A Picture Is Worth

As a young child, I stuttered. “Mom, wha-wha-wha-what time is it?” Many times she would answer, but sometimes she would interrupt me mid-sentence to say, “Marlenia! You need to stop and breathe before you talk.” If I had been part of a household in which we each patiently and politely spoke after someone placed a period behind their last word, this advice would have been of some use. But in my family, conversations were a loud medley of fluctuating cadences and emphatic declarations; a hail of noes, a scattershot of yeses, and a carnival of laughs. I longed to have a voice that commanded my family’s attention but many times, I sat mostly as the observer. There were only five of us including my mom, dad, and two older sisters, but sometimes the house sounded like a raucous comedy club. My mother’s trumpet-like “Ha Ha!” extends the last Ha for at least 15 seconds. My father has a quieter but hearty, “Ha!” that culminates with him placing his broad, walnut colored hand on his chest, leaning back singing a breathless, “Oooo. Oh Lord, oh Lord.”  Their words and laughs collapsed on top of each other and battled for prime position Everyone struggled to be heard and yet somehow, everyone was understood.

I followed conversations with my eyes, and on rare occasion, would squeak my way into a family discussion for a few minutes. Being the resident observer, I began to appreciate the visual narrative that swirled around me. I watched the animated personalities express themselves with abandon. My middle sister’s hair swinging to a Billy Idol rock anthem, my oldest sister pointing her finger in the air to accentuate a point, my mom clapping her hands to a spirited gospel song, and my dad leaping from his recliner reenacting a dramatic tale from his youth. Even our beautiful, blue-eyed husky mix would bark and spin wildly in front of the door before slapping her paws on the knob to indicate she needed a bathroom break. My memory may fail to recall every word said but those vibrant images are solidly intact.

In 1983, when I was ten, my dad gave me my first camera, an off-brand black plastic box with metal trim surrounding the fixed lens, perfect for someone who was just learning photography. I was the casual, untrained snap shooter recklessly targeting any willing or unwilling subject within range of my viewfinder. After my dad demonstrated how to thread the Kodak film into the spool and advance the film by manually winding, I was ready for action. No subject was too boring for me. The bowl of wooden fruit on the coffee table, the aloe vera plant on the porch, and the hazy sky itself would serve as my muse. I began to find my voice without saying a word.

*     *     *

Hyde Park Elementary School was in South Central Los Angeles in the middle of the Westside Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crip territory. The 60’s name wasn’t a nod to the civil rights era, the Beatles, or flower power. The name referenced a series of palm tree-lined avenues numbered 60th, 61st, and so on. The Rollin 60’s was one of the most notorious and largest gangs in California. Young black men with navy blue Dickies and bandanas would stroll down the street and flip fingers into an upside-down peace sign as a reminder to observers who they were and what “set” they represented. That dark industrial blue was as commonplace as the red stop signs and yellow police tape. The neighborhood was a prism of dysfunction and violence that turned innocent children with dreams into escape artists—always looking for the next book, movie, or field trip that would transport the mind into an alternate reality.

A tall chain link fence served as the divide between our playground and the gang’s. Trees lined the perimeter of the school, their brown trunks assaulted with blue spray paint. They were left permanently branded with “R 60s.” Unlike graffiti-littered walls that only required a fresh coat of paint, the stained trees remained stained. The vandalization of nature was never an image I wanted to memorialize on film or in my mind. Instead, I sought escape to a world that promised peace and unmarred beauty. The place all the travel magazines, airline commercials, and privileged people referred to: Paradise.

In fourth grade, I was one of a dozen students selected to be in Hyde Park’s newly formed program for gifted children—the Eagles. The first day, I received a royal blue nylon jacket with the school name and a canary yellow eagle on the back. We wore our jackets with pride. Suddenly we were a part of something special. We were pulled from class for instruction in advanced math, English and computer lab, where we mostly pretended to be nineteenth century wagon leaders in the game, Oregon Trail. One day before class ended, our teacher Ms. Woods announced we were going on a field trip—not to the zoo, beach, or museum. We were going to Honolulu, Hawaii. The 60’s could have their stained trees and dirty blocks. I was an Eagle and I was flying to Paradise.

Finally, after weeks of popcorn, pickle, and cookie sales at school, the Eagles had raised enough money to cover travel expenses. Worrying about the state of my thick, kinky curls only tamed with a scorching pressing comb, my mother paid for my hair to be braided in cornrows. Although the process was several hours long, the decorative white and gold beads that dangled from each braid were worth the time. Suddenly, my hair had swing, color, and sound as the beads collided into each other. My mom helped me pack a week’s worth of clothes and a pair of summer sandals in my dad’s gray garment bag. I stuffed my camera and Kodak film in my white flowered purse as I sang The Pointer Sisters’ hit song, “I’m So Excited.” Dancing around my bedroom I could only hear the song and the clicking of my hair as I shook my head back and forth. Silently, I lip synced in my mirror, “I’m so excited / and I just can’t hide it / I’m about to lose control / and I think I like it.”

*     *     *

The first day, as my class explored the island, Hawaii’s natural features felt overwhelming. The air smelled wet and sweet. Morning mist dusted my beads and braids. The islanders called it “Pineapple Dew.” Diamond Head dominated the island’s skyline with 760 feet of jagged volcanic rock. At the ground level, Honolulu’s beaches were covered in white sand made damp by blue-green ocean water. The streets were lined with rainbow shower trees sprouting shades of yellow lemonade and orange sherbet. The knotty limbed ohia tree with its strawberry-red lehua blossoms reminded me of the giant pompoms decorating my sisters’ roller skates. The roadside chunks of pineapple lassoed my tongue with a swirl of sugary tanginess. Everything I heard about Hawaii was right. It was Paradise.

*     *     *

Towards the end of our week, we were guided on a shuttle boat to the USS Arizona Memorial—a 184-foot-long structure commemorating the sunken ship destroyed during Pearl Harbor. The boat slowly floated towards our destination. I placed my camera’s viewfinder to my eye and captured the long, flat, ghost white memorial. Click. Crank. Crank. Crank. I only had two packs of film, so each exposure had to count or else my photographic story would be incomplete. The line of seven oblong viewing holes in the memorial reminded me of the perforations on my film. Later I would learn that some of the first visitors said it looked like “a flattened milk carton.” The architect Alfred Preis countered his critics by noting how the sunken middle of the memorial represented the destruction from the strike, but the elevated ends symbolized America’s strength before and after the battle.

Our tour guide told us to look over the boat into the ocean. I was already transfixed by the glistening teal water. It made me wonder what tourists saw in the brownish-blue Pacific surrounding Los Angeles. While pointing into the deep blue, the guide announced, “On December 7, 1941, over 2,000 people lost their lives, and hundreds were injured in the bombing. If you look closely you will see there is oil on the surface from the sunken ship.” Japanese torpedoes, bullets and bombs had rained down on American battleships and planes. Above and below the surface were rusty remnants of military vessels. I squinted past the glare in the ocean and saw a puddle I would often see on the pavement after my dad moved a leaking car. It was a shiny translucent rainbow of oily swirls.

The wounded USS Arizona and pool of bleeding oil saddened me. Like the tarnished trees surrounding my elementary school, the battle scar sullied the naturally formed blue liquid canvas. I was over 2,500 miles away from South Central and yet I still stood in the middle of a battleground. The weaponry was not shanks, sawed-off shotguns, and Saturday night specials but the arsenal of powerful nations. Payback would not come in the form of a drive-by shooting or a back-alley beat down. America’s retribution would be the creation of the Atomic Bomb, with President Harry Truman stating, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold.” Drops of oil seeped into the ocean. The tour guide called them the “tears of the Arizona” or “black tears.” What was I to make of these black tears? My shutter clicked. Crank. Crank. Crank. I took a stream of pictures at Pearl Harbor because as familiar as I was with the black tears shed in South Central, I couldn’t comprehend tears in Paradise.

The pictures would help me tell the story that would only nervously stumble off my tongue. When I returned home, I showed my family the freshly developed Kodak prints. The usual loud stories and guffaws were replaced with “oohs,” “ahhs” and a string of compliments that made me smile so much my cheeks hurt. I knew from that point on that photography would be one of the tools I used to tell a story when my words failed me. My escape to Paradise did not unearth perfection but it did uncover my voice.

As I look back on this time, I see a girl who assumed her only way to be heard was through what came out of her mouth. Paradise proved me wrong. There are many ways to be heard. My camera spoke for me when I could not speak for myself. Although I ultimately outgrew the stuttering and a strong voice eventually emerged, I continue to let my lens capture the image that is worth a thousand words and is heard by all.

 

Marlenia Myers is an emerging writer and grants professional for a social services organization. She is currently a candidate for a dual degree in Creative Writing (MFA) and Urban Sustainability (MA) at Antioch University Los Angeles. In her spare time, she enjoys following the orders of her bossy (and cute) dachshund, Rocky.  

 

Litdish: Jeremy Radin, Poet

Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, Litdish. This is a solicited series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Please enjoy. ~The Editors

 

Jeremy Radin

Jeremy Radin is a poet, actor, and teacher living in Los Angeles. He’s appeared on several television shows including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, CSI, ER, and Zoey 101, in films such as Terrence Malick’s The New World and Wrestlemaniac, and in many plays. His poems have been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, Nailed, Sundog Lit, Union Station, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. He teaches acting at The Beverly Hills Playhouse and is the current coach of the Get Lit Players. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Slow Dance with Sasquatch (Write Bloody Publishing, 2012) and Dear Sal (not a cult press, 2017). Follow him @germyradin.

Interviewed by Jessica Abughattas via email.

Jessica Abughattas: What was your original impetus for writing Dear Sal?

Jeremy Radin: Money. Haha just kidding. Dear Sal came out of the rehearsal process of the play Talleys Folley by Lanford Wilson, which I did a few years back. The play takes place in Lebanon, Missouri during the summer of 1944. In it, Matt Friedman, a German-Jewish accountant living in St. Louis, courts Sally Talley, a Protestant nurse’s aide living in Lebanon. One year before the events of the play, the two had met in Lebanon, fallen for each other quickly, and engaged in a very brief romance, after which Matt had returned to St. Louis where he’d spent the next year writing Sally a letter a day (while also communicating with her aunt). At the end of this year he comes down to her house in Lebanon to see her and the play begins. It takes place in a boathouse. There are crickets and starlight and a river and a brass band that plays in a park across the river. There’s waltzing and ice skates and Communsim. It’s very romantic. Each of them has something buried in their past (I won’t reveal it here) that keeps them from believing that this kind of love has a place in their lives.

The more I write and read and otherwise engage with poetry, the more I believe that I ought to know less when I finish than I did when I started.

During rehearsals, my director (and longtime acting teacher and friend, Art Cohan, to whom the book is half-dedicated along with Samantha Sloyan, who played Sally) suggested to me that it might be useful for me to write “Sally” a letter a day. These letters turned into poems and over the next couple of years, the book was born. What started as a simple exercise toward establishing a richer understanding of the character ended up becoming something else—an experiment in inhabiting the strange, fluid middle-ground between actor and role (the acting teacher Milton Katselas used to say, “You are stuck with the character and the character is stuck with you”), pulling from the circumstances of the play and of my own life, trying to get at something which lives at the intersection of repressed desire, loneliness, Jewishness, terror, relentless self-mythologizing, and hope. What that thing is, I have no idea, which is the way I think it should go. The more I write and read and otherwise engage with poetry, the more I believe that I ought to know less when I finish than I did when I started.

JA: Among other things, Dear Sal explores diasporic Jewishness, a theme that occurs often in your poetry. In the current social and political climate, what does it mean to you to write about your Jewish identity?

JR: I think that’s something I’m still trying to figure out. The more I write about it, the more I learn about why I feel the need to keep writing about it.

I know that it connects to members of my family—my great-grandparents in particular—that I never got to know. It connects me to a time and place (Eastern Europe, turn of the twentieth century) that deeply fascinates and troubles me. In the past few years I’ve become interested in epigenetics, inherited trauma. The idea that the way I respond to something today, feeling or circumstance, may take root in the traumas suffered by my ancestor thousands of miles away, hundreds of years ago. One of my all-time favorite monologues is the one spoken by the rabbi at the beginning of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. He’s eulogizing an old woman who came from Eastern Europe:

“Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America… You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean… You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.”

So yeah, that’s what that is.

On the other hand, I read a really wonderful Twitter thread recently by a poet named Claire Schwartz (@23cschwartz) which makes me think about this question in a very different way than I might have a month or so ago. She explores the idea that anti-semitism (particularly against Ashkenazi Jews) and the Holocaust have been centered in conversations about oppression and historical trauma because they target/targeted people who have by now essentially assimilated into Whiteness—that the place of the Holocaust and anti-semitism at the center of those conversations is a privileged place.

When Trump was elected and in the months since, as White Nationalist figures have become increasingly prominent in the media, as we are forced to learn their names and memorize their faces, I’ve felt, for the first time in my life, more a Jew than an American. That’s a new feeling for me. It is not a new feeling for millions of Black and Brown people in this country, many (most) of whose ancestors arrived here long before mine.

I wonder if in writing about my Jewish identity, I’m not only building a bridge between me and my ancestral and cultural history, but to the people who are right now, right here, suffering the things that my ancestors suffered long ago, back over there, about which I am free to write from a position of relative safety, certainly of great privilege. I wonder if I write to reaffirm my responsibility in fighting for those people, in listening to them, in centering their trauma in a conversation that has historically centered mine.

JA: The aftermath of Trump’s election has people turning to poetry for both solace and protest. Are there any poets that have been particularly resonant for you during this time?

JR: Yes! I love this question. I think the most vital poetry being written right now is being written by writers of color, particularly women and LGBTQIA writers. Some writers I think should be read everywhere all the time forever amen are, in no particular order:

Aracelis Girmay, Aziza Barnes, Morgan Parker, Angel Nafis, Franny Choi, Ocean Vuong, Phillip B. Williams, Layli Long Soldier, Ross Gay, Jessica Abughattas, Solmaz Sharif, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Fatimah Asghar, Donnika Kelly, Ada Limón, Kaveh Akbar, Saeed Jones, Tommy Pico, Monica Youn, Safia Elhillo, Natalie Diaz, Li-Young Lee, Joshua Bennett, Patrick Rosal, Chen Chen, Danez Smith, Tiana Clark, Safiya Sinclair, Anis Mojgani, Nate Marshall, and many others.

As well, to refer back to the above question, a couple writers doing tremendous work are sam sax and Shira Erlichman.

JA: Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

JR: Acting, which I’ve been doing for twenty years. Everything comes back to that for me. It’s my first love. I’ve been told recently that many of my best poems are essentially monologues. When I write poems I can often hear them being spoken (often in a weird Russian accent???) and that certainly affects the shape of the poem—the form, the syntax, where the line breaks, etc. Though I believe it can sometimes hinder me as well, as so much of acting relies on an emotional “tracking”—how do I get from one moment to the next, that I feel like poetry doesn’t always rely on. Or at least in poetry it can be a lot more subterranean. I think I’ll be learning for the rest of my life how the acting shapes the poetry and vice versa. Sometimes I feel like they’re best friends and sometimes I feel like they hate each other, but hey, siblings, am I right?

JA: How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

JR: The best way for me to answer this is to describe how my reading process has changed. The writing/writing process has changed I think completely as a response to that—the poems have gotten tighter, more interested in craft, form, communication, the world—I think in the way that all writing changes if you stay with it long enough. Mary Ruefle describes it better than I can in her tremendous book of lectures Madness, Rack, and Honey:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say”; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

If you can identify good work, you can struggle toward it. If it’s hard and makes you want to quit every day, that means it’s working.

I believe every writer goes through a version of this, but I also believe that, like every journey, there are steps forward and steps back. A journey is a sloppy thing. A journey toward a process and toward describing that process is a sloppy thing. What holds true today may feel trite or dishonest tomorrow. What does stay fairly consistent is the reading. Years ago the poet Jon Sands was in LA and I was driving with him to a reading. He asked what I was reading. I said I didn’t really have time to read. He said something more or less to the effect of, “MAKE TIME MOTHERFUCKER, IT’S YOUR JOB.” He told me that he usually had a book of fiction, a book of non-fiction, and a book of poems going. So that’s what I set out to do. It took a long time to get the machine working, but it’s become the steadiest part of my process. I’ve also added a play to the list.

Since I’ve started reading like that, my work has changed monumentally. It is a deeply unmagical magic. You want to get good at acting? Watch good actors. Want to get good at writing? Read good writers. If you can identify good work, you can struggle toward it. If it’s hard and makes you want to quit every day, that means it’s working.

JA: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? The worst?

JR: The poet Mindy Nettifee said to me when I was first starting out, “Find the ones that make you want to quit. Try to copy them. In failing at copying all these different voices, you will arrive at your voice.” When I started I wanted to be Bob Dylan. Then Leonard Cohen. Then I discovered Mindy’s work and Derrick Brown’s and Anis Mojgani’s and Buddy Wakefield’s and so many others. I’ve failed at becoming all of them and accidentally became me. I think.

Another good bonus piece of advice was something Saeed Jones said, I believe in an interview: for every poem you write, read five.

The worst is probably “write every day.” The only things I do every day are breathe, eat, sleep, drink water, and worry about why I’m not writing every day.

JA: Three social media dos or don’ts for an emerging writer?

JR: This is a tough one. I feel like this is so dependent on so many things. Most emerging writers are younger and better at social media than me. Also I think a lot of this depends on race/gender/etc. Here might be a good place for me to address primarily straight male writers, cause that’s what I am.

DO use social media as a place to listen. Here is where we have unfettered access to the chronicled lived experience of folks who are different than us, whose lives we’ve maybe not yet tried to imagine. We can peruse at our leisure, in a quiet place. We can feel the blissful freedom not to respond or plug our voices in to spaces where they don’t need to be, to learn what is our lane and what isn’t. We may fail at this. In so many ways, it’s about failing. If we learn to fail gracefully here we may learn to fail gracefully in our work. Be wrong, listen, learn.

DON’T let the speed of social media dictate the speed of your work. Just because lots of people you know are winning awards and publishing in big journals and sharing about it all the time doesn’t mean you need to rush your work into the world. If you are patient and steadfast and willing, your time will come. Or, guess what, it might not, but it certainly won’t if you’re writing to win a race that doesn’t exist against other writers whose processes (and the length and difficulty of those processes) are invisible to you.

Celebration is the antidote to envy.

DO use your platform to celebrate work that moves you. This is a great way of combating feelings of inadequacy that come from maybe watching everyone around you succeed when you feel you aren’t succeeding. It exercises the muscle of celebration, of joy, which poetry craves. It becomes about maintaining a sense of wonder that I think the envy (according to Kaveh Akbar, “…the only deadly sin that’s no fun for the sinner”) generated by social media can often work toward stripping us of. Celebration is the antidote to envy.

Using your platform as a way to center voices different from yours is great too. This especially for fellow straight male poets. Share the work of writers/artists with different lived experiences—writers/artists of color, women, queer writers/artists, etc. Share the work without commentary. Many wonderful dialogues can begin this way.

BONUS you get three hashtags.

JA:  What are you currently reading?

JR: Fiction: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Nonfiction: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Poetry: Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

Play: The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe

JA: What’s your favorite nut butter and why?

JR: What are you trying to do, start a war? Do I really have to say in front of all these people that cashew butter once and for all is the superior nut butter due to decreased stickiness and an increased natural sweetness that, when combined with a sprinkle of sea salt, blossoms in the mouth like a complicated sex orchard? And do I need to then say to myself wait Jeremy—you’ve just bought your second jar of MaraNatha no-stir lightly sweetened peanut butter and you’ve been quietly questioning all you thought you knew? I don’t know the answer. Is there an answer? When I was in kindergarten it was Jif all the way no questions asked until I did a blind taste test and Skippy emerged victorious. My world was rocked that day as it was rocked the first time I tried cashew butter and then again the first time I tried MaraNatha peanut butter. Also does Nutella count as a nut butter? Also have you ever tried pouring a little maple syrup into your Laura Scudders before you stir the oil in? Let’s live together in the mystery. I commit to a life of being bewildered by the various deliciousness of nut butters and to the joyous fluidity of that bewilderment. Thank you for your time.

 

Jessica Abughattas has poems published in Thrush Poetry JournalStirring LitHeavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket, and a reader for Frontier Poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @jessicamelia22

Her Boldest Self

Last month, I visited my eighty-six year old mother, Geraldine, in New Jersey where she lives in a building for seniors. On the third morning, I woke to find that she had been up all night struggling to breathe. To my exasperation, she had waited out the terrifying night sitting up in a reclining chair alone because she did not want to disturb my sleep. I called an ambulance.

In the ER we learned that my mother had congestive heart failure—three leaky heart valves had caused a flood in her thoracic cavity and left her gasping for oxygen. The doctors told me that over the next weeks she would be assessed to see if she was strong enough to have a heart surgery that would save her life.

My mother could not move, could hardly talk, and needed to be on a BiPAP breathing machine which forced air into her lungs for long bouts. The BiPAP required that she remove her dentures and when she did, her mouth caved in. She looked one-hundred years old. We swept her thin hair back over her head to reveal that her hairline had receded to the crown. Some days she could only write on a board because she had no breath to talk. It was in this state, at her most vulnerable, not knowing how much time was left, when I saw a change come over my mother.

*     *     *

Geraldine grew up in the Bronx during the depression with her alcoholic mother and three younger siblings. As the oldest child of four in a single parent household, it was her job to keep the world out and to hide the mess—the bare refrigerator, the empty wine bottles, her mother’s weeks-long benders—from the world.

“Never answer the door,” her mother would tell her. “They will take you all away.”

Geraldine survived her mother, but always kept herself a little apart from the world, even long after her mother died.

*     *     *

My mother was a lion in so many ways. After the Bronx, she moved to Brooklyn, married, worked as a drill inspector in the war, cared for my father through Lou Gehrig’s disease, got a job back out in the world after twenty-five years of working at home, and helped all of her six kids through college (the first generation to do so). Despite all that, she was timid about connecting to people in the larger world. Her best friend was her sister, and she didn’t put herself out there to get to know peers, co-workers, or neighbors as friends. Our teachers and doctors were professionals that she viewed with deference and from whom she kept a distance. I believe some part of her always felt less-than and remained the ashamed, scared kid behind that door in a crappy apartment in the Bronx with a mother who was a boozer.

So it is no surprise that in my mother’s building for seniors, she has kept the other women at arm’s length. Though she’s lived there for fifteen years, she doesn’t invite women in for dinner, take them into her confidence, or have a best friend. They like her, and she will go with them to the market on the dial-a-ride, chat during mail call, and have a smoke with a couple of the women in front of the building, but that’s as far as she will let it go.

“I’m a loner,” she tells me.

This is hard for me to accept. She is the person who made me feel at home in the world. I grew up in her kitchen, where she made feasts of roiling pots of spaghetti sauce, with meatballs bobbing below the surface, for our sprawling family of eight. When I was a little kid in the big white tub, she would take time to show me how to blow bubbles from a bar of Ivory soap through a loop in her fingers, her long slow deliberate breaths creating an iridescent bubble on the water’s surface. She was the mother who embraced me as I was—shy, quiet, introverted—letting me hide behind her leg until I was ready to come out to greet the world. How many times had I stayed up all night talking with her when I brought my own kids home to savor her? I know what she has to offer.

In her apartment in the evenings, instead of letting anyone in, she preferred to blast MSNBC, keeping an eye on Trump so she’d know which representative to call to thwart his evil plans.

*     *     *

When I arrived in her hospital room after her first long night in the ER, my mother sat propped up on three pillows in her bed. Edith, a nurse, stood beside her to administer a breathing treatment. Her eyes looked happy to see me through the puffs of mist around her face. I noticed that my mother had reached her long thin hand into Edith’s. They stayed like that till my mother was done.

A man came with a white shih tzu therapy dog who climbed into my mother’s bed. The man was originally from Brooklyn, like my mother, and she talked to him for an hour about her old neighborhood, listening to his stories while she patted his dog sleeping beside her.

The nurses found reasons to come into my mother’s room to watch the news with her, share pictures of their kids at prom, or tell her stories. Edith came from El Salvador and was raising a pretty fifteen-year-old daughter alone. Annie’s son had to go to the Emergency Room in the night after an accident when he landed on his face. Lauren hung around long enough in my mother’s room to cheer beside her when Steve Bannon left the White House.

One morning my mother told me she’d called for Annie in the night because she had passed gas and worried that maybe she’d had a bowel movement.

I felt almost mournful for my mother when she told me this. She took pride in her appearance, always dressing for the day with lipstick, clean clothes, and her bun neatly placed on the top of her head. In the hospital, she had to use a commode, but I imagined this accident would humiliate her.

She told me what Annie had said while she was cleaning her: “Oh yeah. That’s more than gas. This thing is so big you could name it.”

Instead of being embarrassed, my mother offered up a name, “Brownie.”

Annie and my mother laughed so hard they had to put the BiPAP machine back on my mother. Who was this woman chillaxing with the nurses?

After a procedure one day, I soothed my mother by putting a cold washcloth over her head while she was intubated. I asked Sue the nurse to please hurry with anesthetic so my mother could go back to sleep because the tube was so uncomfortable. Sue squeezed through doctors doing tests and rushed in to give my mother the anesthetic.

“You’ll be sleeping soon,” Sue assured her.

As the panic receded, my mother had something she urgently needed to communicate. She kept putting her hand to the side of her breathing mask. Finally, I gave her a pen and paper. “Kisses to Sue for helping me,” she wrote.

When there is an eclipse, it is my mother’s room where nurses, doctors, and respiratory therapists stream through to look at the rare celestial celebration in the sky.

The surgeon, Dr. McGovern, comes to talk to my mother about the possibility of going forward with the surgery. He is six-foot-five and seems imposing over my mother who lies in the bed, barely making a dent. In the past, this person would have intimidated my mother.

“Most hospitals would not do the procedure on someone as frail as you. The recovery will be tough. You will have to learn to walk again. Would you work hard to walk again?” he asks her.

She doesn’t miss a beat. “Damn right,” she says, holding his gaze.

He does a double take.

An hour later, after conferring with the team, they decide to go forward with surgery. Her determination and bravado win her a chance at life.

*     *     *

Although my mother is pretty, she is famous in our family for looking uncomfortable in photographs. Her eyes are usually closed, her mouth is a self-conscious, tight smile, and her posture is tense. Here in the hospital, in every photo, she is relaxed and radiating love.

Each day she writes words of love to us and our children on her white board. “Sawyer—interesting, sweet, kind, handsome.”

Each evening she kicks us, her daughters, out. “Go have dinner, be together. Be with each other.”

The next day we show her selfies from dinner, hugging each other, hanging out.

“Makes me happy,” she writes on her board.

The day before her operation, she sends me to get thank you cards for three nurses. She can hardly talk from all the fluid in her lungs. Her sentences are key words strung together.

I buy the cards and I imagine that I will write them out for her. But when I get back in the room, she is determined to write them herself. I hand each card off to her.

To Annie: “Big loving arms, kind heart, thoughtful.” To Myrna she writes, “Huge wide smile, comforting words, soft hands.” And to Edith, “Kind presence, loving hands, makes me laugh.”

She has a few words left, and this is how she will spend them. In her darkest moment, I feel her standing out from behind the door, at the center of her life, comfortable in the world. Finally, she shares the person I know—funny, wise, strong, loving—with the world outside that door.

I don’t know what will happen with my mother, whether the surgery will be successful or if she will regain her quality of life. But in these days, when time is running out, she forgot to stay hidden. The world is getting to enjoy the light that is her and she is getting to know that the world wants what she’s got. In these days, she has taught me that it is never too late to open the door, reach for a hand, and step through.

 

Kathleen Katims is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Verdad MagazineSwitchback, and The Penman Review. She is working on a book called Second Acts, interviewing, researching, and writing about people who had interesting journeys out of being stuck and moved in the direction of their dreams. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her awesome husband, two cool cat kids, and big brown dog.

Brooke Sauer, The More Than Human World, 2017, handmade collage on paper, 12 x 12 in

Spotlight: In Search of Treasure

I live in Los Angeles and spend a lot of time exploring in nature when I’m not working in the studio or teaching. Regardless of what medium I use, my work has a whimsical quality and embodies my love of the outdoors and my awe of the natural world. These pieces are from a large collection of hand cut collages […]

What I Thought About When It All Went Dark

At the intersection of Hayes and Van Ness, a thin elderly man stands in the median. He wears a baseball cap that covers most of his white, closely cropped hair. He is trim and clean-shaven. Hardly someone whom one would consider homeless. His posture is erect, and proud. He holds a sign with neat and large, legible block letters that reads, “In Need. Sorry to Ask,” and lifts the sign only when the light turns red. He looks away from the vehicles at the light, which makes one wonder how he would be able to see anyone offering help. Drivers would have to wave, or call out to him, or honk to get his attention.

Two blocks down, at the intersection of Duboce and Van Ness, there is another man. He is much younger. His baseball cap is worn and not pulled all the way down, exposing his forehead and matted hair. He has a rough beard and wears a red, Rutgers University sweatshirt. His sign is written on a torn piece of cardboard with uneven edges. The writing is difficult to read. It says, “Homeless. Please Help.” He strolls between cars and aims his menacing stares at the drivers, eliciting guilt and money.

In both cases, drivers roll their windows up and look away to avoid eye contact. It makes one wonder just how much of a difference there is between those driving and those on the street. Only a car door separates their circumstances. How quickly can a man’s fortunes turn from sitting in, to standing outside of a car?

But not everyone looks away. Some will roll the window down, will call the man over, rifle through their purses and wallets and offer to help.

The drivers pull away, and watch in the rear-view mirrors as the homeless men fold their cardboard signs back in half and wait for the next red light, the next hope.

*     *     *

Cubans have a saying, “You can’t cover the entire sky with a single finger.” The light always remains. The recent eclipse brought darkness to the early morning. It was a temporary retreat from judging one another, from the noise, hate, and anxiety about what our future may hold. Everyone paused, looked away from each other and cast their eyes upon the only thing they couldn’t possess, the sky above. In that moment, in the silence, in the awe, there was peace.

It took the moon to block out the sun. But the moon crossing the sun doesn’t cause true darkness. Sometimes, our actions can cast shadows large enough to keep the light from those who need it most.

*     *     *

In the novel Blindness, Jose Saramago describes a virus that makes people go immediately blind. It spreads quickly and the city where the story takes place descends into panic and chaos. The events of Charlottesville, Barcelona, and the indiscriminate drone bombings in the Middle East are some symptoms of a similar collective virus: the disregard for human life. Whereas losing one’s sight can be devastating, choosing not to see can be just as damaging, particularly when that choice causes the inability to see ourselves in others, when we view their plight as separate from our own.

Mankind has been afflicted with this virus for all recorded history. It appears incurable. It seems even more prevalent and contagious these days, because the instruments by which it spreads are more sophisticated and completely impersonal. Technology drives a wedge between us and our humanity. Our voices are drowned by captions on mobile devices. We’re becoming virtual versions of ourselves. Our images are reduced to pixels on a screen, easily duplicated and stored inside machines.

As if they alone will keep us alive.

*     *     *

In these times of crisis, when our very survival as a species is at stake, our chosen leader’s willful blindness speaks only for those who have chosen not to see: bomb North Korea (who needs them); get rid of the immigrants (they’re not American); build the wall (keep the rest out); denounce the arts (what’s the point?); privatize education (the disadvantaged need to remain disadvantaged); eliminate health care for the poor (that way we can eliminate the weak and the old); build more jails (for the leftovers); build the pipeline (it’s their land but who cares). Unlike the eclipse, it doesn’t take a moon to block out this conscious lack of humanity. This you CAN stop with a single finger, not to block the light, but to draw the line, point the way. We just have to raise our fingers, together.

*     *     *

Years before, a young immigrant kid hears the bell ring. It’s his first day of middle school in his new country. He doesn’t speak English and has no friends. He follows the rest of the kids to the yard—because he assumes that’s what he’s supposed to do—where he sits on the long wooden bench against a wall. He is small and brown and, even though he is in seventh grade, his feet don’t reach the ground. In front of him are three baskets. Latinos play basketball on the one nearest to him. Black kids play on the basket to his right. To his left, the Filipinos play on the remaining court. He watches as the ball from the Filipino basket bounces away, rolls past the Latino court, and into where black kids are playing. Everyone stops and the yard goes silent. No one moves. No one dares cross into the other’s court. The young immigrant kid doesn’t understand. Where he comes from, black kids, white kids, and brown kids played together all the time. He begins to wonder where he belongs. He rises and walks through them all to retrieve the ball.

*     *     *

Long before that, in a small church outside Havana, mass is interrupted when a mare gives birth to a foal right outside the side door. Even the priest comes out to watch the spectacle. A young woman faints from the noonday heat. The foal’s silky legs bow and tremble, uncertain until it finds its balance and rises. The mare rests. Everyone applauds. Some people cry. Some are disgusted.

No need to finish the mass. No need for a sermon. Witnessing birth, the dawn of a new life, everyone is reminded that we will persist.

*     *     *

In these dark times it is important to remember that power doesn’t speak for us, those who can still see. And while we may feel at a loss watching our government’s blatant disregard for the environment, for human rights, for basic human decency, we must believe that sometimes those who hit the bottom hardest can rebound the highest, because the seeds of rebirth are often found in the darkness of despair. And we, the ones whose sight is not lost, will persist.

Soon, the moon will move, and the light will return.

 

Jesus Francisco Sierra is currently working towards his MFA in Fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. He emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He still resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although he has been a lifelong writer and storyteller, he makes a living as a structural engineer. His inspiration, and his most supportive audience, are his adult daughter and son. He is fascinated by how transitions, both sought and imposed, have the power to either awaken or suppress the spirit. His work has previously been published in Marathon Literary Review and The Acentos Review.

À La Carte: People Going to Work

Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, À La Carte. This is a curated series featuring short pieces that engage with one aspect of our mission. Here we publish work by writers from underrepresented or historically misrepresented communities, and/or writing that highlights issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. Please enjoy. ~The Editors

 

[fiction]

People Going to Work

The summer I worked at the casino pool, we took shuttles to and from the employee entrance. We were not allowed to park on property, only at a parking lot on the other side of the highway that added forty minutes, unpaid, to our workday. Sometimes in the mornings if I was groggy, or hung over from two-for-one margaritas from the Paradise Cantina, I walked onto the shuttle first without letting graveyard out. I weaved through them down the aisle, sunglasses on, somewhat ashamed yet inoculated to their glares. They were too tired to be annoyed; their bodies so out of synch with the rhythm of the day that even they were resigned to their invisibility. I watched them stumble toward their cars in purple bowties and vests, navy cocktail dresses, squinting toward the bright light of their nighttime.

If I left early or was cut anywhere near five, the line for the shuttle weaved beyond the bus shed, out through the employee entrance and overflowed into the valet area where guests arrived. Back of house was not supposed to be seen there.

No one on vacation wants to witness people going to work.

The line was longest during that hour because of housekeeping. They filled the shuttles with their black and gray uniforms, their surveillance-approved clear bags that exposed their belongings to the cameras—car keys, hairbrushes, tampons, receipts, bags of pretzels from the employee dining room. I was a seasonal worker, would not be around long enough to invest in a flimsy, see-through purse that was the staple of female casino workers.

Even though I was sunburnt, tired from lugging ice and complimentary water in a hundred-and-ten-degree temperatures, I remember that housekeeping conversation across the shuttle because it was rare when they happened in English.

“There were limes everywhere,” one said. “Not just on the floor. I mean everywhere.”

“Limes?” the other asked. “Whole limes?”

“No. Wedges.”

“Lime wedges?”

“Yes. Wrung-out. Half-bitten. They were tucked down between the sheets. Limes in the toilet bowl. In the shower!”

The other giggled.

“I cleaned up maybe sixty wedges. That’s ten whole limes.”

“Can you order limes from In-Room Dining?”

“Who knows?”

“Just a bag of limes?”

“They must have. Unless they brought them.”

“For tequila.”

“I thought that, but there were no bottles. The trash was empty. Not one lime made it into the trash.”

“Absurd.”

“And they didn’t tip me. Not even a wedge in the envelope.”

“Surprise.”

“But when I was on my knees, scraping more limes out from under the bed, I found a quarter, and I kept it.”

She pointed to the silver nugget glinting through the front pocket of her plastic purse.

 

Brittany Bronson lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and works as an English instructor and cocktail server. She is a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times, where she writes about the intersection of the working and professional classes. Her fiction has appeared in Paper Darts and Cosmonauts Avenue, and is forthcoming in Juked. In 2014, she received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was awarded a literary arts fellowship in creative non-fiction from the Nevada Arts Council in 2016.

Photo by Aaron Mayes

Between the Lines: Unsolved Mysteries After Death

Growing up, I consumed mysteries—gorged even. I binge-watched reruns of Unsolved Mysteries before binging was cool. I watched episodes alone in the dark and pretended to hold seances with Robert Stack. I had a thing for him. It wasn’t a crush. Maybe just a love of the macabre. Something about the theme music and the cadence of Stack’s disembodied voice, somewhere between intense yet unaffected. The kind of voice you feel in your bones.

I still carry voices around with me. Robert Stack’s is one of them. Sometimes when I try to solve cold cases in my own life, Stack will narrate for me: “In tonight’s episode, Kori’s tuna sandwich vanishes without a trace. Join us, and maybe you can help solve a mystery.” Other times, he narrates my tragedies: “In tonight’s episode, with the loss of a loved one, a girl’s life changed overnight. What happened? You decide, tonight on Unsolved Mysteries.”

My Aunt Jan’s voice follows me, too. That voice that tells you, you’re no good—that’s my aunt’s voice for me. As a Baptist woman, she made it her mission to save her sister’s children.

She gifted my sister and I with Chick Tracts, a Christian comic aimed at kids interested in following in the steps of Jesus. These charming stories explore what happens when the devil possesses your body. Spoiler: you go to Hell. Every time.

My love for the macabre didn’t fall under my aunt’s approved lifestyle choices or her how-to list for making it into heaven. As a seven-year-old, I viewed Hell as a physical space occupied by people. I counted myself among the damned because when I weighed the consequences of indulging in mysteries versus a lifetime in Hell, Robert Stack won. Every time.

I kept holding my seances with Robert Stack, only now they became something more. They let me distance myself from my aunt and Chick Tracts. They gave me a means to escape. My favorite Unsolved Mysteries episodes focused on disappearances, the episodes where people vanished without leaving clues behind except the spaces they used to occupy, and the memories other people carried with them. Stack theorized about abductions, aliens, even Big Foot. These sounded reasonable to me—more logical than those Christian comics anyway.

Unsolved Mysteries left me with some scars; you don’t get over that voice. Even now, I feel chills when I hear the theme song. But I was hooked. After a night of binging, I didn’t sleep. I laid in my bed and thought about the space I occupied and about my goals. Between Unsolved Mysteries and Chick Tracts, I already had a warped idea of death, so I thought about that, too. What would I leave behind when I died? What stories would be lost? What would people say about me?

*     *     *

I’m still in love with the macabre. That’s probably how I found myself writing obituaries for a crematory. Funeral homes house mysteries, too—people die and they disappear. Their stories are lost, and all that is left are the spaces they used to occupy.  

Families try to translate the gaps that the dead leave and turn them into obituaries. It’s an art to summarize a person’s life in a few paragraphs. And here’s the thing, sometimes obituaries and fiction are interchangeable. I try to piece together clues—the fragments of someone’s life which live in between the lines. The most interesting parts of humanity are too flawed to make it into the obituary section of the Sunday newspaper. Death reduces a person to a single, static role: Eva was a great mother and grandmother; Connor was a provider; Joe was an average golfer.

The mystery of the obituary lies in the last space that the deceased occupies in someone else’s mind and memories. The family brings me a pamphlet no bigger than one of those Chick Tracts my aunt used to give me, but instead of the devil, there is a picture of a saint. The family translates a life, and I translate the translation. Gaps are inevitable. When a person dies, their stories fade, too.

The day after Labor Day my Uncle Joel disappeared—he died from a heart attack. I’m around death daily, but always at arm’s length, so when death swallowed my uncle like a sink hole, I disconnected, as I always do. I found Robert Stack and old reruns of Unsolved Mysteries, and I didn’t sleep.

Lying in bed, I thought about my uncle: the disappearing man. My funeral director told me my uncle was an organ donor. The bones of his arms and legs are gone, his skin and eyes gone—the parts of him I remember belong to someone else now. Like one of those re-enactment scenes in true crime shows where the actors only somewhat resemble the victim, after death, my uncle only resembles himself.

That’s true for his obituary, too. It will resemble his life as much as our family can translate it. The obituary will talk about what he loved: bowling, the Dodgers, his grandkids. I’ll look at the finished product, a couple of paragraphs and his picture. It won’t talk about his struggles: his life with his ex-wife; a daughter he never saw; the way his dad abandoned him and his siblings.

I don’t know Uncle Joel’s stories. I only know the whispers at holidays and family get-togethers as the adults talked amongst themselves. I’ve taken those fragments and invented a person who I believed was my uncle, but probably wasn’t. Anyway, those parts of his life will disappear with him, gone like his organs and bones.

*     *     *

In some ways, funerals are like the séances I held when I was younger, although I’ve never heard an officiant speak in a Robert Stack voice.

My big Italian family will gather for a Catholic Mass, and we’ll chant prayers and light candles to communicate with the dead—to say a last goodbye to my uncle. My Aunt Jan will be there, too, grieving for her brother. I haven’t seen or talked to her in over a decade.

My Italian family came together when my brother’s six-month-old died. I remember my nephew lying in a little oak box set at the front of the church.

I felt myself disconnect, maybe the first time I was aware I was detaching. I wasn’t an aunt looking at my nephew. I was an actress in a reenactment. The whole scene reminded me of one of those comics Jan used to give me. There was one about a poor beggar girl whose soul rises to Heaven leaving behind her body. One of the only ones I remember where the character didn’t go to Hell.

In each panel, it rained, and the girl shivered. I brushed my hand against my nephew’s forehead: he was cold. It was the kind of image you feel in your bones. It scared me just as much as the images of Hell because I realized that some stories disappear. Others are never told.

 

Kori Kessler is obsessed with pop culture. She has a love for misunderstood female characters and murder mysteries. Currently, she attends Antioch University Los Angeles and lives with her family and their three dogs Ginsberg, Elliot, and Stella.

Jessica Mehta

Spotlight: Owl of Forest Park / Jackson Street

Owl of Forest Park

Early Saturdays, before the dawn,
before the morning birds,
I walked the trails of Forest Park beyond the zoo,
crushed the arteries of Hoyt Arboretum
beneath my spreading feet, turned the fallen petals
from the rose garden to shaving peels.
It was here, in the darkness of Portland mornings
that I felt most alive. Before the throngs
of tourists arrived, before the fat pink trolley
made its chortling rounds—when rabbits were still brave
enough to dash between bushes
and the good swings wide enough for birthing hips
held a layer of night frost close as you,
the one I left sleeping in our loft. Weeks before
we left, headed south to the border town,
I felt the wondering eyes scaling me
and for once I wasn’t alone. Welcomed
into his Parliament, he reigned proud
on the stump, bearing witness to my noisy
shoes, the complaints of my knees,
my complete lack of grace before his being.
Inches away, he didn’t blink, he didn’t turn,
not once faltering like so many others. This
was my farewell, my blessing to go, my reminder
of the beauty from which I came and from where
I’ll never return.

 


Jackson Street

Nothing we found fit, so we built
our first house from the weeds
up. Virgin land, gurgling with spiders
and an out of control apple tree—it dropped
fermented fruits on the earth, drunken
offerings for livestock
that hadn’t roamed that farmland
for decades. Above the flood plains,
past the blackberry bushes,
it took months to close,
to get the permits, collect
yes stamps like A grades. Then,
on a frosted September day
that felt like winter, we asked blessings
of the land, permission from the gods
to Build. I wore that one sundress,
black with cutouts at the midriff,
and old cowboy boots. With burning sage
in one hand and a gathered skirt
in the other, I circled our small hill,
our Home,
muttering prayers in the chill
while you snapped photo
after photo from weathered Jackson Street.

 

Jessica Mehta Jessica Mehta is a Cherokee poet and novelist. She’s the author of four collections of poetry, including Secret-Telling Bones, Orygun, What Makes an Always, and The Last Exotic Petting Zoo, as well as the novel The Wrong Kind of Indian. She’s been awarded the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant in poetry, and numerous poet-in-residencies, including positions at Hosking Houses Trust and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, as well as posts at Paris Lit Up and the Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe. Jessica is the owner of a multi award-winning writing services business, MehtaFor. Find Jessica at jessicatynermehta.com.

 

Diagonal Exile

A Glimpse of the Sound, from The New York Public Library

As I approach seventeen years since I moved to Seattle from my home state of New York, as more and more of my memories melt down or vaporize, and as the world becomes a more and more streamlined doomsday machine, it feels like a ripe time to pause for some inventory. The century is a teenager and will technically become an adult on New Years Day. I, born on the second day of 1979, will be thirty-nine the following day, old enough to be its parent. Throughout this summer I have been peppered with requests from former high school classmates for information regarding our twentieth reunion. With half-feigned irritability I reminded each one of them that, although I spearheaded the campaign (“Simple mind, complicated shoes”), I had only been the class Vice President. I was simply the one they remembered from all the outlandish speeches. A jerky deflection probably stemming from an irrational fear of not having lived up to my classmates’ perceived expectations.

It’s been ten years since my final record with my music project of yesteryear and ten years since I moved into this big old house notched into the steep cobblestone streets of Northeast Capitol Hill. The neighborhood and community I have actively contributed to for almost two decades, anymore, often feels like a cheap oversized synthetic substitute of the place I have loved and to which I have given all of my adult years. Lately I am pulled in directions I can’t seem to keep up with, any more than I can keep up with an America whose vilest characteristics are being daily projected back on us all.

I always thought this was the age where most people raised Irish Catholic, like I was, began to develop cohesive conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. I’m not there yet, but at birth I was named with the former president in mind. My mother, projecting grand, magnificent, prestigious things for her firstborn son, assigned to me her maiden name (Conole) as my middle name, like Kennedy’s mother (née Rose Fitzgerald) had. My mother’s running joke while I was growing up: “This way, if he becomes President of the United States, my family name will be in there too!” Among the first of many internalized pressures. My sincerest apologies, Conoles, I know how much you worshiped the Kennedys—but I’m afraid I’m not your golden boy candidate. Blessed brains on a pink skirt suit, why did Jack Ruby leave his favorite dog in the backseat of his car when he went in to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald? Poor pup.

*     *     *

My grandfather Conole (known by family as Baba) was my closest human connection until he left his body when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d been his primary caretaker during his last summer. Helping him dress in the morning, getting him to the bathroom multiple times per night, reading aloud the daily news, and most memorably, listening to (and often recording on my red Fisher Price tape recorder) his vast repository of stories. All of this taught me how to truly care for another. When he was gone, I found I couldn’t scrabble the emotional wherewithal to properly care for myself. Rather than dealing with the grief in constructive ways, my OCD became wildly exacerbated, and I slid into a tarry depression that has lasted ever since, to varying degrees of debilitation. Now, in this present world of funhouse mirrors, if you aren’t depressed, you may want to see a doctor.

*     *     *

After a one-year hiatus from graduate school in 2016, I am taking another stab at my fear of academics. But before I began this penultimate semester, I’d been on the verge of a dropout boogie, and my daily morning hippie speed balls (joint + coffee) weren’t exactly aiding my progress. I wanted to repair to somewhere distant, and contemplate my next life chapter(s). I was long overdue for a visit to my parents’ fourteenth floor condominium home in the small resort village of Estero, on the southwest coast of Florida. I, their middle, remotest child, was the only of their three offspring whom hadn’t been to visit since they retired there about five years ago, after selling our family home in Vestal, NY. I was fortunate enough to sublet my living space in Seattle to a trusted friend, and make a one-way reservation for early April, intending to stay in Estero for the Spring until my MFA program’s June residency in Los Angeles. Also itinerated was a trip up to Raleigh, NC to spend time with my brother—who’d had a recent health scare—and his family.

Setting for the Koreshan play “The Yellow Peril” in Estero, FL, CreativeCommons

I expected Florida to be a culture and climate shock, and it was. I felt prepared for any come-to-Jesus, what-are-you-doing-with-your-life? moments that might arise with my parents. A few days before my flight they informed me that, based on a strong referral from a friend, they had scheduled an appointment with a family psychologist for the morning after my arrival. I took mild offense to not having been consulted about this, though I knew they were well-intended. Then, when I got there, it became an appointment just for me.

“I just thought you might want to try this guy,” my dad reasoned over the phone. “You don’t have to, but he came highly recommended. I thought maybe you could get an assessment and we could get to the bottom of what’s been plaguing you all these years.”

With a combination of curiosity, obligation and anticipated ennui, I decided I would go. There was a woo-woo loop of ambient spiritual easy listening playing in the office anteroom as I waited for the doctor. After seeing his previous client out, he greeted me and apologized in his heavy Polish accent for the wait. I detected a certain strain of sanctimonious self-satisfaction that felt familiar to me. This began to make sense once I learned about his background. He had left Catholic seminary to pursue a career in psychology. There was something unsettling behind his priestly solicitude. But, I ended up feeling okay enough about our first meeting—during which we managed to locate the launching point of a crucial false narrative I’d been adhering to for far too long—to agree to return twice a week.

At the end of the session, he surprised me by noticeably adjusting his posture and proclaiming, “Just give me three weeks. Three weeks, and if you don’t feel better after three weeks, I want you to fire me.”

I laughed this off.

I didn’t quite return twice per week, but I did give the doctor more than six sessions. He gave me personality tests, diagnosed me with dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder, and PTSD. He prescribed to me daily morning cardiovascular exercise, and the book The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Llama. I mostly stuck to the exercise, but fell asleep each time I tried the book. Many times during my appointments with the doctor, I felt as though he should be paying me, and on more than a few occasions he gave me the creeps, asking questions that were unnecessary and unprofessional. I have always been the absolute worst at breaking up with people, but by the eighth or ninth session, I still wasn’t feeling a clear direction with this guy. I thanked him for our time together, and announced this would be our last session.

“Ha ha hah!” he burst out. “You have got to be kidding me.” I watched as his face filled with blood.

“No sir. I truly appreciate what we’ve covered, but I need to move on, and my June residency is just a couple of weeks away.”

Realizing I was serious, his truer colors emerged. “I can’t believe what I am hearing. John, you are a broken man. You need to stay here and give this process at least another month. I’ve worked with people who’ve been far more broken than you are, and turned them around completely. It’s like night and day! Listen, John, I enjoy working with you because you’re smart… Now, I like cars, so I’m going to use a car analogy here: You’re like a Ferrari, John. And you’ve spun yourself around, flipped yourself over, banged up against all the limits. But all you need is some body work, a new paint job. You’re still a Ferrari.”

“I don’t want to be a Ferrari.”

*     *     *

Portrait of the author by his young nephew

Since returning to Seattle, I have finally found a therapist with whom I feel comfortable, even excited, to work with. It only took twenty or so years, but I feel for the first time like I am making strides toward clearing all this heavy mud off my lens as I seek to clarify the world. What do I want to be? A Continental? A Lamborghini? Forklift or other conveyance?

I think I’ll forget the car metaphors, start with the conveyance that is my body. From there, I want to be: A teacher. A writer. A lover. A private investigator. A public investigator. A bass clarinetist. A fighter for human rights and social justice, at all costs. An enemy of the state. A menace to supremacy. Someone always in the process of waking up, who refuses to use community allyship as a balm for guilt or a prop for validation. An exemplary uncle, brother, son, friend. An enthusiast for the contradictions in the human soul. Concerned citizen of a world on fire, while also under water. Someone trying to remember how important it is to value your own ideas, even the ones that seem silly.

Self-expression is a form of self-respect.

 

John C. Fitzsimmons was born on the second day of 1979 and grew up in south central New York state. He attended Ithaca College before relocating to Seattle, WA in 2000. He has contributed to The Free Witch Quarterly, From Whatnot to Where I Belong, Picaroon Poetry, and Neither Here Nor There, a book about the band The Melvins. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and has served on four issues of Lunch Ticket.