Myths of Men

I am a myth-maker; I make myths of men. My journals and essays and mental spaces are filled with names like Jared, Jeter, and Jefferson, all of them monsters I tried to tame with a pen. My version of myth-making is a form of self-deception. I don’t do this on purpose. It’s a defective coping mechanism—a way to withstand unbearable situations, like drinking to warm yourself on a cold night. You may fool your brain into thinking your body is warm, but it doesn’t stop your body from developing frostbite. These myths may pacify my terror around abusers, but they don’t stop the abuse.

This is where the perennial truth versus fact debate in creative nonfiction gets even more complicated. What happens when I feel like I’m telling the truth, but it turns out to be a lie? What if the facts are correct, I just left some out? What if I feel just as duped as the reader when the truth reveals itself?

Writing is not a passive force in my life. When I write something, it becomes a permanent artifact of a thought process from another time. I write people into existence. I write dangerous men into martyrs. I leave out the gruesome details—the sexual, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse—because I am a product of abuse. I don’t know what life without abuse looks or feels like or how I might achieve it. Because I am gullible. People like Jefferson are my blind spots.

*     *     *

Two months ago, I wrote a blog post for Lunch Ticket that focused on false accusations, specifically those pertaining to someone close to me. In the blog post, I said he was my good friend. In reality, he was my boyfriend and he spent six months abusing me in an Extended Stay hotel in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He burned me with a cigarette. He made videos of me performing explicit acts and posted them online behind my back. When I needed love or validation or attention, he pretended to be sick. If I kept pushing for it, he screamed at me. He lied to me—not just little lies, but big, fundamental lies about who he was and what he wanted from me.

I believed Jefferson when he said he wasn’t a rapist because on the day I learned about the accusations against him, he told me he’d been violently raped as a teenager. He mirrored my suffering. He mirrored the suffering of his other victims. He made me think he was like me—a trauma survivor incapable of doing the same harm to others.

I was wrong.

Jefferson told me he would kill himself if I left. He said I would never find anyone else who would put up with me. He said I was crazy and vindictive and mean and that no other man would love me. He said I was all he had. He said he was all I had.

I believed him, just like I believed everything else he told me. The parts of me that didn’t believe him were exorcised in essays that justified or ignored his bad behavior. After workshopping one of these essays at school, I started sobbing. I knew I’d left a breadcrumb trail of signs of abuse, but that my myths swooped in like seagulls and gobbled them up. All hope of rescue was gone.

Jefferson and I were not supposed to be together. When his probation officer found out I was a rape victim, she told him he couldn’t see me. I hated her for it. I felt patronized. I was certain she’d developed a vendetta against my innocent boyfriend—that she just didn’t understand him. I was furious and felt belittled, like I wasn’t intelligent enough to weed out abusers on my own.

I hate that her instincts were right. I hate to admit that I was so delusional. I hate to think that there are people like Jefferson working day and night to cover up their true intentions. I hate that he isn’t the first predator I’ve fallen for.

Jefferson said “fuck that” when he found out we couldn’t be together and set about brainstorming ways to hide my existence. If we got caught, Jefferson would spend upwards of nine months in prison, so for five months, anything reminiscent of my existence had to be kept out of sight. When people walked by the hotel room, Jefferson made me hide in the shower or behind the bed in case it was the cops coming to check on him. He eventually installed motion detectors in the hallway, hiding the long cord under the carpet so the maids wouldn’t see. The beeping was constant, so I spent a lot of time in the shower, my heart racing, worrying that Jefferson would be in cuffs when I emerged.

Two months ago, Jefferson and I were on our way back to the hotel when his probation officer called and asked him to come into the office. When we pulled into the hotel parking lot so Jefferson could pick up his fake piss before driving to the downtown office, we saw an unmarked black van stationed near the entrance with a man in a bulletproof vest standing before it.

“Do you see that?” Jefferson asked.

“I do.”

“Keep driving,” he said. “Don’t look at him.”

I drove to the side of the building, shaking and starting to panic. Jefferson kissed me and jumped out of the car, unaware that it was the last time we’d ever see each other. He would sprint up the stairwell, only to find his probation officer already in the room, ransacking our belongings in search of something to bust him with. They found a grinder, a pipe, and a computer full of explicit videos of me that Jefferson was supposedly posting online without my consent. They found more videos than just mine, but I try not to think about that.

While Jefferson was being arrested, I called a friend who told me to leave while I still had a chance, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the cops. For three days, I mourned Jefferson, hoping he’d get out within a week so I could return to my self-imposed prison with him. And then, on night three without him, I became privy to some Facebook drama regarding a rape survivor who refused to leave a relationship with a known abuser. She was being called an apologist. She was kicked out of an anti-rape activism group. Her story moved something in me and I found myself Googling “emotional abuse” and then “psychological abuse” and then “sociopaths” and then having a panic attack in my friend’s guest bed as the pieces fell into place.

The next day, Jefferson called me from the Milwaukee House of Corrections for the last time.

“I know who you are,” I told him. “You’ve been abusing me.”

“I know,” he said. “But I’m a changed man, boo. I’ve made a list of the things I want to do when I get out of here and one of them is to marry you.”

“That’s not happening,” I said. “I’m done.”

He called back. I didn’t answer. He called again the next day. I blocked the number.

*     *     *

I understand now that I formed a betrayal bond with Jefferson. Betrayal bonds are essentially Stockholm Syndrome. They are “chains of trust that link you to someone who is dangerous, abusive, and toxic.” Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships, writes, “Those standing outside see the obvious. All these relationships are about some insane loyalty or attachment. They share exploitation, fear, and danger… Emotional pain, severe consequences, and even the prospect of death do not stop their caring or commitment.”

This is a horrifying truth. This is something that, because of my upbringing, I will forever be susceptible to. And though it’s not my fault, I must be the one who rids myself of the tendency to flock to abusers. Because this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. This isn’t the first rapist I’ve tried to empathize with. Terrifying, isn’t it?

I am ready to change. I may be addicted to chaos and abuse, but I’m sane enough to know that one of these men will kill me if I don’t put an end to my patterns.

After I saw Jefferson for what he was, I fled Milwaukee for Phoenix, where I landed a job and found an apartment, and then drove myself, my dog, and my journals to Arizona. I have my own place now. I don’t keep anything hidden. My walls are drenched in color. They are drenched in me. No more cigarette burns or explicit videos or screaming matches. I can listen to my favorite music again. I can sing and play guitar. I’m allowed to make other friends. I’m allowed to have a job.

I know I’m a liability to myself—that my traumatic history leaves me susceptible to walking into traps without realizing it. But if I can write this—if I can be fully honest with myself right now—I can stop writing those goddamn myths of men, too.

I just turned 26. I’m out of the Midwest. I’m writing a new story, but there’s nothing mythical about it. I have a life. I have a full-time job, a washing machine, and a bed with my own linens. I have friends.

From hotel hell to personal haven.

I don’t want to live in hell anymore. I am done identifying with demons. That’s not me. I am not one of them. Freedom tastes like finding myself again. It feels like falling asleep alone. Freedom sounds like, “It’s better to be alone than to be with someone who treats you like shit.”

I’ve been envisioning the person I want to be. She’s someone who says “no.” She listens to the signs her body gives her and knows that shaky limbs and mania mean she’s feeling unsafe. She trusts her intuition. She knows how to recognize bullshit. She’s always in me, I just haven’t fully trusted her before this. She wants to protect me. She wants me to see my own strength and light and power. She’s ready for me. It’s time to let her in.

Emily Eveland a.k.a. Leif E. Greenz, is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in xoJane, Narratively, City Pages, The Minnesota Daily, and Entropy. She shares far too much information about her mental health and sex life on her blog, Big Mouth.

Writers Read: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

On the face of it, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is a collection of ten short stories, many of which take place on the same island, many of which contain strong elements of magical realism, and all of which employ precise, evocative language. In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” against the backdrop of a gator-wrestling theme park, Ava’s sister Olivia is frequently possessed by a succubus, making her “eyes like blown embers.” In “The City of Shells,” a similar theme park is filled with Precambrian Giant Conches big enough to get trapped in. When Big Red and Barnaby do get trapped, Big Red notices the “small bumps where the shell plates have puckered and fused together, like vestigial knobs to vanished doors.” In “Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” Jacob’s father, the Minotaur, leads his family down the Overland Trail to the promised land of the western territories.

Underneath the surface, however, the ten stories in this collection crackle with an emotional precision that cuts straight to who we are. In “Out to Sea,” Sawtooth Bigtree lives in his retirement community of houseboats and begrudgingly accepts the company of the volunteer buddy he is given through the juvenile court system. In time, though, his days rise and fall with the arrival and departure of his buddy—“The silence [of his life] is made bearable by the knowledge that a sound is coming.” In the title story of the collection, the children of werewolves are taken in by nuns and rehabilitated into human society according to The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock. Claudette, known as TRRR to her family back in the woods, visits them after her rehabilitation. Seeing how they are “waiting for a display of what [she] had learned,” she tells them her first human lie—“I’m home.”

Karen RussellAside from her remarkable precision in capturing the emotional heart of being human, Karen Russell most stands out for her ease with withholding closure from her readers. Each of her stories end abruptly, practically mid-scene. There are no answers to if Big Red and Barnaby escape the Giant Conch in “The City of Shells,” no hint of whether Jacob and the Minotaur will make it to the promised land in “Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migrations.” As a reader, I felt the tension of unanswered questions pulling me forward, but found no ground left underneath me to support my way.

As a writer, I gained the permission to disarm my readers and leave them discomforted and unsettled. My writing does not have to neatly weave a coherent tapestry for my readers to look at and admire and go on their way, unchanged. Rather, by withholding that which people crave most—the answer—my words can linger in the thoughts and psyches of my readers long after they put the book down.

Russell, Karen. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. London: Vintage, 2008.

Meg GaertnerMeg Gaertner is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles in the Writing for Young People genre. She lives in Minneapolis, where she writes YA speculative fantasy and thrillers, teaches Qoya classes (a movement system based on the idea that through movement, we remember our essence is wise, wild, and free), and goes swing dancing far too often. She blogs weekly at: https://www.meggaertner.com.

Photo Sensitivity

I opened the door to my parents’ downstairs closet and flicked on the fluorescent lights. The room smelled like old coats and disuse. There I was again, home for the holidays and indulging in some bi-annual sentimental scavenging. My broken beginner’s Fender Stratocaster was leaning against the wall; on the high shelf sat a retired edition of Trivial Pursuit, the name funnier than I remembered.

I lifted a cracked red photo album from one of the several stacks on the floor and leafed through its magic self-stick pages of 4 x 5s and their rarer, rounded 3 x 5 cousins. That mute memory book contained romance (my mother and father in mouse ears), politics (Israel with pre-1967 borders), even comic relief (my brother and I in matching Izod). Forgotten family trips, grandparents long departed, fashion’s cruel ebb and flow—I found more clues than clarification, more mystery than history.

Crouched down on forty-year-old knees, I thought about how different things were in the analog age when gratification was more delayed. As a kid, I could point and shoot all I wanted but still had to hand the film off at Fotomat and wait for the results. When those colorful envelopes appeared—packed with possibility, their thick wads of doubles stuck together—my heart rate always increased.

*     *     *

I don’t keep photographs anymore. The one of my mother smiling above my crib, her hair straight and shiny as Cher’s, is an anomaly. It is framed and hangs next to my computer, a reminder that once I was a baby, at the beginning of the journey. As a writer, I’ve come to rely more on my fractured mental inventory of images than anything else. Still, where did all my other photos go?

Some I lost over the course of many moves. Others I relinquished during breakup negotiations, or simply threw away. Between young adulthood and middle age, I got swept along by the post-millennial tide of disposability. This cultural mood, coupled with my predisposition for neurotic fits of decluttering, led to an increasingly scant, and finally non-existent photograph collection. I liked it that way, believing it made me tough and unattached.

Sometimes the weeding process itself felt freeing—like I could make past disasters disappear by disposing of the evidence. But not always. Once, while standing over the sink, I mutilated a picture of me with an estranged friend, struggling with the consistency of the cheap paper. As it turns out, trashing doesn’t equal transformation. Instead of destroying a memory, my tantrum only created a new one: me in the act of ruining.

Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Still #14, 1978

Nostalgia is hardwired to the technologies of our youth: whatever medium we grow up with tends to occupy a special place in our emotional memory. Photographic narcissism was once the exclusive realm of Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman. Now we all document ourselves on the internet, posterizing the most minute twists and turns of our lives. But an online image is not the implicit equivalent of a photograph; photos have weight, maybe a soul.

The act of writing about a visual art (even one I enjoy as an amateur) is uncomfortable. Thinkers with far more authority on the subject have discussed the effects of digital photography on the form. In his essay “Gueorgui Pinkhassov” writer-photographer-historian Teju Cole writes, “What is the fate of art in the age of metastasized mechanical reproduction? These are cheap images; they are in fact less than cheap, for each image costs almost nothing.” I can’t answer his query, but I connect to the loss he describes. Since the late aughts, like most of us, I have become a master of self-portraiture, my greatest fear that a moment might pass unnoticed, unliked.

I’m all kinds of vain and enjoy snapping photos of my face, friends, flora, fauna. But I do so without thoughts of permanence. These orphan images exist entirely outside of the brick and mortar world. In the corners of Facebook, on old web pages, grinning from extinct social media platforms, there I am. At this rate, a Google deep dive will be my future version of flipping through a photo album. It’s hard to imagine feeling nostalgic about cached ghosts floating through cyberspace.

If someone performs a search of my name, they will find me with good hair, bad hair, black hair, and gray hair. They’ll see the performance and promotional stills taken in both flattering and poor light, in black and white and color. Sandwiched between these will be strangers with whom I share a first or last name.

Search results are public. But my missing photographs? No engine can make them reappear. There exists in my mind a catalog of lost snapshots. Each one is a small secret I share only with my past. What is it that makes certain images so indelible? And why do I continue to unearth newly remembered ones: delightful, embarrassing, invisible mementos of a splendid, stupid youth?

My date and I pose in front of our limousine on prom night: she, high on LSD, and me, with years of romantic suffering still awaiting me. (Polaroid, 1993)

I stand in a redwood forest at age fifteen, eyes closed, cradling a nylon string guitar, sun-lightened hair protruding from my tie-dyed bandana. (B&W, 1990)

On a bed in a San Francisco apartment, I wrap my arms around a dark-haired girl. I wear no shirt and have glassy eyes. The beard is one of my first full ones. (Polaroid, 1994)

Then there are the pictures untaken, experiences lost to time, that exist only in the unreliable and shifting expanse of memory. “Eating a Goat’s Gall Bladder in Kenya,” “Naked Hallucinogenic Beach Party,” “On Camelback in East Jerusalem at the Intercontinental Hotel,” “Late Night Co-Ed Anais Nin Book Club,” “Christmas Eve in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Missed moments, all. Never to be recreated, constantly evolving but never developed, these nonexistent pictures sit under perpetual formaldehyde. Dominance, balance, proportion and other aesthetic criteria remain subject to endless revision.

*     *     *

This is why I started to write about the past: to fill in the holes, flesh out the partially remembered dialogue, renovate my bygone life. Despite my earlier comments to the contrary, I’m no Luddite. I don’t resent the simplicity of shooting, uploading, and sharing. A life examined is a life examined whether the results of the inquiry appear on Tumblr, Instagram, or in an online literary journal like this one.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon last year, I climbed the rickety wooden ladder to the loft in the Seattle house where I lived. My plan was to spend a few hours writing, but I soon became distracted by an envelope my mother had sent months earlier which I had not yet opened.

I ripped open the neglected container and sat, transfixed by its contents: a 12th-grade graduation photo, receipts from my Bar Mitzvah party, high school transcripts. The sudden appearance of this miscellanea—most of which I did not recall ever seeing before—was jarring. The collection stirred in me a melancholy I hadn’t permitted myself to feel during my many years of studied austerity. I wasn’t so different from my parents with their closetful of albums after all. Seated cross-legged in the middle of those personal historical materials, I felt protective over my unexpected bounty. There was no way I was going to part with any of it.

 

Ari Rosenschein is a Seattle-based writer whose work appears in Stratus, The Observer, PopMatters, The Big Takeover, From Sac and elsewhere. Ari earned a BA in Theater Arts from UC Santa Cruz and recently completed the University of Washington’s nonfiction writing certificate program. He is currently working towards his MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. A lifelong musician, Ari has released albums as a solo artist and as a member of The Royal Oui. He lives with his wife and their dog Arlo.

Gessy Alvarez

Spotlight: The Last Word

[fiction]

I’m wearing my banana-yellow pantsuit and my best ash-blonde, bob-styled wig. He’s an hour late.

One of my fake lashes falls on my lap. The glue still sticky on my eyelid.

He yells from outside my window. You up there?

I press the eyelashes back in place and stumble out of the apartment and down the stairs. The stubborn eyelashes fly off in my haste.

He meets me by the landing and I try to hide in the shadows, under the upper-floor staircase.

I have to go back upstairs, I say.

No, you stay right where you are.

I raise a hand. Stop right there, I say.

Never hide from me, he says. An ambulance siren cuts the tension.

I say, Never tell me what to do.

*     *     *

We’re on our third bottle of ruby wine and his head is on my lap. Greasy hair staining the white skirt draped over my brown legs.

We’re sitting on my mother’s chaise lounge, gold velvet marred by wine stains. My mother’s first American possession.

He bumps my abdomen with his imperfect nose. Like water he absorbs my heat.

What happened to your nose? I say.

A woman broke it years ago, he says.

Did you deserve it? I pull his head close enough to smother his reply.

And he lets me. Rubs his nose back and forth. His arm reaching around me, holding me too close.

That woman taught me something about love, he says. And then he pulls away.

Sometimes I want to eat through your sweet body, he says. He bites the inside of my wrist.

I try to escape him but he drags me back and I curve inside his open arms. My forehead against his scruffy chin.

Stay tonight, I say.

*     *     *

The first time we fucked, I cried and he stopped. I kicked him, maybe. He didn’t touch me again.

*     *     *

I’m bent over the couch. Long nails digging into fake leather skin as he rubs my inner thigh.

Stop, I say.

He stops touching my thigh.

You sure? he finally says, his voice gravelly like he just discovered how to use it.

I look at him when he says this. My whirlwind boy with golden eyes and arms covered in golden down.

I lick his forearm. Pull him into the lip of my orchid.

*     *     *

And when I make the choice, he doesn’t say anything.

He takes out his keys, tugs at each one on his keyring as if the answer to why we’re here is hiding in a locked room somewhere.

I have the last word, I say.

He sits there at the table with his keys hanging from the ring.

Gessy AlvarezGessy Alvarez is founder and editor of the arts and literary web journal, Digging Through The Fat. Her prose has appeared in APT: Aforementioned Productions, Volume One Brooklyn, Entropy, Drunk Monkeys, Literary Orphans, Pank, and other publications.

A Story of Family

A line was already forming outside the glass doors of Queens County Family Court, on a grey February morning. It was 7:45. Inside, police officers milled about sipping coffee while municipal employees with key card access politely skirted the crowd, buzzing themselves in through a side door. At 8:00 one of the officers unlocked a front door allowing us to wait inside a small interior vestibule. We stood there, grateful for the warmth, until the court’s official 8:30 opening.

When the line began to move, my husband and I removed coats, belts, and the contents of our pockets, placing the items on a conveyor belt.

There are reasons for the security; people are possessive where children are concerned. The sense of entitlement has a biological basis. Seed fertilizes ovum, fetus grows to full term, and we assume ownership. When the rights of parenthood are threatened, personal identity is jeopardized and emotions rise.

Sometimes we are forced to make choices that alter the course of our lives. Deciding to pursue custody of someone else’s child is one of those choices.

I’m not a parent. As much as I delight in the company of children, I never felt the call to motherhood.

There are reasons. My own young mother appeared trapped in a world not of her making. A precocious child, I sensed her despair. And though I was loved, her all-consuming unhappiness felt claustrophobic. By my late teens I knew I’d never be a mother.

Protecting a child, however, is a normal human response. My husband and I were at Court that morning to file a petition for custody of my eight-year-old grandniece. At the time neither of her own parents seemed capable of providing her a safe home environment.

Here I must stop for a moment. I write from the well of my personal experience. I truly believe we learn from the stories of others. We grow our sense of connectedness when blessed with confirmation that others struggle as we do. Or when we realize that there are some of us living lives we never thought possible. Still, I am concerned with too much revelation. Am I being disloyal? Do I have the right? Will someone reading this piece lack empathy? The tension between telling truth and revealing too much must be confronted every time I put word to page.

*     *     *

Habitually in and out of trouble, my grandniece’s parents’ meltdown was simultaneous this time. As they sat in jails, in two different states, their daughter went missing—or at least no one in the family knew where she was. From my Los Angeles home, I immediately called New York City’s Administration of Child Services (ACS). ACS was familiar with the family.

Her father, before being jailed at one of ten Rikers Island facilities on unrelated charges, had once again stolen his daughter from her mother, who was being held in jail outside of Seattle, Washington. Each was immersed in their own personal turmoil, each incapable of caring for their only child. ACS suggested that we petition for custody in person, giving me the address to the court. We flew to NYC.

Again I pause, remembering my father’s edict: Don’t get arrested. Don’t do anything that makes them have to put you in handcuffs. And I feel the shame accompanying the knowledge that it is a family member who is acting out, misplacing a child, becoming increasingly familiar with the back seat of a patrol car. I remind myself that shame is destructive, and the keeper of dark secrets. Light is needed. Light brings clarity and a chance for healing. So I write.

*     *     *

The Courthouse, an ugly block-like structure with no discernible architectural pedigree, seemed to serve as a protective barrier. The civil servants, tasked with addressing the needs of a sometimes desperate and angry public, needed the protection.

Once our petition was filed, we sat in a large atrium, equipped with a non-working sound system. A court clerk shouted out names as the other clerks worked their way through the pile of petitions. One by one a parent or other interested party walked up to the Petition Assistant’s Desk to be told what to expect as their particular case moved through the process. I approached the desk and asked how long I would have to wait and was abruptly told: “Lady, step away from the desk, there are lots of people ahead of you”—my “Thank you” was met with a surprised, “You’re welcome.” Back in my seat, I wrapped myself in the warm winter coat usually packed away in a trunk back home in Los Angeles. Hours passed. We waited.

A variety of New York residents waited with us. I quietly watched, curious about their stories. I allowed my imagination to take hold. Who was seeking child support? Who, visitation rights? Who was there to answer neglect or abuse claims or summons? Some were alone. Others accompanied by groups of family and friends, all attempting to gain or regain access to children.

The despair-heavy air hung like a cloud in the room, affecting its inhabitants. The building’s interior absorbed emotion like some great concrete beast, its body parts—tiled floors, florescent lighting, and cold brick walls—gaining strength.

I wailed my anguish into my sister’s voicemail. She was unaware of our purpose that morning, having thrown up her hands at the antics of our niece and nephew-in-law many months earlier. I chose to spare her the details until the circumstances forced my decision to reach out. She called back, throwing me a supportive lifeline. Her calming voice provided a place to pour my sadness.

*     *     *

The citizens I encountered over my two days at family court appeared to be a cross section of working class New York, the kind of citizen that scraped dollars together to pay the attorney specializing in family law. The prosperous don’t usually have to file petitions in person, do they?

Our emergency necessitated that we make an appearance. Finding a lawyer would come next.

*     *     *

Again, on the second day we arrived early. We were directed to wait in a sitting area near the presiding judge’s chambers. Having planned better, I wore more comfortable shoes.

Sitting nearby were two young black women. We eyed one another, a silent, adversarial sizing up. My husband, quietly napping next to me, didn’t notice.

I attempted to eavesdrop, missing most of their conversation. But something sparked a sense of familiarity; a pair of saucer-like ebony brown eyes. They reminded me of my grandniece’s eyes. I approached the women and introduced myself. My hunch paid off. The two women were my grandniece’s paternal aunts, our tentative conversation became a cautious beginning.

I could sense their wariness. None of us knew what to expect from each other. During our discussion it became clear they were at court for the same reason I was, to petition for custody. At the time my grandniece went missing, the police contacted one of them. Her father had left her with an acquaintance upon his arrest. The acquaintance handed her to the police. The child is at the precinct. Please come get her.

*     *     *

Courtrooms have a way of bringing home the weight of one’s dilemma. Islands of democracy, they serve to remind us of our system of laws. As partisanship, lies, and coarseness infect much of political life, decorum and adherence to procedure have a way of reminding the participant that our court system is structured to mete out justice. As I walked into the courtroom, I was struck with the solemnity of the place, and it seemed right that I felt a sense of awe.

*     *     *

Inside, we pleaded our cases. An ACS representative filled in details of established parental neglect. It became clear that everyone in the courtroom shared a genuine concern for the welfare and safety of my grandniece. Because the child knew her paternal aunts better than she knew us, and because she had already been through enough, the Judge granted temporary custody of my grandniece to one of her paternal aunts. I felt relief for my grandniece, coupled with the new knowledge that we weren’t in this alone.

Tensions dissolved quickly once the hearing ended. Lawyers listening from the back of the courtroom approached, handing me their cards. My husband and I sat with the aunts on a bench and talked—and talked. A bursting dam of commiseration, filled with dysfunctional family drama, shared. We’ve been talking ever since. Before flying home, I visited with them and hugged my grandniece. We made plans.

The ordeal is far from over. There will be more hearings. Both parents are troubled. They are also loved. And though taking a child away from someone you love is a particular sort of anguish, the needs of their little girl must come first.

*     *     *

I’ve always been conflicted. I like my quiet, artsy life. Yet here I am petitioning for custody of someone else’s baby. Raising a child as a grandmother, having never raised a child before, was not what I planned for myself. For now, my grandniece lives with her young aunt’s family in Queens, New York. My husband and I are supportive of that arrangement. But until a final decision is made, we investigate schools and ask friends for advice. Los Angeles ACS has arranged to pay us a visit in order to evaluate our fitness. We may need to find a bigger apartment.

Many of my friends are parents; men and women who have raised or are now raising children. I marvel at those young people and the accomplishments of their parents. It is no small feat to produce responsible young adults and launch them into the world. How is it done? What’s the formula? It seems a gamble. Some turn out fine; while others, not so much. Disparity often occurs among the branches of the same family.

I’m beginning to feel as though I’m gaining something new, however. I receive regular reports on how my grandniece is doing in school. I talk of her with her two young aunts on the regular. Is she adjusting? What should we tell her about her parents’ troubles? It’s as if my family has grown. I find that gratifying.

Writing it down has been gratifying as well, a sort of gift to myself. My hope is that it is a gift to others. Our lives are complicated. We isolate, and for reasons of privacy or shame refuse to share. However, we are social creatures, we are storytellers and strength is gained in community.

 

Angela Bullock is an actor/writer pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University LA.

To Those Who Have Failed

Writers Read: Vivas to Those Who Have Failed by Martín Espada

To Those Who Have FailedMartín Espada, where have you been all of my life? I believe that the universe sends artists, writers and poets gifts of inspiration when they truly need it. Espada is a Latino poet, like me, born in America, who has the eloquence of Walt Whitman and the passionate pulsating spirit of Charles Bukowski. Espada’s poetry is timeless; at once modern and classic, his poems are sprinkled with pop culture references, even while honoring his poetic heroes like Walt Whitman.

I immediately connected with Espada because of his opening lines. I’ve been taught that poetry needs no prologue, to just dive in and bring the reader into your poems, but Espada doesn’t just follow this, he is the master of this poetic school of thought with opening lines like “Now the bells speak with their tongues of bronze” from “Heal The Cracks in the Bell of the World.” The reader is enthralled and mesmerized by that opening image. She is locked in and ready to follow Espada through his ode to those lost at Sandy Hook. It’s difficult to illuminate a sense of beauty from such a horrible tragedy, but Espada does this brilliantly with his reflection echoes the resounding of the bell.

Espada’s ode to the boxer Jose “Chegüi” Torres in “A Million Ants Swarming Through His Body” is a poem that Bukowski would love. Beginning with “There is no storyteller like a storyteller with a broken nose,” Espada captures his audience’s attention with the most vivid concrete images that connect visually and lyrically in his opening lines. When Espada writes, “Chegüi would jab my chest before he told the tale, and I would listen,” he is playfully poking the reader, and Espada has all of our attention. He takes on a lyrical poetic journey in this boxer’s life by reprising the title and the opening lines over and over again. Espada used the repetition in this case to simulate a boxer getting punched, and it’s so effective: the reader can feel the sweat, the blood and agony oozing from this triumphant ode. Bukowski would love the climax of the poem when Espada writes:

“[…] champion of the worlds and Spanish Harlem, savior of the janitors

dishwashers, poets, as it does for all champions and saviors,

as it does for all us in the happy crowd, singing and punching in the air.”

The last part of the poem perfectly connects with the crowd, feeling like they are also in the ring, fighting with the champion. Quiet, yet powerfully beautiful.

My favorite poem in Vivas is the one Espada wrote for his father Frank Espada, called “El Moriviví.” Like the boxer poem, this one, even more personal, completes Vivas. There are so many lines that capture the spirit of Espada’s life, like:

“My father spoke in the tongue of el moriviví, teaching me

the parable of Joe Fleming, who screwed his lit cigarette

into the arms of the spics he caught, flapping like a fish.”

These are lines that the reader can see, smell, taste and fear; they immediately give his audience a visual connection that sparksMartin Espada them to continue reading. And so many more lines like, “My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging bullets […] at 4 AM every time I swore he was gone for good.” Espada describes his father’s life using metaphorical shades of mystical Greek or Roman godlike figure with lines like, “My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die/then live.” The repetition of living and dying is resurrected throughout “El Moriviví”, climaxing in the most poignant ending:

“[…] the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father

was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He Lives.”

Espada explained the title to Democracy Now when he said,” Yeah, in Latin, it’s the Mimosa pudica. It’s a pantropical weed. It shrinks from contact. And it also closes in the dark, and it opens in light. And so it became the ideal metaphor, for me, for the many lives, deaths and rebirths of Frank Espada, who has died and now he’s back.”

Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” No one has ever succeeded in honoring those who have failed, struggled and/or passed away better than Martín Espada. Vivas is a tribute to those spirits who have died, like his father, and are now immortalized, forever alive in this  inspiring collection for all to embrace.

Espada, Martín. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. New York: W.W. Norton. 2016. Print.

Adrian Cepeda & WoodyAdrian Ernesto Cepeda is an LA Poet who is a recent graduate of MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and their cat Woody Gold. His poetry has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Thick With Conviction, Silver Birch Press and one of his poems was named the winner of Subterranean Blue Poetry’s 2016 “The Children of Orpheus” Anthology/Contest. You can connect with Adrian on his website: http://www.adrianernestocepeda.com/

The Time of the Banshee

 

On April 26, 2017, Hulu will release a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Originally published in 1986, the story finds us in a North America occupied by the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist Christian government where women are a rigidly controlled sexual and reproductive commodity. It’s commonly accepted wisdom that fiction allows the reader (and the writer) to imagine how they might cope with a given situation. By extension, speculative fiction allows the reader to access fears too terrible to cope with literally. Over the past decade, North Americans have watched vampires and zombies worm their way out of the collective unconscious and onto our screens and pages. Lately, it seems our national obsession has turned to dystopian fiction. As real women across the United States witness rooms full of white men in suits debating our right to basic reproductive health care, it’s no surprise that we anxiously await the release of The Handmaid’s Tale series. If fiction provides us with an imaginary landscape in which we might imagine ourselves dealing with the unimaginable, it’s no wonder that women are ready to tune in and don the white cap and red robe of the handmaid, to enter the imagination of a dystopia that no longer feels like such a great leap beyond our lived reality, each of us wondering, What would I do? How will I survive?

*     *     *

I discovered Margaret Atwood at age fifteen. My best friend and I snuck off to watch the original screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale right after it was released in 1990. We’d seen the trailer, complete with its exceptionally squeamish sexual assault scene. Looking back now, I’m fairly certain my interest in this story had to do with my need to imagine myself as a woman and a sexual being in the world. At fifteen, I wondered how much control I might have over my life, my body, my sexuality. Here it was laid bare on the screen, the worst-case-scenario of what it meant to be female, patriarchy at its nightmare-extreme, and in the midst of it, young women, like the protagonist, Offred, who put their bodies at risk for physical and psychological autonomy and survival. One could call The Republic of Gilead an exaggeration, but I’ve always felt that my youthful consumption of Atwood was a kind of armor. After all, one of the axioms I heard most often growing up female was that I’d better hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

*     *     *

More than twenty years later, I still think of Margaret Atwood as the wise, cynical fairy godmother of my imagination. Her wisdom is perpetually a few steps ahead of the rest of us mortals. I try to read everything she publishes, but she’s so prolific that sometimes I have to run to keep up. She continues to articulate the many different ways one might chose to live as a woman in this world. Her most recent fiction, from the MaddAddam trilogy to The Heart Goes Last, explores her particular interest in how women might react to different dystopian environments that are only a few steps beyond the way we live right here, right now, in the United States of America in 2017. So when it came time in my MFA career to write the dreaded critical paper, I chose to spend a few months revisiting Atwood’s world(s). In the process of researching the paper, I dove into re-reading the Maddaddam trilogy, published between 2003 and 2013. In the process, I fell in love all over again with another of Atwood’s great feminist characters, the trilogy’s heroine, Toby. I started dreaming up this paper months before the 2016 presidential election. Little did I know that I was looking for a roadmap for resistance and survival.

*     *     *

Margaret Atwood coined the term “Ustopia” to describe her fiction, and she has stated that she prefers this term over the categories “dystopian” or “speculative fiction.” In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, she said: “Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.” In a 2004 essay about the genesis of the Maddaddam trilogy, Atwood wrote that as she began writing, she asked herself, “What if we continue down the road we’re already on?” Like the Republic of Gilead, the world of the Maddaddam trilogy is comprised of technology and socio-political conditions that already exist, and are taken only a few logical steps further. By coining the word Ustopia and differentiating her recent fiction from traditional speculative and/or dystopian narratives, Atwood makes a distinction between the imagined and the possible—a useful one if fiction creates space for imagination during this particular catastrophic moment in time.

The North America of the Maddaddam trilogy has experienced environmental collapse, and mass extinction has led to limited resources. Instead of embracing religious fundamentalism, the ruling class has adopted extreme capitalist policies. Society consists of elites living within walled, high-security corporate compounds, while the rest of the country scrapes by in the lawless world of the “Pleeblands.” Women are bartered, sold into sexual slavery, repeatedly raped and brutalized—yet, in typical Atwood fashion, they emerge as leaders. The second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, takes place after the “Waterless Flood,” a man-made apocalypse which has killed off most humans. In a world that must be re-imagined, our hero Toby emerges as one of very few survivors.

Born and raised in the Pleeblands, Toby is orphaned in adolescence, deprived of educational opportunities, and has had to conceal her fierce intelligence to survive by working in menial, minimum-wage jobs. Even before the Flood, she is on the run after physically defending herself against a monstrous sexual predator. Toby is not classically beautiful. Her figure is described as boyish. She is ropy; she is tough. She doesn’t have the time or energy for romance. But she knows how to grow food and medicinal herbs; how to make something out of nothing. She can wield a gun against a rapist or a feral, mutant pig. At the end of The Year of the Flood, Toby emerges as an armed avenger. Without giving away too much of the plot, she’s coming to the rescue, and she describes herself descending “… like a TV banshee, like a walking skeleton; like something with nothing to lose.”  

*     *     *

credit: Kian Barker

This is the only time the world “banshee” appears in the text, and it’s no coincidence that Toby refers to herself as a “TV banshee.” A banshee is a female spirit whose wailing serves as a warning. At a time when we no longer believe in the capacity of warning spirits to literally roam the world, we turn to the TV, the screen, and, for the old-fashioned among us, the page, for warning and reflection. With the approaching release of The Handmaid’s Tale series and the recent renewed interest in the work of Margaret Atwood, it seems clear that we are hungry to hear the banshee’s warning cry. But the truth is, the banshee hasn’t been waiting quietly. We’ve just been lulled into a quiescence that made it hard to hear her. Some of us got a little too comfortable while the Trump Administration was knocking at the gates of our real-life Ustopia. Maybe we were too busy relaxing in our own version of the neo-liberal capitalist compound, too distracted to pick up on the signs.

Last month Margaret Atwood published an essay in The New York Times addressing the current cultural relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale, and made a call for the literature of witness. She wrote: “In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere—many, I would guess—are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.”  We are living in a time when, as women, our dignity and independence are threatened, our basic medical and reproductive rights are laid out on the chopping block. It’s time for feminist writers to take up both the writing of witness and banshee wail. 

*     *     *

As a young woman, my original introduction to Margaret Atwood’s work was inspired by my need to manage free-will around my sexuality in a time when “rape culture” and “consent” were not yet a part of the discussion. At that time, The Handmaid’s Tale warned me against the control that extreme patriarchy claims over the female body, and more importantly, how women might use their bodies to resist, might claim autonomy even under extreme conditions. This is still relevant, but my interest in Atwood’s work these days has expanded to my need to understand practical resistance and survival. I’m interested in the resilience of Toby, a woman who not only survives the apocalypse, but in the third and final book of the trilogy, serves as a witness as she records recent history. Toby is the writer, the one who both warns and witnesses, the one who tells the story.

The destroyed world of the MaddAddam trilogy is a world where society itself has been erased. The survivors depend upon each other and their real-world skills—agriculture, herbal medicine, hunting and gathering, combat techniques. In the end, the trilogy is also a story about rebuilding, making something new out of the ashes of a fallen society. Recently, it seems to me that we might need to think harder about what it means to rebuild. I’m not one to argue for the apocalypse, but our best hope may lie in redefinition of what it means for human beings (and animals) to live together in society. The election of Trump has pulled the mask off the ugliest, most disturbing elements of North American culture—the bald-faced, undeniable racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, the primacy of monetary gain to the detriment of collective wellbeing—that must be rooted out for our collective survival and the survival of the Earth itself. There’s a need for intersectional feminist writers to sound the banshee wail against the rise of this ugliness into the most powerful positions within our governing structure. There’s also a need for us to use our collective wisdom towards efforts to create and rebuild.

I currently live in a rural Ohio county where the majority voted for Trump. Out here, trailer parks bump up against acres of chemically-pristine lawns festooned with pro-Trump banners the size of small houses. This is a place where countless people voted against their own economic interest in order to fend off the bogeyman of a racist, xenophobic imagination, blown up fat and beastly with the hot-air rhetoric of Trump.

What is there to do? We witness, we wail. We write—on blogs, on protest signs. The banshee howls into the echo chamber of the internet. But this is not enough. I feel the impulse to tie it up neatly, but now is the time to be uncomfortable, to be left with the feeling that echoes the reality of the present—the sense that something big is off-kilter, not right. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand what’s happening here. I’m not satisfied. But I’ll hold onto the heroes that Atwood has given me like buoys in the storm. I’m looking to Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m looking to Toby.

 

 Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children-sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama. She serves as Lead Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.

 

Spotlight: Shadow

late night fireplace hiss; you bury yourself in rumpled quilts; woolen sanctums for

solitude.

circling your callused chest is a prison and epiphany— mouths and pectorals make

a reckless truce

to learn the metaphors of symmetry.

we slipped one quarter in love and the rest in snow;

our crumbling house is beige-mess of carpet string, leather sofa stains,

the lacquer of old tears.

 

no power over knots in unwashed hair;

your back’s galaxy of freckles and skin tags;

years appear to fall in a mute rain,

our falling skin, two skeletons worn on the outside.

we are what we forget: expired lipstick and cigarette smoke.

nothing left in battery-charged eyes

to deny the tar, sticky sweat of ourselves—

throbbing, cluster of atoms,

an illusion of fire.

 

Maayan AveryMaayan Avery is a nineteen-year-old aspiring writer, born in Los Angeles and living in Jerusalem, Israel. She received an Editor’s Choice award for poetry from Teen Ink magazine and is part of the local Jerusalem Poetry Slam group. Maayan is a philosophy enthusiast with a passion for all forms of art. Find daily one-line poems on Twitter: @MaayanAvery.