The art in this series, “Art for Your Existential Crisis,” is an ongoing project that began in 2011, when I was in my late twenties and found myself deeply pondering and often immobilized by the most heavy-hitting questions we ask ourselves. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? […]
It was a routine morning in the spring of my senior year at Vestal High School, 1997. I woke to the unfailing alarm of my father’s whisper-shout: “Hey bud, time to rise and shine. Up and at ‘em!” (My groggy inner retort: I guess I’ll rise, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna fucking shine.) I got ready and made my way downstairs to the kitchen, where he slurped cereal just loud enough to prickle the heightened teenage version of my irritability.
I left for school, for some reason ahead of schedule, arriving early in my 1990 Jeep Grand Wagoneer that I called Sanford. To my mother’s bewilderment, when I was a toddler, my favorite television program had not been Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers, but Sanford and Son. Apparently I would laugh and laugh at Red Foxx, and garble-sing the theme song melody throughout the house.
When I was twelve I’d discovered the raw staccato blues of John Lee Hooker. This tore my entire world and conception of time-space wide open. The seemingly effortless ease with which he modulated his vocal delivery between the conversational, observational, and confessional—over a brokedown paroxysmic guitar-and-foot-tap rhythm—became the standard of expression to which I strove. By the time I’d begun high school, I’d struck up my first band with friends, a sloppy blues crew we called Porch Dogs. We performed at school functions and graduation parties. Out of all this grew my love of soul, funk, blues, r & b, jazz, hip-hop and almost every conceivable form of music whose genesis can be traced to Black Culture, and continues today infinitely, gyroscopically.
The halls at school were empty and I had plenty of time before homeroom would begin. I made a trip to the restroom. To my surprise, there was my close friend and bandmate Pete Ruttle, with a furtive, mischievous gleam in his eye. He opened his palm toward me.
“Wanna drop acid?”
I had never tried LSD. Intellectually I knew that doing so for the first time in this setting, before a full day of school, was a terrible idea. But I hadn’t a clue how horrific a decision it would turn out to be. My experiences with altering substances were limited to that point. I’d been drunk only a handful of times. Pete had only recently introduced me to pot, prior to a rehearsal which had devolved into me doing some bastardized version of tai chi in a comical rediscovery of my limbs.
I was in a “fuck it” mood that morning. I also didn’t want Pete to endure the trip alone. Further rationalizing that, “It’s just a tiny corrugated piece of paper,” I said yes. With a fateful shrug, we turned on tuned in and dropped out. We agreed to check-in throughout the day, then went our separate ways. Neither of us had any idea what was in store.
* * *
I made it through homeroom without incident, then through first and second period without feeling anything too noticeable besides a slight upward whoosh in the gut. I wondered whether this was what I’d heard the burners around the smoking section refer to as “bunk acid.”
Then it was time for Economics class with Mrs. Hoover. My good pal Popcorn Paul and I had arranged, at the beginning of the year, to have our lockers next to each other. We always walked to Economics together, often talking about our common love, the Boston Celtics, on the way.
On this day, the athletic, 6’ 5” Popcorn was outfitted in drag: curly auburn wig, halter dress boasting her temporary prosthetic bust, a tawdry helping of mascara, eyeshadow, and blush. Then there were the high heels, and full accessories, including a glittering necklace above her plunging neckline that refracted an obtrusive fluorescent light from above. It was in this moment that the acid kicked in.
My whole perception suddenly warped in phantasmagoric dissolution. It felt like I was being clutched at the base of the skull by a fuzzy hand, psychically twisted open into another realm through some dark, scary portal. Suddenly the hallways felt unprecedentedly congested, and my torso felt weighted like someone had thrown a dental x-ray vest over my shoulders.
I’ll never forget when the reality of what day this was swiveled around to club me in the forebrain: our school had an annual fundraising custom, grotesquely called The Senior Slave Auction. Each year, to raise money for prom, members of the senior class would auction themselves off to underclassmen. Then, at a designated later date, the “slave masters” could make their seniors do outrageous things for one full day of school, often involving uncharacteristic attire and strange deeds. And this was that day.
I had always hated this day, this concept. It was supposed to be fun and light-hearted. This was 1997 in upstate New York: a grim indication of how stunted and clueless the white-dominated region was, even then. To this day I am angry about it, but ultimately unsurprised that no one organized a protest against it. For a decade that was supposed to be the new, progressive decade, the 90s were woefully complacent and passive-aggressive.
“Hi, John!” Popcorn Paul exclaimed in coquettish exaggeration, with a double eyebrow raise. I shuddered, never having seen or imagined him in this fashion.
He chuckled at my incredulity, then asked “Didja watch the C’s last night?”
Not only had I watched the game, but I’d taped it on VHS, per my obsession in those days. And yet, I couldn’t find anything worthwhile to say about their matchup with the Clippers. Fuck. Can (s)he tell I’m fucked up? How am I going to get through this class, much less the entire day? What about the remainder of my senior year? Was this going to last forever?
We made it to Economics, where people laughed at Paul and the others in the class who’d been “purchased.” Mrs. Hoover had an enormous rump, which was an ongoing topic of discussion between Popcorn and me; such were our teen fascinations at the time. It achieved bulbous perpendicularity to the rest of her body. I knew I would lose it if I made eye contact with Paul, who was wont to glance at her backside when she turned around, then look at me with performative lust. As class wore on, I could feel him looking over at me. I finally acknowledged him. He flashed me the funniest look of hyperbolic pseudo-longing while adjusting his left breast. I had to excuse myself to the restroom. I never returned to class.
* * *
Next period was Algebra with Mr. N, whose biggest virtue was class participation. Uh-oh. Luckily, dear friend Mike Esposito was in the class and on my quiz team. On this day, he led us to multiple root beer barrel hard candy rewards. When class ended I heard Mr. Nardocci call after me:
“Hey John, mind hanging back for a minute?”
Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, I thought. A one-on-one meeting? Could he tell?
“John, I just wanted to check-in with you. I’ve noticed,” he began as a thick, ticklish runnel of sweat glided down my brow, “that your work has been slipping lately. You’ve failed to turn in several assignments in the past couple of months.” He fixed his penetrating Italian eyes on me.
“Uh… yeah I’ve just been… busy getting ready for college I guess,” was all I could muster. I employed the excuse of having to run to Photography class, which I thought would be a comparative breeze. I needed to descend two floors to the school’s basement, where the art department was.
But before I made it there in my harried ampheteminic rush, I ran almost directly into the object of all my romantic energies, Melissa. I did the most intense double-take of my life. Evidently she’d participated in the auction too, and this was even more of a shock than Popcorn Paul’s getup. She’d been bought by a group of underclass horn balls. They had her decked out in a skin-tight leather halter-top that exposed her midriff, with matching low-cut leather pants. She had heavy goth makeup on and brandished a braided bullwhip.
Melissa had been my hopeless crush since sophomore year. Her entire family were devout Baptists, deeply involved in the church. I think her father was a minister. She was viewed by others at school as an untouchable paragon of sexual puritanism. I was in such a state of disbelief that I forgot about class, and wondered whether I was experiencing an hallucination.
“Hiiiii John,” Melissa drawled with wildly uncharacteristic sultriness before cracking the long, menacing whip in my direction as though she’d been working as a dominatrix for years. I rubbed my sweat-stung eyes as hard as I could while confusing pulsations started thumping in my groin.
She couldn’t keep a straight face, almost immediately letting out her signature rippling, arpeggiated laugh. This brought me back to reality. It was her. I hadn’t totally lost my grip. Ashamed of my arousal, I awkwardly stammered out a terse greeting and dashed away in the opposite direction.
Finally arriving at Photography, I was relieved to find there was no formal instruction happening, and the class was busy processing film. At first it was soothing in there, without the harsh overhead lighting. But after the first few minutes, I felt paranoid and claustrophobic. Eavesdropping on a conversation between two classmates, I misheard one of them ask in a macabre tone, “How would you describe the insides of your eyelids?” I don’t think that is what she actually said, or maybe it was. Regardless, that string of words would be on loop in my brain for the remainder of the day.
* * *
I had the next two periods free. Once the—hallelujah—bell rang, I got out of the darkroom as fast as I could and booked down the hall to the basement exit. The fresh air was a godsend. I took giant sips of it while doubled-over.
I found Pete in the gymnasium, where a throng of students were assembled for another fundraising function. He’d been roped into spinning and selling cotton candy for Student Government! I’ll never forget the cartoonish look he gave me when he caught my eye. Drenched in sweat and wearing a makeshift headband of not-so-absorbent tissue paper, he widened his eyes and pushed his cheeks out like Dizzy Gillespie, then flapped his lips in dramatic exasperation. This brought me out of my anxiety. I let out a much-needed laugh.
“How would you characterize the insides of your eyelids, bud?” I asked.
“Oof, it’s a goblin carnival in there!” he excitably replied. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Once we got to Sanford, Pete immediately pulled a joint from out of his cigarette pack and lighted it as we motored toward Route 26. We lamented our lack of consideration in our psychedelic morning choice: how had we picked the worst possible day to take LSD, in school? And by the way, how did Pete think it was a good idea for me to try if for the first time in this setting? He apologized, but more than made up for it by making me laugh. While in Part in Government (P.I.G.) class, his teacher had caught him zoning out, and repeated the question Pete had missed. He said that his auditory cortex had registered it in slow motion: “What’s… the… matter… Pete? Didn’t… get… your… V-8… todaaaaaay??” At this, Pete had shuddered and rearranged his face.
As he was doing the voice of the teacher, and I was laughing hysterically, out of nowhere, we felt a booming crash into Sanford’s rear right door. I lost control of the wheel momentarily, narrowly avoiding the roadside ditch as I slammed on the brakes.
“What the fuck! Holy shit!” we both exclaimed. I hadn’t seen what happened, what had hit us. No other vehicle was visible. We both were shaken, but neither of us injured.
“I think that deer just committed suicide,” Pete suggested. I didn’t find this funny. All sorts of haunting philosophical notions permeated my mind. I had killed another living creature. Or, at least maimed one.
“Let’s go back and look for it,” I said, openly freaked out.
But after walking up and down the road for almost an hour, there was no sign of the deer. It must have hobbled off into the field. I wanted to cry. I hadn’t seen anything coming. I had been too busy laughing and considering the insides of my eyelids.
Then there was the damage to the car, a huge ruminant dent in its side, most of the paneling stripped off. How was I going to break this to my parents, while coming down from acid? Pete had last period free, but I was supposed to be back for AP Psychology. There was no way. I decided to go hang out in the Ruttle basement to figure out my next steps, and give the acid more time to wear off.
We played a little music and when I started to feel slightly less overwhelmed by the situation, I bade farewell to Pete and set out for home. When I got to our street, I couldn’t pull into the driveway, realizing I wasn’t ready to confront my parents about what had happened. I parked Sanford up the road a little, and walked the rest of the way.
I prayed as I turned the knob that my mother would not be in the kitchen, and that I could slip upstairs to my room. But of course, there she was, already preparing dinner.
“What’s wrong honey? You look exhausted.”
“I uh, I’m really not feeling good Mom, I need to go lie down.”
“Ohhh, I’m sorry. Long day at school?” She embraced me as only a mother can, feeling my forehead. “Yeah, you feel warm. Go lie down, I’ll call you for dinner. I love you, Tikki Tikki Tembo, my first and most honorable son.”
I wanted to cry-puke.
At last I was in my bedroom, letting all of my body weight, psychic weight, emotional weight, marred spiritual weight, and the day’s uncanny weight release into my ever-loving mattress. I wanted to sleep but it was not possible. My mind raced, closing in on itself to a degree that made me believe I would be permanently altered, trapped forever in this new gruesome terrorscape. I put on the most soothing music I could find, Mississippi John Hurt. I closed my eyes and a lurid highlight reel of the day’s events taunted me from within. Was I dying?
The words “How would you characterize the insides of your eyelids” bannered across my shut lids, until a voice like a guided missile broke through and ushered me back to a different reality. It was my mother’s voice striking me dead center, not calling me for dinner, but shouting in such a tone that I knew she’d found Sanford.
Lord, please take me now.
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.
When I get to the top of Masada there are the canyons and there are the fortress ruins and there is the desert that stereotypically stretches out like a blanket location designed to set the scene for biblical abyss. There is this moment we are forced to be in together, all of us fresh off the bus, this specific moment of sunrise that brings up the warm blue undertones in the otherwise blanched Mesa. There is the appointed Zionist tour guide in his lime-green polo tee who is preparing to spiel us young American Heebs on mass suicide, but only after we’ve been forever turned by the predictable magic of the sunrise. There are the dunes that roll on and on so that we nomadically remember the moguls of infinity. There is my water bottle that I am drinking because they made me wake up early to hike this hill and they are always telling us bring water like no one knows it on their own. They have made it very clear that they do not want to be responsible for our dehydration. On my back is a pack and in it there is a Ziploc filled with dates and pistachios I got at the marketplace. The pistachios, the dates, they are oh-so-valuable now, because we have traveled halfway around the world so our lost tribe can connect, and this life changing experience comes with the expectation that we are all going to survive off of gas station falafels. We are expected to fall in love with another tribe member at the gas station as we are stuffing our faces with these gas station falafels. We are expected to settle in Kibbutzim and get married after we fall in love with whoever is also eating falafel at the gas station. After the ceremony, we’ll be expected to hold hands and wear ergonomic clogs. We are expected to fuck our chosen one up against the soft bark of an olive tree that was seeded by US dollars that a person in the ’70s mailed overseas in honor of when someone’s dad turned thirteen and finally “became a man.” They are conditioning us to fuck our chosen one up against that smooth bark, the she bent over against the trunks while the he tries not to break an olive branch during the cumming. There in the orchard, they hope, we will fuck to make new babies for the army. Now there is the sunlight changing the scene into a variety of pinks and the sound is that of Adam’s stomach gurgling because he is gluten-free and couldn’t eat the breakfast back at the fake Bedouin tent where they made us sleep in bags last night so that we could bond like only sleeping Jews in a tent can bond. The Bedouins only eat bagels for breakfast, so I give Adam my pistachios. And now there is the sun as it hits the spot where it will loiter for most of the day’s middle, the place where it has traditionally loitered for most days over the course of all time, the same spot it was in for like, Moses, who at some point saw the sun from just where we are now. The sun is where it has been since the ancient inhabitants of this place, AKA our ancestors, slaughtered and burned themselves after they’d thrown their babies off of the cliffs. All the important Jews whose parents brought them to the Motherland have probably been here, like Gene Simmons probably saw the sun from here and Philip Roth and Joan Rivers and Barbara Streisand, but definitely not Anne Frank, who is basically to blame for Birthright existing in the first place. The sun is executing its more traditional sandy yellows as Adam is popping open the halves of the shells, because g-d is he hungry and he can’t get over the Bedouins only having bagels available despite the dietary restrictions he checked on his admissions form, and all Jews are basically gluten-intolerant so what the fuck has been up with the doughy breakfasts. We share our ancestors. We share our indigestion. Over there in the near distance is the curved plane of a familiar hunched back. The font on the back says NIRVANA in red, and the back sits up cross-legged in the crumbs of the fortress ruins, so his front looks out over the peak that rises above the vast ellipse of sandy earth that drawls into the Dead Sea clay of secular history; his front presides over the ledge that the babies were thrown off of so that their parents could kill them first, or at least before anyone else got the chance. When I get to the top of Masada, there is my ex-boyfriend and he is still playing Candy Crush.
Leah Sophia Dworkin lives in New York City. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. She has writings published or forthcoming in (b)OINK, KGB Bar Lit, Columbia Journal, Yalobusha Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hotel, and BOMB. Online she goes by @frumperella. Learn more at leahsophiadworki
Paralysis can be an education: it makes you infinitely more aware of the possible. Possibilities were all I could think about recently in urgent care when I sat on a bed waiting for a doctor to tell me why I could not move the right side of my face and was losing the ability to control the right side of my body. I stared at my hand and moved my fingers back and forth trying to gauge how much of a change there was in my ability to move, touch, and pick things up. I could pick up my computer but had trouble maneuvering a pen well enough to write. I had trouble reading because my right eye wasn’t blinking properly. I knew only that initial evaluations showed it was unlikely that I was having a stroke.
The rest was being considered. Eventually the doctors decided I had Bells Palsy, a nerve problem that is, thankfully, temporary in most cases. I spent the next ten days on a massive amount of medication, slowly building back my ability to easily form words, eat, drink out of straws, and read. In that time, I watched our president accuse a wide swath of American athletes of being sons of bitches for kneeling during the national anthem—after he disinvited the Golden State Warriors and their star guard Steph Curry, one of the most popular players in the NBA, to the White House. I started to be able to rely on my right arm and leg, but I could not kneel.
* * *
I love sports. I love the drama of Steph Curry’s three-point shots; I love the fierceness of the Seahawks fans in my town who consider themselves the 12th Man on the field; and I love the passion with which athletes and fans overcome obstacles in the face of all kinds of adversity. Like all lovers of great stories, I participate in the grudges and rivalries. I hate the Yankees as much as anyone; the best roster money can buy makes them the perfect spoil, the inimitable enemy.
As I exercised my face, I thought about the thousands of hours of yoga Steph Curry and his teammates do to help them become excellent at basketball. Curry’s a small guy, and he used every tool he could find to become a nimble and excellent player and shooter. I thought about the skill of Megan Rapinoe, the soccer star who was the first to take a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. I thought about the football players who are suffering from traumatic brain injury, and the pressure to keep them performing violent plays that put their lives at risk. I thought about challenges and the things we do to overcome them.
The last thing you want to do is tell a great athlete what they can’t do. They are trained to fight against constraint and prove you wrong. This is something every sports fan knows. We are all formed by memories of our heroes either defying the odds or being crushed by that defiance. I am still impacted by the 1988 World Series when an injured Kirk Gibson hit an improbable home run against Dennis Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in baseball at the time, beating my Oakland A’s. Every baseball fan in America watched that night in awe of what was possible. When the reality of the win sunk in, baseball announcer Vin Scully exclaimed: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”
And yet. And yet, after the athletes protested, my social media feed filled up with folks I know and care about writing that athletes shouldn’t be protesting, didn’t know what they were talking about, and were ungrateful. These people who I know wrote about violent acts that some football players have been accused of, as if that means all the protesting players were criminals, and as if that makes violence against them OK. First, discount the victims.
Jelani Cobb, writing for The New Yorker, responded to the ungrateful accusation better than I ever could have in his editorial piece, “From Louis Armstrong to the N.F.L.: Ungrateful as the New Uppity.” I, however, still could not stop thinking about the fact that people I know have the nerve to talk about the protesting athletes in disparaging ways when what their protest tells us is that they are fighting for their lives. Michael Bennett of the Seahawks was shoved to the ground by Las Vegas police officers who put a knee on his back, held a gun to his head, and threatened to kill him. While this was happening, he considered that like so many, he might not live through it. He and others had been running away from what sounded like gunshots inside a casino, and police found him to be suspicious, detaining him until they verified his identity as Michael Bennett, famous football player. Bennett has been called a liar and a publicity hound by the LVMPD, and they deny his account, saying that they have been through video recordings of the incident and found nothing unlawful. But the officer who handcuffed Bennett did not have his body camera turned on, and there is no recording that proves Bennett did not have a gun to his head or a knee in his back.
* * *
Louis Armstrong sang a song by Robert MacGimsey called “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” about three figures from the Book of Daniel who are thrown into a fiery furnace when they refuse to bow down to King Nebudchanezzer’s image. The three men are preserved from harm, and the king sees four men emerge from the fire—the fourth like the son of God. To me, MacGimsey’s message in this song is pretty clear: protest is so much a fabric of history that it is biblical. So to anyone reading this who is crying about disrespect… consider that.
In our country a person is more likely to die at the hands of police than to become a multi-million dollar athlete. In 2015, African Americans were shot by police at three times the rate that white people were. Michael Bennett had every reason to be terrified, despite his status as a professional football player. He had every reason to believe that, to the police, his life didn’t matter.
I could not sit and watch those players kneel without some kind of participation. And so, with my semi-paralyzed body, I started sending The New Yorker article to those who wanted the NFL players to cease their protest out of “respect” for the flag. It was a risk, because I knew they would think I was saying they were racist. That’s not something you are supposed to do. I asked these people why the players’ protests weren’t valid. I pointed out that people of color are saying that their lives are on the line and asked why we shouldn’t listen.
And then I went to the gym and lifted weights, trying to build back some strength I lost. I thought about Steph Curry and his hours of yoga powering his thousands of jump shots. I was doing every thing I could to push past paralysis in my mind and body.
None of the people to whom I sent The New Yorker article have responded, and I’m told by other friends that we will never end racism. Maybe that’s true. Maybe we are destined to become more and more divided. I’m still going to repeat the phrase coined by Cobb—“ungrateful as the new uppity”—to everyone I meet. Looking for the improbable, I write this essay.
Emma Margraf is a writer who lives in Olympia, Washington, works for the state government, and writes for several local publications in the South Sound. She has been published in Manifest Station and is a candidate for an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.
It was a young and tiny family—a wife, a husband, a three-month old son. They moved into the apartment on the tenth floor of a building which was one of the original high-rises in Chennai.
There were six apartments on each floor around a central corridor into which the lifts opened. The corridor was dark, with two fluorescent bulbs that created a stale and stagnant light. But the apartments had large windows, which made up for the dimness of the corridor.
After the final boxes had been brought in by the moving men, the little family went up the lift. Radha, the wife, held her child against her chest and stood beside Mohan, her husband. The only sound was the tired creaking of the elevator chains.
When they stepped out, they saw light streaming from the open doorway of the apartment in front of them. In that light stood a frail figure, all of her reduced to the bare essentials: bone, skin, two white molars. She was wearing some kind of diaphanous sari that made her even more ethereal. She looked at them as they got out, her eyes distorted by very thick glasses, benevolent, curious. Radha smiled at her briefly, anxious to get into the apartment before the baby could wake up.
The next day, it was around ten a.m. There was a soft knock on Radha’s door. The frail figure they had seen yesterday stood outside. She held some embroidered cloths. “Wasn’t sure if it’s a boy or girl,” she said. “The building manager only said, a baby was coming.” Her voice was raspy as if there was no more moisture left in her throat.
“Boy,” Radha said, looking at her baby, chuckling on a mat on the floor. The old woman peered at him.
“That’s ok, he can still wear these. They will be good for him too,” and she gave Radha four little hand-stitched, embroidered shirt frocks made of the softest cotton fabric.
It was a regular visit after that; with something or other she had made or been given; custard, a bit of cake, a pomegranate, two coffee mugs, a little rug sewn out of rags. Aachi, that’s what she said everyone called her, was always careful never to overstay her welcome; also she tired easily.
Radha never saw anyone else except Aachi. It seemed as if no one else lived on that floor. Or maybe they were all working and left before she could even wake up.
Aachi lived by herself in one half of an apartment sublet from a Gujarathi family who had moved and now used the rest of the apartment as storage. Her son was with his wife and daughter on the second floor and every day, Aachi was grateful that either he, his wife, or daughter visited.
Aachi was from Jaffna; she had managed to escape to India, when her son married an Indian. Otherwise she might still be in a refugee camp somewhere or dead, don’t you know, she said, shot so fully dead that people who passed by would not even know that a body was lying there, and if no one was there to bury you, no neighbor, no cousin or an uncle, no friend or stranger was there to bury you, only your skeleton would be left, don’t you know, lying there all arranged in a living style of how bones are when they are alive. But mostly, Aachi would smooth out her sari around her and ask why was she even talking about those past matters.
One day, after Radha had settled somewhat, and had started full-scale cooking, she made chicken curry. Aachi knocked on the door. Her thin nose tilted up. “What a fragrance, the whole floor is smelling with whatever it is that you are making. Not every cook can create such a beautiful smell. You must have a special hand. Chicken, no?”
“Yes, chicken, please have some, Aachi.”
Aachi hesitated. Then, “I will get my plate,” she said and was gone before Radha could stop her. She came back with a silver plate embossed with a delicate floral pattern.
“I cannot eat in anything else,” she explained.
She ate like a little bird, a sparrow, her mouth pursed into readiness, just one tiny piece of a small half of a leg of a chicken, with a tablespoon of rice, but she ate with long, sustained relish, putting her two molars to maximum use, sucking at the bone with total concentration.
When she was done, she leaned back and said, almost in tears, “I have not enjoyed anything so much for such a long time. You are very kind.”
She took her plate into the kitchen to wash it, refusing to let Radha do it for her. “How deeply I have cooked,” she sighed. “How much food from my kitchen. The number of people who ate what these hands made! Neighbors, relatives, friends, passersby, strangers, beggars, servants, everyone, anyone at all.”
The kitchen had a back door that opened onto the stairway. As Aachi wiped her hands and looked at the shining surface of her plate, they heard loud voices.
Immediately, Aachi went to the back door and, putting her ear to it, she listened with great attention. One voice was that of a young man and the other of a woman, a sharp argument of some sort. Suddenly, there was silence followed by running footsteps, a thud and another interesting sound, like a suppressed shriek.
Aachi straightened and shook her head. “He’s at it again. One of these days, he’ll kill her, that’s what I’m thinking, and then what’s she going to do. I told her, so many times, don’t you know, I told her, son or not, if they’ve gone bad, we have to let them go.” Aachi pointed her thumb to her mouth, swayed and whispered, “All the time, every time I see him, he’s like that. She won’t listen, she’s a mother after all. If she had been a little firm in the beginning, things would have been different. But what with her life being uncertain as it is, dealing with that husband of hers. It’s hard.”
They lived on the mezzanine floor, just below the tenth floor, this mother and son, and, according to Aachi, the mother was a great beauty, a famous dancer, “Haven’t you heard, Shakunthala Rani, the Kuchipudi dancer, she was married to an industrialist, a cement factory man, from what I hear, a suspicious, distrustful, jealous sort of man who gave her so much hell, luckily he died and left her some money. But what’s the use anyway, the son has gone bad.”
After such an introduction, Radha became very curious to see Shakunthala Rani. One afternoon, when her husband was taking care of the baby, she made some excellently soft idlies and coconut chutney. She packed ten idlies with the chutney and went down to see her. Aachi was not wrong. Shakunthala was beautiful, even in her sixties. She had a dramatic presence. Her face was large, spacious, with a majestic forehead, a pronounced brow line, a somewhat aquiline nose, full wide lips. Her hair was almost completely white and was worked into a casual knot, with a few strands framing her face. Her lustrous eyes had a melancholic expression. Radha felt an instant involvement in that melancholy.
Shakunthala Rani talked about her dancing days; it brought a little light to her face. She walked Radha to a table with framed photographs. She picked up one in which she stood in a dance pose. “This is when I danced at the Kennedy Center, you know, in Washington, DC.”
Radha looked at the younger, slimmer, radiant Shakuntala Rani, and said, “Very nice picture of you.”
Shakunthala Rani smiled proudly. A door slammed somewhere behind and her whole manner changed, she was a different woman, her face stiffened and estranged. She thanked Radha for the idlies and hurried her out.
Radha returned home, unable to forget her brief visit. The very next day, in the evening, someone knocked on the kitchen door. It sounded more like a soft scratching. It was Shakunthala Rani. She looked disturbed, her hair lay undone around her shoulders. She said she had run out of curd and needed some for a starter.
Radha pretended not to notice her expression and filled a cup with curd. The baby was in a cradle in the living room and he began to cry. Shakunthala went to pick him up, her every gesture filled with yearning, her gestures all the more expressive because of her training as a dancer. Radha watched her as if she would capture forever the vanishing beauty of this woman holding her son. They did not speak. The baby too was silent, his eyes teary and dazzled. Shakunthala put him back in the cradle, thanked Radha for the curd, and left.
Radha mentioned this visit to Aachi. “It’s that son, I am telling you,” Aachi said. “One like that, just one like that is enough to suck out the joy in everything. He is sick, a mentally disturbed fellow. She is not facing the truth, that’s all. If there’s a wild animal, can we keep that wild animal in the house? Is that a wise thing to do? Who will suffer in the end?”
Aachi’s eyes moved restlessly behind her lenses, her mouth munched the air with intensity. Radha felt another shot of curiosity singe her thoughts. She wished she could see Shakunthala’s son for herself.
An opportunity came when she was at the mail box. A tall man stood there, looking at his mail, and when Radha neared he turned towards her. The resemblance to Shakunthala Rani was strong and with a shock Radha realized who it was. He smiled and held out an envelope, “This postman must be new, I think, Is this yours?”
Radha looked at the name, yes, it was her name, Mrs. Radha Mohan.
“Thank you,” she said, trying not to sound relieved that he was so normal.
“My mother said you brought the idlies. We enjoyed them very much. She tries to make them sometimes, but it’s not the same. I guess it lacks the authentic south-Indian touch.” He laughed.
Radha smiled at him, feeling a little disjointed. How could the same features which were so feminine on the mother be so masculine on him; a masculine elegance flowed even in the way he moved; a pleasant, handsome man, after all; what a pleasant voice, too, cultured.
They had been in the apartment for a little over a month, when Mohan had to go to Delhi on business. He wished Radha would stay with her parents while he was away. But Aachi said there was really no need for that. She came morning and evening to check up on Radha. She had begun a large project with rags and she said she was going to make wine for Christmas. It was July; if she started now, with all the fermenting and filtering, she would be ready just in time.
She had set up her filtering contraption in the center of her one room. She had several cheese cloths hanging on a line, a set of bottles, ceramic jars and glasses on a makeshift shelf. She explained her methodology to Radha who, exhausted by her squirming baby, felt a mild envy that Aachi could do as she pleased.
“I know how it is, but it will get better, really, it will,” Aachi said, surprising Radha. “Soon, he will go to school. Then, you see, you will be free. Anyway, people have heard I am making wine this year, they are already lining up for my wine, it is famous, don’t you know. No matter. Mind you, I am keeping one bottle for you.”
“No, don’t do that, Aachi. We don’t…” Radha started.
“I know, I know,” Aachi interrupted firmly. “I know you people don’t drink wine, but it’s good for you.”
Radha laughed and thought Mohan might like it. If he did, she wouldn’t mind having a sip herself.
On Sunday, Aachi came to show herself dressed up for church. She was going for the two p.m. service. She wore a grand red Kanchipuram sari and a white lace sleeveless blouse. Diamonds glittered in her ears and a little string of jasmine was wound around the scanty knot of hair on top of her head. She carried a silver handbag on her arm. She turned around and showed off the intricate gold thread work with a peacock motif on the border of the sari. In spite of her skeletal figure, Aachi looked delightful and festive.
As they stood in the corridor, admiring the sari, there was a commotion on the steps and Shakuntala Rani came at them, followed by her son with a knife in his hand. She rushed into Radha’s apartment. “Arjun has gone mad, he has lost it, he has lost it,” she repeated, in dry sobbing gasps. “What can I do, what am I to do. I can’t help him anymore.”
The son halted. He was unrecognizable from the last time Radha had seen him. His face was covered with a dry beard, his hair was dusty, his shirt was torn. He stood unsteadily, leaning against the wall and dragging his feet. The knife, it was only a bread knife, glittered mildly in the dim light of the corridor. After a brief assessment of the three women, he began to move forward and tripped.
Aachi put her hands on her hips and said to Shakuntala Rani, who stood behind Radha, “I told you, didn’t I, I told you this would happen, didn’t I? I knew it, I knew something like this would happen.”
The man, who was almost collapsing to the floor, heard her and that changed everything. He steadied and lunged; there appeared to be no doubt that he was going to use the knife on someone.
Radha felt if she could just shut the door on him, they would be safe. Or, if she could just execute the karate moves she had learnt in school… But her limbs were numb, the way they usually are in nightmares.
That nightmare metaphor extended to Aachi. She had the expression of one who has been prepared all her life. A transformation began in her shoulders. They rounded and her neck retracted behind her collar bone. Her arms clawed the air as she went down; she seemed intent to demonstrate what “on all fours” could mean. She pawed the ground, she swayed her skeletal hips, she crouched, she bared her molars; she howled with her head extending out of her neck, she growled, she yelped. It was a practiced performance, a ferocious dance in which she went from old woman to animal, from words to sounds, a great rabid terror.
The terror reached the young man; he was mesmerized, depleted, disemboweled by this performance; steeped into a cloud of impotence. Was this a hallucination of his drugged, intoxicated brain? He stepped and slipped. He went to the floor with his knife. Before he became still, he lifted his head and looked at Radha. It was a look filled with so much pain and helplessness that she moved towards him. Aachi’s hand restrained her. But the image of that pitiable face reached deep inside her, as if it would alter the source of her thoughts.
Stunned, she watched as the young man was tended by his mother and Aachi’s son, who had come to get her for church. They partly dragged, partly carried him, an unwieldy threesome that teetered dangerously on the steps.
Aachi straightened herself, her sari, and adjusted her mouth. She patted her knot of hair and made sure the string of jasmine was still secure. “Get me some cold water to drink, child,” she said to Radha.
After Aachi left, Radha shut and locked all the windows and external doors of the apartment. The silence that she had always found soothing was now uncomfortable. It was full of gasps, creaks, moans. She held her child close to her chest and prayed for courage. By nine p.m., she was done struggling. She packed a few necessary things, tidied the kitchen briefly, and left the apartment, willing that she should not run into Aachi on the way.
She should have listened to Mohan from the beginning and stayed with her parents. Now, if she turned up so late at night, her parents would imagine and worry and then she would have to explain. Explain what. Nothing, nothing, she could explain nothing; explain an old woman becoming an animal, a young man with a breadknife, an aging dancer who moved gracefully in fear.
In the taxi, on the way to her parents, Radha could hear her mother saying, How can we trust you to take care of yourself; see, look at the stories you come up with; no, no, from now on, whenever Mohan has to go somewhere, he needs to leave you and the child with us.
There was very little traffic on Mount Road. The warm breeze lulled her. She felt safe. She would say, she just felt like seeing her parents, that’s all. If she repeated it consistently and regularly, they might believe her. Then she would behave normally, she would gossip with her mother about relatives and cousins and they would discuss recipes and sari designs and they really, really would believe her.
When the taxi entered T. Nagar, the noise made her baby twist and turn, though he did not wake up. Radha adjusted her lap for him and looked out at the busy world of pedestrians, shoppers, street shops. It was good there was so much noise and people walking by, good that the traffic made the taxi go slow so she could see the people buying flowers, fruits, clothes, utensils, or drinking tea by the roadside.
A week later, when she returned with Mohan, feeling foolish, Radha came back into that night at the apartment; her wariness of Aachi renewed. She hurried into the apartment and busied herself with cleaning. Throughout, she listened for the door to be knocked. And when it was not, she wondered if there had been a sequel to that night, that night of the bread knife.
The next day, as Mohan left for work, Aachi stood outside. She held a small glass bottle.
“My daughter-in-law wanted some ginger garlic paste,” she said. “She likes it the way I make. I kept a little to give you.”
Radha accepted the bottle from her with some awkwardness. In her mind, she was alert for changes. She studied Aachi covertly, for traces of her performance, as if she expected her hands to have developed claws or hair; or, was there the chance of a tail showing at the edge of her skirt? She waited for Aachi to say: What happened to you, you disappeared without even telling me anything. But Aachi just continued her distorted, defenseless gaze.
So, Radha said with some effort, “I will make some chai for you, Aachi. Do you want some?”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Aachi said. “Is everything all right with the little one?”
Radha nodded, “Yes, he’s sleeping in the bedroom. I put on the AC.”
She went into the kitchen and set a pan on the stove with a cup of water and milk. Aachi normally had just a couple of sips.
“Your plant is dying,” Aachi said, indicating the hibiscus in a pot on the balcony. It had drooped with no water for a week. “You should have left it outside your door, I would have given it water. Never mind, maybe it will still come back. No need to keep looking at me like that, child. How else do you think we managed?”
“What is it, what are you saying?” Radha asked, once again surprised that Aachi knew what she was thinking.
Aachi did not reply. She pulled out a chair at the dining table and sat down. Her mouth twitched and her hands moved restlessly.
Radha looked in the bottom shelf next to the stove for her masala box.
“Don’t you remember, you put it in the shelf above the sink, last time?” Aachi said.
Yes, it was right there. Radha took out two cardamom pods and three pepper corns and powdered them with a pestle.
Aachi sat down. The watered milk hissed up in the pan, overflowed and hit the fire, which partially went out. Aachi rushed in and turned off the knob. She said, “You are still very disturbed, child. What am I to tell you?”
Radha put in two teaspoons of tea and the ground powder. She covered the pan with a plate and stood leaning against the counter.
Aachi returned to the table. She said, “Do you know, all the men in my village were gone, even boys as young as ten-years-old; when the soldiers understood how it was, no woman, young, old, crippled, pregnant, no woman was safe and they were supposed to protect us.” Aachi snorted. “It was no use, don’t you know, we were like chickens waiting for the fox to come. There was fear everywhere, no one could think. Then an idea came to an older woman. When evening comes, she said, we will howl, we will become wild animals and do wild things. Of course, we all laughed. But, after two more young girls were found in the creek, we were ready to do anything. We practiced, how we practiced, you saw, didn’t you, how good I am, we practiced every day; our village even got a name, it was the village of wild beasts and mad women. Who cares? Not one, not even one, was touched after that.” Aachi’s mouth curved with that triumphant memory.
Radha stirred the tea till it had a little whirlpool in it. It was a strong narrative, she thought, but it did not erase the lost bewilderment, the helplessness on the face of Shankunthala’s son; no, no one should feel such despair; such despair could not be tolerated.
She poured out the tea and brought the two cups to the table along with some Marie biscuits. She sat down in the chair next to Aachi.
“That’s terrible. Terribly sad to hear, Aachi. It’s all so terrible,” she said. “But I don’t think he meant to actually do any harm.”
“That’s how it starts, my dear,” Aachi said. “We think, soft-hearted fools that we are, that they mean no harm. Then when it’s too late, who gets hurt, tell me that now, who? Oh, no, I did not save myself through the war, through leaving my home, through settling here, all these years. To face that. Oh no, I don’t think so.”
“You shocked him a lot, you know. Poor fellow, I felt sorry for him, except that I was so afraid.”
Aachi shook her head. “You are too young, child. Plus, you have no experience of these matters.” She added vehemently, “And I hope you never go through such experiences. But we have to be prepared. That’s all I am saying.”
She dipped her biscuit into the chai and sucked at the moistened part. “My son wants me to go down and live with him. After seeing what happened that day, he is worried.”
When Radha looked troubled, Aachi said, “No, no, no, I told him, no, not now, nothing doing. The grapes are setting nicely. I don’t want to disturb them. And you, you will be all by yourself, too. No, I told him, I’ll think about it. Maybe next year.”
Padma Prasad is a writer, poet, and painter. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, most recently in Your Impossible Voice and Jaggery. Her poem received honorable mention in the Palm Beach Ekphrastic Poetry competition, 2016. She blogs her poem-drawings and other stuff at padhma.wordpress; her art is mostly figurative and can be viewed at: fineartamerica.com/profiles/padma-prasad.
I got pregnant at twenty-one. It happened while I was still an undergrad, directly after a Bible study meeting at the campus ministry. And I do mean right after—maybe within the hour. The father and I had just prayed about fornication at the meeting. I think we were trying to stop, or considering trying to stop—I’m a little hazy on the details.
Nobody that mattered shamed me for being an unwed mother. My mother is the kind of Christian who, instead of being embarrassed about my situation, bought a bassinet. She brought it home two hours after I took the pregnancy test. Then she broke out into a full praise over how God was going to use my baby to teach me about unconditional love. She was so relieved. She knew I would need my son in the same way she had needed her children.
I don’t remember what my grandparents said but I know that my uncle was afraid I wouldn’t finish my degree. It took forever, but I did get it. When I called to tell my then-best friend the awesome news, her mother took the phone and said, “Jahzerah, you’re gonna be fine, but promise me that you won’t make that baby your god.” I promised that I wouldn’t, even though I had no idea what she meant.
* * *
My son, Israel, is fifteen now. He’s a gorgeous kid. He’s smart and charming and everyone knows he has a much better heart than I do. He apologizes for me when I mess up with others. He’s a great listener and is patient when I channel my anxiety by nagging at him about how the carpet needs to be vacuumed or the tabletops dusted. Even though he’s weird now, as all teenagers are, he’s still the best person I know.
Because I am a Christian, I believe it’s right and safe to worship God. God offers reciprocation. If I acknowledge God in all that I do, He will never leave me. He is obligated to listen to me. He is obligated to love me. My son on the other hand, is hardly as faithful. He loves me but is constantly preparing to replace me with girls and basketball and college. He was seven when he said, “Mommy, God said He didn’t call me to live in Dayton.” At seven, he and God were already planning a purpose for him that did not directly include me. I felt betrayed.
I understand that my son’s growth and his desire for independence are healthy. I don’t want to hold up his life; the problem is that I have no idea what to do with my own. For nearly sixteen years I’ve done nothing but wait at Israel’s altar. No dating, no solo nights out, no fun. I’ve lived my entire adult life sacrificing for my son.
It took me nearly sixteen years to understand that’s what my friend’s mom meant. She was warning me that if I made Israel my whole world, when he was gone, I would feel lost. I would feel like there was nothing left.
* * *
A co-worker told me that letting go of one’s children is a normal part of the journey all parents take, that it leaves all parents a little unsteady. She told me that once her children had emptied the nest, she and her husband made it a point to get to know one another all over again. For twenty years, they had just been parents, the same way I had. They knew that they had each forgotten how to be man and wife. So, they went on vacations. They instituted a date night. They made a point to give their full attention to one another. They took their children off the altar and put each other on it.
My question is, how in the heck do I do that? I’m not a part of a couple. I never married. While I was raising my son in my twenties, my friends were starting prestigious and time-consuming careers. They waited until their early thirties to get married and now have young children. While I am nearing the end of my journey, theirs is just beginning.
There is a story in the Bible, in the Book of Matthew, that talks about talents. To summarize: a wealthy landowner goes on a trip and leaves his property in the care of his three servants. Before he departs, he distributes five talents to the first servant, two talents to the second and one talent to the last. Upon the landowner’s return, the servant who received five talents reports that while his employer was gone, he invested what he received and made five more talents. The servant who got two did the same. The servant who got one talent buried what he received and returned it just as it was, with no increase. The landowner was displeased with the servant who did nothing with the gift he’d received, while he blessed the ones who moved on faith.
Every time I read that story, I feel like the servant who buried his talent. I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve always wanted to travel. I’ve always wanted to move beyond the little world I grew up hiding in. I’ve always wanted to create: new worlds, new characters, new experiences. But I didn’t. I stopped the day I got pregnant. Instead of writing I hid my talents in the love of my son; and now he’s tossing them back to me.
“Why would I try to stop you from going somewhere? Heck, I’m trying to go somewhere!” he informed me while briefly tearing his eyes away from the video game he was playing. I had just announced that I’d been accepted to an MFA program in Los Angeles and had expected him to make me feel guilty about my leaving town without him. Instead, our little talk devolved from my achievement to a gripe session about why I wouldn’t let him hang out with his friends on school nights. He couldn’t have cared less that I was venturing off to learn to how be a writer.
A fellow writer asked me why I refuse to let go. It’s clear that Israel doesn’t want me to hang on and that no one who loves me would judge me for pursuing my own dreams. In fact, it’s the opposite. They would love to support me. They would love to see me succeed.
So, what’s the problem? What am I afraid of? The answer is plain and simple. I don’t want to let Israel go because I don’t want to let my cross go. My cross symbolizes my penance. I thought I was supposed to carry it around like a scarlet letter. While it’s true that no one judged me for having a child out of wedlock or for taking forever to finish school, I judged myself. If I stop judging myself—if I let that go—I won’t have a penance to make; and what price is too big to pay for bringing someone into the world without a father? How can I ever pay enough?
* * *
I know it’s time to put down the guilt and I think I know how to do it. I’ve heard it said that when we write, we heal. We see ourselves in the lives we create, in the stories we tell, even in blog posts. Maybe that’s what I’m doing now as I write this. (Even as I listen to Israel give me guidelines on how I can behave at his girlfriend’s house before homecoming.) Maybe I’m healing—one word at a time—as he puts on his suit and yells that he doesn’t know what I’ve done with the corsage. Maybe, while he waits impatiently at the door, and I reread the previous sentence, I’m becoming a little more myself again. I like to think that’s possible. I like to think that even if I never make the New York Times Best Sellers list, I’ve done something. I’d like to think that I’ve become an agent in my own healing.
Jahzerah Brooks is an Ohio-based fiction writer. She received her BA in Liberal Arts at Antioch University Midwest and is currently working towards her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is the fiction editor of Lunch Ticket. Jahzerah lives in Dayton with her son and two dogs.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a powerful memoir that depicts a very personal narrative while also serving as a work of criticism, exploring society’s inability to see or accommodate the needs of the extremely obese. Her examples range from descriptions of public and private erasure, the dearth of public accommodation, and so much more.
In simple clear prose, Gay declares what happened to her twelve-year-old self—a vicious gang rape that left her wounded, altering the trajectory of her life. At first there is a reticence in telling the story of the rape. It’s as if Gay wants to say: “Okay, okay, I’m almost ready. I’ll tell you, just give me a minute.” Once she does tell her truth, Gay goes on to examine her own actions and their consequences:
“I am trapped in a cage” (17).
The cage is her body. She is not fine with her body: “I am not comfortable in my body” (18).
She sees her body as a crime scene, herself as both the perpetrator and the victim. She begins to feel herself to be nothing because she has been treated as nothing: “Those boys treated me like nothing, so I became nothing” (45).
Gay turns her body into a fortress for her own self-protection. But there are consequences. Gay declares that the bigger you are the less you are seen. She speaks of the toll her fatness takes on her personal health, relationships, and the public disgust and disregard she must endure because of her condition. She explores the cycle of shame that leads her further down the road of disordered eating, self-destructive romantic entanglements, and family estrangements.
In her ruthlessly honest telling, Gay reveals a spectrum of human dysfunction as it relates to obesity. This in itself is a service. The revelation of her own suffering provides a window into which the individual reader might find parts of themself. One’s personal challenge does not need to be as extreme as the narrator’s to glimpse a personal truth, or the place where the reader’s particular dysfunction might reside on the spectrum. These revelations are made possible because of the narrator’s willingness to share her deepest and darkest secrets and her ability to then, with ruthless honestly, reflect upon those secrets. This is also what makes memoir the literary genre of our time.
The theme of hunger is explored in its many ways. First, there is the ravenous hunger of a young woman attempting to protect herself—through food—from the gaze and violence of men. There is the hunger for love and affection, for acceptance, for touch, to be seen and heard, for validation and respect, for sustenance, for sex, for equality, kindness, pain, and punishment. There is the hunger for adequate public accommodations, the hunger to be closer to her family, the hunger for thinness. Gay the sociologist uses her own experience to examine the human condition.
Hunger is a meditation on what Gay did to herself and why. It’s a memoir of reflection.
Chapter eighty-four in particular must have been cathartic to write. The chapter is an exploration into the life of the boy (now an adult man) who orchestrated and helped commit the crime against her. Speaking so clearly and bravely of her abuser is a declaration of being, and a taking back of her own life.
(They say that revenge is a poor reason to write a memoir. This is not a revenge memoir, but I can’t help but wonder if her perpetrator is haunted by his actions. I hope that he is.)
Hunger is also a memoir of healing and of growth and empathy: “I am taking small steps toward the life I want” (293).
And toward the end of the work the reader can feel how Gay has begun to heal: “My body and the experience of moving through the world in this body has informed by feminism in unexpected ways. Living in my body has expanded my empathy for other people and the truths of their bodies” (297).
Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Harper, 2017.
Angela Bullock is an Antioch University MFA Candidate in creative writing and a member of the Lunch Ticket team. She read her essay Thank You Donald at the 2016 NoHo Lit Crawl. A Los Angeles-based theater and television actor, Angela has received nominations for a 2016 Stage Raw award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and a 2015 NAACP LA theater award for her stage work.
It’s an early October morning in West Seattle and storming off and on. The trees are half a dozen shades of red and orange and last night’s downpour has left the pavement soaked. The neighborhood I’m walking through is chock-full of small-town peculiarities like a shed with a bold banner that reads, “Caddyshack,” an actual phone booth in someone’s front yard, and a disproportionate number of vintage motorbikes. I’m heading up Hinds Street to rendezvous with a AAA driver at the site of my broken down 2007 Prius. Last night, the vehicle expired about a mile from home on the way back from the grocery store. So this is where we part ways, I thought when it happened. It was a long time coming.
My Rick Steves backpack (a leftover from my traveling days) is heavy with time-killing tools including my iPhone, journal, laptop, and a book of Chekhov’s short stories. With so many welcome distractions, I’m actually looking forward to the inevitable wait for my rescuer’s arrival. As I walk, the thought of my dormant automobile sheltering me from the elements transports me back to 2012, when I lived in Huntington, Long Island.
Hurricane Sandy hit in late October of that year. Trees and telephone poles were down everywhere. We lost power for over a week; others had it much worse. During that uncertain time, my wife, our dog, and I relied on our silver Toyota Prius for news, phone charging, and warmth.
For a few days after Sandy, no one went into work. It felt like Christmas, save for the confused, shellshocked looks on my neighbors’ faces. We wandered the quaint streets of downtown, searching for stores with generators. Our local frozen yogurt shop was among the first businesses to get back on the grid, so we drove the Prius over—desktop computer in tow—to catch up on emails. In Sandy’s aftermath, I observed the longest gas lines I’d ever seen; good thing our eco-car barely needed any of the stuff. We cruised the North Shore on a mere quarter tank, powered by a patented Hybrid Synergy Drive.
As I walk, memories of the hurricane work at me on both sensory and emotional levels. I recall the bleak, calm atmosphere, a weary acceptance of life’s inconveniences, and the feeling of time stilled. Through the haze of nostalgia, the idea of us hardy townsfolk coming together in the wake of a nor’easter is comforting, cozy even.
The incline steepens, and I see my car far up the approaching hill, right across from the red brick middle school. I know it’s mine because the paint on the front bumper is almost entirely gone. It happened in Oregon on the last leg of one of my low budget tours as a singer-songwriter. I was working my way home to Southern California. The other car was at fault and we settled outside of insurance. I spent the money, promising myself I’d get the bumper cleaned up. Years passed. There never seemed enough money to fix it properly. Life was a game of whack-a-mole at that time: I’d pay one bill, and two more would pop up in its place.
Up ahead, I see a white repair truck barreling down the hill, passing the Prius. That’s my guy. It’s gotta be. My fantasy of uninterrupted reading time evaporates. Walking in a diagonal line across the street, I wave to the driver. I’m not sure he sees me so I half-jog over. He turns the truck around. By the time I make it up the hill his vehicle is tail to tail with mine, in proper repair position. I accept whatever the fates have in store for my Prius.
His name tag reads Ryan, and he leans over my car’s open trunk. “Some of the guys don’t like working on these, but I don’t mind. You’ve got the hatchback for cover if it’s raining. It’s not bad.”
“I was pretty sure it was the end of this thing,” I tell him. “I mean, it’s got 196,000 miles on it. Everyone used to say when these batteries died they were unbelievably expensive.”
Ryan is happy to talk shop. He also understands that my sole point of automotive reference is this one vehicle. “You’re lucky. The nickel metal hybrid battery isn’t dead. It’s the 12v,” he says. “They are pretty pricey, though. About two hundred bucks.”
“That’s nothing,” I say, laughing. “My wife and I were touring musicians. We crossed the country four times in this car.” I don’t tell him the Prius was like our second home and when it died last night, we worried that was it. A few hundred dollars for a replacement battery is actually a huge relief.
I watch Ryan as he works. He doesn’t know I am transforming him into a character, that I notice how high his buzz cut goes in the back, his circulation socks, the fact that he is beltless. Ryan lifts my old battery and places it on the steel bed of his gleaming truck, leaving behind a socket inside the trunk.
It turns out Ryan lives down south, past Olympia. He gets up at 3 a.m. to make it to the auto shop where he works in Magnolia. That’s over an hour and a half commute, I figure. He owns a house down there, an acre and a quarter. Got it for a hundred thousand ten years back. Friends are always telling him he should sell his home and move closer to work. Ryan says in this housing market, that would barely equal a down payment on a place. I understand. For years, the Prius’s steep monthly cost felt like a mortgage, especially considering all the hours I spent in the car.
There are hundreds of thin scratches near the gas cap, each one the result of leaning my heavy guitar case against the car’s shell. In this light, they look like scars. From a distance, the close groupings of lines act as cross-hatching, shading the back panel of the automobile. A decade ago, when this car was brand new, the novelty of owning a hybrid was a real conversation starter. My friend’s son called my then-futuristic vehicle a “button car,” though, to be fair, vehicles as far back as the ‘46 Dodge employed similar technology.
I never had much foresight when it came to big life purchases. Like so many Angelenos, I leased the Prius at first, a disastrous idea. I overshot the allotted mileage and the dealership backed me into a Faustian payoff agreement. Over the years, as the car became increasingly rugged looking, people started telling me touring in a hybrid was cool. And green to boot. I began to take pride in my small musical footprint. Grab the acoustic guitar, get in the Prius, and go.
It turns out Ryan is a conscientious repair guy. He urges me to “take the car for a spin around the block” to make sure the new battery is working.
Last night, my wife and I stayed up until two researching new cars. Certain we’d have to purchase one before work on Monday, we tried to accept this unexpected financial hardship. I couldn’t imagine our Prius rising again, like Lazarus, for another chapter. But today, in routine Cascadian showers, I rediscover my old touring companion. I reset the clock and the radio stations—both wiped back to their defaults by the recharge—and fall in love all over again.
Square readers didn’t exist when I bought the Prius in 2006. After I sign with my finger, Ryan hands me the receipt and a survey. He says if I want I can tell his boss he “hooked me up.” My car gleams in a brief sun break. Maybe I’ll just do that.
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.
They called girls like her butterflies. At least the moms on Instagram did. Posting pictures of toddlers with low-set ears and thick necks and little girls with strangely puffed hands and feet. They used hashtags like #butterflygirl or #turnersyndrome. More often than not it was photos of blankets or baby toys bought for daughters who would never be, their presence heaviest in absence.
They called girls like her butterflies because Turner Syndrome meant just one X chromosome instead of two like normal girls. Just X. The shape of butterfly wings.
My little butterfly, the captions always said.
Liz thought the endearment was kind of cruel, though it was meant with nothing but tenderness. She didn’t feel like any kind of butterfly. It had taken all her fifteen years to figure out that an A-line bob could hide her thick neck, and that well-placed belts could force an hourglass shape onto her barrel ribs.
She didn’t see many fifteen-year-old Turners girls calling themselves butterflies on Instagram.
Not that there were terribly many of them in the first place. Only one in every twenty-five hundred girls had Turner Syndrome. Only one percent of fetuses with Turner Syndrome were carried to term, avoiding miscarriage.
Hence the photos of unused baby blankets.
Liz’s dad said it meant she was special. Here for a reason, he said. Liz just wished she could wear a ponytail like every other girl.
She tugged hangers in her closet, going through each of her shirts for the fourth time. Cinched waist only worked in so many circumstances. For the party that night, jeans would be expected. And trying to figure out what to wear with jeans was basically the bane of her existence.
She hadn’t been to a sleepover since third grade. She remembered it vividly, too, because at the time she’d recently started taking the daily growth hormone shots that would help get her to her current almost-average five-foot-three instead of the Turner Syndrome four-foot-something. She’d started panicking and had to sneak out and call her mom who told her missing one night of shots would be okay.
She’d stopped taking the shots last year, now that she was tall enough. Her doctor said they’d put her on birth control next year so she could start her period.
Yeah, she’d be a junior before having her period. She didn’t know whether that was good or embarrassing. Girls in her class had been complaining about periods for years already, and she never knew what to say when they did. Her mom asked the doctor if she even had to have a period at all. Wouldn’t it be nice to skip it all together? she’d said. But the doctor said that wasn’t possible. That periods were an unfortunate necessity. Something to do with hormone regulation and bone density.
Turner Syndrome meant she’d never be able to have kids, but she wasn’t really worried about that quite yet. She’d never even been kissed. She figured she needed to worry about that part first, anyway.
She finally picked out a light blue blousy top and stuffed it into her backpack along with her toothbrush and pajamas. The pajama part didn’t worry her as much. Hoodies and sweatpants were the great democratizers.
She and her dad didn’t talk much as they drove to Jhanvi’s house. The January chill bit through Liz’s sweater as she walked to the door. Her dad wanted to walk her to the door, but Liz said no.
The door opened before she even rang the doorbell.
“Hey Liz!” Jhanvi said. “You’re here!”
Liz allowed herself one small wave goodbye to her dad, who gave her a thumbs-up before pulling away from the curb. She didn’t feel any different seeing him drive away than she had in third grade.
Jhanvi led her inside, and Liz removed her Converse and set them by the door. “Okay, can I just tell you something?” said Jhanvi. “Every day your eyeliner is completely gorgeous and perfect and I always mean to ask you how you do it. I try to do cat eyes like you but I can’t ever get it to work.”
Along with belt cinches and blousy shirts, make-up had taken Liz a long time to figure out. She had wide eyes she’d spent hours in front of her bathroom mirror learning to accentuate. Turner Syndrome meant fine motor dexterity was a slight issue, but she’d worked on her eyes over and over, with pencil, crayon, and liquid eyeliners of pretty much every brand, until she’d figured it out. She’d watched hours of tutorials on YouTube, though she’d never found anyone in those videos who seemed to be working as hard at it as she had to. She gave Jhanvi the only honest answer.
“Practice,” she said. “Probably an embarrassing amount.”
She didn’t mention how long it had taken her to figure out how to do those funky, beachy waves with her straightener.
Jhanvi headed down the plush-carpeted stairs, and Liz followed her. The house wasn’t big, but the yellow light from the chandelier, the family pictures, and intricate tapestries on the walls, made it all feel like a home. Liz wasn’t surprised Jhanvi came from a place like this. A welcoming place. Jhanvi was the kind of girl who could be friends with the Dungeons and Dragons kids and the cheerleader group at the same time, without anyone thinking she was dorky or unkind. She was the kind of girl who could get some ignorant comment about her brown skin on Monday and by Friday she and the conformed racist would be shopping at the mall together.
Liz had the opposite situation. For her, the whole world seemed like ill-fitting jeans. Wherever she went it wasn’t quite right.
The basement was one large room featuring a large couch, a maroon rug, and several large bean bags all surrounding a wall-mounted TV. Four girls were already draped over the couch and bean bags. Liz felt her stomach ice up a little bit when she saw who else was there. The girls on the couch were Angela and Candice, two blonde girls who were captains of the cheer team, whom everybody knew. They’d never said anything mean to her, but somehow they made Liz feel like a blithering idiot every time they walked past her in the hall.
On one of the bean bags was Blaire, the third member of the ABC popular trio, who was on the cheer team but not a captain, redheaded instead of blonde, who always seemed to be trying to catch up to the other two as they walked to classes. If Liz had known the ABC’s were going to be here, she might not have come.
The last girl was someone Liz had seen but whose name she didn’t know. She had long black hair with a red streak and perfect straight-cropped bangs. She was in a black band T-shirt Liz wished she could pull off, and her eyeliner was YouTube tutorial perfect.
Liz swallowed. What was she thinking? There was no place for her in this crowd. Who was she going to talk to? What was she supposed to talk about? She was going to embarrass herself over and over all night long, she just knew it. Liz, the sow in a room full of tigresses.
“So,” Candace said, after Liz and Jhanvi had found seats on the floor, leaning against the couch or the wall. “Liz is short for Elizabeth, right? So, why’d you end up with Liz instead of like, Ellie or Beth or any of those nicknames?”
Liz looked down at her bare feet. She should have painted her toenails. Why didn’t she think to paint her toenails? “Not sure,” she shrugged. “I guess it just ended up that way.”
“It’s cute,” Candace said, and Liz couldn’t remotely tell whether or not the statement was genuine.
The strategy of simple answers when questions were addressed to her worked well for the first few hours of the evening. She didn’t say much until someone asked her something, at which point she tried her best to seem nonchalant and unfazed. Or if she found herself in a more one-on-one situation for a moment—passing one of the girls on the way to the bathroom, getting a drink with someone in the kitchen—she kept a running list of questions to ask them. She felt ridiculous about needing a mental list of questions, but got minor palpitations if she forgot one for a second.
Did everybody need social masks and mental lists like this? Probably not. She was some kind of socially inept soul in a bizarrely messed-up body.
Still, things seemed to be going okay. She even managed to get a couple laughs as the conversation went on. Then the subject of the Winter Formal dance came up.
“I’m going with Jax, of course,” said Candice. “I’ve already found this periwinkle gown that’s completely gorgeous.”
“God, you always find the best stuff,” Angela said. “I can never find anything.”
Liz wanted to roll her eyes. Angela had dainty boobs and Barbie-doll legs. She could wear tinfoil and look runway ready. She had no clue the torture that dress shopping could be when your legs were too short for your torso and your ribs were shaped like a beer keg. She couldn’t even get the vast majority of the dresses she tried on to zip up. Even dresses that went past her toes.
“I’m going to wear a sari,” Jhanvi said. “Actually, it’s one of my grandmother’s. I’m super excited.”
“That’s so cool!” Candice said. This time Liz could tell it was genuine. In fact, there was the tiniest hint of approval-seeking in Candace’s voice. Because Jhanvi somehow existed above the normal social groups, it was as if Candice was frustrated at not being able to reach her. “What about you, Morgan?”
The black-haired girl flicked her red streak glamorously over her shoulder. This girl’s confidence came from a different place than the ABCs’. Those girls were queen because everybody wanted them to be. Morgan was queen of her own domain because she demanded it. “Red,” she said. “Dark red.”
The girls ooohed. Jhanvi started singing “Roxanne” from Moulin Rouge and everyone laughed.
“Your turn, Liz,” Angela said.
Liz swallowed. “Still figuring that one out,” she said. She didn’t say she was planning on skipping the dance all together.
“Ooh, let’s see,” said Candice. She looked Liz over closely and Liz willed her hot cheeks to cool. “I think you’d look super great in like, an emerald green. Or maybe more like a muted dark green. That would match your eyes.”
All the other girls looked her over and gave their consent. Liz already knew green was her color. It was the fit of formal wear that never worked. She just shrugged, and was relieved when Jhanvi’s mom brought down the fourth large pizza and the topic turned to what Netflix show to turn on.
But Liz’s relief flickered when they picked Law and Order: SVU. There was one episode of that show where the plot revolved around a girl with Turner Syndrome getting kidnapped. It was the only show she’d ever found that had a character with Turner Syndrome, and the episode made her sick. The detectives said the character was trapped in the body of a child. They said the kidnapper had to be a pedophile to be attracted to her.
When they landed on that exact episode, Liz couldn’t even muster surprise. It just felt inevitable. Of course, at the one real party she’d been invited to in years, they’d end up watching the one episode of television that was basically a forty-three-minute personal insult. Classic cosmic cruelty.
She watched as the detectives learned the girl was teased for looking really young. That wasn’t right at all. Liz had never been teased, not really. Well, except once, in fifth grade, about hearing aids, which she’d stopped wearing. She managed just fine without them. And yeah, she looked a little younger than her age, she supposed, but so did tons of people. Looking young was the good part of Turner Syndrome. The actress who played the TS girl was cute as a button. She didn’t have webbing on the side of her neck she couldn’t truly hide. She didn’t have barrel-shaped ribs and stubby legs.
All the other girls laid back and watched, and Liz just hoped she didn’t look as agitated as she felt. Everybody else was so casual. Everybody else wasn’t thinking twice about it. Everybody else had two sex chromosomes. She said a silent prayer that nobody would be curious enough to look up Turner Syndrome on their phones. Liz had done it plenty of times, but she could only look at photos of Butterflies for so long before she had to look away. She looked just enough like them—too much like them. She didn’t want to look like a syndrome. She didn’t want one of these girls scrolling through their phone, glancing up at her with a look of recognition and curiosity, looking back down again.
When they got to the “trapped in the body of a child” line, Liz stood up, mumbling something about finding a bathroom, and walked out of the room. She was pissed, but not even at the TV show. She got pissed whenever Turner Syndrome became a central theme of her thoughts, like it had that night. The vast majority of the time it was totally a non-issue, and that’s what people didn’t get. The vast majority of the time life was about her sketchbook, and her homework, and Vogue, and her parents, and her closet. Like any other fifteen-year-old. It’s not like a diabetic went around thinking I’m a diabetic all day long.
Liz made it down the hall and found the bathroom, turned on the light, and shut the door behind her before realizing she wasn’t the first one there.
Blaire was on the floor, sitting against the wall between the toilet and the shower, knees pulled to her chest.
“Oh gosh, sorry…” Liz started. Then she registered the look on Blaire’s face, the red swelling of her eyes.
“You okay?” Liz asked.
Blaire rolled her eyes and sniffed.
Liz looked at the eggshell-colored tile, feeling stupid. But she couldn’t just leave Blaire sitting here. “I mean, what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” Blaire said, but in a way that even Liz, who wasn’t great at reading between the lines, could tell she meant something more like, Please ask me again so I can vent and cry.
“It’s not nothing,” Liz said, sighing. This is not what she expected or wanted from her weekend. She already knew she and Blaire didn’t have much in common, so this wasn’t one of those times when being a shoulder to cry on would make them sudden friends. But she couldn’t just leave Blaire just sitting there. “Seriously, you can talk to me. I won’t tell anyone anything you don’t want me to.”
Blaire’s shoulders bounced with a restrained sob. “It’s… I mean this just keeps happening. I’m running out of excuses why they haven’t been to my house. Angela and Candice, I mean. And when we go shopping I pretend nothing works when really, I’m even hotter than they are if I could just… but now this stupid, stupid dance… They’re going to expect… They’ve already talked about coordinating dresses. But Angela spent almost four hundred dollars on her dress. FOUR HUNDRED. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Liz stared at the whimpering girl for a moment, then sat on the toilet seat. “This is about dance dresses?”
“Well it’s going to be the… the last strike, I just know it,” Blaire said, throwing a hand up in the air. “I can only pretend that cheap clothes are a fashion statement for so long. I know they notice. I know they’re already talking about me.”
“Wait,” Liz said. “I’m trying to understand. You’re worried about Winter Formal because it will make Angela and Candace notice that you can’t afford a four-hundred-dollar dress?”
Blaire threw both hands up this time. “That I’m poor. Okay? I said it. Poor. If they ever saw my house they… They’d laugh at me.”
Blaire hugged her knees tighter, and Liz could see fear in her widened pupils. But the thing was, the fear looked very familiar. Blaire looked the way Liz felt when she imagined someone noticing her wide neck, or heaven forbid, commenting on it. The way she felt whenever the coach said they were doing laps in P.E. When her fingers looked chubby no matter what color polish she put on her nails. Hell, Liz herself was so freaked out about the idea of formal dresses she wasn’t even planning on going to the dance.
“I’m sorry,” Liz said. Her mind swirled, trying to think of something else to say, words that would help or at least comfort Blaire. But she wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. Finally, she just said sorry again.
“Not like it’s your fault,” Blaire said.
That was true, Liz supposed. Blaire’s financial situation was not really her problem. But she had spent the night feeling alone, alien, and out of place, when someone sitting next to her was feeling the exact same way. Even if it was for different reasons. Even Jhanvi, who never seemed to feel out of place, was the only brown-skinned girl at this party, and maybe it had taken her a while to figure out how to be okay with that.
Blaire tugged at a loose thread in the hem of her jeans, and Liz watched her. She could see Winter Formal in her head. Whatever Blaire managed to work out dress-wise, she was going to be paranoid the entire night. She could be gifted a four-hundred-dollar dress and there would still be a panicked glow of worry behind her eyes. On the other hand, Jhanvi would be the only girl in school wearing a sari, and she would be the envy of everybody else. Because she knew who she was, and was honest about it.
It was about hiding or not hiding.
It was about doing vulnerable you things, or spending the night curled up in a dark bathroom.
Liz stood up. “Well, good luck,” she said. “You… you’ll look great, whatever you wear. I’ll keep a seat for you out there.”
She left the bathroom, keeping the light on, but still feeling awkward about leaving someone sitting alone on the bathroom floor. But she didn’t really know what else to do.
It was about hiding, she thought again.
She stood alone in the hallway for a moment, trying to let this sense of realization seep into her brain, trying to figure out what it meant.
It would take a few more days to figure that out, Liz thought. She didn’t want to hide, but she wasn’t sure what not hiding would look like. There was still no way in hell she was walking back into that room and saying, Hey, this is what Turner Syndrome is REALLY like. No way.
But she could at least go back in the room. They were on to old episodes of The Office. This time it was one of her favorite episodes ever, the one at the company picnic.
“Jim and Pam are seriously relationship goals. Nobody is better than him,” Candice said.
“Right?” Angela said.
“Ok, honestly,” Liz said, sitting down. “I mean Jam is amazing of course, but Michael and Holly just make me feel better about the whole world.” Liz swallowed, hardly daring to glance around in case someone was giving her the Judgy Brow. But the other girls laughed, and Liz did her best to believe the laughter was friendly.
Maybe admitting strange celebrity crushes was a dumb way of not hiding, but it was a start. She really did think Steve Carrell was ridiculously attractive, even though he was old enough to be her father.
That’s the other thing the CSI episode got wrong about Turner Syndrome. Turner’s girls could have crushes and a sex drive like anybody else.
It was getting late, and as the episodes kept playing, the other girls changed into PJs and curled up under blankets, trying to keep their eyes open. Blaire was back, snug against the arm of the couch, not sleeping.
Liz wasn’t sleeping either. Her brain refused to relax. Like usual, when that happened, she pulled out her sketchbook.
Those stupid fine-motor skill issues hadn’t been great when she was learning to sketch either, and she’d spent many of her early drawing years seeped in frustration at herself, ready to chuck the stupid notebook across the room. It’s one reason she continually went back to clothes and designs, actually. In those drawings, her sketches could be sloppy and childish, because if she could get the pattern right and follow that correctly, then the end result would turn out the way she wanted. Often enough, anyway.
She’d never been brave enough to wear one of her own things to school, though.
She spread her notebook out across her lap and took out a pen. (Her teachers always told her to sketch in ink). A prom dress would actually be easier than some of the other things she’d made. (Pants were the hardest, by far.) She could do some kind of collar to shape her neck, a cute ruffle or tie collar maybe. Who cared if they were cheesy. She liked them. And an empire waist with lacing would give her body the structure she wanted…
“What are you drawing?”
Morgan looked over her shoulder at the page. Liz’s first instinct was to slam the book closed, but she took a breath in and kept the notebook open. “Um… it’s… well, I’m toying with the idea of making my own dress. Like for the dance. I don’t know, it’s stupid.”
These last words slipped naturally out of her mouth, without her even trying. But it wasn’t stupid. She would work at this not-hiding thing. She’d get better.
“That’s cool,” Morgan said, and sat back down.
It was cool, Liz thought. Not many girls could sew their own clothes, and Liz knew she was good at it.
She took a photo of her rough sketch and posted it to her Snapchat stories. She almost never posted her drawings on Snapchat or Instagram or anything. But she was proud of this sketch. Excited about it. She didn’t need to hide it.
She would post a picture of herself in her dress too, once it was done. She very rarely posted selfies. (Most of her Instagram was of pretty fabrics, patterns, and vintage sewing machines. And her cat Dmitri.) She could talk about the process of making the dress, maybe, or where to buy the best material and patterns. She would be brave.
She didn’t have to tag it #butterflygirl or #turnersyndrome if she didn’t want to. She didn’t even have to tag it #selfie or #seamstress. She didn’t have to tag it anything.
It would just be her. With all the things that entailed.
There wasn’t really a hashtag for that.
Sarah Allen has been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest.com. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Brigham Young University and is currently working on querying and writing books for young adult and middle-grade readers. She loves Pixar, leather jackets, and Colin Firth. Learn more at sarahallenbooks.com.
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