who bursts through the door of the sanctuary until he is directly in front of them and shooting. They die in the same synagogue where they wed sixty-two years ago.
Zone 5 Police Commander Jason Lando shouts into his radio, “Every available unit in the city needs to get here now.” Sirens flood the neighborhood. They whip down alleyways and ricochet off glass. Melvin Wax, eighty-seven years old, hears them as he hides in a storage room at the back of the chapel. People shopping in the nearby supermarket hear them.
10:00 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew’s mother would ordinarily delight in the sound of her son singing his favorite song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He sings like this: “Naah na nana na naaaaahna, na nana nana naaaaaaah…”
Part of her wants to join in but she can’t. She can’t muster the cheerfulness the song requires. Not when there’s been another mass shooting. Matthew lifts his eyes from the muffin crumbs he is rearranging on his plate and looks expectantly at her. He doesn’t realize she is just now remembering the words, but not the melody, to a chant she hasn’t sung in forty-five years. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. When she went to synagogue as a child, the congregation recited the Sh’ma at the beginning and ending of every service. She wonders as she says the words out loud if Matthew realizes they are in a different language.
10:00 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Rose Mallinger, ninety-seven, slowly bleeds to death on the sanctuary floor. She is one of those women who grow more beautiful in old age. In photographs the lines on her face, especially those framing her eyes and mouth, suggest a life gently lived, despite the fact that she survived the Holocaust. Her daughter Andrea Wedner, sixty-one, accompanies her to services, as she usually does each week. Though she is shot too, she will survive.
Police stationed around the perimeter of the synagogue hear Commander Lando’s voice crackle through their walkie-talkies: “We are pinned down by gunfire. The shooter is firing out the front door of the building with an automatic weapon.”
A cold drizzle falls. Shards of glass litter the sidewalk.
10:17 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew’s mother thinks every Synagogue she has ever been in smells the same—a mixture of old carpet, musty prayer books, Aqua Net hairspray, coats reeking of moth balls, and the breath of old men.
10:36 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Outside the sanctuary, a toppled bottle of whiskey sits on a white tablecloth, awaiting a baby naming ceremony, the whiskey steadily seeping into the carpet. A SWAT operator reports finding four bodies in the atrium.
Black polyester yarmulkes in a carved wooden receptacle nestle into one another. Men’s hats, some with feathers, still damp from the outside, rest on top of the coat rack. The eternal light suspended in front of the ark and a symbol of God’s presence, glows.
From certain angles the Tree of Life Synagogue could be mistaken for a nondescript government building. With its simple rectangular shape and cement walls, it fails to distinguish itself. But inside the sanctuary, soaring stained glass windows spread prisms of light across the pews.
Melvin Wax weeps in the darkened space where he hides. As the door swings open, he lets out a whimper and the gunman fires at him, knocking his body back onto the storage room floor. Fellow congregant Barry Werber, also hidden in the storage room, checks Melvin’s pulse. There isn’t one. The stained-glass windows remain intact.
10:42 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A glass hummingbird ornament above the kitchen sink reflects blue and green light onto the counter. A siren wails in the distance and for a minute Matthew’s mother assumes it is responding to the killings. She feels protected in her kitchen, her son within sight of her in the next room. She tells herself not to go outside where they might be vulnerable. Then she remembers that they live in a different city six hours away. The tooth she had a root canal on ten years ago throbs.
Matthew gets up from the living floor where he is assembling puzzles and makes signs for “siren.” He rotates his fist in the air over and over again until his mother says, “Yes, I hear the siren.”
10:54 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Joyce Fineberg, seventy-five, who prayed at the Tree of Life synagogue every day since her husband’s death, lies dying. A retired researcher from nearby University of Pittsburgh, she had recently joined the Board of the Synagogue to help revitalize the congregation. Her bangs and chin length hair give her a no-nonsense appearance.
Daniel Stein, seventy-one who has recently become a grandfather lies dying as well. His children often joked that he hadn’t bought a new tie in years—that he didn’t care about style. Richard Gottfried, sixty-five, a dentist who treated uninsured refugees and immigrants, lies dying too.
What are the last sounds they hear? Bullets bouncing off walls or hitting flesh? People moaning? Or maybe something more consoling like soft water droplets hitting the stained-glass windows, or starlings chirping in a nearby tree, or even retreating footsteps muffled by carpeting, a door opening, then closing, indicating an end to the mayhem.
11:02 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew listens for the sound of crunching leaves as he tramples through the neighborhood on his Saturday morning walk with his mother. Unlike Pittsburgh, the day in Philadelphia is dry. Yellow leaves on oak trees blaze like flames against a gray sky. Acorns ping as they drop onto parked cars.
In preparation for Halloween, the Malinowskis decorated their windows with bloody handprints. The Sussons have strewn yellow police tape across their front door. The Agnettas staked a skeleton hand in the ground, and it reaches up, as if it were attached to somebody buried alive.
Matthew crouches down on his hands and knees to get a closer look at a giant black spider decoration on the James’ fence. Afraid to touch it, he places his mother’s hand on it to see if it moves.
11:08 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Injured and bleeding, the shooter finally follows police orders. He crawls on the floor and surrenders his guns. He’s taken into custody.
11:21 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew and his mother return home from their walk. He takes up his picture books again, this time lining them in a straight row on the floor.
The melody of the Sh’ma, deeply submerged all morning, unaccountably surfaces and his mother, sitting on the sofa, begins to sing. Matthew stops and listens, perhaps because this melody is unlike all the others in her repertoire with its minor key and melancholy. Then he hums with her, and for a passing moment the tiny muscles around his eyes and his forehead strain. She wonders if he experiences the sense of yearning in the music that she does.
On another day she might have sung “You Are my Sunshine.” But today she wants to be true to her emotions, wants Matthew to somehow understand her grief and know that something is different. Feeling restless, she goes to the windows and opens the Venetian blinds. Shards of light refract on the wooden floor like pieces of broken glass. Matthew touches them as if they possess some kind of life force. In a minute the sun will shift in the sky and they will be gone. But for now, she and Matthew focus on the same experience, which is what she realizes she’s been hoping for all morning.
Debra Fox’s stories and poems have appeared in bioStories, Embodied Effigies, Hyperlexia Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Heron’s Nest, Haiku Canada Review, Modern Haiku, and Frogpond. She is an attorney and founder of Story Tributes, an enterprise that preserves the stories of people’s lives. She lives on the outskirts of Philadelphia with her family.
On Memorial Day other small towns watch parades. There’s hotdogs and fireworks and tall bearded men dressed up like Abe Lincoln with plastic top hats and that old man who might ride the streets in his vintage Mustang, decked out with streamers and his pre-teen granddaughter. The topiaries are usually draped in American flags or sprayed with blue and white paint. The toddlers run in the street while volunteer firefighters chewing tobacco throw fistfuls of Bazooka at them, almost missing their heads. Veterans march. Wives throw rice like they’re at a 1970s wedding.
Thomaston’s Memorial Day celebration is almost like that. We do the parade and the candy and the cars, the police smoke cigarettes and glare at the kids on skateboards, but at Thomaston’s parade, everyone wears white. Thomaston’s parade trickles down the center of town and builds momentum as it marches up the hill up to the cemetery with the manmade lake in the middle. Miss Columbia recites the Gettysburg Address in a boat in the pond. Girls toss daisies at her. Women cry.
Miss Columbia is the prettiest girl in the senior class. Maybe she’s sporty, involved. Each year she’s the product of a long line of Thomaston folk—the daughter of the basketball coach or the owner of the Country Grocer or the head of the Thomaston PTA. She’s blonde, usually, and her destiny is set in stone the minute her parents decide to bunker down in the town they grew up in. Voting for the event takes place in September, when the PTA picks three girls who’s names they recognize in the senior class and nominate them. It comes down to the senior class to make the decision. Sixty kids hold the fate of the most important title in all of Thomaston.
When my mother was a senior in high school, she was a Miss Columbia. There’s still pictures in the house: 80s feathered hair, a white dress with sleeves puffed up to her ears, the little brown boat. Men in curly mullets nestled between headstones, their children splashing in the water.
Her mother was a Miss Columbia too, only it was the fifties and people had big dreams: nice cars, nice wives, nice place to raise a nice family.
My senior year of high school saw me shave my head and walk the halls in Birkenstocks and Hillary 2016 t-shirts. I didn’t shave, and I wanted everyone to know. In class once, when the English teacher asked why Holden Caulfield called everyone phony, I proudly raised my arm to show off my armpits, bleached and dip-dyed blue.
“He doesn’t fit in to the adult world,” I said.
When Miss Columbia voting rolled around, I wasn’t nominated, and I didn’t care, but my mother, clinging to the window when I got home from school, wanted to hear all about it.
“So who is it?” she asked. “Did you get it?”
I gave her a look.
“Well, who was it?”
She looked concerned, panicked. As if she’d just received news that her parents were both in intensive care. She busied herself with the dishes, wiping nonstick pans and putting them in the lazy Susan beside the stove.
“I don’t know yet.”
Everyone in town could tell you who Miss Columbia is, but no one could really tell you what it is—the strange boat ride across the man-made pond filled up with dog piss and green scum, the gravediggers halting their work to catch a glimpse of thong under a flyaway skirt.
The tradition started as a welcome home celebration in mid-July in 1919, when Union veterans were still alive and the most important pillars of the community. Thomaston was at its height back then, and the fanfare of the celebration matched the commerce. The New York Times had called Thomaston the ideal place for families and businessmen alike (just two hours from the city and three hours from Boston), so the Miss Columbia celebration served as both an honoring of war heroes and a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Businesses closed their doors at noon and everyone marched together and Miss Columbia stood proud as the pure symbol of victory, white against the murky water, driving her community forward in the “best parade event” the town had ever seen.
But then the last Union soldier died, and the Great Depression rolled through the area with all the force of a crumbling building, and everything was consolidated. The armistice homecoming was kicked out in favor of a “Miss Columbia Celebration” during the annual Memorial Day Parade, and the boat ceremony was rebranded to suggest pride for Naval officers serving in World War I. Organizers added a convertible ride through town for their queen, along with a firing squad and a trumpet.
Of course, if you asked a local today what Miss Columbia stands for, they’d probably say it’s an excuse to drink Bud Light in public.
The year my mother was named Miss Columbia, she took her then boyfriend, Scott Lambert, to prom. He was a skinny white guy, with one of those wiry haircuts parted straight down the middle. In pictures he’s wearing a white tux and too much acne, cradling my mother in an awkward, sexually-charged embrace that saves almost enough room for Jesus. From the pictures, it’s clear they didn’t belong together; she didn’t belong with any of the people she took pictures with that night. She was six feet tall and played JV basketball—which meant she was still womanly enough to be desired, not muscular enough for the big leagues. All of her friends had home-done hairdos and messy eyeshadow; dorky, shy boyfriends with bad teeth.
At family parties she’ll pull out the pictures and say something like, “look how pretty I was,” then rattle off the story about dumping Scott Lambert after a quickie in the car when he sneezed, and a booger fell in her mouth.
“I said, ‘I’m better than this,” she’ll say. “I deserved better than him, so I ended it.”
Dumping Scott Lambert, to this day, remains one of her biggest achievements.
I, on the other hand, wore Dr. Martens to senior prom and brought a kid from church. There was enough room for Jesus to stretch out his legs.
Holly’s is Thomaston’s townie bar. They’ve got green felt carpets, wood paneling, a sink with rust stains in the bathroom. On Fridays and Saturdays Holly’s does karaoke, where white guys do Darius Rucker covers or “God Bless America” on an infinite loop. They sell Cheetos by the bag and fine cheese platters for $3.99, and the owner, Holly, is always sipping Absolut behind the counter, so you have to tell her how to pour a Guinness while she slurs along in agreement.
Holly’s is always open. On Christmas and Easter they open at four, but most days they start serving at noon, perfect for the old men who loiter at the sticky bar and complain about their wives and kids. Holly’s does Veteran’s specials on national holidays: red, white, and blue Jell-O shots for a dollar, which works, because every surface of the place is draped in American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” paraphernalia.
Everything’s cheap there—the clientele, the drinks, the ladies’ night specials—so I’ve recently become a regular, but my mother, who’s worked as a fine dining waitress for the past thirty years, never dared.
“That’s where the homeless go,” she said once. “They’ve got bedbugs.”
Once I got her to go with me, drove the quarter mile downtown in her red Audi to the bad side of town near Reynold’s Bridge where the people without cars loiter.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “What if somebody sees me?”
“It’s fine, I’m here all the time.”
She gave me a look.
The bartender that night was Courtney, a girl a few years younger than me who was expelled from school for starting fights. She was pretty in that way aging actresses might be pretty, like her time had run out, except she was only eighteen.
“What can I getcha?” she said. She sounded like cigarettes.
My mother asked for a sauvignon blanc.
“What? We don’t have that.”
I asked for a Beefeater soda.
“What kind of soda, hun?”
I asked for club, but she said they didn’t have that and gave me Sierra Mist.
“I hate it here.”
“No you don’t—it’s fun. And cheap,” I said. The gin and lemon-lime combo wasn’t working, but at $3.75, I couldn’t do much better.
“Anyway, what’s that bartender doing here?”
I laughed. “Courtney?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t she a Miss Columbia?”
Maybe it was unclear to my mother, but we all belonged there. There were old men she recognized from high school sitting at plastic tables, mouths caved in where their teeth should be. The place was owned by Holly Chandler, longtime Thomaston raggie. Her family had worked in the lipstick tube manufacturing plant for years till, like everything else in town, it closed up and moved South.
There’s always a desire to escape in Thomaston, with the label “raggie” lurking overhead with the seagulls. Most people get their biggest escape at Holly’s, since they can get piss drunk on cheap Yaeger shots without worrying about getting home. My mother tried to get out once, got her degree in fine arts alongside kids who wore parachute pants and asymmetrical mullets. But she failed art history—twice. Now she paints people’s dogs on canvases in our living room, stacks them against the wall and takes pictures for everyone else to see. It’s her side hustle—she’s lucky if she gets forty bucks apiece.
I thought I was better than Thomaston at one point too, so I went away to a private liberal arts school where the girls shaved their heads and wrote communist propaganda. When I came home the second weekend into the semester, crying over the lesbians who’d called me apolitical, over the gluten-free food and the Lunar Howling Society, I decided I was a raggie too. Not even a nose ring could disguise my hometown roots.
My mother was mad at me after I brought her to Holly’s and I was mad she didn’t like it, which was immediately obvious as we drove home in tense silence, with not even the radio to mediate. I wanted her to see Thomaston for how it was and what it wasn’t and what it never would be. There weren’t any cul-de-sacs or gated communities, and most people lived in the sort of ranch-style houses she liked to point out as a place she was glad she didn’t live. Miss Columbia was the cover that people in town used to pretend they lived somewhere special, even though nobody really knew its roots. Maybe going to Holly’s was mean-spirited or selfish, but in the same way it’s mean to tell your friend she looks fat in that dress. At least it was honest.
Miss Columbia, my year, went as expected—it wasn’t me. The honor went to some girl who was head of the student council and played field hockey, and all the men in town were there to watch and lip-synch to her quiet rendition of the Gettysburg Address. Some old veterans played a march on out-of-tune trumpets. I went for the free beer someone else’s dad might offer me. But my mother, who was in the market for some new cabinets, went to the Lowe’s Memorial Day Sale instead, dreaming of the kitchen she’d always wanted.
Kathryn Fitzpatrick’s essays have been featured in Out Magazine, Gravel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere, and were called “brutally honest and not school appropriate” by her high school principal.
The girl wants to go to the kids’ museum. Since her brother is sick and dad has command central on the couch, dispensing Tylenol and blankets and puke bucket and juice, that leaves me to drive her. I want to shut myself in my office and work on my novel, far from puke and clacking toys, but then she’ll say of her childhood that her mom did nothing but sit in front of her computer all the time. Aren’t her needs supposed to be bigger than mine? I take my journal and magazines along with snacks. I’ll sit on the bench and read. I’ll never be Mom of the Year, but look, my mom never played with me. She considered it her job to feed and clothe me, make me go to school, drive me to appointments, and I turned out just fine.
But the girl doesn’t want to play with the exhibits, she wants to go to the tool shop. This requires a supervising adult and a pair of plastic safety glasses that press my regular glasses into my head in a painful manner, and entails me standing around reminding her to tighten the vise and keep both hands on the saw while a background soundtrack of hammering, the instructions of other parents, and an endless loop of Disney tunes also presses into my head. There’s nothing, in this particular moment, I’d like less.
I ask her what she’s creating.
“A magical make-believe machine that can do anything you want it to,” she says.
Oh good, I can use one of those. How long will this take? There’s no place to sit, and I’m bored. I’ve finished my project, an airplane for the boy, so I ask if she’s nearly done.
“Do you know how long it takes to make a human?” she says.
In fact I do: thirty-eight weeks. Forty weeks counting from last menstrual period, which I don’t know why anyone does since the egg isn’t ripe until two weeks later and you have that narrow window to do something that can never be undone, not ever. Or thirty-seven weeks in her case, same for the boy, both my little over-achievers, pushing their way out early in great gouts of blood.
She ignores me. She’s the authority, seven years old, plastic safety glasses, pink nylon pants I bought for pajamas, the purple spangly shirt that says “Play Like a Girl.” Hair tangled in a cowlick though I brushed it three times. Dirty beat-up sneakers missing half a Velcro strap. She got dressed when I asked so I decided not to fight about what she chose. Her belly sticks out like a full moon and I’m the only one who cares about this; she’s gluing string, silk flowers, plastic hats to her piece of wood and sometimes to her finger. Other parents help their kids, sawing, measuring, offering items to nail and tape. I watch and criticize, the whiny chaperone. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to make it stop. Stick it to the surface before it sets. That’s too much glue. Aren’t you done yet? I have to pee. You know we have a glue gun at home.
“Yeah, but we don’t have all this stuff.” She slugs another round into the glue gun, picks yards of gooey string off her hands.
Such patience she has. Creating humans. I know how I must sound to the other parents, the ones directing and guiding and gluing for their kids. This creation is her own and she wants it that way. Am I helping her become a scientist, physicist, mathematician, engineer? Am I failing to teach her female grooming habits, the lack of which will cause her no end of agony when she’s thirteen?
She drops her wood pieces and the tape breaks. She swoops in with glue. The flower eyes were my limit; now toothpick eyelashes? We can do this at home, I tell her in the modulated, low-pitched voice of the chastising parent, especially the parent being an a-hole. I know not to say it, yet I hear myself saying it: I didn’t pay to come here to do stuff we can do at home.
What is the matter with me? A dad glances our way, keys and cell phone clipped to belt, gluing the pieces he sawed for his daughter while she wanders around rifling through buckets, bored. Hashtag parenting fail. He hijacked his kid’s project, knowing how to do it better, and I’m killing hers. Both of us trying to keep things between the rails, wishing we had the blueprint for how this turns out.
She’s so focused, those eyes brown as walnuts—the same surprising shine, the intense concentration I remember in her as a baby, or at least remember from the pictures of her as a baby. The times I don’t have photos of are hazier in my mind. Still so chubby, and I worry about that, too. My head hurts and my feet hurt and all of a sudden it’s intolerable right now, standing here with the Disney songs and nothing to do but watch her start on glue stick number three.
“Fine,” she says when I set the limit at four eyes. “I’m done anyways.”
I get to pee, sit, open my journal, take a breath and let my head clear of the smell of glue. I lose sight of her, find her again, climbing the tree house, picking fruit, following a new friend into the toddler house, reading a board book to a baby doll. Then she’s in postal coat and bag, sorting mail, so serious, so intent. At the fire station she pulls on the chief’s hat and too-big jacket, hauls out the hose, puts out the fake fire. I’m watching, but she doesn’t glance over to see this; she’s off to the store to tie on an apron and ring up other kids’ groceries. Her hair’s sticking out every which way again and she makes perfect change every time.
On the bench her creation, thick with glue, stares at me with its strange flower-spiked eyes. She’ll put it on her dresser and forget about it. But she won’t forget my head in a book, nagging I didn’t come here for this. Or if I let her put toothpick eyelashes on her humans. Let her wear the pajama pants. Let her toss her imagination into the air like a weather balloon and stood beside her, watching to see where it lands.
She floats by the bench, leans silken hair to my cheek. I wrap my arms around her and rub her back and, for a moment, she lets me. She’s solid and she smells like cupcake hair spritz and that new, clear, talc-y scent of seven-year-old skin, unscarred. Then she’s off, and I can pocket one moment, one, before she’s eighteen and moves out and doesn’t have to put up with my crap any longer, when I held her, when I told her I liked the thing she made, when I was the mom she deserves. Thirty-seven weeks to create her, no idea what was coming. So much longer for her creating me.
Misty Urban is the author of two short story collections, A Lesson in Manners (Snake Nation Press, 2016) and The Necessaries (Paradisiac Publishing, 2018), and several works of medieval scholarship, including the co-edited essay collection Melusine’s Footprint (Brill, 2017). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, Draft: A Journal of Process, and My Caesarean (The Experiment, 2019). She lives in real life in Muscatine, Iowa, and online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a site for literary feminism and women in/and/of books.
The small space for god in me aches, so I turn from the one-way mirror through which I’ve been watching my twin seventeen-month-old boys bawl. Golden Graham pulp has stiffened their fine hair into sticky strings. I’m even messier, in stained yoga pants and a blue sweater marred by snags. I would have dressed in a clean shirt, something slipped from a hanger rather than scooped from the floor, but I didn’t plan to be here. It was only decided that I should leave the apartment when my husband started to spoon-feed yogurt to our three-year-old, who has a genetic syndrome that makes self-feeding a trial. “How’s he ever going to learn?” I said. He just pointed to the floor. The splat mat that usually protects the beige carpet was missing, and we don’t own the place. My husband and I faced each other as if on a narrow bridge, until I backed up. Backed up with the double stroller all the way out the door and down the hall and to the parking lot, where I waited for an idea.
Something burst from the empty space that once held the god my mother’s Catholicism prescribed for me. I searched on my phone for a liberal church that welcomes the godless and offers childcare. I found one fifteen minutes west.
Today is the thirty-third anniversary of my father’s death, and my mother, who hasn’t been dead a year, always dedicated mass on the Sunday closest to this date. This year the anniversary happens to fall right on Sunday. I break from the boys, shield my ears to their betrayed gasps, and hope the older couple in charge has grit.
At the back of the worship space is a table with an open notebook and several pens. A greeter hands me a program of service, then tells me the notebook is for sharing good news and bad, joy and sadness. I write that today is the thirty-third anniversary of my father’s death, and the first anniversary my mother is not alive to commemorate his death at church. Then I sit in the back row, behind a family: an older woman dressed head to toe in black, including a black scarf that embraces her steel-wool hair; a son, perhaps in his early twenties, whose familiar pendulum sway suggests to me that he has a disability; a daughter who looks about eighteen; the daughter’s newborn. No father. Seems a welcoming spot. I have babies, I have a son with a disability. I settle in.
The service opens with a reminder about respect. Congregants in unison pledge compassion and justice and transformation. They sing of truth, knowledge, and reverence. Of wisdom and love. The sermon is about Black Lives Matter, and the minister, with a gray circle beard, refutes those who argue that all lives matter. Obviously all lives matter, he says, but no one would attend a support group for breast-cancer patients and remind them that all cancer patients matter. The minister does not mention god. No one does.
I can’t remember if I ever believed in god, even though I attended mass every Sunday and proceeded through the first four sacraments and went to a Catholic high school and continued to sing in a Christian choir in college while taking lessons on the mammoth pipe organ. My mother believed in a benevolent being and carved a space for god in the lives of her daughters. But she also linked my father’s inability to survive a high-speed head-on crash to god’s deep and selfish love for the man. At that point, I only had two choices: believe in a god who stole my father or don’t believe. I’ve come around to the latter.
But still. I’m here on a Sunday. On the Sunday. I sing the songs. I keep both feet on the floor. I try to loosen up and let something in.
When we’re asked to share a word of peace, I rise, my hand extended toward the family in front of me. The woman in black brushes my fingers away. I’m surprised, and I must look surprised, because she whispers, “I heard you blowing your nose.” She glances at the newborn in her daughter’s arms. I recoil as if slapped, sit hard, and, before I can stop it, I begin to cry. I cry in a way that would look to others as if I am moved by the service. I am a little moved, but I’m not crying because of that. I took a risk on grasping the hand of a stranger and was shown, without mercy, that I have a cold coming on, something I didn’t even realize. But of course I have a cold coming on. I have three young children, two of them likely still crying in the nursery with their own snot streaming to their onesies. Thinking of my two babies down the hall and my son and husband at home and the angst that brought me to this place, I cry because this woman thinks I would have done her granddaughter harm.
I’m hunched and quiet as I slip out the back before the service is over, while the minister leads a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” I don’t go to the nursery. Instead, I return to my car, turn it on, and sit behind the wheel. I’m not going to leave my children here. But I’m going to leave them here a little while longer, while I figure out what to do with this space. Whatever burst from it this morning has now dissipated, and the space is still there. I can really feel it now that it’s emptied of its sole idea. It’s not aching anymore. Maybe it’s just there to breathe into and move through. Move through the way I move through a Sunday, any Sunday at all.
I turn the car off and step gingerly across the icy lot to collect my boys and bring them home.
Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of two books, The Memory Sessions and The Writing Shop. Her work has appeared in numerous literary and academic journals, was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2014, and won a Pushcart in 2019. She teaches literacy education and writing and is creative advisor to Longridge Review. Suzanne lives in Connecticut with her husband and sons.
Clear, cool morning. The two of you are the first ones at the park. Your year-old daughter craved the red swings. You craved quiet. This morning had so much potential quiet.
The reality is the racket of a power washer. Groundskeepers from Parks and Rec are cleaning the patio by the bathrooms. The air compressor hammers, staccato, like the sound of a strobe light if a strobe light made a sound. The blade of pressurized water hisses a loud tssssssssss, sustained as only a machine can sustain a thing.
Though you are grateful for parks and for bathrooms and for patios—and for cities that maintain them—
For a helpless moment, all you can see of your cool spring morning is the electricity flowing to the damn power washer. In your mind, the electric grid reveals itself, an augmented reality overlay on the landscape. You trace it from the orange extension cord, to the wall outlet, back up through wire capillaries that widen into arteries, passing through transformers and substations. You trace transmission lines east, to the beating heart of the power plant on Lake Fayette in La Grange, where hundred-car freight trains deliver coal from Wyoming. In the boiler, pulverized coal dust fuels an inferno. Searing steam spins turbines. Smoke stacks puff greenhouse gases and fly ash, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, arsenic and mercury—far away from here (sort of) but smack in the middle of here if you live in La Grange.
For a despairing moment, all you can see of your cool spring morning is the precious potable water hissing onto the sidewalk. In your mind, you see the thick tubers of the water distribution system, branch lines intersecting cast iron water mains. You follow the mains back up to the water treatment plant, where massive pumps draw millions of gallons from the Lower Colorado River amid the deepening drought that seems only to lift when it floods. You imagine the energy-intensive filtration, the aeration and flocculation, the disinfection with chlorine—treatments that keep the water supply only sort of safe.
For a furious moment, all you can see of your cool spring morning is the likely-unlivable hourly wage of the three men working, uniformed in Dickies pants, one spraying, the other two watching. You guess they are being paid twelve dollars an hour to use coal power to spray potable water onto concrete in this drought-stricken boomtown where a one-bedroom apartment costs a thousand bucks a month.
Captivated, your daughter takes a few steps toward the power washer, the patio, the three men. She is wearing the first pair of shoes of her whole life. She drinks in the din. The morning sunlight pierces the branches of a two-hundred-year-old live oak, dispersing on white mist rising from the concrete. She takes a few more steps.
Chastened, you squat beside her, put your hands on each of her shoulders, to keep your sweet fool from rushing in.
Susan Scott Peterson writes intimate essays and memoir about culture and race; poverty and privilege; environmental degradation; and women, families, and parenthood. She draws material from her experiences as an environmentalist, an American working in West Africa, and, most recently, a new mother. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus. She lives with her partner, Sebastian, and her daughter, Stella, in Austin, Texas.
The patient is nervous. He should be. His renal allograft is new, he has an infection and his immune system is compromised. It’s a bad combination. But I’m going to be positive. I’ll emphasize that he is getting better, his white blood cell count is in decline, he seems to be eating and he isn’t coughing. I intend to be reassuring, cautiously optimistic. He’ll be looking for optimism.
His room is in the new hospital tower overlooking Mt. Talbert, which is basically a small hill covered in Douglas Firs. It’s painted an off colored beige, not what I would have chosen, but it wasn’t my decision. There’s a nice window with a decent view of the Douglas Firs. Nothing fancy—this isn’t a hotel—but it’s pleasant enough if you’re sick. I enter the room. We exchange pleasantries. I listen to his heart and lungs, feel the squishiness of his new kidney and ask him some meaningless questions. It’s all a warm up. I’m really here to have the talk. “Your condition is bad, but it will probably get better… Probably.” I try and discuss cautiously-optimistic hard truths, which is pretty much as muddled up as it sounds, but I can tell he’s clinging to the positive parts and failing to hear any of the caution.
Then I see it. It’s sitting on the window ledge outside the room. Big carrion beak, bright red head and flesh-tearing talons. Right there. Ten feet away. Beautiful in the way only natural things can be beautiful.
For a couple seconds I stare. I realize the patient hasn’t seen it. He’s looking at me, not the window. It dawns on me that if he sees a buzzard sitting on his window sill, our conversation won’t be inspiring the kind of cautious optimism I’m trying to relay. I immediately revert my gaze to the patient and make direct eye contact. People don’t look away when you are looking directly at them.
In my peripheral vision I can see the big bird standing on the window sill. I won’t look at it, lest the patient follow my gaze. It’s hard. This is a National Geographic moment. The bird is just standing there, not moving. I try and focus on the conversation and make some big hand gestures to get the bird to fly away. It remains unfazed.
Voltaire said, “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient until nature cures the disease.” He was a little harsh, but basically correct. I’m an entertainer. A ringmaster in a white coat. The “art” in medicine is learning to accept the futility of it. Death and disease come for all, doctors be damned. Sick or well, there is always a vulture waiting, just outside the window.
Micah L. Thorp is a physician and writer in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Operation Honeybee and Handbook of Common Problems in Clinical Nephrology. He works as a clinical nephrologist, as VP of Business Affairs for Northwest Permanente and as a researcher in predictive analytics. His hardest (and best) job is raising three teenage boys.