Ana mainly explores and depicts themes that have a social element, applying elements of tactile reality such as collage and found objects to issues and situations (non-materials, intangibles) to the reality of today’s society. She is interested in exploring how perspectives work with human conditioning […]
I’m terrified of masks.
Don’t come calling on me if you’re wearing one.
Unless you want me hands-clawing, calling out in caterwauls (what my kids call the opera-yell).
Most times, I don’t want to reveal this morbid fear, for the greater worry that it might lead to pranks. I’ve endured occasions where the clever-minded have designed schemes to scare me right out of my skin. One such event occurred after midnight, while chatting with my dear friend when her husband crawled around the corner donning a ghoul’s mask and I nearly passed out. She scolded him back down to the basement.
I’m told he didn’t come back up until the next day.
That’ll learn him.
Masked menaces in movies can set me off. I’ll turn away from a plot point just to escape their beady eyes.
The season of fright used to be once a year and something I could plan for, managing it with autumnal goodness. For every Freddy-gorrific bloodfest, I could carve the most artsy pumpkin, make homemade candy corn muffins, and hand paint oak leaves. But an onslaught of year-round horror films glutted the industry and the trend, I fear, has institutionalized. I’m having trouble hiding.
Children’s love of masks can also be problematic. Play with me, chuffs the young voice behind a Darth Vader mask, and I’m clutching at my heart, wondering if nitroglycerin comes in breath mints. I’ve also taught hundreds of students how to make plaster masks. I share their deep love for creating and bedazzling the hardened white shells.
I’ll hang masks around the art room, stand in piles of plaster dust, cutting more strips for your project. Just don’t put that mask on your face!
Ms. A, can you tell us why you’re so afraid of masks?
When you get through high school, college, or trade school, and get out into the world, pursuing who you’ve practiced to become, I will tell you.
* * *
I took a mask-making class while pursuing my BFA theatre degree. Lying flat, face greased, and straws up my nose, I was helpless as the instructor poured cement over my face. I’d been warned. Some people freak out. My classmates held my hands, rubbed my limbs, and assured me that I was doing fine. Their voices eventually abandoned me behind heavy mud. I was completely vulnerable: no mouth, no ears, no eyes. Only those two plastic tunnels for air. As the cement thickened, my senses were taken from me. I couldn’t read my surroundings, stay cautious, find the exits. Sweat rolled down my neck. My hands flailed in the blackness, begging for connection. I whimpered and tried to call out,
Somebody find me. I am alone–
But the hardened cement entombed my mouth.
Look for me down a long road, in the wood. Hurry!
My mind skidded wildly. Someone joined their hand with mine. This brought only small comfort. It would take a long time for the cement to fully set. I settled into a restless examination of in saecula saeculorum.
Halloween changed. We used to wear dime store demi-masks shaped like the number 8 over our eyes. The holiday looks creepier and more elaborate than when I was trick-or-treating. We’d wear a cut out sheet or a veil: a ghost, or scary bride. Boys wore their masks along with cowboy boots and hats or Dracula make-up. Pillow cases served as candy bags. Mrs. Robinson gave out cartons of orange drink. Two streets over, we’d stand in a long line watching the cotton candy-making machine until it was our turn to nibble the sugar clouds. The Zois family gave kids quarters. When I was old enough to keep up the half-mile walk, we’d get far as Greenmount Boulevard.
That’s where he grabbed her.
* * *
On a crisp cool Thursday morning at 7:15 am, October 20th, a car rolled alongside a small 14-year-old girl. She walked down the sidewalk nearing our high school stadium when the car pulled up. The car stopped. A man got out to ask for directions.
He grabbed the girl. He pressed a knife to her throat. He pushed her into his car.
We didn’t know Beth was missing. The school day ended and practices began. Dinner, homework, shower, and bed by 11pm. Her mother had frantically waited for her that night. The next day, my legs shook while the police searched her locker three doors from mine. That night, the big football game played on. We weekend partied and cycled onward without candlelight vigil or teaming up to find a lost child. When they found Beth’s belongings countywide, the detectives looked grim. Our principal withered and lost his smile.
* * *
I noticed my drill coach’s fake smile.
Get back in line, she snapped.
What’s happened? Bile shot up into my throat.
Do you want a demerit?
My coach’s face betrayed her. I lunged forward and heaved by a car until she forced me back to practice.
This is not the place or time, she whispered.
This is how I learned my childhood friend was dead.
My town erased Beth. We planted a tree in a far corner of the school. The funeral was moderately attended, held downtown. Students got pizza afterward. I watched how laughter returned that same afternoon. An artist series was to be set up in Beth’s honor. It began after we graduated. Future students didn’t know who she was, how she loved her two little brothers, her cats, and playing the clarinet, or how she had a husky laugh. At our graduation four years after her death, we had no moment of silence, no picture display, no speech to honor her. Her name wasn’t even mentioned.
This is what Beth’s taker said-
He drove around the city streets while she cried and recited The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.
As I sat in my classes, lunched, and chatted, this taker kept driving, and had Beth write a ransom note on pink paper shaped like a heart. Anything to stop that crying. Wending his way toward county roads, he parked on a lonely stretch. There, in the car, he took her frail and tiny body and raped her.
He kept Beth for five hours.
Then he hid his face with a knitted mask, took her to the reserve, and tied her to a tree. Her wails forced him to untie her again and this time he made her pull her shirt over her face.
Tell my mother I’ll wait for her in heaven.
He stabbed little Beth multiple times and left her to die alone.
* * *
All impulse. I see a girl walking down the street – bam. That’s it*.
These 13 words rationalize a taker’s entitlement. Pulled from the Block Parole website, these are the words of Beth’s killer who remains incarcerated because—when the news hit that he might be released due to a legal loophole— we demanded state lawmakers keep him there. Law is supposed to work this way.
When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford retold the events of her taker, my solar plexus tightened. I flashed to my own high school weekends, seeing the Fair Isle sweaters again. The hometown paneled basements with plaid wall paper. Hands up shirts and down pants, beer breath kissing. Pretty girls retched in the bathroom while I held back their hair. We’d study each week for tests, raise hands and answer questions, write papers, all under intense social pressure to please our parents; successful professionals who served as awarded doctors, top attorneys, senators, CEO’s, and trophy mothers. Work dog hard, go ape shit, repeat. As long as you’re top of the class, first on the team, come highly recommended, we’re looking the other way.
To a taker, the message mutates: Have whatever you want. You deserve it.
Decades later an Olympian hopeful and rapist would emerge from my high school.
When I awoke to the foregone Supreme court judge affirmation, one beloved niece’s post claimed relief that the ‘lies hadn’t taken him down.’ She doesn’t recognize the male oppression she lives under nor the manipulation of lower income white voters. She’s a single mother, raising a dynamic, gifted girl, and as the highest court continues to politicize—which it was never intended to—I hope my grand-niece will have rights to assert power.
* * *
Was there a moment when you questioned why Beth didn’t fight her taker or try to flee?
Why Dr. Ford after a party and a drunk woman behind a college dumpster couldn’t free themselves from our Supreme court judge’s advances or an Olympian hopeful’s ‘twenty minutes of action’? Why were victors given the spoils after battle? Call up and get us some bitches for later tonight. This famous 17th C painting by Rubens is entitled, The Rape of the Sabine Women. (The one where the women are “abducted” while loved ones wail.)
There are 13 letters in the word: powerlessness. It is the inability to effect change. When we the people mobilize to abolish this long train of abuses, The Threatened manage us into our grateful corners. Sexism has personal, cultural, and institutional pillars to hold it firmly in place.
There are 13 letters in this phrase: Educate to vote. If you want to grow change, then help people learn to vote locally. Teach how local representation can in turn (even if indirectly) represent every voter in the national political forum.
Hunters found Beth’s ravaged body covered in a pile of leaves.
We were raised to respect power. Add fear and confusion and the combination gives a taker all advantage.
During the trial, a local newspaper interview was unearthed which has since been lost. But, for me, it is indelible: The taker explained he used masks to cover the victims faces when he raped them. The reporter realized the serial rapist she’d interviewed was in fact my little friend, Beth’s taker. This report along with grotesque coroner statements flooded my young eyes.
* * *
Only one former student has come back asking for an explanation about my morbid fear of masks. He held up his end of the deal: graduated college and landed a Hollywood internship. I couldn’t back out of my promise. We sat outside a café in Yellow Springs, OH waving at familiar passersby.
When I recounted the basic facts of what happened to my friend, he looked distraught. He wished he didn’t know.
Curiosity is complicated.
We’ve remained close and see each other frequently.
He’s a grounded, good man, and a storyboard artist for an award-winning animated show starring a clever humanoid with a horse head.
Please, don’t come near me in one of those horse head masks either.
This is the year I got old.
The orthopedist says there is little I can do. Not about growing older—I already know that—but about my left shoulder. It’s not the athletic injury I thought it was, and there’s no definitive cure. It simply has to run its course, he says, dismissively. The only thing I can do is a daily series of painful stretches that literally have me climbing the walls.
I want to strangle him.
I have Frozen Shoulder. The medical term is Idiopathic Adhesive Capsulitis. Another name, one that is carefully avoided around women my age (early fifties), is Menopause Shoulder. An insulting, yet apt term given that seventy percent of people affected by this idiotic condition are women between the ages of forty and sixty If only our hot flashes could thaw our frozen shoulders, we’d have no need for indifferent male orthopedists.
No matter what you call it, it’s an excruciating and disabling disorder with no known specific cause other than inflammation. The signs and symptoms typically begin gradually, worsen over time and then resolve, usually within one to three years.
One or three years? I’m not going to make it.
I’m used to being in control of my body. I’ve always been very active and crave movement and the endorphins that come with it. I recently bragged that I can still touch my palms flat to the floor and plan on doing so well into my eighties and nighties. But the nonsensical adhesions in my shoulder prevent me from sticking to any part of my daily workout routine.
It’s as if someone squeezed a tube of Krazy Glue inside my arm, bonding every muscle, tendon, ligament, and tingling nerve together, then sealing the shoulder socket in place so that it can no longer rotate in the cuff. The joint is so tight and stiff that it’s nearly impossible to carry out simple movements. I can’t raise my left arm past my hip. I can’t pull my hair back into a barrette, since that requires two hands. I’ve had to stop running because, not only does the jostling make me want to scream, but I literally get stuck in my sports bra (the sight of me half in and half out makes my husband laugh as he unbinds me). The pain is usually constant and even worse at night, so I can’t sleep. I’m exhausted, irritable, anxious, and depressed.
After two months of suffering the futility of the orthopedist’s pessimistic treatment plan, I finally get up the nerve to seek help elsewhere.
* * *
The physical therapy office takes up the entire second floor. It is crisp and clean, with youthful, fit therapists walking the halls and guiding aching bodies to one of dozens of rooms. There are “group” rooms, where sweatpanted patients sit on large inflated blue orbs or lie prone on tables. I look at the older men and women, with their hunched postures and stiff limbs and pray that I don’t end up like that.
Someone brings me to a private room. New age music filters in soothingly from hidden speakers. It makes me want to take a nap. On the wall is a large, framed photograph of a naked woman’s toned, smooth legs diving into a crystal blue pool. The faceless model is the epitome of health. Her perfect, youthful buttocks glisten as they hit the water.
I’ve been told this physical therapist has frozen shoulder expertise. She enters, takes out a protractor-like tool, has me move my arm in various directions—none of which I can do—and assesses my lack of mobility. It is substantial. She jots a few things down in my chart.
Take your shirt off, she tells me. She is lean and fit in tight belted jeans and a form-fitting, black t-shirt emblazoned with Relax, we’ll take care of you.
She has not given me a robe, nor is there one in sight. I struggle to lift my baggy t-shirt over my head. This is one of the things I can’t do, I say. She nods, knowingly, and helps me undress.
She leads me over to the therapy table and places bolsters and rolled towels under my neck and shoulder so that I’m able to lie on my back. Helpless and exposed, I let her try to move my arm again. She is both gentle and firm. I know this hurts, she says, as I wince. She palpates each adhesion with her fingers, moves my arm in ways that it refuses to move. I bite my lip and resort to the meditational breathing I did during childbirth more than two decades earlier.
Let it go, she says.
I try, but I’m really resisting more. Letting go is not something that comes easily.
I can’t help you if you won’t let go, she says.
I’m lying on the table, bare-shouldered, my un-toned belly uncovered, my well-worn bra strap dangling limply off my shoulder, when her male assistant (I’ll call him Ryan) comes into the room. I can’t see him, but I hear his responses as she tells him what to do.
Fifteen minutes on the trigger point, she instructs him. She then explains to me that there is always a point of origin to this type of pain and that if Ryan can locate it—and if I can release it—I’d start to feel much better. Try to let go, she says, dimming the lights as she leaves the room.
Ryan comes into view then. He can’t be more than twenty-five—the same age as my older daughter. Thick brown hair, big brown eyes, strong and kind and fully dressed. He adjusts the small towel to cover my half-exposed breasts, and another so that it covers my belly. He places another bolster under my knees to relieve the pressure on my pelvis and hips.
Let’s find that trigger point, he says. He touches me. Gently moves my hair out of the way—I still haven’t been able to pull it back and it’s long and messy over my shoulders. His dips his fingers into a container of lavender-scented lubricant and slides them under my left scapula.
Tell me when I’m on it, he says.
I strain to keep my eyes open as he explores the sore spots in my back. I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel.
Is that it? I ask when he probes a particularly tender area. I’m not sure.
It could be, he says. It’s definitely tight. The palm of his hand rests on my latissimus dorsi muscle, his thumb touching the back of my shoulder. Once in position, he applies pressure with his index and middle fingers.
Only Oh. I suppress a moan. It’s been a long time since I’ve been touched by such a young man. I could be his mother. I really am losing my mind.
You ok? he asks.
Yes, I say. I’m fine.
I’m going to apply pressure until you release it, he says. Let me know when you feel it go. He is patient and silent. His fingers readjust ever so slightly so that they hit the entire trigger spot. The knot doesn’t give. He’s just behind me and I can no longer see his face. But I can hear his relaxed breathing, the parting of his lips as he—I don’t know, licks them? Swallows?
We sit like this for what seems like hours. His fingers start to shake and I feel him readjust them again. His hand is getting tired.
How is it now? he asks. Does it feel like it’s letting go?
I can’t tell. I shift a bit, leaning into his fingers, hoping for release, not wanting him to stop.
But he does.
Is he disappointed? I know I’m disappointed.
It’s ok, he says. Sometimes it takes a while. But this should help a little. He stands. You can sit up. I’m just going to clean off your shoulder.
I sit, clutching the tiny towel to my chest. The one over my belly falls to the floor. Except for the minimal coverage my bra provides, I’m naked again from the waist up.
Ryan brings a clean towel over my shoulder and back, the spots that he’s just been working on, and wipes off all the lavender goop. He does not replace the strap of my bra. See you next week, he says, turning up the lights. The door clicks shut behind him.
I sulk for a moment before struggling first to pull up the bra strap and then to raise my arm high enough to get my shirt on. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Old is what I see, and turn away.
* * *
My husband and I have been together since we were nineteen. It’s a long time, I say to him. It’s forever, he says, laughing.
We lie in bed that night, and I struggle to find a comfortable position. I haven’t been able lie flat for weeks because of the pain, so I prop myself up on pillows with a rolled up towel under my bad arm like they did in physical therapy. Still, I get little relief.
Do you still love me? I ask.
He turns and looks at me.
Even though I’m old? I say.
You’re not that old, he says, kissing my shoulder. You’re going to be fine.
I so want to believe him. On both counts.
* * *
When he was forty-eight, my husband had a motorcycle accident that resulted in a complete fracture of his fibula and tibia. It happened at the end of our driveway, and when I heard him go down, I ran out to find him clasping his ankle to keep the sharp, jagged bone from piercing through his shin. During emergency surgery, the orthopedist inserted a 14” titanium rod from the knee to the ankle, held in place by three titanium screws.
Later, these screws would become a problem. You could see them through the skin. The one in the knee was especially protruding and uncomfortable and eventually had to be removed during another surgery.
That was a real injury, and my husband has the scars and chronic pain to prove it.
My frozen shoulder is not a real injury. But it is the first of many betrayals I now know to expect from my body. I massage it, willing it to loosen up, wishing I were still as lithe as that naked woman on the wall.
* * *
Over the next seven months, my physical therapist, Ryan, and I get into a groove. I become less self-conscious—and less distracted—and my shoulder begins to thaw. It’s a fascinating process, once I stop resisting. “Let it go” takes on a new meaning as my arm becomes something separate from my body. I’m able to let go of some control without letting go of me.
It becomes less awkward with Ryan, too. After someone hits your trigger point, you can’t help but want to know more about him. I start to ask him questions while he works on me, and he answers. He tells me about his girlfriend, his sister, his dreams, what he wants to do with his life. He reminds me of my daughter and her friends with their whole lives ahead of them. If I were younger, he might have flirted with me, and vice versa. Then again, if I were younger, he would never have been allowed in the room because my half-naked body would have made it inappropriate. So I listen, because that’s what a mom does. I’m back in a familiar role. Now I know what to do. Now I know what to say. Now, whether I like it or not, I’m reminded who I am—and how the world sees me.
Laurie Ember’s essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, ROAR Magazine, The Citron Review, Cheat River Review, Huffington Post, and others. She has a BA in psychology from Wesleyan University and, more recently, a Certificate in fiction writing from the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She lives and writes in Los Angeles, CA, was raised on Long Island, NY, and spends as much time as she can in Fairfield, CT. You can find her online at laurieember.com.
One day when I was thirteen, I took my allowance down to Windsong Used Books & Records on Main Street, casually browsed over to the Occult / New Age shelves, and picked out a thin softback with an abstract cover: The Art and Practice of Astral Projection by Ophiel. It promised a simple and effective method for learning how to leave your corporeal form behind and, connected to it only by a thin silver thread, travel through the universe. You could fly over the ocean, spy on your enemies, meet up with distant friends, and even zoom through the stars. I bought the book.
Back in my room with the door closed, I read that the first task was to send your astral body across the room, just far enough that you could look back and gaze upon your physical body. Night after night I did Ophiel’s muscle relaxing exercises before sleep. I would tense and then release my toes, my calves, my knees, my thighs—working my way up to the crown of my head. Then I tried to astral project.
I’m pretty sure it didn’t work as advertised, though I can’t be sure, because my projecting sessions often ended with me accidentally falling asleep. I don’t remember ever floating up above the clouds or zooming over tens of thousands of miles to visit obscure locales.
But neither was it entirely ineffective. Many nights after doing the muscle exercises, I would feel my mind lose track of my body. I floated in a void—a roughly Jasper-shaped void, sure—but one that didn’t have any weight. Maybe the sensation was like having a phantom limb, a presence remembered but not felt.
Then, abruptly, my form would distend. My non-corporeal body would get bigger and bigger and bigger, swelling to many times its original size, till my consciousness felt like a pinprick within a gas giant. It was uncomfortable, this cosmic vastness. I tried to reverse the scale, to make my body small again, and through some mysterious muscle I found that I could. But my body shrank and kept shrinking. Before I could stop it, my body was an atom’s width in size. I felt piddly, dwarfed by the immensity of the universe.
Years after I stopped trying to astral project, I remembered this awful feeling when I came upon this couplet in the 12th-century Persian classic The Canticle of the Birds: “A world’s a mote within this endless sea, / A mote’s a world in its immensity.” Anyone who has looked through both a microscope and a telescope knows that the poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, speaks the truth.
I never really believed that following Ophiel’s technique would let me visit friends across great distances or spy on my crushes. I studied astral projection mainly because I wanted, by whatever means necessary, to fly.
Always, I have wanted to fly. My mom told me that if I could just look at my palms during a dream, then I could control what happened—which is to say I could fly. But that didn’t work for me; instead, in my abandoned dream metropolis the faceless, malevolent figures drew ever closer, till I woke in a cold sweat.
A few months ago, I finally figured out how to fly. When I do it, I can look down at the clouds, at the changing surface of our planet, the valleys and coral-colored deserts, the tropical seas and the shattered arctic ice cap. When I look down at myself, way down in Northern California, sometimes the sea is peaceful while other days heavy surf limns the coastline with whitewater. My favorite are the thousand-mile swirls and eddies of cloud over the South Pacific.
The tool I use is NASA’s EOSDIS Worldview. It loads right into my internet browser, and it gives me images taken just hours before by the Earth Observation System. It includes images taken by a satellite named Terra that swoops over the earth in a sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite passes over me every mid-morning, and by early afternoon I can fly with it. It is quiet up above the atmosphere, looking down. And it’s so beautiful.
Eventually, flying around leads to other questions. Worldview lets you browse images from yesterday, last year, or even fifteen years ago. Just as in the final reckoning physical scale proves to be arbitrary and illusory, so too with time.
It is a strange record. You can hunt for beautiful clouds around Mt. Fuji. Or you can look at New York as photographed from space on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the perfectly cloudless landscape, a long plume of white smoke blows south, over New Jersey. It is a somber, plain image.
In fire season, I turn Worldview’s fire and thermal anomaly data on. It puts a red dot on top of any hot-burning fire big enough to detect from space. If you want to, you can use it to watch the deforestation of the Amazon in real time. I mainly use it to find out about fires that they don’t talk about in the national news.
If you scroll back a year, you can watch the Redwood Complex, Atlas, and Tubbs fires. They burned so dramatically that even from space you can tell how bad they were. What is most shocking is how quickly the fires grew. One day Northern California looked clear and dry. The next, it was choked with smoke and flames.
People often say they want to get very far away. There’s nowhere farther than space. But even up there, you start having thoughts, formulating questions. You get curious about global warming, now that you can see the whole planet spread out below you. You watch ice caps melt. You watch a hurricane swirl into a coast. You watch as snowstorms blanket whole countries. You try to recognize the clouds you saw lit up by last night’s sunset.
And then it’s time to wake up. You close the computer and go outside. Your world is perfectly sized for a human being.
chews on the strange stillness of his quiet unravel. she knows
the undoing—like thread—will be slow & always.
same as when he first moved inside of me—i remember. the both of us
wide open, one exhale after the other scrawled between my legs.
the ground sweats against my foot, familiar with the work.
all things come to & from but knowing this will not keep me
from digging into his brother. i too have learned to chew. suck in salt. crack
my jaw. open & spit out the shell. nothing is safe. nothing is sacred.
i wonder where the water went. lay my palm against my bone.
berate the mangled hair. paddle along my heavier thighs. whine
with my hips rusted over & unattended to. weep for where
the dents of his teeth were. faint lesions on the cuff of my ashy legs.
out of necessity. each night turns out like this. out of necessity.
Faylita Hicks is a black queer writer, mobile photographer, and performance and Hip-Hop artist from San Marcos, TX. She was the 2009 Grand Slam Champion of the Austin Poetry Slam. In 2018, she was an inaugural Open Mouth Readings Writing Retreat participant and was awarded a SAFTA Residency. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Glass Poetry Press, Kweli Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Matador Review, American Poetry Journal, and others. Her visual art has been exhibited in the Texas State University Common Experience Gallery and featured in Five:2:One art and literary print magazine. She received her MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College’s low residency program and lives in San Marcos, TX.
Photo Credit: Alison Papion
What’s Past is Prologue
The man said sorry. That’s all he could manage to say. He knew that it was in pain. It was the “right thing to do.” He knew that long years, wear & tear, unavoidable science, and an old expiration date was only bringing it intense pain. He said sorry some more and cut the top corner of the old booklet, rendering it useless but free from pain.
A set of plates are laid out on their back. Magnifying light is thrust over them, covering them like the darkside of the moon during an eclipse. The room is simple and to the untrained eye it comes across holier-than-thou with its impressive machinery and church-like cleanliness. The plates beg to be torn apart. They need to be destructed in order to serve their only purpose. Like the rest of earth’s decorations, nothing short of coincidence has placed them here.
The plates are naked and cold. They almost goosebump. Through a centuries-old process known as intaglio, millions of incisions are carved into the plates, marking them forever. Ink is then pressed into these scars, where it takes shape.
Although not biologically related, the obvious offspring of these plates are the empty sheets of paper that are cut into thirty-two pages, 6.1 inches by 4.1 inches long. Like parents passing on their alleles and genotypes, the three-dimensional pressings of ink from the plate’s scars are woven onto the fabric of these papers creating a patterned design aimed at stopping forgery. It would be fair to categorize these papers as unique.
The pages, bound by a plastic cover, naively open their eyes to the world for the first time. It knows it’s supposed to care about where it comes from and who it represents. It hopes it does as is expected. Within seconds the booklet becomes self-conscious of how empty its pages are. One day they’ll be full, it hopes. It has to be, or what was the point?
The booklet does not notice its own expiration date. Instead, it thinks about all of the experiences waiting for it in the years ahead.
The plastic cover bears a Coat of Arms adopted almost two hundred years prior. This booklet sits in a stack with hundreds of others. Every brick in the wall feels distinguished but undiscovered. The booklet looks out and realizes it belongs to no one, which feels strangely lonely when it thinks that belonging to someone is what it’s supposed to do.
A man walks into the room. There are waiting chairs there so he waits. When spoken to, he says he works across the street. The man explains that his wife is waiting for their kids back at the bus stop. School’s almost out and he wants to get home. The clerk listening to this man partly believes him and also half thinks that he just wants to rush through the line. The clerk says he needs to come back the next day if he wants a booklet.
The booklet smiles as it’s taken home.
The Imperial Age
The first few months with the man and his family are the ones it remembers the most fondly. I only like the beginning of things or so the saying goes. Yes, the booklet is left in the dark while inside the closet of the master bedroom. Yes, the booklet wonders sometimes if it’s accomplishing everything it’s setting out to do. The less it goes on trips, the more the booklet’s spine hardens and aches. But every vacation, the man takes the booklet out and flies to far away places. The man holds all the family’s booklets during the trips so that they never get lost. The booklet is stamped going each way. Like a Boy Scout, the stamps are badges that somehow relate to honor.
The booklet holds hands with the man and and his family. They travel to the sprawling theme parks in Florida. The booklet gets to breathe in the hot and cool air. The expiration date is still many years away. There is a whole life ahead to look forward to.
A David Bowie Pun about ‘Changes’
Then the man left. The trips ceased and now the family waited, along with the booklet, in the dark.
After a few months, a phone rings in the house. Plans are made. The man and the woman agree to meet in the Caribbean. For some reason unknown to this writer, this is the only way they could agree to see each other again.
Aruba gives a blue stamp to the booklet, which it accepts happily. There, the booklet and the family spend a week like the old days.
The booklet is not present, but it hears all of the gossip. It prickles its ear when it learns of the robbery.
Apparently, the man and the woman were driving with their children when they decided to stop at a Nintendo store. The family didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary until the family was trapped inside. Held at gunpoint.
After they survived, the man decided that the woman and his children had to go far away. This place was not safe enough, and the United States offered something better. The United States was built on immigrants and he had it on good information that anybody could do anything there. The children have mentioned wanting to see the White House and the top of the World Trade Center. The booklet becomes excited knowing that a US visa takes up a whole page.
He has it all figured out, the man says. First, his woman will move across the sea and after two years he promises to do the same.
She wishes he didn’t think he could decide things for her.
The woman sees a therapist and often. She is listened to, but she is tired of only speaking to herself. She constantly asks for advice, but it is never given.
She fears that if she leaves Colombia, he will never follow. Finally, she asks again, ”What should I do?”
Her therapist leans in and tells her to go to the States. “Why not? If the he never comes to you then you need to move on.”
The woman wonders what needs and wants and shoulds mean to her anymore. They seem to be justifications for what she’s going to do anyways. She holds the booklet and she is bathed in an untrustworthy ease. The booklets, that of hers and her kids, belong to her now.
The booklet learns all of this from gossiping visas.
Only two weeks separate the decision to move and the moving taking place.
Once in the promised place, the woman places the booklet in a new box. It spends the following days watching a thin line of light coming through the opening. Months inch by, and the booklet only opens once. The booklet knows the man is not coming back this time.
The empty pages remind the booklet of its age. The expiration date is now only a few years away and the text it’s written on seems to cover more and more of the page.
The woman cries and says she can’t leave the States. That with her student and later her work visa, there is a chance of not being allowed back in.
A year goes by. Then two. Then three. The booklet learns that the family now plans on replacing it with a blue booklet that has a different name and coat of honor on the front. But they have me. Besides, this new blue booklet doesn’t love this family. I’ve been with them my entire life, it thinks in the darkness.
The expiration date grows closer. Despite the booklet’s wishes, the printed date refuses to change. In fact, it loses all hope until one day a letter comes. The letter informs the family that they are being turned into permanent residents of the States.
Now the family can visit home again. Tickets are purchased and dates are chosen—but after the booklet’s last acceptable date.
The family holds the booklet in their arms. They smile at the aging pictures. They cut the top corner, rendering it useless but free from pain.
Esteban Cajigas is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His short stories and poems have been featured in publications such as Venture Magazine, Foliate Oak, and others. Esteban also previously wrote for The Boston Globe as a correspondent and The Suffolk Voice as Editor-in-Chief.
Living on Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey gave me a personal stake in global warming. Superstorm Sandy took a devastating toll on our neighborhood and our beach. I completed the Rising Series five years before Sandy. The series helped me to express the fear 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina imprinted on my psyche. Each year as the destruction from storms stretches around the globe […]
It’s 8:30 a.m., and unlike me, New York City is already fully caffeinated. I am an international woman of mystery, poised in the stairwell ready to carry out my orders. This is my mission, I have chosen to accept it.
Name: James Wolff. Age: fifty as of today. He stands approximately 5’11” with brown hair. With him will be Honey, his constant companion and German Shepherd. My command is to apprehend him when he enters. Minutes later, the eagle has landed. Next to him is what looks to be a German Shepherd. Must be Honey. Now it is time to carry my mission to completion. Jumping out of the stairwell, James looks alarmed. Honey barks ferociously. James says, “And who are you?”
I say, “Just what I look like, a girl in a cake. You can call me Cake Boss, Sugar Puff. And today is your biiiirrrrtthhhhdddaaay!”
That’s when I sing a special birthday song.
You thought I was a professional assassin, didn’t you? Nah, too much blood. I am a singing telegrammer. There is more than one way to be an international woman of mystery. In case you are wondering, James gave me a surprise fifty dollar tip and I won Honey over. She licked me on the hand. I think Honey’s seal of approval got me my generous compensation.
When I tell people I am a singing telegrammer, they always say, “I had no idea they still have those.” Obviously we do because all proceeds go to my food, clothing, and shelter fund. This novelty was born in 1933 when a teenage fan wanted to wish singer Rudy Vallee a happy birthday. George Oslin, head of public relations at Western Union, decided this would be a good opportunity and thus the singing telegram was born. The service became quite popular with singing bell boys who had a melodious message coupled with a time step. Western Union discontinued the service in the 1960s. Proving you can’t keep a good thing down, small singing telegram companies began to pop up all over the United States.
What has kept the singing telegram not only surviving but thriving is that there is a gram for every occasion. There are birthdays, anniversaries, congratulations, proposals, ruffles and flourishes at a board meeting, needs to apologize, and everything else in between.
* * *
I fell into telegramming by accident. After graduating from NYU with a theatre degree, wanting to pursue my dreams, and needing to pay bills, I looked for a job. After watching Beaches and seeing Bette Midler fail in a bunny costume, I Googled singing telegrams. Calling at 11 p.m. on a Monday night I expected to get an answering machine. Instead, a man picked up who had a hearty Southern Drawl and he said, “Broadway Singing Telegrams, Bruce Myles Beauregard speaking.”
“Yes, I just graduated from NYU with my B.F.A. and need a job. I can sing, dance, and do a back flip.”
Then Bruce asked, “Are you available next Saturday morning, I think I have a job for you…..” The rest is history.
Do not be fooled by my outward appearance as a petite blonde, I am part shapeshifter. A master of disguise, my job has me take the following forms, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. They include but are not limited to a chicken, pink gorilla, gorilla bride, hot dog, pickle, Hershey Kiss, M & M, heart, pizza, cow, duck, cat, cheerleader, French maid, naughty nurse, cop, Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and anything else a client wants me to be.
While I might not be working as an assassin or spy, I have defied death on more than one occasion while on duty. I caught on fire in a pink gorilla costume. It was after my Pepto Bismol colored
primate suit met with a trick birthday candle that went rogue. When I saw the flame on my fur I thought, “Holy shit! I’m on fire!” While I was terrified, I knew I had to act quickly. Throwing the cake in the air, I recalled my elementary school training when the man from the local fire department visited our classroom. I stopped, dropped, and rolled.
There was collective horror in the bar as I threw the cake in the air. The client, the owner of a Lower East Side dive bar who was dressed in leather from head to foot, sprinted to catch it at the speed of a wide receiver in the last ten seconds of a Super Bowl. Gasps filled the air as I rolled around on the whiskey infused floor boards hoping I didn’t need a skin graph. In the darkness and in my desperation, I didn’t see that I rammed into the leg of a woman on a bar stool. Through her yelp I probably accidentally struck her sober. When I was sure the fire was out I got up, calmly got the cake from the client, and did my routine. What can I say? The show must go on. Pleasantly, the bar was on my side. The man I sang to, apparently a well-known trust funder who liked Lower East Side dive bars, gave me a surprise tip.
I have not only narrowly escaped catching on fire, but on more than one occasion I have also evaded capture. Being sent to the Bloomberg building on assignment, I was frisked under suspicion of being in possession of explosives due to the bag containing my costume. The tall glass monolith in the middle of Midtown East already looked like a dark fortress and having no inside man this became even more true as my chicken suit became what was known as “contraband.” The stern guard said, “How do we know you are not a terrorist?”
I stated my case, “I have a chicken suit. I have a song. I have a time step. I have never known a terrorist to have these things.” A supervisor, who was sympathetic, came up with a compromise, I could deliver it on the sidewalk under their watchful eye. To their surprise, I was just a woman in a chicken suit, not Squeaky Fromme. They didn’t end up capturing me, but instead captured the occasion on their camera phones.
While fire and the threat of possible arrest are indeed stressful, the true doozies are the “I’m Sorry Grams.” When I get the call, I know it is going to be a Dionysian debacle of epic proportions. Going in to one of these, I often wish I can have either a bulletproof vest or hazmat suit. And I know I will always get the sordid backstory even if I don’t want it. One memorable moment was when a cheating husband sent me to his wife to be forgiven in a hot dog costume. Mid-routine, she stopped me, took the flowers her husband told me to give her and hurled them in my direction. She screamed, “Fuck that motherfucker, he gave me herpes!”
Instead of flowers, maybe that rancid wiener should have given her Valtrex. He was still a scumbag, but at least the check cleared.
* * *
Then at times my adventures are also magically delightful. I appeared as a singing pickle to a young man on his birthday. Turns out I was sent by this young man’s boyfriend, who could not make the party as he was overseas attending his father’s funeral.
I was ordered as a chicken to Kessler, a rehabilitation clinic in New Jersey, from a woman’s group. The lady I was singing to had been paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an auto accident.
The family of Herman Benson ordered me as a Marilyn Monroe to sing to him on his 103rd birthday. This New York legend of liberal politics and hero to the working people put in his ear piece and sang along with me. I kissed him on the cheek and he proclaimed, “While you are quite beautiful this is also sexual harassment!”
Then there was the practical joke involving Yodel Cakes between a father and son. Both men had been leaving the sweets on each other’s property in an effort of one-upmanship. The father had resorted to leaving yodels in the son’s garden. Determined to win, the son hired me to yodel, toss Yodels, and crash his aging father’s board meeting. The son, who won the contest, witnessed it from across the country via video chat.
On the set of Law and Order SVU, I was ordered by Kelli Giddish to sing to Wonder Woman superfan Marishka Hargitay. The Emmy winner cried as I sang her the personalized Wonder Woman song, and complimented me on my lasso of truth. A meme of us went viral, and my boss called and asked, “And Wonder Woman, where was your headband?”
Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
Life is a storybook that is constantly turning the page, and someday I might be on the other side of your door in costume with a song and a message. However, for now the message I will leave you is that as an artist, you are often told you will never make your living at your craft. It is too late. You are too old. No one will listen to you. Each day, my fellow singing telegrammers and I disprove that myth. We come in a wide array of shapes, races, sizes, gender identities, orientations, cultures, and vocal ranges. We prove there is a niche for every creative person. Did I mention we also pay our light bill and get to wear a boa while we do it?
While I would love to elaborate, I have to cut this short.
I have a Marilyn Monroe in the Bronx I have to run to.
What can I say? Cubic Zirconia are this girl’s best friend.
April Brucker is a writer and comedian. She has appeared on Rachael Ray, Talk Soup, Inside Edition, My Strange Addiction, What Would You You?, Good Day NY, and Layover with Anthony Bourdain. Her books I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl and April Unwrapped: My Naked Dreams Revealed, both available on Amazon. April has served as lead editor for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial Award and is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Note from a Loving Friend
For weeks, high school girls giggled, slipped folded notes
to each other, their noses pruned, leaving me on the outskirts,
alien that I was. True I had my green card, always in my wallet, but still
I did not know why I felt alone in their company.
I read their note to me folded so pretty
with numbered pages and bubbly letters. The gist:
“Please do not be angry with us. We have discussed
this with each other and the school counselor
and you need deodorant. It is unpleasant to be around you.”
I want to reach forward, tell the girl she will love
a friend with long brown curls and a kiondo
rich with books and lipstick. I want to tell her Mani
will teach her to eat wings, how to see beyond
the squares and rectangles of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie
and see the lights of New York City, neon and traffic signs pulsing.
I want to tell the girl that one day she will become woman and dream
of amethysts, her womb a sparkling geode and she will discover her true
scents of moonlit jasmine, sandalwood and ginger, when in company
with a loving friend.
Love and Loss in Ludhiana
After Gwendolyn Brooks
Glass shards jagged along the brick where
our house separates a plot of forest amid city, it’s
cuckoos chatter, song pierced by street vendors, skimming rough
edges, selling potatoes, snake gourd, squash and
back at home, a woman on haunches washes dishes, feet untended
dry skin cracking like a fault in the earth, I ride my rusty bike and
enjoy the bumps, my seat jostling a narrow path, hungry
for grandmother’s lunch with radish pickle, careful not to crush weeds
growing between man-made surfaces. Here, night jasmine grows,
its vines, creeping along the back wall, over and around a
glass glimmering in light as the girl’s
aunt waits for the signal from her lover. She looks out her window to get
a glimpse of the boy, sick
when he never arrives, tired of
being the only one in college who never gets a rose.
She does not wait like Madam Butterfly; instead I
take her hand and we tread light through the untrammeled forest wanting
nothing but to be endowed by light filtering through falsa and champa, to
be surrounded by wild crow song, go
away from the manicured garden, in-
stead peer into the trumpet flower and see the
bee nestled and buzzing, embraced in back-beyond
bliss, away from the pruned papaya tree and maybe
Sonia Arora has been teaching literature and humanities for almost twenty years. Her work as a teaching artist takes her into classrooms across Long Island, New York City, and Philadelphia, where she explores oral history, digital media, poetry, activism, and film-making with youth in elementary, middle, and high schools. She has published short fiction, poetry, and essays. She has been published in Apiary, Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching, Prompted, an anthology printed by Philadelphia Stories, 3-2-1 Contact, Sonic Boom, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, bioStories, and more. One of her poems was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has studied writing with Frederic Tuten, Terrance Hayes, Porochista Khakpour, and Jenn Givhan.
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