Invincible (Two Missed Calls)

It’s the eve of my mother’s heart surgery. I’m not referring to the past, as if this was some story. It’s actually tomorrow. I’m playing the countdown game, taking a redeye and arriving home at 4:45 in the morning of the procedure. Within hours I’ll hug her, say our goodbyes, and watch her be taken out to a sterile room nearby.

By the time you read this, the surgery and its results will be in the past. Nothing, no problem solving, no getting lucky, no wishful thinking, not even armor, can change these facts.

Up until about twenty minutes ago, I’d been telling most people that this wasn’t anything serious. When I called out of work for the rest of this week, I described it as a minor procedure. That changed when I found out it was a five-hour operation.

My mother said it so nonchalantly. She’d always been the hypochondriac that worried about standing in the sun for longer than a minute without sunscreen. The one to call and ask if I was eating healthy. The youngest mom out of all of my friend’s parents. She swerved to her next stop in the conversation. Maybe she didn’t give me a moment to respond on purpose. I looked for an opportunity to ask more questions, but then she revealed how aware she was of her own mortality. My mother said she’d given me power of attorney and finished her living will giving me the responsibility of “taking care of it” were she to fall into some unrecoverable state.

“I tried texting you after I did it, but I accidentally texted the wrong person,” she said forcing out a laugh.

“If something happens, I want to be cremated. It’s all written down,” she said.

The nerves firing off across my spine somehow translated into the beginnings of a teardrop on my face. I realized that we’d never once talked about these types of plans before. Not even jokingly the way people sometimes do, treating it like a casual table conversation. Processing her words was both numbing and excruciating. A lesson in standing like stone while erupting lava from within.

It struck me that I didn’t know anything I could say to help my mother feel better.

“Spread my ashes somewhere in D.C.,” she said, and I could picture her eyes wander from across the telephone line. She’d wanted to move back there after living there when I was only a few months old. Circumstances out of my mom’s control, like my dad’s work, brought us back to Colombia. She likes to remind me that she’d still be living in DC if she’d been given the choice. “Nobody asked me,” she always says.

This stung the most, that her pain transcended the physical battle in her chest and went back two decades to a memory she’d be returning to no matter what. That her happiness was out of my control and it would never come close. It felt like a decision on her fate had already been made without any of our consultations and all I could do was hear the verdict.

I held back the receiver so that she wouldn’t hear me breathing erratically, but she knew. “Don’t cry. There’s no reason to. You and your brother have given me everything in this life. It was more than I could have ever asked for,” she said.  

The last heart emergency, I’d ignored her. The first time, two years ago, we’d been fighting over an unrelated matter over the phone. I don’t even remember what the fight was about, but I hung up on her. She called me again, but I ignored her hoping to avoid another fight. I later found out that she was calling out alarm because she was fainting due to her heart.

This time, she’d called me all morning on a weekend. Determined to sleep, I slept through every ring until she texted me in all caps that her chest was exploding.

“I don’t have a lot to leave you, but at least I have the house.” The one she bought back when we moved to Florida. Moments lived with the purpose of becoming a memory. My invincible mother laid in pain while considering a contingency plan in case her surgery went badly.

We hung up and I remembered that we were acting out the worst case scenario. That this was just our fears running amok within an inevitable countdown to the morning.

I board the plane and swap my window seat with an older man in the aisle. It’s a red eye, but I won’t blink until I’m in Orlando.

 

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.

Izosceles, Retro Discothekka, 2017, Digital Media, 40" x 30"

Spotlight: Pro-Anti

The Icon is an emerging American digital visual artist. With a love for cartoons and fun imagery, Izosceles discovered their adoration for artistic expression at a young age. Their works are colorful in nature; however, some have deeper tones underneath the playful, digestible surface. Growing up on cartoons as a child is what inspires their bold lines […]

Bad Connection

My husband and I married in Madison, Wisconsin four years ago and moved to his rural childhood home to lead and grow his family’s farm. Before moving here, my husband and I made a list of pros and cons of leaving to live in a rural place, where the nearest town is politically scarlet. The pros won, and we left the state’s progressive capital city for a place where many vehicles have “We Still Stand with Scott Walker” bumper stickers.

For the first few years, living in our rural area in an isolated subdivision, I commuted fifty-five miles one way to work for a communications job in the nearest city. My peer coworkers were, predictably, all male and white. They enthused over online-based video games, their favorite shows on Netflix, and Fantasy Football. They asked what I did for fun, living way out there.

Hike, I told them.

Pro: The rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit are a quick drive from my home, allowing access to the epic and well-maintained Ice Age Trail and scores of other beautiful hiking, swimming, and biking spots.

*     *     *

I also decorate our house, I told my bro-workers. We don’t have Internet, I said.

They stared at me as if I’d confessed I couldn’t read or write.

Con: My husband and I live in a rural and faraway enough part of our Wisconsin county that no fiber optic cable for high-speed broadband Internet has been dug. We’re not in view of the line-of-sight Internet tower. Painfully slow, uber-expensive satellite Internet is our only option, a contract we signed for two years and then quit, never to use again. Now, I am enrolled as a full-time graduate student, and any work that requires the Internet—email, weekly check-ins, literary journal blog and content management—I do via the hotspot I create with my iPhone, with an unlimited data plan that still seems too limited.

One of the “pros” on our original list—the list that justified us leaving Madison—was the possibility of a tighter-knit community in a rural area. As Lunch Ticket bloggers have stated in such eloquent terms this issue, community is essential to strong mental health and survival.

Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit features superb hiking trails and autumn colors.

*     *     *

Pro: The lack of fast Internet encourages me to write more, enables me to be a graduate student in a low-residency MFA program, work on art and our house projects, run or bike outside for miles without seeing a single car, and get more work done for my job at the farm. There is solitude here—room to breathe.

Con: The best place to get high-speed Internet is the Starbucks nearest the well-stocked if sterile 24-hour grocery store. Most of my Internet-using time is spent in this same strip mall, a pandering line of shops with a hectic parking lot. I dislike the coffee; the dark-roasted grounds are burnt and over-extracted. I prefer the brighter, berry flavors of a single origin light roast. All those years we lived in pampered, foodie Madison made me soft and snobby, unable to withstand bad coffee. Anyway, I sit there, hour after hour, working on critical paper research using the university’s online libraries system, managing online submissions queues for the literary journal, blog posts, and weekly content. I need the Internet to be a writer—to submit to journals, apply for editorial positions, and share my work via social media. To work.

Nobody ever asks my name. Nobody memorizes my drink. I never see anyone I know at this coffee shop, which defies all previous coffee shop culture conventions—warm, conversational—I’ve ever known.

*     *     *

In November 2016, a little over a year after moving to our home, Trump became president of the United States. The urban-rural divide became national fodder, with some reductive voters blaming rural areas for the proliferation of “Make America Great Again” devotees. Community building here seemed bleaker by the day. 2017 and, in particular, 2018, proved atrocious for human rights. The nation stands by, mouths covered in horrified half-laughter, as this presidential administration train-wrecks itself, turns laws and morality upside-down, and persecutes immigrant families.

Pro: I can isolate myself with good reason—productivity—from booze-soaked happy hours while I work on my novel, personal essays, and short stories instead. While I’m inspired by the bustling of big cities, I need solitude to create, to find those seeds of concentration I never sowed during all those years of corporate jobs and happy hours in my late twenties.

Con: I feel like a bird on a wire, the gigabytes pulsing beneath my feet. A wide world to which I don’t have access.

Pro: Life in a lower-cost, low-density area means more money to travel, a recognized privilege I try not to take for granted.

Con: When I do have high-speed Internet—at hotels, at my Los Angeles AirBnBs when I stay during residency, in line at the ice cream stand drive-through—I glut on it. Watch five episodes in a row of “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Look up ex-boyfriends’ new girlfriends’ new and different boyfriends on Facebook. Scroll, scroll, scroll, feed, feed, feed.

I rarely drive through at Starbucks, but when I do, pup gets a treat!

*     *     *

Pro: I get some “me” time—decompress, self-care, whatever.

Con: It’s all so lonely.

Pro: I never have to worry about parking or the neighbors’ sewage problems, or stolen Internet causing slow Hulu streaming.

Con: There is no Internet to steal.

When the management team named me blog editor and weekly content manager for Issue 15 of Lunch Ticket, I hesitated, knowing how much the position would rely on ample Internet access. The hesitation only lasted a second. I’m so honored to edit and publish personal essays about “What now?” questions, combating medical misconceptions, the ache of missing love, and the need for intersectional feminism. Social media—supplied by the omnipresent Internet—is just one way I share these works.

As much as I can, I take the opportunity to talk about these essays, in person, via text, or over the phone, to permeate a culture around me that may not be too knowledgeable of LGBTQ issues or aware of the plights of urban homelessness.

Pro: I built a community, though it’s far away.

Con: Fostering this community requires the Internet. In warm weather, when semester is in session and deadlines bear down, I have to move from room to room in my house with iPhone in tow, searching for a hotspot signal. Denser summer foliage means frequent data interruptions for those far from cellular data pinging towers.

*     *     *

Pro: After a string of corporate jobs in which I was told I had a strange personality to operate in a big company (Female? Youthful? Ambitious? Still not sure.), and during which I overheard catty remarks about my outfits over low cubicle walls, I vowed never to set foot in a corporate office again. I now do most of my work for the farm from home.

Con: My day job at the farm, as the compliance, communications, and HR director, is much harder than it should be. Handwritten tasks take longer and result in more human errors—I still remember the time I wrote a five instead of a four on a spreadsheet and couldn’t figure out why the books did not balance at the end of the month. Thirty-nine percent of people in rural areas still do not have access to high-speed Internet, which is considered a vital tool to run a business. Emailing invoices and vendor payments are no longer futuristic automations. They’re here to stay, and farms that cannot keep up will suffer the economic consequences.

Pro: Electric cooperatives may come to our area soon to bridge the urban-rural digital divide.

Con: It’s unlikely those cooperatives will be able to achieve the 25 megabytes per second requirement the Federal Communications Commission sets to define high-speed broadband access.

*     *     *

On snowy days, I follow deer paths in our backyard woods.

 

This is my last blog for Lunch Ticket, though I’ll edit and manage our team of bloggers through June. It’s bittersweet. I’ll miss my bloggers and connections to those in far-flung places—bigger cities and more rural places alike.

Point: Only four percent of people in urban areas don’t have access to high-speed Internet. We should all just move to big cities.

Counterpoint: Who will grow all of our food, organic, conventional, or otherwise? Crops and livestock require space and land, and farmers to grow, nurture, and oversee them. The demand for produce continues to increase, despite the proliferation of technologies and automation.

In the end, four years ago, the “pros” won. We know it will be a challenging road to run a farm, but the list doesn’t lie.

Pros: We are close to our family, our most supportive and important allies. I watch my nephews grow up. We have enough space to adopt a puppy. I see a supermoon illuminate our backyard woods. I witness 27 wild turkeys peck around in the field by our home. I try and fail to video herds of deer stampeding through our subdivision.

By helping to grow produce, we serve as an edifying counterpoint to the struggling farms that pump antibiotics into their Big Dairy cows or raise many, many cattle for beef, one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change.

We can feed the world.

Con: Due to limited data, I can’t live stream the whole thing.

E.P. Floyd is blog editor and weekly content manager of Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work is published or forthcoming in The RumpusLunch TicketLitbreak Magazine, and Reservoir. Find her online at epfloyd.com and on Twitter at @eprofloyd.

KB

[creative nonfiction]

Well, this is gonna hurt like a female dog (unfortunately I have to watch my profanity, so just use your imagination). The autobiography of seventeen-year-old me, that is. I feel like I have some insight, enough insight on being a black young woman in America. Being born so, I’m automatically important and destined to make history. Although the government may disagree. Try to keep up. Leave your sense of humor at home and adopt mine. Enjoy or whatever.

I guess we could start at the beginning. I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot aka “Blue Baby Syndrome.” I’d love to explain it but I don’t want to confuse anyone. Basically, it’s a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects that are present at birth, according to Google. I had open heart surgery at five days old so I’m good now. I think. The surgery left a big scar that starts at my neck and ends above my belly button. I’ve never really been insecure about it, even with all the questions and stares. No real problems come along with this disease. I’m just not supposed to partake in anything strenuous or anything that could cause stress on my heart. I wish someone would tell my anxiety that. Haha. So funny.

Growing up I had fun. I’d like to think I loved life. I mean I was the youngest of three, what could possibly go wrong in my life? I grew up in the South Bronx with my mother, my siblings, my grandmother, my uncle, and my in-and-out father. My father was not as consistent as any human would want. He was not the best influence or the best parent. Better yet, he was not the best man. But I wanted it to work so I gave more of myself than he did; I forgave him. I mean I forgive him.

As I said before, not very eventful. I guess I liked it. It was the last time I could remember being joyful and naive. I was the last to exit my mother for a full nine years. It went by too quickly. But she married and let three other children exit her even quicker. My innocence in school and at home was mistakenly equated with happiness. So because of that, I and affection weren’t really familiar. The lack of affection I received encouraged my struggle with trust. Encouraged my cynical ways. Encouraged me to bloom late. No, not puberty. Puberty hit me in the 8th grade and left me busty and curvy. Yet, I remained inexperienced. Which is quite ironic because playing “house” was a lifestyle in my childhood. Being a wife, having kids. It was all fantasized by ten-year-old me. Looking back with the hate of union and responsibilities in my heart, I can’t believe how naive I was back then. But many things brought me to this conclusion.

It was eighth grade. Now before this happened, I’ve never really been fond of boys, and boys have never really been fond of me. However this one day I decided to give this one boy attention. Lunch was over and so was my strategically planned middle school career. Nick threw a paper ball at my face and so I did what I knew all the other girls would do; chased him. I chased him out the lunchroom, up the stairs, down the hall, and almost around the corner. I was running on air I was so fast. I was basically Usain Bolt. But in a matter of seconds, I was eating the floor. It wasn’t how I fell but how long the fall took to end. I slid across the hallway floor on my goddamn stomach. Feet sprung in the air followed by my arms. The crowd grew big but silence grew even bigger. I glided across the hallway floor like a hockey puck and once I came to a stop, laughter erupted. I got up, back turned to the crowd to drown their noise and limped over to Nick. He stood in front of me as I punched his head in with the fear and frustration I felt. How could he do this to me? Why did God hate me? Why didn’t the universe work in my favor? After that day, I learned to NEVER CHASE BOYS!

Church was important. The relationship you held with God was important. Your fear of God was important. For you should believe your happiness, your trust, your heart should lie within him, root from him. From singing in the Baptist House of Prayer choir to watching people falling out from the Holy Ghost, I could never grab this “concept.” Sister Trish tumbled to the ground one time as her wig followed. But she didn’t leave that moment, that mistake, that embarrassment with God. She paused her praise to pick up her wig and put it back where it belonged. Then she allowed the Holy Ghost to possess her once more. Due to kids being so naive, when things like this would happen it was overlooked. There were no questions asked, which is scary. I already know what you’re thinking. Well if your wig were to fall off, wouldn’t you get up to put it back on? See the thing is that they teach you if you have no family, the church is your family. But since the Christians are oh so very judgmental, you’re forced to walk in fear. Not only did I struggle (and fail) to find myself within the “family,” I struggled (and continue to) find myself in the world.

I came to this realization pretty young, I guess. (But the sooner the better, right?) It was the first time I’ve ever felt alone in a room full of people. Middle school. Again. My mother dropped me off across the street from the school. Wishing she could walk me in like the other kids and their parents but I knew she couldn’t because I wasn’t the only child. Once I get inside, I was directed to the lunchroom where we receive our schedules. I instantly feel my mouth get dry; cotton mouth like a smoker. My sight got really blurry as a tear grew bigger and bigger and if I blinked it would fall. I felt a strong pain in my throat kind of like when you’re crying in silence… but you really want to scream. My heart started to pound in my chest, increasing rapidly by the second. My name was called to go grab my schedule. So stuck in place, my face began to burn as if I was staring at the sun for too long. I mean my body starts to drip in sweat, sweating bullets if you must. My feet started moving and fear washed over me as the lunchroom watched. I was so embarrassed. Trying not to break eye contact with the teacher because I didn’t want to face the faces staring at me. In that moment I felt guilty, scared of being me. Scared of the world seeing me. It’s funny actually. I take pride in my race and culture (I mean because there are too many of us that are culture-shocked and I won’t be another), but I won’t take pride in me as a person.

The birth years of my older siblings and I are 1999, 2000, and 2001. To think we’d be close but it never felt so. I was always deemed too emotional; I mean I am a writer. But in the morning before school, my mother tucked pride in my pants along with my collared shirt for the charter school we all attended. She sprinkled prudence onto the pan of soon to be baked mac and cheese before she put it into the oven. She kissed neglect on my forehead before heading out to the club on the weekends. My siblings followed in her footsteps for they learned to adapt and readapt. Completely unconcerned with everyone else but themselves and sometimes unconcerned with themselves. But because I feel everything and feel for everyone, I didn’t fit. I didn’t respect the tough love shown to me. I didn’t respect the shun that was placed on me due to my interests in girls. I didn’t respect the forcing of religion upon me and the fear I felt for not respecting it. I didn’t respect the exclusion I felt because my mother made a new family. Or how lies were told to protect the wrongdoer. Or how my modern beliefs were shot down and declared wrong. Or how they tell you that blood is thicker than water even when it doesn’t feel that way. Even when it isn’t that way. Actions always justified since its “normal.” I didn’t like a lot, as you can see. I didn’t like my childhood.

I do have three younger siblings. I miss them and wish I could be there to step in when all has gone wrong. Praying that the man above doesn’t hold a grudge against me for questioning him because I have to believe someone can stop the madness bound to happen in their life.

See, I’m not your average teenager. I can’t include a teen love quarrel in my memoir or a life-changing, eye-opening heartbreak. I’ve never committed to anything, to anyone. As I said before, people aren’t really fond of me and I’m not really fond of people either. You see, I can’t seem to look in the mirror and like what I see. I’m “disagreeably looking.” I love to be alone but hate being lonely. I tend to expect the worse of all situations. I guess it’s better to expect nothing. I don’t want your pity or your story of how you can too relate. It doesn’t matter, it’s not about you. I’ve become a hermit, I don’t have any friends and it’s been like that for some time now. Doctors call it depression and anxiety. Seeing how socializing and articulating anything isn’t really my thing, I get it. I used to think death was the only option to end all the confusion. Simply hurting and not understanding how and why. Soaking pillows and sheets because there’s nothing I could possibly do. I mean sometimes I just deal with it. I just let it be; I just let me be sad. Waiting for the universe to award me with good energy I don’t put out. I think if things were meant to be or meant to change, then it would be so.

Over the years I’ve adopted new coping mechanisms. Middle school was my lacerate stage. (I hope I don’t have to edit this word later because I can’t describe this in any other way.) Which was hard and not because I was addicted because if I wanted to stop I could. I had control, or at least that’s what I tell my therapist. And it wasn’t that it was concerning due to it being unhealthy or life-threatening. It wasn’t okay because black girls from the Bronx don’t hurt themselves because they hurt. Black girls from the Bronx demand respect and if it’s not given they wild out. Automatically becoming the stereotypical angry black woman. It was always a “white thing” to be hurt, diagnosed, and treated from mental illnesses. In tenth grade, I took a different approach. A cloud nine type of approach. It was a distraction; merely a stimulation. I enjoyed it so I guess that’s what really matters. I guess that brings us to now and I don’t really have much to say. As said previously, I just deal with it. It’s a part of life, right?

Now I think that’s about it. I know it was short; again not very eventful. At the age of seventeen, I have yet to meet and take pride in “happiness.” But I’d love to share it with you when I do. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

 

Kayla Barton is a young, aspiring writer from the Bronx. At age seventeen, she moved across the country to Arizona in hopes to come across new and better opportunities. She writes in her free time and in school. Amongst writing, she shares an interest in things like drawing, astrology, and psychology. She hopes to entwine all of her interests into her career one day.

Writers Read: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

When I was thinking back on how to write up this piece on Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, I kept struggling with the words to put down. How can I best write about a fictitious society that criminalized reproductive rights while we in the US are quite literally on the brink of a collapse of these rights? Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I read this book months ago and it feels like every week there’s another barrage of #MeToo moments or sexual assault allegations or attacks on reproductive rights. In light of everything happening in our political and societal climate, it becomes much more difficult to separate the facts from this all-too-real fiction. And since Zumas first published this book in January of 2018, it’s not hard to see how this book connects with, and comments on, our reality.

Red Clocks is a fiction novel that is set in a present-day America with one major change: abortions are outlawed and any woman even seeking one is criminalized and charged. Zumas creates a terrifying mirror image of our current society as she weaves the stories and lives of four different women together: The Biographer, The Daughter, The Wife, and The Mender. All four of these people have a specific agenda and dilemma they are facing, but they all stem from the basis of this anti-woman society. Roberta Stephens, The Biographer, struggles with difficulties to conceive a child while fighting to get approved for adoption before a new law passes that will require every child to have two married parents. Mattie Quarles, The Daughter, is isolated and terrified to discover she’s a pregnant teen and has nowhere or no one to turn to. Susan Korsmo, The Wife, is torn between trying to keep her family together for the sake of her kids and needing to leave her husband because she isn’t appreciated and feels lost and without identity. Gin Percival, The Mender, is the woman who lives in the woods and secretly provides herbal remedies and help to women.

On the surface, it might not be obvious exactly how and why all these women are struggling and why the roots of their problems stem from the anti-woman rhetoric. However, in a society that criminalizes women’s sexuality and forces a heteronormative family image, it doesn’t leave much room for support between women. They are all trying to make it in this world that is doing everything it can to make things more difficult and dangerous for them.

Not only that, but this society designates each of them to a certain role within their lives. Throughout the novel, the narration only refers to these four women with their roles or nomenclatures. This reinforces the parameters within which each woman can operate or how they’re viewed in the world. But at the same time, we as readers can see the pushback against some of these roles. Roberta, for example, is a working on a biography of Eivør Minervudottir who was a polar explorer, but she’s also a teacher. She’s working on recording Eivør’s history while directly impacting the futures of those students around her. It’s a reminder that no one ever only has one role or one purpose.

The greatest thing that Zumas does throughout this work is to create four compelling dynamics and lives to showcase just how much this affects everyone. Roberta just wants to have a child, but can’t get pregnant because the one

Leni Zumas

thing that would help her—IVF treatments—have also been outlawed since embryos cannot consent to the procedure. Literal embryos—cells—have more power than a full-grown woman in this society. On the other hand, you might see Susan as someone who’s doing completely fine. She has a husband and family and everything seems good on the surface, but her home life is devastating. She fluctuates between wanting to try and save her marriage, though her husband refuses to even consider going to couples therapy and just leaving him. She’s aware of how much society would blame her for the breakdown of her marriage; she’s also terrified that her children would blame her. We as outsiders can see just how sad and over-worked she is without any help or appreciation from her husband.

Mattie and Gin would be the most obvious examples of why this society is bad because they have the most obviously dire situations. Gin is illegally offering help to women who are struggling with their reproductive rights and health. Mattie is completely alone as she struggles with her pregnancy. It’s through Mattie that we really see how much everyone has to lose here because anyone Mattie tells is not only then implicated and could be jailed and convicted, but they could also turn Mattie in.

This society is so desperately trying to paint itself as the “hero for the unborn,” but it’s completely missing the real and devastating impacts on the actual people in the world. It gives a clear and definitive message that women are not as important because they’re the ones suffering in this world. Gin is arrested and tried for her crimes, but there’s not even a single mention of the fact that she’s been supplementing additional help for women in other ways—just like Planned Parenthood. While Gin does have a tonic that could cause an abortion, she’s also the only person to mention that perhaps Roberta might have polycystic ovary syndrome, which might help explain her troubles at getting pregnant. Roberta had to ask her doctor to run a test because the doctor hadn’t even thought to test her before. Roberta even says at one point that “she is submitting her area to all kinds of invasion without understanding a fraction of what’s being done to it” (14). These new laws have become dangerous and blatantly ignore the health of these women for the sake of having a more “natural” or “traditional” family.

Zumas using these four different women to tell the story of this world helps everyone understand the realities and how it truly does affect everyone. These outrageous laws didn’t happen overnight; they started with small steps that eventually spiraled into the harsh criminalization of women seeking reproductive health and rights. It started with anti-abortion messaging and then criminalized it. That led to the upcoming law, Every Child Needs Two, which states that “unmarried persons will be legally prohibited from adopting children” (37). The slow descent of this society and the rights of the people living here show that no woman is going to be safe forever and that hopefully eventually everyone will begin to take notice of these laws. Roberta herself says that people “forgot about [the law] promptly after hearing it, because the law did not apply to her” (165). Having multiple characters and each having a distinct point of view and story to tell, helped us readers to not ignore others for the sake of our protagonist.

Zumas paints a terrifying example of where we might end up if we continue on this path of criminalizing and punishing women and their sexuality. Women are expected to be ready to raise a child the first time they have sex because we have equated the two so closely in our conservative minds. It’s always shocking to me that no one on the conservative side of this issue ever seems to actually try and understand where these women are coming from. I can only hope that the society described in Zumas’s novel doesn’t come to pass because I truly fear that there might not be a way out for us from there.

Zumas, Leni. Red Clocks. New York, Little Brown and Company, 2018.

Sara Voigt is a current MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she’s pursuing her masters in creative writing. She also works on the literary journal Lunch Ticket, where she’s working as proof edit manager and managing editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she currently lives and works in the Los Angeles area.

Los Angeles in the Rain

My car’s having problems, again, so I’ve been taking the bus and train to work. Walking to the bus stop each morning, I pass the U-Haul place, which is always populated by Latino men, young and old, talking and waiting. Across the street at the bus stop, I stand to one side and observe street life on Lankershim Boulevard. One morning, I’m standing half a block up from the bus stop, smoking as I wait for the bus. I spot a youngish white man walking up the street—not the sidewalk—toward me. He swings his fists and shouts at the air, legs rigid as he throws his feet forward over and over. He spots me and crosses the street against traffic. I shove my lighter in my pocket and sidle as quickly as possible back to the safety of the bus bench. He passes me by and continues up the street, jerking and screaming. I wonder where he came from, and where he’s going, and what he’s so angry about.

Beautiful isn’t a sufficient word. Los Angeles is skies of purple, orange, blue, and yellow. It’s bearded palm trees and pink and white pale-bark crape myrtles. Lonesome skyscrapers and homely houses, sweltering valley and chilly coast, alt rock bands and hip-hop dancers. Los Angeles is the subway below and airplanes above. But in the rain, my city feels scuzzy. All the filth and sorrow that’s been pounded into the streets for most of the year becomes slick and muddy as the clouds release their drizzles and torrents. Still, the visual of the rain in the city can be astounding: the asphalt reflects the green-yellow-red cycle of the stoplight, its colors stretching out for blocks; the firetruck tears down the street toward a wreck, its red lights pulsing against the looming buildings; the sun breaks through the grey-black clouds, its focused beams catching the still-falling raindrops and casting a rainbow across the sky. We’re not used to it here. We marvel at weather, necks craned skyward as we wonder whether the snow in the mountains is a sign of climate change, of coming drought.

When it rains in L.A., there are two types of people: those who dust off the umbrellas and rainboots that spend most of the year in the back of a closet, and those who rely on layers of flannels and coats and the same old sneakers that inevitably become soaked as the sidewalks flood.

*     *     *

At the North Hollywood Station, there are grates over a large portion of the sidewalk. The air blowing up from the trains below is slightly warmer than the chilly wind, so people pitch their tents on top of the grates. As I walk by, I try not to look, and I try not to look away. A woman sitting on a bus bench wrapped in a red sleeping bag says, “Hey,” to me as I pass. I stop and turn. She points across the street. “I think they’re selling coffee for a dollar.” I reach into my pocket and take out a dollar I can’t afford to spend and hand it to her. She looks cold. I’m glad she has a blanket.

My entire family has a soft spot for people who are down on their luck. My brother carries spare bottles of water to pass out to street people on hot days. I try not to keep cash in my pockets because it flows from my hands and leaves me wondering where all my lunch money went. My parents come from the backwoods of South Carolina, where people lived off the land and the charity of their churches. I don’t remember a time before I knew we were poor. I wore hand-me-downs and reread all my books a hundred times and accepted that there were things I would never have. I can’t help but see myself as adjacent to the population of people scrounging an existence from the streets and the trash of those who are better off. Finances are always tenuous, and the possibility of being on the street is always a looming terror. On tough days, I find myself eyeing soft-looking patches of dirt underneath bushes, or niches in alleys hidden from view of the street, wondering if I could spend a night there. On better days, I wonder who would take my cat in if I had to live in my car. I’ve been lucky, relying on my family and friends to help me when things spiral out of control and I can’t afford something vital.

Heading downtown, I’m trapped in a subway car with the suffocating smell of unwashed human. A black man stands in the center of the car, holding on to a pole. He’s slipped off his shoes, and his feet look painful. I blow air out of my nostrils and try to concentrate on my book. He rides the train for three or four stops, then shuffles off the train onto the platform. Another man, also black, says to the car at large, “The government’s doing that to us, you know.” Blank white faces look uncomfortably away, pretending to be absorbed in cell phones with no reception. I want him to say more, to bring attention to the dire situation pressed against our eyes, to make these other people think about something other than the lingering smell of a human body. He doesn’t say anything else.

*     *     *

My parents met in a trailer park, and they left South Carolina together, eventually ending up 3,000 miles away from home. They arrived in Los Angeles in 1987 with two young children in tow and took jobs as paralegals.

“We hustled our asses off,” my mom says, recalling days as a notary public and process server and nights of cleaning the law office building top to bottom.

Three years later, I came along, and we moved into a yellow, four-bedroom house in Van Nuys. For a time, my parents inhabited their dream, working hard and raising their children in the ideal, iconic city, opportunity lurking around every corner. Even after they split and my mom married my stepfather, I lived a life surrounded by glamour, diversity, and color. When I was little, we went to the beach all summer, threw ourselves against the waves of the Pacific, caught and cradled sand crabs in our palms. The sun shone long into the school year, warming our faces and arms—until the grey overtook the sky and rain made it so wet we had to tie plastic Ralph’s bags over our shoes.

My mom once befriended a man who lived in the Ralph’s parking lot, Russell.

“We were pals,” she says.

When she heard that Russell and his wife Janet spent their time in their tent playing cards by candlelight, she put together a package of candles and decks of cards and presented it to the homeless couple for Christmas, along with a new jacket for Russell. He and my mom cried together, gratitude and compassion mingling in the tears of two humans who cared about each other.

*     *     *

In the early morning, a young woman gets on the train at the North Hollywood Station. She is dressed in black leggings and a black top with a swirly red skirt. She is barefoot. Loud, desperate, alone, her voice rises above the noise of the train: “Can anyone help with spare change, if you would?” On another day, “Could anyone help with spare change besides the black guy who’s—” Did she say “who’s dead?” Her smell is overwhelming and her feet look awful and her hair is short and thinning. When I hand her a dollar, no eye contact, she says, “Thank you, my love.” Her words pierce the middle of my chest and wriggle inside, and they reside there beside the pain that comes when I’m off my meds and always near tears. Eyes on screens, headphones in, hoods up—no one looks at us. I wonder how much money she makes doing this every day. She gets off at the next stop and hops on the next car, her reedy voice ringing out again to beg.

I finally took my car in for repairs, expensive but so worth it. After more than a month, moving under my own power again is intoxicating, foreign. The rain has abated a bit, allowing me to put the top down and scrub the mold out of my flooded backseat. Water has gotten into the door, and now the window is stuck, but I’m not even mad about it. I’m grateful for my janky car, more than I’ve ever been. I’m safe again, protected, independent.

Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to return to my bubble. I feel powerless. Within me, the need to act has been awakened. I can’t help but think of how much I have relative to those who can’t even afford a room to rest their head. I also can’t help but think how futile it feels to try to chip away at the problem of homelessness a dollar bill at a time, like trying to dig a tunnel in a mountain with a toothpick. While I believe putting cash into the hands of the people who need it is usually the best course of action, isn’t there something else we can do, something bigger and more impactful?

*     *    *

Today, while I was walking to pick up my car, I passed an older man with a long white beard, carrying a small dog under his arm.

“Hello there!” he said, not looking at me. There was no one else nearby.

“Hello,” I replied, slowing. I knew he would call me back, and he did. He explained that he hated to come to me asking like this, but he and his puppy needed help with food. He invited me to scratch the adorable thing under the chin. It was a cutie, very little, but I didn’t hand over three bucks for the pup. It was for the man who didn’t expect me to reply to him when he greeted me, who was embarrassed to ask for help. He appreciated it so much he hugged me, a thump on the back from him to me and me to him.

*     *     *

As a grad student, I’ve met a lot of outstanding people. One is my friend Stephanie Jaeger, who is a pastor here in North Hollywood at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. I was incredibly heartened when I learned about the church’s nonprofit: the NoHo Home Alliance. Through this community organization, Stephanie and other volunteers work to provide the local homeless population with resources, including access to bathrooms and showers, clothing, and meals. In addition, they make a safe space for recreation, supplying folks with books, games, and movies as well as charging stations for cell phones. This work not only gives dignity to those who are ignored or thrust aside, but it also mobilizes the community to address issues such as homelessness in their neighborhood. By giving residents a course of action, it benefits the homeless population while also easing the anxiety of residents, who are able to make personal connections and relationships with people experiencing homelessness. It is good work, and needed, showing the power of community.

If you would like more information about the NoHo Home Alliance, please check out their website at www.nohohome.org or follow them on social media: @nohohome.

 

Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

À La Carte: There is no version of this story in which I come out the other side neurotypical

Last night I dreamt of institutions. A thousand days
of mood stabilizers and shock therapy.
A spoon rolls over my tongue
but I do not gag on the bitterness, my throat
is already full of what everyone else
needs to be comfortable
with me being alive.

//

My grandmother lives in Cuba.
Mother rarely speaks of her.

//
I close my eyes and a puddle forms
inside my skull. Beside it, in a rocking-chair
a bitter old man is braying something at the ooze
about it being one thing to imagine dying
and another to actually try it.

//

She woke one morning
and was gone.
Her body left a year later.
Mother hasn’t seen her in decades.

//

Lately, I’ve been speaking
in some dead or dying language
through an opaque shell
couched atop my shoulders. I scream
and no one hears me. My body is a glass box
I am always staring into. There is always
another room. We could call this place home

and disappear into its wild.

//

I tell my mother I am schizophrenic
just like grandma, and she says
“we don’t know for sure,”
while I watch
as every graveyard
mother dug
begins to fill
with dancing ghosts. Mother—
I am growing you a city in my grief.
This morning I woke
and the puddle had gone.

 

J. David is from Cleveland, OH, and serves as poetry editor for FlyPaper Magazine.

New Math

Dear [REDACTED],

At first, I stared at your e-mail and blinked a few times, thinking that perhaps my contact lenses were blurry. It said, “Thank you for your interest in employment with [REDACTED]. Your application was received and carefully reviewed. However, based on the information you submitted, it was determined you did not meet the minimum training and experience required.”

“Your resume is so impressive!”

No, I was reading it correctly, but it still didn’t make any sense. See, my last employer was five times your size, and I held a nearly identical position to the one for which I applied. What kind of new math are you using? If this weren’t the eleventh time that I’d received such a reply—or no response at all—I would call the HR office directly and contest your rejection.

But I’m tired of this whole charade. Tired of the backhanded compliments where you tell me how “impressive” my resume is and then proceed to explain that I’m also “too confident” or “too intimidating” or “not the right fit.” I’m tired of jumping through hoops, tired of tap dancing. Tired of being the “First Black This” or the “Youngest Female That.” Tired of having to fight you just to get paid what I’m worth. Tired of collecting degrees and experience, only to be told that I’m Still. Not. Enough.

And you always have reasons. So many reasons. The ones you state out loud are perfectly plausible: I’m underqualified, or I’m overqualified; we’re in a recession, or we just got out of a recession; you’re going in a different direction, or you decided not to fill the position at all. But it is the reasons you don’t say that tell the rest of the story. The reasons I can’t say aloud either, lest I be labeled “bitter” or “angry” like the last black woman you hired. And we all know how uncomfortable you get when black women are angry.

This was your recruitment poster. I feel duped.

But did you know that black women are the most educated people in this country? We attain advanced degrees at far higher rates than any other group. That’s become a very popular statistic, shared with pride and awe at our hard work and achievements, but that’s what black women have always done: work hard and overcome obstacles. So that doesn’t impress or surprise me. Not because it isn’t impressive, mind you, but because I know what it’s really about. See, what they don’t share alongside that data about black women’s educational attainment, is the degree to which we aspire to positions of leadership—at almost three times the rate of our white female peers, and yet we’re perpetually underrepresented in C-suites, boardrooms and halls of power. Lean In wasn’t written for black women. Hell, black women invented leaning in and then turned it into a dance. But still we think, “Maybe if I get one more degree, take on one more project, achieve one more milestone, maybe…it will finally…be enough.”

Lean In wasn’t written for black women. Hell, black women invented leaning in and then turned it into a dance.

It can eat away at you if you let it, that feeling of knowing you’re capable but not being acknowledged for it. It’s like being invisible. I imagine that’s how Katherine Johnson and her NASA coworkers felt. Did you see that movie, Hidden Figures? Katherine Johnson was a mathematical genius who, along with other black women, were hired as human computers to do calculations for the male engineers trying to put a man on the moon. They worked in an area that was segregated from the rest of the Langley Research Center, until they had to step up and save the mission. Everyone kept saying it was the “feel good movie of the year,” but it just irritated me. What is so inspiring about watching a bunch of white men shoot themselves in the foot while the black women with all the answers aren’t even allowed in the room? John Glenn almost died and the United States nearly lost the Space Race before these women were allowed just to do their jobs.

Worried businesswoman ---

The Invisible Woman (Image by © Beau Lark/Corbis)

If you haven’t even seen Hidden Figures, then I’m sure you’ve never heard of Charlotte Ray. She was the first black female attorney in the United States. She graduated from Howard Law School at 22 years old and was admitted to the D.C. Bar the same year. Then she became the first woman, of any race, admitted to argue before the Supreme Court of D.C. Her legal intelligence was undisputed, but do you know what she got for all her accomplishments? She had to close her law firm because no one would hire a black woman to represent them. Instead, the first black woman attorney in America moved back home to New York and taught public school.

And don’t dare tell me it’s gotten better since then, as if Katherine and Charlotte don’t have a debt to be paid. I don’t know how they kept their souls from shriveling up like a raisin in the sun. Some days, I don’t know how I do. It’s maddening to be dismissed in spite of your abilities, to be ignored to the point where you doubt your own existence. Did they recite the same futile affirmations as me in their mirrors, I wonder, steeling themselves against a world indifferent to their brilliance? They say a person’s value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see their worth…but their paycheck certainly does. No amount of affirmations, self-love or leaning in can make up for more than $713,000 in lost income. That was the average amount a college-educated woman could expect to lose over a 40-year career. In 2017. I dare say Katherine and Charlotte would be disappointed.

What’s ironic is that you have problems that black women can solve, but you look right through us. We are the descendants of miracle workers, refined in the fires of oppression. Black women gave birth to this world. Why would it surprise you that we know how to heal it? How much untapped human potential is wasting away before your eyes? How many technological breakthroughs, medical miracles, diplomatic victories and social advancements are we missing out on because this world refuses to see black women’s greatness? Because you don’t see our greatness.

Black women gave birth to this world. Why would it surprise you that we know how to heal it?

Thank God for Bessie Coleman who, after being rejected by every flight school in the United States, moved to France instead to become the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Thank God for Raven Wilkinson, who persisted even when racism nearly sidelined her dance career. Thank God for Audre Lorde, who didn’t let discrimination or cancer silence her. Because of them, I will persist. Because God blesses the child that’s got her own.

 

#blackgirlmagic

This #blackgirlmagic isn’t free.

You’re probably wondering why I’m unloading on you like this. You might be thinking this is unfair, uncalled for. After all, your e-mail to me was three measly sentences. I mean, you hardly even know me. But you are a symbol, a proxy for those whose hubris and fragility render black women invisible. For those whose identity is rooted in our subjugation. Because you want our ideas, our labor and our magic, but you don’t want us. Because you could stand before me, and with a straight face, tell me I don’t exist.

So I reject your rejection. I reject whatever calculations you make that lead you to believe that I’m not enough, that we’re not enough. I reject your new math, because it’s just as backward as your old math, because it doesn’t add up.

While you may choose not to see what is right in front of you, I demand to be seen. I don’t need your permission to be great; I have no choice but to be great. My ancestors will accept nothing less. I will serve, and I will speak, and I will write, and I will live, and I will win. Because I. Am. Enough.

Sincerely,

A.D. Lowman

 

A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.

Three Shorts—Strawberry Hill, Spotlight, Revolution

Welcome to our new occasional series, School Lunch. A youth spotlight, School Lunch is a curated bi-weekly feature offering fiction, poetry, flash prose, personal essay, YA, and CNF, from writers ranging in ages 13 through 17. Please enjoy. ~The Editors

 

Strawberry Hill

[fiction]

On the last day of summer, Brynn sits in the blackberry thickets with her bare feet dangling into the shallow green water and writes a love letter.

She’s listening to The Talking Heads with earbuds and her fingers are stained purple from picking blackberries. She has too many love letters. Her backpack is full of them. It’s frayed and forest green and covered in Black Lives Matter and feminist and rainbow flag pins and she stashes the letters in the secret pocket of her backpack: six of them from ninth grade alone. One for the boy in art class she was partnered with to paint portraits of each other, one for the girl in her English class who recited her poem to everyone, one for the boy she talked to at the school dance. She doesn’t even remember the other ones. She’s bi or pan or something but it doesn’t really matter. She’s only fifteen.

This one’s for the girl who works at the Stow Lake concessions stand. Her name is Stella and she has wavy, washed-out silver hair down to her shoulders that’s been dyed three different colors this summer alone. She’s almost six foot and has blue eyes and a face full of freckles. She wears bright red lipstick and brings her film camera and walks around the lake taking black-and-white photos.

Yesterday, Brynn bought bright red lipstick. She always wears her hair braided and she’s only worn makeup once. She stares at her reflection in the water, wondering if she should.

Somewhere across the mirrorlike surface of the lake, Stella sits on the dock with her phone, gazing at her face in the black screen. She started wearing the red lipstick on the first day of ninth grade because she didn’t want to be the same perfect, straight-As kid in high school. She dyed her hair too. She can’t quite decide who she wants to be, but for now, it’s fine. She watches an old man on a park bench across from her, tossing breadcrumbs into the water and geese and ducks and seagulls float eagerly towards the shore, flapping their wings. Turtles poke up from the glossy green water.

She brings her film camera and its floral strap to the lake every day and her denim messenger bag with a set of charcoal pencils, a sketchbook, and her printed photos. She takes them out and starts to sketch a photo of Brynn, the girl with the braids and the notebook she’s always writing poetry in. Stella blurs the shading with her blackened index finger, drawing the lines of her profile. She watches her silhouette across the lake, writing. Probably another poem.

At the end of the letter, Brynn signs her name and puts it in the pocket of her backpack. She takes another look at Stella and the heavy afternoon sun, suspended in the blue sky, as clouds clear. Then she catches a bus on 21st and watches Strawberry Hill vanish out the fogged window.

 


 

Spotlight

[fiction]

Somewhere in this cracked concrete maze of rooms, he sits and stares at himself in a mirror. He’s in a band. Almost. Kind of. He’s in a week-long music camp where he was paired with other teenagers to perform a song they wrote together, and today’s the showcase at a little local theater. He’s wearing ripped jeans and fishnet tights and the band t-shirt they made just yesterday, spray-painted with navy and indigo and fuchsia to look like a galaxy. He’s too feminine. His singing voice goes too high and the vocal instructor at this music camp was the only one in his two years of vocal lessons since coming out not to complain about it. Ever since he came out as trans and put the lilac “he/him” pin on his backpack, everyone treats him differently. “If you’re going to act like that, why didn’t you just stay a girl?” He’s not a girl.

*     *    *

Somewhere in this cracked concrete maze of rooms, she puts lip gloss on for the first time in years. She’s fifteen and she wore it to her school dance in seventh grade and that’s the only time. She’s rejected every single stereotype. She skips school. She sneaks out of the house at night to meet her friends. A week and a half ago, she sat on the brick rooftop of a five-story building downtown at midnight after climbing up the fire escape with two other girls her age and watched the stars.

*     *    *

Their band is on first. He’s the lead singer and he’s upstairs for sound check, humming into the microphone and tapping his finger on the crisscrossed metal surface because he’s so nervous his voice cracks when he tries to sing. She’s behind him, strumming guitar chords and changing pickups and shifting the volume up and down.

And they’re backstage. She runs up and down the stairs getting a bottle of water and then looking over the notebook where she wrote the picking patterns. He waits for their introduction. He thinks he hears their band name twice. The bass player bites their lip. The drummer knots her band t-shirt for the third time.

A sliver of golden spotlight lands behind the velvety black curtain. He hears the opening drumbeats and chords of the song over and over and he stands in the spotlight and takes a deep breath. He stares into this glow until his eyes hurt and he’s really confident they’ll be good. Just for a moment.

For a moment, she looks at herself in a lighted mirror behind the folds of the curtain, the only thing separating her from three hundred sets of eyes. This is crazy. She can’t believe she’s here. She looks at the holographic lip gloss, glimmering when the ray of light from the stage hits it and she looks different and she actually likes it this way, with her uncontrollable hair combed out and lip gloss and mascara. She’s kind of beautiful.

And they step out into the spotlight.

 


 

REVOLUTION

[poetry]

This revolution is because of Disney princesses.

This revolution is because of Sleeping Beauty, the thin blonde princess rescued by her courageous prince.

This revolution is because Disney princesses can fend for themselves.

It’s not because they wear dresses.

It’s because we want to watch a movie where the Disney princess dons her fuchsia ballgown and battles a dragon.

 

This revolution is because we want princesses with every single shade of skin because we are different and there is no shade that isn’t beautiful.

Every single gender because there are countless and you cannot shield our eyes from people who aren’t just the stereotypes.

We are people. We are all people, boys or girls or in between and you can’t pray we don’t tell secrets because those secrets don’t belong to you.

 

We are everything, every variety.

Love is love is love is love is love rises above you and your stereotypes, trying to keep us all caged in because you don’t want us to bloom.

 

We refuse to let you suffocate us in your checkmarked boxes because take up space and we are more than these thin blonde princesses who just sit still and look pretty.

We want princesses that fit the stereotypes and princesses that don’t.

We want every variety.

We want princesses that reflect us.

We’re sick of being love interests in these stereotypical happily-ever-after scenes.

 

This revolution is because we want to be heroes.

This revolution is because we come in every size, shape, and color.

This revolution is because we are much more than what you think underneath the surface.

 

This revolution is because we’re all beautiful but we’re all more than that.

 

Edie Patterson is an 8th grader living in a blue dot town in Kansas. She is a photographer and plays guitar in addition to being a writer. She has been writing fiction and poetry since she was very young. She’s published poetry in Stone Soup. This is her first published fiction.

 

Spotlight: Vocal Frying the 2nd POV

[fiction]

You is not you. It certainly isn’t me, although after the initial shock of being ‘you,’ you think ‘you’ is me. Anyhoo, you take me by the hand and we climb the stairs, taking each step as slowly as if each step was a crossing into another forbidden dimension. BTW, ‘me’ isn’t me but the ‘stairs’ are those concrete stairs that appear out of nowhere in Echo Park and go straight back up to nowhere because they were stairs to a housing estate that never got built way back when LA was still being planned into the LA that never got built. I wish… I wish ‘me’ was me and that you are this person I’ve always felt hovering around the periphery of my consciousness, kind, intelligent, reliable, thoughtful and so damn mature that you shock me out of the ‘me’ story. Wait. Maybe it’s better if the ‘stairs’ isn’t that ‘stairs’ but the one in Santorini which feels like Ancient Greece, you know, the one that almost killed us because it was so long and steep, the passageway connecting the cliffside Village of Too Many Tourists to the beach sparking the coast of twilight. I say ‘sparking’ because what’s important in this flash is the restaurant that grilled super fresh fish right on the beach. If you were me, you would know why I use ‘sparking’ and how delicious expertly grilled red mullet tastes and looks and smells and how that was the best meal we had in Greece. At this point I am not me. But you. You are me, the me of this flash, climbing up the stairs that may or may not exist but will always exist here, in this flash, where you are right now, trapped in an insufferable POV. And for that, I thank you.

 

J.A. Pak’s writing has been published in Luna Luna, Joyland, Entropy, 7×7, Queen Mob’s Tearoom, and others. Come and visit her at Triple Eight Palace of Dreams & Happiness.

The Language of Community

Once I gave up alcohol, sugar and flour, there were only a few splurges left in the culinary world for me to enjoy—one of them was good coffee.  I didn’t mind standing in line to get it—even the time some jerk interrupted my order.

“I ordered extra whip,” a voice boomed, behind me. “This doesn’t have any.”

I turned. A tall, skinny man with a full beard showed the clerk his cup, filled with nothing but café au lait, and then shoved it toward her.

“Sorry,” she said, and passed it to the baristas at the espresso machine. As she explained the terrible disaster of his missing whipped cream, the guy looked down at me and shook his head.

“I come in here every day,” he said, in a low voice. “You’d think they’d know me by now.” He went to the pick-up counter, but not before he looked back at me. “Sorry for interrupting your order. I’m in a hurry.”

He grabbed the cup, ignoring the barista’s apology. As quickly as he appeared, he was gone, running across the street before the light changed to green.

* * *

The language of this story informs the narrative, as language has the power to do.  I never mention how the coffeehouse was across the street from a research hospital, or describe what the jerk was wearing (wrinkled doctor’s scrubs). He looked exhausted, like an overworked intern fueled by coffee—close to seeing visions. Because this is my story, I can dress him like a red devil, with a pointed tail and cloven hooves if I want to. I could also make a case about those baristas, too; they kept checking their phones while they made espresso. I almost blew the conch shell (Twitter) to complain how the baristas were all distracted and moving in slow-motion.

I think about everyone in this story now—the intern in wrinkled scrubs, me, the distracted baristas trying to keep up with the line—and I see how we’re all connected. Hurried, distracted, self-contained people, we interacted as little as possible with each other, pretending we weren’t part of the same community.

* * *


I always loved the way that Charles Olson described projective verse: “from the heart, by way of the breath, to the line.” It shows how words are more than words—they’re the essence of what we value, the souvenirs of our experience, and the trembling tokens of our fears.  We’re warned to choose them carefully.

In 2011, Google released its database of 5.2 million books, published between the years of 1500 and 2008.  It measured the frequency of words used in these books, and it showed how our language has changed: “Words and phrases like ‘personalized,’ ‘self,’ ‘standout,’ ‘unique,’ ‘I come first’ and ‘I can do it myself’ are used more frequently in today’s language.  Communal words and phrases like, ‘community,’ ‘collective,’ ‘tribe,’ ‘share,’ ‘united,’ and ‘common good’ have receded… significantly.” American English has changed because we are an isolating people—our communities are shrinking.

Gallup’s latest polls reflect that Americans are engaging in community exercise less and less. Charitable clubs, like Elks, Moose, Rotary, have a decrease in new membership. Church memberships are experiencing a steady decline: 38% of adults attended weekly in 2016, compared to the 42% in 2008. Rushing from one activity to another, we’re less likely to engage and invest in communities outside of our immediate families.

Social media platforms are taking the place of social gatherings. Cell phones are the preferred method of communication. Even when squished together in public places, we look at our phone screens as much as we do one another.


My husband, Mario, and I lived in Africa for seven years, north of the mile-high city of Johannesburg, on an agricultural holding where our neighbors rode horses on the dirt roads.  It was eight miles away from the township of Diepsloot, where we worked (and played).  We’d come home to our small cottage to hear our neighbor’s geese and peacocks calling to each other, green dragonflies, the size of pencils, resting on bushes. Sunsets painted the sky a violet-red-orange, and Sacred Ibis filled the willow tree that bordered our dirt road. There was epic lightning and rain. Our dusty Toyota Hilux took us to nineteen different countries on the continent, including a forty-seven day trip to the Sudan.

The language of my story informs its narrative, as all language has the power to do. What I haven’t said is that we were part of a Christian ministry team, serving existing churches on the continent. We loved this work, believing we could help. I usually withhold this part of my story unless I know I’m safe. It’s the equivalent of getting naked and showing how the years have taken their toll on my body. My friends who fight for social justice tell me how they detest churches and the hypocrites who populate them. I never know what to say, other than my knee-jerk reaction of, “I’m not a hypocrite!” I want to prove this, but I can’t. I withdraw.  The absence of language betrays me. There are cracks in the sentences, an insincerity of voice. But when I drop the veil and tell you that I was lonely when I was in Africa, and drank wine and martinis just to silence my heartache, you just might empathize.

* * *

Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, studies empathy—our human connection—in the age of digital distraction.

“Quite frankly,” she says, “empathy is in trouble. Too often we find ways around conversation and get our phones. We lose touch with what each other are thinking and feeling.” Empathy is how we’re wired to respond to one another, especially when we see that someone is hurting. Cell phones have accelerated this loss of empathy toward our communities, for the most part.

Last week, I had a rare visit with my sister that led us to a place of some soul sharing.

“Who are you texting?” I asked her, as she picked up her phone while I was talking.

“No one,” she said, putting it down. “I just got a call. My phone is on vibrate, so I shut it off.”

I felt my shoulders relax and unexpected emotions filled me: Relief. Acceptance. Love.

* * *

Our travel schedule for ministry was rigorous, but nothing compared to the demands of keeping my mouth shut. Our team scheduled a trip to Mozambique, a group of villages near the Shire River, where pastor-friends had been asking for Bibles and mosquito nets. The trip was organized for the winter, when the Anopheles mosquitoes—the ones that carry the malaria protozoa like sick junkies —aren’t as numerous.


The village leaders had rented a local community hall, with enough space to camp next door. They arranged meetings, welcomed us warmly, shared fresh fruits, water, and bread. The team guys met in the hall with local pastors; the village women invited the wives to sit down on the logs outside our camp. After a few minutes of socializing, the team wives retreated to start cooking. I stayed with the village women, who taught me songs and greetings in their Shangaan language. Children—wide-eyed and shy—clung to their mothers, which made me miss our new grandchildren. The women seemed to understand, and I felt more connected with them than any of the wives on the team.

Near the end of our trip, our team leader approached Mario and asked to speak to him privately. “Your wife should be sitting with you in meetings—not with the village women. She laughs too loud, and talks too much.”

At first, Mario tried to explain how cultural differences might color this man’s view of me, but Mario could tell our leader had made up his mind. That night, as we went to bed in our tent, Mario told me what was said; I knew he was leaving a lot out.

“I told him to back off,” Mario whispered in the cold darkness. “I assured him that he was wrong. You’re not just an important part of our team, you’re wonderful. It’s sad he can’t see that.”  We were still and quiet, holding each other. From the neighboring tent, I could hear snoring.  Mario’s neck felt warm against my fingers, chapped from washing dishes, one of the jobs I was allowed to do. Sleep came eventually. In the morning, I decided to do what the team leader said, and sat next to Mario in the meeting, while the village women talked outside.

The last day at camp, we met with the village pastors one last time in the conference hall.  There was a feast of music and worship.  Children sang and danced. Then, as a surprise: the village women approached the team wives, singing and carrying woven textiles to tie around our waists.

One by one, the women unfolded pieces of bright fabric to tie around our waists—the four team-wives and me. For a moment, the wives were standing there, in the front of the church, wrapped in colorful textiles and thanking our hosts. Soon, more women came up to me and tied fabric around me—one cloth after another—until I had at least ten cloths around me, compared to the other wives, who only had one.

The Shangaan women, none of whom spoke English, bestowed a blessing of sisterly acceptance, as if they could see the pain and rejection I was trying not to feel. They first allowed the other team-wives to feel their blessing of fabric, and then, unapologetically, gave me more. Wrapped in the multi-colored layers of blessing, in the presence of my accusers, my cup overflowed. My language is clumsy as I tell this story, reaching for the words that I know I’ll never find.

* * *

In 2013, after seven years, we returned to Sacramento. I was exhausted, convinced I’d failed our friends we left behind, and abandoned our calling. I collapsed into the arms of my family and friends—the ones we left behind—and relaxed to the point of vegetation. For about a year.

Sometimes, I’d look around and wonder why I’d ever left my homeland; other times I was furious with the rampant selfishness in my country. I drank more, just to tolerate everybody’s bullshit. I took delight in feasting with cultural foods, pushing back the rumbling volcano of feelings, adding daily to my weight. Eventually, I admitted that this homeland of mine had the same DNA that I did, and we both were in desperate need of grace.

I  joined a community of people who, like me, needed to find their way back to a place of peace. I found my bearings—and faith—again. I started eating organic foods and drinking good water. I got my first smartphone, a computer, and then completed my first college degree, in English. After that, I decided to get an MFA in Creative Writing.

Once I gave up alcohol, sugar and flour, there were only a few splurges left in the culinary world for me to enjoy—one of them was good coffee. At the beginning of my story, this sentence gets carried away by other stories, but in the end, it’s that first sentence that holds all the beauty of my world.

I love how Rumi simplifies it:

“Christ is the population of the world,

and every object as well.

There is no room for hypocrisy.

Why use bitter soup for healing when sweet water is everywhere?”

 

Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor who lives in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat.  In the United States, her work has appeared in Cloud Women’s QuarterlySalon.com, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also published essays, stories and two biographies in South Africa.

Her writing examines themes of identity and morality in faith communities, and the mestiza experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, serving on the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes. Follow her on Twitter @brazenprincess or her personal blog at www.brazenprincess.com.