Cartographer

I am in constant pursuit of an escape route.

Since my father’s passing in 2012, I have moved a total of seven times. Arizona to California, up to Idaho and back down to Phoenix again. My living map is a zig-zag of dots and scattered lines spanning the western US. This February, I relocated my family yet again to Washington. I am on a constant quest for physical space to lovingly forgive my mental state. Nearly one year to the date of the assault I detailed in my last blog, I departed the place where I have spent the majority of my life and started a three-day long drive to my new home in the Pacific Northwest.

I so deeply crave the ability to settle. To rest.

*        *        *

At eleven, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When my family uprooted me from my central California home in 1997, they were unaware of the cognitive destruction this move would cause—a child, ultimately brought within significantly closer physical boundaries to a predator. For years, my grandmother’s husband and resident “good guy” had been covertly abusing and subsequently threatening me during extended stays and family vacations. Young, confused, and fearful, I abided by my parents decision to relocate to Arizona to be closer to loved ones. Nearly all of my relatives had shifted from central and northern California over the years. My parents decided it was due time to make the transition themselves and thus, our unit of three came to the desert, a mere fifty miles from the home of my abuser.

In a poem I published last year about this particular home, I wrote about the vivid connection to this physical space and the devastation of the memories associated:

 

The streets of my hometown are lined with brooding palms, dying in summer sun. The heat—sucking moisture from blades of grass, sucking souls, sucked my memory dry.

In Kingswood Parke there is a house seething with sin, shelled memories of innocence line the halls, discarded. In this house my parents raised a child who never learned what childhood meant. A house where no room felt safe. I shifted. Front room. Guest room. Den.

After he left I would find him. Linger. Linger. Meds on my tongue. Every boy in my bed. Every failed attempt at counseling, healing. Flashbacks. Convulsions. Hospitals. Broken hearts. Broken bones. Broken promises. Broken home. Haunt knows no boundaries.

There is no median between the pressure of his flesh on mine and this plague that refuses to come undone.

After relocating, our visits increased in frequency. The abuse became more intense. My memories of this childhood home are stark, clogged with the sensations of this tragedy. I can still recount every room, every step I made in that house, the places I tried to hide, and the bed where I held back tears and pretended to be asleep before I was finally able to build up the courage to tell my parents what had been going on. My memories are so vivid that, in a split-second, I can find myself back in that physical space. Every sensory detail reconstructed with unwarranted precision.

*        *        *

Sufferers of PTSD experience a wide array of symptoms. Particularly, I find myself smothered by the ironically ever-present tactic of avoidance. After experiencing traumatic events, our instinct is to bypass any and all associations to the circumstance as an effort to escape a potential flashback. We avoid sights, sounds, smells, and the sheer presence of any connection to the matters that entangle themselves in our torment.

Phoenix had become my own personal hellhole. A clusterfuck of landmines, buried at every crossroad.

I spent nearly twenty years in Arizona. My memory had transformed the metropolitan area into a landscape of dangerous relationships, physical trauma, illness, multiple breakdowns, and the deaths of family members, close friends, and my own father. The hurt was relentless.

My partner and I mapped out my days. I desperately sought to avoid anything with a single tie to pain or traumatic experience. I stayed at home when my daughter and husband went out. Drove out of my way to avoid situations and spaces I anticipated may be anxiety-inducing. Homes. Workplaces. Restaurants. Roads. Television programs. Music. Things I once loved, I fled from. I felt the looming presence of monsters encircling every space I inhabited, clawing at my skin. I lived a life in practical hiding, in the place that terrified me most. In my apartment. In the depth of my mind.

*        *        *

I have long been consumed by control. Control of the things I can and cannot often control. I am engaged in a constant wrestling match with my own willpower. In my own misguided measures of control I have tested my own ability to withstand. I sit complacent in toxic dynamics in an attempt to control and soften those who sought to hurt me. Other times, I flat out abstain from circumstances I fear have the capability of inflicting a speck of pain. My results, nonetheless, are ingrained in reality. I cannot escape the present, regardless of effort.

For most of my life, I have fought to regain the control that began slipping from my palms as a child.

*        *        *

Shortly after making my way to Washington, I overheard my father-in-law binge-watching one of his favorite shows, Jessica Jones, in the living room; a show I was previously unfamiliar with. As I stood in the adjacent kitchen with my husband, I overheard the following scene play out:

Kilgrave: “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.”

Jessica: “Yeah. It’s called rape.”

Kilgrave: “What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?”

Jessica: “The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”

Kilgrave: “That is not what I was trying to do.”

Jessica: “It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me again and again and again—”

Flashback. Flashback. Flashback. The dialogue on instantaneous loop.  

Stop fucking chasing me.

I was angry.

I made the move to Washington to avoid this. The memories. The pain. I was still high on the impact of arrival. Why was this happening in the place where I sought to be safe?

I briskly departed the downstairs quarters and threw myself face first onto my pillow—sobbing, silent, distressed. Another trigger in an all-too-real, constant conversation about sexual abuse in our country.

As a survivor, I want justice. I want to speak. I want to hear. As a survivor, it’s also something like playing a game of Russian roulette every time I engage with media.

*        *        *

Another thing to know about me: I’m terrible at taking my own advice.

In my writing, I do my best to make clear, conscious decisions. When I wrote the above aforementioned poem, Exiting Bell Road, I decided to interject the words, “Haunt knows no boundaries.” Why? Because I knew what I was talking about, I’ve just been too stubborn to listen to myself. I cannot, no matter how hard I try, avoid this.

My life has been a series of patterns. My father, the depressive. The angry. The kind. My mother, the worrier. The lover. My husband and I have the same arguments, twelve years after we first met. I listen to the same music I did at seventeen. I can eat the same handful of meals every night for months. I tuck my daughter in with the same song and “hugs and kisses and rubs” every night at the same time. I over-apologize. I over-indulge. I attempt to overrun the pain, the present. As much as I wish to wake up to an alternative, I cannot avoid my existence.

The loop, again.

I am a creature of habit. My mental state still makes its way into my writing, scaling the lines of my poems—blunt-forcing its way into this essay.

When I come face to face with the gravity of fear, I flee.

*        *        *

My ever-expanding map has become a safety mechanism. In my efforts to feed this craving to settle, I also have become the orchestrator of my failed attempts at avoidance. I have successfully run out of places to hide and I think for once, I’m okay with this.

I am a constant work in progress.

For now, I am trying to teach myself to see through to the end of the waves before they come crashing in at full force. If I know my trauma will always be a blaring siren, can I embrace the moments where it is a dull murmur in the distance? Can I learn to truly live in these moments? Maybe we don’t always have to choose between fight or flight. Is it possible to interrupt this polarity? It seems beginning to understand these patterns, this constant shapeshifting, is a step to the settling I crave.

Washington State

My new home sits amongst the trees, deep in a forest encased by the Puget Sound. It is a humble home, filled with family. A place of relearning and discovery. A place so close to this body of water that reminds me each day of its epic beauty and power. I feel minuscule and happy to be so. My trauma still remains tethered, however, I am learning to breathe in the moments where I can locate calm, even momentarily.

Today, I sit at the edge of the water, embracing the potential to stay.

Doni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner currently residing in Washington. She spends her days working as an educational director, mommying an extraordinary four-year-old, and serving on Lunch Ticket, where she has held a laundry list of positions over the last two and a half years. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching streaming television with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie James. Her poetry, personal essays, and journalism have been featured online by Lunch Ticket, Dirty Chai, Bloodletters Literary Magazine, Calamus Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, The Thought Erotic, and Ursus Americanus Press and can be found in the print-based love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She holds an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in art therapy from Arizona State University and is currently working on completing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.

 

 

torrin a. greathouse

Litdish: torrin a. greathouse, Poet

torrin a. greathousetorrin a. greathouse (she/her or they/them pronouns) is a genderqueer trans woman & cripple-punk from Southern California. Her work is published or forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry, Muzzle, Redivider, BOAAT, Waxwing, The Offing, Frontier, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is the author of two chapbooks, Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm(Damaged Goods, 2017) and boy/girl/ghost (TAR Chapbook Series, 2018). When they are not writing their hobbies include pursuing a bachelors degree, awkwardly drinking coffee at parties, and trying to find some goddamn size thirteen heels. They were featured in Lunch Ticket 11 and nominated for a Pushcart Award and The Best of the Net award.

 

10 Questions for torrin a. greathouse:

1. Where are you writing us from?

I’m writing from Orange County, California, where I’m currently living in an overcrowded apartment while working on finishing up my undergraduate degree. While I wish I had more room and no upstairs neighbors, I live with only other trans folx, and that has made for a really important sanctuary in the last year.

2. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

The most recent poem I have written is a work-in-progress analyzing the relationship between the prison and mental hospital as carceral institutions, and the influence these exert over queer bodies. Recently, I have been interested in discussing and dissecting institutions of power and violence—particularly American gun culture, and the ways in which it intersects with white culture.

Not too long ago a poem of mine, “Somewhere in america, a gun,” was published in Waxwing. While this poem responded abstractly to gun violence in America and the difference between hearing a gunshot growing up in a rural setting and in the city, it was published—by chance—the day after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. People’s response to that poem was incredible, and as with many poems published in the wake of tragedies, I think it helped deliver some sense of catharsis for what many of us were feeling.

Despite this, I spent the majority of the day physically ill over the timing of things. It served as a reminder that as long as we are complicit in a culture that is more interested in the rights of the weapon owner than the lives those weapons continue to be used to take, poems like mine or Kathy Fish’s “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” will never cease becoming relevant again and again.

3. What’s your writing practice like?

A lot of writing for me is gestational. By the time I open a word processor, most of the poem is already in my head or spread across a dozen notes and documents of spare lines. I draw a lot of inspiration from language itself, definitions, etymology. I think that language (and particularly English as a colonial language) is embedded with such a complex history of appropriation and violence that it can bear a high level of interrogation. A lot of my recent writing has also focused on traumatic experiences and the fungibility of memory. There’s a beautiful quote from Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale: a Gloss” where she says “In life, time’s passage allows us to see change, but a poem’s chronology forces us to see repetition: lyric time is not progressive but fragmentary and recursive. Traumatic time works like lyric time: the now of terror repeatedly breaking back through the crust of one’s consciousness.” Lately, my writing practice has involved the constant consideration of my experiences as they are reenacted in my mind, the recursive experience of trauma. I am interested in writing into this modality, seeing how this understanding of time shapes and reshapes the narratives my work reproduces.

4. How does your day job inform your writing?

It keeps me fed and housed. I think that, culturally, we put a lot of stake in the starving artist trope, often glorifying even self-imposed poverty. In my experience, it has always been easiest to write when I have a bed and my stomach is full. Even if I don’t particularly enjoy my work, it gives me enough separation from the day-to-day, minute-to-minute of survival and grants me space to reflect. Without that, I think it would be just about impossible for me to write.

5. What should we be reading?

This has always struck me as the impossible interview question that’s always pitched. I try to keep up on about three dozen different lit mags, and I could list literally hundreds of poets who are doing incredible and vital work. There are of course the big names, Kaveh Akbar, Maggie Smith, sam sax, Layli Long Soldier, Max Ritvo, Rachel McKibbens, Christopher Soto, and Danez Smith, who I adore, but once again, there are too many to name.

At the moment, I am (re)reading I am Made to Leave I am Made to Return by Marwa Helal, Nature Poem by Tommy Pico, al youm by George Abraham, agon by Judith Goldman, and White Papers by Martha Collins. I am in a space of trying to read what teaches me. So many of these authors have shown me routes to addressing systematic violence and oppression, or how culture conditions us. Collins’ book (which sam sax recommended to me) has been helping me consider how to write into, about, and against whiteness, while addressing my complicity in the oppressive structure that is white America.

If I had to pick out a few poets that I think more people should be reading if they aren’t, here are my picks: George Abraham, because their work on Palestinian identity and political erasure is so uniquely vital. Liv Mammone, who’s a brilliant poet and activist writing complex pieces around disability (if I could force every able-bodied person sit down and read their poem “I Can’t be a Confessional Poet Because Basically All I Want to Say is This,” I would). Khaya Osborne, Logan February, and Jasmine Cui are all young poets absolutely bursting with talent that people should keep their eyes out for. But if there’s one poet that I think the whole scene is sleeping on, it’s Nicole Connolly. Just read “Eve Knows How to Make the Asp’s Mouth an Entrance” or “No Credible Physicist Believes in a Bio-Centric Universe Anymore” and tell me they aren’t doing work like no one else is right now.

I also think that the side-by-side of “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Jeanann Verlee’s response “The Violence Question, Answered by a Goat, Or, Notes Toward a Discourse on Haunting through Poetry” should somehow be required reading.

6. What’s your favorite album?

I really wracked my brain for this one. There are so many albums that are deeply formational for me, as well as concept albums that have affected the way I think. The last three albums by The Wonder Years have all inflected the way I put together my chapbooks, Therǝ is a Case That I m and boy/girl/ghost (which is coming out later this year), as well as a full-length collection I am currently working on shopping out to publishers. I’m also a gigantic Springsteen fan, but my favorite songs are spread across five or six different albums. So, I think just in terms of emotional resonance, I’d have to pick Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! All the songs on this album were so fundamental to the process of me coming out as trans that I don’t think any album can even come close. It’s still the first thing I put on every day as I put on my makeup and get ready to go out into the world.

7. What are some of your non-literary interests?

Honestly, I’m so boring if you remove writing from my life. I clean my apartment, I cook with my partners, I go to class. Lately, I’ve been trying to pick up old hobbies, sketching and playing guitar. Both of these are much much harder now that I have arthritis in my hands, but the slow progress is rewarding. I also try to stay engaged in queer activist spaces around my campus, educating and doing the work that I can.

8. What’s a piece of advice you’d like to pass on to young/emerging writers?

I largely conceptualize myself as a young emerging writer, which often places me in a weird position of feeling under-qualified to give advice. There are a few pieces of advice that I think have deeply inflected the way I interact with the world as a poet. The first comes from Kaveh Akbar. When you lose confidence in your writing, throw yourself into reading, and let the voices of your forebears carry you until you find your own voice again. And the second, from Luther Hughes, sometimes in a poem you need to just fucking say what you mean. There’s a danger in making things too beautiful to be understood, and sometimes sounding “like a poem” is the worst thing for a given piece.

9. Why do you write?

A lot of writing for me is processing and meditating on a topic, whether it be gun violence, trauma, or quantum mechanics. In Colleen Abel’s recent Ploughshares blog “Learning to Love the Long Poem,” she discusses the “argument that all poems are essentially persuasive—that all poems are rhetorical devices,” which I find useful to understanding my own work. Even my shortest pieces often have an implicit argument, this often being “look, people like me are being killed and you should care.” So I think there’s a sense in which I write to be seen, to make myself real, to reclaim my humanity (because as a disabled trans woman, it is so often stripped from me). Though, at the same time, I don’t want to say my work seeks to humanize me—and by extension other trans people. I am human, I always have been, and will be. Christopher Soto discusses the problematics of the idea that poetry “humanizes” far more in depth than I will here in a fantastic essay for Poetry Magazine. They question whether “It [is] possible to fight against otherness/dehumanization without being called towards assimilation?” Lately, I’ve been questioning what it means to write toward my own humanization. What does it mean to write poetry for a primarily cis and able-bodied audience? How can I write against assimilation?

10. What question do you wish we would’ve asked you and what’s the answer?

One of my heart spots is when I am asked to discuss the way that my disability affects my work, as I often feel that my existence as a disabled poet is overshadowed by my transness. The full-length manuscript that I finished up recently is devoted to discussing the intersection of my disability, trauma, mental illness, and transness, as well as specifically working on poems which confront the multiple models which are used to understand disability in our society. I have also been working on a long essay intended to confront the problematic way in which the feminist text The Cyborg Manifesto leaves trans and disabled bodies behind in the future it imagines, as well as the struggle to imagine a trans and disabled futurism outside of the cultural paradigm of correction.

 

Adrian Ibarra is poet and weirdo living in beautiful Oakland, CA. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles where he is a co-managing editor for their literary magazine, Lunch Ticket. His work, which focuses on poetry as an object that exerts the will of the poet as a force into the physical world, has appeared at The John Lion New Plays Festival, in Burningword, Metaphor Magazine, as well as other journals and magazines that don’t exist anymore.

On Writing, Fathers and Sons

I began to write after Pipo, my father, passed away. I was a month shy of eight years old. I had learned to read and write only a couple of years before. At first I’d scribble notes on loose pieces of paper like He’s on a business trip, he’ll be back, or He’s still around, I can still smell his clothes. Then there were notebooks, which I hid, afraid that my brother, sister or worst yet, my mother would find them. There was something about writing down my feelings on paper that made them less weighty. As with most things at that age, it felt right but I couldn’t figure the reason, nor did I care.

My father, Pipo, as an eighteen year old in Havana circa 1945

I don’t remember much about my father. I do recall that I admired him. I suppose every boy that age looks up to his father. He was always in control, always clean, always nicely dressed in his dark suits and starched white shirts. I felt safe around him. He was our family’s protector, our provider.

One time, he took me with him to play squash with his friends. I was too young for squash, so I just ran around the park while they played. I don’t remember if he was a good athlete, if he was coordinated, if he liked to play, or if it was just an excuse to be with friends. He had one friend who could make his stomach roll like a wave. I remember that day because I laughed with my father, like we were pals. But what I remember most is how much I loved being with him.

I remember asking him to watch me hit one day when he came home for lunch in the summer as I was playing baseball with my friends. He stood there for a minute, leaning on the fence in his suit and tie, he seemed preoccupied, but he smiled as I fouled off a couple of pitches. He checked his watch and went into the house. He might have praised me.

At least that’s what I like to think.

   *     *     *

It was thirty-two years ago today, March 3, 2018. I heard him cry for the first time. And I cried with him. He was my first-born. My son. I had up to that point reached a point of complete and utter apathy. I had lost faith. I’d lost faith in the idea that somehow there was a natural order to life, that things happened in their own time and that it was always the right time.

Me with my son, probably 28 years ago or so

I saw my son’s face through my tears, his swollen eyes shut tight as he rested on his mother’s breasts and it suddenly struck me, I was a father. It felt as though my faith had been restored. How overwhelming that felt! I wondered what type of father I would be. I wondered what being a good father looked like.

And I wrote again.

This time I wrote about how to be a father: I hope I last longer then Pipo. I need to spend more time with them than my father did with me. As I did, I wondered if Pipo had thought about that when I was born. I was his second. Like my daughter would later be to me. She would be born almost two years after my son.

I wrote furiously. I tried desperately to search my memory for my father’s wisdom. To recall any piece of advice he may have imparted on me before he died. I didn’t remember anything other than him telling me not to let any boy touch my ass or my face. (I wonder if he’d feel differently today knowing my brother, who embodies what it is to be a man, is gay). And to never let anyone pick on me. If someone bigger picked on me, I was to find a stick, a rock, anything to even the odds. But never, ever back down. My memory paled over time. For a while my father became a fading black and white photograph on my mother’s dresser, where she would place fresh flowers on the anniversary of his death and of his birthday.

I was on my own.

*     *     *

I had been raised Catholic. I had been an altar boy and had even considered the priesthood early in life. But those feelings vanished as I grew older and began to consider the absurdity of it all after Pipo died. “There is a reason for everything,” I was often told. “God has a plan,” said others. Then, while I waited to discover the reasons for it, I was uprooted from Cuba, fleeing the Revolution. I landed far away in San Francisco and the reasons became ever more obscure. It would be the second time my imagined life, my plans, and my dreams would once again be dashed. New ones would need to be conjured.

Suburban Train Line at Fontanar Station in Havana, where my friends and I played on the tracks as kids.

I wrote again then. Except this time I wrote letters to all the friends I’d left behind. I wrote to them even though there was no assurance that my letters would ever get to them. But I wrote as much for them as for myself. Again, somehow writing helped me cope. Putting my words down made my memories real and irreversible. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, my letters became a testament to my past. I wrote to my friends and told them not only what this new place was like: It’s cold, the people aren’t friendly, and I can’t understand them. But I also reminded them, or reminded myself, of all that we’d done together: playing baseball and soccer in the street, running around in the rain, fighting each other, sitting at the train tracks putting our ears to the rail, making bets on how long it’d take the train to arrive, surviving hurricanes, talking about girls. I wrote, I won’t forget.

*    *     *

In the evenings, Pipo would come home from work and shower. He’d dress again with a light short sleeve shirt and casual slacks. We’d all have dinner as a family. Then my father would leave to go next door for his nightly domino game.

I would sit out front with my mother, sister, and brother talking to the neighbors while we waited for Pipo to come home. I remember begging my father to let me come with him so I could learn to play. He did one time, for a little bit. The game was always four players, sitting around a square table. Dr. Jimenez, a tall brown skinned man with a booming voice whose daughter Isabel was in my class, sat across from Pipo. Mario Sainz, our short, white haired next-door neighbor, whose wife Iluminada couldn’t bear children, sat across from Pedro Plata. I don’t remember much about Pedro Plata other than his pasty white skin. I wouldn’t have known it then, but had he lived in San Francisco, I would have assumed him to be Irish. It was pretty much the same group every night. They smoked cigars and played. I stood behind my father, watching him line up his pieces. “Make sure you don’t reveal my pieces. They can’t know what I have,” he told me. I never did. I wanted him to trust me.

That’s why today, the smell of cigar smoke brings me back to a place when my life was perfect. When that scent comes, I can close my eyes and almost hear the slap of the domino pieces on the table and the chatter of the players, and my father’s voice.

At least that’s what I like to think.

*    *     *

As my kids grew older, I wrote some more. But this time I wrote stories for them, about funny animals, adventures, and flying elephants. Their innocence and curiosity sparked my imagination. They inspired me. I found that my father hadn’t in fact faded away at all. Did I have the same impact on him that my kids had on me? I wondered if I’d inspired him. I wondered about how my kids would remember me after I was gone.

I’d made my share of mistakes in life, as a husband, as a brother, as a son, as a friend and as a father. Still, I came to understand that my job as a father was to nurture, love and hug my children relentlessly so that they could grow to be better versions of me. Better people. I began to believe that maybe there was in fact a reason for everything. I wondered if growing up without my father, made me strive to be a better one. When I look at my son and daughter, who they are, and what they’ve become, I’d say I’ve done a pretty good job.

At least that’s what I’d like to think.

*     *     *

Years after my father died and before I married. I sought out my father’s friends who by then were living in Miami. I found Mario Sainz and Dr. Jimenez, his domino partners. I told them how I’d wished I’d gotten to know my father. I asked them to tell me about him, not to hold back because I was his son. I wanted to get to know my father, as a man.

He’d liked women, they said. I knew what they meant. I smiled, not because I condoned it, but because that alone made him frail, more human, and more real. They also told me how he’d been smart and well read, always a man of his word, always a compassionate friend, and most of all always a man true to his family.

*     *     *

Writing has been my steady companion throughout my life, longer than my father. It has been the bridge between being a son and being a father. Nowadays I write stories like this one. I’m still figuring out life and fatherhood, because that job doesn’t really ever end. I’ve lived nearly twice as long as my father did. But I think about Pipo still, especially when I see my grown son and daughter. I wish they could have met him.

And I think of his warm hand gently tapping my own when I placed it on his shoulder the night I watched him play. As if telling me he liked having me there.

At least, that’s what I like to think.

Jesus Francisco Sierra is currently working through a post MFA semester ​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.

 

 

Eloisa Guanlao, Noli Me Tangere (Stills), 2017-In Production , Digital Documentary Video

Spotlight: Noli Me Tangere

As an artist and ecologically-minded humanist, I am interested in performing history and historiography through visual means, giving careful consideration to the materials I use. I am currently working on Talk Story, a multifaceted long-term project, spanning four continents and five centuries of territorial expansion and human movement […]

Progress?

Alexa. A-L-E-X-A. Three syllables, five letters, soft vowel sounds. Depending upon which baby-name website you look at, it is either the 51st most common name for newborn girls this year or the 111th. It’s popular. And why shouldn’t it be? Alexa has a nice ring to it. At least, I thought so—until she moved into my house.

A little over a year ago, my husband came back from Best Buy with an Amazon Echo. We usually discuss purchases that impact us both before we make them, but I have a hunch that my husband decided to surprise me with this one because he really wanted it and had a hunch of his own that I might not share his enthusiasm. He does know me well.

“Look! Alexa’s hooked up to the lights,” he said. “You don’t have to get up anymore to turn them on.”

“Whoopee!” I responded.

The last thing I needed was another excuse not to get off the couch.

I don’t blame my husband. He, like so many others (Amazon reports having sold over 20 million Alexa-enabled devices as of late 2017) [1] , has succumbed to the allure of convenience (more about that later). I, however, have not joined the bandwagon. Quite vehemently, the opposite. And I’m struggling to understand my strong feelings against the “intelligent” machine/woman who is now living in my living room.

Alexa, of course, is a woman’s name. She/it has a woman’s voice. I wonder how that came to be. Did the creators of the Echo flip a coin—heads, a man; tails, a woman—and it landed on the back side? I think not. I am rather certain that Alexa is not Alex because it’s easier in our culture for people to ask a woman to serve them than it is to ask a man. It’s more acceptable to make menial demands of a woman, to feel comfortable with her ever-presence and her ever-eagerness to satisfy.

Alexa is an example of how attuned corporate America is to our ingrained gender roles and relationships. Would most American men so freely ask another “man” to turn on his TV for him or to dim the lights? Would most women feel as safe with a strange “man” always on the ready, listening for her command? Echo’s creators knew that the answers to those questions would be “no.” They invented a product that is helpful, attentive, and non-threatening—of course they made her a woman.

O.K. Alexa is a symptom of our longstanding gender inequality and stereotypes. But is that the reason she presses my buttons so? Is that why I give her so much power?

I don’t think so. Alexa feels powerful because she scares me.

I don’t mind talking to machines, but I find it terribly creepy when they talk back. I don’t think we really need a woman’s voice, or any voice for that matter, to come out of our gadgets. I hope we are not that lonely, that hungry for connection that we need our creations to sound and seem human. They are not human, but some of us treat them as if they were. Sometimes the lines become blurred.

Thanks to Love Plus, for Nintendo DS (it’s available on Amazon!) and the soon-to-be-released Love Plus Every for smartphones, people around the world can choose from three high school virtual girlfriends, each with her own personality: Nene, is described as “big-sisterly and sweet”; Manaka, “intelligent but clingy”; and Rinko is “the shy one.” [2]  One makes physical contact—kiss or hold hands—with one’s virtual girlfriend using a stylus, and the lovers virtually converse, as well as exchange emails and texts. One Japanese gentleman even married his virtual love in a ceremony that included a deejay, MC, and a priest. [3]

1984 is no longer fiction. Must Stepford Wives come next?

My husband gave me another “surprise” one day: A Ring doorbell—the camera-inside-a-bell that takes videos. It beeps him at work every time someone is near our front door; then he can use his “smart” phone to watch the video and see who that might be. Again, my husband is not alone. The company that makes Ring is now worth more than a billion dollars. [4] I am pretty certain that our society is not now a billion dollars safer because so many of our homes have been hooked up to that device.

My own comings and goings are nothing I feel the need to keep secret, but since my husband installed the Ring, I choose to walk into the house through the side door.

I work as an English tutor, mostly with high school students on their college prep. I recently came across an SAT passage that discussed how the Internet is changing our brains—not necessarily for the better. Certain parts of our memory are actually getting shorter. That’s because of what are known as transactive memory sources—we tend not to remember as much information when we rely on another to retrieve it. [5] In other words, why bother remembering when we can just ask Google?

I may be old school, or maybe just old. But I believe my years have given me some bits of wisdom. Our memory is precious, as are our memories. Let’s not hand them over to a search engine.

There’s also that sticky matter of convenience. Sure, getting up off the couch is not always convenient. But there is something to be said for physically turning off your own lights. We’ve all become so disconnected from process. We don’t need still more intermediaries to take us further away from the source.  When we rely so heavily on technology for information, even thinking becomes an inconvenience. It takes too much time. Schools now provide fewer lessons in computational skills because of calculators; the teaching of grammar and spelling rules has also gone by the wayside; there’s always spell-check. One could argue that this leaves more time for teachers to focus on developing their students’ critical thinking. Yet, I don’t see our society placing all that much value on that skill.

I bought a t-shirt the other day that spells out my prayer: “Make America Think Again.”                      Please, God, make America think.

The more we plug in, the more we disconnect. We’re all moving so fast, spinning ever so quickly, but we don’t seem to be considering where we’re going. In this noisy, busy space, it’s easy to feel angry and lost. Some simmer. Others explode. I am writing this just two days after a deeply troubled nineteen-year-old in Florida walked into his old high school armed with a semi-automatic and opened fire. He killed seventeen people and injured fourteen more. It was Valentine’s Day.

It’s time we consider where we’re going—and whom we’re leaving behind.

I guess, in the scheme of things, whether Alexa is a female or a male or a person of neutral gender is not an earthshattering matter. But paying attention to the little things, the compromises we make, daily, in the name of progress and convenience, is. We need to examine the ways we feed our addictions, and, yes, our technologies are addictions. My hope is that we’ll begin to pick and choose more discriminately, become more discerning. Let’s not just say “Yes!” to the next great product that will make our lives easier—and emptier. We can make the choice to work a little harder at the important things, like getting up off the couch and talking to another real, live person who may have had a hard day.

As we become more accustomed to spewing out commands to our machines, I hope we don’t forget the importance of listening. My deepest fear is that someday, maybe sooner than I imagine, the only “people” left who will take the time to listen will come out of a box and all have the name Alexa.

 

[1] Balakrishnan, Anita. “Amazon’s Alexa Had a Breakout Holiday Season.” CNBC. 26 Dec 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/26/how-many-amazon-alexa-echoes-were-sold-over-the-2017-holidays.html

[2] Bosker, Bianca. “Meet the World’s Most Loving Girlfriends—Who Also Happen to Be Video Games.” The World Post. 6 Dec 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/21/loveplus-video-game_n_4588612.html

[3] “Sal 9000: Man Marries Video Game Girlfriend.” Huffington Post Tech. 6 Dec 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/23/sal-9000-man-to-marry-vir_n_367579.html

[4] Montag, Ali. “This $1 Billion Company Was Once Rejected on Shark Tank.” CNBC Make It. 30 Nov 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/30/shark-tank-reject-doorbot-is-now-billion-dollar-company-ring.html

[5] Sparrow B, Liu J, Wegner DM. Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 2011;333 :776-778.

Diane Gottlieb writes both fiction and nonfiction and is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and is an assistant editor of creative nonfiction and blogger for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. She lives in New York and Florida.

 

À La Carte: A People’s History

[fiction]

An overcast day in early November: wolf-gray sky, scraps of cloud pasted above the ragged skyline of the city. Here, half-reclined on a worn green corduroy couch, furred belly bare beneath a struggling hem and a thick braid of drool making a moat of his shirt collar, is Sam, freshly awakened in the living room of his small house by a strange and menacing sound. Outside, at the edge of a threadbare lawn, the Flint River sweeps past, its mottled surface bearing leaves that twirl in the current and catch on the grasping fingers of drowned trees. Farther downriver shuttered buildings line the banks, their windows smashed, rust-colored doors scrawled with graffiti.

Sam has been having a pleasant if peculiar dream, one in which he finds himself exploring a series of unfamiliar homes: seaside saltboxes; a rambling neoclassical manse; dim, low-slung ranches not unlike his own. Doors flung open, each house seems to beckon, to promise him something mysterious and profound, but as he wanders through the unlit rooms, he cannot for the life of him figure out what it could be. The last house he visits is the mansion: white, with rows of sparkling windows and a broad columned porch. Inside, its chambers seem to go on forever. Hallways lead to more hallways, rooms to other rooms. Sam drifts along as if in a maze, rheumy eyes aimed at the distance, his fingers brushing the curved white walls. He passes golden candelabras and mahogany desks with the hoofed feet of fauns. Oriental rugs cover the floors, and the mantels are hung with stately portraits in gilt frames. He has just entered what appears to be a grand bedroom when he is awakened by the sound.

He hoists himself upright and waits, silent, still. A minute passes. Another. He hears it again: a scratching noise, followed this time by a distinct bang, like the backfiring of his old Dodge truck. Wordlessly he rises, the couch springs wheezing beneath him, and lumbers to the window, where he can see the full expanse of his backyard, clear down to the river. He unclasps the lock and throws open the sash; the crisp air stirs his thinning hair. His eyes pass over his property—the rotting porch, a beached canoe, his collapsing ramshackle shed—but nothing seems amiss. He hears only the wind and the chirp of a fat robin poking hungrily at a patch of yellow-headed weeds.

As he closes the window, Sam catches a glimpse of his face in the glass: furrowed eyes, waggling chin. A bulbous nose crosshatched with red veins. He sighs and sinks back to the couch. It seems impossible that he has become the pale old man he sees in the window, and yet here he is: sixty-seven, with a bad back and a face like splintered stone, unmarried and childless and living off a small income from Social Security checks. He glances back at the window and feels a hot jet of fear rise into his chest. Ever since losing his auto job five years ago, replaced by a robotic cart that delivers parts to assembly lines, Sam has lived in terror of strange sounds. Many nights he’s lain awake listening for the jangle of a doorjamb, shattering glass, the thump of booted feet. He’s heard stories, unconfirmed but frightening nonetheless, of neighbors torn from their beds and beaten with bats, friends slashed by knives over a handful of crumpled bills. Cars stolen, homes ransacked, old ladies lying bloodied on the floor. Outside his thin doors, it seems the city itself—hell, the country—is being ravaged by a dark, unknowable force. Queers getting married, Muslims carrying bombs, illegal immigrants hightailing it across the border in search of American jobs. He’s started seeing danger everywhere he goes: in the kitchen at Mel’s Diner, where brown faces, glimpsed through an opening behind the register, bend darkly over his food; at the supermarket, where the black bag boys seem to leer at him from beneath drawn, malevolent grins; even outside his favorite convenience store, its stoop scattered with the fragrant homeless, their cups thrust angrily at his knees. He has visions sometimes of a river of dark skin spilling the banks of the Flint and rushing toward his house, flipping cars, engulfing streetlamps, blasting through shop windows in town. Finally, it reaches his street, his yard, his door, and as he trembles behind the couch, a pile of chairs stacked in the entryway, the mad river seethes through his mail slot, splinters his door, topples his walls, and, with a last hysterical roar, swallows his soft body whole.

It is this he imagines now, this river of dark skin at his doorstep, as he lies back on the couch and commences to listen again for the sound. Outside, the day is growing dark, the yard webbed with twilit shadow. Across the room the television is muted, and on the screen two men engage in a frenzied debate, their silent mouths twisted and strained. Sam settles himself against a cushion and crosses his legs at the ankle. The downy tongues of his slippers are torn, and as he props his feet on the couch arm a patch of matted fur comes loose and floats to the floor.

He has just closed his eyes when again he hears it: scratch, scratch, bang. The sound is louder this time, insistent. He rises to an elbow, eyes trained on the window. There: a flicker, a shadow flashing past the glass. For a minute he holds his breath. In the stillness his heartbeat seems deafening, unaccountably loud. The sound comes again, and with it another vague fluttering at the window. He drops heavily to his knees and crawls toward the sill. His legs ache; the carpeted floor is coarse on the skin of his forearms. The fear is in his throat now, a thickening that halts his breath. A wave of self-pity washes over him, supplanted quickly by rage. “Show yourself!” he shouts into the half-light. “I ain’t afraid of no spook!” He pounds his palm on the rug. He can hardly see; his eyes are wild with fright, his mind dancing with menacing visions: a hulking black man with an automatic pistol; Mexicans brandishing knives, bandanas covering their faces; a turbaned Muslim igniting homemade bombs.

With a grunt he wriggles back to the couch and begins Army-crawling down the narrow hallway to his bedroom. There, in a closet, propped against the wall, is a rifle, a Remington 721 thirty-ought-six that had belonged to his grandfather. The gun has a slim black barrel and a scope shaped like a flashlight, and it can shatter the skull of a deer at 500 yards. Still prostrate on the floor, Sam jiggles open the closet door and yanks the gun down to his side. Taking it into his hands, he is struck by a memory so vivid it seems almost to have manifested physically before him, like the flickering reel of an old family film. In the vision he is standing beside his grandfather in a field. The day is clear and damply warm. In the distance, soup cans line an old split-rail fence. Beyond it, at the tree line, enormous oaks burst with fat green leaves. Sitting cross-legged on the grass, Sam watches his grandfather lift the rifle to his shoulder and peer through the scope. Expertly, the old man swings the barrel into place and then pauses, his right eye closed, left still pressed to the lens. “Never trust anyone who don’t look like you,” he says then, his lean frame motionless below the gun. The words themselves, which carry a hint of the southern accent inherited from his own sharecropper father, are like small salvoes in the otherwise silent field. Eyes wide, Sam stares up at his grandfather, too scared to reply. “You listening to me, boy?” the old man barks, then slowly he draws the barrel from where it’s aimed at the fence and swings it toward the child, bringing it to rest on the top of his small head. The gun’s black steel is warm on the soft fuzz of his crew cut. Back by the tree line, a hawk luffs its wings and lifts effortlessly into the sky. “Those people,” he continues, the gun still balanced on Sam’s head, “every last one of ‘em will rob you, and then they’ll shoot you where you stand. Don’t forget that, boy.” Without another word, the old man swings the gun back toward the fence and pulls the trigger, sending the middlemost can pinwheeling from its perch, then he kneels down and hands the gun to the boy.

It feels so much lighter, Sam thinks now, sighting the rifle in the darkened bedroom—far less unwieldy than it seemed that day in the field. He shakes a handful of bullets from a box and loads them one-by-one into the magazine; each enters the steel chamber with a satisfying click. With each bullet he tries to visualize the face of the intruder: black, red, brown, teeth bared, eyes blazing with menace. He imagines raising the rifle, sees a shadowy figure framed by the scope. Silently then, the gun at his side, he tiptoes back down the hallway and makes for the front door, then slips out into the night.

It is full dark now. From where he crouches by the side of the house he can barely make out the river. The tall oaks lining the bank rustle darkly in the breeze; their rounded forms seem to merge with the black water itself. The grass is cold and damp, and Sam can feel wetness seeping through the thin cloth of his jeans. His fear, so frenzied earlier, has narrowed into a kind of crystalline focus, and he is vaguely aware of having surrendered to its control. He lets it guide him now, rising into a squat and hurrying across the backyard toward the river, where he settles onto one knee in the hollow of a thick trunk. From here he can see the length of the tree line, and as he stills himself to look for movement, he feels his breathing growing shallow and quick.

A moment passes, then he sees it: a figure darting along the riverbank, a long, thin object hanging at its side. It is a ghostly sight, spectral and strange. Sam hoists the gun and takes off toward the bank, the barrel wobbling as he hurdles roots and weaves between darkened trees. Up ahead he can hear leaves being crushed by scampering feet. Suddenly the sound stops, and Sam sees the figure dip behind a tree and vanish. He raises the scope to his eye and focuses it on the tree: at the base of the trunk, he can just make out the black sole of a shoe. Whoever—whatever—it is, he’s got him now.

Rifle fixed to his shoulder, he advances across the leaf-covered grass toward the tree. In his belly he feels a kind of fizzy elation, the manic ecstasy of a conqueror. Suddenly he sees himself on a movie screen, framed by towering cliffs. He’s wearing a loose buckskin vest with a sheriff’s star fastened to one side, and on his head is a massive ten-gallon hat. Nearby, his bounty cowers beside a creek, limbs quaking with fear. Its face, Sam notices on the screen of his mind, is not a single visage but rather a kaleidoscope of the faces of all the world’s undesirables—Muslims and Mexicans, queers and tattooed blacks—scrolling by like jukebox sleeves atop a thin brown neck. He sees the goateed man who used to tease him in rapid-fire Spanish in the break room at the plant. He sees the grinning Ivy League techie who invented the robot that stole his job. He sees the slim, dark face of the president, his lips pursed, eyebrows arched with disdain.

As if a match has been struck and held to a wick, these visions set off a kind of detonation in Sam’s brain, and with a whooping war cry, he bolts for the tree, punctuating each stride with a different shouted slur: “Gook! Guinea! Spic! Spook!” Birds flee from branches; sticks snap beneath his boots. “I’ll send you back to your own country!” he roars. “There’s no place for you in mine!” Saliva spurts from his lips, ticking like rain on the leaf-covered ground below. A puddle of black sweat has spread across the back of his shirt. With a shaking hand he raises his grandfather’s gun and presses the bolt into the chamber, then cranks it locked. The trigger feels expectant under the soft pad of his index finger. “Old Sam’s got you now!” he screams to the cloud-streaked night sky, then, hands tingling, eyes shining with rapture, he takes a deep, exultant breath and springs to the far side of the towering trunk.

There, at the tapered end of his long black barrel, Sam is stunned to find not some hoodlum or knife-waving thief, but rather the small, bright eyes of a child—a little girl of indeterminate race, peering up at him from beneath a curtain of trembling bangs. She shrinks in the shadow of the huge tree, her cheeks wet, one tiny hand clamped around a stick. Sam staggers back, his boots catching on the tree’s gnarled roots. All at once his fantasy, his enchanting, energizing fear, goes out of him like the hiss of stale air from a punctured balloon. The child’s face—so innocent, so full of startling beauty—seems to have blinded him, and he whirls and flees from the sight, his feet skidding, the gun clattering heavily at his side as he scrambles for the lighted windows of his house, wet leaves like ice beneath his boots and in his ears a kind of noiseless roar, the roar of his breath and the blood shooting through his veins, his heart sending small blasts into the cage of his chest, and then he is stumbling, falling, the sky in his eyes now and the gun slipping from his grip and his free hand clawing for purchase in the stars, the air, the onrushing grass, and just as he topples to the earth, he hears the shot—a pure, clean sound that hangs in the crisp air like the unexpected call of his own name.

Sam lies back then, feeling a warm wetness spread over his belly, and as his breathing slows and his vision begins to go black, the last thing he sees, like an apparition outlined against the vaulted night sky, is the approach of two small feet bounding toward him across the grass.

 

Tom Lakin is a graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, where he was a full-tuition fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Noble / Gas QuarterlyPleiadesPembroke Magazine, and The Adroit Journal. He is the recipient of the 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2014 Story Contest. He lives with his wife, daughter, and Boston terrier in Boston’s South End.

 

DARPP-32, I Forgive You

I equate dogs with death.

My father brought the family dog home from his firehouse in the South Bronx. The dog was lonely, tired, and hungry, abandoned in one of the worst neighborhoods in the universe, one rampant with crime, drugs, homelessness, and endless flames. I wish I knew how the dog befriended my father and why he eventually brought her home, because it was the most heroic thing he ever did, at least for me. We had no relationship. We fought bitterly. I never understood him.

The dog, however, brought me extraordinary happiness. I was around 8-years-old when we became soul mates. She was a small, caramel-colored mutt, with a long torso like a dachshund, but taller and plumper. She used to wait for me at the gate to the schoolyard every day after school. One day, a few weeks after we’d acclimated her to her new home, my mom and I saw her leaping across the yard from the kitchen window. “Look,” she said. “She’s leaping. Like a deer.” In airy graceful arcs, she soared across the yard. “It’s Bambi!” And that’s how she got her name.

We frolicked through the neighborhood fields, she slept on my bed, and when she had her two litters of puppies, I was the only one she’d let near her while small, squeaking slime-loves in placenta sacks slid out of her. Her eyes were almond-shaped and syrup-dark, soulful and preternaturally perceptive. I loved her.

Sometimes when my father stood in the kitchen or the garage or out by the pool, I would watch him: I needed to look at the man who had brought me home a dog.

Seven years later, she was put to sleep. I was 15-years-old and devastated. I fought bitterly with my mother about it; she’d had Bambi put down due to incurable uterine cancer. I was neither given a say in the matter nor an opportunity to say goodbye to her.

“You’re horrible,” I yelled at my mother.

“Probably,” she answered, “but letting her suffer is more horrible.”

“You’re insane. You’re a terrible parent.”

“Probably,” she said, and cried. “But I was trying to spare you from the pain.”

Bambi’s demise had a snowball-death-effect: First, my mother’s diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer and her death a few months later. I was neither given a say in the matter nor an opportunity to say goodbye to her. Later, I lost two siblings, some friends, and eventually, my father, who died on my birthday.

It was as if the dog’s passing was a metaphysical rabbit hole I chased her down, and have been stuck wandering through a Wonderland-in-Extremis ever since.

During our years of doggie/human companionship—Bambi & Timmy forever!—I was very happy, yes, but I noticed more easily the things around me that were anathema to my good feelings. This included the cruelty of kids who appeared to live for one reason only: to call me a piece of shit faggot loser who was going to die of AIDS and burn in hell.

“You should be murdered,” they would say to me, mashing cafeteria pizza into my face. “Just kill yourself.” Then they’d kick me in the shin.

The other thing I noticed was the extraordinary anger of my father. He was a quiet guy, for the most part. Tall, handsome, sometimes amiable. But then he would drink, and rail, and his Irish begrudgery would rear its beery head. A mess of angry red clovers would encircle him like a deranged halo. He despised anyone with money—politicians, lawyers, doctors, anyone who was black, Latino, Asian, gay, or Jewish. His anger terrified me. If he got mad at one of us six children, he would blow a fuse: scream, jump up and down, fists raised, his face as red as blood spilled by the IRA. His voice would take on a pallor and a pitch that revisits me in nightmares to this day.

*     *     *

Fast forward nearly thirty years.

After my partner and I purchase a house in Silverlake, we begin the hunt for some little thing we can love and nurture. This fills me with both elation and dread: Is this, perhaps, the first step toward deciding whether or not I want to be a parent?

After weeks of fruitless searching, we visit the kill shelter near Dodger Stadium and are surprised to discover a dog that looks like a miniature Golden Retriever (in actuality, she’s a ‘cocker-doxie’ or ‘docker’ but we find that out later). In an overcrowded shelter rife with abandoned pit bulls and sad Chihuahuas, this little dog is a diamond in the rough. We have to bid on her in a silent auction because many people want to adopt her. We win the auction and my heart drops: Shit. Wait—I don’t want this. I can’t do this. No, no, no, no… We’re walking across the lobby of the shelter toward the main desk to sign the paperwork and pay our fees: my mouth is dry, my hands are shaking, and beads of sticky sweat slip out the skin of my forehead. What is happening? Am I going to pass out?

As the walls close in all around me, I am distracted by a sound…a familiar melody…and at the moment, the sound—a song—flicks on a light-switch in a dark room of my soul. I grab Paul’s arm and he says, “What?” and I say, “Listen!” The PA system plays A-Ha’s 80s mega-hit “Take On Me”. It was my mother’s favorite song of all time. I only ever hear it when she wants me to hear it. “It’s a sign,” I say to Paul. My eyes glisten.

   *     *     *

We want to name her after a sci-fi heroine. We consider Ripley or Newt from Aliens, Ellie from Contact, Scully from The X-Files, Neyteri from Avatar…. We land on Gertie, after the little girl from the film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial played by a young Drew Barrymore, because this little dog just owns that cuteness, that spunk, that golden innocence, and vulnerability. If you were to open this dog up, you’d find warm cream-puffs.

Gertie in “E.T.”, and “Gertie” at the shelter.

Giddy as a kid in those first few days after adopting this wondrous being, something suddenly shifts, and my heart hardens. I have no patience for the lack of control that comes with the ownership of a new dog, and I begin to have an epic meltdown. When she won’t eat the food I give her, I nearly kick the refrigerator doors. When she won’t pee and poo in the early mornings when I walk her around our neighborhood, I shove my fist into the trunk of a tree. When she craps on the rugs of our new house, I feel my body literally quaking with indignation.

Over the ensuing first days with the dog, I scream at her, fists raised. I jump up and down. My face is red as blood spilled by the IRA. The insolence of this dog! And this utterly adorable little creature bursting at the seams with love and cuteness looks up at me, confused and afraid, then cowers with sad eyes in a corner and trembles.

When I jump up and down screaming my head off, on the verge of giving myself a stroke, I see a movie in my mind, a memory: my father, when he attacked me on the phone after I first arrived at NYU and received the first-semester tuition bill. He did not want to pay for my education. He called me a “stinking fucking son of a bitch loser” and screamed his head off on the other end of the phone.

Another time, I am so enraged at Gertie for darting into the street to catch a squirrel that I lift a hand to smack her on the snout, but catch myself in the nick of time, “you’re having an Exorcist moment,” I tell myself. In that green vomit of realization, I flash to the time that my dad brought down one of his golf clubs on my hands because I wanted to wear his Fireman’s coat and hat for Halloween one year. I couldn’t hold a pencil in my hand to do my homework for days.

I try to breathe. I try to think. What do I do? What does this mean? I’m lost.

   *     *     *

We give the dog, temporarily, to our dear friends Stacy and Jonny and their 11-year-old daughter. (Stacy and I met at NYU and danced around the world together. If you ever want to know if you can trust someone intrinsically, dance on stage with them.) She says they will consider taking her if we decide not to keep her.

Enraged, confused, and broken, I research the science behind anger, and whether it is an inherited trait. According to a Science News article called “Anger is in the Genes” that appeared in The Telegraph, “Isolation of a gene called DARPP-32 (dopamine-and cAMP-regulated neuronal phosphoprotein) helps explain why some people fly into a rage at the slightest provocation, while others can remain calm.” (Irvine, web)

My DARPP-32: isolated af.

My worst fear come true: Have I become my father?

 

No one knows any of this. I speak no words about my struggle with anger and the dog. Not to Paul, not to my friends, not to my therapist. I keep it hidden, a low dark secret; the scum-layer at the bottom of a puddle on a street in a slum.

After we give up the dog, I burst into tears several times a day: in the car, in the bathroom at work, on the treadmill at the gym. My body, racked with deep, heaving sobs, will not let me sleep: How could you give that dog away? You stinking fucking son of a bitch loser. You should murder yourself, you worthless faggot AIDS-spreader.

Have I come so far in life only to tumble back down into that Wonderland of Mad-hatter horrors? My essence feels poisoned by my father’s anger, my bullies’ venom.

And then, I get it: I equate the dog with death. With loss. Trauma. Fear.

This golden little heart-melter, the most adorable dog in the history of the world, has transmogrified into a snarling colossus of existential misery. My subconscious is saying NO to chasing a White Rabbit down a hole of despair again. NO.

And after about five days with this bull’s ballsack in my face, I find myself in a paddle-boat with Paul on Echo Park lake, the cold fountain spray misting our faces. I turn to him: “Let’s get her back. Right now. I can’t live without her.” We wipe away the water and paddle to shore.

Soon as she sees me, she runs into my lap, curls up in ball, and sighs. We all know then that she is mine.

   *     *     *

Gertie has dissolved the green-gray smog layer of anger for me. She is the cool air after a fresh rain. My DARPP-32 is regulated by dopamine again, not lost in a slithery Cheshire forest.

I know, I know: you too have seen those cheesy bumper stickers that say, “Who Rescued Who?” with a little doggy paw. It’s a total cliche. But…is it?

I find it ironic that my father brought Bambi to me in the first place: she brought me love and happiness; then she led me through the gates of death where I wandered in the land of loss for years while my family was literally halved; later I felt the desire to own a dog, and that dog brought back anger, misery, and sorrow—conflicts I had to face in order to begin the process of gaining back the family I had lost by creating one of my own.

Dad, I know you didn’t willfully choose to pass down isolated DARPP-32s. It’s not your fault, and I forgive you.

I forgive you too, DARPP-32s.

I had a dream recently, one that prompted the writing of this essay: I met a wizard in an indoor public swimming pool, and he said, “I’ll show you anything you want to see.” I answered, “Show me what I need to see”, and he pulled a waterproof fanny-pack up from under the chlorinated bubbles and unzipped it. He pulled out two photographs and smiled at them, then flipped them around and showed them to me: one was of Bambi, the other of Gertie.

“Pictures of your father,” Pool Wizard said.

Nodding, I said, “How true.”

Gertie and Timmy forever!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Cummings is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Recent publications include F(r)ictionLunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), and ANTHOLOGY: The Ojai Playwrights Conference Youth Workshop, which he compiled and edited for his Field Study. He holds a BFA in Acting from NYU and is the recipient of two LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, two SAGE Awards, an LA Weekly Award, and a StageSceneLA Award for Performance of the Year.

Spotlight: Education for Bastards / Congregations for Bastards / Auctions for Bastards

Education for Bastards

Listen—you could be anyone.
Other kids say they know
their fathers, but marriage? That’s a knot
made for plot twists.
What’s better than Imagination? And her pedigree’s as full
of holes as yours. She stretches across the unknown,
she makes new stories, she flies through the galaxies and back.
Her best friend is Uncertainty.

 


 

Congregations for Bastards

“A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth
generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.” Deuteronomy 23:2,
KJV

On this we agree—
children aren’t blank pages.
God writes their flesh
and bone codes.

But why etch them with clarity
if they’re meant to be spurned?
Or form them at all
if they’re burdens?

Or give them
brothers and sisters?
Who made your sun
so bright, it blisters?

 


 

Auctions for Bastards

“Porcelain bisque,” sang the auctioneer, “spring
mechanism still in place.” The dolls with silks
of human hair smirked when carried off
to homes where Frozen Charlottes and Flanders Babies
already smiled from polished shelves,

but we—dismembered torsos, unrelated limbs,
and wrong-sized heads—jostled in darkness
under a lid. Someone bought us
for a workshop, where crafters tried
to putty up our cracks and match us

up with other parts, re-member us,
all in service of another sale, but still we loved
the ones who tried to make us whole
(as only the dismembered can)
for what light they had to work in.

 

Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, is also an adoptee, high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney. She’s written essays for venues including Guernica MagCatapultSycamore Review, The Rumpus, and Grist and is the author of the Kindle singles memoir Walk Away. Poems appear recently in North American Review, concis, Gravel, Baltimore Review, and Poet Lore. More at www.michelejleavitt.com.

Facing the Wave

The plan was to go back to Montecito—where, a few days after the Thomas Fire had reached containment, waist-deep mudslides triggered by heavy rain decimated the community. The fire had burned through approximately 281,893 acres, across the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroyed 1,063 structures, and forced over 104,607 residents to evacuate their homes and then this. Twenty-one residents were killed, while three remained missing, a number I assumed would change. And while first responders sifted, cadaver dogs sniffed, and front loaders deposited sludge, I found myself, once again, behind the glow of my computer screen.

Since the event, I had read all the reports in Los Angeles Times, followed up with friends who lived in the area, texted a ten-dollar donation to the Red Cross and scrolled through the list of victims, ages three to eighty-nine, familiarizing myself with their faces and names, but all of that felt distant and detached, sort of meaningless.

I had to see it for myself.

It was not lost on me that I was drawn towards devastation—that I was seeking my way into an evacuation site, with the inclination not just to face the aftermath of a catastrophe, but to experience it. I decided that I no longer wanted to consider the state of the world through the looking glass of a handheld screen.

So on the morning of Monday, January 22nd, when the 101 Freeway to Santa Barbara reopened, after nearly two weeks of closure, I jumped.

*          *          *

As I merge onto the 405 North, in my hometown of Los Angeles, I am flanked by the scorched-black hills of the Skirball Fire, which blazed across 422 acres earlier in December, burning down six homes and damaging twelve. It shut down the freeway and many of the schools in the area, while it skirted dangerously close the Getty Museum. I remember those unusual days, just weeks ago, when residents wore surgical masks and sheets of papery ash blanketed the streets, as I drive the eighty or so miles to Santa Barbara, skating past swells of pavement and the Pacific Ocean. It isn’t until I reach the city of Carpinteria, a few stops before Montecito, when an image grabs me: a charred palm tree split down the middle. Its singed, waxy fronds hang in a hunched way, sadistically, like a balloon that’s lost its air.

“Thank You, Firefighters,” a large, crinkled banner flutters by, followed by an explosion of orange cones that usher traffic forward, while ruby red signs blink “Disaster Trucks” towards their appropriate exits. A solitary white bird, most likely a seagull, soars overhead, as I veer down the off-ramp, passing a succession of blackened tree trunks.

Yellow caution tape spreads across the scene, reflecting red and blue sirens against its taut, plastic face. Yellow, seems to me, like the least likely color to conjure caution, to dismiss the slightest shred of curiosity. It is certainly not enough to dispel my own—so I keep going.

After passing a barrage of Southern California Electric vans, straddling two football field-sized parking lots, I enter the outskirts of Montecito. I turn down a residential street, where the air is still and littered with dust, as if the particles themselves have divided, but remain hanging. A ring of caution tape drapes around a Range Rover’s side mirror, while the burnt carcass of a less fortunate car lays at the bottom of a muddy ditch.

A couple homes are slumped, two-toned as if dipped in faded ink. Front doors are closed; some are missing from their hinges. I scan the terrain as if I was back home, scrolling down the list of names. I think about Josephine Gower, 69, who was known as the life of the party, Peter Fluerat, 73, who apparently liked to do silly, off-the wall things just to see how people would react, and Peerawat Sutthithepa, 6, who adored trains and was known as Pasta. They’re all smiling in their pictures.

There are no signs of life here besides one woman who stands in the middle of the road, holding a matted brown dog.

She wears yellow dish gloves and galoshes.

*          *          *

Six months earlier, I entered Eucalyptus Lane for the first time with my boyfriend, Brian, to spend the weekend with his family. The lip of his surfboard was strapped to the car’s roof. It protruded over the windshield, both enhancing and obstructing my view. Clumps of bougainvillea that I had collected were scattered across the dash. We were headed to the beach so that he could catch some waves and I could take photographs with my favorite point and shoot camera.

As my long hair whipped against the open window, we cruised down the main stretch of restaurants and shops, on Coast Village Road, past the wooded streets, lined with bubbling creeks and bridges, past the wide iron gates protecting sprawling Spanish estates. The streets buzzed with life: joggers’ soles beat forward, children caught ice cream drippings from their chins, neighbors waved and jingled keys, a couple clinked glasses as a bowl of pasta steamed between them. The air was electric with traces of ocean spray and overhanging eucalyptus.

It was the most enchanting place.

*          *          *

Coast Village Road is now dusted in rusty dried mud. Drooping signs thanking the firefighters flag the median, while Christmas decorations hang overhead, an entire month past due. A tall man in glasses dusts the front windows of his realty office with a sponge, while another bends on all fours, scraping caked mud off the sidewalk. One storefront is pulverized. Collapsed and skeletal, it looks like it belongs underwater. Although there is movement— truck beds clink by, news vans shut their doors, a woman walks a pair of chirping terriers— it feels languid.

I pull into one of the many open parking spots and walk through the open door of Honor Market, where six months ago, the coffee shop was bustling, but now the only other person inside of it is a young waitress with a high, blonde ponytail who asks me what I’d like. I order a cappuccino, admiring the sleek liquid cat-eye she has applied to her lids. I marvel at the effort she has put into presenting herself on a day like today.

“Did you just open this afternoon?” I ask, as she bangs used coffee grounds out of a brass canister.

“Yeah. Got here about eight, opened around noon.” She pours milk from a cardboard container, squeezes its torso into a small, metal pitcher.

“How are you doing?” I ask. She takes a breath and when she sucks the air in, her lip begins to quiver. She braces the metal pitcher against the hot, spitting steam wand.

“Well,” she says against the steam wand’s screams, “it’s uh, well, you know.”

What do I know? What do I know about water-laden masses of soil and fragmented rock careening down mountainsides, sucking up objects like boulders and cars, bulldozing homes and businesses that took years to build, guzzling up owners, friends, parents, pets, lovers, children, sucked clean out through doors, through windows, through roofs ripped open at their hinges, out in the cold, out in the middle of the night?

What do I know about all that?

*          *          *

Brian and I did not know that Miramar Beach existed, until we arrived there that day, quite accidentally; when a cul-de-sac and an empty parking spot appeared, the big blue flickering beyond. I got out with my camera and took a picture.

Down on the beach, he paddled out, while I sat down on a stretch of sand that was white and narrow. An arc of houses branched out behind me, as I watched a few dogs scuttle against the shore. A father dipped his floaties-wearing toddler into the wake, while his other daughter waded out to sea. She paused in reflection, locked in thought, while a breeze twirled her dress’s hem. I took another photo.

As I looked up from the viewfinder and watched this family in motion, I thought about my own father and his steady decline into Alzheimer’s. Day by day, piece by piece, and word by word: stripped away. His disease took everything else with it. It deteriorated the family. Friends vanished. It took my will and fortitude. I missed him all the time, even when I was with him. I missed him even more when I wasn’t.

When Brian came back in to catch his breath, he put his board down to rest. The salty globs of wax glistened in the sun, as if calling me towards it. And so I went—I put down my camera and hoisted the heavy white board underneath one arm. I plunged into the water, which was colder than I remembered cold ever being, especially considering that all I had on was a minuscule bikini. I paddled out, dug my arms into the ocean. It was the first time in fifteen years since I had been on a board. It was even longer since I’d attempted to brave the waves without my dad. The ocean was our thing.

The waves barreled towards me, bumped underneath my belly. Each swell grew higher, fuller, and more monstrous. Brian, tough and sweet, swam out to meet me.

“I’m nervous,” I said, watching the waves crest.

“Don’t be,” he said, taking the board and turning it. “I’m going to push you.”

“Don’t push me,” I said, though also paddling forward.

“Okay,” he said, pushing me.

The current dragged me, water rushing faster and faster, climbing higher and higher towards the peak of the wave. The wave took me and so I let it.

*          *          *

Outside the coffee shop, on Coast Village Road with my steaming cappuccino in hand, I notice a bougainvillea bush burned completely, except for a single strand—one magenta cluster strains towards the sky with an unwillingness to perish. Beside it, in front of Jeannie’s restaurant, two residents embrace.

Lily Semel is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA’s Professional Program in Screenwriting in 2017. She serves as Co-Lead CNF Editor at Lunch Ticket and works for two non-profit organizations, Hilarity For Charity, which provides free home care for patients and families suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and MPTF NextGen Board of Directors, which supports the entertainment community in aging and living well. She loves to take photographs and surf.