Delusions of Grandeur

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.

 

Genesis

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.

 

Cold Breath

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.

 

Avenues

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.

 

Council

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.

 

Synecdoche, USA

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.

 

 

Milk

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.

 

April Brucker: International Woman of Mystery

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?”

Cake of your dreams with icing on top

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.

An dancing heart on Good Day NY

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!”

Fighting crime with a real life Wonder Woman: Marishka Hargitay

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.

 

Perpetual Summer

As a kid growing up on the asphalt of Los Angeles, I treasured any chance to play outside. My schoolyard was concrete. My various apartment buildings had courtyards with potted plants if we were lucky, or underground parking garages if we weren’t. At my best friend’s house, I was always the one begging the other kids to go play in the backyard. Sometimes, using wooden weapons and old movie props, we would act out the video games they were so reluctant to leave indoors.

Soon after school ended each year, I would pack my backpack and my Barney suitcase. With my mom and my two older siblings, I would board a Greyhound bus and watch the country fly by. Driving through the night, it took about three days to get from Los Angeles to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where we would spend the next three months.

Those summers seemed perpetual. Each morning I would wake up and go outside. My grandparents’ house was on the corner where two winding country roads met. Behind the house at the end of the gravel driveway was Grandpa’s shop, where he played pool in one room and did his work as a machinist in the other. Much of the yard was taken up by an enormous garden where Grandpa grew okra, cucumbers, squash, peppers, cabbage, watermelon, and tomatoes. Beyond the garden were two houses, one with a deck and a pool, the other with chickens in wire cages in the yard. There, two of my mom’s sisters lived with their families. Woods, which seemed impassable to me at the time but were really just a screen to separate us from the neighbors, surrounded the yard and the three houses. I spent most of my time barefoot in the grass of that huge yard, playing with my little cousin. We rode bikes, bounced on the trampoline, and, of course, acted out our favorite video games.

Nanny

All of this was overseen by my mom and her stepmom, who I called Nanny. They would sit on the porch swing by the shop, its benchlike seat in constant motion as they gossiped about the neighbors, who were almost all related to us. Sometimes, darkness didn’t come until 9 p.m. The adults would gather as evening drew down. Grandpa would sometimes light a fire in a big metal barrel by the shop, and we would all sit around it. Other nights we would go into the living room with its blue walls and bright lights. Nanny would watch TV and teach me how to do jigsaw puzzles. I remember the image of her decisively tapping down each puzzle piece into its proper place with a fingernail. She was a pro at puzzles, and she would often glue them, frame them, and hang them on the walls of the house.

As a baby, Nanny had tumors in her ears. Surgery left her able to hear, but her speech was impacted for the rest of her life. She spoke in her own particular language, which those closest to her had no trouble understanding. “I love you” would come out as “Ah huv oo,” sometimes with a little hand motion to make sure her meaning was clear. Everyone got nicknames that she could pronounce—except me, because before I was born, she helped choose a name for me that she would be able to say. When I was talking to her and got really stumped, she would holler for my mom or grandpa, who would stick their head in the room and translate her language for me.

When I was ten, my family moved to South Carolina for a single year. Across the street from the big yard with the three houses, a doublewide trailer was available. I was concerned with little beyond starting a new school, making friends, and spending as much time outside as possible. I found a special place in the yard behind the trailer, a hidden spot beneath a tall tree with low branches. There, I could feel magic emanating from the earth. It was just enough wilderness for me, the city kid. I built up screens of fallen branches for privacy, and I tied up an old tire to make my own swing. I took my favorite books up into the tree and spent hours nestled in the branches, reading. I burrowed into my books about magic and lady knights, and I entrenched myself in the multitudes of worlds they encompassed. I began writing my own stories about werewolves and kids and cities and magic.

That was the year I started to become aware of things in the adult world that were grim and serious. Being on the east coast, I was in school when the planes crashed in New York on 9/11. The teacher turned on the news in the classroom, but I had no idea what it meant. I felt no real shock or worry until I saw how my mom reacted. After that, the world seemed to take on a darkness. Fear and anger permeated the air. Around the same time, a neighbor and relative was shot and killed in a hunting accident. I answered the phone when Nanny called to tell my mom, and I had no trouble understanding her frantic words: “Let me talk to your mom, now! It’s important!” The timeless, idyllic summer became a fearful, unfamiliar winter.

*     *     *

When I asked my mom what she remembered about the year we lived in South Carolina when I was 10, her answer was easy: “Drugs.” She started spending more and more time with Aunt Suzi, who lived in one of the houses beyond the garden. Suzi was a drug addict. She spent $62,000 in eight months on drugs, embezzling money to support her habit. She and her husband, Stacey, lost their cars. The bank began to foreclose on their beautiful house with the pool where we kids made so many memories.

When Suzi woke up in the morning, her first priority was getting high. She would begin calling people immediately, dozens of calls, and then she would wait with bated breath for someone to return her call. Once she made an arrangement, someone, usually Stacey, would go out and buy the drugs and bring them back to her. Suzi was only ok when she sank into a stupor. I remember her crackly laugh, her manic movements, her obsessive twisting of her long, curly red hair. I remember her slurred speech, her heavy-lidded eyes, and her frightening thinness. She took any pill she could get, did cocaine and crack, and smoked weed as a last resort.

Suzi nearly collided head-on with a police car that year. Her three-year-old grandson, Christian, was in the car, and so was a bottle of pills Suzi wasn’t supposed to have. My mom picked up Christian, and Suzi went to jail. Having downed the entire bottle of pills before being arrested, Suzi was still incoherent the next morning when she was bailed out and needed a ride home.

That year, tension suffused the yard. Nanny and Grandpa didn’t talk to Suzi and her family, though they lived within shouting distance of each other. Playing with Christian in the muddy driveway, I saw Grandpa walking across the yard, shaking his head as if he were somehow disappointed in me spending time with my little cousin. I didn’t know why. At the time, I knew nothing about Suzi’s problems. I only knew that she was being shunned by most of the family—but not my mom.

I’d always known my mom had problems, though I didn’t understand the extent of them. She has dealt with mental illness her entire life. At ten, I was at a loss for what to do when she became emotional. Her crying, yelling, and threats to harm herself were frightening even though I knew that she would eventually calm down, return to a level state, and apologize. What I didn’t know then was that she was heavily involved with drugs, mostly prescription pills, and her addictive tendencies were becoming worse. When I became an adult, she confessed to me that, under Suzi’s urging, she even tried crack once—and thankfully didn’t like it at all.

Mom had a falling out with Nanny, which cemented our decision to return to California. I don’t recall saying goodbye to anyone. I just remember settling into the backseat, ready for the long, familiar drive across the country. We made a U-turn at the corner of the two winding country roads, and I watched Nanny and Grandpa’s house, with its familiar shop and garden, disappear around a curve in the road. By the time I heard Nanny’s voice again, three years later, I had already begun to develop my own relationship with prescription pills.

*     *     *

Addiction runs in my mom’s family. Tales of her childhood are riddled with Grandpa’s violent alcoholism and her mother Alice’s unrepentant abuse of pills. She describes physical fights between them so horrid they’re hard for me to picture. There’s a dissonance to the memories she recalls. Sometimes, they’re reminiscent of the ideal outdoor summers I enjoyed as a kid: sun shining, plants growing, hordes of cousins always available to play. Others are harder, meaner memories: when she was eight, Alice abandoned her and two of her sisters at a truck stop far from home. (They were rescued within a few hours by more stable family members.) The common themes of mental illness and addiction occur over and over.

As an adult, I visited South Carolina a few times. After not visiting for almost a decade, I saw Nanny just a few months before she died. She and Grandpa had moved across the yard into Suzi’s old house. Grandpa maintained the pool and deck, and Nanny cooked as she had always done. She mentioned a doctor appointment, but I didn’t realize how serious her situation was. We sat and talked in the living room, surrounded by Nanny’s glued and framed jigsaw puzzles displayed on the walls. When I left, she said, “Come back in one year, not eight,” holding up one then eight fingers to make sure I understood.

After Nanny died later that year, two years passed before my mom and I returned to South Carolina. It was strange to me to be there but to not be staying on the corner near Nanny and Grandpa’s house. I could visit, but without Nanny there, it was like some alternate world. Without hearing Nanny’s voice in my ears, those summer days faded away into memory, lost beneath the doped up person I had turned out to be.

Suzi and Me (with my little sibling)

We stayed with Suzi and her family in their new house. Suzi had been injured in a car accident a couple of years before. Her right leg had been amputated below the knee. For the most part, she remained in her bed or wheelchair (except for one wild adventure she took me on which involved driving with her left foot to go pick up drugs). That last visit was a hurricane of pills, booze, and terrible weed. I’ll never forget my cousin Jodi rolling us all up a “hog leg” joint to smoke together, or my mom dissolving on the floor with laughter as Suzi insisted on Stacey holding the joint up for her to smoke. Days were spent procuring drugs; nights were spent ingesting them. In a brief moment alone, Suzi smiled at me from behind her faded red curls, jittery, and told me, “Oh, I’m bitter. I’m just so bitter.” After that visit, I didn’t have a chance to see Suzi again before she died five years later, on my birthday.

*     *     *

I know the desperation of an addict. I know what it’s like to chase the unattainable high, the golden sweet spot of bliss that takes me right back to those endless summer days spent with the grass under my feet and the huge blue sky open above me. I’ll never again feel how I felt at ten, climbing up into the broad branches of a tree. I’ll never again feel how I felt at twelve, the first time I swallowed a narcotic pill.

I’m proud to say it has been ten years since my mom stopped her use of heavy prescription drugs. These days, we talk a lot about those old summers, trying to recapture the rush of boarding the Greyhound, the joy of seeing our family, the calm of being surrounded by nature. Returning to the green, sunlit South Carolina of my childhood is an impossible dream. It could never be the same without Nanny’s unique voice calling across the yard, without Suzi’s wild laugh filling the corners of a darkened room. Now, they are alive only in our memories of those perpetual summers, impossible to recapture, impossible to forget.

 

Adrien 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. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

 

Northside Newcomer

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

The clouded sky and thunder have been threatening to start something for a little over an hour when Justin and I begin our walk with our dog, Corky. Occasional afternoon storms rarely last very long anyway. We cross the street to say hello to our neighbor, Lynn, and her dog, Shadow. Then head north on Winona Court. No two house or cottages are exactly alike, even the ones sold from Sears catalogs. Paint is chipping off the sides of a tiny wooden cottage tucked behind a large pine tree. The house next door has a fresh coat of light gray around the window frames. Across the street, a child’s swing hangs from a tree in front of a brick bungalow. Corky forces us to stop, and I notice a woman staring into the sky behind the gate of her door checking to see if anything will become of the roars. Minutes later, rain delicately hits the trees on the parkway and wind chimes begin to slowly turn. Corky pulls me closer to the tree shading himself from the light drizzle, and we’re greeted by a series of lawn gnomes and trinkets in the yard of an old two-story Victorian.

39.7392° N, 104.9903° W

I moved into Justin’s house in North Denver a little over a year ago after almost a year of dating, a few months after we visited all of my granddad’s old residences in Cuba, and a week after we drove home from Los Angeles, where I had attended my first residency at Antioch University. He became my partner as opposed to just my boyfriend, and I began to navigate the unfamiliar territory of permanence.

Redlining in Denver 1938 Source: HOLC via Mapping Inequality

In my thirteen years in Denver, I’ve learned about Colorado’s past through Facing History and Ourselves— the nonprofit that helps teachers engage students in social issues of the past and present and participate in society. Through their seminars and events, I learned about the murder of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, mostly women and children, by U.S. soldiers in 1864’s Sand Creek Massacre. I learned about the city’s first riot in 1880 on Wazee Street where an anti-Chinese mob destroyed homes and businesses in the area once known as Chinatown. I learned about the Granada Relocation Center better-known as a Japanese concentration camp. I learned about Keyes vs School District No. 1, the 1973 court case that was the first outside of the South to rule that schools were segregated. I learned about many atrocities erased from white memories like mine. These pieces of history became close enough for classroom lessons and conversations but far enough away for me to not connect them to or question the neighborhood I lived in. My activism was tied to my students, to fellow teachers, to people I saw as my community, to issues that connected all of humanity, but were not tied to my immediate geography.

Before I moved in with Justin, college friends, my hometown St. Louis friends, friends of friends, and my boyfriends’ friends—my scattered outside-of-school community—visited me. I hosted visitors to Denver in various apartments, houses, and condos as I hopped from Washington Park to Capitol Hill to Cherry Creek to Governors Park to Golden Triangle, always anxious to try something new or show them something I knew they’d like. I visited places—rented places, friends’ places, boyfriends’ places, weekend trip places, parents’ places, siblings’ places, places I’d love to buy if only teachers made more money, if only I was ready to be more permanent. I’ve heard there’s buzz around the new development in Port Macquarie, Australia. Sovereign Hills looks set to become a popular community.

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

It stopped raining by the time we reached the end of Winona, where it dead-ends into Berkeley Park. On the westside of the park, across Sheridan Boulevard, sits Lakeside Amusement Park, which, I learned, is one of the country’s oldest amusement parks. Every time I see Lakeside, I think of the students I taught a decade ago at the internship-based school in North Denver, who were frequent patrons and employees of the park.

When Justin and I first started going on walks in the neighborhood, he would tell me about the historic homes in the area he discovered from a book he bought, The North Side Story, written by Phil Goldstein. Many of the homes in the area have been there since the first developers came to Berkeley in 1885, or shortly after, like our home. Walking in-and-out of streets helped me map out our neighborhood. With each walk, I’d mark places and stories either present or before my time. And with each passing, depictions became more defined, till we’d reach a street with a fenced-in lot of dirt, marking something that wasn’t there anymore.

Clouds still hover above the lake in Berkeley Park. We cross the street and enter the park looking for the perfect spot to watch the sun fall behind the Rocky Mountains. We pass white and Latinx teen couples perched under trees, on benches, and on the playground swings. We pass white and Latinx families pushing strollers and walking dogs and pass an African American man instructing his daughter on how to cast her rod into the lake. Lights from Lakeside’s 150 foot-tall “Tower of Jewels” flash with purple mountains and the pink and orange ombré sky behind it, all reflecting in the lake surrounded by tall grass and lily pads. We hear faint laughs and conversations from park patrons and laughs and screams from rickety roller coaster riders, though periodically their sound is interrupted by growling semi-trucks shifting gears on I-70. Long gone are the beach, bathhouse, pier, and diving board that made Berkeley Lake a popular place decades before the city made way for connecting people via freeway.

We leave the park and head away from Lakeside toward Tennyson Street. We round a corner and pass a Keep It Moving Moving and Delivery truck parked in an alley—the new Northside mantra I thought I left behind. In the alley across the way, chairs, a table, a tv, various bits of wood, and other things I can’t see piled high in a truck slowly passing trash cans from each of the houses, as the driver surveys what he can salvage from things residents discarded. Trucks line the streets. Some old and some new. Most with logos from painting companies or construction companies plastered to their doors. A new one has dozens of two-by-fours packed tightly on top of each other resting in its bed. An old one, manufactured before I was born, has a white hood, a blue body, and a red bed (parts that once belonged to others) with “For Hire” and a number blurred by green spray paint on its door. I hear the piercing sound of a saw as we get closer to Tennyson Street.

Daily view on Tennyson Street

On Tennyson Street, mostly white moms, dads, and/or nannies push strollers past boutiques, barber shops, breweries, and bookstores. As we wait to cross the street, a bulldozer swivels, then hammers into dirt removing the last of the Victorian. Men in hard hats shout directions. Wrenches turn. The bulldozer beeps indicating it’s backing up, and then starts crushing rocks like the thunder before. The dance of developers colonizing, “Gracefully rising out of Berkeley’s revitalized neighborhood,” as one new development with $1,825 studio apartments claims. Next door, staple guns shoot into boards and roofs. I hear the faint sound of music intermittently interrupted by the staple gun. We walk under scaffolding to the intersection. Across the street, another home I don’t remember has been torn down. We cross the street as patio patrons begin happy hour. The fifteen-dollar cocktails at the new tree-themed bar are certainly not made for someone with my budget. And the latest tops and jeans at the various boutiques we pass on Tennyson Street are not affordable to me. Nor is a single item from the vegan, gluten-free restaurant’s menu. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy visiting all the latest hot spots—I got used to living outside my means, where credit cards become the means to enjoy the various places that pop up—but I can’t pretend that all these latest trends were meant for everyone.

39.7561° N, 104.9272° W / 39.7847° N, 104.9593° W / 39.7543° N, 104.9798° W

Recently, Kyla, a former creative writing student of mine, who is now a sophomore in college, told me about her family’s new home in Park Hill, the east side of Denver, close to where her father grew up. She told me it’s gotten a lot whiter than she remembers as a kid. I asked her how she felt about the influx of white people. She said, “It’s disappointing to me because it feels like there’s less of a place for us.” Place: the space where you belong. “It’s like there isn’t just one community for black people. We don’t have a space or neighborhood that’s just our own, so you feel less concrete in where you belong.” When I asked Kyla how white people coming in makes it hard for her to feel like she belongs, she said, “Because then it feels like everything is catered to them and any new stores or restaurants are made with them in mind.”

Before I took the year off from teaching, on the way home from school, I often got off I-70 and drove through an industrial park to avoid a few miles of standing still in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I drove over abandoned train tracks with abandoned red, rusted boxcars peppered with purple and green and black bubbled graffiti tags in a maze of factory buildings only the Waze GPS application could lead me through. Then, I’d turn left back onto I-70 and back into the standstill. The air was thick and the marijuana and dog food smell from the grow houses and Purina plant assaulted my nose. Come on! I thought as I waited impatiently for any kind of movement. I looked around at the small brown and orange brick houses of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood below the highway.

It’s easy to miss the predominantly Latinx community with the factory wall surrounding it. That is, it’s easy to forget if you don’t live there, don’t know anything about the neighborhood aside from the boarded homes, the abandoned trains, and the weed and dog food smell. As traffic starts to steadily move, orange lights flash dates of 70’s closure for expansion into the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. New highway lanes and new Light Rail tracks for people to travel to and from, pushing the people of Elyria-Swansea out and away. Making way for the revamped billion-dollar stock show complex with commercial space, condos, and an apartment complex. Newly paved streets on old red lines.

I looked to the left and saw buildings cut into the mountains as the sun set. For purple mountains majesties. Every time I see a beautiful Colorado sunset, Ray Charles starts singing in my head. Dozens of cranes were littered among the buildings ready to poke and prod and rip through the Mile High sky. God mend thine every flaw / confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law! Each crane raised means rising rents, rising poverty.

Traffic makes us sit in place and see what’s being done to Denver. Once I was free from the stand-still, I’d return home to turn-of-the-century Victorians and bulldozed bungalows making way for three-story duplexes. Boards on windows silence homes until they’re erased and something new and “up-and-coming” takes their place.

Four months after I moved in with Justin, Ink Coffee Shop in Five Points, the historic African American neighborhood north of the city, made national news for displaying a sign that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014” on one side and “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.” Longtime neighborhood residents and the NAACP organized a protest even though some (perhaps people unfamiliar with the Blair-Caldwell Library and the neighborhood’s history) did not understand their resentment. When I heard this, I thought not just of past and present students and their families from Five Points. I thought of our neighborhood, Berkeley, and the one next to it, Sunnyside; I thought of my home on the Northside.

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

Corky barks at a parent who startled him by swiftly cutting in front of us to pick up his kids from the nearby elementary school. Families wait to cross the street holding hands as a truck carrying a forklift passes by. We head down Stuart Street, one block east of Tennyson. A tiny, brick bungalow hangs onto time between two massive, three-story, newly-built, modern mixed-material duplexes. “Up homes,” I like to call the tiny ones after the Disney Pixar film. I’m proud of them for holding out, but know they’ll be destroyed in no time. The other ones I called, “Swedish prisons,” because they reminded me of a prison I saw in a Swedish film in college. Nice for a prison. Justin called them “Ikea homes” because they all come with the same cheap prefabricated parts out of a box, instructions and all. Minimal pieces, minimal instructions, minimal aesthetic investment. We settled on “Ikea prisons.” Fitting that the grass on a newly built duplex is Astroturf. I’m not sure how new it is just by looking at it, as it looks just likes ones built days ago, but this one looks a little more lived in than others with the tiny trikes and toys in the yard. It’s easy to forget people live inside when the frequency of their arrival hasn’t given enough time for the animosity to subside.

We wander past a series of multiple duplexes tightly packed on lots built for one. Then another Up house and another new house still wrapped in plastic—not ready to be opened to its new family. The brick around the porch pillars is being glued on—part of the facade. A singer croons in Spanish on a radio within while someone sings to the tunes, finishing up the house for dwellers who more than likely will not be Spanish speakers—they are rapidly diminishing in this area as quickly as their Northside homes are demolished. As we head back to Winona, I wonder how houses like mine have withstood the test of time. Were each of the previous owners careful not to sell to developers? I like to think that it’s because they were made to last. These new homes made from cheap materials can only weather the Colorado weather for so long until developers deem them ready to be demolished. In reality, I know if we were to go, these old brick bones would never last.

39.7778° N, 105.0119° W

Justin and I decided to go to La Raza Park in Sunnyside to check out the home of the Chicanx Movement in Denver where Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice would meet and organize. I type “La Raza Park” into my GPS, but nothing comes up. So, I pull up a Denverite article and learn it’s designated name is Columbus Park. I plug it in and read the article aloud on our short two-and-a-half-mile drive. I learn they adopted the legendary home of the Aztecs, Aztlán, to motivate the Chicanx community to organize and take back the land of their indigenous ancestors. Aztlán, the home of all Chicanx people past and present. La Raza Park was part of Aztlán.

Plaza de la Raza

The small, one block park between Osage Street and Navajo Street is lined with brick bungalows, tutor homes, and trees. We walk toward the “Plaza de la Raza,” in the center of the park. “Built in 1989,” a plaque on the structure reads, “This kiosko (pyramid structure) is dedicated to all people of Denver’s Northside past, present, and future in honor of their continued fight for peace, justice, and equality. ¡Viva La Raza!” We walk up a couple stairs to the stage of the structure. Inside two-tiers of murals, two for each side, tell their story. A landmark solidifying their place, their struggle for justice. A memorial to the movement, to memory. Under their story, I read more of the article. I learn about the “splash-ins” organized to ensure pools in Mexican-American areas of Denver are run by people in the community. “Where’s the pool?” We look around. A playground, a basketball court, flower beds, benches, trees. I read more learning that police frequently harassed park patrons, which eventually led to a riot. A couple years later the pool was closed, filled in, erased from the park. As much as I want to hear their story through the mural, I don’t feel right standing center in their space. I feel like a tourist who overstayed her welcome.

We decide to check out the neighborhood. Bungalows, one-story Victorians, similar to Berkeley but with industrial buildings in the mix and fewer newly built boxes and slot homes complexes, roof balcony and all. Justin suggests we go in a newly built duplex open house and pretend we’re from St. Louis to see what they say about the neighborhood.

A young, good-looking, blond hair, blue-eyed, white realtor greets us. We give him our made-up spiel. Justin asks him about the neighborhood. “Okay Sunnyside…How long have you been here?” A month. He tells us that I-25 was the deciding factor: “the tracks, he calls them. “You did not go west of 25 ten years ago. Shot, killed, no bueno.” Then he tells us that five to ten years ago a developer started buying up all the land, building restaurants and homes, selling the land to other developers and then buying land in Sunnyside. He assures us that although prices were rising in Sunnyside, it has streets that “need some updating.He tells us that while it has a different kind of crowd,” it will look the same as LoHi in a few years. In addition, a Light Rail stop will be completed shortly. “What’s unique about this neighborhood,” he says as we are four blocks north of La Raza Park, is that one of the developers is building a 360 unit apartment building and 44 townhomes (he did not clarify if any of the housing will be affordable) with 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of retail space including “restaurants, coffee shops, fitness spots just a couple blocks away, which, again, is why the 3 bedroom, 3 bath, 2,552-square-foot duplex has an $800,000 price tag.

Justin asks the realtor if he is part of a big development company. He tells us which and how they specialize in “mid-century, architecturally pleasing, cool and different homes that sell, he tells us, “at the same price as larger homes but are significantly smaller but feel bigger.” I ask how you adapt to the community culturally. By “you” I meant how developers adapt, but, of course, since we are at an open house, he thought I meant anyone like me. He tells me that each neighborhood has its own cultural vibe and names a series of neighborhoods mentioning they each have their own restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. I reframe the question, explaining we are from a historic and diverse neighborhood and ask what they do to preserve the neighborhood. The realtor says that there are lots of historic districts around and many historic homes are preserved, but “little blocks of architectural nothing are the first to go.He walks us over to the front room and points to various homes on the block, designating which will stay and which will go. “And everyone thinks it’s so terrible,” he says. “But people only say that because they notice it now and won’t notice anything once they aren’t as new and blend in more in ten years.” He mentions people are freaking out about it, and I ask him what he means by freaking out. “Well, you just hear people talking about gentrification and all of these bad things, he says. What they don’t see is that these were dilapidated houses with gang activity, needles on the street, people getting shot. So, you weren’t over here in the first place.” Developers came in and “cleaned it up. He said you will always have some people who hate the change, but “most people, for the most part, like it.”

But, I don’t like the change. Ten years ago, I never stepped on any needles. I never noticed the need for modern, luxury homes. Back then, I visited my students at internships in the area. I watched a student present his short film at a quirky, community theater called The Bug. I visited another student at her cousin’s dietitian clinic on Federal Boulevard. I listened as my student told me about cruising down Federal, which I told her sounded a lot more fun than hanging out at the mall like I did when I was her age, and listened while her cousin passionately told me about educating Mexican-American women like herself. I visited another student at her internship at a small, sign-making business, which is still around now and down the street from the recently opened, hipster hangout restaurant chain, Illegal Pete’s. Back then, still relatively new to Denver, my student helped me appreciate the Northside community.

View from open house balcony in Sunnyside

The guy isn’t a pushy or aggressive realtor. The entire time he’s been calm. His tone: passionate, educational. I keep replaying, what he said about the condition of the neighborhood. “So, you weren’t over here in the first place.” He doesn’t even pause to think I could be offended by what he said, nor does he pause to question if we belong with the “cleaned up or “dilapidatedversions of the area. What he sees, a white couple in their thirties, is all he needs. I go back to the car with a clear understanding of how the Northside tour guides cater their newcomer experiences.

Plaza de la Raza is still confined to exist in the place named after Columbus, the colonizer who displaced and murdered many indigenous people. The article mentioned how several efforts to have the name officially changed have been met with resistance from the Italian American community who dominated the area before it became predominantly Mexican-American. Even recent efforts to name it “Columbus Park / La Raza Park” failed. The Italian Americans and the Mexican-Americans wanted the culture of their neighborhood to be represented in their space. Perhaps because the Italian Americans chose to have colonization represent their community versus “La Raza” or “the people” like the Mexican-Americans, they felt they had to stick to dominating versus integrating as they did with other aspects of the neighborhood. But what happens when there’s no one left to remember? No one left to solidify legacies before the next ones pour the concrete?

I am a newcomer seeking permanence. But the way things are going should not be permanent. Some of the new homes claim to be sustainable. Perhaps we can push for sustainability to include inclusivity, to sustain affordability, sustain the history, sustain the culture and community deeply rooted in our place.

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

Permanency is a matter of perspective. It’s hard to not be new when everything is always new. But this is a feeling unique to newcomers. The ones here long before are forever mourning, in purgatory, stuck in spaces in between, spaces that once were theirs, spaces of uncertainty.

On Winona, a Broncos flag and a Steelers flag hang from the same home. A Wisconsin flag hangs across the street. Many of us here are transplants. Some arrived here days ago and some decades. We migrated here from places all over for various reasons. Each of us has a story. Yet, it’s hard to settle when I find so much unsettling. Gentrification means replacement, displacement. Erasure comes at a cost many newcomers don’t question. But I am welcome here. We, Justin and I, are welcome here in the new Northside built on the bones of Little Italy, the bones of Aztlán, the bones of all who have lived in this community. I’m slowly learning my neighborhood’s history. But I need to keep digging. Before it’s buried so deep it becomes extinct and preserved only in books like Chinatown and Japantown, like the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre, and the victims of La Raza Park police brutality—more guilt white folks reluctant to burden when we, white folks, are the burden—where time, not effort, allows us to forgive ourselves.

Barrie Jean Borich in her essay, “Autogeographies,” said, “When writers reckon with the harmonies and disharmonies of their physical, emotional, and theoretical locations they often find new ways to render their life stories.” Maybe I’ll read this reckoning and commitment at a First Friday Open Mic on Tennyson Street. But I’m not sure anyone will listen. We’ll see. But then again, I’m not the one they need to listen to. I’m a white woman with immigrant and colonizer roots who also needs to listen. Maybe without hammers hitting, when staple guns stop, when trucks and bulldozers are all shut off, maybe if we’re all quiet enough, we’ll hear the soil’s whispers.

 

Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. At Lunch Ticket, she is a blogger and a member of the community outreach team. She is currently working on her MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles and lives in Denver, Colorado.

Hydration

Twenty years ago, in a storefront on Avenue D in New York’s Alphabet City, I visited my first psychic. She was sturdy, middle-aged and wore a silk turban. I was tipsy off of the millennium drink du jour – a “cosmo.” Tarot cards with worn edges flipped into neat clusters and rows in front of me.

“There is a dark cloud over your head in New York City. You must go to California. You will find happiness there. Creativity and love, too—” She looked me in the eyes with such intensity, her pupils vibrated.

“But what will happen if I stay here?” At the time, the mere thought of abandoning New York reeked of personal failure.

“You will die alone in a studio apartment in Manhattan. In poverty.”

Source: Wikipedia, Storefront psychic fortuneteller in Boston

Her words jolted me sober. Nothing could’ve been more frightening at the time. A recent college grad, I was broke and had recently come out as gay. And while the act had been liberating, I was miserable in New York, constantly overwhelmed by the city’s teeming streets and the subway cars that screeched so loudly, my ears rang for hours afterwards.

The following day, I called my big sister in Berkeley and asked to crash for a few weeks. I stayed four years, in a closet-sized bungalow my friends lovingly called the “Shack in the Back.” Throughout my time there, I was unsure if I was happy, though I knew I was definitely not unhappy. Love didn’t find me, either. I was just grateful not be dead in a studio apartment.

I’m not your typical psychic follower. I believe climate change is real and vaccines are safe. I hold a graduate degree in epidemiology. Yet, one year ago, despite this deep belief in science and an adherence to logic and fact in every other facet of my life, I found myself shopping for crystals at an LA store called, “Spellbound Sky.” Young hipster women packed the shop, preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse. And though I scoffed at them, I plucked a white quartz from a black, velvet-lined basket and plopped my credit card down on the counter. The night before the eclipse, I set the crystal in the northwest corner of a different older sister’s guest bedroom. I had just turned 40 and was deep in debt. No longer afraid of dying alone in a studio apartment, I was now dying to live on my own. The day after I purchased the crystal, I PayPaled a few hundred bucks to my psychic, after which he texted me to let me know it was done: Crystal remotely charged from Brooklyn, abundance to follow in LA.

Source: Yelp, Adrienne D. “Rose Quartz”

It’s been more than a year since the eclipse. I’m happy to report living in my own one-bedroom apartment, all debts paid. I credit my psychic and his otherworldly powers for my success. My sister in LA says it’s ‘cause I got a job.

Hugh and I met in 2011 through a third sister, who raved about a reading she’d observed at a “mommy-wine” party. He’d read a guest’s cards and said her husband was cheating and using drugs. Afterwards, the woman purportedly confronted her husband, verifying Hugh’s insights. The woman divorced. I was sold.

We talk often, sometimes weekly. Over the years, Hugh has gotten so many unknowable details right. He knew when a beloved former boss would email asking me to come work for her in Atlanta. I declined, not wanting to abandon California. He also predicted a petty crime or similar inconvenience on a vacation to Mexico. I spent the entire trip not wanting to walk alone, gripped with anxiety that I’d be mugged. My friends were annoyed because I forced them to take taxis even if our destination was only a few blocks away. When I arrived at the airport for my return flight, I chastised both him for his inaccurate reading and myself for allowing it to spoil my vacation. Then at the ticket counter, the agent asked for my temporary visa. After combing my bags in front of her for an hour, I gave up and paid a small fine.

Source: Hugh

It should be noted that Hugh has also been way off. For example, I was supposed to have a best-selling book by now. However, he had told me to write a memoir, while I insisted on a novel. And two years ago, when one of my sisters reported a lump in her breast, he said it was only a scare and she would be fine. The cancer was Stage IV, requiring two major surgeries. Not without a fight she recovered. I forgave him.

Recently, I decided I should see a licensed professional, a therapist instead of a psychic. At my first appointment, he was running behind and kept me waiting for thirty minutes. After I shared my life story, he said smugly, “Sounds like you’re in a holding pattern. Not a lot has changed for you over the past twenty years.” He then listed my red flags: too many moves and job changes, too few long-term relationships. At the end of our session, he wouldn’t even accept PayPal, so I forked over all the cash in my wallet, twice the amount Hugh charged for a phone session.

On the drive home, I felt hollowed out. Ashamed. I took to my bed and cried. The shrink had proven my hypothesis: I was a failure.

The following week, Hugh called me promptly at the time of our scheduled appointment. “This is going to be a good money year,” he said right away. “Health is good, too. Keep working with that mentor on your book, he’s giving you the input you need to make it a success.” His last words were, “Remember to hydrate.”

It was 104 degrees in LA that day.

I PayPaled him. Then I filled my water bottle.

 

Tom Pyun is an essayist and novelist living in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, Tin House, and VONA. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, Blue Mesa Review, Eleven Eleven, and Reed and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He holds degrees from Vassar and Columbia and is an MFA candidate at Antioch.

Food Justice: A Menu

Breakfast Club           

A farm-fresh egg.

I had a story published recently about the first time my husband fried me over-medium, farm-fresh eggs for breakfast. They were velvety, oozing, and accompanied by buttered sourdough toast.

The eggs were a revelation to my palate. I ate a lot of canned, frozen, boxed, bagged, fake, cheap, and subsidized food growing up. Those items were what we could afford on a single mother’s income in Milwaukee. My breakfast frequently consisted of white toast or frozen waffles with imitation maple syrup.

I used to be ashamed that I was poor. Once, a school friend who lived in Brookfield, an affluent Milwaukee suburb, was supposed to pick me up for a weekend field trip. She called from her cell phone, an unheard of luxury for a 15-year-old at that time, saying she couldn’t find my house. I didn’t hear the sound of any cars on the other line, no blurred rushing of semi-trucks on the overpass. Later, I learned her parents had not wanted her to drive to my neighborhood. My step-dad drove me instead, and I ate a toaster pastry from its foil wrapper on the way.

Beer Break/Cigarette Chaser

My mom got pregnant when she was 19, working and partying in Boulder, Colorado. She moved home to give birth to me in Milwaukee, working a full-time job with a second part-time job on the weekends to support us. The south side of Milwaukee was and is predominantly Catholic; my mom turning up pregnant with no husband was frowned upon. I lived with her in the attic of a house on 32nd and Oklahoma until I was six years old. My two aunts and grandparents also lived in that little house, and we ate gigantic amounts of French toast together on weekend mornings.

Both of my maternal grandparents were heavy smokers. To this day, the smell of Pall Malls reminds me of my grandma’s limpid turquoise eyes and puckered mouth—sometimes angry, sometimes just smoking. The smell of Camels shrinks me to age 4, being tossed in the air and kissed on the cheek by my Grandpa, his rough, scruffy cheeks emanating nicotine and motor oil. My grandmother died at the age of 46 from lung cancer. Then, we moved out of the house on 32nd Street and tried to make it on our own. Less than four years later, my grandpa died at the age of 52 from esophageal cancer. We were left in a precarious financial situation, and my mother lost both her parents before she was 30.

It was not easy.

My mom, working full time in healthcare and catering gigs on the weekends, also returned to college when I was six. She finished her undergraduate degree in four years—a veritable superhero. But her course load and work schedule meant I was a latchkey kid and had a lot of teenaged babysitters on weekends. I remember taking malty sips of Miller High Life when I was little with some of those babysitters, unbeknownst to my mother. Those fizzy drams gave me a taste of Milwaukee and the grainy flavor of a beer I still eschew.

No Free Lunch

After the house on 32nd Street, we lived in the upper unit of a duplex within walking distance of my tiny Catholic elementary school. Here, my mother diligently fed us healthy, high-protein, low-calorie meals that didn’t cost much. Lemon pepper chicken, low-sodium canned soup, frozen broccoli, eaten at our battered, tiny oak kitchen table. So many, many supermarket-special chicken breasts. By the time I was 11, I couldn’t eat another bite of lemon-pepper chicken. This may be because I associate the dish with my mother’s ear-splitting screams, which she emitted every time a cockroach skittered across the kitchen sink backsplash in that rental place, an apartment my mom and I kept spotless—the downstairs landlord refused to have it treated for the pests. It was our first-ever time living on our own. My mother’s trauma and my own fear of those sprinting bugs, and the stigmatized poverty they represented, stuck with me. When I was in my early 20s and it came time to decide whether I wanted to pursue my magazine editorial dreams, I shrank from moving to Manhattan, or any denser urban area than my college town, Madison. Too many roaches.

Since I went to private school, I did not receive free lunch through a public school program. Instead, I ate the simple bag lunches my mother packed: turkey sandwiches, applesauce, celery with peanut butter and raisins, and the occasional baggie of Cheetos. I grew up in the Dairy State, full of world-class creameries and award-winning cheese, but for me, manufactured cheese powder tastes like home.

Cheetos were like a surprise dessert in my lunches.

After-School Snacks

Before the lessons got too expensive and I grew bored of the classes, I took gymnastics. This extra energy expenditure required that I eat a healthy, hearty snack every day. I slurped down Campbell’s Tomato Garden every weekday afternoon for three years—a soup I can no longer eat after this overconsumption. In 2009, I entered the workforce as the economy struggled to rebound. One of the few full-time “jobs” available was helping to run an elementary after-school program as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Madison. All of the students in the after-school program qualified for free lunch. Most came from single-parent households.

One day, a substitute offered to put together the daily snack for the children. She came back into the classroom from the community center kitchen brandishing a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a gigantic bag of potato chips. The boys cheered. I remembered my mom’s commitment to making sure I ate somewhat-healthy soup rather than junk before gymnastics.

“Hell no!” I said, my outcry more inappropriate than the snack.

The kids stared wide-eyed at me.

“Ooooh!” they shouted. “Ms. Erica swore.”

I took the substitute aside and explained that the students should have grapes with string cheese for snack. Too late—the ten-year-old boys seized the Pepsi bottle and helped themselves, their Styrofoam cups sloshing over. The chips won that day.

Ruined Appetite

I struggled—and still do—with my weight, having been a skinny child and an athlete in high school and a curvy adult woman now. I didn’t fill out till college, with its requisite beer and pizza diet. When I recently read Harmony Cox’s essay on Narratively, “My Life As A Public Health Crisis,” her words hit home. Cox, who works as a food access advocate in Columbus, Ohio, describes herself as an overweight person, one who eats healthily and works out, but who didn’t have access to lots of produce growing up. She recounts a conversation with a colleague who stated that everyone in the neighborhood was fat, and that all the kids ate fast food.

“It’s like nobody loves them,” the colleague said.

Sugary breakfast cereals and other foods are frowned upon by food justice advocates.

Cox defended her neighborhood and her family and friends’ difficulties accessing healthy food in the past. She articulated in the essay that what angers her is that she and her poverty-line family and friends “didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. We weren’t the ones who made fresh food a luxury and junk food an easily obtained comfort.”

“Conversations about food access are so often tinged with judgment about personal responsibility and time management, as if every poor fat person is spending their time napping and eating Twinkies when they could be preparing quinoa from scratch,” Cox writes.

I felt, and sometimes still feel, immense shame and guilt when I eat junk food, like I’m submitting to my basest, most poverty-stricken urges. But after reading Cox’s essay and reflecting on my failed snack discipline in the AmeriCorps after-school program, I realized that, despite not knowing my biological dad or my full genetic identity, growing up with a single mom in Milwaukee, amidst the struggles and happiness, the bounced checks and the boxed macaroni and cheese, is my identity. The fake-frosting taste of Zebra Cakes and the salty tang of Spaghettios make up my background as much as the heaps of organic greens I eat now.

Supper Time

My monthly AmeriCorps stipends were so pitiful that my friend secured us a gig selling artisanal bratwursts at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. My AmeriCorps budget left little room for dining out and the work hours allowed scant time for cooking my own meals, so I subsisted on free brats, grab-and-go sandwiches and the snacks the kids ate each day. The bratwurst gig was my entrée into Madison’s foodie scene. It opened my eyes to food movements—organic, local, Slow—I knew existed but never thought I would eat. Too expensive.

I started dating the man I would later marry. He admitted sheepishly that he would probably become an organic mushroom farmer—he was born into the business. I was intrigued but not convinced. I’d never eaten mushrooms that were not on pizza. I liked all vegetables by that point, and I tried eating raw mushrooms like I would eat chips. I could see the appeal. This apparently impressed him, as did my enthusiasm for sticking my bare hand into a pile of steaming compost at his family farm. We moved in together.

That winter, we went to Costa Rica for a tropical horticulture class, where I learned more about the worldwide power of produce—papayas and coffee, bananas and Highland onions. The first salaried job offer I received after my AmeriCorps experience was as a food rights reporter, specifically to emphasize the wholesome benefits of raw milk and expose the insidious effects of sewage sludge. The organization’s efforts didn’t last, but my belief in food access did.

Even Milwaukee, my complicated and beloved hometown, which is notorious for its housing discrimination and the resulting racial segregation, as depicted in Matt Desmond’s Evicted, has worked to bridge its food access gap. Natural foods grocery stores are the norm for each sector of the city now, rather than a unique, far-flung destination smelling of couscous and nutritional yeast. Now, the Milwaukee restaurant industry burgeons with farm-to-table options.

Too Full for Dessert

I am white and have been the recipient of plenty of privilege—private primary and secondary educations, albeit subsidized with grants, scholarships, and work-study requirements; a college degree from a flagship state university; and upper-middle-class friends who include me in their activities and look out for me when I have trouble paying for fancy dinners.

I don’t know what it’s like to be evicted from an apartment for inability to pay rent, like Desmond’s Evicted subjects.

But I do know what it’s like to watch flames leap across the hood of my mother’s perpetually overheating station wagon, eviscerating the engine—a guarantee we would stick close to home that summer. A guarantee that our closest spot to buy an affordable meal was the frozen custard stand down the block.

I try to eat mostly plant-based now.

I remember my mother sighing heavily over her checkbook in the dingy fluorescent light at the nearest Pick n’ Save. Let’s hope to hell that check clears. My year in AmeriCorps, the card machine at the food co-op where I’d become a member declined my debit card. My face was so hot I could feel beads of sweat start to run down my cheeks, a precursor for tears. I put a few boxed organic items back, leaving only fresh produce to pay for, to save my checking account, which was fed up with being overdrawn.

As an author, I’m trying to write an authentic experience. One that includes the tough times—canned food and worn-out shoes—but also includes the brighter times—eating for the first time at a Michelin star restaurant because I worked there and got a huge discount, and choosing organic over conventional for most produce. As Cox wrote, food justice is about “growing appetites for the food that keeps people happy and healthy…It’s the long game, not the quick fix.”

Over the days I’ve drafted this essay, I’ve eaten healthfully—brown rice and black beans with fresh greens, sparkling water—and indulgently—a hot dog, Miller Lite. But both those meals make up me.

I feel free. I am full.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Litbreak MagazineReservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

“We Are Connected, We Have the Same Blood”

Siobhan: Halloween 2017

This morning was as close to a semi-typical morning as it gets for me and my family. We woke up at 6 a.m., took showers, got dressed and ate, gathered all of our stuff together, and roly-poly-pell-melled into the car by 7 o’clock to drive the thirty-or-so minutes to my husband’s work in Modesto, CA. After dropping him off, I drove my five-year-old, Siobhan, the thirty minutes to school in Turlock, where we live. I parked my car in the only open spot a couple of blocks away from the school, and Siobhan put on her back pack, exited the car, and walked calmly by my side to the school grounds and inside to her kindergarten classroom. I was thankful and appreciative for the cooperation.

I say that this is a “semi-typical” morning because we were missing one person from the equation: my eight-year-old daughter, Nikkie. Every other weekend and a couple of days during the week, she spends time with her father, his fiancé—Jen—and her children. Some days she is with us on our morning trek to get everyone where they need to go, and some days, including this particular day, she is not, as she has spent the previous evening with her Dad. I do have to admit that on these mornings, I really miss having her witty humor to keep me company on the drive. Nevertheless, Siobhan made it to her class on time, and I crossed the second gate of the school to head back to the car. Then, I looked up to see Nikkie running towards me from a car parked in the drop-off zone. 

Nikkie: first day of school

“Mommy!” she gave me a big hug and a kiss. My heart was elated, as my eyes took in her gorgeous smile. 

“Hurry up and run to class, baby doll. You don’t want to be late.” 

“Okay,” she called out, as she headed past the gate. “I’ll see you later Mommy! Have a great day!” 

“You too, baby girl!” 

“Hey, Mom!” I looked up attentively, thinking she needed to tell me something important. “I need more cowbell!” she called out in her best Christopher Walkens voice. 

I laughed out loud. This is her gleeful personality: always wanting to make people smile. She knew how much I love that SNL skit, and so she decided that is what I needed to be happy that morning. Still chuckling at the joke, I turned to look towards the drop-off zone, expecting to see Nikkie’s father, but instead Jen was in the driver seat of the car. She was cheerful and waved hello to me. I couldn’t help but think she caught some of Nikkie’s happy disposition as well. Knowing that she could’ve driven off as soon as Nikkie exited the car, I realized that she had waited to send me a quick hello before leaving. I smiled and waved back, and she drove off. She always looks so good in the morning, I thought to myself, as I briefly glanced down and saw the shadow-cast of my disheveled hair bun, frumpy t-shirt, and yoga pants across the pavement. Shrugging off any embarrassment, I acknowledged the moment of connection I had with Jen, a bond of motherhood and friendship that I’ve come to cherish.

Jen’s birthday 2017: Tyson, Lily, Jen, and Nikkie

It wasn’t that long ago when Jen had to make some decisions regarding her own children and their non-existent relationship with their father as well. It’s never easy to contemplate what is best with your children when you have so many of your own worries and fears embedded in a failed relationship. Yet, she knew that her focus needed to be on her children. She once told me that it was a conscious decision to place the kids first and foremost. Later, she came to the realization that because he left so early from their lives, they couldn’t miss what was never really there. Of course, this idea saddens her, but she knows she cannot change anyone else’s actions; she can only control her own actions and the things she can do to make her children happy. I like to think that this is where Jen and I see eye-to-eye. So, when I look at Jen and acknowledge her put-togetherness, it always comes from a place of understanding and appreciation for my co-mother and my friend, for her ideals when it comes to her kids are the same as mine. And also because, well, simply put, she’s one of the best people I know. 

*     *     *

Eating Out for Dinner: Rob, Nikkie, Tyson, and Lily

Nikkie’s father, Rob, isn’t so bad either. (As I write this, I can hear his response in the back of my head: “Hey now!”) I have to chuckle a bit at this potential jab because I do realize that, despite everything that has happened between us, he is a good person who has stepped into a father-like role with Jen’s kids, which has helped them to overcome some of the sadness they might have had with dealing in the aftermath of an absentee father. To be honest, it is the same role he took on when he became stepfather to my oldest daughter, Josie, when she was six years old. Now, at twenty-one years of age, she happily reflects on how Rob’s impact influenced her life.

As a father, my husband, Travis, is also thankful to have a positive co-parenting relationship with Rob, especially since Travis’s ex-wife cut off communication with his nine-year-old daughter, Kierra, soon after Siobhan was born. It is an internal struggle my husband fights through on a daily basis, but having the companionship of Rob, as a co-father, helps him to better understand the possibilities of positive co-parenting. It is something both Travis and I hope for with his ex-wife and her husband, but we don’t see it happening while Kierra is still young. For now, we have to focus on the kids within this blended family and teach them how to have healthy relationships through our own actions and behaviors. An example of this comes to mind with Siobhan’s preference to call Rob “Daddy” because this is exactly how she sees him: Rob is her sister’s Daddy, and so therefore, he is her Daddy too. It’s a bit of child logic that makes complete sense, when you look at it from her point of view, and we all know that it doesn’t detract from her relationship with Travis. It is quite touching and humorous actually, and the fact that Travis smiles and encourages Siobhan to call her sister’s father “Daddy” is a testament to his own personal understanding and acceptance of this blended family and the people in it. It’s really a breath of fresh air. More recently, we’ve been able to convince Siobhan to call him “Daddy Rob,” so we actually know who she’s referencing when she talks. This reduces confusion on family outings. All of us. One big happy blended family: Travis, me, Siobhan, Nikkie, Rob, Jen, and Jen’s kids—Lily and Tyson. Siobhan also calls Lily and Tyson her sister and brother because they are Nikkie’s sister and brother. Again, it makes sense that she refers to them as her siblings too, so we’ve never said anything against it.

*     *     *

From top left to bottom right: Lily, Tyson, Siobhan, and Nikkie

When it comes to our family outings, we all make it a point to include each other as much as possible when it comes to things we believe the children will enjoy. Whether it be a birthday party for one of the kids at John’s Incredible Pizza, an egg-hunt and Easter dinner for everyone, a trick-or-treating event, or just going out to lunch together, the inclusivity of everyone in our blended family has become an instinctive natural development, mainly because we saw how upset the girls would be when missing out on holidays or get-togethers without their parents and siblings. Nikkie’s hopping back and forth between the two homes started to become a habit that wasn’t fair for her, or any of the children for that matter. But for as connected as we are now, our blended family wasn’t always this cohesive. A few years back, the messy separation and divorce that occurred between me and Rob almost placed us onto a terrible path. For a long time, we engaged in name-calling, backstabbing, and things done out of spite and revenge. I wouldn’t be joking if I said it was borderline daytime television drama worthy. During that chaotic time, we had started setting Nikkie up to have a heart-wrenching upbringing, and we were far too engaged in our own hurt and pain to see it. At one point, I had to cut off all phone and messaging contact with Rob because the turmoil proved to be too much to handle with all of life’s other hardships, and for over a year, we would only touch base on Nikkie’s upbringing through email. Many times we would rely on Jen to be the third party communicator if we had something more in-depth to discuss. It wasn’t our proudest of moments, and I think I can safely say now that we understand how incredibly unfair it was for us to place Jen in that position. However, at the time, we just couldn’t see anything past our own anger and hurt, which is something many people who have gone through breakups can attest to.

*     *     *

For many of my friends, this was all too familiar. They would give me advice because they or their family members had gone through similar circumstances. This seemed to validate the normalcy of this type of situation for me. During that time, there was no way Rob or I could even fathom the notion of attempting to co-parent together, but the truth of the matter was that we couldn’t see it as unnecessary drama we had created for ourselves. If nothing else, at least going through the drama helped to highlight the flaws of our actions and to further focus on what we needed to work on. 

Rob and Nikkie

Some things happened that shed light on our mistakes a little more, and a number of distressing events took place. The deaths of a few friends and family members really amplified the fact that life is way too short. This idea also impacted Nikkie as well, as she became continually afraid that her father and I might die at any moment. That was when we realized that we had to set aside our differences to help qualm her fears. Around the same time, during transitional kindergarten, Nikkie was diagnosed with ADHD. Rob and I both had a hard time adjusting to the things we would have to do to help her, and we struggled with differing ideas of how to approach her condition. It didn’t take us very long to see, though, that being on different pages wasn’t working out for anyone. For Nikkie’s sake, we had to start listening to her doctors and—for the first time—to each other. And, thus began a healing process that brought us to the place we are now. 

*     *     *

It’s still not always that easy. Sometimes Rob and I butt heads when it comes to our individual ideas of how to handle some of Nikkie’s symptoms, but we try not to let those disagreements come between our co-parenting relationship and our friendship. As a matter of fact, the friendship we have now is even better than when we were married, and it has also helped facilitate a stronger co-parenting relationship with our spouses as well. Travis feels comfortable to chat with Rob about anything and everything, sometimes at length (like that time I had to patiently wait for an hour in the passenger seat of our car, after having attended an assembly where Nikkie won a school award, while Travis and Rob chatted about Rob’s new hybrid car). And Jen. Well, Jen is just a godsend for me and my daughters. I am so thankful to have a friend in her, especially when she texts me back late at night to give motherly advice about pre-adolescent ongoings with Nikkie. I’ve expressed this many times to my friends and family, and every time I mention my co-mothering relationship to someone new, their initial countenance is one of complete surprise, until I tell them about an incident that happened not too long ago, when my niece asked Nikkie how Jen makes her feel:

“She makes me feel like we are connected,” Nikkie said, cupping her hands together at her heart, “like we have the same blood.” 

As soon as she uttered those words, my heart boomed within my chest and I cried happy tears, knowing that my daughter had such unequivocal love and support from her soon-to-be stepmother, she felt they were one in the same. The next day when I saw Jen, I told her what Nikkie said, and her eyes started to brim with tears just as mine did. I knew exactly how she felt. To have any child love you that much is paramount. But to also know that child sees you as blood-family, despite not being blood-related? I don’t think anything else can compares to it. Jen and I are forever bonded because of my daughter’s mutual love for us. And because of that bond, there is never room for contempt.  

*     *     *

Me and my husband, Travis

These are things I reflect on each time I think about our co-parenting relationship. For as many trials as my husband and I have and for as many stressors that occur on the daily, I am content in knowing that we have an awesome and supportive co-family. It is a support that is like no other. Sure there is the physical support each co-parent provides for the other—like if either of us needs a babysitter—but there is also emotional support there as well. A simple wave and smile in the morning between mothers, as we part ways to start our day, to say “hey there, I am happy to see you” is a blessing. I love this part of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Now, I see how the choice Rob and I made to focus on Nikkie’s well-being (and essentially to focus on all of the childrens’ well-being) also helped to bring so many more loving and awesome people into our lives. This isn’t the norm. But, it definitely should be. Jen, Rob, Travis, and I know how lucky we are to have this type of family bond because we also experience the opposite. We see the damage that disconnect can cause, and we know how easily we could’ve fallen into one of these circumstances. Instead, we continue to focus on the love and well-being of our children, which in turn has given all of the adults in our blended family the ability to focus on the love and well-wishes we have for each other as well. We learned that this is how to actively teach love, forgiveness, and acceptance to our children; we lead by example for them. And so far, it is working out just as we hoped.

 

Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez is an English and composition instructor and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She is also an assistant editor of fiction and guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. In addition to teaching, Yvonne likes to think she holds the following titles as well: Singer of Bedtime Stories, Maker of Dreams, Believer in the Future, Self-healer in Progress, Wearer of Heart-on-Sleeve, Organizer of Books & Toys, Imbiber of Words, and Humble Writer Whose Work is Wholly Cast from a Bronze Heart. She currently resides in the Central Valley with her husband and three daughters.

Bending the Spectrum

A four-letter word that ends in “k.” That’s how my friend, Kristi, used to refer to the color pink. In her youth she was a competitive swimmer, because it was the one sport open to both boys and girls. She writes: “A touch with the fingertips on the kicking feet of the swimmer in front of you necessitated a shift in position at the next wall. Let the faster person go ahead. Face down in frothy water, the swimmer does not know if the feet or fingertips belong to a boy or girl.” She quotes Simone de Beauvoir and writes about her experiences in hyper-masculine work environments. From her youth onward, Kristi’s determination to not lose, even when she doesn’t win, reminds me of my older daughter, whose attitude is exemplified in the words of Muhammad Ali, on a framed poster in her bedroom: “the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Kristi is a graduate student at Antioch, like me, and I became familiar with her memoir writing when we were assigned to the same workshop groups for two consecutive residencies. Each of her sentences is an arrow, expertly guiding us through unfamiliar terrain. She didn’t even try to hide her discomfort when we requested more details about her personal life, so we could figure out what drives her, what kindling lit the fire within. She reminds me of my younger daughter who told me when she was in high school, that she hated emotions―“they just get in the way.”

I preferred to dress both of my daughters in yellow when they were babies.

Kristi says of her relatively affluent, white family “Outwardly, our family―my mother, father, older brother, and me―looked good.…In grade school, my mother stayed in bed until after I left to catch the school bus. My father was chronically away on business.…he vented his frustrations on me with a belt. …Though I did not fight back much as a kid, I never really gave in either.”

At the age of sixteen Kristi worked “to pay for [her] own clothes, car, and gas.” She states that a few days before turning eighteen “my father matter-of-factly told me that if I was still at home the following week, my ‘shit would be on the sidewalk.’” When she was offered a place at the University of Southern California, her dream (private) school, her parents refused to co-sign the loan she would have had to take on, in order to attend. So she went to the nearest public state university instead.

But these are not the details she wants the reader to dwell on; her memoir is a powerful, riveting account of her quarter century as an officer in the Marines.

When I read Kristi’s first workshop submission in the comfort of my home I learned that she was on the opposite end of the political spectrum to me, and I reflexively thought I didn’t like her. But I was able to separate her admirable writing skills from her political position. Having lived and worked in the Republican stronghold of Orange County, California, for many years, I have often found myself in the company of those who lean to the political right. In these circumstances I have been forced to focus on appealing personality traits, such as a sense of humor, generosity, and kindness. But these people remained colleagues or acquaintances; I never thought of any of them as potential friends.

*     *     *

Growing up in working-class England, my father repeated the phrase “You can do whatever you like after marriage” ad infinitum. This was the carrot on the end of his authoritarian stick. I had no critical-thinking skills with which to conclude that this was clearly a lie; my mother remained without autonomy in her married life. My three sisters and I were taught to obey, without question―to be silent―that was a cultural axiom, especially for females. Society had tasked my father with ensuring we remained virgins, so that our marriages could be arranged with ease. He also had to provide dowries for each of us; tradition made no exception for laborers, like him. For a perfectionist who takes responsibility very seriously, the odds must have seemed stacked against him in this new environment, in which females had freedoms that shredded the only worldview he knew. He tried to instill in us the discipline he had acquired in the Indian Army from the age of fifteen onward. And he watched us like a zealot, to curb the slightest infraction before we could bring ignominy to his door. But when we failed at preserving the family izzath (honor) he tried to beat it out of us.

*     *     *

I started a petition on www.change.org in 2016 to boycott the presidential debates because they’ve been hijacked by the Democratic and Republican Parties, through a private corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which controls every aspect, from who will be allowed to participate, to which questions may be asked by a moderator. This was why there was no participation from independent candidates like Jill Stein (Green Party nominee) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party nominee). My petition went nowhere. But as Dr. Maya Angelou famously said “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”

In the days following the November 2016 local and national elections I was devastated and consumed with righteous anger; I saw white privilege abound, and I wanted to know which of the fuckers I encountered everywhere had voted for Trump (I knew who some of them were from their yard signs). They weren’t all white. I had volunteered for Bernie Sanders, and even though the Democratic Party establishment sabotaged his campaign in the primary, I still voted for Hilary Clinton, because I knew she would be infinitely better than Trump. (Also Noam Chomsky told us we had to hold our noses, but vote for her nevertheless.)

Towards the end of my first residency in December 2016, Antioch had begun to feel like home, and I was relieved and grateful to be among fellow progressives, especially as we brainstormed ideas for our collective responses to our new political reality. When I realized there were students enrolled in the MFA program who were on the right of the political spectrum, the oasis I had treasured for one semester felt contaminated.

*     *     *

After marriage, I did have more freedom in my in-law’s house, but I didn’t find the loving, nurturing family I desired. These bonds developed many years later, after my husband and I had moved to the US, when we finally had an opportunity to be a family of only four.

*     *     *

Kristi sought the advice of a former professor before applying to the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School: “He was a man whom I looked up to, who was brilliant, who saw things with a straight and unemotional focus….He made a comment that I did not understand at the time, but his insight resonates with me a quarter century later: ‘You’ll probably like the Corps; you’ve always wanted to be part of a family.’”

*     *     *

Antioch has been my home, and everyone there is family. That includes the students who identify as being right wing. An aspect of my culture that has been admirable in theory but sometimes onerous in practice is the expectation that I will be welcoming to everyone who enters my home and I will treat each person with respect. Unconditionally. And for the duration of their stay. At the recent June residency I realized that I have very little time left, before I leave Antioch, to make amends to those students I have avoided, for the most part.

*     *     *

At the end of the book There’s a Pattern Here and It Ain’t Glen Plaid, is the following statement regarding the author: “Humorist and short-story writer, Laurie Frankel, knows pain is the root of all comedy and is thrilled her life is so damn funny.” My family of origin is the gift that keeps on giving; unfortunately, it didn’t come with a receipt. Sometimes when I worry that my writing will generate negative attention I remember that fortunately, I’ve been forged in the fires of negation and conflict. This is why I’m very careful when choosing friends, and political alignment has been a major criterion. But my attitude has been changing. Slowly. I’m still deeply saddened and troubled by all the Trump administration appointees, nominees, and policies. But I can’t live in a constant state of outrage, fueled by Democratic Party institutions that are seizing this opportunity to simultaneously fund raise and further polarize the electorate.

Focusing on someone’s voting record and using that as a reason for their vilification plays into the mass-manipulation strategy of divide and conquer. I can’t dismiss wholesale everyone who does not agree with me politically. I’ve been learning to separate individuals from their votes. 62 million Americans voted for Trump. 90 million Americans did not vote. We have a lot of work to do. Together. Perhaps this is an unexpected, additional lesson that Antioch is trying to teach me, if I can open myself up to it; to see others as glorious and multi-faceted, with political ideology being just one aspect of the whole.

*     *     *

At this past June residency I looked for Kristi towards the end of the evening on the MFA night out. As we chatted I told her about the tradition of taking the party to Tattle Tale, a karaoke dive bar in Culver City. (Yes everyone, this is a thing!) She wasn’t enthusiastic about the extension to the evening, but I managed to persuade her to come along: “I don’t think I’ll be staying for too long either,” I said. Previously I’d had to wait until after I’d had a couple of drinks before I could even contemplate putting my name down on the list to sing. Then by the time it was close to my turn, I was ready to leave because it was already after midnight (phew!). This time, when I arrived, a new friend, Sara, declared that she had already signed us up for a duet.

“Oh yeah?” I said nervously, “What are we singing?”

“Wannabe by the Spice Girls,” she answered.

“Okay sweet!” I responded, as I headed for the bar to start drinking. Our turn came up really quickly, and when Kristi volunteered to take a video of our performance on my phone I told her I hadn’t thought of doing that, but it seemed like a good idea.

Soon after eleven, Kristi said she was heading out; she’d already agreed to give me a ride back to my Airbnb. I told her I was going to stay, as usual, and I was glad she’d decided to join us.

The next day I posted the video on our family forum. My daughters were thrilled their mom was enjoying the real student experience and my husband said he’d always wanted to marry a rock star. A couple of days later, I told Kristi about my family’s responses to the video she had taken, and she shared her experience in Bernadette Murphy’s seminar, which required literal cutting and pasting of a narrative; “They ran out of scissors,” she said, then added, smiling, “But I had two knives in my bag.” “Of course you did,” I laughed.

*     *     *

I have no ulterior motive in my friendship with Kristi. It will not diminish my goal of remaking the world so that it works for all of us, especially the most vulnerable. As Jim Hightower (America’s #1 Populist!) says, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.” And I’m not trying to change her political position. In fact, I don’t even want to discuss the issues at stake; I came to the conclusion some time ago that to engage in debate is futile, when we cannot agree on the facts. But then again, at the first residency workshop with Kristi I told her I wanted to see the movie of her memoir, and now that I can list ‘rock star’ on my résumé, perhaps I could audition for an acting role in that movie.

(I obtained Kristi’s permission to quote from her memoir, and her approval of this post.)

 

Sarita Sidhu is a nonfiction writer and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She has worked as a teacher and an advocate of Fair Trade for many years.

 

Separated Faces (A Year in Baltimore)

My mother opens her eyes to a vast cloud of nothingness. Freckles of light poked through the edges of the roof piercing the blended darkness. This was her sixth month living in Baltimore alone and winter was in full swing. Some nights she could see her breath. She wished she hadn’t underestimated the lack of insulation and how cold Maryland got, back when she first decided to rent the place in the summer of 2002.

This is my mother’s third time waking up tonight. Her bladder aches begging to be relieved as she pulls the blankets over her head and shudders. She figures her building hasn’t been renovated since its construction in the 20s. She occupies the unfurnished attic on Charles Street for only $400 dollars a month near the John Hopkins campus. Her mattress lays on the floor. Her clothes are neatly stacked inside the luggage bags she’d brought with her when she flew up over the summer. She rents from a coworker at the cabinetry company. The man had become a father right around the time my mother needed a place to say.

The baby sleeps downstairs in the room next to the only bathroom in the residence. My mother squirmes the pee dance from her bed, her elbows and knees sharp in the sheets. This is month six now, and she only weighs 94 pounds. The stair’s creak and the flushing noise would be more than enough to wake the baby and make everybody else miserable for the rest of the night, so she holds it in, the way she does most nights.

The three year anniversary of my mother’s immigration to the US passed back in October.

*     *     *

I am about nine years old around this time. My brother is seven. My mom calls us on the anniversary of our move, reminding us of what was now considered a holiday in our family. Over time this day grew ominous, like the anniversary of someone’s death.

Our immigration was the result of the instability in Colombia at the turn of the century and my parent’s separation and consequent divorce. There were alleged infidelities and my father’s refusal to leave the country he’d lived in his entire life. After separating from my father, my mom came to the States on a student-visa. She brought my brother and me along to Florida where she studied at a community college.

When that ran out, she was faced with needing to get a job if she wanted to stay in the country. Once in Florida, my mother had nothing left back home. No reasons to live in the past. Moving had given us the ability to hope because all we could think about was the future. That alone was a good enough reason to risk our livelihoods. That winter a 200 kg bombing killed 36 people at El Nogal, back in in Bogotá. Two hundred people mangled by the car bomb. Sometimes when my mother woke up and found herself isolated in the attic, she remembered being held at gunpoint with my brother and me right before we moved. Going back to Colombia was not an option, especially as a single mother.

My mother scrambled to get a job. She tried everywhere, but had no luck. It needed to be an employer willing to help with our immigration process and sponsor her green card. My mother, then in her early thirties, had no job experience and barely knew any English. Her undergraduate degree in administration was ten years old now and earned in a country nobody here seemed to care about.

She met the owner of a cabinetry shop at a party and quickly told him about her plight. A second cousin, the only type of people she knew here, had invited her. She’d spent the night telling everybody who’d listen about her situation. The man, a Baltimore native and strict Ravens fan, offered her a job. He asked her to move up to to Maryland and work for him in an administrative capacity. He couldn’t offer her a lot of money but it was something. My mother said thanks but that she wouldn’t be able to bring my brother and me with her under the circumstances. She’d been living off her savings and child support payments from my father back in Colombia.

The man said that it was the only way he could help her. That maybe after some time she could return back to Florida and be with my brother and me again. It was either that or go to some place that wasn’t home any more.

My mother left us with my grandmother in Orlando and lived out of her suitcase in the creaky attic, calling us every night.

*     *     *

From the first day she knew what he wanted. “Why else would he hire me? I didn’t even know English,” she says now. The man routinely asked her out on dates, even at work. He bought her necklaces and gave her rings.

My mother told my brother and me that eventually she’d be able to work in Florida, but we quickly realized that instead of offering us a way to stay in this country, the man was dangling broken pieces of hope. My mother called my father and asked if we could all come back to Colombia. The answer was always no and she soldiered on. There was no one else to report this to. Her harasser wasn’t only her boss—he was also the only man keeping her and her kids in this country. My mother went to bed every night in her attic thinking he’d change his mind. She’d warned us over the phone to be ready to go back in case the moment ever came.

Another local Baltimore business man, let’s call him Bill, noticed my mother around this time. Bill worked in an electric company that was somehow affiliated with her cabinetry shop. He asked her out to dinner, which my mom was happy to say yes to. It was was one of the first positive nights she had since leaving Colombia.

When her boss found out, he waited for her at his desk the next day. “He was furious,” my mother says. He asked her how she could see someone else when she knew he wanted her. Her boss picked up the phone and called Bill in front of her.

My mother realized that there was only one way to get back to Florida. She, a Catholic woman who’d never been with anybody except for my father, slept with her harasser. The next morning he gave her permission to come back to her kids. He said she could work from Florida and he’d still sponsor her. My mother tells me this for the first time as we discuss this piece. “I never told anybody anything. You can write what you want. I did it for you,” she says.

I hang up afterwards, trying to wear the poker face of a journalist in a war zone. I postpone thinking about until I have to for the ending of this piece.

*     *     *

My cousins told me that if you forgot the way someone looked, it meant you didn’t love them anymore. Some nights or when I daydreamed in school, I would etch my mother’s face in my mind a million times.

I thought I knew a lot for a nine year old. It was the first birthday I spent fatherless, but my grandparents did everything to help me forget. As a little kid I learned to act calm and to compartmentalize whenever I had to in front of my little brother.  

One time my mother flew into Orlando for a weekend and surprised us at school. Leaving school early never felt so good.

There was another time when we went to go get her at the airport for a different visit. The Orlando terminals are filled with theme-park related gift stores. There’s a NASA one too. My brother and I waited in the back of the Disney store, playing with some toys. I turned around and saw a brown-haired woman standing with her arms folded, staring at us. I noticed her silver necklace, one she’d had brought from Colombia, and then her eyes, realizing that that woman was my mom. I remembered my cousin’s words and froze, showing no emotions at all. A wave of guilt submerged me as I thought I’d done something terrible. It’s the image I think about the most often when I see separated immigrants reunited down at the border by Mexico. I wonder if some of these kids feel that—not recognizing anything at all.

*     *     *

In 2008, five years after coming back to Florida, my family was granted Residency status. My mother was now legally and financially able to say no. When her boss mailed her his next gift, she returned it and was told she needed to find a new job that day. My mother gained her US citizenship in 2013, ten years after living in the attic.

We stopped living together when I left Florida for Boston. Then I found myself further away after I unpacked in LA.  Looking back my mother blames my father for everything that happened during her year in Baltimore.  

I pause before saying, “Mami, I don’t think so.”  I tell her I think her harasser took advantage of her.

My mother sighs. “I know,” she says.

*     *     *

Most of us have seen the recordings and read the news of the family separations at the border this year. Almost 2,000 kids were separated from their parents between April and May alone. In some cases the government even deported parents while shipping their children across the country, making it almost impossible to reunite them.

There is a lot of outrage. You are probably outraged.

But, if we were willing to tolerate the legal immigration system that allowed, and continues to permit, the exploitation of the most desperate people, how can we be so surprised? I am not saying that what happened to me is even close to the human rights abuses at the border. But our notion that immigrants are somehow less human has always been expressed by Americans in power.

According to the ACLU, 25 to 85 percent of working women have experienced sexual harassment, with immigrants and low earning workers being the most vulnerable. The ACLU also notes a 2009 survey of Iowa meatpacking workers where 91 percent responded that immigrant women do not report sexual harassment or sexual violence in their workplace.

Not only is there an imbalance of power, but their inexperience with the American legal system impede their ability to seek representation or speak out against these violations.

Our government is not making policy up from thin air. It has been given permission to act and abuse the way it does by a culture that has always done the same thing.  

*     *     *

It’s been a few days now since my mother and I spoke about Baltimore. It was close to impossible for me to have a reaction to the truth my mother’s choosing to reveal only now. The only thing I can feel in regards to my immigration story and my mother’s sacrifices is a sense of pride and invincibility. Feeling anything else is like committing some form of treason or betrayal.

I didn’t think about what my mother said until a few days later when I debated on where to get a new tattoo. When I pictured it on my body I thought about how sad my mom had gotten when I first permanently inked my skin.

I thought about my mother’s year in Baltimore and realized that I had to hold myself to some different set of traditional standards. Guilt greets me for leaving home, never coming back for anything (including when my mom got sick last year), and not going into law school or something like my parents had always wanted. No more tattoos. Nothing tainting my body or my future like my mother intended when she sacrificed so much for me. But then, in doing so, I would be losing some part of who I am and my pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment.

Would changing who I am mean that my mom gave those parts of me away in her sacrifice? I know that was not her intention, but I won’t always know which way to go.

 

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. He lives in Los Angeles with his mischievous cat, Zelda.

Identity

Two years ago, I was talking to my roommate, who is Mexican American, when I realized how much I felt like an outsider. She had just come back from a lawyer group in San Diego for women of color. As we talked about it, I started to get nervous, anxious. A thought kept floating through me. I had kept this thought so tightly buried, but it often came to the forefront of my mind. I didn’t know who I could talk to about it, but I knew I couldn’t live with it hidden inside of me much longer. It was eating me alive from the inside.

There was a lull in our conversation, and I let this thought, which had been on my mind for most of my life but I was always too afraid and ashamed to say, escape:

“Am I a woman of color?”

Three Generations of My Family

What most people don’t know about me is that I’m 100 percent Puerto Rican, second generation born in the United States. My mom and dad are both Puerto Rican, born in New York. My grandparents were born, raised, and lived most their lives in Puerto Rico. After my eldest uncle was born, my grandpa, Papá, decided to come to the United States to be a migrant farmworker, while my grandma, Mita, stayed in Puerto Rico to take care of my uncle until my Papá had enough money to bring Mita and my uncle to the States. That story is a whole other interesting caveat in and of itself. But the point I’m trying to make is that there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m Puerto Rican. Well, there shouldn’t be.

Yet sometimes, I don’t feel very Puerto Rican.

I wasn’t taught Spanish when I was a kid, although it was my parents’ first language. I learned it laboriously when I was an adult while I was studying and working in Argentina. Every few years, when I was growing up, my family would go to Puerto Rico to visit family, but I wouldn’t be able to communicate with most of them. This disconnection from my culture and my extended family has always made me feel separated from my Puerto Rican roots.

I don’t blame my parents for this at all. I understand that they simply assimilated into American culture. Even though my parents might not have realized, this notion was passed down from my grandparents. It was necessary for my grandparents to learn English and be a part of the American culture. For them, this was survival. However, two generations later, I wanted nothing more than to speak Spanish and hold onto my Puerto Rican roots.

I studied Spanish in college and decided to study abroad in Argentina to try to become fluent in my family’s language. When I was studying abroad, I met a Colombian guy. We grew close and eventually started dating. I still remember the first time we met. My Spanish was slim to non-existent, and I was still getting my bearings in a new country.

He and I were out at a bar with a group of friends—friends who I had just met two days prior when I arrived to Argentina. He was trying to talk to me with his minimal English, and I was trying to communicate with my broken Spanish. I proudly told him, “Soy puertorriqueña.” He shook his head and told me that I was wrong. I wasn’t Puerto Rican. I showed him my tattoo, a family tattoo that I had gotten when I turned 18. It’s a Puerto Rican flag waving inside of a sun and a tattoo that most of the women in my family have gotten. He still denied it, denied that I was Puerto Rican, denied my identity.

What was it about me that wasn’t Puerto Rican? Did I not act like a Puerto Rican? Did I not look like a Puerto Rican?

I didn’t realize it then, but something in me broke that day. A doubt was wedged into my mind. I began questioning who I was. Was I really Puerto Rican if I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t look the part?

A joke I’ve heard many times from people outside my family is “was it the milkman?” My family all has lighter skin, but no one has red hair like I do. Because I didn’t look Puerto Rican enough to many people, I was the other, someone who didn’t quite belong to my family. An imposter.

This tore me apart inside. And the question of who I was stayed hidden in my subconscious for years.

I ended up dating the guy I met in Argentina for 7 years, and he constantly denied my Puerto Rican identity. Even after I learned Spanish and became fluent, even after I took him to Puerto Rico and he met all my family still living there, he still considered my non-authentic Spanish and my light skin and red hair proof that I wasn’t Puerto Rican. I argued with him constantly trying to prove myself to be a true Latina, but I started to believe him.

When we broke up and that constant denial of who I was disappeared, I still didn’t feel Puerto Rican. By that time, my identity had been striped away from me day-by-day and the damage that he had done left scars that were not easily erased. The problem was I didn’t feel a part of the American society I was living in either. I didn’t know where I belonged.

From a young age, I knew I was different than many of my white American friends. My family was the biggest reminder of this. We are loud, crazy, and love each other with a passion. There isn’t a family get-together that doesn’t involve dancing salsa and eating arroz con gandules. We are each other’s best friends and will do anything for each other. I could see the difference when I went over to my friends’ houses as a kid. They didn’t have close relationships with their parents or siblings like I did. Family dinners, if they even happened, were quiet with barely any words spoken between the family. I can’t remember a family dinner that was quiet or subdued. They would disrespect their parents by saying they hated them or telling them to shut up. I couldn’t even fathom doing this with my family.

I knew I was different. So then where do I fit in?

*          *          *

Race is such a difficult topic to talk about today. I know I’m Puerto Rican, but I look white. Visiting Puerto Rico, this isn’t an anomaly. Puerto Rican people are a mixture of the Taíno indigenous people, the Spaniards who colonized them, and Africans. This means, Puerto Ricans can have all different color skin. However, people in the United States don’t usually identify a light-skinned person as Latinx.

The fact is I have white skin and red hair, and because of that, I benefit from many of the advantages of white privilege. So, can I really call myself a woman of color? Doing so feels like I’m taking something away from women who struggle every day because of the color of their skin, women who don’t have the opportunities and privileges I have because of the color of my skin, women who fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

Again, I’m stuck in no-man’s land. Not quite white, not quite a woman of color.

My roommate two years ago gave me back something that I didn’t even realize I was missing when she said, “Of course you’re a woman of color.” To her, I will be forever grateful. She gave me some agency back. She gave me a little piece of my identity back. The identity that had been stripped away from me slowly over the years.

Even with her affirmation, I still don’t quite believe it. There’s a battle raging inside of me. I don’t feel right identifying as a woman of color or joining a woman of color group like my roommate did. I am still finding my identity and working on being comfortable with who I am.

There are a few things I do know:

  1. I am Puerto Rican. Nothing anyone says will take that away from me.
  2. I am American.
  3. I am a writer.

Nothing in this list takes preference over the others; they are all equally me. They are all equally part of my identity.

The rest of it I’m still figuring out. However, without writing, I would not have come as far as I have. Writing has been an outlet for me, a way to voice these thoughts without judgement and shame.

I know, without the support, love, and acceptance from my family, my friends, and my writing community these doubts would have stayed buried in my head, torturing me.

*          *          *

I find a little solace in knowing that I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked to many people who struggle with being a light-skinned Latinx. To those people I’d say: don’t let people tell you who you are. Be proud of your culture, your identity. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

I will continue to try to follow my own advice and be proud of who I am.

 

Kristina Ortiz is an elementary school teacher and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is the associate managing editor and web team manager for the literary journal Lunch Ticket. She lives in Ventura County, California with her fiancé, golden retriever Bella, and cat Lara.

Put Yourself Up

I tell mothers: Be careful how you bodytalk in front of your daughters. You could be teaching them the language of self-hate.

The universe was kind and gave me boys. I threw them in some undershirts and cut-offs, gave out shovels and told them to come back inside when they were sixteen. I swear, I would’ve felt ill-equipped to raise a girl.

Every day, I heard how my mom hated her fat stomach, how her chest had fallen, how when dad met her she weighed 95 pounds and look at her now. Just look at her! What I saw was an educated and ageless beauty with pretty clothes, a lot of kids, a house, and a man who came home to us every day—sometimes with flowers or a bucket of fresh peaches and a kiss for the high school sweetheart he still adored.

Who took the joy from my mother?

Women in her generation were carefully groomed and their idols were too. It took a long time to unwork the pointed bras, and women weren’t willing to throw away the stiff curler sets and pink styling tape that held their hair styles in place when they slept. Even though being girls in the seventies and eighties meant radical freedoms like halter tops and those dumb off the shoulder T’s with tanks, the need to be beautiful was our raison d’etre. And what’s so different now? Kate Middleton’s after-baby weight and Cardi B’s new look are flaunted at the check-out line. How we appear is fed to us.

The way women talk to each other, and about ourselves has, by design, been socially constructed to keep us from where we could be.

Pay no attention to that man while he draws a line through your school budget. Keep talking about the woes of a flabby tummy while your local government representative gets elected and votes down what you believe in, and keep up that self-derision.
It’s just where the dominating society wants you.
Down
On
Your
Knees
and ready to take it.
The message is confusing: Be a nice girl, be fierce, look pretty, be yourself, it’s all in your head, be who you are; who you are isn’t possibly good enough for our unreachable standards, you talk too much, are you really going to wear that? No more ice cream for you.

The complicated recipe that got us here doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. We could blame former icons such as Jackie O or Madonna. Not Jesus’s mom. The other one who blended baby doll and vixen with respecting yourself. Any attempt to unpack some sort of message only proves how strong the concept of image–>capitalism–>language is. But, blame isn’t getting us anywhere either. Maybe it’s bad boys. Remember them? Those awful creatures who lap up real virgins then cast them off. Those boys laugh when girls fight each other. It’s sport to watch girls cry.

Powerful, oppressive men are made from boys like that and some grow up to run companies, colleges, courts, and countries.

Women have been set loose, tearing at each other over petty points for long enough. Throughout the decades of my mother’s life, fashion magazine covers have morphed from the perky homemaker to celery eating supermodels who seem unable to keep the front-page gig in exchange for infamous celebrities talking about their struggles with the body.

My mom dieted for a living. One summer when my brothers were training for sports, she made us peach milkshakes. For two weeks this went on every day. Four tall glasses waiting with the spoons handles sticking out.

Wash your hands.

I felt connected: orchard to table, mother and daughter, this is how we nurture. Those milkshakes captured love and sunsets.

But one day, there were only three glasses.

Where’s mine?

You’re getting too big.

I watched as my brothers slurped away until they drained the bottom, tinkled the spoon, and ran outside.

As it was encoded in me to downtalk my body, my sons had to hear how my voluptuous chest and belly had become two wallets and a purse. I can’t walk that back. Each year they grew, so did I. Who says you can’t wear maternity clothes to your kid’s graduation? So, yes, our sons are tuning into how we bodytalk, too.

*     *     *

I’m listening for different language: when the female comedian doesn’t need to body shock the audience to gain access and culture doesn’t weight shame. Really, who is the judge telling us how we all should look, anyway? I fear the culprit might be: women—when we put ourselves down, when we judge other women, when we compare. The activity keeps us ranking and categorizing, sometimes viciously.

When we practice self-hate and model it to the young, it may ease a path toward hating others.

Hate–>power–>oppression. Now that sexual misconduct, violation, and rape aren’t under the rug, women will be stepping forward without guidelines, and what’s been scripted for decades doesn’t include much practice in conflict resolution, asserting rights, or respectful listening.

Writer, Matt Green, who works from home and raises two little girls, told me it’s time women take this moment. It’s now and it’s yours so don’t forsake each other. The world is finally watching. You have seized mankind and our worst ways, and now you must ignite. Don’t drop the mic.

We teach people how we want to be treated in every interaction we have. How we speak about ourselves and each other to our young might finally change the message.

Let’s stop and change our words.

Exchange bodytalk for actuation.

Practice with me:

Today I get to…
Using these fine hands, I will make…
Together, we are solving…
Tell me what your thoughts are about…

 

Andrea Auten is a masters graduate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles where she is a teaching assistant in the Post Master of Fine Arts in creative writing teacher certificate program. An arts teacher and performer from Dayton, OH, she lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her work can be found in the Antioch Voice. She is working on her second novel.

Packing Up Books

When a nighthawk leaves her nest, she takes only the feathers on her back. Can you imagine?

My partner and I are packing up to move from Connecticut to California. We are bringing some furniture, some art, kitchen stuff, clothes, and about a thousand books. Probably more than a thousand.

As I pack box after box with books, a sense of their history accumulates. Signed books. Books by friends. Books still waiting to be read (many of these). Books with creased spines and marginalia. Books with inscriptions from former lovers. The Qur’an. The Bible. Books filled with Post-it notes my partner left while writing her dissertation. Print copies of periodicals with our stories in them. The program from Denis Johnson’s memorial in New York last fall. Books with coffee-stained edges. Itsy bitsy books. Giant coffee table books. I nest each book carefully into the others, minimizing air space so that they don’t shift in transit. So that when we get to California they can come out undamaged and sit again on bookshelves.

Is it right to keep these books even though some we might never open again? Keeping so many books suggests a certain confidence that there will be long lives ahead to spend reading in them. Is a big library a way of saying to death, “Not today”? We can’t, after all, take our books into the grave.

Or rather, we figuratively can’t take our books into the grave. Literally though? My friend Katharine for many years had a yippy Pomeranian named Fox. When Fox died and was to be buried, our friend Joel tore a copy of The Call of the Wild in half and placed the first half of the book in the grave with Fox’s body. Joel thought that in some metaphorical, Viking way this would grant immortal dog-life. I cringed hearing this story’s combination of biblio-destruction and naked sentimentality. At the same time, how could I not love just a little bit the idea of fluffy Fox sharing his grave with a dramatic tale of canine adventure?

Book people can be intense in their relationships with physical books. Jeff Vandermeer once visited my hometown in Northern California on the book tour for his novel Annihilation. During the tour he was busily drafting and editing Annihilation’s sequels, which were slated to come out only months later. One day he went down to Glass Beach, our old town dump which now draws tourists with its sea glass, and “in a wild, symbolic gesture” he took a printed copy of Annihilation and decided “to try to drown [it] in a tidal pool.” It refused to sink. Eventually an ever-vigilant park ranger interrupted. Vandermeer fished the floating book back out, dried it on a rock, and put a picture online. I’m not precisely sure what he was trying to accomplish here, though it makes for a vivid scene. Maybe the first book was so much in his head as he tried to draft the sequels that symbolically murdering a copy seemed like a solution.

A college girlfriend once found more success. Four years after we broke up, she published two post-mortems of our relationship, in one of which she revealed that while we were still together she developed prophetic suspicion about a book I had bought for her, a book she had picked out for me to buy her. The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir. She felt that the book, in the context of our failing relationship, was an omen—an omen that could only be dispelled through swift disposal. Like Vandermeer, she took the book down to the beach. After attempting to burn it, she really did drown it, with no kindly park ranger arriving to intervene. She “ripped the pages to pieces, walked out into the ocean, and pushed them under a heavy mass of seaweed.” The Book Destroyed. One understands it was not the book itself that had offended her. Yet the book sufficed to take the punishment.

Books lend themselves well to metonymy and to use as ritual objects. They can stand for the author themself or for the stories they contain, for the God whose speech they record or even for the person who gave them to us. Some books are venerated, others are burned publicly—or privately drowned.

The only book I’ve ever submerged was Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. It fell briefly in the bath as I myself was getting out. No malice intended.

Sitting down to write about moving a library across the country—an act of delicate preservation—my thoughts keep drifting to books that never made it to their destination, books that found their end not in a reader’s imagination but in physical wreckage. Some of this is the inherent anxiety of moving. I am not a nighthawk, or at least am not a bird. My feathers are the belongings I take with me when I go. I would be sorely disappointed if I arrived to make a new home only to find some feathers missing.

And this once happened: I lost part of a library. I had just graduated from college in Boston. I had packed my books into five fat, heavy boxes. They were the chief thing I had to show for four years of study. I took the boxes by hand truck to the post office. Even at book rate, shipping them 3,000 miles cost a lot of money. I was thankful to my parents for paying this extra, unexpected expense. The books would get there in two to three weeks.

Four boxes arrived. The fifth disappeared.

I lost every poetry book I owned. Not Bishop and Crane, who had been in my carry-on. But all the rest.

For years I had taken buying poetry seriously. I was a young writer and scholar consciously building a collection. That box contained my hours sitting in Raven Books, reading, picking out which volume to take home. It contained much of the limited spending money that made me choose between books and alcohol. It was the proof that, admirably often, books had won.

For years afterwards I would find myself looking for a book only to realize that it, too, was lost. I still remember some of them, how they felt in the hand, their typesetting, certain lines of verse.

Writing this out, I try to let the details convey how upset losing that box made me. I was unaccountably upset. I felt impotent. I felt sad. I felt so frustrated I would ball my fists until the knuckles were white. My books were a part of my body. I felt like an amputee.

With the distance of years, these deep feelings of sadness seem melodramatic. Books can be purchased again when they’re needed. Or they can be borrowed from a lending library. Heck, you can even torrent them off the Internet and read them on a Kindle. It’s not ideal, or legal, or aesthetic—but neither was samizdat, where Soviet readers typed out and circulated rough copies of banned literature. Reading the books you need to read is the matter of vital importance. Tending a beautiful collection is secondary.

All the same, I pack the boxes with care. Books are my drug of choice. And we have so, so many.

 

Jasper Henderson is a writer and teacher from the Mendocino Coast. His work has appeared in Joyland, Juked, 7×7, Permasummer, Your Impossible Voice, and an anthology of California writing, Golden State 2017. As a poet-teacher, he works with over four hundred students every year, from third-graders to high school seniors. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University L.A. His cat is named Sybil, after the sibilant, favorite sound of cats across the galaxy.

 

Dear Glitch

You were my best friend, and I didn’t know you very well. We met at T-Time, a trans support group on our college campus. You were a founding member, and I was a latecomer. I’d transferred to UC Irvine as a junior, entering the queer community late in the school year. At my first T-Time meeting, six or eight people gathered in a tiny library-like room in the LGBT Center. I was fascinated by the gender-ambiguous people around me, some in the early stage of their medical transition. As someone who’d had one foot in the closet for years, I scrutinized you and the others, trying to discern something undiscernible. Your voice was still in the process of dropping, and you had no facial hair to speak of. Leading the group, your demeanor was sweet and open. You were a teddy bear.

You were one of the people I held up in my mind as a legend from the moment we met. You were everything I wanted to be and be with: activist, student, stoner, lover, friend. I saw little of you until the next year, when I moved into the queer dorm on campus for my final year. You lived a couple of houses away. Standing on the bridge above the courtyard, I watched you walking alone, coming to visit your best friend, the RA of the queer dorm. You joined her in her room, two or three other privileged friends allowed inside. I watched from around corners, through doorways, wishing to be included.

I don’t know how long it was until you and I became friends. I befriended another housemate, Zee, and spent a lot of time with them on top of the parking structure by the dorm, smoking weed from their phallic-looking pipe.

*     *    *

One day I was outside the dorm and you were hanging around. I climbed up on the wooden fence and sat down, and we started to talk. You pulled up your shorts to show me the hair climbing your legs like ivy, lamenting the impossibility of shaving them ever again. You told me how the testosterone shots were affecting you, how you injected yourself in the thigh. It didn’t matter to me what you talked about. You were talking just to me, to the exclusion of everyone else in the world. I felt like the coolest kid on campus.

You began to join us on the parking structure to smoke weed, sometimes bringing friends. You and Zee would embark on long, detailed, in-depth discussions on subjects such as: racism/antiblackness, misogyny/transmisogyny, the corrupt university administration, immigration/undocumented folks, mental illness, drugs, domestic abuse, the prison industrial complex, and on and on. I found the conversations tedious, arduous, and obtuse. I’m no philosopher, no theorist. I’m just a stoner who wanted to be among friends. I was always more focused on the weed being passed around, the company we kept, the chances we’d be caught by the ever-present campus police, who menaced the people of color and queers on campus. Though I understood the conversations, I lacked the knowledge and eloquence to join them. Your intelligence intimidated me, but you never made me feel stupid like our friends did. You were a teacher, always giving of yourself and willing to educate without condescension.

I can’t put any of this onto a timeline. It comes back to me in snatches of images and sounds and emotions.

You and your best friend became lovers, then had a falling out. She accused you publicly of abusing her, which divided the queer community on campus. Most supported her. Zee, some others, and I supported you. We found you on the top of a parking structure that day, some of your friends already there or arriving. Commiseration was offered, votes of confidence, all but vows of loyalty. I felt like I was a part of something important. I was with you, on the side of the wrongly accused. We passed around a pipe for comfort. I sensed a distance between you and me, and I felt helpless to bridge the gap.

You and I both went into our fifth year at the university. Your financial aid was cut. Without it, it was impossible for you to pay your tuition. You could no longer work toward your degree, work as an RA, or live on campus. You fought it, pushing back against the unforgiving system in vain. You moved into another on-campus apartment with Zee on the downlow. It was a precarious situation.

The night you brought shrooms over to my apartment was frightening in its intensity. I didn’t have much fun. The following morning, we woke up to find my roommate vomiting uncontrollably, unable to speak or move, eyes bulging as she watched us panic. You picked her up and carried her outside, downstairs. I drove us to the hospital. She remained for four days to be treated for an intentional overdose of a cocktail of pills and medicines.

A few months later, she left us to move back in with her family. I insisted that you move in as her replacement. I knew your situation was bad. You had plans to go to Stockton, or somewhere, because you couldn’t stay where you were. I have no idea when we became so close that I couldn’t bear the thought of you leaving.

You moved in with me. You spent your time searching for a job, seeking out new opportunities, connecting with your friends. You were independent. You fought to keep going, but the loss you suffered was immense. You lost your love, your financial stability, your almost-completed degree and the four years you worked toward it, your access to vital medications, and your chance to have the surgery you so desperately needed to feel comfortable in your own body. Still, you fought to heal the damage that had been done to you.

*     *    *

In February, another roommate joined us, a stranger we found on the internet. Within days, his full-blown addiction to methadone dominated our lives. He took his pill, and he sat on the couch, and he faded. His heart rate dropped to almost nothing; we pressed our ears to his chest for long minutes, straining to discern a thud. He breathed so shallowly, so slowly. Unable to bear the stress of not knowing whether he would die in our home, you and I made the decision to call an ambulance. We went through this every day for two weeks straight.

Christien “Glitch” Rodriguez

You asked me to go for a walk with you one night. My heart leaped at the chance to have your attention again like on that day outside the dorm almost a year before when you’d revealed yourself to me. Whatever you wanted to say had to be very important.

We walked down a street I hadn’t seen before, a curving street like any other in that city. You told me you wanted to pick up and move to Oakland. Zee had a place we could stay, and you had money that had been donated to a fund for your surgery. If you didn’t use the money to get away from here, you told me, you wouldn’t have a chest to have surgery on.

I withdrew from school, luckily with enough completed credits to earn a degree. You were with me, and you congratulated me as we walked away from the registrar’s office. We made our plans, told everyone who mattered that we were leaving in a week. I started packing my things, ready to escape from the nightmare we were living.

One night, as we knelt over our junkie roommate waiting for the paramedics to come make sure he wasn’t dead, I looked at you and was shocked by what I saw. The easy smile and bright eyes I had known were gone. You’d lost weight, drastically. Fear and pain suffused your face, as if a great pressure squeezed you from all sides. Your voice and your hands were shaking. After everything you’d been through, you’d kept your cool. I’d never seen anything really get to you in this way. The situation with our roommate was wearing you down to a shadow of your former self.

Very late on Monday March 4th, 2013, we drove two hours to visit your mom. You suggested it on the spur of the moment, and I was down for anything. We woke the next morning in a safe place, a sunny bedroom, the future of a life in a different city looming ahead of us. We were both due for our testosterone injections that day, and we let your mom stay in the room to observe. We drew up one shot each of the clear, oily liquid. I leaned over the bed, and you gave me my shot in my butt. Then, you sat down on the floor and, as always, played a song on your phone to help you get through it. You took long moments to calm your breathing before injecting your own needle into your leg. Only once it was fully inserted did you realize it wasn’t your dose—you’d stuck yourself with the same needle you’d just used on me, empty and useless.

You decided to wait to redo your shot properly. You were too shaky to try again. We packed the unused syringe with its liquid away. We visited with your family, then returned to our apartment in the city on Tuesday night.

I don’t remember anything that happened on Wednesday.

Thursday March 7th was your twenty-third birthday. You went out with friends.

Friday March 8th I was upset. The money for the moving truck hadn’t come through, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to leave on Sunday like we’d wanted to. I couldn’t handle the disappointment, couldn’t handle staying any longer in the apartment that had become a war zone, hostile, dangerous, filled with a haze of smoke and memories of terror and rage.

You asked if I’d be okay if you went out again. I was not okay, but I couldn’t say no to you, didn’t have the right. I sat on the floor, head in hands, crying, raging. I’d taken on your need for escape. You and I were on the same page, and nothing would stop us from leaving everyone behind and getting the hell out.

I told you to go out for a few hours. We’d sit down and work out our plans when you came back.

You left. Came back. Came into the bedroom, put your right arm around my shoulders, and leaned your head against mine, briefly. Then, you left again.

Hours passed.

2 p.m. — I was angry. A call from your friend. Had I heard from you? No. I started calling you, texting you.

5:18 p.m. — Your friend called again, asked what you were wearing when you went out. I tried, but I wasn’t sure. Jeans, white shirt, leather jacket.

8 p.m. — A knock on the door. I opened it to find three of your friends standing there. Stricken. They asked to come in. I turned, closed the door behind me.

“He’s gone.”

So why are we standing here and not going to pick him up?

“He jumped off the Social Science parking structure.”

My shoulders and my head hit the door behind me. “No, no, no, no, no, no…” I slid down to the floor. Time was taken away from me by the blinding, erasing, encompassing emotion.

*     *     *

Almost a year later, I faced your mom across the dining room table in her home. She wore latex gloves, spoke confidently, reassured me. The sterilized equipment was laid bare, and there you were in front of us, your ashes mixed lovingly into a pot of purple ink.

I chose the design you’d had behind your right ear, a trans symbol just a little different from other versions. I’d considered replicating your enormous Pisces forearms tattoos, but I found the little heart to be more to my liking. On your mom’s TV, I’d chosen an alternative rock station, thinking of how you played a song for yourself every time you did your shot.

It took your mom about five minutes to etch the design into my skin. It hurt in a tight, jarring way I hadn’t expected. Halfway through, an obscure song came on, one we’d sung together: “Don’t treat me like the past, don’t let me fall behind.” I turned away from the needle and cried, gasping for breath as your mom completed the design.

I carry your body in my body, and that will never change. I carry your voice and sweet smile in my mind, hoping they’ll never fade. I carry the enormity of your decision on my shoulders. I carry the guilt in my ears, the constant stream of “What if?” with no answers.

I didn’t know you well at all. I loved the depth of your empathy and understanding of other people. I loved your creativity and intelligence, your positivity and warmth. I feel you with me, in the passenger seat of my car; I feel you in the rhythm of the random shuffle of my playlist; I feel you in the racing of my heart. I can’t yet forgive you for leaving us, but you’re my best friend, and that will never change.

 

Adrien 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. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

Feeling Like a Fraud

Is it embarrassing that my nineteen-year-old child has never read a book?

I was once asked if maybe he didn’t read, because he couldn’t. A lot of well-meaning, natural born, corn raised, American people tend to generalize when the child in question is adopted from a foreign (pronounced: /FUR-ən/) country.

“That poor child, I’m sure he must suffer from some rare condition that we haven’t even heard of in the United States. Have you had him diagnosed?”

Diagnosed?

“Yes, you know, by a doctor.”

I was looked at as if I didn’t know that was an option. Or, what a doctor was.

“Well, he is off the charts with ADHD, but other than that he’s smart as a whip.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure he is. But really, have you had him diagnosed?”

Many of today’s young adults wouldn’t know what a real book looked like even if it mysteriously appeared midair like an apparition. Maybe if it were in the form of something expensive or trendy, like an iPhone, a Benjamin, or a bong they might take notice, but even then, once it became evident that they would have to do something intellectually with it, like read, all bets would be off the table.

“WTF do you want me to do with that thing?”

It’s not as if one is handing them the dirty laundry basket, or even a small, sickly kitten that requires round the clock care. It’s merely something you hope, as a parent, would give them joy as it did for you as a child. Or, at the minimum, help them move out of their dark, dirty bedroom and into the bright lights of the family room to enjoy a chapter or two of a novel, any novel.

The problem in today’s digital environment of instant gratification is that reading for edification or enjoyment for many young adults is neither. They spend every waking hour sitting in front of their computer screen, tablet or phone. To them, that is reading. A book doesn’t vibrate or play sounds like a video game does. There is no option to get rich by reading as there is by, let’s say, creating videos of you and your girlfriend blowing kisses at the dog and posting them on YouTube. No sponsor is waiting in the wings if they (god forbid) post a video discussion about the theme of the book, or its plot points and inciting incident. Merely sitting, reading and enjoying is not enough. Maybe if we could develop a way for plotlines to vibrate and make sounds at just the right spots we would be able to hook them. Or, at a minimum, if just opening a book could make them lots and lots of money, everything I have written above would morph into one gigantic moot point. Please? Anyone?

*     *    *

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to buy two multi-volume sets of books being sold by the UCSD library system. The first is a twenty-five-volume set of The Works of Rudyard Kipling, and the second is a ten-volume set of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. When I got them home and placed them on a shelf in my humble little library, I began to wonder about how many other shelves these volumes have sat on over the years. The Kipling set is 92 years old, and the Poe set is somewhere between 116 to 169 years old! If memory serves me correctly, there were no electronics to divert your attention in those years, nor a better option for entertainment on a daily basis than picking up a book and reading it. While there were still no sponsors waiting in the wings, there was pure joy about starting a new book or reading another chapter. You could almost feel the book vibrate in your hands from the excitement of turning a page or meeting a character for the first time.

As I stare at my new books on the shelf, I can’t help by wonder how many hands have opened each one over the years and read them. Were books in the late 19th and early 20th century as popular as Fortnite is for a lot of kids today? Did parents in those years worry that too much reading was distracting their kids from getting ahead?

Illustration from 19th century

“Dearest, have you spoken to young Joshua about how much time he spends reading? He won’t even pick up a violin. How can he expect to get ahead in life if he can’t play a proper concerto?”

“Shall we have the doctor diagnose him?”

“Diagnose him? Oh dear, I shudder at that thought. What if we find out he is tone deaf? He will be lost to those damnable books forever!”

*     *    *

Tonight, my son is over at a friend’s house creating “beats” for local rap artists. He hopes to make it big in the music industry someday. I am pondering going out tonight and purchasing a book on the history of rap, but I fear the only person reading it will be—me. I don’t want to discourage him, but I am beginning to feel like a fraud. Can a person with an MFA in creative writing have a child, who by choice, refuses to read? Shouldn’t I be able to magically instill in him the joy of reading now that I am about to be empowered with my degree? What does it say about me as an educator, or even a thought-provoking writer, that nothing I can say or write impresses him enough to pick up a book?

There was a time when I did believe my son was going to be a writer. In fact, I still think he should explore that aspect of his creative side. I always found magic and beauty in the few words he put down on paper. His high school teachers, however, were harsh and chastised him for not writing more on any particular topic. In his mind, he succinctly captured the heart of the subject. Why write three-hundred pages when no one he hung out with would read them? Did his teachers do him a disservice by not finding the golden nugget in his writing and working with him to edit versus extend? We need to find a way in our educational system for words to vibrate with our youth. For the sound of well-written sentences, when spoken, to make them hunger for more. To encourage them to write poetry, if the tedium of writing essays is turning them away from the written word.

I don’t know if he’ll outgrow this phase, or if reading will eventually bring him enjoyment. I don’t know if, even with a master’s in hand, I will ever be able to inspire him. I do hope, however, that one day—even if he is just packing them away after I have passed—he will crack open Volume I of The Works of Rudyard Kipling. If he doesn’t read the book, hopefully, he’ll find the letter I wrote to him tonight telling him about how much joy reading books have brought to me and his other dad’s lives.

Asking him to read just one page.

Telling him how much I love him even if he doesn’t read, but how much more he will love himself if he does.

 

 

 


Jerry Parent
 is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is serving as Lunch Ticket’s Lead Blog Editor. He earned his B.A. in philosophy from St. John’s Seminary College, and currently resides in San Diego with his husband, son, two dogs and one cat. He and his husband own one of San Diego’s oldest floral companies, Adelaide’s, located in the village of La Jolla.

 

Loving Women

For most of my life, I’ve had issues with women. But it grew worse in college when I became a victim of sexual assault. When I think about that night, I am not angry at the boy who took advantage of me. I’ve forgiven him. I don’t even remember his name. When I woke up, ashamed, and laying next to a person I hadn’t been sober enough to give permission to, I felt betrayed. I’d been drinking with friends that night, friends who should have protected me. Not only had they not, but when I came to and lumbered down the stairs, it was my friend, a girl who was there the whole timecompletely sober and aware, who told me in my confused and dizzy state, to go back upstairs. She sent me back to the man who’d just violated me. 

I recently realized that I’ve projected the betrayal I felt as I sat on the stairs outside that bedroom onto every relationship I’ve had with women since that night. I suspect them of hurting so bad themselves that they won’t feel peace until they send me back to my own violation. I suspect it when they remind me that I am a single mother, never married. I suspect it when they remind me that I’m not yet published. I suspect it when they warn me not to dream too big and advise me to stay in my lane. I suspect it when they tell me that I am still that lost and confused college girl, that I am still broken. 

Last year when I was introduced to the #MeToo movement I didn’t share my story on Facebook or Twitter like so many others. I didn’t know how. How could I say what I was feeling? How could I say, “This happened to me and you sent me back. You hurt me too.

I feel that way often. I feel that way when white women, who for all intents and purposes, appear liberal, yet threaten to call the police on black children for selling water on their own porches. I feel that way whenever feminism isn’t intersectional, whenever I am silenced because my womanness, which is enriched by my blackness, is treated as less than because that blackness gets in the way of what sometimes feels like a singular and protected purpose.

Because of what happened to me, I thought women were incapable of loving other women. It wasn’t until I first read the Bible story about Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, that my opinion began to shift.

In the story, found in the Gospel of Luke, the two women meet after an unknown time apart. Each woman is pregnant and swollen with life, and just as Elizabeth notices Mary’s approach, her baby leaps inside her.  

In 2012, I responded to a Facebook ad for a new writers group. I joined on what I thought was a whim, but now I believe it was more than that. I believe it was divine intervention. The group included both men and women, but it was the women who helped me feel what I believe Elizabeth felt.

Creativity requires exposure. Even though I am a fiction writer, the stories I share press the most tender parts of myself. While I waited to be challenged, told that I was wrong or I didn’t understand my own worldview, no one ever did. If and when I wrote about sexual violence, no one told me what I wrote was wrong or called me a liar. They understood and told their own stories. They opened a space for my healing and allowed me to write through the process.

It is because of that group that I applied to a master’s program. All of the female members were so focused on their work and growth that it encouraged me to focus on mine. We carried creativity, and when we all sat down together, pen in hand, what we carried leaped. Our backgrounds didn’t matter, our races didn’t matter, we were in the same condition. They listened to me and I learned from them. They encouraged me with no need to compare or compete and I found that I could lower my guard. They were a safe space.

That original writer’s group has since disbanded – several of us have moved on to different states, but I have formed other friendships, joined other groups. I now have female mentors who instruct me and guide me. I am no longer afraid that every woman who gets close to me is up to no good. I think I am being healed of that. I am grateful to women now, especially women writers, creators, protectors, warriors, women who create a prime environment for life to flow, for the work to flow. I wouldn’t be able to dream without them. My spirit leaps whenever I see them coming.

 

Jahzerah Brooks is a mother, writer and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She currently lives in the Midwest. Jahzerah currently serves as Lead Fiction Editor for Lunch Ticket.

 

Oversharing 101: #getoversharing

Smile!

Sometimes I have a problem with oversharing. The lady next to me at the nail salon did not need to know that I got a UTI from not going to the bathroom while I was teaching. Especially when she only asked if I liked being a teacher.

I have a bad habit of revealing very personal information with complete strangers. And it is not until later that I realize I probably should not have informed the person of my private affairs:

Okay, what do I need from the grocery store? Tomatoes, rice, chicken, coffee filters, filter… Huh, I probably shouldn’t have told that lady about my UTI sitch.

That’s kind of gross. And weird. She’s probably freaking her kids out right now by telling them they should tell their teachers tomorrow to go to the bathroom when they need to. Or worse. She’s reporting me as inappropriate to whomever you report something like that to. I don’t know. People figure it out if they have the drive. Yikes. I really need more of a filter.

Okay what was I doing? Oh yeah coffee filters, kale, paper towels.

Over the next day or two, depending on the severity of the overshare, I may shake my head and tell myself I’m an idiot, but neither the embarrassment nor the brief reflection prevents me from oversharing again to a stranger, acquaintance, or friend.

But, I am not alone.

Oversharing happens to be a multigenerational problem (yes, even you, Grandma). Social media is hands down the best vehicle for it. I would dare to say that the majority of things you see on social media are examples.

I am not a huge social media junkie, so thankfully, I do not tweet things like “Got a UTI at work today #TeacherProblems #PainfulWorkExperiences #JustGoPee” with a frowny-face.

Instead I tend to save my oversharing for casual conversations, but shockingly, people do say similar things online. And I judge them for doing it. That’s the weird thing about oversharers—we judge other people but do little or nothing to change our own habits.

We’ve all heard or even had a conversation like this:

“Can you believe Tina posted that comment on Facebook about how her husband cheated on her?!”

“Yikes. Doesn’t she realize she’s sharing that with everyone?”

“I hate it when Jenny posts status updates about what she’s doing all the time. I mean no one cares if you are going to the gym or grocery store. Boring.”

“I know. Did you see my forty pictures of little Molly wearing her ‘three months’ onesie on Instagram?”

“I did. So cute! Did you see what I made for dinner last night? That lo-fi setting almost made it look as organic and delicious as it was.”

“Yeah I ‘liked’ that!”

This brings me to some categories of oversharing.

Embarrassing!

Embarrassing

A particularly popular example of this is the sideways peace-signing pucker-lipped selfie. Sorry teens (and I hope not many others older than seventeen), sideways peace signs are always embarrassing and never cool. I’m confident in that statement. Prior to social media, “selfies” did not exist or at least were not a trend. Once people discovered the lovely trick of flipping the camera around on smart phones, voilà: selfie time. Drunken pics and posts also fall into this category, oh and any post or tweet that contains the word, “epic” (#CampaignToEndTheUseOfTheWordEpic).

Still don’t think you are guilty of anything in this category? Go through all your Facebook pics starting with your oldest album. That pic of you by the toilet in the frat house? Delete.

Scandalous

Scandalous pics and posts are reserved mainly for teens and people in their twenties although some people forget that crazy bachelorette party pics are not suitable for coworkers to see. These pictures can be a half-naked twerking pic (Google “crunkbear”) or a make out pic with a man in a top hat at a bar (#OldTimeyHot). Unfortunately, lots of times these too are selfies. (Wait, so you chose to have the world see you humping the wall because you thought that looked sexy? What?)

Boring

The majority of the stuff on social media is boring. (Don’t think so? Then why do you scroll through it so quickly? Huh? Busted.) Let’s go with some of the worst offenders, like someone’s dinner or a new purchase. Just because you put an artsy filter on it doesn’t mean everyone wants to see it. I get that you are excited about your new IKEA chifforobe. But looking at your post actually gives me heart palpitations because last time I was in IKEA, I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the store.

Attention cousin-of-my-friend-who-I-only-accepted-your-friend-request-because-I-didn’t-want-our-next-random-encounter-to-be-awkward, I don’t care that you’re excited to watch Game of Thrones.

Excessive

New mamas especially love this one. Excessive posts are usually something like forty pics of a sleeping baby (one pic of a sleeping babe equals cute, forty equals a snoozefest). I’m pretty sure that a friend of mine in Aspen has posted every fish he has ever caught. We get it. You are a successful fisherman. Now, please stop sharing.

Don’t forget detailed, multi-sentence posts. God bless Twitter for limiting characters.

Mean

A computer or smartphone somehow gives people the idea that it’s okay to say the mean things that go through their minds, but they don’t say. (Psst, hey, people doing this, if it leaves your head, you’re mean. And clearly need to be aware of the infamous ’90s slogan: “Mean People Suck.”)

I made the mistake of searching for my name on Twitter. (Teachers: Do not do this! You will regret it.) “Ms. Carmody’s ass got fat over the summer” was a lovely tweet I came across. I reminded kids the next day that everything they post on Twitter is housed in the Library of Congress, so be aware of what you write. The student that posted it didn’t get that I was talking to him. While I wouldn’t hold something like that against a student, it certainly didn’t help his plea to accept his work two weeks after the semester had ended.

Cray Cray

Election time, in particular, brings out the crazies. One day you could be chatting with someone about a risotto recipe, and then hours later you pull up Facebook to see her rant about how all Muslims are terrorists or how babies should be given guns at birth. Then you are faced with the awkward decision of if you should de-friend her both physically and through the World Wide Web. You really like chatting about recipes, but clearly, she’s out of her mind. Go ahead and get rid of her. There’s always Pinterest.

*     *     *

I criticize these folks, but I must admit that I am not totally innocent of oversharing through social media. But again, I judged away without realizing I was a culprit. And I continued to think so until I was enlightened by a friend at a Wilco concert.

“Post that baby to Insta,” I jokingly said to him after he captured lead singer Jeff Tweedy making out with the microphone, eyes closed.

“I’m on it! I’ll tag everyone.”

“Sweet. Do you need my username?”

“No, I think I follow you.”

“Oh okay. You do?”

Mr. Corky!

“Yeah, don’t you always post all those pictures of your dog?”

“Well, no. I mean, I have some pictures of my dog, but, really? That’s what people associate with me? Yikes.”

He laughed and said it wasn’t a big deal while I fixated on the fact that I was the weird dog lady on Instagram. Followers: Guess if Kate is single. I’d rather share too many baby pics or even food photos than too many of a dog! I may as well put a ton of shih poo stickers on my car and give up (#CorkAndMeForever).

This made me think that perhaps if all those foodies or proud parents had someone inform them of their oversharing, then they, too, may question their habits.

Thus, I have come up with a few completely unscientific strategies for anyone suffering from an oversharing addiction. I know that I am not an expert on the topic or a therapist, but let’s be honest, chances are if you are spending that much time oversharing on social media, you probably aren’t reading many scholarly journals. Therefore, here are some solutions to these common categories.

Embarrassing

Think of the most embarrassing moment of your life. Mine took place on the back patio of a seedy bar with my entire family when they were visiting me in Denver eight years ago. The bar was empty when we walked in, and they weren’t too convinced with my pleas of it becoming the next hotspot. But we headed to the back patio anyway. Not even a half beer in, my brother-in-law interrupted our conversation with a jaw-dropped, stiff stare at the apartment complex across the street. We followed his stare to discover a couple pressed against the floor-to-ceiling window in their apartment having intercourse for all the patio patrons to see. Including my entire family. After we got over the initial shock of what was happening, we quickly made an exit.

I get that some people are open to discussing touchy topics like sex with their parents. But as far as my parents are concerned, I’ve only held hands with a boy, and that’s all I’m willing to disclose. Therefore, you can imagine that watching a live porno, while brief, is a hard one to chip out of the old bank of memories.

Now, whatever your embarrassing situation may be, picture every person you don’t want there (your parents, your secret crush, your boss, Ryan Gosling #HeyGirl #OhNoGirl) watching it all unfold. Every time you go to post or tweet something embarrassing, think of yourself back in your situation.

Scandalous

Picture the grossest, creepiest person you have ever met. Mine is a biology teacher at the all-girls Catholic high school I attended. He used to wear a lab coat every day (why that was necessary, I’ll never know), and even though he wore that white lab coat, you could still see the dandruff on his shoulders. He used to tell girls he could smell when they were on their period. Um, Hannibal? I have no idea how he kept his job. Maybe because Catholics have a habit of forgiving that sort of thing (ba-dum-ching). Now picture him staring at that pic of you all day. If your profile is public, picture hundreds of him because every creep like him can see you.

R. Kelley

Excessive and Boring

Watch R. Kelly: Trapped in the Closet Chapters 1-22 on YouTube five times a day for a week. You may hate-like it the first time, but if you still like it even after the second or third time (I couldn’t get through one), then chances are there is no hope for your oversharing. Your only other option is listening to that Hootie and the Blowfish song on repeat for a week. Speaking of Hootie, if he can, I mean if Darius Rucker can reinvent himself after the excessive times they played his Hootie song on the radio, you can, too.

Mean and Cray Cray

When you are itching to share an insult or rant, imagine that whatever you are about to share, someone said about your little sister or whomever you care about the most. Wanna beat him up? Chances are someone wants to beat you up too. To literally save face, think of those people before you post or tweet (#LeaveTrollsAs90sToys).

*     *     *

While boring and unnecessary info or photos can’t do much harm, scandalous or embarrassing stories have caused job losses and school expulsions.

Whenever my mom hears about people getting in trouble for social media posts, she always says the same thing: “Why do people want to document things they do, but know they shouldn’t be doing? If I were them, I would make sure that no one documented anything, so it couldn’t be used against me.”

Maybe that’s the influence of McCarthyism, but I don’t think it’s a bad mentality to have. It sure beats the, “Oh our government is spying on us? Oh well. I share everything anyway” attitude. I’m not saying we need to kill our TVs like that bumper sticker says, or, in this case, smash our computers and phones. I actually think that social media is a great way to connect with people, but I think we need a little reinvention. So, moms, dads, kids, millennials, young professionals, Mr. President, or pretty much anyone who read this and found it relatable, I’m leaving you with some advice from my life coach (see, there I go again oversharing): “Think balance.”

 

Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. At Lunch Ticket, she is a blogger and a member of the community outreach team. She is currently working on her MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles and lives in Denver, Colorado.

A Bridge West

I am often surprised by how many people have heard of my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton once had a major role in innovation and the arts. The city lays claim to both the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Funk music was arguably birthed in West Dayton. Major companies like Mead, Reynolds and Reynolds, and NCR once nurtured the working class families that built the Black suburbs that lay fallen today.

I live in West Dayton, which is primarily populated by African Americans. Twenty years ago it thrived with upper middle class families, businesses, and entertainment. While those businesses have been boarded up and torn down since the closing of GM plants and factories, the people still remain and emanate an enviable joy.

In fact, when I drive down Third Street and see the promise of new business development in an area that was destroyed over fifty years ago in the 1966 West Dayton riots;  when I watch children splash in the colorful sprinklers at Mallory Park; when I drive home to my little township and have to slow down to allow a black man riding an enormous shiny black horse safe passage, I find it easy to look past the vacant lots with overgrown brush, the concrete blocks where factories once stood, the buildings that mark in my memory just how often corporate superstores erect structures and then move on for higher ground.

I work downtown, and when I drive over the Third Street Bridge, also known as the Peace Bridge, and watch the couples in their canoes or glance at the joggers who run along the Great Miami Rivers’ edge, I wonder what they see when they look at the gas stations and broken windowed structures that welcome them to my side of town. Do they see the isolation? Do they see the endurance?

One day soon that bridge will be replaced and I wonder if the attitude about West Dayton will change with it?  In the Dayton Daily News article entitled “Artist ‘Bing’ Davis to Help Design Third Street Bridge,” local artist Willis “Bing” Davis is quoted as saying, “The intent is to create a distinctive-looking bridge that is a source of public pride and ‘a lasting symbol of hope’…” The article goes on to say that, “It’s symbolic for many, too, because it connects the city’s east and west sides.”

I realize that to some, West Dayton is a frightening place. I’m not afraid. I think I owe my stepfather for that. While he’s not black (he’s a Lakota Sioux), he lived most of his life in West Dayton and embraced the culture. (Well, embraced might be a strong word. When I was in high school and the neighborhood boys pulled up beside our emerald green station wagon blasting Tupac or Bone-Thugs-in-Harmony, he turned up the volume on one of his traditional Sioux drum songs, much to my embarrassment.)  However, when I was thirteen, maybe fourteen, I needed to make a purchase at corner store. We were near a market I wasn’t familiar with and was concerned. There were bars on the windows and faded ads on the walls and I didn’t want to go inside, but my stepfather made me. He said, “Don’t ever be afraid of your own people.”

It wasn’t until I moved back to the city after living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, that I realized there are some, both black and white, who see the entire West Side as I saw that corner store, something to be leery about and ashamed of, as if not being affluent is an embarrassment, is criminal.

In recent months West Dayton was declared a food desert. Dayton Public Schools announced school closures and one of the last remaining hospitals on the West Side, Good Samaritan Hospital, announced that it would soon be closing its doors for good. Meanwhile, directly across the bridge, in downtown Dayton, developers are building a new outdoor music arena, touting river development, and building so many new condos they seem to sprout up like weeds.

I attend church in West Dayton and during the Wednesday night Bible study following Trump’s election, my pastor announced to the congregation that we would have to learn to take care of one another. He said that any help we’d once known would soon be gone. Less than two years later, in one fell swoop, our access to healthy foods, medical care and public education nearly disappeared. We know that our physical health is connected to food, education and medical care. That fact is undeniable and the roll back of all three in this community feels conspiratorial. But on top of that we’ll soon have to pray for the miracle of divine healing because as the opioid epidemic tramples the community like a storm, sufferers who live too far from local hospitals will need a literal miracle to survive the transport.

It offends me that while people starve in West Dayton, right across the bridge half million dollar condominiums reach for the horizon. We watch from the Peace bridge as it happens. Why is it that we on this side of the bridge have to figure out how to feed and heal ourselves, while on the other side major grocery chains are building, remodeling, and expanding? It was recently announced that a food co-op will open in the coming years, but why does it have to come to that? Why does it feel as though the West Side is being abandoned while the rest of the city thrives?

I am not a business owner or a community leader. I’m a writer who has questions and no answers. Though writing gives voice to the issue, I’m not sure it’s enough. I can’t even protest because I’m not sure what I would be protesting. Who would I be protesting: businesses for turning away Black dollars; the North, South and East Sides that develop and grow because of university expansion, medical field expansion and the survival of some parts of the middle class? To whom do I express my frustrations while knowing it won’t erase the isolation that nearly fifty eight thousand people face when they, by no fault of their own, are sequestered to a lifestyle of lack because they can’t afford to move to the other side of the Peace Bridge? Who is at fault? And more importantly, what can I do to stop it?

All photography by Latoya Leonard.

 

Jahzerah Brooks is a mother, writer and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She currently lives in the Midwest. Jahzerah currently serves as Lead Fiction Editor for Lunch Ticket.

The Mad World

1. I didn’t mean to get serious about running. I try not to get too serious about anything. But here I am. As is the way with most drugs, the hobby was all fun and games until I was a junkie, the crazy kind of addict who wakes up on Thanksgiving morning and instead of curling up to watch the parade on TV, drives ten miles to compete in a 10K Turkey Trot. It’s very disorienting.

Recently I don’t recognize myself. I wonder why I’d do a thing like a Turkey Trot, or any of the races I’ve run, several with less embarrassing titles. In the beginning, I assumed my hobby was just a new stripe of stress-reducing exercise, aided by the exceedingly temperate San Diego clime. I have a demanding work schedule. I’m raising two little girls. Marriage is hard. People find ways to let off steam. Then I realized I was experiencing something more complex, maybe more interesting. Certainly sadder.

Photo credit: Katy Regnier

2. Last September my friend Katy suggested we run together. We had enrolled our eight and nine-year-old daughters in a program called Girls on the Run, which is mainly a bonding/girl-empowering weekly meetup with light exercise, culminating in the girls running a 5K. My older daughter has a lot of excess energy. It seemed like a reasonable plan. Katy thought we might use the girls’ meeting times to go for runs ourselves. It was just making efficient use of an hour. Plus, like my daughter, I had what felt like a lot of excess energy.

San Diego is the fourth running-est county in the country. Athletes can train outdoors here just about every day of the year, and if they like they can do it along the pretty edge of the Pacific Ocean. Alongside runners, cyclists hum down highway 101 in packs of dozens. Surf competitions take place year-round; event tents cover the beach like little circuses. There’s volleyball and hiking and ocean swimming. There’s a lot of yoga. It’s warm all the time. It’s enough to make a rain-loving cynic like me sick. In a simple version of this story, maybe, eventually, I just got swept up in all that motion.

3. By the time Katy lured me in, she’d run a dozen races of varying lengths. From the outside it looked very suspicious. I mean, running long distances (more than, say, a couple miles) looks excessive, unnatural and showy to many non-runners. I had reservations. What about all the jouncing of my lady parts? Don’t runners struggle not to poop their pants? Katy reported that so far, her lady parts stayed fixed where they ought. She said she hadn’t shat herself once. Yet. While I acknowledged that *probably* not pooping one’s pants is a frightfully low bar when choosing a workout, I agreed to try running.

We set a goal. After three months of practice, Katy and I would run a 10k through Disneyland. This is how unserious my new hobby was. No one can be competitive about a run inside the Magic Kingdom. About 60% of the runners are in costumes. Along the route there are photo ops with characters. If you’re serious about this run, you’re being ridiculous. Katy (also a sewing savant), crafted us Mouseketeer Club costumes from breathable four-way stretch Lycra. We wore ears. You get the picture. We didn’t come to win. We just needed to be strong enough runners to finish 6.2 miles. Katy already was. And I’m foolhardy. It was a date.

4. When Des Linden won the Boston Marathon last month (the first American woman to do so since 1985), on the heels of Shalane Flanagan winning the New York Marathon (the first American woman since 1977), I joked to my friends that I knew why American women won those races again. I said: it’s because we’re angry women in the world right now. We are angry running. Running angry-fast. I laughed a little, but I was only partly joking. I wondered if anyone agreed.

Photo credit: Katy Regnier

5. We ran the Disney race and surprised ourselves by placing 11th and 12th in our division (women 35-39). From there, the problem escalated. I was a goner, really. I asked my step mom for guidance—in her thirties, Barbara was an elite marathoner—and she was kind enough to agree. She drew up a plan to train Katy and me for half marathons. Hills and speed drills. Miles and miles. Katy gave me her old Garmin watch. I monitored my heart rate like a deranged seismologist. I read blogs and articles. I tried on and bought and returned lots of shoes. Katy and I traced and retraced the edge of California. We got faster. I was so tired that at night that sometimes I fell asleep before my kids.

6. One day while I ran with Katy on the coast—not talking, pace easy—I noticed my heart rate tick up and up. I realized that whenever I run, even in training, I have the urgent feel of racing. I thought about this over the miles and realized the beginning of what is true: I am driven, bodily, by the irrational feeling that I accomplish something by running. Some task larger than my race goals. I say irrational because there is no virtue intrinsic to fitness. Sure, exercise is good for you. The immediate, anti-stress benefits of endorphin release are real. The bible would have us keep God’s temple nice, etc. (if you’re into that sort of thing). But I understood that somewhere in my consciousness, I equated my physical power, my muscles and steam in motion, as a proxy for political power.

When I say these days I don’t know who I am, I’m talking about every day since November 9th, 2016. I feel I’ve been teetering on the edge of madness for as long as our current president has been in office. The initial event was visceral, a sock to the gut. All that bursting energy—the gladness in casting my vote, the expectation of announcing the woman president to my daughters—was sucked out. I became ill. The weeks progressed. I showed up at marches with other people, mostly women, and I felt my anger dispel. There were many of us, lots of bodies sardined on the avenues, on streets, and in public squares. There was comfort in that, in moving myself toward that action. But the months and the news barreled on over us. The destructive policies are too many to name, the corruption too rife to describe. For the entire first year, I read Twitter instead of books. I walked around, coiled tight, waiting for magic relief; I allowed myself to hope that, eventually, the crimes would emerge there, on the Internet, like a fireworks finale, such that the only reasonable remaining place for the perpetrators—the fake president and his enablers—would be a dungeon somewhere deep in America’s correctional bowels.

Alas.

7. When I say my running is sad, I mean this: everything I’ve done, the accomplishments and defeats of the last eighteen months, the miles and miles, seem now to be responses to the election. Things that should not be related can, with hardly any gymnastics, be tied back to the acute trauma of that moment, to the accretion of offenses that followed. I have felt like the victim of an incomprehensible theft; robbery on a scale so grand I can’t yet see precisely what’s missing or how it was stolen. Over the past year and a half, the crimes’ contours have slowly taken shape. I’m writing this on a Tuesday. Already this week there have been stunning revelations about multiple campaign stooges interacting with as many foreign entities. By Friday there will be more details. Today’s scandal is buried in tomorrow. News is old so quickly, these days. The outrage builds like plaque as those in power bend over to bolster a ridiculous president—over the months it has become clear there’s no crime so egregious that they’ll end the farce.

8. I brought my daughters with me when I voted in the 2016 election. The polling place was their elementary school. I cried when I voted for the woman candidate. In the booth I grabbed the girls and hugged them and told them what an important day it was and kissed their safe rosy faces and felt hope and power. I was energetic, spinning like a buzz saw, sparks flying.

9. What felt like madness in me deepens. It converts to motion. I propel my body forward, sometimes in pain, as a way to tap that sparking power, to pretend I can pull everything crooked straight again. I am going somewhere, I think. The country goes backward. But I dream I am going somewhere. I lie that I am going somewhere. I am getting what’s mine. I am tired, so something must have changed, some difference made. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. I just have this good memory of power.

Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

10. On a particularly grueling training day, here is what I tell myself: be the tree. If I am doing sprints or hill repeats and I feel my air start to go ragged and my legs drop like anvils and my heart rings like a big red alarm, I look around and find some big, still landmark in the distance; the tower of a tree, some silent beige house, and I rest my gaze there. I run at the beacon and I think, the tree is not tired. The house is not tired. It doesn’t care. The still, silent forms do not care. In this way, perhaps I slow my thudding heart; I try to achieve some stillness in motion. Maybe lots of runners do this. They become sort of irrational and pleading as they try to go on. Be the effing tree, I say. Be that free.

11. I thought I could show up on November 8th 2016 and cast my vote and help usher justice forward. But who cares that my electoral politics are opposite: it was people who look like me who allowed this deed, who see that it endures. White men and women. White women, some with swinging ponytails, maybe in athletic shorts and tank tops. In a visor and racing glasses, smelling like coconut sunscreen and sweat. Able-bodied women. Women able to take time in their day to run, maybe. Women whose babies are safer, from birth, than the babies of women of color. Women who—in a thousand ways—benefit from systemic racism and the permanent precarity of other bodies. Women with the merest, freshest taste of loss. All this unfathomable destruction to humans and earth will have been done to protect people who look like me. Me and my outrageous fortune. I run to those fireworks that aren’t coming (the theft is plain as day); the white establishment will douse them all, while the rodeo clown does his dance.

12. It’s Tuesday today and I’ve got a tender calf and an iffy tendon. My achilles aches. My psoas muscles, those body-long bands, feel taut as piano wires. Ice packs chill both legs; I’m on my way to shin splints. My step mom says that’s how I’ll fracture my tibia, if I’m not smart. Everything is sore from the chase.

13. Of course, I can’t speak for Shalane Flanagan or Des Linden. I don’t know what makes them tick. Who knows why they won those races. They are heroic runners, for one. Elite racers spend years learning how to be the best. And then, some days, it’s just their race to win. Certainly, if anger actually made a person fast, there are women suffering in some severely oppressed and under-resourced regions who would be flying. Given the opportunity.

I know only what sets me in motion, what urgency lifts my knees even as air is short. It has been that preposterous hope that I’m getting somewhere, that we will get somewhere, even as we—we supposed liberals, we desirers of equality and justice—seem not only to be running in an entirely separate event from the GOP, but also to be running the same tired track that got us here. I’ve been angry running, suffering in my body a little bit and a lot, thinking that someday I’d finally claim the stolen power I chased. But the end game for us is not getting more power. (Mary, you had never lost it.) It’s when people who look like me are willing to give it up.

Mary Birnbaum is editor of Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Antioch. She has contributed to Lunch Ticket and The Week. Mary was the 2018 recipient of Disquiet International’s Nonfiction Fellowship and a finalist for Chattahoochee Review’s Lamar York Prize. She resides in Vista, California with her daughters and husband. If you like, you can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum

Medical Freedom

It was the middle of the day on a Friday when the breast cancer nurse called. I’d forgotten she was going to follow up; two weeks before I’d spent a really uncomfortable hour in an MRI machine where they took biopsies of both breasts and then scanned them. A lovely radiology nurse named Asha stayed in the room with me because both of my arms had fallen asleep, from shoulder to fingers, and were becoming painful. I wasn’t allowed to move my arms at all, so she put ear plugs in her ears to keep out the banging noises of the machine, and stayed to rub my hands and fingers in an effort to make the situation a little bit better. The doctor thought she was was ridiculous, but she whispered in my ear that she was a Polish immigrant, and had seen much worse than him.

And so she stayed, and did her best. I already liked her, even before that choice. Before we’d started this procedure the doctor had come in to say that he thought we should just biopsy one breast, and that I should come back later in the week to do the second one. He said it’s easier to do two at once on the machine they have in Bellevue, an hour away, but he didn’t think I wanted to go out there. His faux concern for my time really made me mad.

“I have a job,” I said defiantly. “I told you I don’t live here, and I’m already in Tacoma, which is a huge pain for me to get to. If you’d told me this ahead of time I would have just gone to Bellevue, which is pretty much the same amount of difficulty as coming here.”

This wasn’t the answer he was expecting. Asha jumped in with an authoritative tone and narrow eyes. “Let’s see if we can do both today,” she said. “I’m sure we can make it work.”

The doctor reluctantly agreed, and walked away to prepare himself. Asha wrapped up my IV, gathered my things and motioned for me to follow her. We were silent until we got in the elevator.

“I’ve seen your chart, honey, you already spend too much time with us. I’m sure you have a life to live outside of here. My best friend in Chicago has breast cancer, and she says that to me all the time. She says they want me to spend my whole life in the hospital, but that’s not what I need my life to be.”

*     *     *

I’d thought it would be Asha who would call with my test results, but instead it was this strange nurse I’d never seen, who was apparently calling from an office in Seattle, sixty miles away from my town. She had a detached manner, and she matter of factly explained that they’d found cancer in my right breast, the kind of cancer one that doctors had said not to worry about, that it was fine, that this was just a precaution.

I wondered if this detached tone of voice worked for her, if it helped keep women from getting too emotional to absorb all of the information. I was writing down the words ductal carcinoma in situ, because I can never remember the official words for medical things. I also wrote the words stage zero, surgeon next week, and lumpectomy with radiation.

The breast cancer nurse asked me what my thoughts were, and I said, “Well, it’s not surprising.” I had a lot of other feelings, but I wasn’t going to get into it with her.

She hadn’t read my chart the way Asha had, and she didn’t know about the genetic condition that is growing pre-cancerous cells everywhere in my body. She didn’t know about my regular colonoscopies, my craniotomy, my abdominal surgery. She was just working through her list of calls, spending her whole day telling women they have breast cancer, that a surgeon would be calling them, and that she would be putting information in their online portals for them to read when they were ready.

I live in a small community, and my surgeon has been with me for years now. He was the on call surgeon in the ER the night I was there with an exploding appendix, though I don’t have a clear memory of his face from our first meeting. I only remember his authoritative voice. I was in the worst pain I’d ever experienced, and the ER nurse had just strong armed the ER doctor into giving me more pain medicine, because she could see that I needed it. I told Dr. Jones that I’d been told my appendix probably hadn’t burst, and he very practically said, “Well, they shouldn’t have said that. There’s no medical way to know that for sure until we get in there.”

My friend who was with me said, “So she’s having surgery then for sure? When?”

“Oh we’re going right now, “ Dr. Jones said with some measured urgency. “I’m going to get ready and meet her in there.”

My appendix did explode that day, and Dr. Jones took two liters of toxins out of my abdomen. He also took pre-cancerous cells out of my other breast. They sent me back to see him the week after the breast cancer nurse called. I didn’t edit my words with him.

“I’m really grumpy, Dr. Jones.”

“I bet,” he said. “You’ve been through a lot and this one is not fun.”

We spent an hour in his office talking about the options. When he told me that not only was the standard of care to have a lumpectomy with sixty days of daily radiation, that afterwards I’d have to get MRIs every six months indefinitely, and have a significant chance of recurrence. I thought my head was going to explode.

“It’s not just the MRIs,” I said. “It’s that they find something on every single scan that needs to be followed up on, so they’ll make me come back the next week, and the next week, and it’ll fucking never ever end.”

“I understand, I get it. Because this is the second pathology for you, and because of your genetic condition, you have the right to opt for a single or double mastectomy. The double mastectomy is actually an easier surgery than the others you’ve had. It’s only one night in the hospital, and you could potentially be back at work in two weeks. And you’d also be free from the follow ups, because you’d no longer need MRI scans.”

“If this happened to men, they would already have found a way to avoid these constant scans and endless follow-ups.”

“I agree.”

He agreed because his wife is going through the same thing. She is going for MRIs every six months to stave off a recurrence and he was starting to realize the toll that it took to be in these cold rooms, on cold tables, half dressed in gowns that are just the illusion of being covered up, waiting for tests and procedures that never promise certainty. Every appointment involves so much waiting: to be called back, to get an IV put in, to get the test ready, to be in the right spot for the biopsy, to get the notes from the radiologist, to consult someone, to consult someone else. He was over it, his wife was over it, and he understood why I was too.

*     *     *

That would make him the exception. When your life is at risk, you are supposed to want to be there with the doctors as often as they tell you that you need to be. You are supposed to be grateful for the life saving cold tables, the crucial MRI scans that find everything, and the nights in the hospital where they have to wake you up every hour per hospital policy.

In some ways I am grateful. Like a prisoner who is grateful for books and education, I am thankful that modern medicine gives me the ability to live my life and to do things that everyone deserves to do, like write an angry essay.

However, it’s dangerous to be an angry sick woman. Doctors look at you and say that they know you are scared, but that it’ll be ok, and do you want to go to therapy? You get written off, they’re less likely to listen, so in order to advocate for yourself you have to try not to sound angry, even if you have every right to be.

*     *     *

The appendectomy was the beginning of a cascade of medical drama in my life; they did a  colonoscopy and found dozens of polyps, I was given three different inhalers and multiple rounds of steroids to control a sudden onset of asthma, they found pre-cancerous cells and more cells. Painful cysts grew on my legs, hands, and back that had to be removed. Half of my face became completely numb, and they discovered a tumor resting on my brain. I kept saying that all of these things must be connected to each other and was told in no uncertain terms that they were not. Breast cancer seems to be proving me right.

*     *     *

For the first time in quite a while, I felt like going out in the world today. I went to Costco, and the farmer’s market, and the gym. I laughed to myself when I saw little kids screaming at their dad for denying them Costco samples, saying, “Mommy lets us! You are so mean!”

I enjoyed talking with the woman at the meat market. I bought tomato plants from a sweet farmer who reminded me that it wasn’t time to put them outside yet. I rolled my eyes at the pretentious folks working to make their weekend dinners just so, and made jokes with strangers about how the whole town was out in the sun, which we thought might never be coming back. I smiled politely at the grumpy old man who complained about the packed parking lot when he cursed at the out of state license plate next to us, “damn Californians ruining everything!”

Women deserve to be able to say that the burden of healthcare treatments can grow to be too much and that researchers, doctors, and hospitals should prioritize our lives. Medical research has unearthed amazing discoveries. They can give us our lives back. I’m not sure I should have to have a double mastectomy in order to live my life. But unlike a lot of other women, I have that choice and I have the health insurance to cover it, so that’s what I’m going to do. Being able to go to the farmer’s market is not too much to ask.

Emma Margraf is a recent graduate of Antioch University’s MFA program. She lives in Olympia, Washington where she just rescued a kitten, chases after the neighbor’s stray chickens, and enjoys watching reruns of Buffy.

 

Not So Random Thoughts About Light, Dark and Hope

 I took BART into San Francisco to do my writing work today. It was late morning so the train was fairly empty. I sat down, pressed my earphones in, and listened to music while I rode from the East Bay into the City. That train line stays above ground for most of the way, dips underground through downtown Oakland and pops back up to the light and into the elevated West Oakland Station with it’s view of the long necked cargo cranes dotting the edge of the port. The train then takes another dive under the bay all the way into downtown San Francisco where I get off. Perhaps it was the in and out from darkness into light that made me think of the word illuminate. Underground, there is nothing but black outside. Only the inside of the train is visible. The windows, like giant dead televisions screens, show nothing but our own reflection.

Confined by darkness, fear can creep in. I’m reminded of that when I see the solemn faces of those around me: a slim Asian man, wearing dark slacks and a starched rose colored shirt, clutches a Federal Express envelope tight to his chest and his lips move ever so slightly, as if reminding himself of something. A woman, with long hair and sad eyes stares out the window even when there is nothing to see. Another man, wearing bicycle shorts and a loose “Osama was a Dodger Fan” tee shirt, holds his bike and struggles to maintain his balance while holding his bike as the train moves. Two construction workers with their lunch pails on their lap, wearing steel toed boots, converse in Spanish. Fortunately neither the train, nor the people in it remain in the dark for long. The train moves fast so that it’s easier to withstand the black, knowing that as long as the train keeps moving, it’ll soon come up again. There is palpable relief in the passenger’s faces when the train surfaces. I can only imagine the effects of what sustained darkness might bring.

*      *     *

There is certain duplicity in the word illuminate. On the one hand, bringing into the light implies acknowledgement and a sense of self-discovery that can lead to a more righteous path. On the other it can mean exposing invisible, often terrible things. Either way, there had been a general lack of light, of illumination, which up to now had made truth elusive. But lately, it’s beginning to feel as if the train is making its way out of the dark. Patriarchy and racism—in all its forms—are just a couple of the truths that have sprung from the shadows that once provided them safe haven, and brought them to light.

Yet truth is malleable. A group of people can witness the same event and describe totally different versions of it. And they’re all true. I attended a talk by Lydia Yuknavich at the Bay Area Book Festival last week and someone asked her just how close to the ‘truth’ her memoir, The Chronology of Water, might have been, and how close does it need to be when writing memoir, historical fiction or even fiction. Her answer was, “We mustn’t be bound by the tyranny of truth.” It’s a compelling statement. She believes our imagination must be free to roam, and we mustn’t be preoccupied by wanting or feeling bound to tell what others perceive to be the ‘true’ story. In the end it is only the truth in the eyes of one, the writer.

We have a tendency to condemn or praise based on our own versions of truth. In these troubled times, we have come to a place where for some, the view of the world has been reduced to us versus them. We fail to understand that as humans, we share the same traits. We all make choices and move forward to live our lives certain in the knowledge that whatever direction taken is justified and right. That is, until we find out we may have been wrong. To admit we might have traveled the wrong path may be perceived as squandering the value of whatever life we’ve lived. It makes it difficult for anyone to admit the error of the decisions they’ve made and relinquish their pride. I know I have that problem. I’m stubborn and it’s difficult for me to admit when I’m wrong. Fortunately, there are those that have the humility and the courage (terms I believe should always be together) to make a correction mid-course.

*      *     *

 The men accused of assault and sexual harassment, sparking the powerful #MeToo movement, found their exposure damning and undesired. It’s their reaction that troubles me. I’ve heard few admissions of guilt or remorse from any of them. Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, all seem to be reading carefully prepared statements, probably written by their attorneys, voiced in a half-hearted “I’m-reading-this-because-I-have-to-in-order-to-not-get-sued-or-go-to-jail” voice. I suppose I look at illumination as something that resonates with wisdom gained. I wonder, when I hear these men strain to admit guilt or complicity, whether they’ve gained any such insight. I wonder how many men have stopped to think about their own lives in that context.

On the other hand, not only those who espouse it but also those who oppose it seem glad that the prevalent racism we’re seeing today, is exposed. Bringing the issue to light leaves us with no choice but to confront it. Maybe now we can discuss it openly. I’d say condemn it, as racism in the absolute sense has no redeeming quality, but that declaration avoids open debate. Racism won’t go away by simply declaring it wrong. We can all be blind to our own biases. So it’s important to understand its origins. Those origins can vary widely from person to person. It’s an issue that must be debated one person at a time. Racism is a form of hatred. And that hatred stems from fear, but it can also stem from ignorance. So the question is, what are they afraid of? If they’re simply following the words that previous generations preached, we must ask, why are they unable to challenge those long held opinions? What is it about their constitution that prevents them from simply questioning? Or is it just the result of living in a sustained darkness of mind?

As the train pulls out from the underground tube, it also reminds me of how difficult and traumatic birth is, for all of us. Nothing can prove to be more shocking to a life that has yet to comprehend right from wrong, or developed a consciousness, than to be forcibly pushed out from the womb, into the blinding light. Our first violent experience is anchored on the transition from darkness of the womb to light of the outside world. Newborns scream and cry in fear of the unknown, of that which it has never seen or experienced. When I think about that I imagine their loud cries and screams are like those we hear today in the collision between those people that seek the light, who seek justice and fairness versus those that fight to remain in the shadows. I think that perhaps that might signal a rebirth. A rebirth of our communities, and of our country. At the very least it alerts us of things won’t remain the same, and of the fact that the train will eventually surface and leave the dark behind.

*     *     *

An elderly lady enters the crowded train at Embarcadero Station. A young black man rises from his seat and offers it to her. She smiles, thanks him, and sits down. He smiles back. Seeing that gives me hope that change will be for the better. Everything about us as humans is being laid bare, and we need to recognize ourselves in each other. Only good can come from that, we’re all on the same train after all.

P.S.: This is the last of my blog posts for Lunch Ticket as I move on from this reviving experience that has been the Antioch MFA. I’ve written six posts: about family, about gentrification, about baseball and hurricanes. While today, there is much to fight for and stand up to. I wanted my last piece of writing to reflect the fact that we’re in a time of change, drastic change. But also to remind us not to focus on what divides us, but what binds us as human beings.

For therein lies our hope.

 

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

Octavia, How do We “Shape Chaos”?

In the house I share with five people, I spearhead the vegetable garden every year and it always causes me more anxiety than you would think a garden should. Collaborations are difficult and we are each so busy. Everyone wants to eat lots of food from the garden whether or not these foods are suited to grow in this climate. I research each one and consider where it should go, organize the years of old seed packets that inevitably turn up in storage, and purchase new seeds. We have too many seeds and too many wants and not enough labor. So much work goes into growing anything.

Early one morning in April, before an 11 a.m. flight to Hawaii, I planted seeds in some of the boxes. I pinched tiny seeds from my palm, spilling some and placed them in hastily made holes. In my mind, I flailed around in other last minute plans and lists. When I returned from vacation, I planted some more seeds.

Then the other day, I squatted next to the boxes, and plopped some more seeds into finger holes in the dirt. When I sat down to update my garden diagram, I realized that in some boxes,Ò I had sown over the original seeds two times. If anything grows, the garden will resemble my life plans right now: manic, impatient, and self-defeating.

 

*     *     *

My forty-one-year-old body creaks a little each time I squat over the garden boxes. I am busy with various teaching gigs and commitments. Too busy to take proper care of my body, I think, at least once daily. When I turned forty and for the following year, I felt like I was dying. Even as I earned an MFA and decided to marry my brilliantly compassionate partner, I felt like I was basically one cough away from death. A lost cause. Finished. I could not come to terms with the fact that time suddenly seemed limited.

Now at forty-one and a half, I have softened to my age. I feel like I am living, but I can’t say that feels better. Living is more exhilarating than dying, but living is scary. It is difficult to summon inspiration. Throughout my teens, twenties and thirties, I thought I had an infinite amount of time. This was clearly illusory, but such is youth. Time is limited. Every day I know that it is astounding that I did not die the day before. So what should I do with my time?

*     *     *

As I tunnel through each day, I teach my classes, cram in Buddhist meditation, writing, maybe exercise while listening to the news, my anxious thoughts create avalanches that bury me. Here is a map of my thoughts condensed into paragraph form…

 

Should I write a book? Should I build a career? Should I devote myself do activism? Meditation? Should I try to live inside capitalism successfully or should I continue to slither along its edges? Should I live in the city? Move off the grid? (Don’t pretend that you don’t struggle to know.) When every single lifestyle seems abundantly (albeit falsely) available and possible—everything is on the table—who should I be? Where should I be? How should I be? And what will guide me? And when I know my guide, will I have found my people? Will I feel whole?

Maybe you are reading and think that this piece of writing will culminate in an answer.

*     *     *

Lucky me, I went to Hawaii with my partner, a trip we had both always wanted to take. We were on Big Island just before Kīlauea began to erupt.

We walked on big dried mounds of lava. Some of it is ancient, scarred with petroglyphs from the first Hawaiian people. There is lava from the 1960s and lava from 1990s. With each lava flow that reaches the ocean, Pele, the fire goddess, extends the Big Island beyond its shoreline. She can’t be controlled.

 

We also snorkeled. It was my first time and the moment I entered the water, about the pull the rented snorkeling gear over my face, I panicked. What if water rushed into the wobbly breathing tube? What if the tube blocked? The knowledge that I would be so close to the surface I would have time to come up and pull the thing off did not ease the fear that my breath would be taken or flooded. I knew I had to get on with it and I did.

Despite the mandatory buddy system, Nelson and I lost one another immediately. When I surfaced to look, I could not make out their wobbly tube from all the others, so I submerged again into the bluegreen, hoping we would find one another as we swam above the coral reefs. Once over those reefs, I experienced my body weightless. Face down, the reefs were a rugged landscape below me. The breath––first rough and then steady––was an

isolated soundtrack in my ears. My body, at first unbalanced, tuned into its own arches and I swam.

*     *     *

Maybe you are thinking that this writer writes from a settled place, a cottage in the woods just past the beach with the tumultuous sea, where she listens to the waves from a safe distance. Maybe you think she found the path from the windy beach into a green and wooded place where she listens to birdsong in the dewy morning and the lulling buzz of cicadas in the long afternoon. That she figured it out, Eat Pray Love style. That she is meditating, publishing books, and having luscious daytime sex. But that is wrong. This writer is there on the windy beach, with sand in her eyes. These pages are just flotsam and jetsam in the tide.

…Pause…

I don’t like that narrative, the one where everything is a shitstorm and I am stuck inside it, nose to the poop. How about this… hello, I have agency. I am both a victim and victor and we are not lost. We are still alive. We are constantly shaping our present. What about the Octavia Butlerian take that we should be shaping chaos? How do we shape chaos, Octavia? More and more I know that it is the communities we build that are important right now. And that feels complicated. Most of my communities of writers, teachers, Buddhists and activists are struggling to move past our own histories of trauma and oppression. Shaping chaos seems to me like taking advantage of every moment as an opportunity. Maybe the opportunity is to act, to speak up, to put your body on the line, but also maybe to rest, to laugh, to heal, (to eat, pray, or love?).

How do we get free? Is it possible? Is being a catastrophic thinker a help or a hindrance? How can I be comfortable and still prepared for anything?

*     *     *

As I was writing this paint splatter of a blog post, I learned something about seeds. I learned that a seed will not germinate if the conditions aren’t right. That seeds hold out until they are more likely to survive. Uh oh, I thought. How many seeds are lying dormant in my garden?  How can I alter the conditions so they are more favorable? How much is out of my control?

What will my seeds do? Will they all try to thrive at once? Or will some come up and others lie in wait?

*     *     *

Now I will tie this mania up in a giant bow, the kind you see when someone wraps a refrigerator box and gives it as a gift. I think the thing about learning to be in my forties is about seeds I have sown. Many have germinated and grow wildly, others still hold out. There is an element to that metaphor that feels uncontrolled, like what we call nature. And there is a need to step in and do some weeding. This piece of writing, my garden, our survival in this chaos is asking us both to have patience and to take action. To cultivate. To grow up. Octavia, how do we shape chaos?

I owe my ideas about Octavia Butler, of course to Octavia whose genius we need, but also to the Brown sisters––Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown––whose podcast How to Survive the End of the World is helping me see a threadline through my own life. For a much better description of shaping chaos, listen to this episode of The Lit Review Podcast. Learning about the history of the Hawaiin people and islands kindled a new understanding about earth and nature for me.

 

Meredith Arena is a writer and performer from a place in New York City called Staten Island. All her writing is inextricably linked to her attempted escape from that place and relearning the lesson that we cannot change where we come from. She moved to Seattle in 2011 and learned how to drive in 2015. Meredith’s writing investigates intersectionality and the interior self in a world where things we hold dear are constantly being destroyed or decaying or both. She is the Blog Editor for the journal Lunch Ticket. Her work can be found in Entropy, SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal, Lunch Ticket, The Interdependence Project Blog, Lion’s Roar and forthcoming in Paragon Press. She recently completed an MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.

 

Green Card Blues

Credit: discoveramericacanada.org

It comes as a surprise to many American friends that I, their Canadian friend, have been stressed about maintaining my visa status ever since I crossed the border in 2009. “But you’re Canadian,” they say, as if Canadian is American. “Can’t you just get citizenship already?” as if I enjoy worrying about employment sponsorship year after year.

For a good few years after I got my communication management master’s degree in 2011, I bet I made some great first impressions whenever I’d meet new people.

Stranger: Hey, my name’s [whatever].

Me (smiling): Cool, I’m Nikki.

Stranger: So, what do you do?

Me (starting to cry): Barely anything with my visa restrictions!

I’m a pretty crier, so that’s fine, but the tightness in my chest and stomach, as I would try to explain the screwy US immigration system, exhausted me. And because all they had to do was be pushed out of a vagina or cut out of a belly within certain boundaries, I’ve immigration-cried at countless Americans over the years about how long and demanding and confusing the process is.

No, a visa isn’t the same as a green card. I can’t just work wherever I want with any visa.

No, a green card is not the same thing as citizenship. Green card holders can’t vote, and green card terms expire. And you can’t just walk up to an immigration office and ask the government for a green card. Work or family has to sponsor you. You have to be wanted by someone here.

You know people that just got married and have a green card already? That’s so great for them! Maybe I should have gone to marriage school instead of getting my master’s degree.

Yes, my mom has her green card through her employer and I’m waiting for mine under her family sponsorship… but since I’m older than twenty one, I’m low-priority in the queue.

Plus—get this—despite immigrating to Toronto from Manila when I was two and being eligible for certain visa categories because of my Canadian citizenship, my green card category is based on country of birth. Lucky me—Filipino citizens (along with Mexican, Indian, and Chinese citizens) have a separate, s l o w e r waitlist. If I was allowed to be processed as a Canadian, I think I would have received my green card after a *speedy* seven years.

Oh I still don’t know when my spot in the green card line will be called, especially the way the current president makes up new immigration restrictions on a whim. Can you believe it’s almost been A DECADE and I still don’t know what my future holds? What a thrill to live with so much uncertainty, eh?!

*     *     *

Despite not going to marriage school, I recently found myself in a loving and committed relationship with JJ, where we’re planning our future together with a liberating sense of certainty, complete with two kids (one bio, one adopted) and a vacation house in Hawaii. I credit The Bachelor for deepening my understanding of American courtship and allowing me to vicariously experience whirlwind heartbreak so I would not have to live it firsthand.

In early February, we were in Colorado to meet his family for the first time during their annual ski trip. When I had bounced from Canada, I was resolute on never setting foot in snow ever again, so as to not trigger my self-diagnosed homicidal-ideation winter-onset Tourettes. After all, despite emigrating from the Philippines when I was only two, I was and will always be a true island girl. But I have since discovered there are experiences in snowy climes that don’t involve tripping on black ice on the way to the bus stop or getting whipped by grey/brown slush from icy puddles when the bus whooshes by, making me feel so so murdery.

Our resort’s swim-out pool. My exposure therapy to winter. Credit: Nikki San Pedro

For example, JJ told me that we’d be staying at a resort in Breckenridge with outdoor hot tubs, so we could soak beneath snowfall. Outdoor hot tubs. Sounds like my very own Bachelor Hometown Date, complete with heart-to-hearts with the fam! I could certainly revisit winter to meet the future in-laws (mom, dad, two older sisters plus the eldest’s husband). JJ warned me that his parents voted for the president and watched Fox News, “So… try not to talk about…anything,” he suggested on our way to the airport.

But the ratio of drama to fun family time was rather low. Many group activities would’ve been cut out of a Bachelor edit or reduced to a millisecond of b-roll for being too obviously sweet. Us all around the TV, with JJ’s dad providing “whoosh” and “zoom” sound effects to Team Canada’s Moulin Rouge ice dancing routine. The *kids* decorating the living area and kitchen with homemade heart doilies and family photos the night before Valentine’s Day/JJ’s Mom’s birthday so she could wake up to a lovely surprise. Friendly one-on-one interrogations about my education and religion (two master’s degrees, and a Catholic upbringing just like them) while JJ’s mom and I made BLT sandwiches for everyone. The twenty-minute gondola ride above the snowy slopes with future mom- and dad-in-law on our way to meet the rest of the fam for lunch on the mountain. JJ’s mom announcing in front of everyone as we sat down to eat our BLTs: JJ, Nikki passed! And JJ’s brother-in-law confirming: I agree!

Rather, I’d imagine that my Bachelor Hometown Date footage would focus on the tears. After almost ten years since expatriating from Canada to the US, I thought I was past my days of immigration-crying at new homies. But during the second day of the trip, while we (minus JJ’s Dad—napping back at the timeshare) were out for happy hour drinks wearing the red and pink attire we remembered to pack for V-Day, my tears failed to get the hint they were not invited to the celebrations. Before our chicken wings and flatbread arrived, JJ’s mom casually continued our conversation about grad school.

JJ’s mom: If you have a master’s degree in Communications, why are you doing your MFA now?

Me (starting to cry): Because it helps me stay in the country legally while I wait for my green card.

JJ’s mom: But you’re Canadian. And you got your master’s degree in the States.

Through tears, I explained I studied Communication Management so I could get into project management at nonprofits—and in LA especially because I loved the idea of using pop culture to Trojan Horse some humanitarian values into the mainstream—but didn’t realize until after I graduated that many nonprofits generally don’t have the infrastructure to sponsor a foreign employee. So for nine years I’ve had to adjust my dreams of making the world a better place, switching status between temp visas, never certain if each application would be approved. And the whole time, my sweet, selfless mom has been patiently supporting me (financially, emotionally, spiritually…if she could physically somehow, I’m sure she would) so I could maintain legal status.

Immigration-crying: equal parts frustration and gratitude. And I thought the only thing that would bring me to tears in Colorado would be the wind whipping the snow right in my face.

As a Republican living in the South, future mom-in-law had a different set of immigration concerns than the ones I was used to, fueled by Fox News—voter fraud, chain migration—plus the classic They’re taking our jobs! Heck yeah, I’d take your jobs if I could. Bachelor footage would cut to JJ’s brother-in-law and eldest sister (secret liberals) tagging into the debate, explaining that her news source was more interested in raising fears than reporting on immigration well.

No—okay, you as a citizen can use a driver’s license to vote, but just because non-citizens can get licenses, doesn’t mean it grants them the right. And if they had the right, don’t you think the election results would’ve gone the other way?!

If only chain migration were a thing and that my Filipino-Canadian mom getting a green card through her work automatically made me a permanent resident instead of waiting ’til I don’t know when!

JJ has a job; nobody from India is *stealing* it. American companies have to follow procedures to make sure there isn’t a US person (citizen or permanent resident/green card holder) that could do the job before they can hire a foreigner to fulfill this role for the sake of the United States.

Despite being outnumbered in this confrontation, future mom-in-law was sweet to pacify my tears, commended me for taking the legal route, at least. I blubbered harder, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have the resources if it weren’t for my mom’s support. The students in South LA who I tutored, who have fled Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as a part of the unaccompanied minors crisis at the borders in 2014—they’re escaping violence and oppression and just want to go to school. How can they be expected to follow a legal path of immigration that many Americans don’t fully understand, with wait times longer than they’ve been alive?

Obviously, Bachelor would leave this as a cliffhanger: Will Nikki recover from this immigration-crying fiasco to marry her way into the family [and a green card]??? Stay tuned to the most dramatic season finale…

But this isn’t The Bachelor (even though they basically gave me the final rose at reality TV speed). JJ thinks we might have even been able to open Mom’s mind more if Dad was there to translate what we were all yelling/crying at her. Even through political differences, they saw how happy and healthy their son was with me—how I can help him dream bigger, and make those dreams come true (they’re already looking forward to visiting us in Hawaii).

Valentine’s day with the future in-laws (before immigration-crying)

Which raises a dilemma I never expected to be faced with and not sure how to answer yet. Not: Do I take his last name or keep my own (this is 2018 and San Pedro is such a dope last name)—Rather: Is it worth it for me to forfeit my spot in the green card line under my mom’s sponsorship for the quicker line under JJ’s spousal sponsorship if we wanted to get married soon?

*     *     *

One of my Canadian neighbors in LA just posted on Facebook that she would have a month left in town before she had to return to British Columbia: Time for goodbyes. Fuck immigration. (Or something of that sentiment). She’s been here for about as long as I’ve been, but got a green card through marriage. Because of divorce, however, there were issues with renewing her green card; if she doesn’t vacate the States for a bit, she might be banned for five years.

It’s instances like this that trigger my tears more strongly than the violence of winter. Someone who has followed legal procedures to live and work in the country, contributed to the economy for years, established friends—roots—can be completely uprooted for whatever arbitrary reason. Who’s to say if lotto luck will work in my favor when my next visa application is reviewed? Or when I finally get my green card (either through my mom or JJ) and then eventually have to renew it? Or further down the line when I try to apply for citizenship?

I envy how my American friends don’t have to face these issues. Something they had no control over—their birth—bequeaths them with magical freedoms in the Land of Opportunity. But I’m also grateful. I’ve spent most of my life existing outside of the US and I’ve seen how things (healthcare, education, taxes, everything) can be done differently. I’d like to think this same outsider view is what makes perspectives like Trevor Noah’s, Samantha Bee’s, and John Oliver’s so necessary and effective when shoving a fun-house mirror into America’s face in the post-Obama era. Growing up outside of the States, we’re well aware of how far America’s cultural influence extends; the biggest change we can make in the world is from within.

Nikki San Pedro loves words almost as much as she loves ice cream and travel. She was born in Manila, raised in Toronto, semestered abroad in Sydney, and has been adulting in Los Angeles since 2009. At Antioch University, she explores US immigration and health care while completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice.

Coffee Talk

Home Sweet Home

This morning, while having my Keurig coffee, and slathering extra crunchy peanut butter on over-priced cinnamon bread, I heard the 911 call made by the Parkland, Florida shooter a few months before he entered the school and killed 17 people. The television newscaster announced that it was “coming up next,” so I patiently waited for it through the commercials for Cialis, Mercedes Benz, and Living Spaces for their Last Chance to Save President’s Day Sales Event. As the commercials droned on, I stared out the kitchen window and watched my two dogs chase each other around the pool. I made a mental note to talk to the gardener and pool cleaner about what a horrible job they are doing.

It was cold, and the heater in the house was on full blast. I had just asked Alexa to add dog treats to my Costco shopping list. She told me that it was added. I smiled at how easy certain things in my life had become. How perfectly insulated I was from the world’s problems in my middle-class cocoon.

And then I began to cry.

 *      *     *

Lately, I have been struggling with the amount of hate and finger pointing that is taking center stage on a national, local and personal level. Each day as I wait for my order at a local café, watching others sip down their cappuccinos and crunch on their oh so trendy avocado toast, I can hear this hate spewing out from one conversation to the next.

“My daughter’s boss told her she looked sexy today, can you believe that? What an asshole, doesn’t he read the papers?”

“Screw, Trump, he’s an idiot.”

“That cop needs to be hung for shooting that kid.”

“Those policemen didn’t even go into the school when the shooting began, shame on them!”

Sip, sip, sip. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

“Why don’t they just take Cruz out and shoot him today?”

Sip, crunch.

Are we becoming a society of armchair dictators, complainers and judges?

Many of us we will never come near a gun. We will never know what it is like to be in harm’s way. We will never run a country, nor will we encounter true sexual harassment. But for some reason, we have become experts on what is right and wrong. Who is evil, and why—even before we hear their side of the story. Or, at least that is what we like to tell ourselves. If we are not indignant about one thing or another we don’t feel like we are alive. We have to take a side. We must have an opinion. And we need to do it immediately—lest someone thinks poorly of us.

In the perfect microcosm of my kitchen, I can easily tell you what is right and wrong. When I am sitting with friends or customers, I will certainly have an opinion about anything bad happening in the world. I may even curse the shooter, damn the police, and state what a horrible man he was for cheating on his wife. But when I’m in bed at night, or in my studio writing with no outside influence, I can’t help but wonder—is there another side to the story that I’m not hearing? Should I be so quick to take up the gauntlet and condemn the offender?

 *      *     *

Author, Age 12

When I was in grammar school, I was a shy, awkward boy. The less shy, awkward boys would always pick on me and occasionally used me as their personal punching bag. As a young man with a nine-to-five desk job, I had a friend whose boss who would tell work associates to find him and “send in the fag.” His boss thought it was funny. I’m sure the boys who beat me up when I was young thought the same. I had a female boss who would look longingly at me and invite me for a drink “after work.” I was afraid to say no. I was fired from a job, by a new boss, because I was gay and he wanted his friend to take my place. He’d “be damned,” he told a co-manager of mine if he would have a queer working for him. I remember being so angry about that I could have shot him given the chance. Luckily for both of us, he was in Phoenix, and I was in Los Angeles. And, I didn’t have a gun.

Were all of these people evil? Could I have seen it in their eyes if I looked really hard? Can a thirteen-year-old boy, filled with rushing testosterone, be considered evil for beating up someone he felt was weaker? Were his parents evil for raising him? Is a woman evil for being attracted to a coworker under her management, and wanting to get to know him outside of work? Was my new boss who was from the South, and who had been raised to be fearful of homosexuals, wrong for not wanting me to work for him?

While memory can often play tricks on us, I remember a time when society seemed more open to having a conversation about—and with—the person behind the egregious act. To try and find hope for that individual vs. instantly condemning. Then again, there were no social networking sites to help us form a global consciousness.

We talked.

Conversing, circa 2018.

Today, long conversations and giving someone another chance are seemingly passé. All we need to do is sit in our kitchens or cafés, while staring at our smartphones and tablets, to know everything there is about a person. If a friend—or multiple posts on Facebook agrees—we become empowered to draw a hard line in the sand. We tell ourselves it’s the way it always should have been. There is no need to talk to the offender. To understand.

Social Media is not necessarily a bad thing as it opens us up to a global community of support, especially during hard times. The problem is that our lives have become busy and we expect things to be instantaneous and easy. Decisions about people, who they really are, why they acted the way they did, and what society should do to them are now made after a glance and through a series of clicks, likes and swipes—in an instant. We don’t stop to think critically and form an opinion. To wonder what the offender feels like. To ask ourselves; what potentially caused them to act the way they did?

 *      *     *

The 911 tape was heavily edited, but what stuck in my mind were short sound bites of Nikolas Cruz telling the operator that he got mad and punched holes into the walls of the mobile home where he had been staying. The people who owned the home, in turn, attacked him and told him to get out. “I was just assaulted now. He started attacking me, and he kicked me out of the house, and he said he was going to gut me,” Cruz said. Then he broke down crying and said, “The thing is I lost my mother a couple weeks ago, so, like, I’m dealing with a bunch of things right now”

He told them he got mad because he lost a picture of his mother who had died two weeks prior. The family in the house, who opened their doors to him and his younger brother when the mother passed, said that he got mad because they took his guns away.

He called 911 because he was hurting, and scared.

I cried for the seventeen people who were innocently killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when Cruz went on his rampage. But, I also cried for him. His world had completely crumbled, and he was screaming out for help, but none came. I could envision my nineteen-year-old son, sans the involvement of guns, making the same 911 call.

Is it wrong to feel sorry for the person who killed 17 innocent people?

Nikolas Cruz (Photo: Broward County Sheriff’s Office)

As the camera panned into his eyes, I looked for the hate. I looked for the evil. I wanted to find it. All I saw was a scared nineteen-year-old boy who knew he lost it once again and this time fucked up so badly that no one would ever want or love him again.

As I stared out my window, drank my coffee, talked to Alexa, and mentally complained about the gardener and pool cleaner—I felt self-righteous.  When I was slapped in the face with Cruz’s 911 call, I was cut down a few notches. I had a line in the sand to draw, and it was getting fainter and much less straight. Would I have kicked him out knowing that his mother had unexpectedly died two weeks prior? Was his anger from mental illness, or the cries of a young man who had not yet learned how to control himself? Should he be held fully to blame because, empowered by the NRA, Dick’s Sporting Goods sold him a gun without asking a question? If Cruz was in my kitchen with me, watching the dogs run around the pool and eating expensive cinnamon toast before I drove him to his psychologist, would he still have pulled the trigger? Would the man who fired me for being gay, still fire me if he spent one day getting to know me, and I him? I will never know.

What side are you on?

What I do know is that I don’t want to immediately jump to a conclusion or deem someone as evil without understanding the person behind the offense. What brought them from being a sweet or precocious child to the point in their lives when they used their power to destroy another’s? Are they truly evil, or is there something else we need to understand and converse about?

Drawing a hard line in the sand is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes us think about what is right, or wrong. But no matter how deep you draw that line, tides will come in and wash it away.

Many of us live protected lives, sheltered in our nice homes with all of the conveniences life has to offer. I know that’s true of me. If there is something out of place, it’s easier to condemn the person who caused the problem, instead of conversing with them about why it happened, and what we can do to fix it. We live in a time when people are shouting: “Look at me. Look at what that person did to me,” instead of saying, “What gives, why did you do that? I need to understand.”

I’m by no means stating that we should forgive offenders such as Cruz, Weinstein, or even Trump. What I am saying is that instead of living our sheltered lives, maybe, just maybe, we need to back off from immediately spewing hate and try to converse with one another about what we can do to fix the problems. Perhaps nobody could have helped or fixed Cruz, but all the signs were there and were ignored. Looking back on my life, I can find multiple people who hurt me in one form or another. I’m sure that I have hurt many people as well. It seems there has to be a way to return to the days—pre-iPhones, pre-Facebook, and pre-any social media—when we talked with one another face-to-face, offender to offended. When we had to stop and think. When we tried to fix the problem instead of immediately digging deep lines in the sand just so we knew which side to stand on.

I want to hate Cruz, but now knowing some of his history, I’m just sad. I want to leave nasty notes for both my gardener and the pool guy. It could be that they’re just doing a lousy job, but maybe there are other forces at work that I don’t know about. So, for now, I’ll probably just talk to them, and maybe even invite them in to have coffee and cinnamon toast with me.

Sip, sip. Crunch, crunch.

Do these eyes tell you all?

Girard Parent

Girard (Jerry) Parent is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is serving as Lunch Ticket’s Flash Prose Editor. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from St. John’s Seminary College, and currently resides in San Diego with his husband, son, two dogs and one cat. He and his husband own one of San Diego’s oldest floral companies, Adelaide’s, located in the village of La Jolla.

The Ripple Effect

I’ve been fascinated with water conservation since before I could see over the bathroom sink. While my mother was brushing her teeth, if the tap was still running, I’d stand on my tiptoes and twist the faucet shut.

“Wasteful,” I‘d say. She’d look at me with a foamy half-smile and spit into the basin. Or if she took a shower for a minute too long, I’d stand with two gummy palms pressed against the steaming glass door.

“Wasteful,” I’d say, jolting her wet silhouette.

*          *          *

Getting out of my car, I stretch my legs at a gas station in Lost Hills, a rather humid stretch of central California farmland—somewhere between the sweeping coastal cliffs of Big Sur, where I have just spent the last few days hiking the lustrous terrain and flicking tics off my golden retriever, and Los Angeles, my hometown. After the rain season, everything is covered in a green sheen—even my car’s windshield, decorated with insect casualties.

After I shuck the winged barnacles off with a squeegee, I dust corn nut residue off my pants and bend down to fish through the dredges of the filthy car’s floor. As I hover over the trash can, both arms now filled with empty plastic water bottles, I see a sign in the intersection that reads:

“Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”

Past the sign, two vastly different strips of land flank the highway. The left side is a utopia of lush trees sprinkled in dew as far as the eye can see, while across the street, the land is brown and bald and never ending.

*          *          *

Sixty years ago, California governor, Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown, spearheaded The State Water Project, which moved billions of gallons of water from the wet Northern Sierras to the dry south, using various dams, pumping stations and a 400-mile-long man-made river. The relocation of California’s water has helped shaped the growth of two iconic cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the nation’s most fertile farm belt. In 2016 alone, 76,700 farms operated over 25.4 million acres in California, receiving an annual profit of $46.04 billion. But underneath the surface of fragrant nut trees and storybook vineyards, something ugly stirs.

In order to sustain the suburban and agricultural demands, resident farmers—and mainly conglomerate corporations—have resorted to trading in water. Not master paintings, but water is bought and sold—largely by and to the highest bidder.

In 1995, one corporate landowner, Stuart Resnick of Paramount Farms (more commercially known as The Wonderful Company), gained 58% control of the Kern Water Bank for around $30 million from the state in a legal, but questionable agreement. Behind closed doors and finalized without the community’s input, The Monterey Agreements attempted to settle disputes between contractors of the State Water Project and irrigation districts in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Since then, Resnick has doubled production and is the biggest growers of almonds, pistachios and pomegranates in the country, with a personal net worth of $4.2 billion dollars.

One study estimates that the totality of The Wonderful Company’s crops consume more water annually than all of the homes in the city of Los Angeles.

All of them.

*          *          *

For as long as I can remember, I have found solace in the outdoors—as a child, I recall pushing aside unruly, tangled hair to overturn rocks in my Southern Californian backyard, revealing their damp underbellies and the teeming rollie-pollie bugs underneath, with their artillery bodies hardening into balls. I carried them inside careful, sticky hands, hurdling through the tall grass and took shelter beneath the weeping willow tree, coaxing them to unfurl.

“What do you have there?” my mother’s faint English accent questioned—a California transplant, whose willowy form was outlined by the dangling green ornaments. I showed her my bounty: an open palm filled with scattering bug bodies, my mouth spread wide into a toothy smile, riddled with blank pockets where my baby teeth used to be.

“Can I keep them?”

She took me by the bugless hand, lovingly yanking me up and out through the leafy curtain. I followed the backs of her combat boots, traversing displaced stones and decomposing lemons, rogue tennis balls and clumps of knotted weeds into a clearing where uniformed rows of my mother’s garden roses snaked towards a blistering sky.

It was there I returned the bugs to the basin of the thorny stalks, where the cracked earth concealed the torrent of roots beneath it.

*          *          *

Across the highway, on the brown side, one thousand residents in East Porterville had no running water for two years due to California’s unrelenting droughts. As a result, families washed their hands and dishes with bottled water. They searched for places to shower on Craigslist. Though their water has since been connected, through a series of staggered emergency phases, water bills have quadrupled to upwards of $54, while the water itself is completely undrinkable.

To make matters worse, in neighboring Kern County, contaminants were discovered in 117 public wells in 2016. High levels of 1,2,3-TCP, a cleaning solvent and cancer-causing chemical associated with pesticide products, tested positive throughout.

The larger issue in Kern County involves the pumping of groundwater—an unenforced activity with even greater consequences. Aquifers, a body of permeable rock that can contain and transmit water, keep the structure intact; when you pull the water out, the outer layer compresses and the ground subsides, sinks. Landowners like The Wonderful Company are sucking the resources out of the ground, even if it belongs to their neighbors, leaving many farmers and homeowners with nothing besides dry, crumpled, unworkable land.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 is a legislative statute signed by Governor Jerry Brown (son of “Pat”) to regulate, enforce and change the dynamic of pumping water. Unfortunately, it will not be implemented for another twenty years.

*          *          *

I arrive home as the sun dips, tired from the drive. Deer skim the distant, grassy hillside. The next-door neighbor’s tree hulks over the front deck—leaves like catcher’s mitts stockpile in the circular pool’s center, clouding its hue like an eye gone blind.

Inside, I greet the two basil plants in glass cups over the kitchen sink. One is jaundice and paltry; clings on. The other bursts with abandon, projecting a widespread peppery scent. Still, I water the sickly one, prune its speckled, flaking leaves and thumb its limp stalk straight, as if to will it into its counterpart. I bring it out back to revive it.

After I attach the hose’s valve to the spigot, turn the handle and feel the churning water billow, forming a peristaltic wave—I drag it over to the small herb bed and baptize the wicked rosemary, sophisticated mint, velvety sage and the rows of blinking, cheery chamomile. Honeybees undulate amongst the tall weeds. My hands scoop the wetted earth and tuck the wilting basil plant inside—wishing it luck. Then I clip a couple roses from their tangled stems, holding the stalk underneath the fleshy bud, where my mother has taught me there aren’t any thorns.

The benefits of mother nature come without cost and we have a responsibility to protect and preserve them from those who weigh profit over human rights. We must become more mindful of what we waste.

Though most of my childhood backdrop remains: my mother’s garden roses, the splintered jungle gym, rollie-pollie bugs somersaulting past tennis balls, an empty space has replaced my shady sanctuary. The weeping willow tree has since died—roots rotted from insufficient drainage.

But will any of this matter when there isn’t any water left?

As I drop the roses into a vase, the retriever laps from her bowl in rhythmic clicks. She looks up at me with a glistening nose, paints the kitchen floor with droplets. Parched as well, I open the refrigerator door and past the canned roasted red peppers, marinating artichoke hearts, cornichons, Greek pepperoncinis, pasture-raised organic eggs, corn tortillas and strawberry jam, is a clear bottom shelf, sanitized in translucence and lined with dozens of:

One-liter plastic water bottles.

Brand, Fiji.

Product of, The Wonderful Company.

Lily Semel is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised. She serves as Co-Lead CNF Editor at Lunch Ticket. She no longer drinks Fiji water. Her mother, Jane, is replanting the weeping willow tree.

Transplant

I recently made a list of things I have done in the past ten months and seventeen days.

Exactly ten months and seventeen days ago, I woke up in my apartment in Indianapolis to a loud thunderstorm and with a killer flu. Coincidentally, this was the day that I was supposed to move to Los Angeles all on my own. The day before I had graduated from Butler University. My family and best friend William had traveled from Illinois to Indianapolis to say goodbye before I left. I had whittled down my earthly possessions down to two small suitcases and a tote bag. My senior year apartment was empty of decorations and clothes. All that was left behind were the white, bare walls where my posters used to hang. Everything else I owned had been donated or tossed. All I had to do now was get myself to the airport and manage to get on a plane for the first time, both with the flu and without proper ID.

You see, my move to LA was very much spur of the moment. As the months of my senior year went by, I realized shit was getting real. I was constantly being asked what my “post grad” plan was by friends and family.  I knew I had wanted to leave Indianapolis, but not for any significant reason. By the time April rolled around, I responded to a craigslist advertisement:

Photo by Tom Benson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Seeking young gal to live in HOLLYWOOD with three other gals. Only $500 a month, best deal in town!

I wanted a challenge. I wanted to be a bit reckless. I’ve always had a fear of failure as a kid. The fear paralyzed me, I stopped trying new things and played it safe. But as I spoke to the leaser about the open bed it took little time to convince me, even without seeing the place in person. I was buzzing with excitement once everything was paid for and I got a package in the mail containing my lease agreement and apartment keys. I then loved to humble brag to others when they would undoubtedly ask once more about my post-grad plans. Oh it’s no big deal but I’m moving to Hollywood. It was something I had done on my own volition. It was a leap of faith.

  *     *     *

I never got a driver’s license, not in high school or college. All I had on me, that day at the airport in Indiana, was a temporary ID with a black and white photo of my dumb face on it. I was sweating nervously as I got to the airport fearing I wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. After figuring out how to check my bags, I made my way to the line to get inspected by the TSA. When I opened up that folded paper temporary ID, the guard immediately huffed and said “You need to take care of this before your flight ma’am.” I was still soaking wet from the downpour outside, and leaking various fluids from my nostrils and eyes. I could tell he took pity on me, watching me tear up and blow my nose on some crusty tissue. After an intense pat down and search, he let me through to my gate.

There is nothing more terrible than having the flu on the plane. As I got on my connection to LA from Chicago, I felt my ears pop and suddenly I could only hear my own labored breathing. Woosh, woosh. It sounded like the humming of the engine was inside I was out of tissues, my nose was chapped red and once we landed I was dripping in sweat. I dragged my suitcases and bag through the crowded airport and stepped foot into LA weather. It was stiflingly hot and dry. I was miserable, sweaty and tired. But loving it.

Photo by Wade Rockett (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the past ten months and seventeen days, I’ve moved 4 times since I landed here. I lived on Yucca street, right next to a 7-Eleven and just down the block from Capital Records. The place looked like a converted motel, and when I got there I was almost worried I fell victim to a trafficking scam due to the peeling paint, broken windows, and the rusted gate that never completely locked shut. My apartment looked way smaller than it did in the photos I was sent. It was a studio with three twin beds on the floor with curtains separating the spaces. The bed was clean, however and the floor was freshly mopped with a bucket of bleach courtesy of my new leaser. That would be the cleanest I would ever see that place. I remember the first thing one of my new roommates said to me: “if a guy comes here and starts asking about me, tell him I moved, he’s my stalker.” I lived there from May to the end of July of 2017.

Within the first two weeks of moving, I had been on a date with a guy named Levi who I really started to like. After a month of us dating, I was also surprised with a job offer at Starbucks in Hollywood. As I walked to work every day (and started to hate tourists with a burning passion), I met a guy named Matt and his girlfriend Rachel. They stopped me a few times after work to sit and chat. Overtime, we became friends and I learned that my new boyfriend went to school with Rachel. I felt it was serendipitous, and giving them the opportunity to reconnect made me feel like the universe was trying to tell me something.

Photo by Yohann Aberkane (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I believe that you should be careful what you wish for. I moved in with my new friends in August to escape the…conditions of my Yucca street apartment. Between the black mold and rats, I was ready for a change of scenery. I moved in with my new friends and switched my location from Hollywood to North Hills in the valley. I lived there from August to December. But as the months went on, I experienced a few health problems. I felt more and more depressed and I lived off $100 a month thanks to my hours being cut at Starbucks. I felt incredibly stuck in a shit situation. Thanks to my then boyfriend’s efforts, “you need to find your purpose again” I applied to school to get my MFA in Creative Writing. I wanted to get my life back on track. Getting my acceptance letter was like finally finding stability. Thanks to a combination of those things, I had to once again move to be closer to school.

  *     *     *

Moving to Culver City with my friends John and Chelsea was the best decision I ever made. It was also the hardest. I was on the verge of a break up with my boyfriend, quit my job at Starbucks to start school, and now I was sleeping on John and Chelsea’s couch. I was and still am forever grateful for their kindness and support during that whole time. I was finding my purpose at school while fighting through my depression. I faced the risk of homelessness as plans kept changing and my Chelsea’s lease on her apartment was coming ever closer. It was hard to juggle my new work study position at school and also helping my friends move out.  It was January, a week before I had to leave John and Chelsea’s apartment when I found the place I am currently living. It’s a shared living duplex, each level with 10 rooms room with one or two bunk beds in South LA. I now have a shit ton of housemates, a clean living environment, and it’s fairly affordable. My mental health is getting taken care of, I am I recently wrote out a list of what I had done in the past ten months and seventeen days, it reads:

I loved and lost a boyfriend

I survived a health crisis

I moved at moment’s notice four times

I had a falling out with friends

I started school and made new ones

I grew up

When May 9th rolls around again, I’m gonna celebrate the same way I did when I moved here. Eating some Panda Express, calling my parents, and looking forward to what I’ll have to say about next year.

  Noel Ortega loves sarcasm, podcasts, and memes almost as much as she loves writing. She was born in Illinois but considers Los Angeles her true home. Trying this whole “grown up” thing while completing a masters in creative writing.

Word Vomit: My Sacrifice to the Gods

Where is the most public place you’ve puked?

With this year’s especially infectious flu season, I’ve found that sharing war stories of vomit (and some might say valor) can be especially inspirational. Physically and verbally, illness is purged from the system. From hurling and humiliation, we find humor in our humanity. Or, at the very least, a momentary distraction from the bodily forces that make us feel like we’re dying.

Revulsion, then relief.

*     *     *

For a decade, my answer to that question was on Toronto public transit during my senior year of undergrad, sometime during winter, either late 2007 or early 2008. I only remember it was winter because my black knee-high microsuede boots—freshly crusted in salt stains from unsuccessful snow removal attempts—then became freshly showered with regurgitated soju mixed with whatever else I probably didn’t eat enough of.

The Red Rocket/Vomit Comet
Photo by Frank Lemire

I was on the 512 westbound streetcar with Dan, the only one in my TV production classes who lived in my neighborhood at the west end of Toronto. We were just a few stops away from ours—the end of the line—and we knew from prior experience that they shut down vehicles after vomiting incidents (the Red Rocket is the TTC’s official nickname; the Vomit Comet is its unofficial after hours moniker). To evade getting kicked off so close to home, Dan cleverly slapped his lap with his gloved hands to emulate the sounds of my soju-soaked ex-dinner hitting my sad boots—What puke? That’s just a sick drumbeat! The driver was not convinced; we had to vacate the streetcar and Dan hailed a cab for the last few blocks that there was no way I could walk—or rather, slip and slide across—past ice banks and slush puddles to get home.

That far along the route, we were the only passengers inconvenienced by my spewing, so it wasn’t super public. Only the streetcar conductor there to throw shade, along with sawdust he’d have to sprinkle over my mess to sop it up.

*     *     *

Whenever the opportunity arose to share sagas of spewing and commiserate with some pukey pals, instead of recounting my streetcar closure, I would borrow from my BFF Liz.

She was my first visitor when I first moved to Los Angeles. With her flight from Toronto landing late Wednesday night, I was eager to scoop her up at LAX and zoom across town to drop off my car and stumble over to Barragan’s in time to enjoy the rest of $2.49 Margarita Night ending at midnight. Forty minutes to spare on the Cinderella countdown as we got to the Mexican restaurant: No time to sit in the large vinyl booths—we rocked up to the bar and each downed four plastic cups of margs then walked home with my roommates whom we ran into at Barragan’s.

I was the only non-stoner of this group, and so the only one that did not do a gravity bong rip from the transformed two-liter soda bottle once they got to the kitchen. George, a man in his late 30s, visibly blacked out in front of us for a moment after his turn, before tumbling backward against the counter in slo-mo. “What happened?” he wondered.

“You’re fucked up,” any of us might’ve answered.

I forgot to take into account that Liz was still operating on Toronto time so I kept hug-attacking her on the couch once she crawled under a throw blanket and tried to pass out. Yay! Liz is here! I get to hang out with Liz!

Trooper that she is (and maybe she was still intoxicated when she made the groggy suggestion in the morning), she wanted to check out the Getty Center museum the next day, despite a rather interrupted slumber. I hadn’t been interested in fighting the westbound traffic to visit it on my own, but what kind of host and best friend would I be if I didn’t oblige?

Thank God I left random junk in Cory, my Corolla. Despite the straightaway across the 10 westbound, Liz’s guts took a turn. Of all things she could have grabbed, she puked in a two-ply Trader Joe’s bag. The paper ones that they used to give for free before charging 10 cents each. She puked on 20 cents of recycled paper that did its best to contain her former stomach contents. We made it to the museum without major leakage and promptly disposed of the impromptu vomit bags in the parking lot garbage can. Nothing suspicious here, Getty! Just throwing out some car trash after a long drive.

The Getty Center
Photo from The Getty

But that’s not all, no: The unexpected photography exhibit of genocide that we came across rather early in our westside adventure incited another physical response. Liz’s complexion turned as pale as the monochrome photos of emaciated bodies and mass graves. When a freshly upchucked Liz emerged from the pristine marble bathroom, she decided she’d gotten enough of an idea of the Getty and was ready to go home.

And again: The death camp pictures must’ve been imprinted in her brain, or she had a déjà vu once we got back on the 10 in the opposite direction, cuz she had to resort to the near-empty bag of Lay’s Cheddar & Sour Cream potato chips crumpled in the backseat of Cory.

I can’t tell you what smelled worse between the chip crumbs or the last of her barf, but I can tell you that they didn’t help each other smell any better.

Good Canadian that she was, she apologized the whole time.

“At least you didn’t close down a TTC streetcar in the dead of winter.” I was too impressed and entertained that she yakked three times and managed not to get any on Cory or me to be upset. With the intoxicants exorcised from her system, we exercised moderation for the rest of her vacation so she could return to Toronto refreshed (the unofficial LA cleanse).

*     *     *

Liz’s trilogy of pukes was at the forefront of my mind, keeping me company during my own travel spews when I was recently in Mexico City.

I had spent the day under the sun on the Xochimilco Canals with my friend Jenn, checking out the floating markets and graduation celebrations: rowboaters hawking elotes and cervezas along the river; technicolor gondolas hitched together—five wide by three deep—to accommodate dozens and dozens of teenagers shaking their booties to bassy beats; a few lucky tourists that managed to delight in the quaintness of the creepy dolls that resided on la Isla de las Muñecas by the riverside.

For dinner we stopped in Jetson’s Potato & Beer, a Jetson’s theme stuffed potato joint not far from our Airbnb in Roma-Condesa (not to be confused with Papa Guapa, a knock-off restaurant just a few blocks away). The sun must’ve zapped my energy to eat, or maybe the choco-banana malteada I finished before the arrival of my meal rendered me unable to take more than a couple bites of the Chorizteroide potato I mainly ordered because it had chimichurri in it. Luckily our Airbnb had a full fridge, perfect for storing leftovers. If only I remembered to use it.

The Chorizteroide potato (prior to being left on the counter overnight)

I have a habit of leaving food out for a while if I plan on eating it soon instead of putting it in the fridge immediately and then having to microwave it, an act that would change the composition of the meal. (Who likes potatoes that are both dried out and damp? No one.) Never have problems doing this with pizza or noodles after a few hours. Probably definitely not a great idea to do with chorizo argentino con salsa chimichurri y queso fundido atop a likely heavily buttered potato forgotten on the counter overnight.

I only took one forkful before walking out the door the next day, thinking, Well if I’m going to be hiking today then I should have something in my stomach. That one congealed bite appropriately discouraged me from eating anymore of it, and instead we had Lobo, our Uber-driver-turned-tour-guide, take us to Starbucks. Whenever I don’t have an appetite, a green tea frappuccino is pleasantly chilling enough for me to consume so I at least have sugary energy to burn. I was able to finish a grande-sized frapp before reaching Teotihuacan.

We arrived early enough to beat most of the major crowds just as the art market stalls lining the path to the ruins were getting set up for the day. I was in no state to decipher whether the growl I heard was an actual jungle cat or one of the dozens of vendors selling bird-calling and jaguar-growling pipes at the foot of the pyramid.

I’ve hiked to the San Antonio ski hut thrice and summitted to the top of Mt Baldy twice. These steps are nothing. A mantra I repeated as my sweaty grip on the ropey handrail pulled me up the Piramide del Sol, into the rising sun. Closer to the Gods, I prayed for my nausea to be gone.

It probably wasn’t a half hour of Lobo’s jokes about ritual sacrifices before we reached the top, compared to the threeish hours it takes to get to Mt. Baldy’s 10,064 ft. summit from the trailhead. Once Jenn, Lobo, and I took a seat away from the walkway and stared off at something Lobo was educating us about, I knew I was going to barf. It was only a matter of time. I thought about the restrooms at the entrance of the park that we stopped at before making the climb. That was the goal. I told Jenn and Lobo that I needed to get down to the bathroom, and Lobo offered to escort me since Jenn didn’t need him for her pyramid selfies.

As we turned the corner just before the walkway down, I spotted the world’s tiniest garbage can. My stomach: Home free! My aim: Oh no! My mouth’s aim could not handle the richter convulses of the rest of my body, however, as I projectile-spewed the matcha green bile into and around—but mainly around—the trash can and on my boots (a different pair). Again and again and again. And maybe even again. In front of easily at least thirty others who were stuck at the top of the temple waiting for their turn to get down the narrow steps.

Lobo handed me a napkin to wipe the remaining green sludge rimming my mouth and splattered on my leggings and boots. Although my puke aim was not as good as Liz’s, I channeled her apologetic spirit for my descent down the pyramid. Sorry, Gods, for sacrificing my dinner on your temple. I promise I won’t eat questionable food again if you let me survive this day. We still had cathedrals and a convent on our itinerary, the religiosity of which would make my Catholic mom proud; getting a photo of me in a convent was the best souvenir I could give her. With the demons out of my belly, I just needed a little nap in a shady spot by the Teotihuacan gift shop to restore some energy for more touristing.

Teotihuacan

 

When I got home, I texted Liz a photo I took from the base of temple. “I think I may have an even more epic vacation puke spot: the top of the Teotihuacan pyramid in front of hella crowds today.”

Nikki San Pedro loves words almost as much as she loves ice cream and travel. She was born in Manila, raised in Toronto, semestered abroad in Sydney, and has been adulting in Los Angeles since 2009. At Antioch University, she explores US immigration and health care while completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice. She is a featured poet for the Angels Flight • literary west Poetry Salon.

Cartographer

I am in constant pursuit of an escape route.

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

Jessica: “Yeah. It’s called rape.”

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

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

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

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

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

Stop fucking chasing me.

I was angry.

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

The loop, again.

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

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

*        *        *

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

I am a constant work in progress.

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

Washington State

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

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

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

 

 

On Writing, Fathers and Sons

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

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

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

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

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

At least that’s what I like to think.

   *     *     *

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

Me with my son, probably 28 years ago or so

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

And I wrote again.

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

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

I was on my own.

*     *     *

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

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

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

*    *     *

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

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

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

At least that’s what I like to think.

*    *     *

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

 

 

Progress?

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

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

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

“Whoopee!” I responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DARPP-32, I Forgive You

I equate dogs with death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Fast forward nearly thirty years.

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

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

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

   *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   *     *     *

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

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

My DARPP-32: isolated af.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   *     *     *

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

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

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

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

I forgive you too, DARPP-32s.

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

“Pictures of your father,” Pool Wizard said.

Nodding, I said, “How true.”

Gertie and Timmy forever!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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