Since preschool, our girls have been kindred spirits. They are on the brink of young adulthood, buds pressing through tee-shirts, splotches of pink and red in a of constellation across their hairlines, limbs long and gangly.
He’s a grotesque in primary colors, as much David Cronenberg as Clark Kent. The cartoons and the movies and the coloring books—they usually forget that. The idea of Spider-Man is, at its core, revolting. When it is time to suit up, Superman bears his classically handsome mug. Batman, Captain America, and Green Lantern, at the very least, leave their chiseled jaws exposed. With Spider-Man, everything hides beneath his spandex. Should you be saved by him—hung up in his gangly, yet muscular arms as he swings you off to safety—you’d look into the face of your hero, and there’d be no reassuring grin or playful wink, but, instead, two pupil-less eyelets, teardrop-shaped and alien, staring hugely as if frozen in shock. It would take all you could muster not to scream.
SEAN’S ROOM by Blake London Steam from the shower moves in columns to the ceiling. I’m holding Sean’s hand, and his eyes close with the bathroom door—we twine and twist into sheets of flesh. Sean said the comedown is the hardest, but I’m still electric, can hear a crooning in the static of my fingers on his spine. It’s a slow dance with small movements, and the glow in my bloodstream says sway, so we make the steam vibrate in the small space. My fingers smooth water from the divots of his waist. The lazy warmth of him runs down my legs, floods the pale stucco floor. His curves, his hardness, his breath on my neck all feel ancient and half-remembered, and here I am, touching him for the first time again. We let the water run down the drain, dry off with a shared towel, and crawl under the …chop! chop! read more!
Buddy is a good friend but will be an even better Marine. He is open to following directions. He will die face down in Pleiku, far away from his dreams, alone. But today, Buddy is twelve and entitled to his share of dreams. After all, most nightmares are reserved for adults. Buddy’s stepdad had a job for us.
My not-yet-stepdaughter sprawled on the couch, laptop open. Annabella was 12, her long hair parted straight down the middle. That evening I stayed with her for the first time while her father went to a work event. It seemed more normal than I’d imagined, just another evening at home. I read a magazine while she did homework.
Over dinner the Brazilian painter says she doesn’t believe in time, or maybe she says she’s skeptical about the measuring of time—I can’t be certain as we meet haltingly between languages. We are painters and photographers and musicians and one writer, me, in a crumbling Catalonian farmhouse at the foot of a mountain that looks like a pile of noses.
The dissection, in simple terms, is a search. Imagine searching your house for a pair of socks. Now, imagine searching your specimen—for our purposes, the body—and this time, the body is your house, and its secret is a pair of socks, misplaced somewhere in the body for you to unearth.
Christmas morning two years ago. Cold and snowless. My father hauled a leather instrument case through the front door and set it at my feet. Next to its handle was a little gold plaque, its logo embossed in fine script. Martin & Co., Est. 1833. Up close, the case smelled like his car: a mixture of coffee, Red Bull, and sweat. I unfastened its buckles and pulled the top open. Inside was a new guitar. A particularly beautiful one, smaller than a dreadnought. Black, gourd-shaped mahogany body with ivory binding along its waist and edges. Cream-colored, vintage-style tuning pegs, pearlescent fret inlays.
THE REVOLUTION IS NOT DEAD: I’M WEARING IT by Holly Li It was a dingy street stall, somewhere in the back alleys of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The uninterested teenage boy manning the booth flipped through a magazine while I rummaged through bins of t-shirts wrapped in clear plastic. Some were printed with Chinese words; most had faces I didn’t recognize. “An old Chinese Communist hero,” my dad would explain as I pointed indiscriminately at one and looked to him. “Another old hero,” he chuckled, as I held up yet another generic grinning face, this one with rosy cheeks and a red star cap. For seven yuan (a dollar), I could afford to buy them all, but I took my time. I made piles of favorites, weighed options carefully on a rubric of juvenile aesthetic taste and shock value, then narrowed them down. Eventually, I settled on the Glorious One: …chop! chop! read more!
I wonder at the little dead lady on my carpet. I found her as I was picking up tissues from the floor of my bedroom, underneath the bed, lying on her back like a lentil. I had an urge to put her in my mouth, but then I remembered that she must be the same one that was crawling around my room in September. I had identified with the little lady, indecisively flitting around the room, landing on the white plastic blinds, walking along there for a while until she came to what she thought was the end of the earth, and beyond that the buttery yellow fabric of my curtains: heaven, for a bug.
My earliest memory of Po-Po is her cooking: the thick aroma of beef and bok choy wafting through our old kitchen, and the sight of her tightly permed semi-afro through the steam gathering over the stovetop. After dinner, she would humor me as I tried to teach her English. I never had much success, but I remember her nodding and smiling along as I read my favorite picture books to her.
The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked in a donut shop selling macchiatos and breakfast pastries to young office workers in downtown Portland, Maine. I decided to get a job because my best friend Emma wanted a job and we were drunk off the prospect of making money and never having to go back to high school. We promised that the rest of our lives were going to be spent with only each other so we better start saving money so we could eventually live in Paris or New York or somewhere else far away from where we grew up.
Mom remembers the call, my sister doing her best to keep her composure on the other line, I just called Babushka and she was talking strangely maybe check on her? And so she put me in her car and drove into the evening, calming me down I’m sure it’s nothing and me I’m sure it’s nothing too but the two of us dashed from the elevator to her room nonetheless.
Early one evening in 2001 I watched an airplane as it cut through the African sky leaving its long and distinctive vapor trail. I stood still, taking a moment to wonder what the view looked like from above. Recalling my own thoughts when traveling—arrival, the days that lay ahead, a new movie on the in-flight entertainment, the ever-shrinking leg room—I realized that few would have reason to suspect the calamity that was unfolding below.
On July 20th, an article appeared in the New Yorker detailing the specific ways in which my hometown will be wiped off the face of the earth.
The article, entitled “The Really Big One”, described an earthquake that is due to devastate the Pacific Northwest within the next fifty years. Everything west of Interstate 5 will disappear, including my own city of Eugene as well as most of the major population hubs in Oregon. The piece was well-researched, visceral, and packed the hard-facts punch of any other apocalyptic warning: Billions will die. Cities will burn. Don’t bother with the hazmat suits.
On the night the hunter shot the moose, they asked me to hold the lantern. Three men struggled to hold the body so the hunter could make the cut, and I cast gold light over them as he sawed along the ribs of the bull. There was no smell but male sweat and the crush of dead leaves under the tarp around us. Death hadn’t been there long enough to diffuse its odor into the night.
In 1944, at the age of five, I invented the magnifying glass. The end of a Coke bottle, when held up to the sun, could make anything burn and vanish. First, bits of paper—cellophane from my dad’s Chesterfield packs, and my bubble gum wraps—then live things like slugs, worms, the hind end of ants. Once I torched a whole village, many casualties, dead ants smelling like burnt tires. I needed to hurt something that couldn’t hurt me back.
You will score 135 points in your next high school basketball game. January 26, 1960 is the night it will happen. Hello hoops history. Guinness Book of World Records, here you come. Your name is Danny Heater, and your record, 135 points, will last. But, this does not come as straight victory. It does not come without problems. And which problem is worse: that your mother missed the game or that you didn’t even get to enjoy your record? Your world record, the one that congeals and permanently attaches itself to you. It’s basketball. It’s a game. But your record makes you proud and embarrassed. It makes you happy and sad.
A rose means many things and only some of it is love. Desdemona means innocence. Sir Galahad, humility. Give Dainty Bess to show appreciation. Silver Shadow for admiration. You Only Live Once for gratitude. Eleanor is the lavender of love at first sight. So too is the plum of Night Owls. The Middlebrough Football Club is the cultivar for desire and enthusiastic passion. Its particular shade of orange is as ridiculous as a riot. Red as Satchmo, red as Happy Christmas, red as City of Leeds. Red means enduring passion. From the beginning a rose meant there was an old poet who thought himself unreasonably clever and was obsessed with the virginity of much younger women. From the same, but less quoted beginning, roses meant fire.
In rural upstate New York, kids start driving young. Fourteen and fifteen-year-olds are driving tractors between fields before they start high school. A few years later, their trucks are flying into parking lots with friends piled in their truck beds, searing black streaks of tire rubber onto the asphalt.
Schools were opening in less than a week. The five-year-old boy in front of me had autism. He couldn’t speak. His eyes flitted like hummingbirds over the hundreds of colorful toys and books in the classroom. The boy’s father, Mr. Nassar, sat stiffly on a tiny chair next to his son. He had come to register the child for regular kindergarten.
I’ll do it, Love,” my newly retired husband, Weldon, said when I mentioned our book collection needed cleaning. It took him two years to finish the job. I knew the books were getting dirty again, but I held my tongue—I didn’t want to dust them.
THE RED MOON by Mark A. Nobles My father turned into the driveway a little too fast, just like he always did. The Studebaker’s engine growled and the spring shocks squealed as my mother held her breath and closed her eyes, and my brother and I bounced in the back seat, almost hitting our heads on the roof. It was a Sunday night, March 13, 1946, and we were returning home from church. It was a fine spring evening. I remember the sermon that evening being especially fiery, even for Preacher Bonds. It had been a hell and brimstone, apocalyptic, God fearing sermon, and I had been particularly caught up while mother cried, father slept, and Jim, my younger brother, fidgeted. Preacher Bonds was as charismatic a Southern Baptist preacher as ever lived. Southern Baptists work from the premise that a good Christian is a scared Christian, and they have …chop! chop! read more!
Adonis was a painting. Or rather, he was a boy, but his limbs and lips looked as though they were made of artistry and creamy filaments of paint. It is no wonder, then, that Venus loved him. She kept him pillowed in her lap, far from the wars and deaths of heroes, and whispered him stories, her warm breath travelling across his lips. On days she was forced to leave him, Adonis made love to the forest instead, exploring it slowly, deliberately. On one of these days of absences and longing, a wild boar came across Adonis and gutted the canvas of his torso from stomach to collarbone. When Venus returned and found his broken body, she discovered the shape of heartbreak. Distraught, she made the spray of his blood bubble into hard teardrop seeds. And so, nourished by the blood of the most beautiful man to have ever been loved, the pomegranate blossomed into existence.
BEAUTY IN ELEVEN ENCOUNTERS by Ollie Dupuy i could blame it on the culture of america, korea, science, but i boil it down to being the first korean word i learned, yeppuda yeppuda rolling off the tongues of halmonis and imos and echoing around the room like a bullet: beautiful beautiful. they flap sun-spotted hands to my sister’s and my hair, our flat stomachs, our long legs, and the only word i could understand was yeppuda. i begin to think of it as a science, as a fact, a ledgehold in the vast canyon of earth and universe. sun is yellow. clouds are white. i am beautiful. yeppuda, yeppuda. it takes a little time but i discover tragedy backwards, and suddenly i’m a victim of a crime i didn’t even know existed and i can’t stop thinking about my mother crying into the golden light of a therapist’s office. (no …chop! chop! read more!
I discovered a near-limitless capacity for patience on my parents’ back porch, hiding out, eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and reading Richie Rich comics. I was skipping school, biding my time until the end of the afternoon when I could pretend to come home. That first morning, I had slunk down behind an old green aluminum chair and sat in an upright fetal position, knees to chest, arms swaddling legs. I counted the boards on the floor, twenty-five. The rails along the side, forty-eight, and 360 holes in between the crisscross side rail, 250 yellow leaves on the porch, 423 reds, five points in this yellow leaf, eight in that red leaf. I counted my fingers and my toes and every letter in the alphabet, and then, when that was done, I made up a new game. I spelled out every letter:, A, AY, B, BEE, C, SEA. I spelled my name: Ay, En, Gee, El, Eye, Cue, You, Eee. I spelled out whole sentences. “Angie is skipping school today.” “School sucks.” It wasn’t long before I was bored.
Holiday party season is once again upon us—a time of dough-forward cookie trays and ornamental cabbages, of feigned interest and conversational quicksand. This year, why not ride the crest of incivility that has taken our nation by storm? Say what you mean. Say whatever you feel like, then get the hell out of Dodge. Examples follow…
The slow snow first and then the hard snow with left and right men shoveling, cars swerving, stalling, spinning out, and drip by drip the icicle daggers sharpening, waiting to descend as we women lug logs up the porch steps and the dogs slink off, shivering, tails between their legs.
Play. It’s 7 a.m. in Erie, Pennsylvania. Two young men sit at a bus stop on East 6th Street across from a paper mill that closed the previous year (2002). One young man, Dan Morey, is recently returned from a West Coast university, where he earned a master’s degree in English. When people ask him what he’s doing now, he tells them he’s “considering a PhD.”
We rolled into Bakersfield in 1968 the way the Okies did in The Grapes of Wrath — with everything we possessed packed into a creaking car and trailer, kids stacked on top of each other and no place yet to call home.
Following a dust-devil down Highway 99, leaving my dad and his other wife at the Sacramento end of the Central Valley, my mom strangled the steering wheel of the Belvedere wagon until it and the U-Haul came to rest, hot and ticking, beneath the cement awning of the Capri Motel. Piling out, we could see the yellow arch across Union Avenue spelling out Bakersfield in bold black letters. Tall desert palms spindled the endless, empty sidewalk while sun-spotted traffic coursed by the motels and take-out shops and liquor stores. It was May and already close to 100 degrees.
Portland is where the nice go to be nice, where the humans go to be human, and where everyone goes to eat lobster. So yes, it’s a wonderful and liberating city to create in, but regardless of where you are or the tools at hand, it’s important to recognize that you can achieve that kind of creative liberation in all of your travels as a photographer or a tourist. A good photograph tells a story that allows the viewer to fill in the blanks or complete the story themselves. Keeping this in mind while you travel is vital to travel photography. Don’t just take snapshots, because you want people to be as stimulated as you were when you felt the moment needed to be captured. The images you make on your journey say something about yourself and the nature of your experience, so seek out the frames that will capture that essence and make them immortal.
The orange sticky-note is hard to miss—the corner peels off, pricks me as I pluck it from the headboard of my bed. Your handwriting is large and round. ‘I hope your interview goes well tomorrow. Remember to be yourself!’ I toss it into the garbage and get ready for bed. The next morning, I pause in front of the mirror and I dig the note out of the bin before shoving it into the pocket of my dress pants.
I can’t remember how to breathe so the nurse hands me a brown paper bag along with the white jumpsuit and matching cap. Sixty seconds before that they wheeled my wife away, her belly bulging under the white blankets, in her belly, our baby choking. Sixty seconds before that, the room a flurry of nurses and someone saying, “We have to take the baby,” like there’s a place where they take babies and never bring them back. Sixty seconds before that the baby’s heart rate crashing and the pulsing alarm. Sixty seconds before that joking that I hope the baby gets born fast so I don’t miss the golf on TV later. That was four minutes ago. Four minutes ago everything was normal. Four minutes ago I assumed everything would happen as it did when my son was born. But this is different. This time I’m hyperventilating, thinking I may never see my wife again, thinking our baby girl might die, the nurse smiling, patting me on the back, saying how they always seem to forget the dads in these situations. It’s not funny, but she tries to be. Nothing about this is funny. My baby girl is choking. And this is real. And she could die. And we don’t know which way to spell her name. And I can’t remember how to breathe.
We took seats in the back of the planetarium. I glanced over at you, my face warm with anticipation. You leaned back and looked up. When the lights went out, would you cover my knee with your hand as a deep, slow voice described which stars we were seeing? Would I rest my head on your shoulder, at peace with the world and the universe, as Orion moved West, poised to shoot?
The year is 2017, and it is still young. Yet already it has managed to make me very concerned about how it will turn out as it grows older.
At present, I’m staying with my aunt Rebecca in her house in San Francisco, California, under the wing of her charity. The back of the drought has been broken by a glut of rain. Every night Rebecca watches the news. She watches the news of her own will and choosing, and I am simply there for it, experiencing its noise and light because I am in the same room while it plays. Rebecca is an American, by her own identification, and lives in America. I am simply here in it, situated physically in this spot on the earth, borrowing space in other people’s lives.
Facebook has had one of those circulating memes, the ones that ask you to make lists that somehow make you feel nostalgic for a life you’re not sure you ever really had. The latest: list ten albums that influenced you as a teenager. Then: list ten albums that influenced you before you were a teenager. I do not make a list. Instead, I read your list, the choices that betrayed your rebellion or geekiness or prescient cool factor. I want to make my own list, but your list is better. I want to make my own list, but my throat catches as I hum songs I once took great pains to forget, songs that betray a disjointed yet emotionally accurate soundtrack.
That afternoon at home, I am straddling my little brother, his arms pinned under the strength of my thighs, and I am spitting in his face while he screams. I let the spit drip slowly from my mouth onto his face, a long string of it, so he can see it coming. My mom sees it coming too and pulls me off him, sending me to my room. I get talked at for an hour by her and then another hour by my dad. You’re almost five years older than he is, they say. Someday, he’s going to be bigger than you, they say. What will you do then?
When it became clear my grandmother could no longer live alone, I was the one who took the initiative to find a place for her, and I wanted it to be near me. She refused to go to the only facility in Albany, where she lived, because there was a patient there she intensely disliked, and she loathed the idea of going to Florida, near her two sons, so we found a “life-care” facility in a pretty, rural area outside Philadelphia. My sister, also nearby, handles our grandmother’s affairs while I visit and occasionally deal with the staff. This division of labor falls to each of us naturally, and I’m happy with my share.
Last night I found you huddled in the corner of our bedroom, wide awake and shaking. This was similar but not identical to that time one year ago when I broke down the bathroom door with a hammer to find you curled in a C-shape on the tile, the way you perhaps had slept in your mother’s womb. Both times, you said you were sorry. You had lain surrounded by the glass of a shattered fifth of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, and 27 acetaminophen 500mg/diphenhydramine-hydrochloride 25mg pills, which I scooped into the sink to count and subtract from the number on the packaging (100) to estimate the intake (73, or 36500 mg, with an error margin of 5-10 pills that I might have missed laying under your still, silenced body). It’s not the diphenhydramine-hydrochloride that will kill you. It’s the acetaminophen, and it’s slow. I didn’t know that part until later.
When I got home that night, I plugged my camera into my laptop and discovered that the images I had shot—without any clear intention—had captured the heartbreaking intensity of the crowd. My photos—reminiscent of the images of the 1963 March on Washington that I had recently studied—made me feel as though I had done something valuable in documenting the first breaths of resistance, and as if they might give me a voice. After posting the photographs on social media, I was surprised to discover that they served as balm for many now politically-disillusioned viewers. They felt reassured that young people, in particular, would fight back.
this is not an essay. no, this is not that. not a poem. not a bomb. not hydrogen. this is not blackface. not a pledge to a new allegiance. there will be no cotton picking. there are signs – a cross stump stuck in a lawn, a flag burning. there may be a march, some spring uprising to coincide with fall palettes and patterns, of bodies being flung to concretes, red pastels overshadowing the grainy elements of white hoods floating in the background.
You arrive in an orange jail jumpsuit, thin and see-through as a dryer sheet. You sit in a cage until a correctional officer calls you out. State your full name. Any aliases? How tall are you? Yeah you wish, how tall are you really? How much you weigh? Hair color? Eyes? Any scars? Any tattoos? Where? Of what? What size shoe you wear? Pants? Shirt? Get back in the cage.
Recently, I ruined someone’s moment of mundane joy. The hallways of my campus building were bare—students were taking exams, or locked away in the library and various study nooks they’d marked as their territory, or sprawled on the campus greens. The end of the semester was nigh; my step had a lilt.
For weeks the slush had been drying off the sidewalks, leaving trails of salty white mist, and still I hadn’t seen Tiny, not since Christmas when he tried to kiss me and said he’d teach me to cut white people hair. During warmer months, Tiny hustled past the social services building most mornings around nine. “There he goes,” somebody would say. We would stop tapping on our keyboards, lean a chair beyond the cubicle wall, and stretch the coiled phone cord to watch him go. Tiny was somewhere in his nineties and barely taller than the corner mailbox. He zipped by, en route to his barbershop, his gait just as steady as any of ours. Most people on my caseload were shut inside their houses forevermore and inched around their kitchens one step at a time. Tiny was my only employed client, although I wasn’t sure how officially employed – I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to know. He always wore a fedora, a necktie cinched tight into his collar, a long cardigan draped off his hunched bony shoulders. Tiny was always impeccably groomed and appropriately dressed for the weather, engaged daily in cardiovascular activity. I nearly finished my functional assessment just watching him haul ass.
The day of the funeral I’m on the treadmill at the senior center.
A guy named Gordon I haven’t seen in a while stops next to me and points. I shake my head, What? He points again. So: I guess my limp is noticeable. I took a minor tumble on some stairs, more sprawl than fall. I’d rather not go into it right now. I’m listening to Ray Charles sing “Oh what a beautiful morning” on my headset and watching Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan on one of the four TV’s hung on the wall. But Gordon stands there, smiling. I pause the Ray, pop out an earbud.
Throughout the election season, I noticed that some of my students seemed uneasy. After Donald Trump’s election, true fear had taken hold in many of them. A Congolese boy, who I had never before seen without a big smile, asked me why he would have to go back to his country. His village did not have enough food, he told me. People were very sad and hungry there. A second grade teacher showed me a picture one of her students had drawn. It showed two men with Crayola guns standing over a woman, scribbled red.
“This is my aunt,” the girl said. “Please don’t make my family go back.”
When I took this job, I knew that I might have to console students who were going through rough times: moving, divorce, the death of a beloved pet. I never imagined I would have to have a discussion with elementary students like the ones my college professors had with us after 9/11.
Everywhere I went in Sudan, people offered me things. I was the foreigner in their country and they could tell the minute they saw me that I was different with my lighter skin and my long hair and my rounded body. They understood that it was me who needed their help. They knew that my system wasn’t used to the extreme temperatures, that I had not sufficiently acclimated to bacteria-ridden water, that my skin was too soft for hard work, my eyes too sensitive to the dust.
In the aftermath of the election, I overheard a phone conversation my housemate had with his friend, a conversation that was casual enough to be had while he was on the toilet. He explained he was bummed that Trump had been elected president but that he was also excited. He had plans to go out and buy a gun. He’d always wanted to play out a survivalist scenario, even if he would hate it when it finally came.