Writers Read: Mefisto by John Banville

mefistoThis is a novel written by an author in extremis, an author both blessed and possessed. John Banville admits to experiencing a nervous breakdown while writing the book. He called it his attempt to set himself free in the practice of writing.

The story is a first-person narration in the past tense. It is set in Ireland after World War II in a town called Ashburn—which sounds and looks like Hell, with 12,000 souls and an anthracite mine turned garbage dump—and opens with the birth of twins: one surviving, one not, one immortal, one not, like the Dioskouri. The narrator, the survivor of the two baby boys, Gabriel Swan, (as in Leda and Zeus) is the haunted, hunted, shadowed, wrung out, literally gone to hell- and-back young man who proves to be a lying, guilt-ridden, unreliable narrator. He claims to be “omniscient, sometimes.” He’s a math wiz and obsessed with numbers. His mother and teachers are more frightened and suspicious of his talent than encouraging.

He is friendless until he wanders into the hands of the devil made man, Felix. Felix, as irresistible a devil that ever was, is one of the most entertaining, profane, clever characters in modern fiction, even if Banville is heavy handed in evoking him. As the devil, he knows everything except the one thing that only God knows, which is what everyone in the novel and world would like to know: the big plan, the grand pattern. Felix provides Gabriel with two close companions in each of the two sections of the book: a damaged, attractive female and a scientist. The girls (one deaf and one drug addicted) act as bait and are used for sex, and the scientists aid Gabriel in his search for the formula to things. Felix, who strives for “rules, order, certainty,” is followed by an archangel. He’s after what Gabriel is searching for: the hidden pattern. Both characters believe that mathematics is the portal. The two scientists/professors who have been coerced by the devil to help in the endeavor have become burnt out.

As the devil, he knows everything except the one thing that only God knows, which is what everyone in the novel and world would like to know: the big plan, the grand pattern.

The novel is divided into two sections: Marionettes and Angels. In the first, Gabriel and the other two enlistees fail to discover the answers the devil is after, and fall to Hell after D’Arcy, the “messenger boy” from Heaven, drives Felix out of town. In the second section, Gabriel, who is the immortal twin, emerges scarred and disfigured from his burns. Once again, he is befriended by Felix and guided into a more populated, sophisticated, vicious world, same town though, and urged to use his genius for numbers to solve the riddle of the world using a computer. He is told that computers know nothing they have not been told. He discovers that nothing is certain but chance, and the novel ends on the same word it begins on.

John Banville, photo by Derek Speirs

John Banville, photo by Derek Speirs

At the start of the novel, the descriptive passages  are painterly. Gabriel remembers his mother and his childhood town as darkened, varnished antique portraits. The wreck of Ashburn is perfectly evoked through the sense of putrid smells, and “the whites of his eyes were soiled,” suffices for Felix. When he and Gabriel turn into “Goat Alley” and a rat scuttles in front of them, “dragging a fish-head in its teeth,” and it’s daytime, the reader comprehends what may be in store. The macabre scene of Gabriel identifying his mother’s body is rendered with humor when he can’t decide if the first body he’s shown is his mother or not, and then with horror when he views his mother, “there was something in the way she was lying, all bundled up like that, as if she had been snatched up and shaken violently, and everything inside her was broken and in bits.”

As hideous and nightmarish as the story is, the style of the prose is poetic and multifaceted. The magic of the book is that while it is cynical and disgusting, it is perfectly composed. I was awed by the author’s rich use of references and symbols: from the Greeks to the Romans, the Old and New Testaments, Shakespeare and Keats, and on to Walt Disney and Andrew Lloyd Weber. But then the devil sees and knows all: almost.

Mary Kay WulfMary Kay Wulf is currently enrolled in the MFA Creative Writing Post Development Semester with Steve Heller at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her mentors have included Alistair McCartney, Jim Krusoe, and Peter Selgin. She has an MFA from the University of San Diego/Old Globe Theatre Professional Actor’s Training Program, and holds a BA in Musicology from the University of Hawaii. She lives in Los Angeles and is working on her first novel.

Thank You, Donald

According to Darwin, the earthworm is an essential player in creating the fertile conditions for the perpetuation of plant life. I remember the earthworms of my Brooklyn childhood. Slimy and gray, fattened on a diet of dirt and decay, they crawled to the surface through cracks in the sidewalk. In a display of girlish torment I jumped over those cracks, trying not to squish the worms under my rain boots as I walked to school on drizzly spring mornings.

The worm I’m picturing now is much larger. It turns the soil underground: under the concrete and steel towers of today’s New York City. This mega worm has unearthed itself. It is focused, greedy, and angry. Because it has no spine it has easily crawled to the surface, in the midst of our current national shit storm. This worm is named Donald.

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. images-5

The purpose of the writer is to shine a light on the darkest recesses of the human psyche, to grapple with truth in all of its complexity. My MFA program provides a home for that purpose. It supports diversity, encourages discourse, and nurtures community, challenging me to push past my own comfort zone. For that gift I am grateful.

We are doubly blessed as Americans. This nation is dynamic in its diversity. Despite our challenges, our ongoing tradition of welcome and assimilation provides an abundance of opportunity to expand community. It’s a unique chance for ongoing growth, not in population but in the cultivation of empathy and generosity toward one another. This is the gift we give ourselves.

A catalyst is needed for growth, however. It doesn’t just happen. Like the worm that turns over dirt and dead leaves, the worm named Donald is turning over our nation’s buried fears and prejudices. He is fertilizing the country’s dark side. images-4

Acceptance of diversity has always been our struggle. And the American brand of multiculturalism is so much more than the problem of race. It’s a complex stew of class, lifestyle, education, language, regionalism, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender dynamic, marital trends, employment, crime and mass incarceration, immigration, military service, age, zip code, and all possible combinations of the above.

Race is just the thread that worms its way through the whole, weaving in and out of our nation’s convoluted subcultures. This constantly evolving landscape leaves many of us bewildered, vulnerable to various stressors, and for some, vulnerable to manipulation. Enter Donald. Like an opportunistic invertebrate gorging on fresh vegetation, he exploits our anxiety, fattening himself on our collective pain.

I sometimes feel we Americans could use family counseling with the way we retreat to our ethnic and class corners during times of crisis and cultural upheaval. But collective therapy in our complicated society is expensive. It requires good insurance and the clicking on of that inner flashlight to courageously probe those dark psychic caverns. It’s hard work, demanding commitment and a willingness to look at ourselves while accepting full responsibility for what we find. Difficult at any age, this becomes a greater challenge as we mature.

And the maturation of our nation has been both painful and hard won. We’ve lived through much trauma: from slavery and civil war to the slaughter and dislocation of our indigenous people, from Jim Crow, two world wars, The Great Depression, Japanese internment, Vietnam and assassinations to civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the right to choose, and the ongoing reverberations of all of it. Battle scars, slow healing wounds, and open sores litter the landscape of our collective consciousness. The trauma would have caused the demise of a less robust nation. Yet here we are.

Still, there is work to be done. That hungry worm has waited for just the right shit storm to crawl up and into. We cannot avoid him by jumping over cracks in the sidewalk. His presence on the scene has encouraged and laid bare the underbelly of our national character, the sexist and racist intolerance that our better nature struggles to keep in check. It’s the fear that bubbles from deep within whenever our country is challenged with the inevitability of change.

The tragedy of 9/11, the most recent financial crisis, and the election of our first Black President have further shaken our collective sense of identity. We’ve fallen victim to both an outsized fear of the future and the magical belief that President Obama would save the day. He was never a super hero, you know. He didn’t jump fully formed out of a Marvel comic book.

Then there exists the deep xenophobia that fuels our debates on immigration, our continued scapegoating of men of color in the name of law and order, and our fear that the election of a woman to the Presidency will threaten our longstanding patriarchal tradition.

As our nation moves forward in the midst of these challenges, we are faced with two visions of ourselves.The first is of a nation that continues to refine its sense of justice and equality, and the second is of a country that cowers in fear from evolving too rapidly into something they don’t recognize.

This moment-in-time has exposed how difficult it is to live up to our own values—to be the nation that others strive to reach, the nation where no matter who you are or where you’re from, there is the promise of a better day ahead and a chance to live free.

So here we are, facing the possibility of electing a fascist-leaning strongman who shows little regard and even less respect for the ideas laid down by our Founding Fathers. The worm has churned its way to the surface.

Though I fear for what this moment-in-time could mean for our nation, I strive to feel grateful. I want to believe that this is an opportunity to take another leap of faith forward, toward the America we all hold in our hearts.

With this in mind I want to thank you, Donald, for causing me to face myself: my lingering prejudice, fear, resentment, and tendency to blame others. Thank you, Donald, for forcing me to look at my selfishness and my lack of empathy.

Thank you for reminding me that complacency breeds ignorance, that taking responsibility for my actions is the act of a grown-up and that, through your example, I can say with certainty that I have, thankfully left my adolescence behind.

Thank you for showing me how I’ve come to revere the superficial, and how easily manipulated I am by artifice, propaganda, and stagecraft. For reminding me what misogyny, xenophobia, self-aggrandizement, arrogance, bogus wealth, and empty celebrity look like up close.

Thank you, Donald, for showing us our ugly. For burrowing through the scab of our darkest tendencies, forcing the oozing pus of hatred and intolerance up to the surface. It affords an opportunity to disinfect and apply fresh bandages, to begin the healing anew, to learn from the experience knowing that, as a nation, crisis is always in our future. We understand this is a long recovery. For only through facing ourselves can we learn to grow better and stronger, continue to strive toward the ideal that brings so many hopeful immigrants to our shores.

You, Donald, are the manifestation of our collective id, exposed for all to see in the stark light of day. We forgive you for the circus you’ve imposed on the American public. We accept our participation in the duplicity and know that you couldn’t have done it without our tacit agreement. So we’re good.

But we’re awake now. And though the hangover is a bitch, we see clearly what must be done. Decide whether you, Donald, represent the version of ourselves that we want to embody. Decide whether you, Donald, represent the part of ourselves we want to show to our children, our neighbors, and our world.

Now is not the time to jump over cracks. Now is not the time to deny what is staring us in the face. Now is the time to stand and face our selves.

There is danger for the worm when it exposes itself to the light of day. As it churns the soil in a single-minded focus to reach the surface, the worm leaves itself vulnerable to hungry birds and rain boots. According to Darwin the earthworm is essential in creating healthy conditions for growth.

We are in the midst of a growth spurt. Now is the time to decide in which direction we want to grow.

For this opportunity, Donald, we thank you.

Sara Dobie Bauer

Spotlight: I Hate Myself for Loving You

I don’t know how he figured it was me who told the school he had AIDS, but he found out—and finds me under the bleachers, smoking a cigarette. He even throws the first punch, which I think is out of character for the rich bitch star of our high school track team, headed to Yale come fall. I’ve been in a couple fights, but Jason Kemp can hit hard, and as I eat dirt, I wonder how many fights he’s been in.

Lucky I have my pals with me to pull him back, so by the time I stand up, Vince and Timmy are thrashing on Jason like they want to break his ribs one at a time. I taste blood in my mouth as I wipe my lip and watch. Jason barely makes a noise, just calls me a “son of a bitch” over Vince’s shoulder. Vince punches him again, and this time Jason lands on his knees in his perfectly pressed school uniform.

Timmy shoves him over and joins him in the dirt. He thumps Jason in the side of the face. I think I should tell them to stop—scream it even. Instead, coward that I am, my boys keep going until they see blood. Then, they fall back. They yell about catching Jason’s “gay disease,” named by some mad scientists a couple years back in ‘82. My best friends drag me away.

Jason rolls onto his side in the dirt and wipes at the split skin below his right eye. He doesn’t look up at me, but I keep watching as we hurry from the scene of the crime. I keep watching Jason and think I’d like to wipe his blood all over me.

*     *     *

He showed up earlier this year, a senior at a new school. Nobody wants to change schools their senior year, so I could have felt bad for the guy. Instead, I hated him the moment he walked into Mr. Harvey’s trigonometry class.

Harvey was one of my favorite teachers. He was this big bald guy who told everyone, first day, “Nobody gets above a C in my class,” which just made kids want to bust their asses even harder to prove him wrong. I had a solid A- when Jason Kemp walked in the first week of class. My grades started dropping soon after.

Jason was the pretty boy hero in every John Hughes romance. He had curly blond hair and blue eyes like some Nazi recruit. He was tall, basketball tall. His school uniform—navy blue slacks, white dress shirt, blue blazer, and red and yellow striped tie—all of it looked perfect. He introduced himself and didn’t sound nervous. A girl behind me giggled.

When Harvey said, “Take the empty desk next to Shawn,” I hid behind my hand and sneered like Billy Idol.

Jason wasn’t discouraged, because when he sat, he greeted me and even introduced himself as if he hadn’t just told the whole class his name. I ignored him, but it was hard not to notice he wore cologne. None of the guys I knew wore cologne.

Word traveled fast that day at Hinckley High. Even though Vince, Timmy, and me tended to sit alone at lunch, it was hard to miss the high-pitched whispers when Jason Kemp walked in. One of the football cheerleaders a table over said he was some kind of track star, won State at his last school. Another girl called him “a dream.”

After school, I met up with the other punk kids under the bleachers. We wore combat boots under our slacks and liked to talk music. We bummed cigarettes off whoever had the fullest pack.

Then, Vince said, “Hey, Shawn. Check out the new stooge.”

I squinted between silver bleachers toward the track field, and even though it wasn’t track season yet, there was one guy running like he was being chased—and there was Mr. Harvey, math teacher and also track coach, with a stopwatch.

Out of school uniform, in shorts and a t-shirt, Jason looked even taller, and man, the dude could move. I’d never seen a guy run that fast, and after he did a couple loops, Harvey looked like he wanted to build a golden idol. Even the football cheerleaders crowded around Jason with their pompoms. Beatrix Waters, the hottest girl in school, squeezed his upper arm.

Jason Kemp: what a tool.

*     *     *

I can’t taste blood anymore, but I’m still wiping dirt off my clothes when I break away from Timmy and Vince and tell them to buzz off. They always listen when I give orders.

I go back behind the bleachers, but Jason isn’t there anymore. I head to the next best place: the locker room, where I find him. He has both hands planted on either side of an open locker. His head is tilted down, and he’s breathing hard. There’s dust all over his trousers. His tie is gone, and his shirt is unbuttoned. There’s a cut under his eye that’ll end up a bruise.

I stand there until he notices me, and when he does, I swear to God, his eyes glow red. He slams his locker. “Want another round? Won’t be so easy one-on-one.”

In my head, I want to apologize, but the words taste like my Pop’s moonshine in the back of my throat. I let him grab me by the lapels. He slams my back against the lockers so hard, my teeth rattle.

“What did I ever do to you, huh?” he screams.

I’ve never heard him cuss, and I’ve been listening, close, for the past year.

“Is it because I’m gay? Is that it?”

I want to shake my head, say no, but his mouth has never been this close to me before. I can’t think.

He rattles my skull with another pounding against the cold, metal locker at my back and looks like he’s prepping to punch, so I move. I take hurried steps forward, which seems to catch Jason off guard. I keep him from falling by holding onto his suit coat and finally smash him into the lockers on the opposite wall.

Before he can scream at me again, I kiss him. His lips turn to stone. His fists shove at my shoulders until I hold onto the back of his head and tug on his golden curls. I keep kissing him until he’s kissing back. He tastes sort of dusty like maybe he swallowed some dirt when Vince and Timmy pummeled him earlier, but I stick my tongue in his mouth and hold even tighter to the back of his head.

I don’t pull away, not really. I end the kiss but keep my nose pressed against his face, my eyes tilted down. I don’t want to see his expression as my fingers touch his bare chest, his abdomen. He doesn’t move, barely breathes. Do I disgust him?

Beneath the scent of angry sweat and dirt, I smell his cologne. Months back, it took me an hour at Macy’s to figure out which was his: Eternity by Calvin Klein. I stole a bottle and keep it on my desk at home.

As I press one small kiss to the side of his face, one of his hands touches mine. I panic and run. This time, I don’t look back.

*     *     *

The first time the whole school figured out Jason Kemp was gay was a Saturday night in February. One of our local bands, the High Street Deuces, was playing a gig at the only underage club in town, so there was a great turn out. Vince was with me, decked out in slick sunglasses, and Timmy had his hair dyed black. He said he wanted to look more like one of the Ramones.

In the mid-80s, music was sort of weird. There were kids who still rocked out to that late 70s disco crap. Meanwhile, there was the best-selling pop nonsense—Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. Joan Jett was my newest obsession. The Deuces were somewhere in between, so most of the school turned out to watch them play. Plus, it was an excuse to do something in our boring-as-shit little town.

I saw Jason first. I swear it was like I felt the guy enter a room. The familiar feeling returned, somewhere between pissed off and terrified that he might one day notice me watching. My face settled into a frown, and I examined him from behind my popped coat collar.

He didn’t dress like the other kids at Hinckley High, maybe because he was rich. His parents bought the big Tudor mansion on Front Street, and it had just been announced he was going to Yale—something unheard of at Hinckley. But it wasn’t just the money. He dressed older. He wore fancy looking dark jeans and slim cut sweaters. His shoes shined.

“Jesus.” Vince glared over the top of his sunglasses. “Look at the pretty boy.”

“What a square,” Timmy said, trying to mimic my pose, as usual.

Then it was like the world exploded, because another guy walked in behind Jason. He was older than us by a couple years, probably a college kid. He was almost prettier than Jason, almost, and he had his hand on Jason’s lower back.

“What the …” Vince didn’t say anything else. We all just sort of sat there as Jason took a seat at a high-top in the corner. The older guy said something that made Jason smile. I bit down hard on the inside of my lip, because Jason Kemp had one of those smiles that made you think there really could be peace on Earth. Then, the older guy kissed him, right on the mouth, and headed to the bar. Everyone saw it.

“Kemp’s a faggot!” Timmy hissed.

“Shoulda guessed,” Vince said, which was a lie. Nobody could have guessed Jason was gay. He talked to girls in the hallways at school. He ran cross-country and was about to start running track. He went to school dances with big groups of popular kids and, once, carried a drunk Beatrix Waters to their limousine.

If anyone knew Jason was gay, it would have been me. I knew everything about him. I knew he chewed his bottom lip when doing math equations. I knew he ran his fingers through his hair when he laughed. I knew he had a dark brown freckle just beneath the collar of his shirt on the right side of his neck, and I knew he was leaving me to go Ivy League.

“Dude,” Vince said, “what if he has AIDS like that kid in Indiana?”

“Ryan White,” I said. It was all over the news, how he’d been banned from school.

“Yeah.” Timmy nodded.

“Well, I’m staying the hell away from him. Gross.” Vince pushed his sunglasses up higher on his nose like he could hide from the way Jason’s date looked so happy when he came back to the table with soda. I’d be happy, too, which was when I got the idea to start the rumor in the first place.

*     *     *

I brush my teeth twice when I get home, but I still taste him. I smoke three cigarettes in bed over the sound of my mom, drunk again, watching Wheel of Fortune downstairs. She shouts answers at the screen like maybe Vanna will hear. Pop’s out someplace, probably with the girlfriend he keeps on the side.

I didn’t know the rumor would blow out of control, honest. I told one girl on the track team that Jason had AIDS. Next thing I knew, his name was a disease. The school officials went nuts, said he couldn’t run track anymore—right before the state championship, too, where Jason was pegged to clean house. No wonder he came after me today.

I’m surprised when I hear a knock on my bedroom door since I didn’t hear Mom tripping up the steps like usual. I answer with a cigarette in hand, but it’s not Mom or even my asshole dad. No, it’s Jason Kemp.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I say.

He steps past me and into my bedroom. He stands there and takes it in: the pile of dirty laundry, the unmade bed, a new poster of Joan Jett, and my worn turntable.

His golden-blond hair is a windblown mess. He’s in a dark green sweatshirt and jeans with a hole in the knee. He’s got a big, purple bruise around his right eye.

“I love Joan Jett,” he says and nods at the poster. “Your mom let me in.”

“How do you know where I live?”

He shrugs. “Small town.”

“Get out of my room.” I point at the door.

He sits on the edge of my bed with his hands in his pockets. “Harvey had me do a blood test.” He sniffs. “Came back clean, of course, so I can run in States.”

I take a drag on my cigarette.

“I don’t even know you, Shawn. Why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you.” I stare at the woman on my wall like she has all the answers.

“Yeah, guess I figured that out today.”

I hope to God he doesn’t notice the bottle of his cologne on my desk.

“I don’t want to sound like an afterschool special,” he says, “but it’s okay to like boys.”

I huff and crush out my cigarette only to light another. “I don’t like boys.”

He leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees. “You kiss like you do.”

I tug at my short, spiked hair. “No, you don’t …” I shake my head. “I don’t like boys. I just like you.”

“But why? Over the past year, we’ve barely said two words to each other.”

“You don’t remember,” I say.

“Remember what?”

So I tell him about the day I realized I was in deep shit.

*     *     *

It was winter, and the afternoon before, the letter arrived with my acceptance to New York University. I sat alone in my room and read the letter, over and over. I showed it to my parents. Mom gave me a hug that smelled like tequila. Dad said, “How are you going to pay for that?” I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t, but I’d applied just to see, and even though they offered me a scholarship, it wasn’t enough. I was going to be stuck in Hinckley forever.

I spent the night drinking my dad’s homemade hooch. I passed out around four, only to have my alarm go off three hours later—time for school. I showed up weaving. It was like I’d forgotten how to walk. People gave me funny looks. I needed Vince and Timmy but couldn’t find them.

Then, I felt strong hands under my arms. Someone dragged me to the bathroom. There was room for two in the handicap stall. I heard the door lock behind me as I tossed my cookies into the toilet and slopped some on the floor. There was a warm hand on my back, rubbing up and down.

“Just get it out, man.” I recognized that voice from trig. It was Jason. He stood by me until my stomach was empty. I heaved out foam and choked. The choking turned to sobs. I don’t know why I reached out to him, but he let me drag him down to the floor. I tried to break his bones with my embrace, and he just sat there and took it. He was as strong as he was fast.

When I let go, he stood. “Stay here,” he said as the class bell rang. I heard water running, and he came back with a damp paper towel, handed it to me. We sat on that dirty bathroom floor together. “My mom drinks,” he said, like that was his reason for helping me. He didn’t say anything else.

We were both late to class. I got written up, but I bet Jason didn’t. He never got in trouble; all the teachers liked him too much. I felt like hell the rest of the day, but I smelled like him. That night, I slept in my school uniform, my nose buried in the collar and pretended he was in bed next to me.

*     *     *

“I remember that day,” he says. “I didn’t think you did.”

“I memorized your cologne.” I nod toward my desk.

He glances over his shoulder and recognizes the Calvin Klein bottle.

“I think you’re perfect,” I whisper and immediately regret it. My face burns.

He tilts his head left and right, stretching his neck. “Can I have one of those?” He points to the cigarette in my hand.

“You don’t smoke.”

He snickers. “I’ve smoked for three years. Just never gotten caught.”

I pull a cigarette from the pack on my bedside table and hand him one before taking a seat a foot away from him on my bed. I watch him light up and take a long drag. It’s sexy as hell.

“I got kicked out of my last school,” he says. “Wanna know why?”

I inch a little closer.

“I beat the shit out of some kid who called me a fag. I don’t really remember it. I think it was one of those rage blackouts or something.” He chuckles.

“You do know how to throw a punch.”

“Yeah,” he mutters. “I’m not perfect, Shawn.”

“You’re perfect to me.” I’m not embarrassed when I say it this time.

He takes a long drag and exhales white smoke toward my ceiling. He runs his free hand through his hair. I think I’d like to kiss him again and taste smoke on his tongue. I surprise the shit out of myself and do it, just grab him by the face and start kissing. This isn’t like the pointless fumbling with girls I’ve done over the years. This is brute force and lust. He moans into my mouth and somehow finds the nearest ashtray. He tosses his cigarette before climbing on top of me so I’m on my back in my bed—with a boy. Pretty soon, I’m moaning, too, and pulling at the bottom of his sweatshirt, remembering the way his skin felt in the locker room that afternoon.

He laughs a little as I tear the fabric off over his head. Then, it’s like a race to get our clothes off. Jason is faster, of course. Everything is confusing and unfamiliar at first, but he takes charge and makes me feel like he did last winter on the floor of the boy’s bathroom: safe.

When we’re finished, we huddle up under my dirty sheets and giggle, a mess of tangled arms, legs, and lips. I try not to think about how it’ll be summer soon and then, he’ll be gone.

He holds my hand. “Why were you drunk that day at school anyway?”

My eyes linger as he chews his bottom lip. Finally, I say, “I got into NYU.”

“Yeah, that’s tragic.”

“I can’t go. We can’t afford it.”

“Scholarships?”

When I lick my bottom lip, it tastes like him. “I’m not smart enough.”

“What are you going to do instead?”

I roll over and move my body closer to his, if that’s even possible. “Dunno. Work at McDonald’s, I guess.”

“Shut the hell up.”

I lightly run my thumb over his bruise. “I like when you swear.”

“Are you gonna be gay now?” The look in his eyes changes from playful to serious.

I shrug. “I never liked a boy until I saw you, and I hated you for it.”

“That explains a lot.”

I fall away from him and lay on my back, eyes to the sky. I think about lighting another cigarette. “I’m sorry I started that rumor.”

“Yeah, well, it’s over now.” He rolls up onto his elbow and looks down at me. Without asking, he reaches over my body and grabs my discarded cigarettes, lights one. Again, it’s one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen. “Will you come watch me at States?” He takes a puff and hands it to me.

I raise an eyebrow. “What, like I’m your girlfriend?”

He pokes me in the side and takes the cigarette back.

“Only if I can kiss you when you win,” I whisper.

“In front of your bodyguards?”

I think of Vince and Timmy. “They’re not my bodyguards. They’re idiots.”

As if I’ve forgotten the magic of his mouth, Jason leans down and kisses me. I whimper when he pulls back and am scared by the ache in my chest like someone’s drilling holes through my heart. I’m really starting to understand that song “Love Stinks.”

I’m afraid to ask what comes next for Jason and me, but I do anyway.

He looks like he thinks this is a stupid question. “I’ll stay here for another hour. Or two,” he says, which makes my toes curl. “I’ll go home and get ready for the state championship. Probably win some medals. I’ll show you there was music made before 1982.” He smirks at my little stack of records in the corner. “You’ll realize I’m nowhere near perfect, and maybe you’ll leave with me this summer.”

I steal the cigarette back. “Dude, that’s totally an afterschool special.”

He’s quiet for a second. Then, he says, “Or maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and realize it’s too hard being gay, and your friends will bust my lip under the bleachers.”

I drag him to me until his back is against my chest. We huddle beneath a cloud of smoke. Nobody speaks.

Sara Dobie BauerSara Dobie Bauer is a writer, model, and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, inspired by her shameless crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. She lives with her hottie husband and two precious pups in northeast Ohio, although she’d really like to live in a Tim Burton film. She is the author of the paranormal rom-com Bite Somebody, among other ridiculously entertaining things. Read more of her work at http://SaraDobieBauer.com.

The Cone of Uncertainty

Felt the lightning / And we waited on the thunder / Waited on the thunder

~Bob Seger

Monday, 3 October

St. Johns County has been placed in the 5 day forecast cone by the National Hurricane Center.

H Is For HawkA workshop submission is due today for my MFA residency in December. At 5:00, I send it away over the ether. I collect H is for Hawk and a highlighter and walk to the housing development’s private pool for some uninterrupted reading. The air outside is perfect, dry and warm. Hurricane Matthew is still far from where I live in St. Augustine, Florida; still a day south of Haiti. Matthew is an abstraction.

In the parking area by the pool, my neighbor, Jerry, leans into the security guard’s car window, talking with her.

He beckons me closer. “You might not want to go to the pool,” he says. “A lady died.”

The security guard adds that the pool is open again. “It’s no longer a crime scene,” she says. “If you want to swim.”

Jerry says the security tape shows the lady was swimming laps alone, then she sat in a chaise and was messing with her phone. And then she got quiet.

Wait, which chaise? I think.

I turn and walk back to the house. I can’t process this beyond wondering, fleetingly, what is wrong with me. Which chaise. I want to read H is for Hawk in my favorite chaise next week after the sun comes out again. Matthew will wash it all away.

Later I’m walking the dogs and run into Jerry in his driveway. I get three mosquito bites while he tells me everything else he knows. The lady’s husband found her at the pool. The emergency responders did CPR for twenty minutes. I ask Jerry questions he doesn’t know the answers to: how old was the lady, and do they have children? I keep other questions to myself: Is the husband alone?

The lady and her husband are renters. They’re building their dream home in a nearby development. Their house will be ready in two weeks.

 

Tuesday, 4 October

The County is expecting to experience at least Tropical Storm conditions…

I have a blog to write, but this hurricane is on my mind. Conditions need to be favorable for writing. Chores done, desk clean, some quiet—Matthew is disruptive. He is destroying Haiti on my second monitor.

Credit: NOAA, Public Domain

Credit: NOAA, Public Domain

Waiting for a hurricane takes patience. I grew up in coastal Massachusetts. I’ve waited like this before: Gloria in 1985 and Bob in 1991. Two months after Bob it was The No-Name Storm, later known as The Perfect Storm. A few hours before a rogue wave would swallow the fishermen of the Andrea Gail, we walked from our house to Fort Sewall. When the wind gusted just so, I leaned out over the bluffs marking the entrance to Marblehead harbor, my stepfather’s hand on my belt just in case, and felt the wind lift me up, hold me aloft.

I waste my writing hours thinking about storms past.

 

Wednesday, 5 October

Morning: A Hurricane Watch has been issued for St. Johns County.

The blog should be going to my editor today. I’d normally be on my third draft by now. I don’t miss deadlines. I have an opening paragraph and an idea that I liked until I sat down to write yesterday. Now again, I should write. Other things are on my mind, like the husband of the lady at the pool, and Matthew, who destroyed Haiti yesterday and is now in Cuba, and the ice and water we still need and probably won’t be able to procure by later today. Images of bare shelves are already in the news updates.

I was going to blog about my dad and me, and Bob Seger. Maybe another time.

 

Evening: St. Johns County has been placed under a Hurricane Warning.

I just want ten uninterrupted minutes at my desk to write anything. My husband, Chad, has never been in a hurricane. He is unperturbed, working in his office. Dad and my stepmom, Jane, have been through two hurricanes in their townhouse where we live with them. They are unperturbed. Dad’s watching movies.

I’m interrupting my work, again and again, to build lists of emergency items in case we need to evacuate, to refresh my browser for updates from the county, for updates about the rising death toll in Haiti. I wait for Matthew to bring danger.

RV in Better Days

RV in Better Days

We won’t have enough dog food. No one has gone yet to get ice or water and it’s probably too late, the stores stripped clean of necessities. Chad loaded the truck with the pet supplies I packed in case we need to evacuate. I’m certain our little teardrop RV over in storage will be a goner.

I want to read H is for Hawk, or think about the husband of the lady at the pool. What is he doing while waiting for Matthew? Weather alerts are pinging, and I’m worrying about two friends who are out of town: Who is caring for their pets? And another friend who just became a mother: Will she be clinging to her baby on her roof on Friday? Instead of writing my blog I’m thinking about the thousands of Haitians who just lost everything. I’m visualizing roiling streets of water in Haiti and remembering the rising waters of Katrina.

I listen to Rick Scott’s press conference. I print the pets’ rabies certificates and gather some valuables and study the county’s pet friendly shelter brochure.

This blog isn’t happening.

 

Thursday, 6 October

Hurricane Matthew is a dangerous category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 140 MPH…

Pond and House

Pond and House

At six this morning, two county zones went under mandatory evacuation orders. We do not live in an evacuation zone. The hospital is closing. The airport is closing. We are staying. I wonder about the husband of the lady at the pool. Will he stay alone and what will he eat? The number of dead in Haiti is rising.

Jane waited outside for the grocery to open this morning and got ice. Chad procured the eighteen gallons of water I decided we needed—three gallons per day for each person, plus six more for the pets. Earlier, the absence of these items seemed predictive that we would suffer.

There are things to do: make oatmeal to supplement the dog food since the replacement is delayed by Amazon; grind coffee; drive to the RV in storage to get tarps and the coffee percolator; endlessly refresh the emergency pages on social media for the county alerts and the weather. Evacuation supplies need to be packed into a laundry basket, and the cars need to be re-positioned with the truck in the driveway, ready to load pets and go. I have the husband of the lady from the pool and all the Haitians to think about.

Still no blog.

 

Friday, 7 October

St. Johns County is urging all residents to stay indoors and off the roads…

Matthew will be here today. Before the inevitable power loss I run a load of laundry and take a shower. We fill the home’s only bathtub. The waiting that has consumed days is now collapsing into hours.

The NWS warns this will be the first major hurricane to impact our region directly in 118 years. There is no one with living memory of the last storm.

Outside, the neighbors bustle. Everyone regrets not leaving voluntarily. With wind now gusting and the pressure inverting I also regret not having left. But it’s too late. The highways are snarled.

A Normal Flood

St. Augustine Normal Rain

The power flits on and off. My laptop is old and the battery doesn’t work, so I power down and switch to mobile. I hunker in bed with the dogs, watching local news on TV, cutting in and out, watching all the emergency sites on my tablet: NWS, St. Johns County EMS, Twitter. Chad did yoga and is working in his office. Dad watches one TV in the living room, Jane, another in their bedroom. We convene in the kitchen every few minutes to share updates. The updates gain urgency: storm surge breaches earlier than expected downtown and is destroying our city, the oldest city in the country; twenty people are trapped in a B&B; a homeless man in a wheelchair falls off the Vilano Bridge and is rescued. The water is rising.

At home, ten crucial miles west of the ocean, the power flickers and the wind and rain rage. There is nowhere I can go to lean into the wind. The dogs refuse to go outside to pee. The pond spills over and streams beside the house. Chad works, and asks why I’m not working, or at least reading. I am watching. I am waiting.

I finally crack H is for Hawk because I feel accused of not working. I devour chapters and almost miss a press conference, distracted by Helen Macdonald breaking my heart: “It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them—that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me” (151).

As dusk settles, I see on TV that kayakers have taken to the flooded downtown streets. Our rain stops but our wind still gusts. We must walk the dogs before dark. The wind batters my body and I can’t look up at the trees to see if they threaten to fall. I can only look down at my dog and my feet, and choose each step. When we get back inside, our power goes out. It’s the cusp of darkness. I’m humming Seger’s “Against the Wind.”

I immediately yearn for H is for Hawk, but I shouldn’t waste the flashlight batteries. Officials warned that power outages will last days. The storm is moving north. I think of everyone downtown, storm-surged, wet; now dark. I think of Haiti and the husband of the lady at the pool.

In less than an hour, power is restored. We start drinking and watch Total Recall.

 

Saturday, 8 October

Urban Search and Rescue operations are underway in affected areas.

After

After

I sit in bed with coffee and read Thursday’s NYT article about being trapped in a category 5 hurricane in Florida: “But, like any good suspense story, the second half tumbled into terrifying.” I’m thankful I didn’t read this yesterday.

I walk the dogs. Every fallen stick looks like a snake. The sun shines and the wind feels warm and perfect. We’ll go check the RV, see if it’s a goner. The water recedes downtown and the National Guard might let people back in soon. You’ll read this instead of my blog about Dad and me.

I want to finish H is for Hawk. It’s a beautiful day for the pool.

 

Aftermath

St. Johns County residents are urged to stay vigilant…

Vilano Aftermath

Vilano Aftermath

I watched Matthew on TV in bed with my dogs while he struck around me. Our town is ravaged, though no one died, no one was stranded on the roof. It was nothing like Haiti. Matthew was an abstraction and then he was wind and rain and downed limbs. He was storm surge. Then he was on to Savannah and Charleston, and North Carolina to kill. The husband of the lady at the pool was on my list of worries, but has also dissipated to my east. I prepared for eventualities while a trip to the pool on a sunny day can be the end.

My fears came to pass, for others. Others suffer. I watch them on TV. Today, I help my friend haul everything she owns out to the curb. Tomorrow, I’ll help again, with my hands. I’ll donate to Haiti with my heart.

Matthew left me unscathed. He could not prevent this blog; he could only change its course.

 

Macdonald, Helen. H Is For Hawk. Grove Press, 2014.

 

Katelyn Keating serves as Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket, where she formerly edited the Diana Woods Memorial Award and the nonfiction genre, and wrote essays as a staff blogger. She’ll earn an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2017. Hailing from New England, she lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband, two dogs, three cats, and several of her parents. Her work is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review and the anthology, What I Found in Florida [U Press of FL, 2018]. Follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating.

Writers Read: Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loiteringI read the essay collection Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio, and returned to my own work-in-progress that suddenly resembled the cute chicken scratch of a toddler. Or an actual chicken. I looked at my attempt at an essay and thought, surely there’s a mistake. This can’t be my most recently revised draft. Alas. And so D’Ambrosio’s work has had the dual effects of plunging me into depression over my own ineptitude and also making me a keener editor of my work. That is, I will be a keener editor just as soon as I climb out of this depressed funk.

I know it’s not fair to make the comparison. It’s just that every time I read an essay I admire these days, I wonder, will I ever approach any level of mastery? The answer is always no, but I never stop asking the stupid question. Maybe it’s a function of grad school. Maybe after I am finished with this program, I will return to enjoying great books without shivering in their shadows. Here’s hoping. And also, Charles D’Ambrosio would likely inveigh against the very concept of mastery.

I am being melodramatic. So I’m going to discuss something useful, like what it is that makes this book so transcendent. Each essay deserves its own annotation.

There is, firstly, the author’s command of language. I don’t use the word command lightly; he seems to have at his fingertips a more complete dictionary than the rest of the English speakers I know. His tone is witty and conversational, with attention paid to musicality. He can use words like preambular and prolepsis in the same paragraph and no one is irritated. (This reader was, admittedly, delighted by evident devotion to the mot juste, even when it had me consulting a glossary about once every page. This reader was even moved to use the pretentious term mot juste in an annotation.)

He is skeptical of all that is glib or pat, and all the while he is mercilessly critical when it comes to his own authority.

The title of the collection is an example of the author’s near-perfect diction. Loitering is exactly what D’Ambrosio gives the impression of doing on these pages, in the sense of lingering on the margins of situations and arguments for prolonged periods of time, paying attention and gathering observations. (An essay about a SWAT standoff is not about ostensible criminal activity, but about turning toward what the cameras aren’t pointed at—the city full of poverty and displacement; a piece about anti-whaling activists and native cultures who still hunt whales reveals arguments full of discrepancy and hypocrisy; an essay about observing the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau becomes an essay about the moralizers who wrote essays and opinions about the trial, and so on.) And loss is everywhere, handled with excruciating attention, loss of one brother to suicide, another to mental illness, and the big empty space—another type of loss—that exists in place of a relationship between the author and his father.

For all that these essays are authoritative, offering deep insights in intricate and innovative terms, the abiding theme is doubt. It runs like a seam through each essay, even when the author is making impenetrably sound points. It is as if he insists upon the fact of doubt above all else; it underlies his every assertion, whether through punch lines and self-deprecation or by perforation of axioms (his or anyone’s). D’Ambrosio reveals his powerful analytical mind on every page. Each essay’s subject has been considered inside and out, turned over, tasted, weighed, and still the author’s lingering questions about a given subject are what stand out. This is his particular strength. He can look uncertainty squarely in the face, he probes for what might have been missed in a given argument. This is a ballsy—and instructive—move for an essayist. He is skeptical of all that is glib or pat, and all the while he is mercilessly critical when it comes to his own authority. He expresses deep personal sadness in many of the pieces (via tone and subject matter), and maybe being that low is what allows him to explore the dark so fearlessly. He was already depressed, so it was only a stone’s throw to a space that he might ably call “chthonic”.

By giving a broad berth to uncertainty, D’Ambrosio also makes room for connection with his reader. In his preface, he asks, “Are we—the hesitant, the conflicted—all alone?” In contrast to essays which strive to be conclusive, the work in Loitering offers doubt like an open door. The collection even obliquely suggests that connections can be forged among the askers of questions, humanity (maybe love) is in lacunae and liminal space.

marybirnbaum_headshotMary Birnbaum is the Lunch Ticket blog editor and translation genre editor. She studies creative nonfiction in the Antioch LA MFA Program. She resides in Orange County, California. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ailishbirnbaum.

Moths to a Flame

In July 2012, my teenaged daughter Reiley and I hiked into the San Gorgonio Wilderness—a landscape of rolling foothills, canyons, and steep slopes that marks the eastern boundary of the Los Angeles Basin. Our destination was Mt. San Gorgonio. The 11,503-foot peak, fondly called “Old Greyback,” is the highest mountain between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Mexican border.

sang45_rj

Ridgeline to San Gorgonio Peak (http://scoutfitters.org/trip/san-gorgonio-ultralight-summit/)

 

The steep Vivian Creek Trail to the peak begins with an easy “warm up” hike through Mill Creek Canyon before climbing 1,000 feet and over a mile of switchbacks to reach the forest surrounding Vivian Creek. The dark, luxuriant woodland is more than beautiful enough to sustain hikers to the 10,000-foot point where a long ridgeline traverse to the summit begins. The remaining hike consists of a steady climb across a field of rock and boulders well above the tree line, and completely exposed to the sun. The view of nearby Mt. San Jacinto and the Inland Valley below is stunning. Still the long haul across that blinding gray-white moonscape is grueling, even absent the sensation of skin burning, or the headache and nausea that accompanies altitude sickness.

524169_10151050315378739_726591368_n

Reiley and me at the top.

Reiley and I were training for our summit of Mt. Whitney—elevation 14,505 feet—later that summer. Summiting a “fourteener,” in reference to peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation, is a rite of passage for teens in our family. Meeting this challenge is empowering, and provides perspective on the many trials a young person faces as she makes her way through high school and college, enters the workforce and establishes her career, and builds a family of her own. Break up, layoff, health crisis? I can already hear Reiley saying, “Pshaw. I climbed a mountain, in a snowstorm, with my food, clothing, and home on my back.”

Three years after that trek with Reiley, a devastating wildfire forced my son Parker and me to abandon our plan to hike Mt. San Gorgonio in preparation for his fourteener. Old Greyback marks the horizon northeast of my home in western Riverside County. During the early days of the summer 2015 Lake Fire, smoke billowed and then dissipated into a band of yellow-gray haze that hid the peak from view. The fire ultimately consumed more than 30,000 acres of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and all trails in the area remained closed for weeks after the fire was contained.

lake_fire

Lake Fire consumes forests in San Gorgonio Wilderness

My disappointment about forgoing our trip was compounded by despair over the loss of favorite species and beloved locales that I shared with hikers, scientists, and those who live nearby the Wilderness, which is known for its abundant waterways, lakes, lush green meadows, pine and cedar forests, aspen groves, wildflowers and wildlife, and hundreds of miles of trails. “My heart is breaking,” Kandy posted to the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association’s Backcountry forum, along with a map marking the fire’s spread over the South Fork (of the Santa Ana River) drainage, revered for its alpine meadows, old growth pine forests, a treasured grove of quaking aspen, and awe-inspiring views of the San Bernardino’s granite peaks. Zippetydude posted in response, “I just can’t imagine life without the South Fork/Aspen Grove area.”

We naturally become attached to particular places, and are saddened when they are harmed or destroyed. According to biologist E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, “human beings subconsciously seek connection with the rest of life.” Social geographers Joyce Davidson and Christine Milligan explain that the way we feel about a place “connects” our psychological and physical experiences to geographic locations” (524). “The…environment literally gets into the individual,” Teresa Brennan once said. The distress caused by environmental damage or loss due to natural disasters, industrial pollution, or institutional change is called “solastalgia,” a portmanteau of the words “solace” and “nostalgia.”

Nature and place-based writing can heal solastalgia by identifying, interpreting, and transforming environmental loss. This literature—from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, to modern classics such as John Muir’s writings, Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” in A Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring, and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, and current best sellers, including David Georg Haskell’s The Forest Unseen, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm—draws attention to the natural world, recognizes human connections to it, and frequently calls for its protection.

people-climate-march

Start of Peoples Climate March

Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature is a critical case in point. Published in 1989, it is among the first books about global warming intended for a general audience. McKibben argues that our capacity to change “the wind, the sun, the rain” (41) destroyed the idea of nature as pristine and unaltered by human ways of life. He cries out, “What will I do without [it]?” And he admits self-loathing for his part in humanity’s failure to avert climate disaster (86). McKibben managed to survive this existential crisis, and went on to found the campus-based 350.org, protest the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and organize the September 2014 People’s Climate March that brought more than 400,000 demonstrators to the streets of New York City.

images

Moths swarming.

More recently, McCarthy’s argument in The Moth Snowstorm weaves together memoir, science and natural history, and environmental ethics to craft a powerful call to action reminiscent of McKibben’s early work. But McCarthy seeks to inspire more sustainable behavior by appealing to our inherent sense of joy and wonder about the natural world, rather than bemoaning an ecologically diminished future. He recalls a time, before industrial farming consumed so much natural habitat in northwestern England where he grew up, when swarms of moths appeared, magically, like snow on warm summer nights. The threat of wildfires, tropical storms, and rising seas haven’t inspired conservation, but the possibility of magic just might.

The Lake Fire occurred during the fourth year of California’s ongoing drought. Though California wildfire season is May-September, late spring storms and a heavy snowpack in the San Gorgonio Wilderness have historically persisted well into summer, protecting the area from annual wildfires. By summer 2015, an overabundance of dried out trees, shrubs, and grasses and the record low precipitation had generated an unusually abundant supply of fuel, even at elevations well above 6,000 feet, where wildfires have long been uncommon.

nq4j7k-penbigbearfire0618adwb

Lake Fire

Scientists attribute the region’s changing climate to the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Average annual temperatures in California and throughout the Western United States have increased nearly 2 degrees since the 1970s, causing the winter snowpack to melt up to four weeks earlier than was the case forty years ago, and forests to dry out sooner and remain dry longer than before. A thousand more wildfires occurred in California during 2014’s extended seven-month fire season than the state’s historical average.

More than twenty-five years after the publication of The End of Nature, we remain a long way from sustainable adaptation to a significantly warmer climate. Still, I’m hopeful. A majority of people in every nation polled now agree that climate change is serious problem, one that is very likely to diminish the natural environments that we call home. And many of us are writing about it.

 

References

Brennan, Teresa. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press.

Davidson, Joyce and Christine Milligan. 2004.“Embodying Emotion Sensing Space: Introducing Emotional Geographies.” Social & Cultural Geography 5.4: 525-532.

Kellert, Stephen and E. O. Wilson. 1995. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press.

McCarthy, Michael. 2015. The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. John Murray.

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. Random House.

Meg Eden

Spotlight: Picking Blueberries / Organ Stop Pizza, Mesa, AZ / I Go Into The McDonald’s Bathroom

Picking Blueberries

My mother’s colander: metal
with small, heart-shaped mouths—
It was an old thing, probably
my grandmother’s before, just like
that blueberry bush in our backyard,
planted 50-odd-years ago, a natural
inheritance. We never used
the colander except when picking
blueberries, and even that became a hobby
my parents left for their aging relatives
and home repairs, leaving me
every summer to fill it
with as many berries as I could save—
And still! All those ripe
berries left unpicked! How thrilled
all the deer must have been when
my mother came home with store-
bought blueberries: soft berries,
berries less blue. I don’t remember
the excuses she gave me.
Something like: It doesn’t matter, really—
they weren’t that much, all the while
washing them in the sink. In her hands,
the berries were spotless: no twigs, bird
shit, dirt or spider webs. The berries
she bought were farmed and pre-washed,
but she continued to run water over them,
letting some slip between her fingers, down the drain,
where no birds nor deer could get to them.


Organ Stop Pizza, Mesa, AZ

What is it about dim-lit pizzerias
that makes me want to crawl under the table,
hug my knees and pray for the dead?

Maybe it’s the Tiffany lights, the framed
and faded movie posters, or the smell
of an inadequate salad bar,

the black-letter board with yellow words
that remind us we haven’t always had
so many choices to order from;

and then comes that organ music—
the Mighty Wurlitzer—playing the fugue
my father used when showing off

his first subwoofer home theater,
and it’s those kind of songs you can never
dissociate from their point of origin,

they are self-contained time machines,
and right now I am in 1991,
being born again. Unlike my father’s rec room,

this hall shakes and my chest is compelled
to move. There’s something in the act
of music, something about organs:

is it the memory of church? Or Disneyland
that I remember? To think there was
an era of themed pizzerias—to think

we are inhabiting the body of a survivor.
This room is—we are all one
big breathing instrument: and right now,

the man up front plays the national anthem,
dropping a giant flag from the ceiling,
and some people stand up, putting down

their pizza but all I can think about
is whether I will be able to sleep tonight,
or if the shaking song inside me

will continue to loop on encore
as an all-night show.


I Go Into the McDonald’s Bathroom

to wash my hands, only to find the sink
covered like a woman’s private vanity:
blush, foundation, toothbrush and toothpaste,
a woman bent over it all in a zip-up green blazer.

She looks normal enough: her hair grey
and thin, pulled back into a tight ponytail.
But when she opens her mouth I see
the vacancy where her front teeth should be.

I apologize for bothering her but she insists
I wash my hands. She compliments my mint
jacket: a gift from my mother. I point down
at my slippers and tell her, I wear what’s comfortable.

The woman laughs, and reaches to embrace me.
My mother would never hug someone like her.
No—my mother might hug someone like her,
but then would make a point to wash her hands

and change her clothes once she got home.
I like to think I’m better than my mother:
I gather the woman in my arms at first
like a friend. When I pull in, my arms

are stiff, I’m careful to not let my lips graze
against her shoulder. She tells me her name is Lynn.
She says, You’re young, I can tell by your face.
I want to go eat my Chicken McNuggets.

I prop the door with my foot, and her voice
gets loud: I just want to talk to you, she says.
I go to my husband, tell him to make our order
to-go. From the counter, I can hear Lynn, engaging

new bathroom-goers: a woman and her young
daughter. My husband looks at me, confused,
and I nudge him, Just do it. This is what my mother
would’ve done. I pump myself some ketchup

in a paper cup, my hands shaking. In the car,
I won’t eat until we get home and I can wash
my hands. It’s amazing, really—these gifts
our mothers leave, unwanted, inside us.

 

Meg EdenMeg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, PoetLore, and Gargoyle. She teaches at the University of Maryland. She has four poetry chapbooks, and her novel Post-High School Reality Quest is forthcoming from California Coldblood, an imprint of Rare Bird Lit. Check out her work at: www.megedenbooks.com

The Over Under

I’ve always loved the ocean. When I was a child my family visited friends on the Jersey shore in the summers. We spent most of that time on a small stretch of beach a few blocks from the summer home the friends all shared. The adults would set up their beach chairs for the day, get out their books, suntan lotion, snacks, and knitting for the duration. We were a swarm of kids of all ages, cooperatively looked after. The older kids all had surfboards and would be deep in the water as quickly as possible. Those of us who were younger stayed closer to the shore, playing in the shallow surf until we were old enough to go all the way in the water.

A man I thought of as Uncle Johnny taught me to swim in the waves; he was well over six feet tall, broad shouldered, and strong.  All the younger kids would go in the water and stand near him while he gave us his tips for ocean swimming: “Now. When a wave comes, you gotta make a decision, right? You gotta decide whether you are gonna go over or under. You gotta decide.”

I can still hear him in my mind, with his thick Jersey accent, “You look at whether it’s going to crash, and you gotta decide whether it’s going to crash on your head. You don’t want that. Go over if it hasn’t crashed yet”.1015260_10151720124465856_1800936248_o

Then a wave would come, and he’d make us tell him what we were going to do: “Over or under, you gotta tell me what you are gonna do!”

We’d scream our answers, squealing and giggling in excitement. With each wave at least one of us would get crushed; sometimes they were stronger than we realized they would be. Scary as that is when you are six, we knew we were never in danger. Johnny was big enough that he could reach down and pick us up by the back of our swimsuit with one hand. Often he’d emerge from a wave holding two kids, one in each hand, both spitting out salt water and wiping it from their eyes, with Johnny saying, “It’s alright. It’s okay. Time to get your feet back under ya”.

It didn’t take long to get the hang of it, and every time my little six-year-old body jumped over a wave or dove under it and came back up intact and exhilarated, I felt like I could do all of the things in the world. There was no uncertainty. The waves would come and go, and I’d look at Johnny as they passed by, encouraged by his big smile.

Decades later, I visit and go in the ocean as often as I can. Things are different now. I’m an adult. I have a responsible, white-collar job where people count on me. As life happens, I’ve drifted away from Johnny and his family, who are rooted on the east coast while I’m on the west. My kid is not speaking to me in the midst of a belated teenage rebellion that has been almost overwhelmingly painful. I have freelance assignments that are constantly late. I’m supposed to be managing a friend’s political campaign and I’m never helping him enough. I’m in an MFA program in creative writing and have increasing amounts of reading and writing and thinking to do all the time. My stepfather’s dying.323208_10151099708105856_1778121435_o

I was an adult when my my mom married my stepfather. He’s always been my editor and someone with whom I talk books or the most recent podcast from Malcolm Gladwell.  My stepfather reads long novels. The dissertation for his PhD was on Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. He immerses himself in the kinds of literary challenges I’ve always stubbornly avoided. I’ve never read Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, or Infinite Jest. For decades I’ve been a writer who reads and writes in 700-1000 word chunks. These are easy word counts for me to reach. I explain aspects of homelessness or profile the newest restaurant in simple terms. Sometimes I make my co-workers cry when I write their retirement announcements. But I’ve been coasting for far too long. I wonder if diving into Pynchon or Dostoevsky is like diving into the ocean and letting the story be bigger than you are—at least for a little while.

I came into this MFA program to write a long story. It’s the first long story I’ve ever tried to write, about raising someone else’s child. This child—my child—is no longer so young. I was her north star for three years of middle school, four years of high school, and the big move into her college dorm room. She’s always been troubled and she needed me to achieve what others told her she couldn’t have: a high school diploma, a chance to go to college, and a life that was better than her parents’. Now an adult, child therapists tell me she is doing what she has to in order to become independent from me. My daughter lashes out, causing her to become estranged from me and from my stepfather, whom she was closer to than almost anyone. He was someone she could talk to. He sat with her for countless hours helping her with writing homework when her writing skills were something that made her feel the most vulnerable. Now that his health is in pretty serious peril, she’s writing him emails, trying to find her way back to the family.

In the modern age, dying doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. He’s lived a long time with chronic heart trouble, long enough to see new treatments emerge regularly. There are procedures, stents, and devices about which the doctors have no statistical evidence—but think could help. He could live for another year or ten. He could outlive me. My kid could never speak to me again or come back tomorrow with everything she needs to make amends.284848_10150331872540856_7265431_n

This summer I spent some time swimming in the ocean over my birthday weekend, letting the waves throw me around over and over, the current strong enough that my friend Carrie and I had to walk a good distance back to our towels when we finally got out. I could hear Johnny’s voice in my head as I waded into the surf, getting closer to the point where the waves are going to be over my head, diving under the first one in order to get used to the water and become part of the current. You can’t be your autonomous self in the midst of constant waves; you have to become a part of the tide, letting the ocean move you around as the waves pass by. You are not bigger than the water. Stronger swimmers than I am have been overcome.

I’m no stranger to uncertainty, but it’s funny how you attach yourself to the familiar whenever it is present. For example, this essay is just over 1000 words long.

Writers Read: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment explores a woman trying to survive the emotional storm after her husband leaves her. While thin on plot, the specificity of the character study strikes a universal chord. The brutal and ugly honesty is striking, off-putting, and at times self-indulgent, but the character always remains true, which makes her human. Ferrante’s style lacks romance and is confrontational as she creates a complicated three-dimensional female character. Keeping the cultish devotion of Ferrante’s readers in mind, the character of Olga has a tradition in Joan Didion’s Maria in Play it As It Lays and even further back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, both committed to portraying women as they are instead of as they are supposed to be.

Although Ferrante does not create a style that feels like it could be branded as “Ferrante” in the way that Didion and Woolf do, she is relentless in stripping away her character’s artifice until, in the end, she cracks Olga down to her core in order to rebuild her. The language used to express the darkest of Olga’s emotions is unapologetic. Like Didion and Woolf, Ferrante is most concerned with naming those parts that are supposed to be suppressed, ignored, or denied. There is a lack of sympathy for Olga, allowing the reader to feel anger and frustration toward her while remaining compelled to watch and see if she emerges from the brink of the abyss. Ferrante resists the urge to give Olga any slack and instead delves deeper into the darkness of marriage, motherhood, and self, which are taught at a young age to women. It is this element that frames Ferrante’s Olga in a different light than Didion’s Maria and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Keeping the cultish devotion of Ferrante’s readers in mind, the character of Olga has a tradition in Joan Didion’s Maria in Play it As It Lays and even further back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, both committed to portraying women as they are instead of as they are supposed to be.

Here's a picture of Ferrante's translator, Ann Goldstein, instead.

Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein.

Although the ghostlike images in Olga’s mind allow the reader to gain insight into Olga’s background, they also give a sense of the generational construction of her character prior to the abandonment. While the story remains in the presents, these devices allow the reader a glimpse of the past. The flashbacks are organically triggered during Olga’s descent in the form of a headache or dizziness. Again Ferrante refuses to indulge in any romanticism of those visions. They are concise and exist on the back burner of the narrative, never at odds with the primary narrative, and barely constituting an independent thread. The flashes are used economically to create context, making Olga less a product of the times in which she lives (Maria and Mrs. Dalloway certainly feel like products of their time) and more a product of inheritance and learned behavior. Perhaps, her husband’s affair and the dissolution of their marriage was an inevitability, but putting it in the context of Olga’s own history eventually creates accountability, which allows her to make choices that are solely her own.

Ferrante’s writing wastes no time; the inciting incident occurs with the first sentence. The character’s internal unraveling mirrors her external world and they move at the same rate. As Olga becomes unhinged, so do her actual circumstances until she is finally trapped in the house with a sick dog and sick child. It’s a frustrating and, at times, ridiculous sequence to read, but it ultimately feels like a metaphor playing out in reality. It is both Olga’s bottoming out and resurgence. There is a tightness or control to the writing in the beginning that becomes more frenetic and chaotic as Olga’s reality begins to sink in and she reacts against it: the reality that she is trapped by the life she was living with her husband, but unlike him, she cannot simply walk out. It is the universality of this dilemma and the relentless honesty to the female point of view that takes center stage, becoming bigger than plot itself or the typical expectations of female characters.

Roz Weisberg is completing MFA in Fiction at Antioch University and was YA Editor for Lunch Ticket. She serves as a mentor to teen girls at WriteGirl and mentors aspiring screenwriters at the Cinestory Foundation Retreat in Idllywyld, CA. When not developing stories, consuming pop culture, or searching for the perfect chocolate chip, she awaits March Madness and the underdog Cinderella Team that will inevitably break her heart.