You Memorize The Way Your Hand Lets Go

Aesculus glabra: My father, a tall, fat-fingered guy with a stomach that fell over his belt buckle who used to hold my entire hand in his palm, rubbed his thumb against the smooth side of his index finger. He had been sitting in the beige recliner with his eyes glued to the television set. In the living room—a labyrinth he’d built with his own hands—a picture of the final moments of the 2016 World Series was enclosed by a multitude of signed baseballs and glowing amber lights. In the tenth inning of game seven, the Cleveland Indians sent Michael Martinez—Michael Martinez, the fucking bum position player who rode the bench all year—to the plate to be the last man standing between the game staying alive and the Chicago Cubs winning their first championship in over one hundred years.

The Cavaliers were winning when the final buzzer rang and my father cried into the night, still squeezing my hand—curling his fingers around my knuckle like it was the rough edge of our lucky buckeye.

He’d left our family’s “lucky buckeye” in the cabinet above the television set. I don’t remember much of the next few moments, but the sound of skin scraping against his curled fingers was louder than the ball popping off Martinez’s bat. It was a ground ball to third base on an 0-1 count—another heartbreak added to the scrapbook. Dad rose from his chair and picked up a wine bottle—Chief Wahoo adorning the front—and placed it on the top shelf of the television stand, just behind a row of signed baseballs from the eighties. He bought the bottle for him and Mom to drink after the Indians won the ninety-seven World Series. But they didn’t win then and they didn’t win now. They blew a game seven lead—twice. “There’s always next year,” a war cry submerged in a bottle of piss warm vinegar that was once a delectable red wine—one that flowed like a waterfall, or a perfect jump shot.

Wine And Gold, Forever: His fingers meandered through the top shelf, looking for the buckeye. The Cleveland Cavaliers were up by one point against the Golden State Warriors in game seven of the 2016 NBA Championship. When Dad couldn’t place the buckeye, he sat back down in his recliner and grabbed my hand—my entire fist could still fit in his palm. The screen flashed against our faces and we couldn’t look away. The city of Cleveland hadn’t won a professional sports championship since 1964—when my father was just a year old. LeBron James—a kid from Akron, the King, the proclaimed “greatest of all time,” our city’s savior—chased down a California body, maybe it was Andre Iguodala but I can’t remember, and blocked a shot that would’ve given Golden State the lead. Dad sank out of the chair and put one knee on the carpet. He gripped my fingers in the same way he held onto those of his mother just hours before the game started. On a ventilator at the hospital, the machines in her room made sounds that clanked and howled like a roaring crowd.
The Cavaliers were winning when the final buzzer rang and my father cried into the night, still squeezing my hand—curling his fingers around my knuckle like it was the rough edge of our lucky buckeye.

Metamorphosis: In the seventies, Dad wandered around in the summertime from morning to dark, but mostly lingered near the neighborhood boys and played basketball on the slab of blacktop by the Hoover house. He had skinny legs shaped like upside down champagne bottles and drank from them with grace when outrunning everyone else on the court. In an account of my father’s jump shot, the local word of mouth claimed it was the sweetest in all of Trumbull County. “Money,” he’d say to me thirty years later when he’d drain a jumper during a game of “h-o-r-s-e.” Dad would stand on the railroad tie by the garage and send one of his crisp shots through the net and hold his hand in the air like Larry Bird. He had a bitchin’ follow-through, man. He placed his beer bottle on the front porch seat and stood stoically with his belly protruding out of his shirt. It was something to be in awe of, especially the way he could still cross you over and hit a step-back jumper without blinking an eye. Dad had a name for his over-the-shoulder shot—the reverse layup. He’d run under the basketball hoop and toss it, without looking at the net, practically behind his back. When I asked him how he could do it without looking, he said “as you get older, you memorize the way your hand lets go.”

Cycle: Before my final third grade peewee baseball game, Dad stood by me in front of our living room mirror and drew black streaks under my eyes. Under the revolving ceiling fan, he reached his hand behind the stacks of baseballs and pulled out our lucky buckeye. “Rub it,” he said, “for good luck and a win.” Placing the sacred nut under the curls of my nimble fingers, I rubbed it until static heat encompassed both hands. He gracefully placed it above the television set. Dad was the first base coach on my team, the Southington Reds, and played catch with me until the stars presented themselves above the roof of our house, launching balls into a different dimension for me to run down.

With the Browns down at halftime, Dad pulled our lucky buckeye out of his coat pocket and had me rub it for good luck. We’d never used the buckeye on a Browns game, but Dad wanted my first time to be a winner.

When it was too dark to see him, I mapped my way towards his body by following the sounds of the ball hitting the inside of his mitt. In my first three at-bats of that final game, I managed to collect a single, double, and a triple. Just a home run away from a cycle, I stepped up to home plate with dirt streaks on my pants and sweat dripping off my forearms. In peewee, the only way to achieve a home run is to smack the ball to the fence and pray to the ghost of Rocky Colavito that you can round every base before it’s back in the coach’s glove on the pitcher’s mound. I had never hit a homer before. I was never fast enough, on account of Genu valgum—also known as knock knees. But in my final at-bat, I watched Dad stand like Daedalus at first base and give me the go-ahead to let it soar. The sun reflected off his black sunglasses and his skinny legs buckled in the sweltering warmth. I looked at him and he smiled. With the first pitch, I drove a fly ball all the way to the fence, rocketing over the heads of prepubescent twerps. The rattling of the rusted chain-link echoed through the infield and Dad’s yells cut through it. Under the hidden cosmos he sent me around first and before I knew it, I was being motioned to round third and head for home plate. As my cleats smacked the rubber plate, I heard the roar of the crowd behind me. After attempting to catch my breath near the dugout, I felt the arms of my father wrap around my waist. He held me up to the sky—his winded offering to the baseball gods—and guarded me close. An “I love you” hid behind his lips as he kissed the top of my head. When our team went on to lose the game, I looked at my dad with welled eyes. “There’s always next year,” he responded as we walked hand-in-hand to our car parked across the street in the crackling Ohio summer heatwave.

The Rust Belt’s Sour Bark: The last time the Browns were close to going to the Super Bowl, it was January 1988, and Dad was sitting on a beat-up sofa with some friends. The team was one yard away from getting a chance to go to the pearly gates, but Earnest Byner fumbled the ball at the goal line. In his lifetime—what has now become our lifetime together—the Browns have made the playoffs less than a handful of times and never even sniffed the “big game.” We’ve spent the past decade-and-a-half sitting on our crummy living room sofa, laughing at a team that somehow, miraculously, becomes more embarrassing as each week passes by. The first Cleveland Browns game I ever attended was a Christmas present from Dad in 2007. He bought me two tickets and a brand-new Brady Quinn jersey—Quinn was our prized “quarterback of the future” who only lasted two years in Cleveland. It was under twenty degrees outside and we packed about four extra layers under our jerseys. We claimed our temporary residence—two plastic orange seats at midfield—and it felt like the most serene view in the stadium. The sun cracked through the clouds in the first quarter and the “Dawg Pound” behind the east end zone heaved beer cans onto the field, barking GO BROWNS over and over. With the Browns down at halftime, Dad pulled our lucky buckeye out of his coat pocket and had me rub it for good luck. We’d never used the buckeye on a Browns game, but Dad wanted my first time to be a winner. I remember the winding moments of the game and the way he stood next to me—his hands flailing around and saliva coming out of his mouth with every word he spoke. With a ten-dollar drink in hand, he howled at every first down and cursed every time our running back, Jamal Lewis, was tackled in the backfield. The light fourth-quarter snow coated his beard and he gave me his gloves for warmth. When Kellen Winslow caught the game-winning touchdown, Dad picked me up and I ascended towards the sky in his hands. We enjoyed that game more than anything else because, for once, the two of us didn’t spend a Sunday miserable together. He clutched my hand as we walked out of the stadium but there were moments where he’d let me run ahead of him—yelling at his sluggish frame to move faster because it was so damn cold. In his blue pickup truck he handed our buckeye to me, letting my tiny hands keep it safe on our ride home. I cranked up the radio, he burped out a combination of beer and hot dogs, and we let Bruce Springsteen take us home along the Rust Belt of I-77. Whether he was young or old, even on a snowy Cleveland Sunday, the sun still shone down on him—my patron saint decked out in orange and brown.

The Lucky Buckeye: We shuffled into a bar near Mollenkopf Stadium—home of the Warren G. Harding Raiders—before a football game. I gulped down a few root beers and watched Dad knock back a handful of Miller Lites. The neon sign in the window was half burnt-out and spelled BENA VIST instead of BUENA VISTA. A purple fluorescent streak painted my face as I let the carbonation sizzle against my teeth. The Raiders were playing their rivals—the Howland Tigers—and Dad was intent on seeing Daniel “Boom” Herron “run them fucking bums over,” as he colorfully put it. We climbed to a pair of open seats and settled in under the cool, Friday sky. The bleachers were loud, rattling like a broken metallic machine under us. Dad and I spent that afternoon surrounded by loud, drunk parents yelling at the refs and cursing at other fans and fighting over stale nachos. Dad almost picked a fight with a Harding dad just to get a little plastic football for me. It was black with SUNRISE INN PIZZA written in gold on the side. The cheerleaders stormed the bleachers with a bag full of them and, of course, my beaming eyes couldn’t look away. When Dad put his fist about two inches from the face of a man—who dressed in camo and was probably packing some heat underneath his sherpa-lined jacket—I couldn’t move. I’d never seen my Dad take an interest in “winning” anything for me before. I’m not sure if it was the bucket of brews he packed away before the game that pushed him to throw his hand up in the air for the ball, or if it was just my rosy-red cheeks eager for a plastic toy I was surely going to lose within a few days of getting. What he did was his way of saying he loved me and I was on top of the world in that moment. I, a chubby second grader with a missing front tooth who liked to sing Tom Petty songs in the car, was on the receiving end of a gift that cost about five cents to make. I held onto the little football inside my coat pocket as we walked tall through the parking lot, stumbling over our laughter after Harding completely dismantled Howland. I let go when we came across a string of buckeye trees poking up through the dry soil just off the lot. Dad lifted me up by the waist and held me close to the sky while I picked a buckeye off the tree. This time it wasn’t him throwing his hand in the air, hoping for a miracle, but it was me. I soared towards the sky beyond the branches like Icarus, thinking my arms could almost touch the sun, but before I got too close he pulled me back down into his chest while I grasped the buckeye in my palm.

 

Matthew Mitchell is a creative writing major at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, and has spent all twenty of his glorious years living in the heart of the Midwest. His work will be featured in upcoming editions of The Oakland Arts Review and Clockhouse. He is a recipient of the Gillmer Kroehle Prize for Creative Nonfiction as well as the Barbara Thompson Award for Fiction.

Notes to Self

“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

When you read this, I want you to know what is happening to you. People will say things to you like “Maybe that won’t happen for a long time” and other ways of telling you not to think about this, but that won’t help you, because it never has.

First, about the treatment you will try—they say it’s common to forget why you did it. Which makes sense, since you’re almost certain to lose your memories of the time immediately surrounding the treatment. So, for the record, here’s how you made the decision: you were standing in the middle of Target, next to a display of plastic organizational baskets, which were neatly arranged by color and stacked atop one another. You had been actively suicidal for over a week straight. Your hands trembled as you held the phone to your ear. Your psychiatrist was talking to you; you thought she must be a good psychiatrist, because she listened to you, and also, her voice was soothing.

“If I were you,” she said, “Personally, I’d choose ECT.” So that’s what you will do.

The empirical literature suggests that bipolar disorder is a progressive illness. Interventions, such as lithium therapy, can prevent the progression to further stages; however, when intervention does not come soon enough to the onset of symptoms, bipolar disorder will follow a predictable worsening course.

Yes, one day—maybe soon, I will put down the pen, and I will leave you. Maybe ECT will bring me back for a while.

“Late-stage” bipolar disorder is characterized by shorter episodes and rapid cycling (the mood episodes get closer together, with progressively less euthymic or “normal” time in between them), as well as sustained attention deficits and greater functional impairment. Research has found that bipolar brains become increasingly abnormal as the number of previous episodes rises. And, in its “final form,” bipolar disorder may cease to respond to pharmacological treatment altogether. This is what has happened to you.

When you saw your (new, young-seeming) psychiatrist, Dr. N, she talked to you for a long time. She said “this is very serious” a few times and looked at you with genuine nervousness; then she said she would make a call, and started to do so, and then stopped. She looked at you again, that nervous look, and said she would step outside to call. Your therapist would later tell you that Dr. N consulted with the best psychiatrist UCLA has to offer, thus, one of the very best psychiatrists in the entire world.

You knew then that it was true. You are getting worse, and you will not get better.

Yes, one day—maybe soon, I will put down the pen, and I will leave you. Maybe ECT will bring me back for a while. But not forever. When this happens, you will be hurt and alone, I know. When I cease to exist within our mind, I suppose that is like dying. I have always been characterized as a confident voice; yet I am face-to-face with an indescribable fear—I do not know what will happen to me after I die. But, I think I will miss being alive; breathing, eating, writing, living, even if you do not remember me or anything anymore, maybe in some way, somewhere—I will live on in you.

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

You wrote your tenth grade pre-AP English “research paper” on a topic of your choosing. You chose a topic that you knew would get you screamed at (or worse) behind the closed doors of your suburban childhood home (and it did!): transgender rights.

But you wrote the paper, and you put everything you had into it, because you were very stubborn and you refused to be broken. Later, for the final paper—it wasn’t actually the final, but the last assignment you completed due to your absences and subsequently vast amount of missing work—Mrs. E had you write your first-ever piece of memoir in response to The Things They Carried. You wrote about your relationship with Alec, the first trans guy you ever knew; and you printed it out and stapled it and neatly hand-wrote marginal comments for her in blue ink.

She cried reading it. You were proud, and from that day on, you knew you had power with your words.

Others were beginning to become aware of your power, too. Your college essay was about coming out. You were genuinely nervous about it (as you very much desired to go to college so that you could move out of your house), and reflexively said that you would revise it. Mr. M replied that it was already perfect, “like a glass of fine wine.” It was the only perfect first draft in your entire grade.

You didn’t have power over your life, but you had power over the page. It helped you cope with some of the other things: like how you were forced to change for gym in the nurse’s office, and then you’d always get in trouble for being the last one to gym; or that math teacher who openly and actively refused to use your pronouns; or the time you got an anonymous letter from some girls in your class who thought it was “disgusting” that you did not shave your legs, and that you did not look very much like a boy at all, and accused you of simply not “trying hard enough” to grow facial hair. You knew right away how incredibly stupid they had to be—it takes hormone replacement therapy to do that, and no amount of thinking will help!—and yet it was as if they knew exactly how to cut you, by telling you that you didn’t even want it bad enough.

Because the truth is that you wanted to be a boy more than you had ever wanted anything in your life, before or since then, and probably more than they had or would ever want anything in their lives, either. Even when that therapist tried to convince you that you didn’t want it, you knew that you did. You learned to lie, and to hide things. You learned to go places by yourself for the very first time—even somewhere as simple as the CVS on Gillette Avenue was a new frontier for you, and you were absolutely terrified that your parents would drive by and see you buying store-brand men’s deodorant with the $10 bill you carefully stole from your mom’s purse.

But those experiences are what made you independent today. You found a voice, you learned to fight and to stand up for yourself. You were strong. And you still are.

One summer, many years later, you were sitting on the swings in your backyard with one of the nerds (your nerds), Mike, smoking a bowl under the stars. He told you how, in high school, popular kids would ask him personal questions about you, like why you were so quiet in school. And he told you that he would always say the same things to them:

“Look, I really don’t know. He doesn’t talk to me or anyone about his past or the way he feels. And I wouldn’t ask him. He does seem sad sometimes. Personally, I think he’s been through things, bad things, horrible things, I think he’s had a life you or I couldn’t even wrap our heads around. Listen, because I mean this: [Author Name] is the strongest person I know.

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

You will need some materials before you read this next part: a blanket, a favorite beverage, and a box of tissues. It will be hard to remember these things. For many years, you suppressed thoughts like this from your mind and destroyed most of your memories; but I think they are important for you to understand why you are the way you are and to be gentle with your own personality.

They say she loved you more than anyone else in the world. You have never considered yourself a delusional person, and so you do not believe in ghosts or guardian angels.

As you know, bipolar disorder runs in families; it is highly genetic—perhaps more so than any other DSM diagnosis—and there is a phenomenon called “genetic anticipation” wherein successive generations tend to have the illness earlier and more severely. You will know most of this because doctors will ask you, as part of a routine intake, whether you have any relatives with bipolar disorder. At first, you didn’t know how to answer this question because nobody in your family had ever told you that she had a diagnosis; but you are comfortable by now asserting that, indeed, she was bipolar. She was your grandmother.

You remember—her house. You spent a lot of time there. It was messy, with objects strewn into piles in every room; a lot of it was (to your great joy) art supplies. You remember digging through her mountains of junk one day and stumbling across a barely-used box of charcoals—not an unusual find, and of course she let you draw with them. You did many art projects together. She was probably a very creative person, and she also loved to bake. Your favorite was her blueberry tart.

Most people recognized that she was eccentric. You do not know if they knew her eccentricities were signs of underlying bipolar illness.

Try as you might, you are no longer able to remember what she was like. There are only fragments of her left, short and nonsensical-seeming clips you can play over and over again in your head, but nothing more. It will occur to you at some point that this is very strange; after all, most people your age can remember (to some extent) being ten years old.

You think that you were very close with her. She was always the “parent” you brought to elementary school functions, and you chose to bestow such honors with care.

You were, as far as anyone in your family knows, the last person to see her alive. You think—not from memories but gut feelings—that she told you how much you’d grown up, how much she would always love you. It was Valentine’s Day. She gave you gifts, including a teddy bear; you don’t know what happened to them.

Your parents will insist to you for your whole life that what happened was an accident. But you knew things about her that even they did not know. You knew, and you have always known, that it was not.

Yes—she committed suicide. It’s okay to remember things and to feel sad. I have learned that “sadness” and “depression” are different things. You banished these thoughts and feelings for years afterwards, or at least, experienced them without knowing why.

You don’t know who told you that she died; you only remember waking in the middle of the night, scared and alone. The rest of those days are a blackout. Your family have implied that you had a mental breakdown—your very own first bipolar episode.

You could not go to her funeral.

Although you moved on—destroyed the pictures of you and her together even—your brain never returned to being the way it was before it happened. Your prodigiously accurate Asperger’s memory became distorted and dysfluent.

You are very much like her. We can call this a “gene-environment interaction”.

Your rational mind knew that she did not intend her suicide as a rejection of you—but it’s always been hard to feel that way. After all, she quit, exited stage right. You learned to cope. That’s what happened to your personality.

They say she loved you more than anyone else in the world. You have never considered yourself a delusional person, and so you do not believe in ghosts or guardian angels. But some people believe that the night, about two weeks after she died, the night you hemorrhaged—and almost died yourself—but, for some unknown reason, you woke up, covered in blood, red everywhere, your pillows were permanently stained—they believe that was her spirit, protecting you. They believe she protects you still.

I think maybe it’s okay, in this one instance, to believe in such things.

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

I had a Skype call with our college mentor, Dr. Pinball, a couple of days ago. Actually, my writing these letters began at his suggestion.

During the most recent episode—well, you sent him a lot of emails. You always have. It’s not like he doesn’t already know you or how you can be; Dr. Pinball and I have worked closely together for years. But he seemed to notice that this time was different, that things are changing, that the room we inhabit is getting darker and warping at a faster rate. He is, after all, a clinical psychologist—and a good one, to be sure.

I can’t explain exactly why we latched onto Dr. Pinball the way we have. It’s probably an excessive relationship to have with one’s college mentor. He is aware of this, too; so I thought maybe he would request that you stop sending him these obviously distressed messages. It would be justifiable to anyone. He looked thoughtful (as he often does) and said, “I respect you very much, and your work, and—well, you, and I hope you feel the same way. But I also have an obligation, an ethical obligation, as a clinical psychologist.”

Quietly, I nodded, and said, “I do respect you very much.”

“Well, it seems like maybe those emails are a way of managing those feelings for you—a catharsis of sorts—and I could ask you to stop sending them to me. Maybe it would make me feel happier and more comfortable. But that’s—after the things you’ve been through, in your life—that’s not the point, is it?” He chuckled kind of softly, maybe sadly. Dr. Pinball knows more about your life than anyone else.

“You were hurting and in pain, [Author Name]—but, this last time, the content—in the future, I have to be able to make sure you are actually safe.” He paused. “And I want you to know that I wouldn’t be having this conversation with just anybody, I mean, if someone else sent me emails like this, then…”

I looked at the floor, rested my hands on my desk because they were trembling and hoped he would not be able to notice this. I guess I didn’t really know what to say. The relationship we have with Dr. Pinball is not something even I, with all my gifts, can express easily in words; it never has been. He asked me a few questions about what he could do to help you, and how he could know that you aren’t going to kill yourself (or, alternatively, exactly when he would really have to take action). I agreed to write up a contract with this type of information, even though outsmarting you is very difficult.

“The good thing about our field,” he said (proudly), “Is that—you’re my student and I’m your mentor, so no matter how far you go—until, well, forever!—I’ll always be.”

I smiled—I did not cry, although it was difficult. Somehow, for once, we felt a little bit loved.

I do not know—can’t really know—where I am going, or how far, or how it will be when I get there. But the darkness in the room feels just a little bit lighter than before.

Sincerely yours,

Elliot

 

Elliot Gavin Keenan is a PhD student in human development & psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studies cognition in autistic individuals. (There are rumors that he is autistic himself. Fortunately, these rumors are true.) He is 22 years old. He lives with his cat, Tarot, who is not very classy at all. His interests include strategy board games, swinging on swing sets, and using italics.

A Life in a Body (With Breasts)

  1. The Blackening (Or That Time It Wasn’t Cancer)

 

My nipples started turning black a month or so before I hit forty.

Well, not exactly black. Not then. Not at first. Just—dark? Deepest brown? Existential crisis grey? Forty?

Is forty a color?

I ignored it.

That sounds crazier than it actually is—of course I didn’t ignore it.

The thing to know here is that when your nipple starts turning black, deepest brown, or even existential grey, the change does not happen all at once.

I probed, stubby fingers poking and twisting at each nipple. At the best of times, the cheap lightbulbs I settled on for the bathroom are depressing. They have a distinct yellow tinge that makes me look sad and sallow when I brush my teeth, a dramatic, poor art-film pauper trapped in a toothy suburbanite. The tip-tops of my breasts, perhaps blackening by the second, looked considerably worse under their environmentally friendly, yet affordably jaundiced glow.

No, of course I didn’t ignore it. I couldn’t. No one could. Not such a major change, certainly not such an alarming one.

Certainly, not right there. Not on your favorite bits.

What you do when your nipples start turning black is you try to ignore it. You want to ignore it. You don’t do anything about it.

You pretend as hard as you can to ignore it.

Our family motto is “fake it ‘till we make it.” So, I faked it. I told myself a lie. I told myself that the situation was ignorable. That my MUTATING NIPPLES were ignorable.

The thing to know here is that when your nipple starts turning black, deepest brown, or even existential grey, the change does not happen all at once. It is a creep. A transformation glacially slow. Just specks at first, specks circling the rim of the tip. Specks too small to be noticed by anyone else, even your husband.

Look down at your finger.

Point up.

Look down.

Imagine a speck of dirt on the tip of your nail. Or a fleck of brownie crumb after you have finished the last one in the pan. Imagine a hill on a planet. Imagine a moth on an oak. A small nothing.

And maybe you are not even sure if this is new, this fleck of brownie crumb. This molehill. This moth. Or the other one. The one right next to it.

Maybe, just maybe, your nipple has always been a little darker there, around the rim. Maybe these are freckles. You have freckles everywhere, on your scalp, between your toes, arms, fingers, near your eyes. You are speckled and many colored. Maybe your nipples are, too. Maybe you have never noticed.

You are almost forty.

And afraid.

 

  1. The Suburbanite and The Pamphlet of Doom

 

These days, a stylish pamphlet has taken up residence in the wooden bowl I keep on my kitchen counter—a catch all bowl, low and long, carved from a single piece of cypress. On top of charging cables and purse candy, an emergency flashlight, the wrinkled bits of paper and bobby pins and earrings and coins I shed when I get home is The Pamphlet—too big, too glossy, WAY too fancy for the rest of the junk in the bowl.

The Pamphlet demands attention.

If it were yours, it’d be all you could see when you step in the room. You’d wander to the refrigerator out of boredom, see The Pamphlet, and wander right back out. It’s a real appetite killer. An excellent diet tool.

You might even begin avoiding the kitchen completely.

Ordering in.

Buying a new cable to charge your phone.

The truth is, The Pamphlet is much, much too big and glossy and fancy for its job. Disturbingly so. Every time I look at it, I imagine some poor graphic designer nodding doubtfully as the client says over and over, “Can’t you make these dire warnings, I don’t know, SEXIER?”

Because that’s The Pamphlet’s job: Warning us fragile humans that one of the risk factors for hereditary breast cancer is that “your family has had someone diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50.”

I was in my early twenties when my mother was diagnosed. She was in her early forties. Roughly the age I am now.

The Pamphlet is not exactly best seller reading, not even in the self-help section, but it has friends in high places. Several years ago, Angelina Jolie had the genetic test it advertises. Credits it for saving her life. It’s the sort of endorsement you listen to.

I approach the bowl. “So, uh, just anyone in your family with an early diagnosis is a problem, right?” I say to The Pamphlet.

“Well, your mother is certainly a good start,” it seems to answer.

I pull a Werther’s Original from between its sexy folds and chew on that.

 

  1. Cornholio Behaving Badly

 

Let’s call the older gentleman who suggested I ask my boyfriend to beat me with a baseball bat Cornholio. There’s no physical resemblance between him and Mike Judge’s character, still the name feels like a good fit.

It is about a year after my mother’s diagnosis, a time when I am still thinking only in terms of before and after, and I have known Cornholio for nearly a whole semester when he says this to me.

Don’t worry, he’s joking.

He sincerely believes he is being funny.

Perhaps before someone says something like this to you, this violent thing he thinks is the height of wit, you are kind to him. Maybe you help him do his algebra homework once or twice a week, every single week, in the free drop-in tutoring lab where you get paid a dollar or so over minimum wage to be of help to anyone who needs it. Even annoying Cornholios.

In the weeks before he says this thing, this joke, you tell him a linear equation is a lot like ordering pizza—x is the number of toppings, y is the cost of the pizza—and that he can do it; let’s try it one more time. You are a math cheerleader (A meerleader? A chath?). Your job is to be the embodiment of the kitten poster—Hang in there!

In the before of this event, you tell the other tutors that he’s really very sweet, in his own way; you don’t mind helping him; he’ll catch on.

But here is the thing, in the after, you won’t give a rat’s ass anymore. And not just about him.

Cornholio used a cane to walk and he swung it to punctuate his really, really excellent joke.

The lab was empty that day. A lull before finals panic. He liked to stall at the beginning of sessions. To run his mouth, leave his book closed. It was hard to get Cornholio focused.

He did resemble the character just a little.

“You know, your tattoo,” was how he started, pointing to the ink on my chest.

I smiled. My tattoos are very visible, especially this one, which sits right above my cleavage, smack dab in the middle of my chest.

Let’s call it a lifestyle choice.

People see visible ink and believe you want to talk about it, ESPECIALLY with strangers. I don’t. I just like being able to easily see my tattoos, my own skin. No craning my neck. It’s always right there if I look down. Still, I try to be nice. Like an ambassador for those of us that polite society so politely calls “freaks.” A mission of peace.

Cornholio smiles back at me. His teeth are excessively straight and white. No air between any of them. Dentures. The smile he flashes is not comforting. Not because of those huge, perfect teeth, but because it’s one of those shit-grins people give before they say something they think is ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC.

His pointing finger hovers dangerously close to touching the thickest part of my breast. He isn’t even really pointing at my tattoo. His aim is off. “If you wanted attention so bad,” he says after that weird, grinning pause, that set up, “Why didn’t you just get your boyfriend to beat you with a baseball bat.”

This is how people talk about my body.

He finally drops his finger, chokes up on his cane, his bat, sets his legs, and swings it through the air.

Cornholio is nothing if not a real physical comedian.

 

  1. Fine Wine and the Art of Body Shaming (A Master Class)

 

She is older than my mother, dressed much better than either I or my mother ever has. She is like a fashionable window treatment, which is to say that the jewel toned layers that swing around her thin body are much too fine to be compared to any word as mundane as “curtains.”

She looks like money.

“Try the spring rolls,” she says. This charity art show is her baby. Though we have met a few times, it is all I really know about her—charity, art, and clothes that are decidedly not from Old Navy or Target. There is a language barrier between us, and we have occasionally had trouble understanding each other’s accents, but more importantly, there is a hell of a class barrier. We’ve talked very little before now.

“Are they good?” I ask.

She puts one on my plate. “I made them,” she says, adding another two to my little hors d’oeuvres pile. She takes a sip from her white wine. Graceful. Looks me up and down, adds, “I wish I too did not care how much I eat.”

She sounds like the script to a sitcom has been run through Google translate and come out the other side to stab me awkwardly. I check my torso for blood as inconspicuously as I can with a plate of food in one hand and a glass of unnamed red in the other.

I know I haven’t heard her wrong but can’t stop the “hmm?” from coming out my lips. It is compulsive.

“My daughter is like you. Age at least. Not so round. She is a dainty eater. Have more.”

Another woman joins us before I can respond, but let’s face it, I had no response. It’s the sort of thing I will find a snappy retort to only when I am brushing my teeth, the foam a little yellow under those cheap bathroom lights.

I have never met the woman who joins us, but I don’t think Window Treatment has either. She is also older than my mother and dressed in swinging layers, these more earthy and cheaper than Window Treatment’s. Chunky jewelry swings on top of them. Her accent is a deeper southern than mine, two generations deeper.

“Look at you,” she says, gesturing directly at my breasts. “Look at her,” she says to Window Treatments. Her friend walks up and Chunky Jewelry tugs on our new companion’s arm. “Look at those,” she says.

 

Google is strangely unhelpful. No matter what combination of search words you try, the results are unsatisfactory. Terrifying? Certainly. Weird? Absolutely. Gross? Without a freaking doubt. But, nonetheless, unsatisfactory. Nothing actually fits.

You want to pretend that surrounded by art and food and people, three strange old ladies will not suddenly start talking about your breasts as if you aren’t even there. But I promise you, they will. They will go on for a while. An oddly long time for the dissection of a living stranger’s body. Their scalpels curiously probe at your hips and tits and the pouch of belly you don’t work as hard as you should to hide (or get rid of). One may even caress the smooth fatty part of your upper arm, a finger nail’s width from your right boob.

If they were men, you would know exactly what to do. You have been handling men since you were thirteen. You have gotten fairly adept at it, if not always successful. But when women touch you. Talk about you, you are always flummoxed.

Of course, the women have also been doing it since you were thirteen.

No one at the art show calls you fat. But the thin crows flapping around you talk extensively about the ride of your shirt and the way you enjoy the meatballs on your plate. They have no problem saying things about the size of your breasts. “So voluptuous!” one says. “Even if I had them, I’d have to cover them up,” she adds.

This is the way strangers talk about your body.

Window Treatments nods her head and says with enthusiasm, “And look how much she eats.”

You gulp your red and remind yourself to lie still and quiet, think of England, and take it like a good girl.

 

  1. The Blackening, Part Deaux (Still Isn’t Cancer)

 

It takes me a year to make an appointment with my gynecologist, a year to say to the receptionist, “Yeah, so there’s this weird thing going on with my nipples.”

She asks me to explain.

“They’re sort of turning black.”

During this year, the dark spots grow, converge until they ring and slide across much of one tip, become a short, dotted line around parts of the other, then (miraculously?) some of them flake off.

Off my nipples.

BITS OF MY NIPPLES FLAKE OFF.

During this year, I convince my husband there is nothing wrong. Everything is so small, it is easy to convince him, until everything is not so small.

And besides, they are my nipples. This is my problem.

That is how I see it. And I do not want to make a fuss. If I let him worry, I will have to worry, after all.

Google is strangely unhelpful.

No matter what combination of search words you try, the results are unsatisfactory. Terrifying? Certainly. Weird? Absolutely. Gross? Without a freaking doubt. But, nonetheless, unsatisfactory. Nothing actually fits.

Forget the diagnoses, look at the pictures.

None of those nipples look like your nipples. It is like scanning the worst porn ever. You definitely keep these pictures a secret. Tell no one. Anytime you cannot sleep, you search for them. At three in the morning, you lie on your side in bed, shielding the light from your cell phone so as not to wake your partner, not to break the small sounds of their breath, and you look at the diseased nipples of other women and think of your own, mutter so quietly that you can feel the words fluttering in your chest but cannot hear them, your husband cannot hear them: “Not cancer. Not cancer. Please don’t be cancer.”

It is the worst hobby ever.

 

  1. The Agony of These Feet

 

I don’t begin crying immediately when the podiatrist tells me he has to permanently remove both my big toenails, but that’s just because I will myself not to blink or breathe or even move my head much. It turns out, this is an unsustainable strategy.

It is not fear of pain that drives the tears when they come—and boy howdy, do they ever come—although when he explains how he will use “acid to kill the nailbeds,” I am appropriately terrified.

 

Sex scientists are the sort of unsung heroes the rest of us rarely think about. And let me tell you, they deserve your adulation.

Let me repeat that: Acid. To kill. My nailbeds.

No, the reason I cry is a strange and exciting brand-new fear I didn’t even know was possible: the fear that my feet will look bizarre. And let me tell you, this wasn’t normal fear. It was full blown, hyperventilating panic.

Even if you are not the kind of woman who cares what her feet look like. Even if you hate pedicures not just because of the deadly combination of a stranger simultaneously tickling and stabbing your feet, but because pedicures take off all that hard, protective skin that allows you to walk for hours. Barefoot. Uphill. Both ways. On hot pavement. In hell. Even if you have goddamn warrior feet. Are good with their ugliness. Even if you have damn well earned your ugly feet.

You still may panic.

I call my mother from the car. Sobbing.

“He—he says he needs to—needs to—needs to,” I couldn’t get it out.

“You need to breathe,” my mother says. She is the sort of calm that a mother gets as she steels herself to find out her child is dying.

I sound like I am dying.

“Remove—remove—remove—”

My mother’s right breast has been removed for nearly twenty years at this point.

“My—My—My—”

“Leigh. You need to calm down. You need to breathe.”

“My toenails.”

Vanity thy name is open-toed shoes.

My mother, strangely enough, takes the whole thing in easy, peasy stride.

 

  1. The Blackening: Don’t Call it a Threequel

 

My gynecologist is perplexed by my nipples.

Disturbed even.

She says she doesn’t think it’s cancer. “Especially not the way it’s—” She is choosing her words carefully. Very carefully. “On both of them. Cancer’s almost never unilateral like this.”

I am without a doubt her first pair of blackening nipples. The confidence this instills is not profound.

In the days leading up to this appointment, I became convinced that she will need to do a scraping. The blackening has overtaken the tip or my left nipple, a scaly pasty, and this, I am sure, is where she will strike, scalpel pressed like a knife against a neck. “Your secrets!” the scalpel wielder in my head hollers, and I spill. I tell everything.

I’ve become so obsessed with this idea, that I’ve taken to repeating the word over and over to myself. “Scraping. Scraping. Skkrape. Ing.”

I say it to my husband. To my mother.

I say it to my toast as crumbs dislodge against my butter knife. I say it to the microwave instead of cleaning it. I work myself into a tearful frenzy. I am again the stereotype I hate.

Hysterical.

This reaction is, of course, based entirely upon my near encyclopedic knowledge of television doctors. And common sense, I guess?

She laughs when I ask, my voice all aquiver, “Will—will you have to take a—a scraping?”

She seems hesitant to even touch my breasts, moving her head back and forth as she peers at them from a safe distance. “No.”

It has been a turbulent ride, and I feel a mixed bag of utter relief and vague disappointment. I came here to be tortured in the name of medicine, after all. Both emotions are themselves fleeting. “I’m just going to check for discharge,” she adds.

Then she uses the word “palpate.”

It’s no scraping, but it’ll do.

*     *     *

My nipple problem is above her pay grade.

I get a mammogram.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

I get another one.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

Are these humans so jaded that had they not been told, my many-hued nipples would have gone unnoticed? Am I nothing special?

An ultrasound.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

Finally, I see the breast specialist. She is a gorgeous woman. She looks strong. In charge. Her voice is kind. She likes my tattoos.

She is maybe more than a breast specialist. A breast goddess?

“Will you—have to do—a—a scraping.”

It takes seconds for her to diagnose me with keratosis of the nipples. She is nonchalant. “It happens. Do you sunbathe topless?”

The last bathing suit I bought had a built-in skirt and fabric so thick and “shaping” I longed for something less restrictive that I might be able to actually swim in, like a good old-fashioned corset. “Nope.”

“That can cause it sometimes. But, well, it happens.”

Suddenly, I feel great shame.

What I have forgotten until this very moment is the scaly grey patch of skin near my collarbone. In my defense it is light grey, not the deep darkness of existential grey. It has also already been diagnosed by a dermatologist. Keratosis.

I confess.

“Honestly, I am glad you came in. I was looking at your chart. Your mother was pretty young when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

She hands me The Pamphlet.

 

  1. Nipple Madness!

 

Sex scientists are the sort of unsung heroes the rest of us rarely think about. And let me tell you, they deserve your adulation. Still, unless your horse has lost his drive, your ocean refuses high tide, your cowboy just won’t ride, or your genitals appear to be on what I am sure medical professionals call “the fritz,” you probably forget these brave humans even exist, much less that they spend their lives watching primates orgasm in machines for your pleasure.

Not even hot primates, if we are going to be honest here. Could be Bill and Pat from across the street, you know the couple with the trampoline and no kids? Could even be you, if you’ve signed up. You’d know if it was you, though.

Also, there’s a lot of math.

There are three ways the people I know talk about breasts:

Eye Candy

Baby Candy

Cancer

In other words, we talk about breasts as if they are an object you’ve been asked to carry for other people’s pleasure and needs and at your own peril. But that is not the start and end of all things boob. Ask the sex scientists, if you don’t believe me.

I have a secret, I am one of what those superhero scientists have found are somewhere between the 1% (Kinsey, Masters, and Johnson) or 29% (Otto) of women who can orgasm from breast stimulation.

Yes. You read that correctly.

It turns out, that nipples are wired to light up your “genital sensing brain regions” (Komisaruk). For most women, that means that their breasts function as a pretty great erogenous zone. And for an unknown amount of lucky others, they may as well be the on switch to Vegas, baby.

Your breasts are yours.

 

  1. There Are No Jokes in Nine

 

We are taking our nightly walk when I tell my husband that this isn’t just my decision. And though he disagrees, he hears me out.

If you get The Pamphlet, you will have a choice to make. You will have to decide what you want to know. You will have to decide what you do not want to know.

There will be a time before the test. There will be a time after the test.

“It’s your decision. It’s your body.”

This is not the way most people talk about my flesh. My meat. My body.

But it is always the way he does. It is always the way he has.

If I decide I want to know, and I have the gene, I will have three new choices.

Know and do nothing. Know and remove my breasts, my nipples while they are still healthy flesh. Know and take a low dose of chemotherapy every single day for the rest of my life.

If I do have the gene, it is likely that I will get cancer, but not guaranteed.

If I do not have the gene, I am not safe from breast cancer. My chances are just lower.

I do not want the test.

But.

Several years ago my husband called me. I was still in bed when the phone rang. It seemed like mere seconds since he’d woken me, said, “I’m going to work,” and kissed me. Seconds since I’d fallen back asleep to the click of our front door lock sliding back into place.

He tried to sound calm as he explained that he’d been hit by a car on his motorcycle. That he was in an ambulance. If you were listening in, you may have thought he was simply calling to say he needed his insurance card. It was all he really mentioned, after all. You may have missed what I heard: something was very, very, very wrong.

After, I learned exactly what illness looks like through the lens of marriage.

It looks like your own shattered body as you clean your lover’s wounds. It is worse. It looks like your own greatest fears in blood and cotton and antiseptic technicolor. It is worse. It looks like your love spilled out. It is worse. It looks like nothing you know how to explain. It is worse.

This is my body. But it would be our cancer.

It is the only thing I know for sure.

 

Leigh Camacho Rourks is a Cuban-American author living and teaching in South Louisiana. She is the recipient of the St. Lawrence Press Award, the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, December Magazine, and Greensboro Review. Her collection of short stories, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (Sept. 2019).

Waiting Room

It’s been said that you are only as happy as your most unhappy child, and I believe there is some truth to that. Lately, I am all about my twenty-six-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who keeps veering into crisis like a motorist drifting into oncoming traffic on a highway. For instance, Phoebe and I recently visited the Emergency Room. This was on the after-hours advice of the doctor on call with our GP. Phoebe had told him that she was having trouble breathing, she was dizzy, she couldn’t feel her hands and her legs didn’t work right. She told him she hurt all over.

At the admitting desk, a flamboyant young man and an even younger woman with a volunteer tag asked Phoebe what issue brought her to the ER. “A broken heart?” Phoebe suggested. A nine-year relationship had ended.  Phoebe was entered in the system and we were sent around the corner to the noncontagious area to wait for someone to see her. I sat next to a guy about thirty years old in a ball cap with a gauze bandage on his left thumb that gave it the dimensions of an ear of corn. Volunteer Girl came in and began to quiz Phoebe. Pain in the left arm? A crushing feeling? No, no. I told her. Nothing like angina or anything like that. No need to get the paddles and clear. A broken heart. Volunteer Girl seemed relieved she would not have to write up an incident report and she returned to the front desk. Phoebe turned to me. “That’s a real thing, you know. Broken Heart Syndrome.” I did know. She went back to tapping on her iPhone.

I’ve always thought of love as a verb. Full of energy and action and visible (if subtle) display. It’s come to me today that no one tells you how much waiting is required of deep love. How much sitting is necessary. How very much boredom you must be willing to embrace. A good training ground for demonstrating that level of devotion is the Emergency Room. “Emergency” is a relative term, and the person who brings what they consider an urgent illness or injury to the room is likely to find that the staff on duty don’t consider their condition time-sensitive at all. It is they, who are the professionals, who will determine what is an emergency. Your emergency may have no more value to them than the Canadian quarter the lobby drink machine won’t accept.

Given five minutes warning, I know how to wait in an Emergency Room. It’s always cold, bring a sweatshirt. It’s incredibly tedious even with five TVs bolted near the ceiling. Bring a paperback or two. Bring your cell phone and the charger. Bring cash for sodas, Nabs, whatever. I bring earplugs. ChapStick. Come with the knowledge that you will wait. A long time. And the long time will seem much longer than if you were at home. When you get home, you’ll want to take a shower.

If you are accompanying someone you love to the Emergency Room and find yourself remembering random bits of poetry, keep it to yourself.

You have to be sure the other people in the ER are open to conversation. Read their body language. The young man with the gauze-wrapped thumb in the chair next to me looked relaxed. He was wearing a Nationals T-shirt.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I sliced off the end of my thumb, chopping onions. It’s just a little scrap of skin holding it on.”

I gave an appreciative whistle. He lowered his arm.

“How long you been waiting?”

He looked at the clock on the wall. “About an hour and fifteen minutes.”

I thought about a Robert Frost poem, “Out, Out,” about a kid who cuts his finger or hand or something off and bleeds to death. And they, since they were not the one dead, returned to their affairs.

“You could’ve bled to death by now,” I remarked.

He nodded yes, shook his head in disbelief. His phone went off with a musical ring tone I didn’t recognize and he shifted his attention to it. Phoebe was texting someone with her own thumbs.

I thought about a Sylvia Plath poem, in which the speaker accidentally cuts herself instead of the onion. What a thrilla hinge of skin, a flap like a hat. A disturbing and beautiful and playful poem. If you are accompanying someone you love to the Emergency Room and find yourself remembering random bits of poetry, keep it to yourself. Tuck your poetry fragments away for later in the way you would save a cookie. The chances that the person you are with will know or care about the fragments is no more likely than that they will be seen by a doctor right away unless they have a gunshot wound. Still, poetry can help you wait.

*     *     *

After the trip to the Emergency Room, I waited with Phoebe in her bedroom for several days. Phoebe lives with us while she works part time and finishes a second degree in horticulture. She has a king size bed that she shares with her laptop, notebook, phone, and other detritus. She has a TV on a long table opposite the bed. A cat or two and the dog will often settle in for a nap or to be petted. I sat in the blue chair off to the side by the door. I know how to sit in Phoebe’s room with her, too. I had on sweats and a T-shirt, sock feet. A glass of water or juice or wine. I had a book. I had my phone. “What can I do for you, Phee?” I’d say. “What do you need?” It wasn’t until several days had passed that Phoebe would ask for a Powerade or a piece of toast. She lost six pounds in four days.

She said, “Will you stay with me?”

“Of course,” I said.

She slept or watched The Munsters or Frasier on YouTube. She texted. She went to the bathroom. She slept some more. I stayed. Just as I had when she was younger and sick. Just as when she was a kid and throwing up, there really wasn’t much for me to do, except wipe her face with a cold wet cloth and hold her hand.

“Will you spend the night in here with me?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t mind?”

“No.”

I got her a cold wet cloth, more to make her feel cared for than to bring down a fever, although she did have a little one.

Phoebe burrowed into the covers. I sat and read and waited. Sometimes, I got on the other side of her king size bed and slept, too. She’d rise up in the night like a sea creature breeching the surface, see that I was there—awake, because she was—and she’d drop back into her blankets.

*     *     *

After a week or so Phoebe returned to work. Phoebe has been cautioned about being too cheerful and friendly with the customers. They asked her not to laugh so much, until they realized that engaging with her customers didn’t slow down her checkout speed. The day Phoebe went back to work, the store manager sent her home after one hour.

At Phoebe’s request, I drove her and her broken heart to a therapist, Susan, who’s helped me off and on over the years. Susan and Phoebe hit it off right away. Susan prescribed Xanax and breathing exercises and set up more appointments. Phoebe had sessions with Susan two or three times a week. Since Phoebe has never needed a driver’s license to go to work or to school, I ended up taking her to therapy.

Here’s another skill deep love requires. Shutting up. The ability to know when to shut up and to actually do it is closely tied to waiting.

The therapy practice Susan belongs to has a waiting room of slick, stain-resistant upholstered chairs and loveseats, and side tables with copies of WebMD Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Arthritis Today, Time, and Golf Digest. Three times a week I waited for Phoebe and listened to dreary music and read the magazines. By the end of Phoebe’s third fifty-minute hour with Susan, I’d gone through all the magazines, including Golf Digest, which might as well be titled A Guide to Mind Crushing Ennui as far as I’m concerned. So, for entertainment, I observed the people who came and sat near me, trying to determine who was a patient and who was a waiter like me. What issues brought them to this room of boring music, bad art, and dim lighting? I tried to read their posture, clothes, gestures, and conversation with the receptionists. I eavesdropped on the dialogue of people who were obviously there together. They frequently ignored each other and tapped on their smart phones, a sound like muffled telegraph keys. The etiquette of therapy waiting rooms is different than the ER. You do not make small talk in a room in which mental illness, emotional distress, and trauma cling to everyone like sweat. It’s bad form. Should you run into these same people in the organic produce section of the Harris Teeter, you do not acknowledge that you’ve ever seen them before.

*     *     *

Phoebe began to leave sessions with Susan in wary optimism. Things might work out. A plan of action and even a Plan B were possibilities. Within a couple of weeks, on a late Sunday afternoon, I went looking for Phoebe to ask her a question and found her pacing in the backyard. She was clutching her cell, waiting on a phone call. Her breathing was rapid and she was shaking a little. She was on the cusp of a panic attack.

“Talk to me,” I said, sitting down and watching her stride to and fro like an agitated animal. “What’s happened?”

Phoebe filled me in as she continued to walk laps. I brought her some juice. I thought stopping to drink and swallow might interrupt the advance of hyperventilating. It worked for a little while. I asked a few more questions and Phoebe answered.

Here’s another skill deep love requires. Shutting up. The ability to know when to shut up and to actually do it is closely tied to waiting. This ability doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m still struggling with it. Timing can be so important.

This late Sunday afternoon I lost the struggle. I had shut up for a long time. I had been careful not to push, not to judge. I had been waiting for the crisis to pass. Until this sultry August evening. This time I said I was angry and frustrated. I told Phoebe what I’d like to do and say if I hadn’t been raised with good manners. I called someone she cares about a pussy. I called other people insane. I also asked her forgiveness. I told her that I felt like I was watching her bleed and that I felt I could do nothing to stop the bleeding. It was not her my anger and frustration were directed at, but at the sources of her profound unhappiness. “Forgive me for not being diplomatic,” I said. “Please.”

She stopped pacing and looked me in the face for the first time. “It’s okay,” she said. Her cell phone rang and I went inside to give her privacy. Later, she sought me out and told me things were better. She was, in fact, happy. Everything would be fine and resolved in September.

“What’s changed?” I asked.

She shrugged. It didn’t matter. She was happy, that was enough. This time instead of asking more questions, I shut up.

Because I remembered that years ago when Phoebe was in preschool, she and her friends were playing while a couple of other mothers and I sat and watched.

“Phoebe is just your Mini Me,” Jessie said.

“We share the same soul,” I told her.

Phoebe looked up from drawing a mandala in the sand. She’s always been an artist.

“I want my own soul,” she insisted.

I laughed. “Okay.”

And I remembered that when she was a little older, Phoebe and I were playing outside on another late sunny summer afternoon. Our shadows were long and sharply defined on the sand around the swings.

“Let’s share shadows!” Phoebe said.

So, I stood behind her as she sat in the swing and we became one shadow with many moving parts. Then I pushed her and our shadows separated soundlessly only to merge again briefly and leave once more.

Phoebe told me a couple of days ago, “It’s hard to wait until the end of September.”

“It must be,” I said. “It must feel like forever.”

What I think, is Phoebe is waiting for September and it is hard. Learning how to wait is very hard. She has regained her optimism and works to hold on to it. I am waiting with her for September, without optimism, but not without hope. I hope the end of September will be worth the wait. And I will try to shut up, try remember that Phoebe’s soul belongs to her, but that I may, from time to time, be invited to share shadows.

 

Jane Andrews has a BA in creative writing from NC State University. Andrews teaches writing and poetry courses through Duke continuing education and is a writing coach at Central Carolina Community College She is nonfiction editor at Glint Literary Journal and a poetry editor at 3 Elements Review. She has earned awards in memoir, personal essay, and poetry. Andrews’ fiction, essays, memoir, and poetry have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Red Clay Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Verdad, Kindred, The News & Observer, and other publications. She is a past board member of Carolina Wren Press and the NC Poetry Society. Andrews is a freelance writing instructor, workshop facilitator, and book editor.

Abiding in the Realm of Calmness

“I have a special affection for Kajar… It is a wonderful and mysterious place.”
~S. Ann Dunham, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia

On our way from Yogyakarta, my friend Satriyo braced himself at the handlebars like a speed demon, overtaking slowpokes and narrowly sideswiping oncoming trucks in the maelstrom of traffic. As usual on Indonesia’s roads, I hung on and prayed we wouldn’t die, and at the same time never felt so alive in all my life. We flew past a crumbling old Dutch building—a colonial relic—reclaimed by vines; in the distance clouds brooded around the funnel of Mount Merapi, an active volcano. We climbed the winding slopes of Gunung Kidul, pausing to eat fried rice at a local restaurant clinging to the side of the cliffs. The plains of central Java spread out below, a patchwork of rice, corn, and cassava fields stretching towards Yogya to the west. About a quarter of Indonesia’s fast-growing population of more than 260 million still depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. But in post-colonial Indonesia, the pressure is on to bring it into the fold of industrialized nations.

As an anthropologist, S. Ann Dunham (the “S” stands for Stanley, the name her father gave her when she was born because he’d wanted a boy) documented these pressures and the ways Indonesian villagers struggled to keep their cultural traditions alive. Her book, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, was in an e-reader tucked in my backpack. While famous as the mother of Barack Obama, forty-fourth president of the United States, Ann was an accomplished academic in her own right. From 1977 to 1991 she visited Kajar, her primary source of research, compiling notes that her colleagues at the University of Hawaii eventually turned into a book after she died of ovarian cancer in 1995. It was Ann’s work in Kajar, a village in the mountains of Java known for its blacksmiths, that had prompted me to follow in her footsteps.

On the Kidul plateau, we flew past traditional Javanese houses, their red-tiled joglo roofs flashing through the trees. Along the side of the road, tourist touts held up hand-painted signs enticing motorists to stop and explore the area’s sacred underground caves. The mountain is riddled with them; if you descended into the heart of such a cave, you’d see sunlight streaming in from above through holes like Swiss cheese. The Javanese army took refuge here from the occupying Dutch forces, finding refreshment from the network of subterranean springs while planning their counter attacks. According to the ancient Javanese religion Kejawen, mystics came to fast, pray, and find spiritual enlightenment. The subterranean river network sometimes emits hollow booming sounds, or, as the villagers describe them, “magic voices” as they erupt into springs to relieve droughts.

We turned off the main road onto a lane fringed with rustling teak forests and sugar cane fields you could get lost in. White Brahmin cattle with dewy eyes and hunched backs grazed in the surrounding hills. The countryside was working its spell; I felt a sense of calm and contentment move through me like a warm breeze. There’s a saying in Javanese: sinukmaya winahya ing asepi: “Abiding in the realm of calmness.” This was a world that seemed unchanged by industrialization and technology, where time slowed and magic remained.

We arrived in Kajar and paused at a corner shop stacked high with bottled water and blue canisters of cooking gas, confused about where to begin. An old man was squatting in front of the shop smoking a kretek, or clove cigarette. Satriyo sauntered over, produced his own pack from his pocket and fired up.

“Mau ke mana?” the old man asked.

When I explained I wanted to learn more about Ibu Ann (ibu means “mother,” a term of respect for all married women), he immediately got on his cellphone. Within minutes, a young woman appeared on her motorbike to greet us, and soon we were sipping tea and nibbling coconut biscuits in her family house, which was attached to a sky-blue mosque with a pagoda roof. There was a small commotion outside, and neighbors appeared in the doorway to get a look at the strangers who’d just blown into town. While I sat with my sugary tea on the sofa, a girl of about three toddled up and stared at me suspiciously. I braced for her reaction—my slanted blue eyes (a combination of my Scottish and Native American heritage) have a way of making Indonesian children stare, then burst into tears.

“Don’t be scared,” I soothed her in Indonesian. “I’m not a ghost!”

The neighbors laughed and edged in closer, but the little girl didn’t seem convinced. Evi, who looked not a day over sixteen, explained that she was a married mother of two whose husband was away working on a cruise ship. The suspicious child was hers, she said. We chatted while Satriyo helped smooth our communication with his fluent Javanese; while Indonesian is the national language, the country has more than 500 among its diverse cultures, and people often still use their mother tongue at home. Evi jiggled her other child, a baby girl, gently in a batik sling tied over her shoulder. When we finished the tea and biscuits, she gave the children to their grandmother and motioned us to follow her through the throng of curious neighbors.

*     *     *

In the dim light of the perapen, or blackmith’s shop, the man in the floppy hat puffed on a kretek, the sweetness of burning cloves mingling with the scent of ashes, hot metal. He squinted at me through the smoke and with a glint in his eye replied, “Obama suka bakso.”

I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of ‘the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.’

The three other men around the anvil burst into grins so wide that the wrinkles around their mouths met the crinkles of their eyes, contoured by the glow of the smithy fire. I couldn’t help but smile too, amused by his expert deflection of my question (“Do you remember Ann or her children?”) with the former president’s fondness for Indonesian meatball soup. Who wouldn’t be—it’s delicious. In Indonesia, food is by far everyone’s favourite subject.

“When Maya was a child, she often played with the children of the village,” said one.

“She liked to eat nuts and boiled corn,” said another.

They crushed their cigarettes underfoot and got back to work. The man with the floppy hat—the empu, or head smithgrabbed a white-hot chunk of metal from the forge with a pair of long-handled pliers and laid it on the anvil. The panjak raised their hammers and swung as the empu held it steady. The metal sang; sparks swirled like fireflies with each well-aimed blow. The empu turned the metal, now cooling to red, to draw out the shape. The panjak gained momentum, striking with musical regularity like the three-four time of a waltz; they had to work fast before the metal cooled.

I blinked a few times and drew a hand across my forehead to wipe off the sweat. The heat from the forge, the glow of metal, and the rhythm of the blows had me a little mesmerized. I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of “the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.” In the preface her book, Ann’s daughter Maya remembers, “I had a marvelous time as a child, surrounded by pictures of anvils and forges and stories about the magic of fire.” Blacksmithing is known as a trade with magical powers, the anvil a sacred place of sacrifice where fire can transform metal.

Ann may have told her daughter the legend of the blacksmith Mpu Gandring from the ancient Javanese Book of Kings. The story goes that Ken Arok, son of the Hindu god Brahma and the human wife of a priest, was seized with lust for a married woman, Ken Dedes, when he caught a glimpse of her legs. Determined to have her, he ordered Mpu Gandring to forge a keris, or dagger, to kill her unfortunate husband. A keris takes at least a year in the making, over which many prayers must be said to prevent it from being used for evil purposes. But Ken Arok was impatient—he grabbed the keris and stabbed Mpu Gandring with it. Before he took his last breath, the blacksmith cast a curse on the keris, which eventually killed Ken Arok and seven generations of his descendants. (The takeaways: Don’t let lust get the better of you. And never mess with a blacksmith.)

While glimmers of magic shine through Ann’s work, she takes a largely pragmatic approach, describing the blacksmith’s art with the precision of a scientist, and the scene I was witnessing matched her account exactly: “Most Kajar perapen make large agricultural tools requiring three panjak, so that the dominant sound is the heavy ‘one-two-three’ of metal hitting metal.” Though the style and tone are academic, I can feel Ann’s deep respect for Indonesian people in each word. Because it was always more than just a study. Ann also wanted to positively impact the lives of traditional Indonesian craftspeople as they adapted to, and in some cases embraced, modernization. “I was fortunate to have had a fourteen-year relationship with the people of this village,” she writes, “to have visited it many times during that period, and to have witnessed both the changes that it underwent and the remarkable strength and tenacity of its traditions.”

Ann’s strength and tenacity were equally remarkable as she adapted to the traditions of being a woman and mother. Born in 1942, she grew up in the Midwest at a time when women were expected to stay at home at care for the children. Yet a mortgage, a Maytag dishwasher, and a white picket fence were not for her. Instead she travelled to a far-flung corner of the earth that many wouldn’t be able to find on a map—including myself before I came here in 2007 (Indonesia stretches in a wide arc across the equator between Australia to the south and Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines to the north). When Ann met her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, an engineering student at the University of Hawaii, she married him and moved to his native country—a gutsy move in a politically chaotic time. It was 1965, the same year Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s democratically elected government in a military coup and began his thirty-year dictatorship. It must have been safe enough, though, because in 1967 Ann brought young Obama to live with them in Jakarta. She began her fieldwork with calm determination, living and working amongst the people with ease. For a time, she taught English, and was also a consultant with the United States Agency for International Development, establishing a microcredit financing system still in use today to help alleviate poverty among Indonesia’s craftspeople. After her daughter Maya was born in 1970 she brought both children into the field with her.

Ann and her family are a source of great pride in Indonesia, where I’ve lived for more than ten years. Their former house in Menteng, Jakarta’s embassy district, where LoLo once urged his stepson to try tiger meat, has become a tourist attraction, and stories still appear in the news with locals remembering amusing anecdotes, like how Obama was called bebek or “duck” because of his youthful plumpness. Gentle ribbing is part of the culture—my Indonesian mother-in-law often prods my waistline saying, “Wendy lebih gemuk ya!” Which means I’m getting pleasantly chubby. It used to drive me crazy, but I realize now that it’s a compliment because it means you have enough food to eat—hence the Indonesian preoccupation with food in this country, where millions still live on less than two dollars a day.

When Obama went on the presidential campaign trail, everyone I knew, including my husband’s family and my students at the Australian Consulate in Medan, North Sumatra, followed the election, caught up with excitement that a positive change was afoot, not just for Americans but for everyone around the world, since American elections deeply impact all of us. One of my students became famous among his classmates for his resemblance to Obama. Whenever it was his turn to speak, the class urged, “Obama! Speak English please.” In response, Akbar always beamed proudly, if a little bashfully, as we all giggled.

A few years ago, Ann’s daughter Maya returned to Indonesia for a visit. I saw her on the news, arriving to much fanfare in her modest attire with a scarf wrapped around her shoulders in respect for local customs. It was around that time that I finally read Ann’s book and learned more about her history. I admired her sense of adventure, the rigor of her work, the calmness and ease with which she navigated worlds so different from her own. And as a woman I could relate so much to her. I, too, had given birth to a child at eighteen and struggled for years to balance both motherhood and my academic studies in English literature. In 2007, when my daughter had grown and flown the nest, I also felt called to do something meaningful in the world, so I joined a volunteer research project to help conserve endangered orangutans in Sumatra. Like Ann, I taught English. And I fell in love with an Indonesian man, his country and his people, finding them easygoing, quick to laugh, and quick to welcome strangers as friends into their home.

*    *     *

The empu tossed the freshly completed axe head on a pile in the corner where it landed with a clank. With unflagging vigor, he grabbed another lump of white-hot metal from the fire and the men began anew. Each axe head took about ten minutes, he explained; they made about eighty a day. In the corner, an electric fan blew next to a dented tea kettle, some tin cups with lids on to keep out flies, jars of cassava root chips, and battered ashtrays overflowing with butts. Ash was everywhere—spilling out of the ashtrays, collecting in drifts around the anvil. A cool breeze sifted through the basket-weave walls, cutting through the heat and blowing more ash around. “Like sand on the beach,” one of the panjak joked. They paused as the empu inserted a small oval mould made of wood into the glowing metal and began to swing again, muscles slick with sweat, to create a hole for the handle. Their movements were robust, full of a kind of joy and pride in their work that I’d never known when toiling away in office cubicles.

When the dull red glow faded, I saw that the metal had been transformed into an axe head. The empu tapped it sharply and tossed it onto the heap. Then he picked up an already cooled axe head and smoothed the ash off lovingly with blackened fingers to reveal the stamp of an anvil at its base. “See,” he said. “This shows we made it here in Kajar. Now it will be exported to somewhere in Indonesia, maybe the world. And it is our product.”

*     *     *

Later that afternoon, waiting with Evi and Satriyo in the driveway of Pak Sostro’s long, butter-cream house, I spied a television set through the open door, surprised it wasn’t a fifty-inch flat screen. Ann says that Pak Sostro was Kajar’s most important empu pedagang, a head of the blacksmith’s collective. “Though the richest man with the biggest house, Pak Sostro was known for his modesty, except when it came to technology,” she writes. “He was the first in Kajar to own a diesel-powered electric generator, an electrically powered edge-grinding machine, and electrically powered bellows (blower), a four-wheeled vehicle, a television set, electric lights, and a camera. Partly this was because he had the money with which to purchase these items, and partly it was because of his enthusiasm for new technologies and anything which he perceives as modern.”

I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future.

Pak Sostro’s daughter, Bu Mintasirih, greeted us, and I was disappointed to learn that both her father and mother had died. A striking woman of forty-five with luminous eyes, she was one of several children the Sostros adopted from other family members because they were unable to have their own. She sat with us on the tiled veranda, set with long wooden tables and chairs to accommodate large groups of blacksmiths on their breaks. As I politely sipped another cup of sugary tea, she waved a hand at the road. “People from all over the world come here now. I see them wandering around looking for our house.” It seemed Kajar was undergoing something of a mini tourism boom as people came to see the village that Barack Obama’s mother had written about. “Maya and I were both kids. We often played here on the terrace. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”

Bu Mintarsih showed us the blacksmith shop behind the house—much larger than the first one we’d seen. “We have about fifty workers, and when they’re busy, wow. Klentang, klentung, klentang, klentung, all day long. So loud!” The shop—an open yard with work stations around the perimeter under corrugated tin eaves—was now silent and empty, hammers lying on the ground as if they’d been hastily abandoned. “Their day off,” she explained. Hundreds of metalwork chairs painted turquoise were stacked neatly in a corner. I recognized the same chair in my hotel room back in Yogya: sturdy and attractive, with a rounded backrest and two brackets up the centre. Bu Mintarsih explained that she had a son in university, and she’d already spent a good portion of income on his masters in management. Did he want to take over the family business? “Maybe. He’s not sure.” She rolled her eyes. “These days kids want to live in the city. They want to be so modern.”

I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future. It seemed odd to me, though, since another reason I’d come to Indonesia was to escape that very fate—my third time watching Office Space had sealed the deal. Once again, as in Ann’s time, this tiny village seemed poised for change, awaiting what other challenges the modern world would bring. Even the old blacksmith workers’ collective building Ann had written about, across from the Sostro family compound, was permanently closed.

*     *     *

The elders are among the last keepers of cultural tradition at a time when the world seems thirsty for it. In Pak Subari’s workshop, hundreds of copper gongs were stacked neatly for export. A gongsmith, Pak Subari estimated that he made at least one complete gamelan orchestra set per month for buyers in Bali and abroad. That’s no small task—a gamelan orchestra has sixteen pieces, including a xylophone and sets of hanging gongs of various sizes. Gamelan music is integral to Indonesian identity. Its music haunts, sends both men and women dancing with their hips, eyes, and fingers as they perform the ancient Hindu stories of the Ramayana.

Pak Subari’s wife, Mbak Nur, brought a large clear jug of tea with bits of leaf swirling around inside. At this point I felt like I was about to pop like a water balloon but it would be rude to refuse, so I forced down a little sip and smiled. Mbak Nur lay down a big bowl of shelled peanuts on the rough-hewn table and swatted away the flies.

Pak Subari asked to see Ann’s book. I pulled out my e-reader and everyone gathered around to look as I clicked through the photos. With still-sharp eyes, Pak Subari, the father of four children and six grandchildren, spotted the name of his village written in Ann’s own handwriting on the screen. He placed a work-worn finger over her notes and repeated with wonder in his voice: “Kajar.” Then he gasped and stared a moment at Ann’s illustrations of farm tools forged by Kajar blacksmiths. “They’re still the same,” he said. One of the axe heads was indeed exactly like those we’d just seen in the perapen.

I clicked to the next picture.

“Ah.” He pointed to the roof of thatched palm. “We don’t have roofs like that anymore. More modern now, with tiles.”

I clicked again: a man with smooth pompadour hair, crouched next to a water trough.

“Pak Pangusi!” He nudged Mbak Nur, who’d fallen into animated conversation with Satriyo in musical Javanese.

“Mm hmm,” she confirmed. “He looks so young. He used to live just behind our house. But he is gone now.” We gazed at Pak Pangusi, still alive in the photo, a newly forged pickaxe in his hand.

Click. An old man sitting in the doorway, baskets of flowers at his feet: The only Islamic official in Kajar village, making offerings and burning incense at the Bersih Desa festival.

“Pak Wornosamin! He had a store in the traditional market. He’s gone now too.”

As they remembered their old friend who once presided over Kajar’s annual village purification festival, it struck me just how important Ann’s work is to the history of Kajar, especially as parts of it were already slipping away. I asked if they’d ever seen the book before.

“No, never. How much does it cost?”

They all shook their heads when I told them in the Indonesian currency. “Very expensive,” Evi said. “We don’t have money for books. Besides, we don’t know English.”

Suddenly I saw myself in a different light. Here I was, a comparatively wealthy foreigner who had brought an expensive device to show them images of their own village. It didn’t seem fair. Feeling a little guilty and not knowing what to do about it, I changed the subject. But when I asked if they knew about Sumbur Kajar, the sacred spring with the image of a keris in the stone that Ann had described, they looked even more perplexed. I attempted to translate:

I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked.

“At the base of the spring is a wide, flat stone, worn smooth from water action. When the water level is low, one can look down and make out the clear shape of a keris in the stone… Villagers consider this image of a keris as proof that the men of Kajar are fated to be smiths.”

“You mean Sumbur Air,” Evi said.

“Ah,” said Pak Subari. “That stone was taken long ago. Somebody stole it.”

*     *     *

We parked next to a well with a large copper cistern and a mosque that stood clean and white among the rusty teaks and umbrella-leafed cassavas. A cool wind blew and the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees. Nearby, a stream fed into a spring enclosed by a low wall with some stone steps leading into the water. An old banyan grew there, perhaps the one Ann mentions in her notes. In Javanese mysticism, banyans house the spirits of the ancestors and should be avoided at night. I asked Evi about this, but she just looked at me as if I were slightly delusional and turned her attention to texting on her phone. It was getting late; maybe she was checking on the kids. Satriyo leaned against his motorbike, occasionally flicking his hair as he stared into his own phone. I wondered if it was a hot date—he and my other friend Daniel had just broken up over Satriyo’s roving eye.

I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked. Through the papery rustle of the teak forest, borne high on the wind, came the clear rhythmic ring of a blacksmith’s hammer: Ting ting ting.

I wondered if Ann also felt the presence of spirits here. Maybe she didn’t believe in that kind of thing. Or maybe she still visits once in a while.

*     *     *

I fell into my own quiet thoughts on the back of Satriyo’s bike as we motored to our final destination through fields of cassava, corn, peanuts, and sugarcane tended with Kajar’s own hand-forged farm tools. Why should all this change? I wondered. Why do we believe without question that industrialization is so necessary for progress, that to live like this is somehow backwards? Surely true progress is our ability to hold onto the traditions that nourish our spirits and preserve the future for our earth and our loved ones. Then again, I’d never wish the hard grinding work of poverty on anyone. And the people of Kajar were facing difficult times.

Next to a stone well with Black Roses spray-painted on it was a small dammed-up lake papered over with fallen teak leaves. All around us, living leaves twisted and turned on their slender branches, gold, then rust. As we crossed the dam I spied a hill through the trees. It looked a little like a postcard of a Greek village but in miniature, with jumbles of whitewashed houses and tiled gazebos interspersed with gnarled frangipani trees. Some houses were topped with stone flames, some with white sheets, their corners pierced on the stone and fluttering in the wind. As we came closer I saw that they were graves.

Once, when Ann contracted an eye infection, the villagers suggested she rinse her eyes in the waters of Sumbur Kajar. When this didn’t work, they advised her to make a pilgrimage to the top of Gunung Panduran and make an offering to the graves of Gunokaryo and Kasan Ikhsan, Pak Sostro’s blacksmithing ancestors and the founders of Kajar. Their graves had become pepunden, sacred sites that even had their own cult. “Whenever villagers have a problem with illness or sterility they bring offerings of rice and flowers to these graves,” she writes. She does not mention, though, if she followed their advice, or if it worked.

As we picked our way up the hill, voices called out to us in greeting from among the graves. Three villagers were sitting on a grave with plates of food and a large tin teapot. One of the villagers, an old woman with her head wrapped in a batik cloth, looked at me in alarm as we passed by, as if she’d seen a wandering spirit. I smiled and called out good afternoon, just to show I was human. This only made her titter nervously and whisper to the others. Near the top of the hill, Evi pointed to a black marble grave. “That’s my father,” she said. Her voice sounded calm and happy, not a tinge of sadness in it. She was the youngest of ten children, she said. The final child in a long, productive life.

We paused to rest and look down over the sea of roofs and the rustling teak forest. Satriyo and Evi perched on a low stone wall. Heaven or Hell was spray-painted on it in Gothic letters. They soon tired of the view and began texting again. Ah, kids these days. I turned to amble among the gravestones, taking care not to step on them and cause offense. Suddenly I caught the sweet scent of frangipani blossoms and breathed in deeply. I love frangipani; I used to wear the oil as perfume until my husband joked that I smelled like a cemetery. No one ever wears frangipani perfume in Indonesia.

I looked up to find the source of the scent. A flowering pink frangipani crowned the top of the hill, guarding a set of curling black flames—four rows in all, about seven feet long, in sharp relief against the burning blue sky. They appeared to be grave-markers, yet none bore any inscription. Each had been set with a round earthenware jar and a plate, cracked and weatherworn. Did the original blacksmiths, the founders of Kajar, lie beneath these flames? I opened my e-reader to check.

“Near the top of a small hill which is used as a graveyard is a curious black stone, several feet in length. The upper surface of this stone is carved in curious convoluted shapes which are toothlike or hornlike. These shapes resemble those on the clay gable ornaments used in some parts of Java, and they also resemble the flamelike flanges on Balinese gates.”

My heart began to pound as if I’d made a momentous discovery. In the twenty years since Ann had written about Kajar, more flames had appeared, more sacred sites added to Kajar’s long and growing history. Yet all around us—through the trees and over the rooftops—the ting ting ting of the blacksmith’s hammer continued, rising in the air, above the black flames on the hill. I imagined Ann would be happy to know that, despite more modern developments like cellphones and e-readers, or maybe even because of them, Kajar’s blacksmithing tradition continues to survive against the odds. And Ann’s legacy remains, abiding in this realm of calmness and shaping its future in subtle, unseen ways.

I wished I’d brought something for the blacksmiths, some kind of offering. I rifled through my bag in search of the only thing I could give, a tool of my own trade. I laid down my last pen, an old Bic, and left the blacksmiths to their rest.

 

Wendy Bone is a Canadian writer whose most recent work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change, with an essay forthcoming in River Teeth Journal. Currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Wendy is writing a book about the effects of global palm oil consumption on the Indonesian rainforest. She has lived in Indonesia for more than ten years with her Sumatran husband and a clowder of kampung cats. For more, visit wendyboneabroad.com.

My Father, the Trickster

I’ve been looking for myths about gulls, and found only ravens. Raven, the trickster, who eats Raccoon’s young. Raven, with his head stuck in a bison skull and bumbling tree to tree to river. Raven led by stomach. I want a story to frame my own. But I did not grow up with ravens. They are too beautiful, with feathers that whisper danger and a name shaped like the hard point of their beak.

Gulls with no pretty name. Gulls with red-rimmed eyes, feet that look neither wet nor dry. Gulls fanning to the horizon, a lens-flare photograph of someone’s beach home.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together. I’d stay awake as long as I could, watching the window fog with our breath, icing out the world. I worried the lock would come unstuck. I worried that my father was ashamed of us, this job meant for children, paperboys, that he had only taken because all of his money went to our mother. Sometimes I woke to smokers clustered outside our windows, peering in on us foundling children, a nest of lumps waiting to crack open.

When my father loaded the car with each wrapped reminder of the world’s disasters, I pretended to sleep. The car rocked with the weight of hundreds of pages of newsprint wrapped in plastic casings. He’d fill the wells under our feet with bundles, row on row that slid into us on curves.

*     *     *

The fairy tales I loved were daughters bought and sold, from Gretel’s father leading her to the forest, to Cinderella’s father giving her to the ashes. I loved Beauty and the Beast most of all: I too loved books and lived in small towns. I too was strange and had a father prone to distraction. I wanted castles with libraries that stretched to heaven and horizon. I longed for dark forests or lighthouses with an attic bedroom. Instead, I had the Shore.

In the winter, the ocean was larger. The beaches were quiet. People did not come to the Shore. There was nothing there.

*     *     *

For a few winters, we lived in other people’s summer homes: pre-furnished with beds and toys, pots and pans, a view of the ocean, and a walk to the beach. They’d leave behind their curled paper tickets from Jenkinson’s Arcade, rolls of points buried in closets and under beds. I loved running them through my fingers, imagining buying all the candy I could hold, pencils with pop stars’ faces, notebooks or games. It wasn’t cheating. We had found them, fair and square.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together.

These houses, winter houses, were nice houses, nicer than the tiny apartments my father usually rented with a strip of kitchen and walls soft enough to splinter under a fist, where we—my brother, sister, and myself—took turns sleeping on the futon or the floor. Those apartments came with big, hairy neighbors: the kind of men who’d invite us over to watch wrestling specials and eat nachos; the kind of men with tarantulas and snakes; the kind of men who broke beer bottles late at night; the kind of men who knew a guy who was remodeling Joe Pesci’s place, and so one Sunday after delivering newspapers, we were let in to Joe’s Shore house and walked his cool tile floors, tracking mud.

I wondered if this was what my father did when we were with our mother: drank cheap beers and watched men hit each other with chairs, committed petty trespassing. What did he say about us in front of those tropical glass tanks, where the dead-eyed snakes uncurled slowly so not to scare the mice, their jaws had already unhinged to eat. Did he say anything about us at all?

In winter, lawns receded back to sand and hard dirt, gray and dried like feathers crushed by tires in the street. When we delivered newspapers to houses with strips of expensive sod rolled out like lasagna sheets, I stepped on the new grass. I wanted the marks of my feet to be discovered, like some alien crop circle, a gift from the fairies.

*     *     *

Gull young are precocial: they crack free and their eyes are open. Their bodies are covered in downy feathers. Their beaks are designed to peck at their parent for regurgitated dinner.

We ate fine—frozen dinners, cheese in cellophane—but it was never anything I wanted. My father ate mostly meat—sausages and steak and lettuce—from some diet that taught your body to eat itself.

When we returned to my mother’s house, she would ask us what we did. How did we eat? Did he buy us school clothes, winter jackets, or books? Sometimes, I wondered if she eyed our pockets, hoping he had stuffed them full of twenties.

Sometimes we would come back in wild excitement, for some grand adventure we’d been promised for the next weekend. Some treat or toy or trick. As time went on, she learned to tell us not to be disappointed. Still, we would believe him.

*     *     *

One house was only a few blocks from the ocean. Gulls cried out, I’m here, I’m here, at all hours, as they swooped ten, twenty feet above my head, or roosted on the shingles.

We’d walk the sand on nicer weekends, daring each other to go deeper into the tide until one of us would be soaked from the waist on a large wave. Our father would no longer laugh, egging us on, but be suddenly furious that we’d soaked our underwear and would track sand into the house. It was a rental, he’d remind us. It wasn’t ours. Anything we broke, he’d have to pay for. I knew that this was another step closer to the brink, closer to him pulling the mythical car over and we could all walk home.

We knew we couldn’t afford better. All of our father’s money went to our mother to support us. Our mother told us differently, cried on phone calls when she asked her sisters for money to pay our bills. What was true was the story told by the parent we were with.

We were loved, but it was a possessive love, a jealous love. A commodity. I wondered constantly if I was still worthy of such a love, and how I could earn more.

I learned to read the signs. Gulls became the smoke twisting in the sacrificial fires, the entrails poured onto the earth. I was the Oracle, trying to make sense of their message. What are you trying to tell me? Do his shoulders hunch like that because he is more or as-angry as usual? Do I find a funny story from school, or a memory of our old life? Do I pretend not to see? Should I be extra careful when I clean tonight, scraping the fork tins for grease and lining up the cups in the dishwasher like puzzle pieces? When his anger erupted, where was the best place to hide away? What should I clean, how do I be of use so that he is reminded that we were worth having, worth loving?

*     *     *

In the winter homes, I imagined the summer folks. It was a fairy existence. Who could possibly live here? What did it mean to have two houses, and not one for each parent?

In the summers, the stoplights were turned back on and the stop signs unhinged to warn lines of traffic. Panties or vomit dotted the sidewalk and the beach was always full of bodies pinking or leathering under the sun.

Were we the poltergeists, haunting their homes when they returned? I made sure to rub my greasy fingers into the walls. I wanted to leave a sign that I had lived there, that their home wasn’t fully their own. And yet we were always the ones to leave.

*     *     *

Sometimes we would see a dog scatter the gulls on the beach, churning through wet sand. Sometimes there would be people dressed in Lycra, running along the shore. Mostly though, it was just us, writing our names with our fingers in the sand and watching the tide wash the letters away. Or we trudged on, knowing the water would wash our names away eventually.

We were winter children. We had nothing better to do.

*     *     *

Part of what brings Beauty and her Beast together is their shared love of books. In the Disney telling, the library seems to stretch for days. More than the dresses or the talking cutlery, this was my favorite part. I had taught myself to read when I was three. Quickly, I learned to hide in books. I could become so lost in the world of letters that I wouldn’t hear the world around me. During car rides, I could block out the sound of traffic or my father’s rages. The threats to crash the car, the promise to leave us behind.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast. The best stories were the ones I could imagine myself into.

If I wasn’t reading, I wrote. I filled composition books with poems and stories and journal entries. Often, my characters were orphans. It seemed natural to kill off the parents.

When I was a teenager, I began to win awards for my writing. I attended luncheons and national conferences. My father is also a writer. In my teens, I worried he resented my success. If only he hadn’t had to work, he would say occasionally. If only he could have followed his writing. I always felt a bit ashamed for making him need to work, to provide food and clothing.

But then, for anything we really needed, we asked our mother.

*     *     *

Once, Beauty’s father was rich and could spoil his children. But by the time he stumbles into the Beast’s kindness, he is impoverished. His daughters have demanded gowns and his sons, swords. Only Beauty asks for a rose. And so he steals.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast.

Did my father love me as much as that?

When the Beast threatens to lock that father away, he begs for the chance to tell his children goodbye. Beauty offers to stand in his place and the rest—well. You know the story.

How does her father let her go? He must, of course, but how does he leave that castle covered in vines? What is the shape of his spine as he journeys away, back to his other children?

What lesson could I take from this story but that love is duty.

Love is ballast-named but a crucible, all the same.

*     *     *

Beauty’s dresses turn to rags when her sisters try them on, her jewels to dust when they adorn their bodies. What do they make of their old gowns and bracelets, what they had exchanged for their sister?

I thought myself Beauty when I was younger, convinced that one day I’d be taken away, bedecked. I assumed emancipation needed to be given by a hand other than my own.

*     *     *

Eventually my father moved into the town where my mother lived. He rented a loft apartment where we took turns rotating between the floor and an exercise mat when we spent weekday nights and alternating weekends there. At first, he talked about buying beds or sleeping bags, but we adjusted to blankets and the floor.

We ate pizza from the restaurant downstairs sitting around the coffee table in front of a television. What we loved best was wrestling: my brother and I against my sister and father. Soon, it would devolve into the three of us piled on top of our father, trying to hold him down. For a moment, we could puppet his body. But again and again, he rose or one of us would catch an elbow in the soft of our belly, a knee in the back and cry. I was already a bit relieved when the wrestling ended. Fearful, I was sure someone could get really hurt. I worried I loved kneeling on his back, pressing bone to kidney, too much.

*     *     *

Gulls mob strangers: other birds, people, anything that might threaten their nests. The flock unite to form a golem, terrifying children and Bennys alike. But their allegiances fracture easily: over food, a nesting spot. Gulls tear scraps between them, wrestling for the biggest crumb.

*     *     *

As I grew beyond childhood, I or my siblings would ask my father about moments from childhood: remember this? Remember that? No, he would tell us. No, it didn’t happen like that. No, you’re remembering it wrong.

Who gets to decide?

If I remember my father’s anger, if I remember sleeping on the floor, then do I have a right to say it? It wasn’t all bad. But it wasn’t all good. And sure, that is childhood. But I knew other children weren’t itinerant like my siblings and me. I had dreaded someone seeing me help my father fling newspapers. I worried my shame would bleed out of me.

I love my father. But I no longer feel I can let him into my life. When I last confronted him, over email, his response asked me if I hadn’t thought about how he would feel. Don’t you know all the ways you’ve hurt me? he asked.

You’re remembering it wrong, he told me.

*     *     *

A gull is also a term for one who is fooled or deceived. Perhaps this comes from the word gullet, meaning “the throat” but also “to swallow.” Perhaps it is not that uncommon to be fooled by your parent and to still hope that they have changed. Say fooled instead of failed; say trickster instead of father. Perhaps we should expect our parents to devour us, like Kreon. Perhaps I need to find in me a way to slit his stomach open and see what piles forth. Perhaps I need to open my own gut, spill what I’ve ingested in hopes that he might change.

My father has asked me to forgive much of him: cancelling trips after I purchased plane tickets; skipping graduations and Thanksgivings at the last minute; taking out loans in my name that went to collection agencies that led to me weeping on the phone in public spaces, trying to explain that I didn’t know about the loans and had never seen the money.

But my father is always the aggrieved, the hero of his stories. Even the stories I tell about him must follow this pattern. Still, I wonder, what could I have done differently?

*     *     *

Gulls exist in the liminal space: they eat both meat and vegetation. In some myths, birds carry the souls of the dead to heaven or the underworld.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are.

I used to believe that gulls could fly across oceans, that they could sleep on the water with their heads tucked under a wing. But they don’t—usually. They stay close to the coast, feeding off scraps or what they hunt for themselves. They’re opportunistic and bold: I’ve watched them steal pizza crusts inches from someone’s hand. They’ve been seen landing on live whales to peck away strips of their flesh.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are. At least, as far as I can tell. The appearance of honesty counts for a lot, to so many.

I’ve believed my father is capable of changing. Perhaps I must believe that I am.

*     *     *

I used to play a game. Would my father give me five hundred dollars? I imagine the phone call: I’m in a bad spot, Dad; I’ve made a bad decision, Dad; Dad, they’re holding me for ransom, and I’ve scrounged everything but the last five hundred.

I imagine us tied to train tracks, a game of William Tell, a room slowly filling with water. Would my father give me part of his liver? I try to imagine us wheeled into surgery, our hands clasped until the swinging doors wrench us apart. But then I see him turning to the nurse wheeling his gurney, smiling a bit sadly, and saying, “You know, I don’t think I can do this right now.” He’d really want to, of course, but the timing. The timing would just be terrible.

*     *     *

The only class trip I remember my father chaperoning was to the Trenton War Memorial. We learned about bayonets, specifically their three points, so designed to create wounds that couldn’t close.

*     *     *

Recently a friend asked me how my father died. He’s still alive, I explained. We just don’t speak. Divorcing your parent is an unnatural act. Children are meant to be cared for; we are then meant to care, to nurture. Rejecting this had left me unmoored. Each of my siblings has handled this situation differently. My sister has refused to speak to my father for years. My brother maintains an uneasy relationship. I worry that by not missing him, I’m a bad person. I worry that this means I’m not made to love. Loving me must be a burden.

Beauty forgets her father. She and the Beast create a world without a past, despite decades spent trapped in forms beyond their natural, beautiful shape. Furniture reverts back to flesh, uncracked. What magic was this, what lesson was I meant to learn?

*     *     *

I was a square child. I knew I wasn’t beautiful, but I imagined I might be strong or fierce. Able to pick up cars pinning smaller children. An Atlas for a tired world. Once, I bragged I could carry my father, and in that parking lot he let me try. I bent, braced shoulder to thigh and lifted. I stumbled a few steps before he returned to the ground, surprised and laughing.

It must be time to put him down now.

 

Brynn Downing served as the thirty-fourth writer-in-residence at St. Albans School for boys in Washington, DC, where she also taught literature and creative writing. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and BA in global studies, focusing on masculinity and nationalism in the former Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. She currently volunteers with Four Way Review. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, The James Franco Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. You can find her online at: brynndowning.info.

Paper Shackles

Now, when I think of it, I can see only the sun. I can feel its heat infiltrating my light brown skin, boiling the blood therein, and I can hear the other students sizzling beside me, can smell burning flesh. I have to remind myself that we were indoors. That this wasn’t some celestial oven. Just a normal seventh-grade classroom and a normal class day.

We had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room so that we could tape two, thin, boat-like shapes in the middle of the classroom. The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected. The teacher might have called it laziness; she had often questioned my work ethic, and, being thirteen, I would not have been able to articulate my position well enough to refute the indictment. No, I could not express how heavy those paper shackles felt, how inadequate a job stickers and glitter did of covering them, how disgraceful it seemed to me to make a craft of this inexplicable anxiety dwelling within me.

Still, we were to learn about the middle passage. We were to experience it.

At an age when hormones were supposed to turn me apathetic, I found myself preoccupied with slavery. The year before I was born, some archaeologists excavated the unceremonious burial site of several hundred black men, women, and children in New York City, and for a moment the nation had to confront the gaping wound in its past. [1] Black bodies mobilized. They demanded this history no longer remain invisible, buried. [2] Furthermore, I was born in the year of the LA Riots. I was conceived as Rodney King was beaten atop California pavement. Maybe that wave was still lingering in the atmosphere when my eyes first saw light. Often, I fantasized that I had been born a crusader for racial justice. I was less minority and more X-Man. However, my fascination with the institution of slavery was more fear than righteous indignation. I studied it in horror. I could not look away.

The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected.

As we lined up and took our place in the imaginary boats, careful not to go over the walls indicated by lines of masking tape, the forward movement of time stopped, then regressed. I sat with my legs crossed and my right knee went overboard. If my classmates, white as they were, noticed my horror or if they were horrified themselves, I can’t recall, and, likely, didn’t observe in the moment. I would’ve been caught up in the waves now rising up to the ship’s deck, would’ve been fiddling with my shackles, would’ve been following the curved spines of black backs bent and broken.

Maybe I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn too early. At eleven, I had also marathoned Roots and, afterwards, crafted my own African identity. I was Udo Ka. Sean was my slave name. Or, perhaps, my resignation to the societal periphery had prompted my curiosity. For the first half of my childhood, we lived in the heart of Dallas, Texas, [3] and in those schools I was too white for all but a handful of my peers. My skin tone did not matter. The other kids had all seen my father, and his pastiness was an integral part of my brown. Dallas was where a kid shoved me into a garbage can—one of those big, gray, monolith-looking ones that teenagers have to wheel out at the end of their shift at McDonalds—and rolled me down a hill. Like the bullies did to the pale, scrawny protagonists in eighties teen flicks. In the bully’s defense I had called him precocious. We were six. I had it coming.

Then, before fourth grade, we moved to the country-suburbs of Wylie, Texas, [4] a town whose name cannot be pronounced without a hint of southern inflection, and all of a sudden, I was black. Less than black. I was a nigger; my mom, too. She had been called such at the Starbucks she managed. I sat nearby, Gameboy in hand and waiting for her shift to end.

Reading Huckleberry Finn aloud prompted some of my classmates to look my direction, apologetically, before each “nigger,” “nigga,” or “negro” while others read the words with a bravado and gravitas most often utilized upon the stage, reveling in the word’s inherent mischief. I knew that I was somehow conjured with each exclamation. Our English teacher would flinch whenever the word was uttered. She would remind us of its severity, of its history, every class period before we commenced the reading. Her voice rarely rose above a conversational tone no matter how enthusiastic she got about the lesson or how angry a student made her. That classroom was lined with posters—Rosie the Riveter, book covers, one or two motivational messages—and bookshelves occupied the remaining wall space. I had often borrowed books from her collection. She had pegged me as a part of her nerdy, literature-loving clan almost immediately, and when she gave the context lectures for our Huck Finn readings, for that pesky, little n-word, I felt as if they were for my benefit and my benefit, alone. In the desk next to mine, Ethan, a brute of a seventh grader, napped while she talked, face down and arms dangling off the side of the desk. He woke only when it was time to do the reading. He savored every opportunity to speak. That same year, in history, we learned about the slave trade.

My invocation of the sun has little to do with the lesson in particular, though I swear I still feel the burning of flesh and the boiling of blood. In reality, the classroom had one window in the very back of the room and was too far from me to cast any light, and the only burning of flesh I’d ever experienced was the naïve and childish touch of a hot stove. Instead, the fluorescents bore down on me, and the sun seemed intimately tied that room, to slavery in general. All the images in our textbook, paintings of black bodies toiling underneath the southern heat, foregrounded the sun—not the slave, not slaver, not for me. The lead actor in Roots? In Amistad? In Gone with the Wind? The sun.

So as we sat, aligned in rows of two, in the interior of the boat, I felt the sun beat against my flesh. I knew it would make me darker. Would make me all the more different from my classmates.

We linked our paper shackles together. The teacher stood at the front of the classroom. She had a habit of tapping a ruler on the back of her forearm while she spoke. I watched the rhythm as if she were conducting us in a symphony. She was the kind of lady who placed the now-tired phrase, “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it,” upon her breast. I would have her again for a humanities class. In that class she issued an assignment in which we relived our personal experience of 9/11 and wrote it into a letter to our future selves.

“Could you imagine,” she began her lecture on the middle passage.

I could do nothing but imagine.

Not even the ornamented shackles with their colorful patterns, garnished with glitter and sequins, could distract my imagination.

It occurred to me then that I couldn’t have existed. Or that I might have been a product of rape. Oh God. Something I cannot imagine—my docile, looks-at-his-feet-when-in-the-company-of-strangers father taking advantage of my mother who had bullied free food from a Chili’s because of her displeasure with TGI Friday’s. The power gained from racial hierarchy can only carry a person so far. Perhaps, I would have been the product of a secret affair, the product of the Romeo and Juliet of American Slavery. That would have at least been romantic. I would have at least been a metaphor for hope and possible reconciliation or some bullshit like that. And, of course, I had not yet ruled out the possibility of Immaculate Conception.

However I came to be, I would have no seat on that boat.

And yet here I was, simulating a ride that fascinated and horrified me all at once. As if to remind me, the other kids stared at me. They stared with eyes that insinuated that I would have been the only one among them on that boat. But they did not understand. They had not spent as much time thinking about it. And why would they?

Our teacher walked between the two boats. She tapped other knees that had fallen overboard back behind the line with the side of her boot. My knee was one of them. All the while, she described the atrocities of the events we were reliving. She reinforced the idea that these people were not treated as such. They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. [5] Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star. Our teacher did not make eye contact as she spoke. I do not think she could have if she tried. All the kids were staring down at the carpet, drawing imaginary lines with the tips of their fingers. She stared straight ahead, through the walls. Her words carried the weight of each body lost to the atrocity. That incalculable multitude, not even given the courtesy of a statistic. When those words fell upon us, our bodies became vessels of historical trauma and sunk below the surface of the earth. Our lines transformed from generic, geometric shapes into crude and invisible illustrations of dying men. As she spoke, the sun illuminated her red hair, white skin. I wondered which side she was on. Then, I turned the question on myself: Which side was I on? Which side would even accept me? I could still feel the eyes of my peers. Their eyes were pairs of suns. Discerning eyes, trying to decide if I was, indeed, one of them or one of them. But there were no sides, only an agonizing and ambivalent history.

They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star.

Time found a way to repress that history. So many years circled around me without even the slightest consideration of that seventh-grade classroom. I almost forgot that that sun still hangs above my head until a friend and I were walking to class. The sidewalk stretched into the clutter of campus, and we stumbled into a conversation about Huckleberry Finn. [6] It had been in the news. Headlines about removing “nigger” and all its various iterations in the novel filled our newsfeeds. Before I could decide otherwise, I was walking back into that seventh-grade classroom, recanting the lesson, searching for the comedic beats of the tale, but in the telling I lost myself. My humorous anecdote turned psychoanalytic confessional. The words spilled out of my mouth, hit the pavement, melted. Sweat formed on every pore, and the sun reasserted itself on the scene. Ever-present, that entity, [7] essential to my formation, and yet I forget it every morning. I wondered if my friend felt the heat too. There was discomfort in his face. This I saw clearly. He fumbled with his glasses, didn’t make eye contact, laughed at non-jokes. He’s white, most of my friends are, and I imagined, that if I were him, my mind would wander, as nonsensical as the thoughts may be—did my ancestors own the ancestors of my friends? am I somehow to blame for all of this? could I possibly go back in time and right all the wrongs? I stopped trying to read his face. Instead, I stared into the sky and hoped the sun would burn spots onto my vision.

Eventually, I finished the story. It did not end; rather, it dissolved into a nervous chuckle.

“Wow,” my friend said, “that’s a crazy story, man. Funny stuff.” We walked into silence, both of us peering ahead.

“Could you imagine?” I could hear the teacher’s voice behind me. Funny stuff, indeed. In that classroom, all those years ago, the lesson and the history it pertained to were one and the same, but now, as I recall it, bit by bit, I am reminded that I had never embarked on any middle passage. What was in me then and in me now was Sethe’s spiteful Beloved, the ghost that haunted house 124. I could see it, there among the two boats taped to the carpet, my white classmates, the teacher’s red hair and wooden ruler tapping against the crook of her arm, my horrified frame huddled over paper shackles, and a sun that will burn and burn and burn. Until nothing remains.

 

Author’s Notes:

[1] In 1991, before the planned construction of a $276 million, thirty-four-story office tower could get underway, Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI), an archaeological salvage and consulting firm, discovered the remains of 420 African slaves underneath a parking lot in New York City. The General Services Administration (GSA) had bought the lot hoping that 200 years and a shit ton of cement had all but eradicated any remaining bodies, but no such luck. Would you believe it? Those resilient skeletons were still there, were still reminding the Yanks that they had had slaves too.

[2] Black activists protested the GSA’s decision to continue with their construction project and were outraged that, as always, the fate of this symbolic discovery was in the hands of old white men. It took those old white men fifteen years to agree that maybe a museum was a more fitting tribute to those slaves than a parking lot. By that time, I had kissed my first girl. She didn’t like it when I talked about the burial grounds.

[3] At the time, Dallas had a minority (that’s black, Hispanic, “other” according to the Texas Department of State Services) population of 884, 887 out of about two million, but most of that (looking at you, black and Hispanic) was concentrated in the lower-class parts of the city. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grow up in the inner, inner city, but there weren’t a lot of nerdy white kids hanging around my school either. I’ll say that much.

[4] Now, I could give you the census data for Wylie, but the numbers really just amount to “Pretty damn white.”

[5] She gave one specific anecdote of a man: name unspoken, unknown, who tried to stage a mutiny but failed to stir the ire of his peers. He chose to drown rather than let the shipmen beat him to death. As the slavers approached him, whips in hand, teeth gnashing, he barreled through them. He even managed to snag himself a white man. Together, the two of them flew into the ocean, the sun spotlighting their descent. In all my research, I have yet to find this story, this man, but apparently, slave mutinies were less common than you might think. There was, of course, the Amistad mutiny made famous by a couple of paragraphs in your high school history books and Steven Spielberg, himself, in which some bold niggers from Sierra Leone used machetes to take control of their ship and good ol’ fashion lawyering to take control of their freedom. This story did not come up in our lecture.

[6] The debate exploded in 2011 when a publishing company in Alabama, of all places, replaced the heinous “nigger” with the much more tolerable “slave.” The publisher, appropriately named NewSouth Books, claimed the decision was less about censoring Twain and more about introducing the text to schools that had banned it. In the co-owner’s (paraphrased) words he wanted those uncomfortable with having the discussion to “have the discussion.”

[7] I feel this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that, in perhaps the most amusing political oversight in history, Mississippi did not officially ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 2013, after a studious watcher of Lincoln did some digging. Once again, Mr. Spielberg stuck up for the underdog.

 

Sean Enfield is an educator, writer, and musician based in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He graduated from the University of North Texas, where he received a University writing award, with a bachelor’s in English literature. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vine Leaves, Poetry Quarterly, F(r)Online, and Entropy magazine.

 

Lagrimitas

Mami used to tell people that I was a very delicate boy.

My parents instilled in me to do right and to avoid hurting others. I took it to heart. I always assumed that if I treated people the way I wanted to be treated, people around me would do likewise. It was the golden rule.

The golden rule. Little did I know that this moral imperative would be seriously challenged within a few short years of exposure to other kids in my barrio, especially in unsupervised settings, like on the alleys and empty lots off Medio, Guachinango, and San Gabriel Streets. I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.

Henry, Oscar, Félix, Vento, Pupi, Armando, Generoso, and Helio were at least three or four years older than me. They attended the same public school in our neighborhood. I took the bus to Irene Toland School, a private school run by the Presbiterianos in the Simpson neighborhood, on the outskirts of Matanzas. At Irene Toland most of the kids were paired in classes with the same-age kids and supervised by gentle but discipline-inclined teachers. I had some run-ins with other kids from time to time at school, but short of name-calling and a shove here and there, I rarely encountered kids who didn’t share consensus in the golden rule.

In my barrio of Matanzas Oeste, things were different. I soon learned that finding my place among a group of kids in the neighborhood came with a complex set of herd behaviors. To say that I was beyond naïve was a gross understatement. I was drawn into fights I didn’t provoke, pushed into puddles I didn’t intend to step in, blamed for stealing or breaking things I neither stole nor broke. Because I was younger, I became the by-default recipient of most nefarious happenings in the neighborhood. Whenever there was need to blame someone for something gone wrong, I became the designated perpetrator.

I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.

It didn’t help that my father was a well-respected businessman in the neighborhood who had no tolerance for me being out of line, even in unprovoked situations where I might have been trying to defend myself. My father embraced a “customer is always right” and “turn the other cheek” philosophy, which I suspect served him well with his customers. He was a polite, albeit big and muscular man, who exuded and demanded respect, and who actively avoided altercations. What this meant for me was that if I ever took a swing at any of the neighborhood kids, even in self-defense, and a parent ever came to complain about me to my father, it didn’t matter who did what, or when. I was always in the wrong.

It was under such tenuous circumstances that my childhood socialization and coping mechanisms soon imploded. The boys in the neighborhood nicknamed me “Lagrimitas” (“little tears” in Spanish). And so it was, that whenever my face became the target of a flying fist or my knee the substrate for an asphalt confrontation from an ill-intentioned shove, I had to suck it up: Don’t fight back, turn the other cheek, succumb to the misery of passivity and walk off quietly, hold back the sobs, try to hide the anger, pain, and frustration that comes from humiliation and helplessness. That was it. But holding back tears was contrary to the physiology of the moment.

It also didn’t help that I was not a meat eater. According to my mother I was “anémico and asténico” because of this. I was what some would describe as a wimpy, scrawny kid. I used to faint at the sight of blood, and was known to collapse when overheated. In contrast, the rest of the kids in the barrio were tough, street-hardened kids. Félix was the most macho and Pupi, at age thirteen, looked and smelled like Kid Gavilán, the legendary Cuban welterweight champion. Pupi had glistening blue-black skin and well-developed muscles on his arms and torso. He even had bulging muscles on his forehead and neck and hair in his underarms.

Despite being skinny, I was a good technical boxer and I could outrun any kid in Matanzas Oeste, except for Armando, who was fifteen and already had facial hair. Abuelo taught me to punch well, but the accuracy of my punches was consistently undermined by the lack of impact-force behind them. And so it was: if I was to coexist in the barrio, I had no choice but to have hope for the golden rule. But just in case, as I perfected the art of turning the other cheek, I learned to run fast whenever I had to.

Then there was Helio. A habitual brawler, Helio would put my golden rule to the test on several occasions. A head of curly black hair topped his greasy forehead, and tufts of unruly eyebrows rimmed a pair of beady, menacing eyes. When he spoke, a stench of rotting meat seeped out between and around a mouth busied by thick lips and several missing teeth. He was short and stocky and rolled his sleeves over his biceps.

Helio was an only child. His father was a bricklayer who drank aguardiente on a regular basis. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Helio’s father beat him regularly, sometimes for no obvious reason. I overheard Mami talk with neighbors about Helio’s mother not being a very motherly woman. I think Helio had no one in his family to teach him about the golden rule or the importance of cheek-turning. But I lacked the intellectual maturity to rationalize this at the time, so I couldn’t help but dislike him intensely.

I don’t know, but Helio was an angry person whose purpose in life, it seemed, was about stealing fruit from La Plaza market or skipping school or even beating up people like me who could not defend themselves. Most of the other neighborhood kids tolerated him but no one ever sought him out to play.

They say that every person has his day of reckoning. My uncle was greatly instrumental in allowing my day of reckoning to materialize. He knew that I was being bullied by someone in the neighborhood. Uncle Yayo sensed that I had withdrawn for several days. I came home from school and found excuses not to play outside. He asked me if something was wrong, and although I tried to avoid the topic, the lagrimitas on my face would ultimately betray me.

Uncle Yayo told me that as a child he had been bullied. He told me that his uncle Luis gave him a solution to the problem and that although he knew my father wouldn’t approve of it, he felt it was time for him to intervene on my behalf. I was mortified. I didn’t want my uncle to embarrass me in front of the neighborhood kids by trying to defend me.

The next day when I stopped to see Tio Yayo, he said he had something for me. From the glove compartment of his Chevrolet he pulled an object which was wrapped in brown paper, and tied neatly with twine. It was about four inches-by-one and triangle-shaped. When he handed it to me, it felt dense. I suspected it was a rock wrapped in paper. Indeed, it was a chunk of heavy, white marble.

“Keep this in your back pocket at all times,” he said. “The next time anyone does something really bad to you, you just quietly stand up, take a step back, slide your fingers into your back pocket and smile.”

“Smile for what?” I said.

“You smile to make him think you are not angry. At the same time, you are gripping your rock tightly in your hand and you are positioning yourself just far enough not to be reached by the bully, but not too far to miss your target,” Yayo said.

“You mean, you expect me to throw the rock at him? Is that what you mean?”

“No, not exactly. I want him to catch the rock that you will be pitching to him as fast and as hard as you can throw it. If he is not quick enough to catch it, then it becomes his problem. Then you apologize politely and walk away.”  That is what Uncle Yayo said to do.

I was totally confused. I could not believe my uncle, a highly respected teacher, was telling me to do this. Urging me to deliberately hurt someone went counter to everything Mami, Papi, and Abuela ever taught me. At the same time, however, I was desperate. I felt trapped in my own anemic, asthenic, and scrawny body. I had had it with hiding from Helio when I got home from school. The taunts and shouts of “Here comes Lagrimitas, crying down the street… Are you going to hide under your mami’s blusa?” were more than I could take. Now that I was almost ten, I didn’t like the idea that girls in the neighborhood would see me crying and running away—especially Catia.

I put the rock in my back pocket and headed home. That night I hid it under my pillow so Mami wouldn’t see it. The next morning, I hid it under the mattress and when I came home from school and changed into my play clothes, I placed the rock in my right rear pocket.

As I went outside that day, I felt different somehow. I knew I wouldn’t likely do what my uncle suggested, for it was not my nature to be violent, but I felt more secure knowing, just in case that I had protection. I noticed I began to walk differently. I looked up instead of at the ground. I swung my arms with confianza y seguridad, instead of letting them dangle by my side.

Several weeks went by. There were no confrontations, no taunts from the kids. I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion. I had to get new paper to rewrap the rock every two or three days, as the sweat from my body and the friction from playing frayed the wrapping.

I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion.

One day, several of the kids had been talking and bragging about birds they had trapped in the fields. We called these small finch-like birds tomeguínes (grassquits). Prized for their beautiful song, many people in Matanzas trapped and kept these little birds as pets in homemade cages and aviaries.

Uncle Yayo, who built bird cages out of river reeds, helped me build my trap cage. This cage had a center compartment, in which a male bird would be placed as decoy. Tomeguínes are very territorial, and a singing male would attract other birds. On the side compartments of the trap cage there were rocking trap doors onto whose edges I glued thistle seeds. Birds attracted by the decoy’s song would land on the cage, hop towards the rocker panels in search of the seed. Upon landing on the rockers, their own body weight would push the rocker doors and they would fall through to the bottom of the trap, unharmed, but unable to flee.

Others in the neighborhood had similar traps. We would go out to the sugarcane fields early on weekends to trap the prized songbirds. By day’s end it was common to return to find ten or twenty tomeguines in our cages. We traded, sold, or kept the best birds, and let the others go.

I brought out my cage to show the kids a tomeguín I had trapped two days earlier at Juanito’s father’s farm. Uncle Yayo said he was an unusually fine bird, with the loudest and sweetest song he had ever heard. I placed the cage on the edge of the sidewalk at the base of the steps of the butcher’s shop. My little tomeguín with the olive-green body, fiery yellow breast and shiny black beak hopped to and fro in the cage. I knelt against the curb, with the cage in front of me. Henry and Oscar and Félix and Helio were sitting on the steps, with Helio nearest to the sidewalk.

As I began to tell them where I had trapped this bird, the little tomeguín started to chirp excitedly, then went into a singing flurry. The boys were amazed, as was I, at how loud, crisp, and clear this little bird’s song was. That is, all except Helio. He looked down with disdain at the cage, and as he uncurled his legs out from under him, he puckered up and spit on my cage. He then kicked the cage off the sidewalk with his right leg. I fell back onto the street, trying to catch the tipping cage.

I eased the cage onto the curb, then stood up slowly. Helio glared at me.

“Don’t you start to cry, now, Lagrimitas… You can just take your little tomeguín and shove it up your…” Helio seethed. He was shouting so close to me that I could smell his foul spittle as it sprayed my face.

I stepped back, smiled, and reached with my hand around to my back pocket, just like Tio Yayo said. In one single, smooth motion I put my left foot forward, leaned back slightly as I unsheathed the rock. All I can remember was an uncontrollable fury unfurling inside. In a blur I swung my arm forward with a strength I never before experienced. I flung the rock at Helio. His groin got in the way.

In utter disbelief, Helio looked at me and tried to lunge. His fists were curled, his rotten teeth showing, eyes glaring. But as he tried to get to his feet, his eyes rolled upwards in a most unusual way, like a doll’s eyes. He grunted, exhaled, fell to his knees, and then face-down onto the concrete sidewalk. His arms lay curled below his hips. Helio lay there, limp, like an abandoned marionette.

They all thought I had killed him. He wasn’t moving. A man across the street ran towards us, lifted Helio up, and put him in a car with the help of a woman passerby. They took him away.

The other three boys stood silent, arms at their sides, looking like they’d just seen a ghost.

I knew what I had done. I thought of my father. I thought I would go to jail. Then I thought I would go to Hell for having killed Helio and that God would never forgive me.

I ran up the street to Abuela’s house and slammed the front door shut, panting heavily. My heart raced. I felt flushed. My chest was tight and my fingers tingled. This time there were no tears. Leaning behind the closed front door, I felt an ugly calm inside. I had left my trap cage and my little bird by the curb. But I felt like the whole neighborhood knew what a terrible thing I had done. I could not go back out in the street.

I stayed at Abuela’s house until it was dark and then scrambled to the apartment behind Papi’s grocery. I didn’t eat my dinner that night. Luckily, Papi had been at a Chamber of Commerce meeting since earlier that afternoon, so he didn’t come home until after I was in bed and he didn’t know about Helio. Mami also did not know what had happened because Abuela had not told her. I buried my face in a comic book after draping my mosquito net over the posts on the bed when Mami came to kiss me good night. She must have assumed I was asleep, turned out the light, and closed the door. I lay awake in the darkness for most of the night. No tears.

The next morning, I left for school. No news of Helio. The police had not come to arrest me yet. I prayed at the Irene Toland Chapel, but I felt no remorse. All I could feel in my heart was an empty, emotionless dark space.

When I got off the bus from Irene Toland School that afternoon, my father was standing at the corner, waiting for me. Helio’s father was there, as was Helio’s mother. There were several neighbors around them, including Oscar and Henry and Felix. None of them could look me straight in the face. I scanned for the familiar drab, tan uniform of Matanzas policemen, but there were none in sight.

My father said nothing. He twisted my ear in front of all those people and dragged me inside the grocery store. He slid off his leather belt as he pulled me into my bedroom.

I felt no pain. The sound of the leather snapping midair before it struck was welcomed. I deserved punishment. I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died. Still no tears. Ugly calm inside.

I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died.

I would find out later that night from my parents that Helio went to the hospital, that the neighborhood kids who were there explained to Helio’s mother and father what had happened. My father implored Helio’s parents not to call the police. They didn’t. Papi promised them I would be punished by being confined to my room for a month and that this would never happen again.

The month went by. My father did not speak to me for the whole time. I would come home from school, change into my play clothes, and sit on my bed. I read comic books and drew cartoons to ward off the boredom. I thought many times about escaping out the window and running to Abuela’s. I thought about running away from home altogether. Twice I packed some clothing, a penknife and some candy, and fashioned a bundle with a shirt whose long sleeves I knotted together and looped as a handle. I was ready to escape, but I didn’t. I was afraid.

I didn’t know what happened to my tomeguín or my trap cage after the incident. I was not allowed to visit or talk to Abuela or Abuelo, or to my Uncle Yayo, or to play with my dog, Yuti. My mother would never talk about the incident, but somehow I wished she could know how I felt.

After the month of home imprisonment ended, I felt both relieved and scared to be free. I didn’t know what would happen. Would Helio be waiting to ambush me? Had he been plotting to kill me? What would the neighborhood kids do?

They were all playing hide-and-go-seek on the early evening of my release. I walked down the street eating shaved ice with coconut syrup from a paper cone. I sat on the curb near where Félix was counting. The other boys ran off to find places to hide. Félix looked over his shoulder towards me. “Ocho, nueve y diéz… Here I come.” He nodded. I looked down and away towards my snow cone. I bit into the sugary slush.

One by one all but Henry ran to home base without being tagged. Félix tagged Henry and they walked towards me. Félix then patted me on the shoulder, bending down slightly to meet my eyes.

“Wanna play?” he asked.

 

An academic physician for over three decades with a primary emphasis in scientific writing, Ricardo Jose Gonzalez-Rothi is a relative newcomer to creative writing. He has had his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry featured in Acentos Review, Heal Literary Magazine, Gainesville Magazine, Foliate Oak, bioStories, and the journal Chest.

We Race American

0.1 We race distinctly American.

.2 The run in itself is familiarized as 26.2 miles—a half 13.1. Here, we change to meters as the distances shrink: a 10K is more impressive than 6.2 miles in the same way that a 5K sounds further than 3.1. And yet with the marathon, there is something less glamorous when stated as 42.195 kilometers—we do the conversions in our heads to spite ourselves. For something that seems archaic, predating the cities in which I have lived, there is something distinctly American about the whole endeavor—of how large and sprawling it is, of how we run in the streets paved with gold.

.3 In the 1908 Summer Olympics, Irish-American Johnny Hayes took home the gold medal for the marathon race. This was not without controversy: Dorando Pietri of Italy entered White City Stadium and turned the wrong way. Exhausted, Pietri collapsed from dehydration a total of five times as he attempted to make it to the finish line—the last 0.2 miles taking over ten minutes. Race officials ran over to help Pietri up each time he stumbled, essentially dragging him across the finish line. Hayes finished the race shortly afterward, thirty-two seconds off of the lead. However, due to Pietri receiving outside assistance, Pietri was disqualified. As a result of the dramatic nature of the race, there was a new interest in distance running in the United States: head-to-head races between Pietri and Hayes were scheduled in New York, with Pietri winning both times. The Boston Marathon, only ten years prior with a total of twenty-one participants, now boasted over 160 runners by 1909. One has to wonder, if Hayes had rightfully received silver, whether there would have been the same amount of excitement about long-distance running—we would still claim Johnny Hayes as “American,” yet we would put more emphasis on the “Irish” part; an Olympian forever hyphenated. There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

.4 I was born in New Jersey. My father, too, was born in New Jersey—the first of his siblings to be born in the United States, although my grandparents traveled extensively when he was growing up: to Barcelona and back again; to Germany. When people ask me about the origins of my last name, I always lead with Catalan and work my way down—I typically follow up with a line about, My family is from Barcelona, to which a typical response is, So, Spanish. I have family members who refuse to speak Castellano. I have aunts that cross themselves when they hear the name “Franco;” those who balk at even the mention of the word rey. For the sake of argument, I say, Yes, from Spain, and shove my name and all of its vowels into my pocket, as if the ghosts an ocean away can hear me.

.5 In 1977, my grandfather brought five Catalan runners to the United States to run in the New York City Marathon—this was a common occurrence throughout my childhood, as we would always have visitors from Catalunya come stay with my grandparents, until, after six or seven days of take-out and cheeseburgers, my grandmother would cook a paella to try to drive the homesickness away. A newspaper article from the Asbury Park Press mentions these runners staying in people’s houses all throughout my grandparents’ neighborhood—how families in New Jersey would be rooting for the runners “from Spain.” My mother’s side is distinctly American, distinctly Brooklyn, although there are distinctions there, too: of city blocks and bars, of Scots-Irish last names. My other grandfather’s name, too, contains an I and a U, though it is through foreignness that I got to know the boroughs. It is through the visitors how I got to know my own country: tracing my grandparents’ names on Ellis Island, climbing halfway up the Statue of Liberty before my legs would give.

.6 While running there are moments when I feel as if I am a tourist in my own body—still exploring what will always be unfamiliar; how, despite knowing that a particular hill will be difficult, I am still surprised at how shallow my breaths are, as if the air hits something solid before entering my lungs. This is true of my surroundings: I run the same route with slight deviations, yet there is something new to be seen, always—I do not stop to see the refurbished boat on the Riverwalk; I do not buy a peach from the farmer’s market. During races, I travel to towns I have never been and see none of them but the time spent on the course; my body too tired to notice the nuances, my legs broken down at the end of the day to the point where the only thing I see is the inside of a hotel room and episodes of a television show I have seen far too many times before. I ask friends who are locals for recommendations of bars, of places to eat, of things to do, yet I know that there is no way my feet will carry me to these landmarks at the end of the day. Instead, I order a pizza from a chain that I am familiar with. Instead, I hit the road back home in the morning, stopping for breakfast on the way out of town.

I ‘pass’ as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not.

.7 The idea behind running is to transport yourself somewhere that does not exist at that moment. I am not a runner who is constantly thinking about the next stride, or how my breathing matches up with my cadence. I am one who tries to forget the moment—to focus on hypotheticals: what I will eat when I am done, how the rest of my day will go. I ascribe to magical thinking—the day before my football team plays, I picture how the game will go; who will score first, what big play will put us ahead. The day of the 2016 election I did this as well—I imagined the victory speech with the repetition of the phrase “stronger together;” I imagined the space I would inhabit. In the days afterward, I imagined an alternate route—a recounting of steps, a way to feel less alien in a country where I was born, despite the fact that I speak the language without an accent, despite the fact that I do not need to explain to strangers where I come from unless they ask me to spell my last name. I “pass” as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not. Yet, even in this reimagining, I am simply visiting—the world will end well before my stopwatch does. How I feel in any world does not make others feel any less out of breath.

.8 When my grandparents first moved to this country, my grandmother spoke three languages, though none of them was English. She learned the language through talk radio and through the walls of their apartment, where the landlord would yell and curse about lord knows what. A photographer came by one day selling his services; for a fee, he would take a family photo as well as give them a United States government savings bond. My grandmother, hearing the words “United States Government,” let the photographer take the photo, for fear of some semblance of repercussion. Many years later, after my grandmother had passed her citizenship test, my grandparents’ household was known as “the Puerto Rican family,” as if there were no other plausible reasons for using a language foreign to suburban ears—as if there is only one place where our families could possibly be from.

.9 After settling in New Jersey, my grandfather ran for the Shore Athletic Club—the same club that houses all of Johnny Hayes’s accolades: his Boston Marathon second place trophy, his Olympic gold. Shore A.C. was Hayes’s adopted club in the same way that it was my grandfather’s—Hayes ran Boston under the umbrella of the Irish American Athletic Club, whereas my grandfather ran New York with A.C. Catalunya, a group he helped found. There is a statue of Hayes in his home county of Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. There is a monument to my grandfather at the base of Montjuïc in Barcelona, Catalunya. There are no monuments of either of these men in the United States—instead, they exist only as trivial anecdotes: Do you know the story of the 1908 London Marathon? Did you know that my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon? Small items that are concrete only in that they are facts. However, the truth grows old and fleeting—we replace old with new to the point where we forget where we came from, but we are remiss to remember the middle parts; the ninetieth mile in a life of thousands, until all of the breaths seem to blur together.

 

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials for Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long-distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner’s World, and elsewhere.

How to Disappear

Here is how they disappear:

Slowly, and then completely. The phone calls go from once a week to once a month, then a text message here or there; a string of emails at two in the morning full of drunk poems and questions like: How am I supposed to stop shooting dope when the asshole guard who raped me at the county jail likes all the Facebook pictures of my four-year-old daughter?

I return the emails when I wake up, I try to take the phone calls, try to remember to extend invitations to come to literary readings, send links for free counseling, always sign the correspondence with love, or you got this, or I am proud of you. My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Mostly to heroin, but also to handguns. I have come to see these things not as different, but as two sides of the same Buffalo nickel, hot and sweaty in all our palms, burning holes in our pockets until they find the perfect time to detonate.

I look up statistics as if numbers will give me solace or prove me wrong. 47,000 hand gun deaths a year; 52,000 heroin overdoses, to say nothing of the other ways drugs and drug cocktails kill us.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

First, to themselves. Microscopically, imperceptibly. Only later do they disappear to those around them. The people who love us manage to find ways to glimpse the familiar even as our eyes become strangers in the mirror. No, first we disappear to ourselves.

Like Terra, who, when I met her, had never even visited a city. Who had never been outside rural Western Pennsylvania. When I met her at the county jail, she wrote pieces about not fitting into her housing unit. How all the other girls were talking about drugs—she’d smoked pot once in high school; it made her sick. In class, she rarely spoke in volumes above a whisper, and when she did she inevitably broke down in tears about how much she missed her children and her dog.

She stayed at county for two years. The last time I saw Terra she told me she’d married a man through a toilet bowl. I’d heard about this from staff—how the plumbing in the building allowed for makeshift telephones to the cells directly above and below one another; drain the water from the toilet bowl and thrust your head toward the bottom; project your voice. Or whisper. Make a love connection. Terra, in her new white-girl braids, told me proudly she’d found a new man who treated her like a queen. Her speech was full of Hilltop slang; she’d gotten a shitty tattoo of a rose and crossbones on her wrist. She bragged about making the best jail juice in the whole place.

There she was: disappeared.

When I use the bathrooms at the jail, at the prison, the mirrors are foggy, made of something other than glass. I assume for safety—something unbreakable, something that can’t splinter into shards. Looking into the distorted, gray, non-reflection, I imagine it might be easy to forget what I look like. To slowly become convinced that I am not full of specific detail—the new wrinkle I grimace at on my forehead. To forget the particular shade of hazel that names my eyes. Without truth staring back at me, I could so easily begin reflecting the faces around me instead of my own.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Into un-medicated freedom. Freedom that does not provide psychiatric care or follow-up visits or counseling. Freedom that depends on self-advocacy that is almost impossible.

Like Will. Will wrote poems about love. Long, winding, curlicue poems that professed the kind of love even fairy tales don’t claim is real.

And he wrote poems about a smashing kind of violence. Rip your teeth out violence. No one will recognize your face again violence.

Will was the teacher’s pet. Especially for an unexperienced teacher who often fumbled over her words, explained complicated ideas with even more confounding examples. I was a teacher who was grateful for the student who always had an answer, a comment, who raised his hand, always did the homework. Will never stopped smiling.

Once he asked me, “Is it possible to write something happy?”

I shrugged. “It must be,” I said, “but I don’t know how to do it.”

The next week I brought him the Romantics—the Byron and Blake poems that pontificated on the value of love above all else.

Will devoured them.

When he got out of county, he came to every literary event, attended each and every workshop we offered on campus, took the mic at all the readings. He brought his girlfriend, Precious. One night the love poem he recited was so amorous the audience thought he’d propose right then and there.

They broke up a few months later, and Will wrote about that, too. He asked me out on dates, and I said politely and firmly: no, no, another no, one more no.

The last time I heard from Will he sent me an email with a poem about broken promises and one more entreaty: “I could keep you warm,” he wrote. “Don’t keep yourself cold all winter.”

The truth is, if I’d met Will anywhere outside the county jail, I probably would have taken him up on his offer. He was handsome, and charming, and talented, and had strong shoulders. The truth is, I often changed clothes two or three times before I went to class when he was my student. I wanted to look nice. I wanted to stay within the dress code, but just within it. As the years went by, my strategies changed on this front, but in those first classes with Will, my body was a strategy that I was willing to employ as quick as a rubric or a great anthology. On so many nights, it seemed like all I had.

A week after that last email, Will took Precious into the woods behind her house and shot her. Then he drove to a cousin’s house and shot himself.

Will told me once that he knew it was wrong, but he was most stable in prison. “My psych meds are expensive, Sarah,” he’d said. “It’s not cheap to have psychosis.” He laughed when he told me this. Will was always in a good mood.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I am glad those are my memories of Will, glad I will always know the side of him that wanted proof that poets, too, could be happy. That we do not only put pen to paper in despair. And I am glad that I did not know Precious, as selfish or blind as that might seem. Because it is easier that my affection for Will not be complicated by affection for his dead girlfriend, for her children, for the violent ends.

And then, just like that: disappeared.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

In the mail.

Every few weeks, I get letters with “Department of Corrections” return addresses. The letters are dated six months, nine months previous. They are about events long since passed, requests now expired and thought to have been ignored.

I imagine the letters in a giant bin of mail, fading with their expensive stamps and standard-issue paper. What is a letter to do if it can’t be sent? It sits, becoming unlike itself, disconnecting its purpose from its physical presence—disappearing.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

Out in the street, broad daylight, begging for change for a get-well bag.

Lisa jumps in and out of my life, mostly when she needs something. When I move out of my apartment, she comes in a borrowed truck for a twin mattress and some bookshelves.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I see her on Liberty Avenue twice: once, she tells me she’s got a new waitressing job at Thai Cuisine. The next time, she says she’s staying under the Bloomfield Bridge, but she’s gonna get to a methadone clinic soon.

I see her at the Sunoco, catty-corner to the hipster bar, both of us buying cigarettes. She says she’s with her Pap, but when she jumps into the Chevy idling at a pump, he doesn’t look like anyone’s Pap I’ve ever met.

And then she texts, and says, “I fly a sign on the corner of Penn and Fifth Avenue most days. It’s a few blocks from Chatham. I always imagine I’ll see you drive by.”

Lisa was a full-time art teacher at the ritzy all-girls private school five years ago. She was married. Had two kids, then a third. But her baby was born with a rare genetic heart condition. Long QT Syndrome. When she tells the story at the rehab center where I meet her teaching a creative writing class, I gasp.

She looks up from her paper. “I know,” she says, “it’s sad.”

“It is,” I say. “But I know Long QT.”

Lisa looks back, shocked, because most people, most doctors even, don’t know about Long QT. “How?” she asks.

I tell the story of my boyfriend who died next to me in a movie theater, almost twenty years ago now. Long QT, we found out, a year later.

After her baby died, suddenly and in the crib, she started taking pain killers. Five years later, she’s on a street corner two blocks from her old teaching job, begging for change to pay her dope dealer.

She looks like a dead person.

When I see her, after the text, I drive her home. She’s still managed to keep the little house she bought in Larimer before the divorce and the drugs and the looking like a dead person. How she’s held onto it, I don’t know. Maybe a mom, some generous aunt, maybe her ex-husband keeps paying the mortgage. I buy us Thai food—green curry and thick noodles with syrupy brown gravy that I know she is too sick to eat. Her house is immaculately clean. Her paintings hang on every square inch of wall space. But it smells like dope seeping out of sick skin—a smell I wonder if I’ll ever really know how to find the precise words for.

I called my boyfriend before I went to pick her up. “I’m not going to give her money,” I said.

“Try to find something specific you can help her with,” he told me. “Ask her if she has an ID. She needs a current ID to get into a clinic.”

It turns out she does need an ID, but more than that, she needs dope, because we both know she’s not going to drag herself to the DMV or Public Health sick. I give her $60.

I know it’s probably wrong, but sometimes, I justify to myself, people just need someone to be kind to them even when they’re doing the wrong thing. Sometimes you need someone to help you get well without judging you for being sick. I remember all the times I was dope-sick. How humongous the kindness of strangers seemed, how powerful, when everyone crossed the street to avoid me coming. I still remember a woman who gave me her Yoplait at a bus stop; the nurse who quietly brought me a pencil during detox so I could write on the scraps of paper I’d found; the generous regulars at the bar who could look at me and tell I hadn’t had my medicine for the day, would just slip me a $20 before they’d even finished their first beer. These people live in an outsized glory in my memory. They are the heroes who saw me as human.

And so, $60.

The next night I get a text message that Lisa has overdosed in the parking lot of the Onala Club during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

There. Disappeared.

When I went to Lisa’s house, I could feel the insides of my own body slowly and serenely disappearing. I was still a body, but where my person was, I don’t know. I was leaving my present-Sarah, and replacing her with five, six, seven different versions of me. I was a college administrator—responding phenomenally poorly to what was, in some sense, a work situation. And I was a woman in recovery, who wasn’t going to flinch at a little dope-sickness and desperation. I was a writer—and yes, now it’s material. And I was a teacher, and I was also a junkie.

What percentage of me went to Lisa’s house because I knew it was a place where maybe I, too, could get high? What percentage of me wanted to save the day, and get credit for it? And what percentage of me wanted to gaze at the disaster of a woman disappearing in front of me, and be grateful that I had somehow been spared? Gotten out almost scot-free.

Some of me was fifteen, and some of me was twenty-eight, and some of me was thirty-five, but at Lisa’s house, I remembered why, in some part, I keep going back to these places and meeting the people who share their stories with me. I felt it. I felt the draw of being a disappeared person, the syrupy allure of fading into a square of wax paper, a thumbprint of black tar. The seduction, the power to say: Here I am, but now, watch me, I’m gone. I am my own magic trick. Done disappeared.

 

Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been widely produced. She is cofounder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and rehab centers in Pittsburgh. She is a 2017-2018 fellow at Santa Fe Art Institute’s Social Justice initiative, and teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University.

Testimony

I wear my purple suit to testify against my father. Deep-hued and simply tailored, it masks my insecurities, costumes me in a longed-for confidence that I hope will belie my fear. I resist smoothing the brushed-gold buttons on the jacket, avoid fingering the garment’s knotted rayon slubs. Instead I worry the flat gold pendant around my neck that bears the Hebrew symbol chai, which means “life.” My grandmother gave it to me when I was born.

My sister, Jean, has decided to sue our father for sexual abuse from the time she was a toddler until well into her teens. She is thirty years old but the statute of limitations in Michigan is liberal and tolls as long as memories keep surfacing. Because the traumas flood her psyche like sewage backing up after a storm, the statute continues to run.

Jean’s lawyer wants me to provide corroborating evidence, state for the record what I observed between my sister and my father. But Jean and I are eleven years apart and I cannot corroborate with absolutes; while he was violating her I was at school, with friends, on dates, shopping, married. Or sequestered in my room, inhaling books and their alternative realities that, from the time I could read, sheltered me from the turmoil inherent in nine children attempting to navigate an environment forged by maternal alcoholism and paternal violence.

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence. But I admire my sister’s courage. And because I know that speaking out will help my own healing, I can testify about how he sexually abused me.

“To help establish a pattern,” I tell Jean’s lawyer when he unexpectedly calls me at my job as communications director for a bar association.

“Exactly,” he says. “I’ll send you an affidavit to sign. You’ll be deposed some time after that.”

Shaking, I hang up the phone and call my therapist.

“Of course, you’re scared,” she says. “But you’re ready, you’re safe, and you’ll be fine.”

I remind myself to believe her and attempt to finish a press release about lawyer community service. But instead, I stare at a window washer riding up the side of the parking garage across the street. He stands on chrome scaffolding, brushes against the orange cyclone fencing that keeps him safe. Cables dangle from his perch, yellow and black ropes that sway like pendulums over the garage walls. I want to reach out and grab one.

Several days later, I receive the affidavit. Written in legalese, it is a jumble of words that says everything yet nothing; that what happened to Jean happened to me, and so help me God, I’m telling. A vacationing panic attack returns and reminds me of the prohibitions against speaking out, of my father’s threats to kill me if I do, his promises that no one will believe me anyway. My psychiatrist increases the dosage of my medication.

“The affidavit is too broad,” my own lawyer says. “We need to make it as detailed as possible. Tell everything. Convince the judge that you’ve nothing to hide, that your father’s a monster.”

In the weeks following, I try to remember what I was wearing when I answered the telephone and volunteered to testify, which suit I will donate to Goodwill so it won’t betray me again.

*     *     *

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence.

I am the family golden girl. Intelligent and restless like my father who, in his thirties, returned to school to become an English and drama teacher. Quiet like my mother who, between drinking binges and depressive episodes, wrapped herself in the living room drapes and peered through the plate glass at our cats padding across the front lawn, at the crazy people entering and exiting the home office of the psychiatrist across the street. My father liked me that way and I didn’t want to trigger his rage; my sister and brother had that responsibility. He brought me books, gold charms to add to the bracelet he bought for my birthday, a corsage for my piano recital. When I met his friends and students he smiled, said, “This is my dumb one.” He pointed to my beautiful sister Naomi. “And this is the ugly one.”

My mother lived her days in captivity, her slurred words and erratic behaviors raging through our lives like a squall.

“She’s nuts,” my father said, and nodded toward where she lay curled on the living room floor, weeping and muttering. “Look at her. Crazy.” I turned away.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us. In the kitchen he sliced rotting mangoes and pears for chutney. We’d better listen to him or he’d chop us all up into bloody pieces.

“I hate you!” my sister said, and punched him. He bloodied her nose.

“Cock sucker,” my brother said. My father lunged at him with a knife.

I stayed safe in my room with a book.

When I was in second grade, my father came to my bed at night, wrapped his arms around me, reached between my legs and rubbed. He taunted me with the consequences of telling. “They’ll say you’re crazy, too. Lock you up, throw away the key. Then the spiders will eat you.”

When he went to the bathroom or across the hall to my sister or fell asleep, sated, I crept downstairs. “Daddy’s bothering me,” I said to the tangle of sheets that was my mother.

“Go back to bed. You’re having a nightmare.”

Years later, my cousin told me that my father called me his rose. I think of the deposition, wonder if my father now calls me his thorn.

*     *     *

Jean, my youngest sister, is the eighth child. When she was four years old and our baby brother was born, her imaginary friend, Jane, moved in with us. Jean carted Jane everywhere, talked to her, bathed her.

“See,” my father said. “The only people who like you are invisible.”

Three years later, during my first semester of college, I came home for a visit. Jane was gone, replaced by a real child from the neighborhood. As Jean dressed to go play, I noticed her arms. Scabs covered them. Fresh and bleeding. Old and crusty. I smoothed my hair back and remembered seventh grade honors English, the double class periods where, as I listened to the silence of others working, I carefully peeled brown crusts from my scalp.

“What happened to Jean?” I asked my mother. She lit a cigarette, told me how my sister picked at the skin on her arms, then the resulting scabs. She raised an eyebrow, blew out a thin line of smoke.

I approached my father, suggested that they take Jean to a counselor. “Aren’t we little Miss Psych 101,” he said.

In the sixth grade, Jean threw her desk and the district transferred her to another school.

“She just wants attention,” my mother said about the requirement that Jean go into therapy.

After several sessions with a social worker, Jean ran away. When she returned, my parents sent her to a home for delinquent girls and, later, committed her to a local state hospital. She ran some more, got pregnant a few times, had abortions. Pregnant again at seventeen, she married the baby’s father. The marriage lasted less than a year.

*     *     *

In spring 1986, I was thirty-four and in therapy for the fourth time: I had recently returned to my marriage after a five-month separation that I’d initiated without understanding why. During treatment my memories started surfacing, then consuming me. As panic suffocated me and dizziness spun me to the couch, my husband, a full-time graduate student, assumed most of the parenting responsibilities for our young sons. Each night I lay in his arms in bed, sweating and breathless, trying to convince myself that he was not my father, that I was safe. “He’ll kill me,” I said, and sobbed, shook.

My husband clutched me tighter, kissed the top of my head.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us.

During the day, I sold furniture in a shop near our home. As long as I went to work, I could pretend that I was fine, I was capable, I was calm. But even when business thrived, traffic in the store was light. So in between chatting with my coworker about his social life or my kids or the inanity of what we were doing, I wandered around the showroom from bookcase to bar stool, stopping at a dresser with a mirror that showed me, when I dared to look, that even if I was a ghost, I was a visible one.

One night that summer, I was washing dinner dishes while my husband read to our boys. The telephone rang. I turned off the water, dried my hands. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Leah,” my father replied. “You feeling any better?”

“I don’t want to talk to you!” I slammed down the receiver and returned to the sink, where I turned the water back on, twisted it off, stared out the window, shook my head. With my teeth, I tore the nail from my pinkie.

*     *     *

After Jean files her lawsuit, she calls me frequently. Our mother is named codefendant, she says, and, several months later, in June 1992, our mother calls me, enraged. “Doesn’t she have enough attention already?” she says. “What’s she doing this to me for? The money? That’s it, Leah. It must be the money. Doesn’t she know Dad doesn’t have any, he’s a teacher?”

Jean pleads with me to make it stop, the nightmares that wake her, the day terrors that stalk her, the clattering chaos of her kids being kids as she huddles in the corner of her living room, knees bent, head tucked, arms clutching her gut. As she whispers and sobs, I watch the air from the vent on my kitchen floor ruffle my calendar, separate yesterday, today, tomorrow.

My lawyer asks me to write about how my father abused me, what I observed in his relationship with Jean, with my other siblings, the general chaos and violence in our house. From it, he will prepare a detailed affidavit. I flush twelve pages from my system in little more than two days, amazed at the ease with which the truth escapes. His finished product annoys me. Though the facts are mine, the voice, the verbose writing, the disorganization belong to him. Still, I sign Leah Joy Silverman Gales and affix a date. I choose a judge to notarize it, a woman who is a vocal supporter of efforts to stop domestic violence.

As the months pass, my sister’s telephone calls ebb and flow. I talk to her out of love, out of a sense of responsibility and duty as the oldest. We rant about our father, deplore his actions in our pasts, his antagonism toward her now. He raped us both, the sonofabitch, asshole, slime. It doesn’t matter how, when, where, how often. We don’t talk about the other ways he abused us, so certain are we of the similarities in trespass, in violence. So much is family lore, anyway. The “tickle tortures” we accepted so matter-of-factly, the “Indian burns” he twisted into rawness around our forearms. The feel of his tongue in our ears, his fingers pinching our buttocks, groping our crotches. Didn’t all fathers walk around the house in boxer shorts, flaunting belly and balls like trophies? Or adorn their suits at election time with pins proclaiming, “Mike Hunt for President?” We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open. We wonder about why, absent one short letter, he doesn’t try to find out the source of my anger, the reason his golden girl has cut him off. Jean is crazy, everybody knows that. But Leah? The smart one? The good one?

*     *     *

When my mother dies in early 1993 from emphysema and probable lung cancer, the lawsuit is well underway. I attend the funeral in California. Jean stays home. She doesn’t want to see the brother who offers her $10,000 to shut up, the sister who tells her to “just let go and let God.” Our father, though divorced from our mother for almost twenty years—nearly as long as the two of them were married—will certainly be there. It’s an event; he’s a director.

Six of my siblings attend. All have a relationship with my father, know that I’ve cut him off too, pretend that I haven’t. “Jean’s a bitch,” they say. “She’s crazy. Fuck her.” They study me as I enter my brother’s California contemporary home, wait for my father to return from viewing my mother’s body.

The front door opens with a squeak followed by a collective but quiet gasp. “Hello!” my father says to us all.

I am silent.

He’s upbeat but emotional, this man who cried through Pollyanna, and works the room like a politician desperate for votes. “How are the kids?” he asks me jovially.

My sibs look at one another as I mumble, turn my head, sit on the piano bench with my young nephew and begin to play something, anything.

My father asks if my husband, a professor, has tenure yet, how my job is going. I mutter an answer and get a bagel from the dining room, a hug from a brother, return to the piano. The phone rings. “I’ll get it,” my father announces. My brothers and sisters relax. I sigh, brush some poppy seeds from the skirt of my deep purple suit.

That night, a brother who regularly welcomes Grandpa’s offers to babysit the granddaughters says, “I know Dad’s an asshole, but you could at least talk to him. He feels bad.”

I stare at him.

A few months later, the judge assigned to my sister’s case orders both sides into non-binding mediation. My father now has two lawyers: his personal lawyer and the one from the insurance company that, if my father is found guilty, will be responsible for any settlements.

After the mediation, my lawyer calls me. “The mediators found in your sister’s favor,” he says. “Four hundred fifty thousand dollars worth.”

“Really?” I say. “That’s fantastic. It’s over, right? I don’t have to testify.”

“Assuming your father accepts the mediator’s recommendations,” my lawyer explains.

“I’m not giving her a fucking penny of my money,” my father tells my brother.

*     *     *

Jean and I continue our long-distance hand holding and hugs. She sails through her deposition, she says, proud that she’s healing, anxious to put all in her past. Pregnant with child number five, she asks if she and her boyfriend can visit over Labor Day weekend on their way to Tennessee. I can’t wait to hold her, see that she’s okay. Have concrete proof that we’ve both come this far.

We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open.

In August, I attend a five-day Outward Bound course for women survivors of violence and, at its conclusion, collect the pin that reminds us of all we’ve accomplished. Though my panic attacks are diminishing, memories still steal my breath and remind me that I’m enmeshed in a process that most likely won’t end. But my children are healthy, my marriage stable, and every weekday morning I dress in a suit and pumps, drive downtown and publicize the good deeds of lawyers. I’m proud; I’m tough. Like a biker chick, my friends tease, and say that I’ll soon want a Harley.

The lawyers schedule my deposition for November, in Cincinnati, where I live. My sister’s and father’s lawyers will attend, as will my lawyer and my therapist. My father, playing coward, will stay home.

Except when it’s already tomorrow, time drags. I spend it in therapy and on hold with my lawyer, calculating his fees. When I travel to professional conferences, my pumps, purses, and pearls share space in my two-suiter with Charles, my ratty stuffed panda and confidante.

Finally, the week before Labor Day, I call Jean about her impending visit. Her telephone has been disconnected. The sister who lives in the area, who often takes Jean’s son for weekends, doesn’t have the new number, tells me Jean’s probably run again. I hear her chuckle softly over the phone, see in my mind the smirk, her self-righteous nod. “She’s nuts, Leah. You really think she’s going to hang around for that court case?”

Neither my nor Jean’s lawyers has information on her whereabouts. In extra therapy sessions, I vacillate from worrying about her safety to raging about her disappearance. She’s using me, I tell my therapist. She doesn’t need my testimony, hers is enough, she gets off on the idea of our father writhing even more. She wants our siblings to rally around her, thinks having me on her side will make that happen. I’m freaking out, I tell my therapist, while Jean’s laughing hysterically.

“Who are you doing this for, Leah?” my therapist asks repeatedly.

And always I answer, “Me.”

*     *     *

On the morning of November 5, I ease into my black-silk shell, step into my purple skirt. Before putting on my jacket, I lightly moisten my left upper arm and slip a temporary tattoo onto the skin. “Born Free,” it says. “Harley-Davidson.” I attach the Outward Bound pin to an inside jacket seam and, around my neck, fasten the chai necklace.

At the law office where my deposition is scheduled, I seat myself at the conference table and smooth my skirt. Around me sit the lawyers, my therapist, the court reporter. On the floor beside me, Charles the Bear scrunches inside my briefcase.

We make introductions, chatter mindlessly about the weather or the bar association or college football. My lawyer shuffles the pile of legal folders on the table in front of him, clears his throat. He reminds me that the court will seal the record, asks me if I am ready to begin.

“Yes,” I say, and nod.

The court reporter’s fingernails click codelike against the keys on her miniature keyboard. Do you solemnly swear? she says. The record needs to know.

Again I nod, then, “Yes.”

I take a deep breath and speak.

 

Leah Silverman writes in part to help raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Her fiction, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published (under the name Leah Silverman Gales) in The Carolina Quarterly, Meridian, and Web del Sol, and is forthcoming on JewishFiction.net. Her nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth. A metropolitan Detroit native, Leah holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She currently lives in Durham, NC, where she is writing a memoir and making abstract art.

Out of Houston

When I think back to that bar in Houston, the one that offered us mahogany and beveled glass and a brief reprieve from our hot, damp lives, I can still see Lynda and me: my blue-jean jacket, her skeleton earrings. We’ve swiveled onto our stools, and she’s paid for our drinks. She is laughing, leaning into me, and I nod, slowly agreeing to something.

Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

We were graduate students then. Grad students inspire little pity because their misery is self-generated—what fools to chase education to such an extreme—and they are often obnoxious. Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

But the agonies of graduate school don’t feel manufactured and optional while you’re going through them. They feel like hell. When I finished my orals, for some reason on Wuthering Heights, I went home and wept to General Hospital, my daily, and, I am not proud to say, singular guilty pleasure. I’d become unhinged enough to think of getting a couple of cats, of naming them Edgar and Heathcliff, and of finding this enormously amusing, but I doubted that I could support two feline suitors on a teaching assistantship.

Yes, life as a TA was tough, but what other choice did we have? To work full-time? A Maynard G. Krebs shriek formed in our sensitive throats. The poorer and older of us already had been there, done that. We’d slung enough hash to fatten whole towns, coming home with pockets full of crumpled bills, our hair smelling of other people’s food. Or we’d put in our time at pink-collar jobs, playing secretary in skirts and fingernails. We’d filed and phoned and tried to write poetry on the side, knowing that no one in Poe-Biz would take someone like us seriously.

Being in a creative writing program changed that.

We got to call ourselves writers, not secretaries, not waitresses; we deemed this to be a sacrifice worth making.

I remember breaking down to spend fifteen dollars on a lamp so I could have a decent light to read by. And dragging a mattress and box springs—a lucky find by the apartment Dumpster—up three flights to my lair. Sleeping on that bed was like lying on a slab of rock, with smaller rocks randomly embedded in the primary boulder, but I took pleasure in getting off my two-inch foam pad, in my upward move away from a cigarette-stale carpet.

Lynda was no better off than I. Her apartment had air and light and nothing in it. Well, a card table and two folding chairs, her pink three-speed propped against a wall, a plugged-in radio. I don’t think that I’m erasing furniture from my memory. I recall an impromptu gathering: after one of our fellow students had shot himself in the head, wham bam, dead and gone, a stunned and drunken group of us sitting on the hardwood floor, our backs against the wall because there was nowhere else to sit.

It always looked as if Lynda could be packed and on a plane in half an hour. And she could. Yet in the end, she chose not to fly but to drive her dirt-brown Honda Civic home to Washington. She’d had enough, gotten her MA, screwed around for another year in the PhD program while her beloved awaited and, apparently, issued ultimatums, as beloveds are wont to do. Lynda wanted company. It was a long way to go alone, especially in that rusty bucket of hers.

We had both come into a bit of luck, having been granted the two creative writing fellowships offered that year: five thousand bucks each. The director called me first, and I asked if I could tell Lynda, my best friend, the news, so I rang her up when she was still in Seattle. First, I told her that I’d gotten a fellowship. There was that half-second pause of disappointment, discouragement, despair before she breathed into the phone, “That’s great. That’s really great. Congratulations.” “Oh, yeah,” I said as if I had just remembered something. “You got one too.”

In Houston, we celebrated by ordering fancy lady drinks. I liked something the mahogany and glass bar served that tasted similar to strawberry tea with cream, and Lynda always fancied Pernod, that awful liquid licorice. She would have been a great Absinthe drinker.

We said that we should buy ourselves leather jackets, cocaine, and sexual favors, but we didn’t do these things. I paid bills, bought books, and forked over a thousand of my five so that one of Lynda’s questionable friends, a kindly Charles Manson lookalike, would rebuild the engine in my flame-red Karmann-Ghia. I also decided to take a summer off from teaching in Houston: one of the all-time worst ways to spend that season, wading through one hundred percent humidity into frozen classrooms filled with restless, albeit friendly, Texans.

I should spend the summer in Berkeley, Lynda told me, in that beautifully cool bar. I could see my mother, drink Peet’s coffee, and stroll under the Liquidambars, which blessed my shoulders with drops of their mysterious water. After another drink, I agreed to make the drive with her to the West Coast even though I would have to buy a one-way ticket back to Houston in August, even though it would be a long haul, and even though her tiny car, like mine, lacked AC. She made it sound good: a road trip, two girlfriends taking to the highway, a last hurrah. Lynda could be silver-tongued, and I can make rash decisions.

Usually I flew home on my annual pilgrimage to California, but the year before Lynda’s invitation, I had elected to take the train instead. My on/off ex/boyfriend dropped me at the station, then waved me off as I mounted the metal steps onto the car. Someone directed me to my seat, which was plush enough but did not recline a single inch. I felt a band of panic tighten my chest. Forty-eight hours, they’d said. Forty-eight hours in that seat? I couldn’t imagine enduring this, but the landscape already clipped past the tinted windows.

My seatmate was twenty, a handsome bagger at Kroger’s. We talked for awhile, then drifted downstairs to a small “screening room,” which ran B movies all night long. At 6:00 a.m., talked out, sleep-deprived, we were propped up on our elbows in the observation car, sipping too-hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and watching small, wild pigs jog around the seemingly endless prairie. He kissed me goodbye in San Francisco.

On the way back, I hung out with an eighteen-year-old guy who was traveling with his mother. Young men and trains go together, I guess. As we strolled around El Paso, he gallantly made sure to stay on the street-side of me, puffing up his chest, my protector. Having waved goodbye to his mom, we found a quiet spot and made out to while away the hours. I arrived with hickeys blossoming on my sleepy neck, but my ex/boyfriend didn’t seem to notice.

Let me set the record straight: mostly, I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to stay where I am, usually prone. I want to eat in the same restaurants and order the same food because it was good before and it’s bound to be pretty good again. I like routine, comfort, security. But a vixen in my head sometimes says, “Take the train. Sit in the observation car until dawn. Let that boy slip his eighteen-year-old tongue between your lips.”

So I arranged everything, got new contacts (another fellowship expenditure) and prepared to depart with Lynda. The day before we were to go, I grew convinced that one lens wasn’t sitting well on my eye. How could I leave and not be able to see?

“Oh, honey,” Lynda murmured. She had a good voice, sincere yet amused. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then added, “I hate it when I get like that.”

After a moment, I realized that Lynda wasn’t saying she was sorry my contact didn’t sit right; she was sorry I was crazy. Okay, so Lynda turned out to be right. Eventually, the lens did seem to fit. I accustomed myself to it, maybe.

We drove off, Lynda wiping the dust of Texas permanently off her cowgirl boots, I temporarily retreating from the confusion of loving and hating somebody I wasn’t exactly sleeping with anymore.

The trip was a drag.

We talked, sure. That was the good part. Lynda assured me that I was open-minded when I told her I feared I was judgmental. She made fun of the red bandanna on my head and all the bobby pins that I helplessly had stuck into my layered hair to keep it from getting wind-whipped. One arm grew stiff and pink; then the other. My nose reddened. By the end of the first day, my throat ached from shouting over the sound of the engine.

Lynda leaned to the left of me. I was a liberal and a feminist. She was a Marxist and a lesbian. She told me, laughing, that I kept her in touch with the mainstream. It is true that I made her watch The Princess Bride. Munching popcorn, she looked over at me with a buttery smile of surprise. “I thought it would be more ironic,” I said, but she shook off my apology. Lynda took me, along with half a dozen rowdy cowgirls, to see Desert Hearts, a sensitive and sexy lesbian love story. I tried to interest her in thirtysomething, my favorite television show at the time; she sat on my Salvation Army couch and scoffed. “You mean it’s all about these whiney white people?”

The last time that Lynda had gone west she had done so with her love, the woman with almost the same name as mine. Lynda’s girl had lived with her in Houston for a few years before she called it quits. She was pug-nosed and fair, with small breasts, short hair, and strong legs.

A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out.

Once Lynda’s girlfriend told me about working at a gas station, squirreled away all night in a glass box. A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out. Obviously, he was attracted to her any which way, but he wanted to make sure he’d gotten the gender straight. I loved that story, but I don’t remember her telling too many tales, at least not to me. Hearty and able, she worked at the natural foods market. I felt weakly feminine around her, the effete geek that Lynda dragged home to share their dinners of brown rice and saitan, the straight chick who didn’t even know what saitan was, for Christ’s sake.

On our road trip, I wanted to stop in real restaurants. I longed to be served, to be indoors, and to be out of the wind. Lynda objected. She and her girlfriend had eaten peanut butter and crackers by the side of the road, and they were perfectly happy. “I’m not going to sit by the side of the road and eat peanut butter and crackers,” I snapped.

As a vegetarian, Lynda had a hard time in the places we tried. She ordered cheese sandwich after cheese sandwich, and paid what I’m sure she felt was too much money for them. In New Mexico, at some in-between restaurant in some in-between town, I’d contentedly tucked into my turkey club, and she seemed mollified that they had pasta salad on the menu. Then her dish came: iceberg lettuce leaves beneath a mound of cold spaghetti, on top of which wobbled a large glob of mayonnaise. Pasta Salad. The cook must have put those two words together as best as he could. Lynda laughed but put her fork down. “I don’t think I can eat this,” she said, and she sounded close to tears.

It isn’t easy traveling with someone you’re not sleeping with. Of course, it isn’t easy doing so with a lover either. In my early twenties, a boyfriend and I spent three months wandering as far as our Eurail passes and limited budget could take us. We made it to Monte Carlo, to Morocco, to Athens, to Stockholm. This sounds exciting and romantic; in truth, the trek was difficult and tedious. I remember a fourteen-hour train-ride in Spain, crouching on the wet floor near an overflowing restroom, bound to each other and hell-bent. Afraid of the Babel of tongues and of men looking at me as though I were a side of beef, I clung to my guy, who came to want nothing more than to shake free of me. We parted at the San Francisco airport, each taking BART different directions towards our parents’ homes.

You travel with a partner, you break up. That’s the lesson I learned. There is greater politeness with friends; at least there is for me. I don’t get really rude until I have sex with someone. But it’s tiring being polite, and when you shift out of politeness into extended pissing and moaning, the switch can be a bit of a shock. Plus, you lack sexual soothing to help you through the other person’s terrible sense of direction, endless wheel-turning, or lead foot.

When Lynda and I checked into our first motel, she trilled with self-congratulation on her find—the place was terrifically cheap—but I remained peevish about the cracked tile and funky shower. I prefer standard brands: Motel 6, Travel Lodge. I like sterile and blank, not interesting and creepy. I fussed over the dingy shower curtain, then flopped on my twin bed in a vintage black slip that I wore as a nightgown. Lynda smoked, pleased with herself.

For the first time in our friendship, I felt uncomfortable, as if I had been traveling with a girlfriend, my bestie, and she suddenly transformed into a man.

I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

What was I thinking in that Spanish-style hovel? That Lynda would make a move on me? That she’d try to seduce me? That I’d have to beat her off with a stick? Something along those lines. I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

I had never felt such discomfort with Lynda before. I was surprised when she’d apologized for wearing a thin undershirt in front of me. We were friends; who noticed loose boobs? But Lynda slept with women. She noticed loose boobs. I remember her admiring the dark, cloudy beauty of a woman in our program one night. “She’s a vampire,” I said. “She’d bite your neck and drink your blood.” I didn’t care for the woman myself. “I’d bite her back,” Lynda insisted, and I turned my head away, shy to hear the lust in her voice.

In truth, my discomfort didn’t come simply from my nervousness that Lynda might hit on me. I’ve had a number of male friends flirt with me, make discreet sexual overtures, and, in a couple of cases, overt and awkward passes. But I am used to there being a certain degree of erotic tension with male friends. As long as they don’t push things, that extra zing has been the hot mustard to the hamburger of our friendship. But my relations with men haven’t been the same as those with women. I don’t preen or purr or pose with my women friends.

Yet I’ve always liked lesbians.

When I lived in San Francisco and taught at a private high school, before I’d had enough of kids and gone back for my doctorate in the hope that I would one day teach adults, I answered an ad that promised a household of varying sexual preferences and moved into a fantastic apartment off Van Ness, with a lesbian couple, a cult-happy bisexual, and a woman who seemed to be predominately asexual, which made me the resident hetero.

The pigeon coos of lovemaking on the other side of the wall didn’t bother me, and the nutty bisexual and I got to be pretty friendly. I even let her take me to see Rama, that eighties’ guru, though I didn’t witness his bursting into a shower of lights; apparently, one needed to be enlightened to observe this.

Naïve as I was, I’d thought that the lesbian and bi women in my household also would be intellectual and political. But no. I was “the school-teacher.” The white woman in the couple worked as a cosmetologist, “a lipstick lesbian,” as she termed herself, and spent her free time giving her partner facials. “I used to go for black men,” she told me. “Then I met her.”

Her partner kept taking my typewriter, which annoyed me, but she scared me a little too, with her impressive biceps, on one of which a large, crescent-shaped scar shone. Finally, I got the nerve up to ask what had happened. “I got bit,” she explained. I pictured a mad dog, but she told me about being attacked by a former lover. “Human mouths are filthy,” she said. “That’s what they told me at the hospital.”

We never became more than amicable strangers. I often ate in my room, grading exams, half in love with a beautiful student, who sometimes drove me home in his father’s BMW.

Although I’ve always liked lesbians, I have never gone for women sexually. Well, once, when I was twenty, I made out with a woman at her birthday party. Someone had put on a tape of old Beatles’ songs, and a group of us shouted, “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND! I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HA-AH-AND!” She and I slung our arms around each other, buoyed on the endless Beatles high.

We were in the same acting class, and she’d been sleeping with our married teacher, a man I also found desirable, so I envied her position as the designated student-lover. She was pretty, as I recall, blonde. We ended up in her bedroom, and she, drunk, blathered on about how attractive she found me, about how she’d never been with a woman before.

Then she threw up in the attached bathroom. However, the waves of nausea did not deter her. She’d washed her hands and brushed her teeth, she told me. I was lying on her bed, flipping through a magazine. She wanted to kiss me, so I let her kiss me. Back then, I was “open to experience.”

My friend’s face felt thin, her skin smooth, lips soft, a mirror of my own. I didn’t feel a fire light in my loins, but I let her stroke my jeans as I perused ads in Vogue. She complimented my ass, and I like being complimented.

Finally, I told her that this wasn’t going to happen between us, and she raged more than I would have thought her capable of doing. Then she slipped out the window of her bedroom because it seemed to her less embarrassing to reemerge through the front door than to come out of the bedroom with me. I left the way that I came in and weaved home.

Some days later, she left a note on my door. She wasn’t embarrassed, she said, about being attracted to me, she didn’t hate herself for it, she hoped that I didn’t either. I never responded. I didn’t despise her for coming on to me, but I distrusted the melodrama of that window-exit and the rather extended rant. Now I wish that I had written her a note, called her, something. Because I think that she was embarrassed and that she did hate herself a little for being attracted to me.

At first, I didn’t know that Lynda was gay. I came to Houston as one half of a couple (my troubled and troubling ex/boyfriend), and I was on guard against all comers (one of his troubling qualities was an inability to remain monogamous for more than a minute). Lynda had prematurely gray but hiply spiked hair and a nice figure: slender with curves. I remember watching her warily as she bounced on the balls of her feet and laughed at my ex/boyfriend’s jokes.

We were all in workshop together. She’d turned in some poems that didn’t impress me; one about a grandmother I found sentimental. But I liked what I thought was a poem in which a man tells his father that he’s “a queer.” “Lynda wrote an interesting dramatic monologue,” I told my ex/boyfriend. “Um, I don’t think it’s a dramatic monologue,” he said. I felt like a fool, but I had never heard a woman refer to herself as “a queer” before. I liked Lynda more after that.

“What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended.

Then she handed in a poem that made me want to be her friend. Lynda had down all the details of waiting tables in a nice restaurant: the fanning of cloth napkins, snapping open of a lighter. The waitress goes through her professional moves, believing a man to be a good tipper. Then she feels him tug on the hem of skirt. “What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended. It knocked me out.

When my ex/boyfriend gave me the boot, I called up Lynda, and she met me for gigantic glasses of iced tea, a Texan staple, and microwaved quiche. I confessed my heartbreak and made her my (perhaps reluctant) confidante, pushing us into emotional intimacy.

As a high school freshman, I had a terrific crush on this senior, Wally Silva: long black curls and sky-blue eyes. Cool to the nth degree. One night he actually called me. True, it only happened once; then he made up with his tempestuous girlfriend and never sought me out again, but it was a magical moment nonetheless. Wally Silva called me! Unbelievable! That’s how I felt about Lynda’s friendship. I couldn’t get over that someone as hip and cool as she was liked me, really liked me.

Of course, Lynda didn’t make a pass at me that night in New Mexico. We made fun of the TV and ate potato chips until we fell asleep. In the purple morning, she happily rubbed the soles of her feet together under the sheets, sounding like a human cricket. I told her to knock it off. We kept driving.

By the time we made it to the Bay Area, we had tired of each other. My mother welcomed us, and Lynda tried to be nice, but neither of us was in good spirits. When I ran my hand over my mother’s cat, creating a cloud of fur, Lynda abruptly said, “Stop it.” Then she bought me a red wooden goat from the import/export shop on College Avenue. I had admired it, and I still do. Faded to pink, it watches me in the bath, peeking out between pots of ivy.

Lynda tried to convince me to come with her all the way to Seattle, but I refused, no longer charmed, for the moment, by her seductive offers of adventure. She went on alone, and I spent the summer sure that I had stomach cancer, smoking cigarettes and drinking heart-palpitating coffee, hanging out in my mother’s studio apartment, a flowered curtain dividing our beds.

My ex/boyfriend called to say that he was seeing somebody in the program. Seeing somebody. As if he were spending his evenings watching some woman duck-walk back and forth in his living room. I wailed into the pillows on my mother’s couch as she offered me a cheese danish from Nabolom Bakery and a glass of pucker-sweet sherry.

Lynda didn’t stay on Vashon Island very long. A year, maybe. Then a fellowship to Provincetown, a reckless move to a bad section of Brooklyn. Sirens and car horns drowned out her voice on the phone. She sounded thrilled that I got a teaching job in Rhode Island, just a quick train trip, and came to see me in my new digs on Benefit Street.

I had purchased a shit-brown Civic similar to her old one, after the fiery demise of my Ghia, and chugged to Providence to begin my first tenure-track position. Mostly, I moved through the US mail (books and papers and clothes). Everything else had been folded in tissue, including my neon coyote, a final gift from the ex/boyfriend, and strategically positioned in my small car, while allowing enough breathing room for my little dog, Percival.

My ex/boyfriend and I drove in tandem to Ohio, where he would begin his own job. We traveled like that for days, Percy watching me from his carrier. I watched my ex/boyfriend’s drugged Siamese crawl up the back of his seat and wrap around his head. I laughed when I saw the turn signal frantically sputter on. That drive was us all over: traveling together and alone.

We swallowed mile after mile like that, past countless dead armadillos, their small bodies armored and not cute, out of Houston at last, leaving behind a lot of our history along with fluffy biscuits and white gravy. He dropped off his cat at a feline hotel and came with me to Providence, where we said goodbye for good.

As lovers, I mean. We’re still friends. Well, friendly exes. The cat died, but he’s got a kid, and I think he’s pretty happy. I am pretty happy too. I’m married to someone who doesn’t (seem to) have issues with monogamy. My mother is dead, gone to Alzheimer’s, then gone altogether a few years ago. And Lynda is long dead.

When she came to see me in Providence, she looked great, newly blond and pink-cheeked, but she flicked drops of sweat off the end of her nose as we strolled around the East Side. She bled on my ivory-colored couch: a sudden period. Unfairly, this annoyed me. My first brand-new couch!

Not much of a pet person, Lynda was prepared to dislike Percy, a frou-frou with orange Troll hair, but he put his fox-like face on her shoulder. “Well, that is cute,” she conceded.

In a Thayer Street bar, Lynda admitted that she hadn’t been feeling well, then tapped her pack of cigarettes on the table. “And this,” she said, “has got to stop.” I told her that she looked too good for anything to be seriously wrong. She said, “Isn’t that how it goes? Everyone says that she looks great and six months later she’s dead?”

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

“I’m terrified,” she told me over the phone, having limped home to her family in the Midwest. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, dense as usual. “Of dying,” she told me flatly. She wasn’t ready to meet her maker, to make her peace. Her ex sent her books on death and spiritual transcendence; she threw them out. I got together a care package that she liked: boxes of chocolates and some sort of “healing” crystal, which Lynda said she clutched to her chest as she slept.

Her ex/girlfriend was with her at the end. With Lynda unconscious, on a respirator, I talked to her former partner on the phone. “Please tell Lynda that her spirit is welcome to visit me any time,” I said. She curtly said that she would. I imagine she thought Lynda’s spirit would never want to hang out with a nerd like me. Of course, after I’d made the invitation, I thought the same thing. Of all the places to go in the after-world!

I haven’t believed in a life-after-death for quite a few years. Instead of praying, I retell stories, I look at pictures. Lynda and my mother with their arms around each other, my mother alarmingly white-haired. Lynda and me, my hair alarmingly Texanned, long with poufy bangs. The quality of the photographs isn’t good. Our faces are slightly out of focus, the outlines blurred. But I like those arms around each other’s waists. We love each other; you can see that much.

I remember one long night in Houston when I bewailed the seemingly endless seesaw with my ex/boyfriend: how could I be so damnably weak, why did I let this thing drag on? Lynda shook her head. “Miss Calbert, nothing is harder than breaking up with someone,” she told me. “The truth is, we’ll do anything for love.”

Well, she was wrong, and she was right. There are some things that are harder than breaking up with someone, and we will do many things for love.

 

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of four books of poetry: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Sheila Motton Book Prize, the Vernice Quebodeaux Poetry Prize for Women, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College.

 

Mapping Coordinates of Poor, Queer, and Feminine in the High Desert Air

~an excerpt from the unpublished hybrid memoir Honey & Vinegar: Recipe for an Outlaw

Ruth and I both love horses, wear jeans and plaid shirts, are strong and kind of skittish around boys. We live in remote parts of the desert, where going anywhere means miles of walking or begging a ride. We are both dirt-poor. No shiny new shoes. No hamburger lunches with straw wrappers and easy laughter flying. Free lunch program and the outside edge of a bus seat, grudgingly given. Home-cut hair and hand-me-downs. These rare afternoons of horse care and trail rides and Uno are an escape for us both. Not only from boredom and chores, but of the need to hide our empty pockets.

I will sometimes, but not often, stay the night. The horse corral, her room, these are good places. Full of comfort and easy conversation. Her father, however, poisons every moment he is a part of. His is a sneaky cruelty meant to shame. Anything she values is fair game. Any audience who cares makes it better for him, especially if it is another teenage girl. I never let him within four feet of me, wear my baggiest clothes, and stare hate at him. I wish I could make him disappear for her, don’t even try to disguise it.

Her horse is everything to her. Riding, grooming, training him to barrels, feeling that freedom of movement. She has been carefully growing out and tending his mane and tail for months, getting ready for the rodeo, hoarding change for ribbons and practicing plaits. Every bit of pride her life doesn’t allow for her own sturdy beauty is poured into that chestnut coat, that black horsehair. One afternoon just three days before show-time, her father saunters into the house, swinging a large, rusty pair of shears. “Spring haircut…” he drawls, and she’s already out the door, running for the stable.

Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork.

I find her swallowing rage and tears, face pressed hard against that broad shoulder, while all around their feet lie ragged hanks of hair. Cut right down to the bone of the tail, and in inch-long clumps along his neck, unrepairable. Unbearable. Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork. With some predator’s sense of danger, he chooses instead to head to the bar to laugh about how sensitive women folks are.

I stay all day, through endless games of cards, and distract her with fantasies about a horse ranch run only by women. As usual, ramen is the only food available, and not the freshest ramen at that. As we carefully strain the weevils out with the water, mutually ignoring the fact of what we are doing with practiced moves, the dream of owning land stands stark in my mind as impossible. As with the weevils, we ignore it. We need the dream.

*     *     *

The stars seem closer than usual, even accounting for the fact that I’m up a tree. The storm pushes them towards me, or me to them. The leaves flatten against the wind, dream of flying free. Or maybe that’s me again.

The lightning stretches blue-white light across the length of timeworn mountains and the back of my eyelids. My skin is tingling from widow’s peak to toes curled tight against peeling bark.

This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

I’m snugged into a thick crook, hugging the trunk, head back and mouth open to better taste the ozone. To better smell the creosote, wet for thunder. Want is deep in me like a jagged splinter, invisible pressure on a bundle of nerves, impossible to grasp with my fingers.

Almost all I’ve known of sex is pain. Passive and stolen away. This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

*     *     *

I was raised with a strong sense of justice and fairness, among people who share easily and often. Nobody has much, but nobody goes without. There are plenty of toys, of books, of clothes, none of it new, but no less good for that. Until public school. Until the contests of popular began, and secondhand was second-class. I hold firm against the taunting until high school, when every day is a war. Everything about me is a target. My name, body, brain, all counting against me. I am tired. Tired of have not. Tired of making do.

I don’t remember the first thing I stole, but I remember whole lists of things I didn’t. Things I never had. I have my own rules—no stealing from people or small businesses, or just for fun. I know it doesn’t make it OK, but it makes it bearable. Most of what I steal I give away. None of my friends have much, either, and whether it is caretaker or courtship, I want something to offer. That giving streak, it runs in the family, and I’m not the first to make questionable choices in service of it.

I swipe steel-tipped three-inch heels from a factory discount store on a trip up to Tucson. Slip my fingers in the toes on my way past the table and out the door, so smooth my friend walking next to me doesn’t notice a thing. I wait until we are in the car to tell her, knowing she’ll freak out. Knowing also that she enjoys living vicariously through me and my bad-girl ways. Knowing these shoes hold some fundamental piece of my forming identity that makes them a need, not just a want.

I wear them with tight skirts and silky blouses and a black cotton duster, a wide-brimmed Aussie hat on my head and dark sunglasses. I learn how to walk in them quickly, climbing the stairs to collect the slips that show who is missing from class, and turning (most of) them in. Working in the front office gives me freedom to prowl the halls alone, and gives my friends and other weirdos a break. Not always, but if they really need it. High school is a sequence of forced circumstances, and sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes the need to slip away and lick our wounds in private, or in drunken company, is too big. Those slips, they get lost on the way to the office. Sometimes.

I steal bras and underwear, makeup, and seven silver rings of varying designs that I give to the group of girls I most often hang out with. Misfits and nerds and poor kids, a Venn diagram of different that gives us safe ground to meet on. It is 1988 and none of us has found the language to hang our thoughts on, but we stand strong together. Spin stories of protection and revenge against men that hurt us, or want to. Support each other’s crushes, even if we share them. Pass notes and make up code names, quirky semiprecious stones. I have no words for the safety net they give me, the hope they embody. I want to give them a token of gratitude, and my clever fingers slip seven shiny sparks of love into my pocket.

 

Sossity Chiricuzio

Sossity Chiricuzio is a queer femme outlaw poet, a working-class storyteller. What her friends’ parents often referred to as a bad influence, and possibly still do. A 2015 Lambda Fellow, she writes as activism, connection, and survival. Current projects include a hybrid memoir, poetry chapbooks, her ongoing column, “Embody,” for PQ Monthly, and the performance duo Sparkle & truth. Chiricuzio has been published in a wide range of journals, including AdrienneGlitterwolfNANO FictionLunch Ticket, and great weather for MEDIA, as well as anthologies such as The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care, Glitter & Grit: Queer Performance from the Heels on Wheels Femme Galaxy, and Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent. For more info: sossitywrites.com.

Photo by J Tyler Huber Photography

The Day We Buried My Father

On the day of my father’s funeral, I wake up in a twin bed at his house. Liz is still asleep in the identical twin bed across the room. Dad and Penny bought these beds for Caroline and Cate, my nieces, but as usual, we make accommodations that negate the previous accommodations we’ve made for them, and so, at thirty-five years old, my pregnant wife and I are sleeping in twin beds in a room cluttered by toys that piss me off for reasons I’m still trying to nail down. People tell me I’ll get used to toys like that, but I honestly don’t think so. And the way they tell me pisses me off. They say things like, “Just you wait… You’ll see come June, when you become a daddy.” And they say it with this all-knowing grin on their faces, and I wonder if my child will hate me some day for hating when people say well-intentioned things. Because it feels wrong, but I don’t want to stop hating people for that.

As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I try to guess what time it is, but I have no frame of reference beyond that it’s still dark outside. I don’t sleep well when I need to be marking things off my to-do list. Instead of sleeping, I recount the things on that list over and over, and I try to work out the steps I need to take to complete those tasks. What have I neglected in these days leading up to my father’s death? I try to remember if it’s the electric bill or the gas bill I haven’t put on auto-pay yet. I’ve been ignoring my work email completely. I think I scheduled a meeting with our wellness coordinator for this morning to look at my shoulder. I can’t do much with my left arm and it’s been this way since September when I moved a bookshelf down a flight of stairs, and I have to get it fixed they tell me: “You’re going to need that arm come June when you become a daddy, you’ll see.” As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I make a mental note to reschedule my wellness appointment, but that’s as far as I get on my to-do list. I’m too distracted by what the day will bring. We are putting my father in the ground today and I will never see his body again. I lie in that twin bed and consider my dad’s life until I can’t keep it all in my head at the same time, and I feel like if I can just write it down I can come to terms with it. So, I tiptoe out of the bedroom and walk in the dark to the dining room where the large table is covered with a smorgasbord of food the church ladies brought last night, and I have to move the dishes around a little to make room for my laptop.

There’s a tray of nine homemade cinnamon rolls. I start to cut one from the edge, but the one cinnamon roll in the middle looks so soft, and it has no hard edges because the other eight cinnamon rolls have protected it. I think about how my sister would cut the cinnamon roll from the center because it will undoubtedly be the gooiest. She always does things like that. She will run her finger along the bottom of a chocolate cake tray to get extra chocolate while I will insist on getting only the chocolate goo that is intended for my allotted piece. It pissed me off so much. I remind myself of how my sister strongly suggested Liz and I sleep on the twin beds instead of the room that was built for us with the queen-size, and I decide I won’t be able to handle seeing her get the middle cinnamon roll. And so, I put it on a plate and stick it into the microwave for fifteen seconds before sitting down to write about my dad.

To really understand who Dad was, a reader will have to understand the stock he came from and the heritage he was so proud of. And so, in explaining my dad, I begin writing about his grandfather, whom Dad will soon be sharing a patch of ground with. Maybe I get too into the weeds, but after a couple of hours of writing, I’m still ninety-some-odd years away from the part of the story where my dad is born. That’s when Liz emerges from the darkness into the light of the dining room. She has this look she gives me during the early morning hours, when she doesn’t know how long I’ve been up and she finds me at my computer. It’s a look that says she didn’t like me not being there when she woke up because she missed me while she was sleeping. Even if we were in twin beds. That look is a reminder of how much she loves me, and I take comfort there on this day that has already been committed to both formal and informal sadnesses.

Liz gets a cinnamon roll and laughs at the vacancy in the middle of the pan.

“You didn’t,” she says.

But I assure her I did. I am eating my grief, and it becomes clear to me that my grief warrants a second cinnamon roll. We heat them up and share a fork so there is one less utensil to wash later.

The others wake up and trickle into the kitchen for coffee and to survey the breakfast options. Penny, her friend Anita, my sister’s family. I sip my tea and watch my little nieces sitting at the bar eating cinnamon rolls that are the size of their faces. They’re still in their pajamas—cotton gowns with Disney princesses on them. Cate, the five-year-old, asks why my tea is in a coffee cup instead of a regular glass. Because it’s hot, I tell her. That’s not tea, she says. Yes, it is. It’s hot tea. No, it’s not, Gunkel. I don’t know what to tell you, Cate—it’s hot tea. She’s confused and embarrassed at the things she does not know yet because she is only five, so she changes the subject.

“Talk like St. Patrick’s Day!” she says. That’s her way of saying she wants me to use an Irish accent, but my Irish accent is terrible and I don’t want to do it in front of adults. When I tell her as much, she is unsatisfied.

“Talk like Mommy!” Caroline, the nine-year-old, says.

I can do that, I tell them.

The girls look at me expectantly with their big, little-girl eyes, waiting for my impression of their mother. “Caroline, Caroline—hey, listen to me for a second.” Caroline thinks I’m talking to her in real-time, rather than doing an impression and she drops her head down to listen to what I’ll say next. Chris, my brother-in-law, is listening and he laughs.

“That doesn’t sound like Mommy,” Cate says.

Chris assures his daughters it does sound like Mommy.

“Talk like Daddy!” Cate says.

I tell Chris to say something and then I mimic the line as best I can and the girls laugh.

“Talk like Penny!” “Talk like Aunt Liz!” “Talk like Nene!” I roll out my best impressions for my nieces and it’s fun, but I can feel the inevitable conclusion long before we get there.

“Talk like Papa!” Cate says.

I can’t think of what my now-deceased father sounded like. For years, when I thought of him, I thought of how he would say, “Good grief,” when something had completely exasperated his patience—quite often his son—but the girls wouldn’t know about that. Ever since that first brain hemorrhage three and a half years ago, Dad had all the patience in the world as he endured one thing after the other—the stroke and the physical therapy and the occupational therapy and all the rehabilitation and the shitty food and not being allowed to drive. The seizure while behind the wheel shortly after he got his license back, the wreck that it caused, the tumor on his brain that caused the seizure, the house fire in the middle of the night that nearly killed him because the medicine he had to take at the time made him sleep hard, the tumor that came back on his brain after they told him there was a 99% chance it wouldn’t, the four tumors on his spine they stumbled across by chance moments before they went in after the tumor on his brain, the sleepless days and nights in the hospital that Dad called the “beepin’est place he’d ever been in.” He had times when he could barely breathe, yet he endured the goddamned hiccups as a side effect for two years. And of course, there were the treatments, the treatments, the treatments, and there was the deterioration of the man who let me steer on the dirt road just before we reached our house when I was six. The man who told me to watch the ball and keep my elbow up. The man who took me bear hunting with a BB gun because he just wanted to go to a piece of land he loved and walk around there with me for a while. He just wanted to give me a life I would enjoy. And I hope I can do that as well for my son as he did for me.

Cate was two when Dad got sick and from that time on, so much of his communication was reduced to short but strained yesses or no’s—Are you cold? Yes. Are you hungry? No. I try to think of an impression of her Papa that she will recognize, but I can only think of the last words he gave me. Three days before he died, Dad lifted his head barely off the pillow, which required significant effort, so I knew he meant to tell me something important. I was alone with him, sitting at the side of his bed, and I leaned in so he wouldn’t have to speak any louder than he had to. “What is it, Dad?” I whispered. He had no medicine that day and so I knew he had his incomparable wit about him. I put my hand behind his head to help him lift it.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

“Dad, I can’t do that,” I said.

“But maybe, you can,” he said.

“It’ll be over soon,” I told him.

A stranger might interpret Dad’s asking me to end his life as weakness, but I assure you it was a testament to the dignity with which he lived. Long before he ever got sick, Dad said, “Son, if I’m ever stuck in bed and unable to care for myself with no hope of recovery, just shoot me.” And now he was living up to those courageous and selfless words he’d laid out for me then. My father was strong and dignified, even in those final days—especially in those final days.

He looked cold and I saw his hand trying to pull the plaid blanket, but he was too weak to move it. I straightened it for him and tucked it around his body, up to his neck like he liked it. I asked him if he remembered tucking me in when I was a little boy. He nodded slowly. I told him how I remember watching him tuck my sister into her bed across the hall before coming to tuck me in. And how after he would tuck me in I’d watch him go back into her bedroom and turn on the lamp so they could check her for ticks. She always claimed to have ticks as a way to get him to come back in to see her. And when he’d finally turn out her lamp for good, I’d fear what might be waiting for me in the dark—a possessed Teddy Ruxpin, or an animal of some kind just outside my window, maybe—but I told him how I found security in the sound of the television coming through the wall behind my headboard. Because as long as I could hear that television, I knew my dad was awake on the other side of the wall and would ward off anything that might get me. And if they attacked, he would use his pickax to destroy them, just like he did that copperhead I almost stepped on in our driveway. And I’d be reassured by his strength and his ability to keep anything bad from ever happening to me.

A tear fell down my dying father’s cheek as I conveyed the memory to him. I wiped it with my hand and I told him I loved him and that he was a good dad to have. I sat with him until he fell asleep and I never saw him awake after that.

I don’t know how to do an impression of my father that the girls will recognize and I am stalling until finally Caroline says, with attitude, “Okay, moving on…” the way nine-year-old girls do. And we stop the game and I go to the bedroom with the twin beds and the toys that will hopefully stop pissing me off “once that baby gets here,” and I pull out the suit and tie I will wear on this day when we will bury my father.

 

Guy Choate earned an MFA at the University of New Orleans. Among other literary journals, his work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Cobalt Review, and he is currently working on a manuscript about his attempt to walk across the country with his friend Rory. Guy is the founder and director of the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife, Liz. They are expecting their first child, to whom Guy addresses his photo-a-day blog, which you can follow at getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com.

Photo by Joshua Asante

Big Ball of String Theory

Yoo-hoo! I’m back here, in the bedroom, in the bed. I’m seventeen, I’m twenty-two, I’m thirty-seven, fifty. I dress in white and lie here. Let’s just say it’s mono, or Some Disease, the lazies, or the dreads. Let’s just say I never learned to spell élan vitale right. Let’s just say I should be dead.

My mother says I don’t complain. I’ve been sentenced to six weeks. Not that people will notice. I’m barely a blip at school. Mom tries to fix that with plenty of pudding to fatten me up. She buys me a blue Princess phone for my bedside, and dashes off to work. She went back to school and is all professorial now in her swinging skirt and trim jacket. She always carries a stack of papers. Always. Since Daddy died, she’s raised us on her own.

Sweetheart, she says, I hope you get better soon. Better to her means going to school, cheering her up, not dying. Better to me means getting a letter from my boyfriend back east at one of the Ivies, closing my eyes, floating back to holding hands, filling the neighborhood streets with Prufrock’s love call, back and back again through pheromones thickening the air in the back seat of his mother’s blue compact car. Oh please, don’t wake me up.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years. In Mom’s dictionary, college always comes before marriage, a case of the pot trying to keep the kettle from turning black. Get married, and I’ll cut you off at the pockets, she threatens. So I lie here, spend hours composing letters to send far way. I am what I write. It’s perfect. Just don’t make me talk on that phone, make the words come out of my mouth. If I knew what to say, it would have been, Shut up and kiss me.

Mom comes home at night and asks after my day. I got a letter, but it’s my sweet secret. At dinner she talks about work, so I’m off the hook. I study the grain on the table, cultivating my opaque veneer. She has single-handedly integrated the faculty senate by crossing the aisle to sit with the men. Feminism is just around the corner. What are you reading that for? she asks when The Feminine Mystique shows up on my lap. She has always preferred male company. If she had a best friend, it wouldn’t be me.

After dinner, she types on the Royal. Seventy words per minute, hour after hour—lesson plans, letters, agendas. She’s been doing this my whole life. My first lullaby. No matter what her job is, she never stops being a secretary. I want to be a philosopher. I read Durant’s one-volume history into the night. Plato, Augustine’s Ethics, then on to Spinoza. She makes me take two terms of typing, which I ditch, forging her name on the slip.

Last weekend my sister came home. We’ve slipped into a truce now that she’s going to college away. She got a call during dinner—a meeting of all the new cheerleaders. Mom and I couldn’t stop laughing. She’s always tripping over herself. I was the acrobat. She got the boobs and the bubbly thing, all those guys with their gropey hands. If I had a line of guys at the door, I’d probably crawl back in bed. What she didn’t know then is this—one guy used to kiss me.

Let’s just say I’m not proud of it. Let’s just say I needed the practice. Let’s just say, Every dog has its day, which is what she said to me when she finally caught us.

One year later, my love and I turn eighteen three time zones apart. It’s spring, and his letter says he wants to get married. Nay, nay, I say, my wings are still wet. He mentions his mother, who’s for it. I don’t mention mine. We call the thing done, and I date his brother, who dated my sister, then romance a flurry of friends and friends’ friends, until the connections dead-end. After four years, he finds another blonde hometown girl. After forty years, they’re still at it.

At twenty-two, I’m a senior at Berkeley, where my words are confined to paper, my spoken self broken, no dates in two years. America’s armies invade Cambodia. My fever won’t break. In the next bed a Japanese student is reading haiku. They tell me you can’t get this twice, but, Look, here I am! I feel my credibility sinking as low as my blood count. Outside my window, my classmates are marching, out raging and outraged. Some students are dead on TV. I am holding my debutante ball here, so white and so pure. No one drops in, no one dances. The nurses are starchy in nurse-caps, my makeshift attendants. Two little white pills a day and you’re back on your feet in a week, right back where you started.

When you spend lots of time between sheets, things start to look different. When I turn thirty-seven, they give it a name. Something I had all along that turned ugly, like the divorce. They want to cut out the pain, but I won’t let them do it, not yet. I’m thinking of healing. Months later, a chastened shadow, my ghost gets the message to let it begin—the removal of scraps of organs, one piece at a time. Let’s just say I must have had more than I needed. Let’s just say there are surgeons still sunning themselves on deck during cruises Aruban. Let’s just say there was only one time in ten when I didn’t want to wake up.

When your body is disappearing into biohazard bags at a good clip, it’s time to take stock. Are you still the who that you were, without this, without that? Have you left all the right things behind? What about all those brain cells that live in the gut? I turn on the TV that hangs from the ceiling. The Challenger shuttle explosion is looping the loop, transfixing a nation, blasting carnage and smoke from incredulous skies, and indelible tears from school-aged eyes. My neighbor tells me she’s seen my son ditching classes. My step-daughter hates him. Her friends steal my car.

Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses.

Let’s just say you are Donna Reed, and the kids are clean and squeaky. Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses. Let’s just say you are Harriet and Ozzie is on his way home with takeout. After dinner, the whole family sings.

At fifty, I have my lastectomy. My son stops by with a jones and I pay him off so he’ll go. They stitch me up crooked, take out some nerve endings too. Who cares. I’m getting divorced again. I move to a new town, re-date my first love’s brother, but soon get re-dumped, after making fast friends with their mother. Who the hell knew.

Most days I’m fine now. My own mother’s up on the mantle. I don’t complain. Let’s just say I’ve made some adjustments. Let’s just say I can make the case for adversity, and then rebut it. Let’s just say that in another universe, available in theory via strings, quarks, and quantum leaps, my mother stands in a doorway, misty-eyed in an apron, and blesses a union, one in which love finds a voice that speaks in my voice—a world where I not only squeak through alive, but finally walk away whole.

 

Linnea Wortham Harper writes on the banks of McKinney Slough on the central Oregon coast. A retired psychiatric social worker, she labors under the impression that she is still writing chart notes to make sense of what otherwise won’t. When she was five, she introduced W.H. Auden to the works of A.A. Milne. This has been her greatest literary accomplishment.

Matches

Green signs loom over I-80, beckoning us towards Omaha; it’s difficult not to exit downtown to the Courtyard Marriott, tell them we want our old room so we could pretend we’re still new at this. I could still get butterflies when he emerges from the bathroom in a shirt and tie, flash-forwarding to the man this boyfriend might become; I could take a shower, examining the suck-marks on my sore body with ecstasy, the proof of a desire I believe is permanent; he could take me to The French Café where I’d purr like a raccoon, us drinking cappuccinos by the fireplace, sneaking our hands under the table and between each other’s legs; we could be nineteen and so new in love we can’t stop looking at each other and grinning.

We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted.

But we’re older now, bound for the grit and grub of a campground, turning off the interstate and driving down small Nebraska roads. We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted. I get a little panicky that this road is map-colored the gray of gravel and isolation as we turn into the state park where we’ll camp.

We drive past a series of algae-clogged manmade lakes named 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3. The grandma who took my $15 at the head of the campground promised nothing more offensive than a skunk or a deer, but I can’t shake the fear that a bear has rambled its way across the state, is hiding in the thin patches of trees marking the edges of the campground, so I pick a site near the center of the grounds, making sure other tents will barricade us, just in case.

We brought no firewood or matches, so we drive to the gas station and I refuse to go inside, preferring the air-conditioned car, watching the Dodge-driving high-school football player pull up next to our Saturn, sidle into the gas station, come back clutching a Dasani, and back his truck down the road before my angry boyfriend bursts out with a cord of firewood and a whole paper-covered box of Winston matches. “I had to buy this fucking thing,” he storms, tossing the box of two hundred matchbooks onto my lap. $2.19 is outrageous for something we could have gotten for free, I argue, because he totally should have just gotten a single matchbook up at the register. We yell the whole way back through the campground, the windows rolled up: he says there weren’t any single matchbooks, I contend that we could have borrowed two fucking matches from someone else at the campground, he snarls that he’s sure I would have asked someone to borrow matches when he’s never even seen me call a pizza place in the two years we’ve been dating, that’s fine, whatever, I’m sure we need two hundred fucking books of matches.

We promised the grandma we wouldn’t drink alcohol on the premises, but as the sun starts to set and he runs to the river to take pink-and-orange-scarred photographs, I uncap a Rolling Rock and camouflage the green bottle behind the green gas burner as I pat a hamburger, trying to wipe away the unbudging fat with one of the three napkins we scrounged from the glovebox. I wait for him to come back and fry the burgers, bees crawling in the burger-blood no matter how worriedly I flap at them.

In the gloaming, a flashlight trained on our napkin-plates, I build prairie dreams, remarking how skillfully I’d picked a good campsite, how we’re eating a great dinner of chips, Oreos, and homemade burgers, dreams rapidly dissipating when we can’t even build a campfire, and I snidely poke at him, trying to give advice that wouldn’t be useful even if he’d let me get it out. I sulk in a lawn chair, watching the stars poetically as he swears and snorts until a little plume of smoke gets started and I remind him that the fire probably wouldn’t have started without the twigs and branches that I collected, but that’s okay, whatever, it’s finally working, right.

But the kindling refuses to take off, and we bicker around the charred firewood that’s haphazardly towering inside our fire pit; the family to our north roasts marshmallows and the kids run around with burning branches, excited; angry, we unstick all the burrs from our fur and hurl them at each other, remember when we used to be in love, remember when we didn’t use to fight all the time, we are in love!, don’t you know why we’re fighting, and I start crying, pull my hood over my eyes and crawl into the tent, I’m going to sleep.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons.

I turn on my side and refuse to touch him when he finally enters the tent after enough time has elapsed to show me he isn’t caving. I have a dream that makes my stomach drop out, even in my sleep, and it scares me so much that even when I wake up to him ripping open the tent zipper to piss right outside the tent, I don’t yell at him for peeing somewhere I’m going to have to step in the morning; it is a bite on my tongue I can sustain.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons. We disassemble the tent, the morning air breathing humidly under my hair, the slot-machine shower flushing hot and cold, and I walk in my wet clothes hand-in-hand with him, the rest of the world waking up while we drive out of the campground, sputtering past last night’s roadkill, speeding past the signs for downtown Omaha in the rearview, one hundred and ninety-nine books of matches in the glovebox.

 

Kristine Langley Mahler has recently published nonfiction (or has work forthcoming) in Quarter After Eight, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Bitter Southerner, the Brevity nonfiction blog, and Crab Orchard Review, where her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. She is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel, an assistant editor at Profane Journal, and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

If Memory

If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: my father strides, back straight and face serious, to the edge of the pool. It’s a late summer day. Children of other families splash and shout, a cooling breeze chases the sun. My father is sturdy, not fat and not thin, handsome with wavy dark hair, brown eyes, a high forehead, classically sculpted nose and wide, good-humored mouth. Fun, yet in control. Always in control, so that now what seems remarkable is the happiness I recall amid the games of risk we played in the safety of that pool. As if we were not all the time living under the mandate that ruled him—to keep himself and his family as well-protected as possible from what he could not foresee but felt sure was coming.

We line up to watch, his four children aged six to eleven, clasping arms against skinny torsos in lengthening evening shadows. My father marches to the edge of the pool, grabs his nose with his left hand and the shoulder strap of an invisible gun with his right. He steps out over the water—cautiously, mindful of his bad back. At the same time, his right arm thrusts out in a strong and precise movement, fisted hand opening to signify throwing off the gun.

A vigorous kick or two brings him quickly to the surface. He swims to the side. This is the abandon ship drill, which he learned on the boat going to England for the war, and he is teaching it to his kids. “You’ll need this,” he says, with mock-seriousness that makes us grin without letting us think we can slack off, “if you are ever attacked on the sea.” So, we practice, imitating his movements, working to keep our backs as straight as his. I do everything just like him, with one exception. I sink all the way to the bottom ten feet below, loose and quiet and happy. Suspended. Effortless.

Later, when we’re playing in the shallow end, he might pretend he’s drowning and shout for me to save him. I always do.

*     *     *

If memory is present, here I am: Dad is singing, bass voice thrilling and resonant, songs from the thirties and forties that we kids hear so often we sing too, words memorized—By the light (not the dark but the light) of the silvery moon. Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men. Show me the way to go home.

*     *     *

In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.

If memory foreshadows, this chills: I run up the sidewalk along a block of small Cape Cod houses with driveways in front and sandboxes in back. I’m five years old, and have been waiting until my father, walking home from work, appears around the corner at the top of our street. He stops to watch me. I shriek my nickname for him, Daddy-me-guy! In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.

My father had quit his pack-a-day habit in 1954 when he was thirty and my mother was pregnant with me. By his early eighties, when even minor exertions left him gasping for air and X-rays showed calcifying lungs, his doctor didn’t believe he’d stopped smoking so young. But I recall his workday smell. Until his retirement in 1991, my father had spent his days in smoke-filled offices and meeting rooms.

The doctor biopsied the left lung and put my father on medication to slow the progression of the disease. The biopsied lung developed pneumonia, which quickly spread to the other. It was bewildering. Never had he imagined that the smoky exhalations of others less disciplined than he would sabotage his carefully ordered life.

At that time, I was close enough to him to know he was ill, but too far from him to know he feared he was dying. Or maybe I’d stopped listening.

*     *     *

If memory is present here I am: my father puts key to ignition and glances over at me, sitting next to him—a big girl in the front seat. Before rolling out of the garage, he snakes his broad hand over, grabs my leg just above the knee, and says, “Gripper’s gotcha!” I laugh because though his hand is strong, his touch is gentle.

*     *    *

If memory is image, this I see: he looks up from his book, his legs and feet draped in towels to protect him from the seaside sun, reminding me to stay in sight of the lifeguards and not swim out too far. I run off to dare the sea to overwhelm me.

Dad, who’d made it physically unscathed through the Battle of the Bulge only to break his back falling on a freshly polished dance floor in 1946, would only go ankle-deep into the surf. Perhaps this was then I first began leaving him, each plunge into the traveling waves carrying me further away. Away from his caution for his bad back. Away from the order of his suburban home, neat yard, and mid-level management job. Away from the promise of the fifties and early sixties that had already begun to shred, a process he saw and fought with ever-increasing dismay.

Toward the curling waves where I, by ten-years-old a good swimmer, tread water out beyond the breakers where I can’t touch bottom, watching the shimmer for a darker oncoming swell. My father behind me, the horizon before me, I swim madly at the biggest ones, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, free—sliding smoothly up the face and dizzily down the back. Exultant.

If I time it poorly, the wave breaks onto me and combined forces of forward momentum and downward thrust shove me to the hard, sandy bottom. The ocean’s is a capricious rhythm. Its sand-blasted saltwater stings my nose and throat and eyes. Its disorienting power causes me moments of panic when I’ve lost the surface and the bottom. And air. I develop a relaxed awareness that helps me feel where up is in that roiling world. I surface, swiping water from my eyes, ready—the ocean’s is relentless rhythm—for a new surge. Though the terror of being tossed about never diminishes, I learn to accept chaos while willing inward calm, a lesson that will serve me well forty years on when I seek to overcome inherent, gripping anxiety.

Sometimes I take a deep breath and swim out, head down and not looking, until suddenly swept up—the best option for confronting the ocean. I never know exactly when I’ll soar. Or I dive several feet below the heaving surface, suspended. Peaceful. Later in life I will dream of floating bonelessly in the deeps of a vast ocean, so still I need not breathe.

*     *    *

If memory is present, here I am: we’ve picnicked near Hoopes Reservoir, and are walking off lunch. Dad starts acting like a hippie—his version of a hippie—head bobbing with his long strides, arms swinging loosely from broad shoulders. I’m too young to be embarrassed by his antics, and I laugh when he says, Yeah, man, cool.

*     *    *

If memories explain how the living might ignore the dying, these instruct: I’m fourteen, liberal consciousness dawning and feminist indignation growing. I argue with my conservative, staunchly Republican father, who has only been able to manage the tumult of the sixties by retreating to the suburbs. Sometimes he uses the dinner table forum to vent his ire at permissive parents with undisciplined children, Democrats, hippies, and women’s libbers: those war protestors are un-American, women shouldn’t wear pants because they look like they have watermelons in their back pockets, and Goldwater will save the country. When I argue, sitting to his left at dinners that my mom has ready the minute he comes home from work, he refuses to engage me. He snaps his mouth shut and looks away.

Arguing with Dad is like boxing Jell-O.

I’m a teenager. I resort to one of two strategies, depending on which contentious topic—war, feminism, social justice—is at hand. If it’s war, I often match his silence out of deference to his pride in his World War II service. If it’s feminism or social justice, I goad him, knowing he won’t respond but taking perverse satisfaction in my ability to get him angry, and even though he criticizes women who argue or seem too confident.

“I don’t see why I can’t marry anyone I want. Who cares if I marry an African? It’s no different from marrying a Frenchman.”

“We had an argument today in social studies. It was me and Laurie Keene against the world. We said a woman could be president and everyone else said no.” I watch his lips grow tight and his face take on a remote look that, though I’ve deliberately caused it, I resent.

In my twenties and at last weary of my steps in our dance, I stop needling him. We talk about sports or literature or my parents’ travels. We sing in the car, his basso voice taking low harmony under my soprano. I laugh at his puns and silly jokes, knowing he drinks in my attention. Though I still challenge him when he’s contemptuous of women, I’m also happy to give him the attention he wants.

I am so different than he: divorced after six years in a marriage with a man who either derided or ignored me, I had returned to college in my late twenties hoping for a career in music. I’m living with a rock-and-roll drummer. I have no stability and no prospect of the upper middle-class life that anchored him and that he’d worked so hard to make possible for me—a life that, achingly conscious of social and economic imbalances, I’m not seeking.

And my father had done his back exercises most mornings for sixty years. He had immersed himself only in pools with sides to hang onto and bottoms to stand on. He had kept his suits dry-cleaned and his ties neatly knotted, his family provided for and his kids well-behaved, his work ethical and his actions moral, his religion faithful and his politics conservative. What was he to make of me and my comparatively disordered life?

*     *     *

If memory pierces, I am defenseless before this: I stand at the sink washing the dinner dishes as my father dries them, our usual arrangement on my weekend visits. It’s June 2006. I’m looking out the window at our back yard, my hands in warm, sudsy water, the kitchen still smelling of the roast we had for dinner. He’s putting pans in a cupboard to my left. Casually, he mentions a recent walk. “I thought I might be able to make the lung tissue relax, or expand. I went around the back yard, trying to breathe deeply with each step.”

“It didn’t help,” he says. “Sometimes I get breathless just getting up out of my chair and walking across the family room.”

What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?

That’s all. That’s the memory. I don’t recall if he said anything else, or if I responded. What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?

Long after, my mother told me what he’d left unsaid: as the breathlessness increased, so did my father’s fear. He would jerk out of a heavy sleep, choking and gasping, frantic. His shoulders sagged, bowing protectively around his chest. Then he had a bad fall while walking his dog, and his step became slower, more cautious. Trying to make his fright and his lungs yield to what had served him so well for all his years—discipline, reason, and self-control—he felt persuaded that a regimen of walking combined with deep breathing would heal him.

If memory can exist for an experience not mine, I see him. Just like I see him striding to the edge of the pool, though I was there at the pool and I was not there—I was not there—in our back yard.

He marches along the perimeter of the space in which he’d taught his kids catch, baseball, croquet, and badminton. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the woodpile, following the stockade fence across the back and then down the side. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the garden where he once grew rhubarb and tomatoes, now shaded by a tall birch, down into the hollow where the fence turns toward the house, up to the back porch and then indoors. Step and inhale… His body rebels. He collapses into his recliner in the family room, coughing uncontrollably. Gasping. My mother kneels beside the jerking chair, trying to help him. Such is her belief that the strength of their partnership can overcome even this, she never thinks of calling an ambulance.

When he’d mentioned it that evening in the kitchen, he’d said so little and I asked for nothing more. I wish now I had. He might have told me how afraid he was, and I might have told him about the sea and below-chaos calm.

The end came in late June 2006. In the hospital, catheterized and on oxygen, at the mercy of doctors and tests and shots and bedpans, he wanted no visitors. Not even his children. Only my mother. Anti-anxiety and even sedating medications couldn’t calm his struggle against the relentless onslaught, in such an agony for breath he could not breathe. He thought he was sparing us the memory of this battle. Yet memory exists for this experience-not-mine and I see my father. He is choking. He is gasping. Real fear lives in his brown eyes and I am not there to help him to the shallows. He had not told me he was drowning. I had not told him how to curl himself around chosen inner quiet and allow tumult its way. And so, my father fought. As we all do. Until something like an ocean, or death, teaches us different.

*     *     *

If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: Dad waves his arms frantically and shouts for help, sinking then coming up spouting water like a surfacing whale. I rush to him. We are in no more than four feet of water and I’m a skinny eight-year-old, but in the buoyancy he is light and I am strong. I tow him, on tiptoe and giggling madly, to the shallow end. Still clinging to me and pretending to choke, he staggers, loudly grateful (“Oh, thank you! You saved me!”), water from his hair dripping down and off his nose and chin, his breath smelling faintly of coffee. And though I know it’s a game and his gasping panic is faked, I feel proud as my toes reach for the bottom and my arms bring him to safety.

 

Carol D. Marsh’s essay, “Pictures in Leaves,” won the 41st Nonfiction Award from New Millennium Writings; her essay, “Highest and Best,” received honorable mention in Under the Gum Tree’s fifth anniversary contest. A 2014 graduate of the MFA–CNF program at Goucher College, Marsh’s memoir, Nowhere Else I Want to Be, was published in January 2017, and is a Finalist in the 2017 National Indie Excellence Awards, Memoir Category. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Soundings Review (honorable mention in the 2014 First Publications contest), bioStories, Jenny Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review.

Imposter

Today: “Ms. Rolfe, are you dying?” This isn’t the first time a student has asked me this after I had a coughing fit in class. In fact, I get asked this all the time. Too often. And I’m used to it. But today, I am hanging on by a thread. I have trouble walking up the stairs. Today, when I got to the top, I was so winded I was seeing stars, and for a minute everything inside me was hard, immovable, like the air was made of liquid steel. It’s only ten steps, but it’s fucking hard. Now my thighs ache, and my breath is shallow. I don’t feel well. I can’t go home sick because there’s a standardized test coming up, and my inattentive students need to do well. I want them to graduate. I want them to move beyond this class and learn how to actually think and be good citizens. I must power through. It’s important because I don’t want to look weak. I do not want to be a liability. But when one of my best students asks this question and another snickers and says under her breath, “Daaaamn, that doesn’t sound good. She might be,” I snap. I just snap. And I snap on a kid who really, really doesn’t deserve it. I say, “Yes, actually, I am dying.” And I don’t leave it at that. I continue, “Would you say that to someone who had cancer? I mean, have you ever really thought about how rude that question is? Like, what if the person is dying?” My student is stunned. He is stunned because I don’t often talk about the fact that I am, indeed, dying. That I’ve been dying for a decade. And that I might be dying for another decade.

2007: I have a fourth-period conference that runs into lunch. I have three office aides who are my best students. They edit the newspaper and yearbook. I love these girls. I see one of them four times a day. She stops by my classroom in the morning, eats lunch with me, and takes two of my classes. She has her aunt’s old Cure records, and I quickly realize a few months into the school year that we are cut from the same weirdo cloth. We watch Strong Bad videos together. She makes a video project for my photojournalism class to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” and I think if I had a daughter, I would want her to be this kid. I’m in a bad, abusive relationship. I am sick and damaged and they miss their fun teacher. I feel like crap all the time. I am losing weight. I’m miserable and exhausted. The moping, scattered mess I’ve become is starting to scare my students and they assume it’s boyfriend trouble. They are teenagers and they always assume it’s a boy. I even think it’s about a boy. However, what I don’t know yet is that it isn’t just the boyfriend making me depressed and exhausted and sick. My boyfriend thinks I am faking being sick so he won’t leave me for the hairdresser who, I learn from a barely readable message she sends me, can’t even spell liar. He thinks I am exaggerating the seriousness of the situation. And the whole time, I am not focused on the fact that I might have a terminal illness. I am more concerned with being able to prove him wrong and make him feel like shit—because, you know, that’s what’s really important. Then one morning during that fourth-period conference, my pulmonologist calls to discuss the results of my genetic test. Before he gets into it, I mention that the lab called the day before and said that the sweat test was negative, but he responds by saying, “Well, it doesn’t matter because the genetic test turned up two different cystic fibrosis gene mutations.” He says that usually people have two copies of the same gene, but I have two different genes that cause CF, and one is extremely rare. He calls my CF atypical, and I cling to this word for years. I will think it means that the CF I have is somehow different than the CF that I’ve read about—the one that causes people to die by my age. For years, my CF will exist somewhere in the background. I begin treatment for an infection in my lungs that has been slowly destroying my health for the past few years. And for a long time, I feel better.

When I finally cut that abusive boyfriend loose for good, one of the last things he yells at me is, “Who’s going to love the dying girl?”

2008 or so: When I finally cut that abusive boyfriend loose for good, one of the last things he yells at me is, “Who’s going to love the dying girl?” But I don’t think of myself that way, or at least not yet. Years later, these words will bubble up again, and they will be more painful than they were at the time they were spoken. Now that I know I have CF, I do some research, and while what I learn should be scary, it’s not, because I realize I can’t possibly have the same disease as these people I’m reading about. I’m atypical. I don’t take hundreds of pills—just five or six. I have inhalers but not nebulizers. I have no idea what this vest contraption is that people keep talking about online, and when I read about doing hours of treatments a day, I have no concept of what that’s like because I don’t do any treatments. I take my antibiotics, and I use my inhaler, but other than that, life is pretty much the same as it always has been.

2013: I began my teaching career at a Title I school where sixty-five percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged or “at risk.” Most of my students do not speak English as their native language, and since I teach English, this makes my job a challenge. My last year at this school, eighty-nine out of my 120 students do not pass their standardized test, and now I’ll have to prepare them for not only their ninth-grade test but their tenth-grade test as well. What they want me to do is impossible, but I try anyway because I love my students. I want them to graduate and have opportunities. But I am tired, and I am starting to realize that I am sicker than I used to be. One day after school, one of my coworkers, who confuses my thick-skin and blunt manner for a lack of feelings, says to me, “My students keep asking me who’s going to die first, you or McDonald,” meaning a coworker who is planning on retiring at the end of the year because of prolonged illness. And in that moment, I understand that perhaps I look as run-down as I feel and that maybe my coughing, though normal and routine for me, is jarring for others. Two days later, my school district announces that it is switching to some state-sponsored health insurance and that if I want actual coverage, it will cost me $425 a month out of my own pocket. The union has plans to protest, but I am scared shitless. A week later, I go to see my pulmonologist, and he says that he wants me to get established at the transplant center in San Antonio. My pulmonary function tests are showing a decline. And after requesting these test results for the past few years and doing more online research, I realize that my rate of decline is concerning. I’m getting close to the transplant range. I make the appointment. I start looking for a job in a district with better health insurance. And then I join a CF forum because the only person I know who has had a lung transplant is dead.

Thoughts that regularly occurred between 2013 and 2015: A lung transplant is considered a success if the patient lives one year post-transplant. I know this from Gregory. His transplant went down in the books as a success. But he died one year and one month later, and in my mind, it was not a success because my friend is dead, and I need him now. Most CF patients live five years post-transplant.

At first, at my new job, I do not tell anyone that I have cystic fibrosis. Mentioning this while applying for a teaching position would’ve hurt my chances of getting a job.

2014: At first, at my new job, I do not tell anyone that I have cystic fibrosis. Mentioning this while applying for a teaching position would’ve hurt my chances of getting a job. Later, I tell a few coworkers, but I still don’t want to tell my boss until I’ve proven myself. One day during my first year at this new school, a man approaches me in the copy room and pulls me aside to talk to in confidence. He says, “I know this is a weird question, but do you have cystic fibrosis?” He explains that he heard there was a new English teacher with CF and that his daughter has it. We talk for a while. He suggests I contact the CF clinic at Dell Children’s Hospital, where his daughter is a patient. I realize at the end of the conversation that this man looked at me and recognized that I had CF. I look like I have CF.

2014: I’m in the hospital for IV meds. The infection I had for years is gone, but now I have pseudomonas. I know from my CF forum that this is common, and while not the worst bug you can get, it’s hard to shake. I’ve been quietly lurking on the CF forum for a while now, and I’m starting to realize that I am indeed atypical, but perhaps not in the ways I thought. I slowly begin to understand from stalking profiles and gleaning information from posts that there is no such thing as atypical CF, or rather there is, but in general all CF is different. It’s a disease that affects no two people exactly the same. Some die at thirty, and some live into their seventies, and no doctor can tell you what will happen. They can’t tell you how long you will live or how you will respond to a transplant, if you can have children or not, or even how long you’ll be able to work with the disease. One study I find on the internet says that atypical CF, while once believed to be a milder form of the disease, can actually just be a later onset of the disease that affects mostly one organ, and unfortunately for you, it’s the lung. The one you need to breathe—the most basic life-sustaining function. When my coworkers come to visit me at the hospital, I take them to the mini-kitchen for ice cream. I get to order hospital food like it’s room service, and so I don’t mind being here. I keep saying that it’s like a very boring all-inclusive resort.

Six months later in 2014: At the transplant hospital, they forget about me for two hours. This is my third visit, and my lung function has dropped to thirty-five percent. The respiratory therapist, who is an asshole, grills me about why I don’t go to a CF clinic. He asks why I don’t do the usual treatments that most CF patients do, and then he gives me the hard sell on going to the CF clinic that’s opening in San Antonio. Later, when I see the transplant doctor, he also gives me the hard sell for a lung transplant. I can tell he wants me to get one because he thinks I’ll be good for their success rates. I’m young(ish) and healthy(ish). I still go to work. I still function like a relatively normal person, but my lung is indeed damaged and only getting worse. When I leave, I decide I’m never going back. I don’t want to be sold a transplant. I don’t give a fuck about their success rates. If I get a new lung, I will be out of work, and I’m not going to stop working unless I’m near death. Odds be damned. If I can’t teach, I don’t know who I am. But things are bad enough that I’m finally very afraid I’m going to die, and so I call the CF clinic. I also finally tell my boss. When I tell my pulmonologist I am leaving him for the CF clinic, it feels like a breakup. At the clinic, they give me the vest. I get the nebulizer, and I am put on the typical treatment regimen.

2015: I am going back into the hospital for the second summer in a row. I’ll be getting my first PICC line. And since I still have exactly zero friends with CF, I Google the process, and I’m freaked-the-fuck-out. Websites describe needles and long tubes that go into a peripheral vein and are then guided toward one of the central veins near the heart where blood flows more quickly. They mention the use of ultrasound machines to find the vein. The night before I go into the hospital, I get drunk with my coworkers. I’m facing two weeks of being connected to tubes and drugs and probably no booze. And this realization actually scares me more than the poking and prodding does.

Somewhere deep inside I can still feel a visceral denial coursing through me. Because this has always been my problem—dealing with the admission that I am dying, or seriously ill, in any real sort of way. It’s the denial that allows me to skip treatments in favor of watching the love arc of Naomi and Max on 90210. It’s the denial that never fills my inhaler prescriptions because I would rather spend twenty-five dollars on booze than on albuterol. And I am pretty sure that denial was in full force the night I decided to smoke a clove at a Queers concert despite knowing the probable consequences. (That night I coughed up so much blood that I texted a photo of it to my boyfriend for confirmation that it was, in fact, a disconcerting amount of blood.) The denial comes in waves, but it’s always there. Until something happens and my body forces me to reckon with the reality of its limitations.

Today: I am almost forty, and I’m standing in front of my students—all of them born since the turn of the century—losing my shit over a dumb “are you dying” joke. Which is stupid because I’ve never had trouble with the admission that I am dying when I need it for dramatic or comic effect—mostly when I return home for a visit and my family seems both unrecognizable and unaware that I am visiting for only a short time and forces me to do things I do not want to do, like a family gathering where I don’t actually know anyone they’ve invited. Sometimes I use it when I am pissed off at a friend or ex-boyfriend and I want to make him feel like shit for ignoring me for the last decade, or when a coworker is complaining about something petty and I want to be morbid to freak her out because I am bored of teacher talk. Sometimes I use it to segue into a particularly inappropriate comment or as an excuse for one. Sometimes I whip it out in lieu of an apology. More often than not, it’s the reason I give for canceling plans or being late to work.

But today, I can’t deal with jokes. I am too tired, and the walk up those ten steps felt like it was killing me

But today, I can’t deal with jokes. I am too tired, and the walk up those ten steps felt like it was killing me. I have told my students bits and pieces about my illness before. I have even said at times that I have cystic fibrosis, but they are fifteen, and they don’t know what it is, and even more important, they can’t fathom that the person who stands in front of them every day bitching at them to pay attention or proofread could actually die. But I am dying, and I spend a good portion of my life either trying to acknowledge that fact in some sort of authentic way so I don’t waste time—reminding myself that to do good in the world and make the most of life and all that shit—or trying to ignore it. And when I cough, and I do indeed feel like I’m fucking dying, and the chorus of apathetic teenagers keeps saying what I’m hearing in my head—“You’re dying”—I snap. And then I am sorry. I am sorry not only because I feel bad for making them feel bad but also because I have said over and over again to anyone who will listen that I would teach until my last dying breath, and right now I feel like a liar. I am an imposter. Most days, I don’t feel sick enough for that statement to be true without a qualifier. And, to be honest, I have more important shit to think about. Because fuck that. I’m not the dying girl. I’m Ms. Rolfe.

 

Bree A. Rolfe lives in Austin, TX, where she teaches writing and literature to the mostly reluctant, but always lovable, teenagers at James Bowie High School. She is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a music journalist for ten years before she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to writing poetry and teaching. Her work has appeared in Saul Williams’ poetry anthology Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, the Barefoot Muse anthology Forgetting Home: Poems About Alzheimer’s, the Redpaint Hill anthology Mother is a Verb, and 5AMMagazine. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College.​​

Photo by Cynthia L. Miller

Flash Point

My best friend is buying a house in Upstate New York with her boyfriend. A family friend expects her first child in eight days. I’m twenty-two, and I have never felt more alone.

I. “For this was the round of love: fear which leads on desire, tenderness and fury, and that brutal anguish which triumphantly follows pleasure,” Françoise Sagan, seventeen-years-old, wrote in Bonjour Tristesse.

At thirteen, I lie awake at night, wrapping my arms about my own torso, and imagine they belong to someone else. I dream of unrequited love; the most poignant stories are always bittersweet. The Brontës are my bonnes soeurs.

Five years pass. Unpacking boxes into an empty dorm, I hesitate. What could love do to me? Friends give up opportunities in the name of compromise, for “love.” Chipper, they readily change the shape of their lives to suit someone else’s plans. My decisions are my own now. I choose solipsism.

II. “I don’t know how to write love letters,” Frieda Kahlo wrote in 1946. “But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened up for you. Since I fell in love with you, everything is transformed and full of beauty… love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.”

I have a friend who is an actor in New York. Caught between time zones, we attempt to keep each other relevant in our increasingly separate lives.

I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

On my morning métro commute, I lean heavily against the window, watching the tangle of Gare du Nord slide by. My phone flashes with the flow of his uninhibited late night musings. At twilight, walking home from work, he reads my snarled texts about the trials of putting down roots in a transient city. We compare the pressures of trying to make it in cultural capitals: our shaken sense of place, identity; our occupational dreams and whether or not we’re cut out for them. But we always come back to love.

“This is the most mixed up, terrifying, exciting time of my life, and this love thing? Those feelings are the most mixed up of all,” he writes to me.

I tell him I have met a man. I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

III. “I saw her again last night, and you know that I shouldn’t,” John Phillips wrote for The Mamas and The Papas’ self-titled, second album.

People ask me if I have someone. Turning twenty-five demands it: invitations to weddings clutter my letterbox; engagement announcements stack up in my feed. They mistake my hesitation. I’m searching for words. Do I begin with a lecture on their assumption that a relationship defines me, or attempt to explain the unformed thing we have between us?

What little I know about firefighting is at the forefront of my mind: the time during a fire at which the room is so completely consumed with flames that saving it becomes an impossibility—the flash point. It is the point of no return; a moment splitting your life into a before and an after.

I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me.

A close friend watches me with you. I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me. Does loving you demand division? You’re incapable of telling yourself how you feel, but your whole face lights up at the sight of me. I resign myself to this.

IV. “And I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight,” J. D. Salinger writes at the closing of Franny and Zooey.

In attic rooms, we argue. His bag clinks as he sets it down. He never arrives without three bottles of red wine.

“You’re a child,” he spits, refilling his glass again. He leans back in his chair and tells me exactly what’s wrong with me. I choke down a fourth glass, hoping it will allow me to be myself.

I wake to one-line apologies.

When we first fell, we’d linger in his bed, push our heads close together. Glasses on the nightstand, his face was the only thing in focus as the sun changed its slant across the white plaster walls.

Abruptly, he is gone.

These days are no longer shaped by his fluctuations. Feeling the unspoken edges, my heart heals slowly. For the first time in months, my rhythm is my own. I wonder how he fills his hours. I wonder who calms him down. He still has my book, and I wonder if he thinks of me.

 

Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in creative writing. She has contributed articles for publications such as Paste Magazine, LensCulture, and Teen Vogue. Her short stories have received an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest’s 2014 Popular Fiction Awards, as well as a finalist distinction for Crab Orchard Review’s 2013 Charles Johnson Fiction Award. She currently lives in Paris.

Faith Is What You Have: Reading Photographs with Flannery O’Connor

On the day of my great-aunt Era Mae and great-uncle Alvin’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, I wore my stepfather’s striped, navy tie and—after stopping for breakfast on the drive through North Alabama—a small grease stain on my khaki pants. Over the air conditioner, my grandmother told me I should’ve put a napkin on my lap first. My grandfather fumbled with an Altoids tin.

Is it important to remember exactly how old you are when your grandmother’s family—who she has described your entire life, from the safe distance that separates Birmingham from Southeast Tennessee, as “frustrating” or “backwards”—decides to celebrate a fact of nuptial endurance in the wood-paneled community room of a Protestant church, during which you have been tasked to sit next to the guestbook at the entrance and say to each increasingly distant and underdressed relative, “Please sign in?”

I remember my grandmother sitting with her sister Era Mae as she opened presents, a pinned yellow tulip making the right side of her cream blouse sag. A congratulatory cake, matching white-and-yellow arrangements throughout, and—memorialized in a photograph—my grandmother standing between her siblings, hair coiffed, a single strand of pearls along the neckline of an unbelted black dress worn without regard for the occasion’s theme or day’s humidity.

*     *     *

Southerners, unsurprisingly, age; why is more complicated. After announcing he keeps so young by kissing “all the pretty guls,” Flannery O’Connor’s narrator considers 104-year-old General Sash:

The past and the future were the same thing to him, one
forgotten and the other not remembered… Every year on
Confederate Memorial Day, he was bundled up and lent
to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed from
one to four in a musty room full of old photographs…

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” situates a dying, and then dead, Confederate General between the cultural and social fictions his wartime labor necessitated in a Reconstructed South, as well as the past that labor separated from the future, and present, it produces. “Late Encounter,” like most of O’Connor’s early short fiction, trades in religious undertones and images. Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

My grandmother was born in 1935; my grandfather, 1932. They moved to Birmingham from Lawrenceburg and Talledega after my grandfather’s naval service in the Korean War and started a family. My mother was born in 1962, soon after her sister who, twenty-three years later, died from a rare genetic disorder. During those twenty-three years, my grandparents bought a houseboat, kept at the nearby lake, and lived a life that seems, based on advertisements from the period, precisely metropolitan: mentholated cigarettes, late-night games of bridge, rolled-sleeves, hair buns, well-tailored blouses with accent pieces and exaggerated features. A life to which I have no direct access, under which inevitably lurked the violence and “backwardness” typifying O’Connor’s fiction, but otherwise seems in photographs and memory normal—a life from which my grandmother, at an age just older than I was next-to-that-guestbook, with a courage rarely discussed, decided to flee, leaving behind her hometown, to follow the bright meridian of what she knew she deserved.

O’Connor’s fiction is rife with Southerners torturously denying or confronting their arrogance to comprehend the land of their first or only thinking. Her characters live in and return from New York or Japan; they earn doctoral degrees in philosophy and change their names; they try to educate orphaned prophets in the ways of modern rationalism. In a letter to Robie Macauley from September 1955, O’Connor writes: “I wonder at how you can pick up the feeling of foreign places like that as I cannot put down any idiom but my own. I presume there are some advantages to not being a Southerner.” O’Connor disregards her efforts to integrate theological concepts and registers into the idioms of her characters and narrators, but does illuminate the darker condition: that language, for all the travel and knowledge it is able to communicate, is experience. Displacement is expressed throughout O’Connor’s work as a problem of utterance. What we say—or fail to say—is re-homed in the experience we have left outside our past or trapped inside the idiom of that excision, which fails to make this bright future, this fought-for elsewhere, newly different.

“Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge,” Flannery writes in 1962. When my aunt died, the family that my grandmother had escaped converged for an afternoon in the remains of the life she had built, had selectively narrated to them for years. Inside this time my mother said it changed: my family’s shared, past experience into an unceasing experience of the past. “I know God has a plan,” Southerners are prone to say on funeral occasions, arriving themselves as O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin did at the understanding, “you must have certain things before you could know certain things.” Grief, like grace, is encountered or deepened through gestures of possession. Through these efforts, we know incomprehensibility.

*     *     *

I was given two blue-ink Bic pens to keep with the book, laughing to myself at the blunted handwriting unknown kin offered. Leaving the car, my mom told me I was only there to make sure everyone signed in, so Era Mae could review the ledger and later call the invited but absent guests, wondering with passive aggression if they’d got sick, or what had kept them from the party.

Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away.

I was too young at the time to lie under the awkward questions everyone later subjected me: “Where’s your girlfriend,” for instance, or, “You aren’t going away for school, are you?” Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away. Language that, in the old spirit of her own mother, my mom encouraged.

O’Connor was “roped and tied” into the Protestant South where, she says, with the dilution of time and matter, “the best of my writing has been done.” Her chronicle of this time exposes the fault line along which generations of families in the American South continually form: aspiration, communicated from the past, for a vague and better future is defined within the parameters of the stuck—fallen— parent. In the case of Tarwater and The Violent Bear It Away, this line runs in two directions: toward the past and death, into his uncle’s prophesying, and into the future, where Rayber offers a world that ironically contains and reproduces all the violence his modernity alleges to obviate.

“How do you like being in the country again?” [Rayber] growled. “Reminder you of Powderhead?”

“I come to fish,” the boy said disagreeably.

Goddam you, his uncle thought, all I’m trying to do is save you from being a freak.

Rayber—comically, ironically—thinks “Goddam” in his proselytizing efforts against the quiet orphan he suspects of religious zealotry. Celebratory sign-ins become carceral, and salvation is a function of unbecoming, or staying.

I study the photos from that anniversary party now—in one my great uncle covers his face in laughter—where, in looking around the room of her sister’s celebration, my grandmother refused to smile. She observed with eyes long incapable of ordinary sight. I wonder whether debility is produced by singular losses or trauma, or by the contexts these events reopen. The final pages of The Violent Bear It Away rank among my favorite—even though I’m still uncomfortable with framing Tarwater’s molestation as a prerequisite for prophetic consciousness—because the confrontation between, and the tolls of, understanding what the dead demand and the limiting registers of our sensation are created and perceived at breakneck speeds by O’Connor’s child. The novel’s dated position in its time reinforces the awful paradox of what language produces here: purpose from the absence of knowledge, and absence as the only communicable form of our shared lack.

For my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary we drove them through north Alabama, past the room of yellow flowers, to Nashville, where we sat rows from a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, after which we stayed in a hotel. We ate dinner in a garden where, on a bench canopied by lights, they sat, staring at one another, smiling in profile. I try to imagine what it would mean to look at this photo and think only as my grandmother would: staring across, glimpsing a light behind my grandfather, noticing the handrail a few paces past his shoulder leading down the stone stairway to our car. At what moment she had had her vision, if she recalled that moment in the blink of my mother’s camera. If the string band and hotel room was the fate she envisioned, in a nearby county decades ago, studying the twilight road along which Tarwater comprehended God’s terrible speed of mercy.

 

Born and raised in central Alabama, Engram Wilkinson studied literature and writing at Tulane. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing, LIT, Anomalous PressWag’s Revue, Room220, and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first full-length manuscript, and lives in California, where he studies law. Engram can be found online at engramwilkinson.info.

Progress Notes

The first time I visit her, she lies in bed at the far end of the hall where residents with the worst kinds of dementia are placed, where the man in room 308 rigidly slumps in a geri-chair, eyes and mouth open wide as if in a trance, where the wild-haired woman in room 309 clasps a soft-bristle brush to her breast and rocks back and forth, tied to her wheelchair with a blue padded belt, where the bed alarms never stop beeping and the questions are endless, Where am I? Who am I? Will you help me? Two knocks on her door, room 310, and I enter. A radio sits on her bedside table. On the shelf across from her bed, a rubber snake coils against a pink ballerina music box. She stares up at a poster tacked to the ceiling above her bed, a photo of wildflowers on a high mountain slope. I wonder what she thinks about, if she can still think at all.

Her name is Rita. She is in her mid-fifties, decades younger than most residents, admitted for wound care because bedsores have broken through the tender skin on her backside, and her husband can no longer care for her at home. Her thin body is contracted, bent knees wedged between the bedrails, hands curled into tight fists. She can tolerate sitting in her wheelchair for an hour a day when her husband comes on his lunch break. After he leaves, an aide puts her back to bed and a nurse pours milky-brown, high-protein liquid into the tube in her belly to keep her hydrated and fed.

Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

I know a little about advanced multiple sclerosis: she may suffer from painful spasms or burning sensations. She may have a lucid mind or significant memory loss, clear vision or blurred. Because I’ve heard she can no longer speak, I have no way of knowing for sure. According to her Activities Care Plan, I’m supposed to provide one-to-one visits three times a week for sensory stimulation: play music and ring bells, wave cinnamon sticks and rosebud sachets beneath her nose, or show her objects from my cart—bright fabrics, silk flowers, rhinestone jewelry—the types of activities I do for residents with severe cognitive deficits. Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

Her long wavy hair, deep brown with a hint of silver at the temples, fans across her pillow, and several tendrils stick to her damp forehead.

I rub her arm.

She screams, high-pitched wails that rise from deep inside, as if with all her strength she pushes out the noise.

I turn on the radio.

I know staff can hear her in the hallway and residents listen through the walls. When I push their wheelchairs past her room on my way to a social program, they glance toward her door. One resident may shake his head and say, “Poor kid.” Another will yell, “Shut the hell up!” She annoys me too.

Each one of her screams is punctuated by a moment of silence before beginning again. I pull a picture book from my cart and hold it up to her face. She bares her teeth.

*     *     *

I spend my workdays serving coffee, painting fingernails, conducting exercise groups, and calling Bingo. A year has passed since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English, got married, and moved five hours from home. When I tell people that I work in the Activities Department of a nursing home, the same type of job I had all through high school and college, I always add that I plan on returning to college to get my master’s degree, that I intend on doing something else with my life. And before the move, I seriously did consider graduate school, even took the GRE, but my scores were so low that I lost my nerve. I threw away the admissions packets I sent for and said I needed a break. I said I needed time to study, to read and to write. Besides, I said, I was a college graduate and could find a good writing job anywhere.

But after the move and weeks of filling out applications, I realized I wasn’t going to get that writing or editing job. Just one company called for an interview, and it was for a position in collections at a bank. I let the machine pick up and continued to scan the Classifieds until I saw the ad for an activities assistant, a job I knew I could get.

So I help the residents plant flower gardens in the courtyard and paint birdhouses. I sing to them, songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “You Are My Sunshine.” I take them shopping at the dollar store and help them place two dollar bets on horses at the racetrack across town. I also read to them, sweet stories with happy endings. When I conduct the nursing home’s monthly poetry group, I photocopy lighthearted poems from Reminisce or Good Old Days magazines. I sit at a table with eight or ten residents and read the verses aloud. Then I ask them what they would like to write about.

Some stare off into the distance. Others nap.

“What happens this month?” I ask.

“Kids return to school,” one resident says.

I write down their words:

September first, and back to the red brick schoolhouse,

skipping or dragging summer-feet

in ugly brown Oxfords.

A far cry from black patent leather,

but “they’re practical.”

Their poems fit well inside the Resident Chronicle, the facility newsletter I put out each month. They see their words in print, next to the birthday list. Some cut them out and post them on the corkboards in their rooms; others carry the newsletters with them, tucked inside the waistbands of their sweatpants, ready to read to visitors, or again to themselves.

For a while, after work and on weekends, I write too. My husband works nights as a security guard at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town, so I spend evenings alone, and those first few months I draft essays, laptop balanced on my knees, notebooks and journals strewn across the floor of our one-bedroom rental. Free from the demands of college homework, I write whatever, whenever, I want.

This doesn’t last long.

Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

Blame it on the lack of deadlines to keep me motivated, blame it on the demands of a forty-hour work week, but after a while I am no longer writing. I watch television. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy fill my evenings. When I think about writing, I manage to talk myself out of it: I am too tired, I have to clean the bathroom, go to the laundromat, walk the dog, wash dishes, mow the lawn, sweep the garage, trim the shrubs, grocery shop. I begin frequenting craft stores, learn to make oatmeal soap, plaster trivets and cement stepping stones decorated with cobalt sea glass and bits of broken mirror. I make dog biscuits and roll out egg noodles for chicken soup from scratch. Or I just don’t feel like writing. Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

*     *     *

Three times a week, I show Rita photographs of horses and cats, wave vials of citrus and peppermint beneath her nose, stroke her arm with a peacock feather, even read to her from Chicken Soup for the Soul—anything to get her to respond—but she screams or stares at the ceiling, not once indicating she knows I am there. When I record our interactions in her chart’s Progress Notes, I consistently write “No response.” One afternoon, the charge nurse asks me to give Rita’s contracted hands range of motion therapy, so I smooth lotion over the top of her right fist and stroke her fingers down to the tips, where her long nails burrow into her palm. She whimpers, and when I slip my thumb beneath her curled fingers to straighten them, she shrieks. The undersides of her fingers are gummed with sweat and smell like sour milk. I try to ease her hand open a little more, to rub lotion around the joints, but she screams louder. Afraid I’ve hurt her and that I’ll break her brittle bones, I let her fingers spring back into her palm.

In the hall outside Rita’s room, the charge nurse smiles sympathetically. “What did you do to that poor woman?”

I know she’s only teasing, but I don’t feel like laughing. I go next door for a visit with a catatonic man in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. I lean over the man’s bed, carefully wipe the sleep from his unblinking eyes with a warm washcloth, and listen to Rita wail through the wall.

Later, at home, I wonder if she cries out clear into evening, or if she’s finally stopped. I curl up in my own bed and let Lucy Ricardo’s terrible singing lull me to sleep.

*     *     *

I meet Rita’s husband after I’ve been visiting her room for a month. The conference room is cramped with a large table and a dusty, ceiling-high ficus tree. The state requires that the care plan team meet every few weeks to review and update the progress of new admits. I ask her husband, a small man with dark hair and a thick mustache, about her past interests.

“She used to like poetry,” he says, adjusting the bill of his baseball cap. “Used to write it too, even went to graduate school for her MFA, but never finished because—well, you know.”

And I’ve been reading her Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Who are her favorite writers?” I think of the books high up on my shelves at home, the dog-eared covers and tissue-thin pages filled with blue ink and pink highlighter.

He folds his hands and shrugs. “The usual famous ones, I guess.”

Impatiently, I wait for the other departments to finish giving their reports—Nursing: her bedsores have almost healed. Dietary: she maintains a healthy weight. Social services: she screams on a regular basis—and after the meeting, I hurry to Rita’s room.

As usual, she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“So you’re a poet,” I say.

I lean over her bedrails. “I used to study writing, too. Who do you like? Plath? Dickinson? Wordsworth? Blake?”

She turns her head and looks at me.

*     *     *

I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”

When I was in college, I used to take my textbooks with me to the nursing home and study on my breaks, sometimes when I was supposed to be doing quarterly activity assessments and care plans. During music performances, while the residents listened to fiddlers strum “Tennessee Waltz,” I critiqued essays for workshop, and during church programs, I scribbled ideas for essays on napkins. Back then I filled every spare moment with reading and writing, some mornings rising at 4:30 to fit a few more hours into my day. I wouldn’t turn on the television all semester. Now, a year later, I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” I’ve grown into the habit of sleeping in until the last possible minute, hitting the snooze button so many times that I’m nearly late for work each morning. On my lunch breaks I drive home and settle into the Game Show channel, after work TV Land.

I wipe off my book jackets with a damp cloth. It is fall, and classes are in full swing. Right now, students hurry across campus on their way to the library, backpacks weighted with binders and books. Maybe a young student heads up to the second floor, to the quiet cubicle in the northeast corner, the heart of the literature stacks overlooking the sprawling lawn and administration building, my favorite place to study. Maybe this student opens an American lit book and begins to read. It is nearly seven o’clock, dusk, and through the branches of the giant elms lining the sidewalks, the streetlights dully gleam. Then the clock tower begins to chime, and almost 300 miles away, kneeling in front of my old textbooks, something stirs inside.

*     *     *

Her eyes are closed and she moans the afternoon I read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips.”  I’ve spent the morning at the copy machine with a heavy pile of books, filling a three-ring binder with my favorite poems. I glance up from the page. The vertical blinds are drawn, and the leaves on the cherry tree outside her window have turned deep gold. Sun glints off the metal light poles in the parking lot, off the windshields of the parked cars, and she’s stopped groaning. She watches me, studying my face and hands, and for once, I can also really see her, the intensity of her green eyes.

When I reach the concluding lines—

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health

—I hesitate. Should I be reading something this grim to her? But she remains still, staring at me, as I skim the pages of the binder. I ask who she would like to hear next, Williams, maybe Blake?

She opens her eyes wide and inhales, and so softly I almost miss it, she mouths a “B.”

Doctors, nurses—everyone—say she’s nonverbal, so I’m not sure I hear her correctly.

She tries to lift her head from the pillow, but her hair is pinned beneath her shoulders. “B— Bla—,” she whispers.

“Do you mean Blake?”

Perspiration flecks her upper lip, and she closes her eyes. “Yes,” she breathes.

I suppress the urge to run out of her room and tell my co-workers they were wrong—she can talk. Instead, I flip through the notebook and find the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I turn to the first poem and start to read:

Piping down the valleys wild,  

Piping songs of pleasant glee . . .

And then I lose track of time. I read about bright tigers, little lambs, and chimney sweeps, about laughing meadows and London town, bleak fields and children’s cries of weep, weep, weep, weep. When I finally look up from the binder, I’ve read through most of the Songs, poems I haven’t read for a long time, that she hasn’t heard for an even longer time.

Before I leave her room, I turn on the radio. The announcer gives the weather report, and Rita stares at the ceiling, but I believe she sees something else. Instead of the mountain scene on the poster above her bed, she sees the words she still knows.

*     *     *

I would like to say it is the poetry that inspires me to fill out the application for graduate school, but it’s more complicated than that. Rita couldn’t finish school because of the rapid progression of her disease, and I know it sounds cliché to say that I feel my own life slipping away when I visit her room and see her deteriorated body, the days she passes in bed, but how else can I put it?

That fall, when she is able to sit up for an hour, and her husband doesn’t make it in, I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror. Then I take her outside. The courtyard is in the middle of the nursing home, surrounded on all sides by windows and resident rooms. I wheel her to the rose garden and pull up a patio chair next to hers. Inside, residents sit in wheelchairs waiting to be invited to an activity program or a meal. Some watch television. Others are dying. But I don’t look at the banks of windows encircling us. The roses are four-feet tall and we face them, white with pink trim, deep red with velvet petals. I read to her, and for a short time pretend we aren’t in the nursing home, in the center of the city, caught in the same routine. The howls of an ambulance at the hospital across the street, the beeping of the facility bus, disappear, and if only for a few minutes, we live somewhere else, immersed in the language of some other time, breathing in the sweetness of the last of the season’s roses, wisps of hair skimming our flushed cheeks in the crisp breeze.

But then one dark winter afternoon I visit her room, and from her bed she looks at me with what I can only describe as despair. The nursing staff has shaved her head nearly bald with clippers.

When I stop Rita’s nurses’ aide in the hall and ask why, she says the long hair was too hard to care for and that Rita’s husband gave his consent.

“But did you ask her?”

The aide continues down the hall, her arms filled with bed linens, and does not respond.

Several weeks later on New Year’s Eve, I apply to just one school, one thirty miles north of my hometown that doesn’t require entrance exams.

*     *     *

It’s early spring, and the cherry tree outside Rita’s window is thick with pink blossoms. The day before, I received the phone call I’ve been hoping for—I’ve been accepted into graduate school—and just like that, my life has changed. The binder overflows with hundreds of photocopies, some I’ve enlarged so she can read along with me though I never know if she can actually see them.

I’m not really thinking about poetry. I’m thinking about packing and moving, about registering for classes. I’m thinking about how to describe the stuffiness of Rita’s room, the rash of broken capillaries on her cheeks, and the flecks of dried blood on her chapped lower lip.

I need to tell her I am leaving.

Her room feels too warm, so I crack the window. “Is that better?”

She stares at the poster on the ceiling.

“Your hair’s really growing back.”

She raises her eyebrows. An inch of dark stubble covers her head. I haven’t shown her a mirror in a long time.

I begin to tell her that I wrote the night before, but then stop. What will she think if I tell her I am writing about the residents in the Alzheimer’s Unit, how they try the doors all day, insisting they need to get home, how when I take them for rides in the facility van, they beg to go back inside? What will she think if she knows I will also one day write about her?

I finally blurt out that I am going back to school to get an MFA. Then I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Part of me feels as if I’m rubbing in what she will never have.

Dense white clouds drift past the sun, and the plastic blinds clack in the breeze. She doesn’t look at me, but there is no mistaking what I hear. “Good for you,” she whispers.

*     *     *

I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror.

It isn’t always good those months before I leave. There are days when she cries out during the entire visit, days when I sit beside her bed and her screams drown out the poems I read aloud, when I lose my temper and ask, “Do you want me to read to you, or not?” One afternoon she spits in my face. I glare at her and leave her room, though when I return to my office to record our interaction in her progress notes, I don’t know what to write. What is it like when a woman half her age bounds into her room with poems she’s picked out for her to hear? How does it feel when she tells her she’s going to graduate school to study writing while her hands, no longer able to grip a pen, have curled like dead leaves? When her husband visits once a day for an hour, and she’s so lonely for his touch, but can’t ask him to lie down beside her and hold her or even demand that he stay, when the old man in the hallway outside her door won’t stop asking where he is, and the woman in the room next door rhythmically thumps her wheelchair into the wall behind her head, and the whole place smells like piss and shit, and she is young—only in her fifties—and should be doing anything but lying in a bed, staring at a poster of wildflowers someone tacked to the ceiling.

Twice before I leave, she scrapes her fist against her G-tube until it pops out of her belly and liquid food soaks her sheets, pooling on the white linoleum beneath her bed. Nursing staff considers the first time an accident, but they scold her the second time.

“What are you trying to do?” I overhear her nurse say. She and an aide tape the tube down along her side. They smother her stomach with a pillow so she can no longer work it free.

When I show the binder to the middle-aged woman hired to take my place, she glances at a stack of care plan assessments in her hand instead. I flip through the photocopies, pausing at the pages with the corners folded—Wordsworth and Keats, Coleridge and Blake—trying to explain Rita’s preferences. “Don’t worry,” the woman says, “I know just the kind of inspirational poetry she needs.”

Then I stop trying to explain. I know she isn’t listening, and I tell myself I don’t really know what Rita needs anyway. I used to ask her husband to bring in her own poetry from home, but he never did. At first, he told me he forgot. Then he said he couldn’t find it. Maybe he wanted to keep that part of her for himself. I used to imagine him sitting at her desk, sifting through her notebooks, reading her words, remembering. Or maybe he kept the notebooks shut, tucked away on the top shelf of the bookcase. Maybe he thought the poems would awaken something inside that she would never be able to regain. Maybe he knew something I didn’t, that it would hurt too much, and it was best if she forgot. She once mouthed a B, maybe a D, when I asked her to tell me her favorite poet, and I listed off names. Blake, Bishop, Dickinson, Donne? She shook her head. Dickey, Berryman, Bly? No, she said loudly, her face red with effort. Doolittle, Browning? Spit gathered in the corners of her mouth, and she screamed.

I am leaving soon, starting a new life, but until then, I visit her room three times a week. The pink privacy curtain surrounding her bed is drawn back, and her folded bedspread neatly covers her feet. My mind these days is elsewhere, already focused on the future. Still, I sit beside her bed and flip through the notebook, choosing poems I think she wants to hear. The lazy slant of afternoon sun shines on her face and perspiration beads her forehead. Her light blue hospital gown has slipped off her shoulders, and the white sheet bunched up at her waist hides the tube in her belly. She listens to me read, her hands balled into tight fists against her heart, and stares up at the poster on the ceiling, looming peaks of snow-flecked mountains, sparse stands of subalpine fir, and a lush meadow of wildflowers, tiny lavender daisies and white tufts of bear grass, their pale faces forever turned toward the sky. For her, delicate fingers of lupine hold everything.

Jennifer AndersonJennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College, and her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, the Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cimarron Review, and Open Spaces Quarterly, among other places. She also collaborates on documentary films with her husband, Vernon Lott; their latest project, “The Act of Becoming,” explores the recent international success behind John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner.

 

Every Man a Fortress

We traded snippets about ourselves when the chaos allowed and found we’d both joined the Corps to make something of ourselves, serve our country, and shoot things—Schnieder wanted to be a Rifleman while I was already slated to be a Machine Gunner. Before enlisting, Schnieder had been a degenerate living in his parents’ basement. I’d enlisted eight months prior at seventeen, and had just graduated high school before shipping out. I told Schnieder how the Army Recruiter had blown off my appointment, and when the Navy Recruiter asked me why I wanted to join I’d told him, “To shoot things,” so I’d been sent across the hall to the Marines. We were scared, but determined. Neither of us had any intention of washing out. When we’d watched the rack-less Recruits being marched away he’d said thank you. And meant it.

I slowly rocked my weight to the balls of my feet and then back onto my heels again to alleviate the pain in my lower back. When the Drill Instructors had left, after putting the platoon at POA, they’d laughed and joked about how they’d come back to find a squad bay of Recruits passed out face first on the concrete floor. Many dark outlines of Recruits swayed as if drunk on their feet. When knees lock they cut off circulation, but when a Recruit stood at the POA he needed to “lock his body.” As new Recruits we hadn’t figured out to almost lock our knees, or rhythmically tense and relax them to keep blood flowing.

Heads bobbed and weaved as things started to gray out. I relaxed my knees, not realizing I’d tensed them, hoping it wasn’t too late to recover before passing out. If I fell no one would move to help me. The Drill Instructors had been clear that if a Recruit went down, no one was to help him up. They said we would be told not to help others throughout boot camp to destroy our expectation of assistance—seek nothing outside of yourself, the well-built Korean DI said, once every man became a fortress we would be Marines.

The florescent tubes hummed overhead. Light became dizzy staccato flashes. I tried to motivate myself by thinking back to why I joined the Corps. My memory of the morning blurred into a kaleidoscope of images. The initial scene of a single tower smoking seared into my mind. I could still see a 747 glide into the second tower and erupt out the other side a shotgun blast of fire, twisted rebar, and broken glass. Smoke, pouring out of the first tower and wreathing the second. The way flailing figures spun as they plunged to the street, their descent tracked frantically by cameras.

Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again.

Towers crumbling to nothing. People running, screaming, as tidal waves of ash and debris flooded through the surrounding avenues. They just fell, one after the other, first the bodies then the towers.

I’d wondered if there had been trumpets that morning, as my teacher panicked and sat dumbfounded. From the doom on his face my stomach had knotted in fear that the rapture had happened and all of our parents had been disappeared off the face of the earth, teleported up to heaven—that my parents had been right all along. My classmates and I stared at the television screens with blank expressions. The cyclical nature of the newscasts, hashing out and then rehashing what had happened, showed us again and again. Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again. The narrative stopped being linear in my mind and become a jumble of destruction on screens I had to watch. The humming of florescent lights took the place of sirens and screaming as teachers switched on subtitles. The same sound that had filled that day buzzed above me now, and the same scared looks and blank stares on faces lined up.

Silently the door opened, and Stahl stepped through. Silently it closed again.

“Look to your left and right,” Stahl said.

The platoon looked.

“Some of the men to your right and left won’t be here a year from now. Hell, some of them won’t even be alive six months from now,” Stahl said.

Staff Sergeant Stahl paced the length of the squad bay, his flashing corframs click-clacking, click-clack as he drove his heels into the floor. He told us about himself and how he was going to run the platoon with an iron fist while the First Hat was away bucking for promotion. Stahl was a “been there, done that,” Marine. He came from the Old Corps, when things had been much harder. And he’d served in Iraq, leading a Mortar Section in combat operations and earned several decorations for their performance. Stahl had taken lives, rifled through dead insurgents’ pockets for cigarettes and food. He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time. He’d watched his men die, blood bubbling out of their nostrils as they screamed for their mothers. Stahl knew something we couldn’t imagine—we weren’t all going to make it.

“And some of you,” Stahl shouted. “Shouldn’t be here! Take a look around and you’ll see who they are. Schnieder wouldn’t even have a rack if it wasn’t for his rack-mate telling a bunch of Recruits twice his size to fuck off. You know what kind of Recruits can’t seize and hold a rack? Non-hackers.”

Stahl explained that “non-hacker,” like almost all military jargon, was not counter-intuitive. Later in our careers as Marines we would learn idioms and rhymes that seemed childish: “red means dead” to remind us if we could see the red dot below a pistol’s safety then the safety was disengaged; “brass to the grass” to remind us to load ammunition into machine guns always with the shiny side of the brass rounds down and the black connecting links on top; “tap, rack, bang,” to remind us of the correct immediate action of tapping the magazine, racking the bolt and trying to fire again when our rifle misfired; “treat, never, keep, keep,” to reduce the four weapons safety rules to something small and manageable. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot, keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire, and keep your finger safe and off the trigger until you are ready to fire, was easily remembered as “treat, never, keep, keep.” Non-hacker was the first in a long list, and the most self-explanatory.

He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time.

Stahl explained it anyway.

“A non-hacker is someone who can’t fucking hack it, good to go?” Stahl asked. He didn’t look up to see if there were any questions. The platoon couldn’t move or speak when at the POA.

“Recruiters, they don’t go to combat and watch men die. They sit stateside and don’t do shit like the fleet dodgers they are. All they care about is numbers. So some of you were recruited by men who knew you don’t have what it takes.”

Stahl’s head whipped like he’d heard a sound. He stalked over to a short, fat Recruit with freckles, a red nose and red stubble on his head. The Recruit looked straight ahead while Stahl stared at him, inches from his face.

“Your Recruiter was slumming when he picked you up,” Stahl bellowed. “What the fuck did you do in the civilian world?”

The Recruit didn’t answer for a second, then spoke in a quavering voice.

“I–” the Recruit started.

“This Recruit!” Stahl screamed, spittle speckling the recruits face. “You no longer say ‘I’ do you understand? You will only say ‘This Recruit’ when referring to yourself.”

“This Recruit,” he started again, voice cracking. “Used to roller blade and hang out with his friends.”

Stahl took off the hat DIs wore, the same kind worn by Smokey the Bear. Holding his hat in one hand he ran the other down his face. When his hand fell it revealed an Oni mask of hate where Stahl’s face had been. The sudden transformation could have been comical in the civilian world only because it would have been safe to assume it jest. Stahl wasn’t joking though. His face turned purple with rage, a hue I hadn’t realized brown-skinned people could achieve. His right hand knotted into a fist with the pointer finger extended at the second knuckle that he slammed into the Recruit’s cheek, as if pointing at his eyebrow.

“And you didn’t think it might be important to lose some fucking weight for Marine Corps boot camp?” Stahl asked. “What did your friends say when you told them that you were going to join the Marine Corps?”

The Recruit looked ready to shit himself.

“They told me not to,” he said. “They told me I couldn’t make it.”

“They were right! You are, disgusting!” Stahl’s body made a retching motion; his head swung down to slam the brim of his Smokey Bear into the Recruit’s face.

The Recruit started to cry.

“What did your dad say?” Stahl asked.

“My father killed himself when I was young,” the Recruit started to explain, slipping back into the first person.

“Oh, you don’t have a dad?” Stahl said, interrupting. “Well it makes sense he killed himself, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t want to be your dad either!”

The Recruit wept openly. Stahl turned away in disgust and spat on the floor. His muscles bulged as he stalked between the two lines of Recruits. His head swung back and forth, looking for certain ones. When he found them he’d stuck his hand in their face, all his fingers and thumb pointing forward in what the Corps called a “knife hand,” and asked them if they had a father. Every time the answer was no. Every time Stahl leaned back and brayed at the top of his lungs about what degenerates the Recruits were, how no man would claim them as their children. When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

I was terrified. Stahl could pick out the bastard children.

When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

That information wasn’t in our Service Record Books, which had transported our basic information—height, weight, hair color, religious preference—to boot camp. Stahl had only been able to observe the platoon for a few hours that day before the inspection. I wondered what kind of predatory instinct allowed him to feel out weakness. I realized I was dealing with someone very good at his profession, what he grimly referred to as “making Marines.” But Stahl said a lot of cliché little idioms, and the next was something about “needing to break a few Recruits to make an omelet.” Stahl offered to fight any man in the platoon, said he’d take his rank off. He walked up to the largest Recruit, a six-and-a-half-feet tall, three hundred pound Texan with the last name Payne.

“What about you, corn-fed white boy?” Stahl asked, his voice croaked hoarse from smoking.

Payne stared ahead, “No, Sir!”

“Had to think about it,” Stahl said, stepping in close so his face starred up into Payne’s. “You sure? Maybe it’ll be like wrestling a steer?”

“Sir, no Sir!” Payne’s voice shook.

Stahl walked away and addressed the platoon, his heels clacking.

“That’s goddamn right you don’t!” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “Gentlemen, welcome to boot camp. I make the rules here!”

But I had my own problems—“problem children.” These Recruits weren’t just Stahl’s pet projects, his little toys he’d play with on the quarterdeck until they broke or he got tired. No, the problem children represented the fault lines in the platoon’s granite foundation: the people who would crack under pressure, who made mistakes not out of laziness but ineptitude. Recruits that couldn’t figure out how to get dressed quickly enough when the platoon woke, couldn’t remember to say “Sir” at the start and finish of everything they said, who didn’t understand making the entire platoon wait on them several times a day couldn’t be justified with an excuse. Stahl hated them for it. Veins writhed in his neck and bulged from his forehead as he screamed at them. Spittle flew in explosions of syllabubs as Stahl barked diatribes-turned-psychoanalysis that probed the depths of the mind. Stahl examined Recruits’ foibles with the steady rhythm of an oncoming train, divining the gruesome future from their pupils.

Schnieder was one of them, so was Oou.

Schnieder’s carelessness struck early the morning when he wanted to move slowly. He’d forget how his shower towel hung folded from his rack, or to shave. The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him. Stahl told me that’s how it went, that I needed to make up for the shortcomings of my brothers and I was failing not only the platoon, but Recruit Schnieder and myself.

“I’m sorry I’ve been fucking up a lot lately,” Schnieder whispered to me after a particular bad hazing session. “I’ll do better, I promise. Just don’t hate me. Stahl is trying to get everyone to hate me.”

“You’ve got to get better,” I replied.

Schnieder stopped making incessant mistakes and life got easier for us. After he’d kept it up for a few days he apologized to the whole platoon when we got turned to hygiene. From then on the platoon widely accepted him. Schnieder proved he could hack it. He’d walked through the fire, maybe not well, but well enough. Stahl even gave him a few kind words in passing. I could tell Schnieder’s heart swelled with pride that he’d turned things around. When other Recruits turned into problem children, Schnieder didn’t hate them; he accepted it as part of the process. But there was one problem child that tested all of our patience collectively, even Schnieder’s. I felt bad for him at first, because he was a nice enough guy.

The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him.

“Things aren’t so bad, guys, right?” Oou would say. “Pretty soon we’ll graduate and boot camp will be over.”

Oou didn’t realize that after boot camp there would be war. No matter how many times Stahl showed him the dead in the papers and explained the similarities the dead Marines and Oou had in common, he didn’t understand. Oou always had a look of perpetual astonishment on his face. Always. No matter how many times he made the same mistake and the entire platoon got hazed for it, Oou was always surprised. Stahl knew how to fix him. Before lights out, when the platoon stood in line in front of the bunks, locked at attention, waiting for taps to play over the loudspeakers, Stahl called Oou front in center. Stahl made Oou drink first one canteen of water, then two. Then he had Oou refill the canteens and come back out in front of the platoon.

“No one gives a fuck about you, Oou,” Stahl said. “Because you’re weak, a non-hacker I couldn’t wash out. I failed you, Oou. You shouldn’t be here. And it’s going to get you and the men around you killed.”

Stahl turned to us, grin spilling across his dark face like milk.

“What do you think, 3111?” Stahl asked, addressing the platoon by its number. “If the rod should be spared, speak out.”

My jaw set. I wasn’t going to stick my neck out for Oou, who had been fucking up at every opportunity. I’d been sucked into the mind games, made to hate Oou for his shortcomings when I should have tried to help him. I thought about how Oou kept letting us down, how pushups bruised my palms stigmata. How he sat there looking like a child while the rest of us paid for hours. I knew Stahl would stop the punishment if someone spoke out, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Drink the other two,” Stahl said. “While you jump up and down.”

Oou made it half way through the third canteen before he threw up—once, and then twice. Stahl made him keep drinking and jumping, until the third canteen was empty and Oou bent over retching long tendrils of bile that hung from his lips.

“Should I have him roll in it?” Stahl asked.

He looked at the platoon for a reaction.

The platoon didn’t need to say anything. Stahl already knew the answer.

“3111, always too soft,” Stahl said. “Well Oou, I guess everyone likes paying for your mistakes.”

*     *     *

Before being sent out into the world as full-fledged Marines we’d had the boot camp version of a battalion meeting. The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs. Several DIs took the stage in an auditorium and pleaded with everyone to “piss clean” at the School Of Infantry. When we checked in to SOI, it was explained, as many as half would be randomly selected to take a urinary analysis. The Marine Corps zero-tolerance policy of illicit drug use made passing the test an imperative. If a Marine failed the test, he would be separated from the Marine Corps.

The first thing I heard out of Schnieder’s mouth after leave was, “If I have to piss, it’s going to be dirty.”

“What did you smoke,” I asked. “And when?”

The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs.

He had a sickly pallor and looked like he hadn’t slept all leave. As a short, overweight balding guy with the first signs of meth-mouth, Schnieder usually looked pretty bad, but now he looked terrible. I had no doubt he would be picked for a urine screening, and so did he.

“I smoked meth last night,” Schnieder said.

Sure enough, when the Marines formed up outside of the barracks the first thing that happened was roll call for urinary analysis. My name was one of the first called and Schnieder’s one of the last. We stood in line together, cups in hand, waiting our turn. I learned an important lesson that day. Not that listening and doing the right thing pays off. I learned that Marines were frequently men of extremes. Maybe the Corps owning Marines drove men to excess of drinking, drugs, and women, or maybe the kind of person that seeks out the profession of United States Marine is predisposed to immoderation. Schnieder had decided to go on a ten-day meth bender knowing that he was going to be tested, and if he failed it would ruin his life. This lesson didn’t stop with our piss test.

I saw Schnieder in line at the PX buying a pack of smokes and a cheesy lighter. I tried to get his attention. I wanted to ask him what he was going to do about the piss test, if there was any way to fight it. While we’d waited in line, cups of piss in hand, I’d had the idea that maybe he could blame it on an over-the-counter medication causing a false positive. Explaining away the results was a long shot, but I wanted Schnieder to make it. He had become a part of my Marine Corps experience, and I was having a hard time imagining it without him—letting go.

Like a lot of guys trying to claw their way out of the gutter, Schnieder never imagined he’d be a Marine; Schnieder came from a life of meth and video games in his parents’ basement. When Stahl had got me down, Schnieder cheered me up with his lopsided grin and easy humor. The first time hunger drove me dumpster-diving, Schnieder stood watch and I’d split it with him.  When the San Diego skyline exploded with fireworks we’d stood and watched from the squad bay; it made us feel better to know that the whole world wasn’t boot camp. Something changed, though, and he’d started thinking about using again—talked about it with other junkies. Then Stahl had become frustrated toying with me, like a coyote giving up on a box turtle. When he shifted his attention to Schnieder, he sensed a weakness I missed, one that went beyond messing up the trivialities of boot camp.

I waived to Schnieder from across the PX; he just looked at the ground and shuffled out the front door. I never saw him again. He went UA; that is, he decided Unauthorized Absence was better than consequences. Schnieder was the first person I lost in the Corps.

Jason ArmentJason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in, among others, Narrative, Gulf Coast, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Zone 3, Duende, New Madrid, Veterans Writing Project, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities.

 

Somebody. Still.

I had wanted to be something in the world once. A teaching degree, a Masters degree, and several academic honors hang framed on my study wall. I might have had any number of careers but at twenty-five I made a choice and let the world go on without me: Bedside for my mother’s cancer right after college slid into marriage, morphed into children, and landed me in a seaside community buffered by comforts. A few decades later I was looking at fifty and an empty house. And hiding in the laundry room.

Four years out of college my best friend whisked me to France when my mother became terminal, and proposed over flaming omelets on Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient French Monastery stranded by the tides at the edge of the northwestern coast. Despite the earnest look on his face I hardly noticed the romantic setting. I was all out of emotions: My mother was dying from ovarian cancer far away in Seattle and I was worn out keeping her and myself together. As the velvet box slid across the table my reasoning seemed so reasonable; we knew everything there was to know about each other, he loved my family, my mother would still be there for my wedding if we hurried. So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

Nobody put a hand on my shoulder and counseled me to avoid making big decisions in times of big grief. Nobody warned me that grief was not a reliable emotion on which to base life-changing commitments. I had pushed the three-diamond heirloom ring on my finger with relief, chose the road most traveled and said yes yes yes to my oldest friend. I was tired. Marriage seemed an easy answer.

I looked down at the sparkling ring and said quickly, “How fast do you think we can pull off a wedding?”

Twenty years later, three talented children, one suburban community, twenty slack pounds heavier an invisible net began to cinch tight.

So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

The first episodes began in the laundry room, folding the never-diminishing pile of sports shorts, lacrosse jerseys, strings of candy-colored thongs, hipster boxers, and my faded, elastic granny panties. I discovered I couldn’t breathe. All I could hear inside my head was, I am nobody.

Then I closed myself in the coat closet and cried.

Was this empty nest syndrome, my second child departing for college at the same time my youngest decided to head to boarding school? In truth, they were all ready to go: happy, adjusted, busting at the seams to grow into adulthood.

Was I an ungrateful bitch, not appreciating my safe community, successful husband, beautiful family? No one could doubt my love, devotion, and dedication to my family. I sobbed into the raincoats hiding my despair; I wanted to do something else with my life, only I had no idea how to start again or where to start again. I wasn’t ungrateful I just wasn’t done. Who thinks this way?

My struggle intensified as the house got quieter. Anxiety chattered in my head, You only have yourself to blame, as I tried to catch my breath while the dryer tumbled. Back to gratitude! my mind raced. My mother had died at fifty-one-years-old. I was lucky to be alive to see my children grow. I shoved my saggy underwear behind the detergent and put a smile on my face.

*     *     *

The garage was staged with bins of extra-long sheets, towels and pillows for the two dorm rooms. Moving old photo boxes out of the way, a picture of my husband and his former live-in girlfriend, sitting an inch apart on a couch smiling at each other, dropped to the floor.

The photo haunted me for days.

He married you out of pity.

He loved your mom and wanted her to know you were taken care of.

But what froze my blood was,

He had never smiled at me like that before.

But let’s be honest, what was he looking at? I filled the days, months, and years with too much food, alcohol, and projects. Caregiving of other relatives took a toll on me all over again. I gained weight, had high cholesterol, and drank martinis nightly by the double. Filling my time and my belly had not filled my soul or made me attractive. Her face in the photo glowed, her chestnut hair swirled around flawless skin. I had stopped looking in the mirror.

The cost of my decision over that omelet flambé was finally here: I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years. I had sledded down the slippery slope of taking care of everyone else, riding a comfy cushion under my butt into oblivion. How could I possibly salvage anything of that twenty-five-year-old now?

When the house was empty of children we began to eat dinner in front of a news show every night, our meal balanced on knees, his laptop open beside him. I was bored to tears and brought to tears that this was how my life would continue to unspool forward. I lay awake at night, stroking my dogs, devising plans: I will go back to school. Find part-time work in a shop in town. I was qualified to be a dog walker, a cook, a housecleaner. I pulled the pillows over my head.

I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years.

First, I thought, first I should salvage the marriage. I set a table for two, lit candles and prepared a nice meal the next day.

“Now we can focus on us for the first time in years!” I said, clinking our wine glasses together.

“Did I tell you I am going to Europe next month to extend the company?” he replied.

Could I have been any more invisible than that moment?

As his words hung between us I stacked the dishes and felt a bizarre rush of relief. In some ways, being apart would be good for both of us. As he chatted on about his trip, I suddenly realized that I had no intention of just sitting here waiting for someone to decide to come home for a meal. I wasn’t angry. I was certain.

I sat at the computer the next day and typed random requests into Google:

Continuing Education Classes Knitting instructor Writing courses

I applied to a workshop in Seattle, noting at the beginning of my essay,

“I am not pretending I know how to write. I just want to try.”

Someone in the program wrote back,

“Welcome! This is great. Here is what we recommend.”

Someone wants me?

Just one line, from a stranger. In rapid succession I scoured Craigslist for rentals and found a furnished flat for a six-week workshop, put down the deposits with my own inherited money, secured dog sitters, emptied the fridge, put the garden to bed, and found a ride to the airport.

“I’ll be back after you return from Europe,” I said as he packed. But both of us knew this was the defining moment of something else. And I had defined it. Unprecedented. Exhilarating.

*     *     *

A friend said to me before I left, “We are so confused, you were the ultimate mom, you did everything perfectly, why do you need to go away?”

My dog sitter said, “Do you know everyone is talking about you? Wondering if you are getting divorced?”

I shouldn’t move forward, but everyone else can?

*     *     *

The first hour in the flat I watched the clouds flick the tips of the snow-capped Cascade mountains and listened to the silence. Not fearful, just acutely aware I was making big, irrevocable decisions based on advice from a stranger. Would this work out? Did it matter?

At a second-hand store down the street I purchased two wine glasses, two plates, and a vintage tablecloth dotted with plums. I felt the blood zinging through me.

Who did this? Somebody.

I took a deep breath and went to bed alone.

Alexandra DaneAlexandra Dane is currently completing Cope: An Imperfect Story, her memoir about coming of age in the midst of her mother’s divorce and terminal illness. For the last four years she has honed her writing voice in Seattle, Washington with thanks to Hugo House and The Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in thewritersworkshopreview.net. Her weekly blog alexandradanewrites.com is an assemblage of thoughts on the small things that matter. She lives in Boston and Seattle.

Chassis

I knew I was in trouble when the Director asked me to cock my head to the right.

“I can’t cock my head to the right. Or the left.”

“Just like this.” He cocks his head to the right. But, see, he’s not wearing a fiberglass suit of armor with a helmet attached to the shoulders. He doesn’t look like a low budget Cyberman. Or, a lower budget Cyberman, as it were.

“I can’t move my head.”

“Okay. Just, look shocked.”

So the camera starts speeding, I take my mark, and it’s time to make this awkward robot costume convey shock. I try some Meisner. Why am I shocked? What is causing the shock in me? Well, I am trapped in a dirty robot costume, standing in a parking lot on Cahuenga. That should be shocking enough. Why am I here? Because at 11:30 last night I got a frantic text from the Producer telling me they’d lost their robot guy and needed me to come in and replace him. Obviously, this was a terrible thing to do with my time. So I was relieved when the Producer texted me a few moments later, saying she’d found a replacement. But, bright and early next morning, another frantic text. It seemed the replacement had also disappeared (this should have been a warning sign but my reasoning skills aren’t the sharpest in the morning) and I saw this all as a Sign from the Universe. Some inescapable force of nature had determined it was my fate to don a clunky robot costume and have at it.

“Can you try tilting your head up?” the Director asks. He demonstrates again.

I convey shock.

“That was great! Next shot.”

This is going to be a long day.

*     *     *

By 2:00 pm I’ve discovered this wonderful resting position. See, I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.” So I’ve taken to leaning against one of the cars on set and using the back of my helmet as a headrest. It’s surprisingly comfortable.

I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.”

While in this position, I can see Houston through the tiny little eye holes, teaching the Producer how to punch. Houston is my fight partner. We go on sets and choreograph the fight scenes. That’s how I wound up involved with this project. Of course, I had no idea that I’d be the one having to throw the punches. If I’d known, I would have had the robot fight entirely from this awesome leaning position. Houston isn’t choreographing the Producer into the fight though. He’s just doing that thing that we all do where we constantly teach people how to throw a proper punch. You’d be surprised how few people can.

And the Producer is asking, “How many fights have you been in?”

Houston says, “Four, maybe. One of them was with that kid I was telling you about, in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was Japan, where I saw a fight and tried breaking it up.”

I can’t imagine Houston breaking up a fight. He’s all Krav Maga and Falcon Punch.

“Then there was the one at the football game in high school.”

Huh? I’ve never heard this one.

“Tim, have I ever told you about that one? It was a Stanford game and this racist guy behind me kept shouting awful stuff and spitting sunflower seeds on me. So I asked my dad if it was okay to get into a fight with him.”

I can picture Houston asking his dad for permission to get into a fist fight.

“Every fight I got into, I broke these bones.” He points at the little bones in the back of his hand.

“Where’s Tim?” I hear the Director call out. Like he can’t take the extra two seconds to locate the only robot on set. Maybe I blend in against the mustard-colored 1982 Mercedes Benz.

I say, “Here” but my voice just sort of meanders around the inside of my helmet, unable to squeeze through the tiny mouth and even tinier eye holes. So I push off the car, which takes more effort than I’m proud of, and do my robot saunter.

“We need the robot to fall over.”

“I can’t fall over.” A nickel in the jar for every “I can’t” today would really cost me.

“Can you just go prone and do a reverse pushup?”

“Nope.” I can’t even dougie. That’s how restrictive this outfit is.

“Guys. That suit cannot touch the gravel,” the Producer says. “It is worth 19,000 dollars and if we scratch it . . .”

19,000 dollars? This awkward piece of shit?

“Okay, so, Houston! Do we have those pads we talked about?” the Director asks.

“No. I don’t have the pads. The Producer does.”

“Yeah, but I asked you to bring them.”

Houston clenches his jaw, takes a deep breath. He has a short fuse when it comes to incompetence.

“I emailed you. I said, ‘I don’t have the pads. The producer does. She owns them. She has them in her possession.’” Houston has taken out his phone. He’s reading an email. “‘She is in charge of the pads. She has them. If you want them on set, ask her.’”

The AD asks the Producer if she brought the pads. I have to turn my whole upper body to see her.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to.”

By now, we’ve moved on. I’m dropping to one knee, putting one hand on the ground. Like I’m hiking a football.

“Can you make a fist?”

“No. I can’t make a fist.”

My gloves are made of the thickest possible rubber, as if the designers were terrified that the suit would allow for any amount of dexterity.

…every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

“Try something like this.” The Director demonstrates making a fist.

*     *     *

Later on, I start to notice that the shadows are awfully long, and we still have most of the fight scene ahead of us. The Director makes an impassioned plea to the actors, who are circling the craft table. He says, “We’re running out of time, so we need to speed this up.”

For whatever reason I imagine us doing the fight scene in Benny Hill double-time. Maybe it’s the tunnel vision, but by now I’ve begun interpreting everything literally.

I overhear the AD tell the Cinematographer, “I’m going to start calling cut, if that’s okay.” Which is nice to hear. Until then, every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

I’m supposed to lower one of the actors to his knees in this take, and the actor seems really worried. He says his knees are messed up. I’m not sure what that means.

Now, during the next take, he’s supposed to just wait on his knees a while. For a moment, I forget he’s there because he’s left my pathetic field of vision and I’ve taken to imagining that the universe is just two little disks, joined in the middle and if I can’t see it, it’s not there.

Then he stands up.

“You have to stay on your knees,” the Director says.

The actor goes back down, exiting the universe. I hear him say something about his knees bleeding.

“Action!”

I know every move. After all, I came up with half of them. But I can’t really see what I’m doing so it’s harder than I’d hoped. I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize. It resists at every instant.

One of the PAs walks over and tells the Director his cat has gone missing. Someone else makes a meowing noise.

While a fellow actor wildly thrashes my armor with a rubber crowbar, I notice that the crew has shifted their attention to the parking lot entrance. I rotate my entire body around to see a white pickup pull in. The driver, who looks like Terry Crews in a golf cap, jumps out of the car and starts shouting at us.

“Either someone shows me a permit right now, or you get the fuck off my lot! Right now! This is private property!”

I hear someone say “Okay, pack it up. Pack it all up.”

So we’re all rushing around, packing up the crafts table, the props, the rigging, the camera. I’m very slowly making my way out of the parking lot. There are no extra hands to help me take off my armor, so I’m doing my best impersonation of an embarrassed robot, one foot at a time, while Terry Crews eyes me from his pickup.

Finally I manage to get my gloves off. I use my newfound dexterity to remove my helmet. My shell of solitude is gone. I suddenly realize how loud everything is. Everyone is shouting at someone, somewhere. Terry Crews is shouting at the Producer. Cars are peeling out, tearing up the road. The Props Master finishes removing my armor and now I’m in a form-fitting silver jumpsuit feeling more than a little naked.

I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize.

I climb in the back seat of my car because it’s the only open door and Houston has my keys.

From inside the car I can see everyone is still shouting. I spot Houston talking with the Director. As the Director talks I can practically see the power-up bar above Houston’s head, slowly building up. Like when it reaches the limit he’ll have enough energy for a fireball, or go Super Sayan or something. I wonder if the Director realizes how close he is to the edge of a very steep, unforgiving cliff. Does he really want to start a fight with the fight choreographer?

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled. I’m not really here. I’m just observing from my spaceship. Then Houston gets in and starts the car. I put on my seatbelt and think of Houston as my chauffeur. I’m still wearing the silver jumpsuit.

We’re driving to the AD’s house to regroup and for some reason Houston’s gone all The Italian Job, weaving through traffic, driving in the breakdown lane. I’m not sure why we’re trying to get there so fast but it’s all very exciting nonetheless.

Houston rants in the front seat and this is what I pick up between the growling: First, the Director blamed Houston for not rehearsing enough. Then, when Houston asked him about whether or not we had permission to shoot there, the Director said he had talked to management. Then, when Houston asked the same question again, the Director revised his story saying that he “called them, like, five times and no one picked up so I assumed it was okay.” Then, Houston didn’t punch him.

“I swear I’m going to punch him,” he says. I think about the little bones in the back of his hand. “If he tries to blame anyone but himself for this mess, I’m just . . .” Then more growling.

We’re the first people to arrive at the AD’s house. We sit on the porch and the sun starts to set over Silver Lake Boulevard. Ten minutes later, everyone except the Director has filed in. Each of them haggard, shell-shocked. The Producer has been crying. She asks if everyone’s here.

“Everyone except our fearless leader,” Houston says.

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

Someone calls him. His phone is dead.

The AD talks about some other shots they need to get today while the sun is out. But we need the Mercedes, which the Director is driving. They also need the Director, though I’m not sure why.

The Cinematographer is on the phone with someone in the car with the Director. He’s giving directions.

“760 Harvard Ave . . . 760 Harvard Ave. 760 . . . Harvard . . . Harvard. Harvard . . . Like Harvard University. Like the college. Like, ‘I went to an Ivy League college, Harvard University.’ Yes . . . 760. Harvard.”

Houston starts laughing.

“Did he just get in the car and drive somewhere . . . anywhere?”

Apparently, he is in West Hollywood. No one really knows why.

So later, an hour later, the Director, our fearless leader, shows up. He looks awful. I wonder where his cat is. I picture the little critter, wandering Cahuenga, playing with strays, smelling new smells. Seeing new sights. Then the sun sets and the cat is alone and hungry and his home is nowhere to be found. He licks his fur. He curls up in a ball and forgets everything that’s ever happened. He accepts the wild.

So now I’m putting the suit on again. They’re turning on the little blue bulbs around the eye holes so now everything I see is framed in little blue glowing lights.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat. I can’t even put on my seatbelt without help. They’re mounting a camera to the hood. And the driver, my lovely co-star, decides this is a good time to mention she’s almost blind without her glasses. And it’s night time.

“So, put on your glasses.”

“No, see,” the Director pipes in. Fuck. “If she wears the glasses then she’ll have to be wearing them in the next scene.”

“We could have her take them off.”

“No. We don’t have time for a shot like that. No . . . Are you comfortable driving just around the back roads?” he asks.

I can hear Houston restraining the urge to hit The Director.

“You cannot seriously be thinking . . .” he says. Then storms off.

“I couldn’t drive on the freeway. But back roads should be fine.”

“We could have Tim spot for her.”

Then we would literally have the blind leading the blind. Between the two of us we could barely read a stop sign.

“The AD will sit in the back and give her directions.”

So we start to pull out, but the light attached to the dashboard falls off.

Correction, the dashboard falls off.

So the Cinematographer is taping the dashboard back on. The Props Master is helping him. The AD is sitting in the back. The Cinematographer accidentally opens the sunroof. Suddenly everyone bursts into motion pressing every single button they can find trying to get it shut. They’re reaching over me, fumbling over each other. I can’t help but notice that the car has a bright red button on the front panel. Occasionally someone’s finger drifts over it then moves on. I wonder what it could be.

Finally, someone finds the right button, the sunroof is shut. The light is attached. The dash is attached. We’re ready to go. And I guess she’s not going to wear her glasses, so that’s cool.

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled.

Two rings of glowing blue frame the lights of Western Ave. and I start to realize that there’s a good chance I will die in this stupid robot costume. And the funny thing is I don’t really care. I can see the red tail lights and the orange streetlights reflected in the pavement. I can’t really see my driver, but when she asks the AD where to go next, she sounds confident enough. Of course she doesn’t seem to understand how to follow directions.

“Turn right here.”

She goes straight.

“Okay, it’s okay. Just keep going straight.”

She turns.

“This is fine. It’s fine. Turn left here.”

I watch a pedestrian skitter across the road.

I pull back from the eye holes and look around the inside of my helmet. My iron maiden. My little spaceship. It’s just me in here, alone. I’m not in a car, headed towards my inevitable early death. I’m in a robot. I trust him to keep me safe. I trust him to lead us home.

Then someone’s pulling off my helmet. We’re parked at the house. We’re not dead, which is nice.

We wait inside for the Director to make an appearance. Secretly, I think we’re hoping he’ll make things worse for himself. Blame someone else, maybe make some racist comments. But maybe we’re too exhausted for that. Even Houston looks haggard.

When he finally arrives, he sits down on the couch between Houston and the Producer. He doesn’t speak at first. He just stares at his shoes. Then, after a long electric moment, he begins, “Guys, my girlfriend is going to be so pissed when I get home, for the cat getting out. Just so you know, she’s going to tear into me so . . .”

So . . . so what? Are we supposed to pity you? Should we mount a search team? Jump in our cars and patrol Cahuenga? We could have the lead actress drive. Maybe I could spot for her.

After all the ridiculous events of the day I wonder if possibly this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, or maybe performance art. It would be called “A Dog Teaching a Human How to Wag His Tail,” or “The Limits of Tolerance,” or the always classic, “Sabotage.” I think about the robot, now in pieces in his box. They didn’t need me. They just needed someone to fill the skin, someone to carry it. I wonder if that’s all the Director is. Maybe this kind of thinking is dangerous.

The Director makes some comment about how we might have to cut the fight scene completely and Houston gets up. He doesn’t look the Director in the eyes, but he points his whole body at him, clenching his fists. They share a silent moment, filled with horrible potential. Then, something truly amazing happens: Houston just pulls out his keys and we leave in silence.

On the drive back we see an empty car parked in the middle of the street with its lights on, its engine running, and its doors ajar. It hums quietly to no one.

T. Lucas EarleT. Lucas Earle is a writer, filmmaker, and musician. His fiction has appeared in Electric SpecColored LensRazor Literary Magazine, and New Myths. His dark comedy, Abduction, premiered in LA Shorts Fest in 2013. His most recent film, in which he plays the lead, is Up Next. T. Lucas lives in Los Angeles.  http://www.tlucasearle.com/

 

Community

A few weeks before my brain broke, as I waited in a grocery store coffee line, an elderly man in front of me dropped his cane. I focused on it. The cane’s clatter, the man’s shaky stoop, careful and slow as he picked it up. How sad, I thought, the need to link one hand to the ground. How frustrating to have only one hand to fill your coffee cup, to add creamer and sugar, to stir.

*     *     *

Estranged from my extended family in preadolescence and raised in a home of three—myself, my identical twin brother, and my mother (my father, already a father, bolted before my birth)—I never considered myself part of a real family. I idolized TV families, normalized a mother and father, children of different ages, and as a teenager I formed pseudo families. Friends I referred to as brothers and sisters. Parents of friends I called mom and dad. Most weekends I attended hardcore shows, which I later traded for the underworld of drug addicts.

*     *     *

A week before my brain broke, as I sat in the waiting area of a drugstore pharmacy, I noticed an old man. Grinning, chuckling, his cane clicking the floors. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’m a little slow.” All around him people smiled and stepped aside to let him pass. The disabled, I’d soon learn, especially those who use mobility equipment, draw attention to themselves. They’re surrounded by pitying patronizers, people who infantilize and play Good Samaritan—forcing smiles as they open doors, stepping aside to let them pass.

*     *     *

For two years I felt at home in twelve-step halls. Gone were the betrayals and ensuing distrust that pervaded the drug scene. Twelve-steppers, we held weekend dance parties and cookouts. We visited each other’s home for birthdays and holidays. But something felt off about the program. Trading one obsession for another: caffeine, cigarettes, sex, food, petty fights, clean time, the number of meetings one can attend in a week (some, somehow, boasted double digits). Chanting “keep coming back” to those who relapsed, but never guiding them toward professional help, the rehab and detox facilities many of us had briefly called home. And while we were encouraged to celebrate our “recovery,” we were also encouraged to hide our last names and to contain the contents of our meetings within the walls of twelve-step halls.

*     *     *

Two weeks after my brain broke, after an MRI showed that my cerebellum had atrophied, a neurologist showed me pictures of my brain, led me in painful, exhausting exercises, and said, with a grin, “You have spinocerebellar ataxia.” When I asked him to define the condition, he refused, still smiling, and ushered me from his office, leaving me to wander into dangerous emotional territory. Maybe he needed to refuse an explanation—having seen patients break down in his office, faking a tight-lipped smile helped him survive each workday. He was wrong, however, to guess my diagnosis before the genetics test results arrived, sending me home with no explanation of the disease, aside from this: my brain may continue to shrink; the only treatment was physical therapy.

*     *     *

I’d romanticized drum and bass since high school. Not sure why. Call it a visceral urge. Like television, hardcore, and drugs, drum and bass felt as necessary as food and water, as friends and family, and though I felt less connected to bass heads than to recovering addicts, climbing twelve-steps seemed a sluggish, senseless exercise when I entered the drum and bass scene. I was twenty-one, had drunk plenty in my teens, but never in a bar, and after two and a half years of listening to the same recovery stories in church basements and attics, and in stuffy twelve-step halls, furnished with soda bars and old video games, I needed this: hooting and bouncing, sloshing drinks in darkened nightclubs as DJs spun out deep bass lines over breakbeats, transitioning to warbling bass riffs layered over doom-laden samples. I managed not to die or go to jail—a common twelve-step caution (If you leave these halls…)—once the club closed and we convoyed to an old house near train tracks, where we danced as we chased pills with beer, sniffed powders, and filled our lungs with smoke, until daylight revealed our faces.

*     *     *

My brain shriveled. My knees buckled. I bought a cane. “Excuse me. I’m a little slow.”

*     *     *

A month after my brain broke, before I began physical therapy, before the lab sent inconclusive results of my genetics test, leaving me without a specific diagnosis, a cause for my shrunken cerebellum—doctors use the word “sporadic” (sporadic cerebellar ataxia) to name an unknown cause of cerebellar atrophy—I researched spinocerebellar ataxia and learned this: The disease is progressive, fatal. Genetic. On my way home I wondered who else in my family suffered from this disease. Who else developed epilepsy and blindness and lost motor skills until they died too young? Each time my eyes wiggled, each time my vision blurred, my hands shook, or pain shot through my back or chest, adding to the constant ache in my hands and feet, the soreness in my legs as if I’d been standing five, six hours at a time, I saw myself in a hospital bed, a death bed, attached to tubes, my neck supported in brace. Drool dangling from my lip.

*     *     *

Twelve-steppers, active addicts, bass heads—each subculture welcomed me into a realm that for various reasons was closed off, misunderstood, or shunned by society. Each required a special skill, a bank of knowledge, or a particular interest for entry. Each contained its own jargon, a unique set of rules. Its members were dedicated. Obsessed. Despite the pitfalls each subculture contained, each one offered the gift of community.

*     *     *

Two months after my brain broke, the first time I followed my physical therapist into the gym, filled with people who seemed unlike me because they were elderly, missing limbs, or overweight, I felt out of place. Any moment someone would tell me how much harder their lives were, and that I should come back when I needed fake limbs or a wheelchair, or when I was eligible for senior discounts. Fear dissipated as I worked through exercises in a gym with these others, all of us fighting our conditions. While walking on a treadmill, practicing tai chi, lifting tiny barbells, I began to feel united with those who all my life had seemed unlike me—the obese, the amputees, the senior citizens who smiled through pain as we hurtled toward uncertainty.

Bernard GrantBernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, Stirring, and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of the nonfiction chapbook Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and currently serves as associate essays editor at the Nervous Breakdown.

Hollow

I dig my fingers into the pockets of my jacket and tilt my face towards the sun. The sharp wind of fall stings my cheeks. I want to drink in the spaciousness of this place, disappear into the rust red canyon, become the shadows dancing on painted rock.

Behind me, there are voices belonging to people pointing cameras and fingers at the enormity that surrounds us. One of the voices belongs to my travel companion for the day, Mark the meteorologist. He’s made a point to stop every tourist we pass, asking them where they’re from and what trails they plan on taking while visiting the Grand Canyon.

We met on Couchsurfing a few weeks earlier, and although I didn’t end up staying with him, I took him up on his offer to take me on a hike. The canyon is his backyard; he knows it the way I know the hidden creeks and wide curves of the slow-moving river down the street from my duplex back in Florida.

“Germany?” I hear Mark ask another tourist.

“Austria!” the man bellows.

I inch closer to the rock’s edge, peering down at the layers of sediment stacked beneath my feet. A shard loosens and falls into the canyon, a tiny part of this massive whole.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” the meteorologist asks his new friend.

“Of course! And then I take one of you and your girlfriend!”

My heart cringes at the word. I feign temporary deafness, but Mark calls my name twice.

The meteorologist and I don’t correct the Austrian. Instead, we hand him our cameras, stand dutifully in front of the unfathomable view, and smile, arms dangling like dead fish at our sides. My smile is tight-lipped, my eyes squinting into the Arizona sun. I won’t bother checking the photo afterwards to make sure he’s taken a decent shot.

It’s not the Austrian’s fault. It’s not wrong to assume that two people visiting the Grand Canyon together would be lovers. How would he know that I only met Mark this morning, in the half-light of morning?

“Thanks,” I say to the Austrian, retrieving my camera from his bulky hands. I try to keep the sarcastic tilt out of my voice.

Back in the car, Mark drives so that I can take in the last of the views on our way out of the park.

“Halloween’s tomorrow,” he says.

“Mhm,” I say. “You going to dress up?”

He laughs. “I just pass out candy to the kids.”

On the steering wheel, his left hand is hairless and naked.

“Are you a vegetarian?” Mark asks.

“Nope,” I say, snapping another picture of the view outside my windowcanyons within canyons. “Why do you ask?”

“I shot my first elk of the season, and I was wondering if you wanted to come over tomorrow night for some elk stew.”

Although my first instinct is to always say yes to venison, I pause.

“I’ll have to see what my friend has planned for Halloween.” How is Mark to know that Cait, the friend I came to the conference with, is leaving tonight?

The whole drive down from the canyon, I go back and forth about the elk stew. You should go, I think. He’s nice enough to show you all over the Grand Canyon, and now he’s inviting you over for dinner. Why not? You don’t have anything else planned.

But the question tugs at me: What’s the point? This is not my town, not my time zone. Kissing men who live in far-off places has lost its appeal over the years.

Later that night, I text him my thanks and an apology. It was a beautiful trip to the canyon. Thanks for being such a great guide! My friend already had Halloween plans so I’ll have to take a rain check on the elk stew.

The next morning, I spy a flyer in the bathroom of a coffee shopa brass band from New Orleans playing a Halloween show at a venue nearby. I buy a single ticket and wait until eight p.m. to apply a single coat of red lipstick.

Walking to the show, I push my hands into my jacket pocket and clutch my key between my fingers; I am a stranger to this city, and I take shadows for bodies waiting to pounce. The streets are dark, and shouts of laughter echo between buildings. I wonder if Mark still made the elk stew, and if he’s eating it alone in his warm house. How many children have come to his door, asking for chocolate and gummy worms in their cheerleader costumes and mummified getups? Beneath my jacket, I am dressed in all black. I think of what I will tell people if they ask about my costume, but I don’t speak to a soul all night.

Carmella de los Angeles GuiolCarmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Florida-based gardener, dancer, adventurer, photographer, and writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review, The Toast, BUST, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Thought Catalog, The Normal School, Slag Glass City, Kudzu House, Tahoma Literary Review, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She is the 2016 recipient of Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. You can often find her working in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.

Nipple Gazing

Nineties Girlhood

No one ever praised me for being smart, only for being good. Good meant pretty and quiet, pressed like a flower in the middle of a bell curve. The first time I thought about becoming an adult had nothing to do with ambition but with a yearning to be beautiful. Baywatch was playing on the television. I asked my mother when my breasts would look like the actress’s. She told me to pray, that women in our family were flat unless they got fat, but then it didn’t matter. I added getting fat to my mental list of life’s worst possible outcomes.

In sixth grade my best friend Monica grew breasts. At a sleepover, she showed them to me, a set of full, pale wonders. I don’t remember nipples. She was like a mannequin, plastic yet somehow organic, important yet lacking function. She asked me if I wanted to touch them. More than anything. I averted my eyes and whispered, “No.”

Millennial Adolescence

I wore padded bras that promised both to lift and enhance. When a clumsy-fingered boy couldn’t undo the Wonderbra’s clasp, he pulled the straps and padded cups down so that he could squeeze and twist my breasts like stress balls.

I thought of Monica. If I’d had the courage, I would’ve said, “Yes.” Stood close enough to catch the lavender scent of her soap and using the tips of my fingers, I’d trace each curve and dent. Cupping her breast with great tenderness, I would’ve treated them like such delicate, special things, art to behold, not a battlefield to conquer.

In a record store, I discovered Easter. The album cover showed a girl whose arm stretched overhead revealing a swatch of pit hair. A dirty camisole caressed her small braless form. I bought the record to know more about the girl. Patti Smith’s music was messy, raw and thick enough to swallow, to carry in the gut of your soul. I quit wearing bras and cut my hair short. I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

Grownup  

After years of barista and thrift-store jobs, I got a grownup gig at an office full of button-ups and sensible heels. I grew out my hair and wore bras. No longer sure who I was, I scrambled to be the person I figured I should be. One by one my friends got married, moved away, and I felt left behind, terminally lonely. So I married a man whom I wasn’t sure I loved because he’d asked, because I needed to check off boxes. First comes marriage and then comes baby. Right?

Pregnancy made my boobs swell three sizes. My areolas transformed from pink wafers to bumpy brown Ritz. The new shade and shape disgusted me. It was hard to reconcile my feminist beliefs with popular aesthetics. Gumdrop nipples were the stuff of nude paintings, of tasteful porn. My sole association with dark, large nipples came from a long-ago overheard conversation.

That bitch had the nastiest nips.  Looked like a couple of salami slices!

I was relieved that my nipples could not accurately be compared to lunchmeat. Still, the remark clung to me burr-like for well over a decade until I adopted the prejudice as my own.

I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

I wondered if I’d ever be happy with my breasts again. It felt like a shallow thought for a new mother. Instead of evaluating shades of areola, wasn’t I supposed to be in a rocking chair, nursing serenely? At those most maternal moments, I was not peaceful; I wore a burp rag and a grimace. No one warned me of the throbbing ache brought by milk surging in, the skin pulling taut, and forging zebra stripes. Whenever my starving infant latched, I swallowed gasps of pain and squeezed my eyes shut, willing the ache to wash over me. I wished to be numb. The lactation consultant provided pamphlets, encouragement, and a rush of guilt when I’d brought up the f-word, formula. Breast is best! Infections came. I dreaded nursing. Where was the blissful bonding? I was struggling with one of the most basic maternal duties.

When I was pregnant I read all the books, ate folic acid, and avoided soft cheeses. I gave birth naturally in a Jacuzzi tub. I was determined to be a perfect mother. Now that the baby was here, I was exhausted; all my lofty ideals seemed ridiculous. My husband and I fought. He got angry, threw things. Slammed the door, disappeared for hours. I couldn’t leave, I had a baby. My body was weak, deflated, and I no longer felt I belonged in it. Purple pustules blistered the undersides of my breasts. I ignored them, figuring that like coarse hairs curling from an areola the pimples were another one of those secrets women hid.

When my left breast morphed into a lobster shell and a fever came, I went to the hospital. At three a.m. a doctor told me I had MRSA. I nodded. I didn’t understand, but I’d Google it later. The doctor said they’d have to act fast before the infection entered the bloodstream. They’d scheduled an emergency surgery. I nodded again. Alone in my hospital room, I read about MRSA. Sepsis. Death. I thought about my five-week-old daughter. It was my first time being away from her for more than a moment. I didn’t sleep; I couldn’t shake the thought of who would tell my sweet girl about periods if I died. At a gut level, I knew my husband wouldn’t. How could I trust him to raise my daughter?

As they wheeled me off to surgery, I stared up at the ceiling tiles and cried. I’d always thought mothers were brave and dignified. My eyes were swollen, and snot dripped from my nose. Before sliding into the cocoon of anesthesia I called my husband. No answer. Texted him that I was afraid. No answer. I decided I’d leave him.

I woke up struggling for breath with my chest wrapped tight, bound into androgyny. Grief clawed up my throat. I would never be one of those hippie mothers fearlessly breastfeeding in public under some flowering tree. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that was what I had wanted. Under the bandages my breasts strained to fill with milk, swelling like a choked hose.

The changing of surgical dressing was a magician’s trick, ribbons of gauze pulled from inside me like endless scarves. Milk pooled in the wound, blood dripped from my nipple. A golf ball-sized hole revealed everything from crust to inner core: reds, pinks, whites and yellows, all meat.

Matriarch

It took three months for the wound to close. The resulting scar resting on my nipple resembled a pirate’s hook. For a long while, my breasts were a stranger’s with their ripples of raised skin and that crescent scar. Almost a year dripped by before I stopped hating those indented streaks and started thinking of them as the flood marks of my history. Another year would pass before I learned to treat my body with tenderness, and demand that others do the same.

My daughter is four. We live in the Sonoran desert where she runs feral, wild curls racing down her bare back. One day we’ll go on a mother-daughter hike and I’ll tell her of the feats and wonders that her body is capable of. I’ll buy her a bra. Teach her how to press circular motions and check for the cancer that curses her genes. But that can wait.

For now, I give her three truths. We are more than our bodies. I’ll always love you. You are enough.

L.L. MadridL.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her daughter and an antisocial cat. When she’s not writing for places like Gamut, Jersey Devil Press, and Spirit’s Tincture, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/.

Falling—A Mothering (Or, a Tale of Postpartum Depression)

Leaves fluttering down on the grave in the fall, and her ashes. And I’m lying, it wasn’t fall, it was February. But the leaves were real. And it felt like she was supposed to die in the fall. Maybe I read that in a book, saw it in a movie. A girl who goes on a journey every fall because that’s when her mom died. Do you know that story? But it wasn’t fall, it was February and there was no crisp autumn sky or warm yellow light. The leaves were brown, like ashes, like skeletons gone brittle, like the webbing of vein when the leaf has rotted away and there was snow on the ground and we wiped away the snow, the brittle skeleton leaves, and underneath was the name of my nephew, his birthdeathdate in stone, and her ashes fell into the wet cracks and stuck.

*     *     *

Kian, he is three and he’s running down the trail littered in yellow leaves, hopping, with his blue cargo pants down around his ankles, the elastic waistband torn. The air is colder than I expected, it’s biting and his legs reddening and his smile wide and thick like it could swallow me—me, my body weakened still from years of overuse of overgiving of single motherhood, but it’s strengthening now and I feel my heart beat, throw blood to my fingers, cold, and toes, feel muscles flex and grab and lift him, his small tight body in the cold air and the smell of fall, of crisp, of broken, of decay, of getting ready to die—and his blood pump-pumps into his little red legs and his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I fell off the front porch and tore my pants, it wasn’t autumn, it was summer, end of summer, it was fall and I was falling. There is ground, drying grass, falling toward a face. Blood on orange linen, peer inside the torn cloth and a body, torn, starts to rebuild. The smell of alcohol is like an image, or a filter, glazing over a hazy moon. Moon bleeding, seeping, white, blue black gray sky. Pain colors over, red is blue is black is orange is torn.

*     *     *

I have written this many times and every time I do the mouth becomes bigger, so by now it is a gaping hole swallowing her chin and some of the universe with it. It is no longer a jaw slung slack, teeth and tongue opened inside; now it is a pit black circle, escaping even the shape of a circle; a passage not to her lungs and the breath contained there (not much longer), a tunnel not leading into her (cancer-spackled) body, but a bridge to nowhere to nothingness to endless open atmosphere-less space. But it was—before I wrote and remembered it too many times—a mouth after all. It was a jaw released by sleep and morphine from any tension or sense of placement or self. A jaw they would later crack closed to put her in the coffin because I don’t think anyone could stomach an openmouthed corpse. There is no gentle way to say it. It was, after all, a tunnel that led to her waterlogged lungs, where the breath was, for its final time, exiting.

It was a mouth, after all. A mother’s mouth. Her mouth. The first mouth that touched you, after all. That breathed life and breath into yours. That licked away the milky trails that marked your passage. That gave you sound before you were even part of this world that spoke you into being.

*     *     *

My body is a body that is cleaved. My body is a body that, I wonder, is it turned inside out? My body is a body in water. The passage that I am is neither open nor closed. Neither whole nor hole. Water passes from within and without, blood tendrils in the water, with shit and piss and amniotic fluid and leaking milk and up curls the blue bubble-wrapped cord linking me to the other side before death but after, what? And on the other end of the cord is Kian, though he is pre-name, he is blue water flesh fish, he is alien and covered in soft fur and he is eyeballs creaking open to brown blue fuzz more than color, not-color, not-name, not yet yelled into being I have not yet spoke him not yet I am calling up sound from the fur of my belly that I moaned just moments before when I cleaved and my cunt cracked the world and out from the watery depths pushed out, carved out, called out. Child. Stranger. Boy.

With my heart beat beating blood into me into him into us, with the blood tearing out of the passage of me as I tear, as the bear wrapped in fur coiled up in my belly bleats a drum-sound so ancient that the sounds—the ones that rip through from the other side to this one with a life in their teeth—get up on all fours up inside of me and begin their growl and ready their claws—he, who isn’t yet even he, is born.

*     *     *

There is a me I don’t know, even though I remember her, standing on the edge of a subway platform. There is a train, rattling in a dark tunnel, yellow lights and faces streaking by. Vision, soaked in red wine, the haze of liquor, the haze of sad, of alone. The me I don’t know is standing, peering down into the abyss of subway tracks. There is track, there is train, there is what if. Just that. Just, what if. Just, that wouldn’t be so hard.

*     *     *

Before there was death. There was breath. Before there was breath. There was cancer. Before cancer there was mother.

Mother was skin and breast and mouth. Mother was milk was sustenance was name. Mother was angry. Mother was sad. Mother was sorrow webbed like veinery around a heart, snaked by briar, beating quiet and soft inside. Hardly a whisper. Mother was unspoken sound.

She died in fall. She died in February. She died before I was born.

*     *     *

What you were never. Maybe never ever. Going to write. Were those nights you wanted. To throw. Him. Against the wall. There is no gentle way to say this. Were those nights that the purring of the blood beating through his body was like sirens in the dark, that those bluebrown eyes peeling open and wide without sleep were like nails against your skin, that the long imagined rope of tomorrow and tomorrow like this trailing out into the distance of infinite future was more. More. Than you could. Bear.

And it doesn’t even matter that I never did. The most monstrous parts of myself, dripping in shame like lighter fluid. Because shame is beautiful fuel to depression.

*     *     *

Her death. But that’s not where the depression came from. It’s the heavy blanket of my life and her life and lives stretched out behind us for miles and miles, skins and bones we tug and trip over as we walk. (Her abusive father, her War, her life as an immigrant.) (Her yelling, her anger, her panic.)

This is not it either. This is not what I was trying to say. What I’m trying to say is that she loved me—but her depression/anxiety lay over my childhood, a heavy blanket blanking out the sun, laying over the beats of my heart until I couldn’t hear it anymore. What else is there to say? I have forgiven her now. I have mostly forgotten her now. She wasn’t bad. She was Mother, she was Love. I fear my son will resent me no matter what I do.

Sometimes one foot in front of the other is too much to move.

*     *     *

There are soggy tears that fill his bones, softening them like papier-mâché and I think how can he ever grow strong and tall and how have I failed him.

Because I promised you that I wouldn’t give this to you. This heavy heart beating, clouds rolling filling cobwebs in my brain. Because I promised that I would not give you this, our family lineage, that trails back through winding capillaries like gray country roads, that fires across rusty synapses and sits coiled in the depths of DNA. The promise I could not keep for you. All I ever wanted to give you. And here am I, drowning in dampened cotton web skies praying that I could keep this from you.

*     *     *

Sometimes life is just a pause. An in-breath. A space between the drops of rain.

*     *     *

I wonder what the swallowed sky is and where I can find it and put it and give it to you in a bow-tied box like I always always promised. No one told me that joy is something you have to fight for, have to claw your way to through flesh and sinews and roiling clouds.

I have been running, now, from it, from the fuzziness and fog of it, like a poison mushroom cloud and now I have to turn, again, and claw my fucking way through.

*     *     *

I lift him, skyward, and feel his heart in beats and pauses against my skull. I feel blood, thick as life, down the shoots of my limbs, as his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I open my mouth, wide, wider than the infinite night and nothingness. In moanscream in bearbleat in languageless sound: I call you.

Falling. We tear through.


Courtney E. MorganCourtney E. Morgan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she has also taught creative writing. Her collection of stories, The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman, was a semifinalist for the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and is forthcoming from FC2 Press in Spring 2017. She is managing editor of The Thought Erotic journal on sexuality and gender. She lives in Denver with her son. www.CourtneyEMorgan.com.

When a Neighbor Dies

When I get home from my morning run, there are two police officers hanging around my driveway. They look like babies, plump skin and short bangs under their caps. Barely in their twenties. They stand under our ancient weeping cherry tree, and scant snowflakes flutter down between the tired skeleton branches. It’s not cold enough to see our breath.

“Are you here for this house?” I ask, a bit incredulous, pointing up our driveway.

One of the officers shakes his head.

“That one,” he says. Next door.

A more senior officer stands at the neighbors’ side entrance, and I see Mrs. J. behind the screen, her hair choppy, flyaway. She’s in her gray sweats.

I shower and make my coffee, wondering about what might be going on. When I sit down at my desk, I see that a white van has pulled up in front of our house. I text my husband.

The medical examiner just showed up.

That can’t be good, he texts back.

I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other.

Our neighbors are older, but not old. Mrs. J. might be sixty. She travels a lot for work. I overlap with her when we garden, but she’s got a sharp edge, exudes weariness. Mr. J., an unfit man in his early seventies, is more acerbic, off-putting. He parks his worn pickup truck in front of our house, the bumper plastered in NRA stickers. Our days are punctuated by his loud voice calling sternly to his hunting dogs or hacking out a dry cough. When my husband went over once to help him with his printer in their basement, I pictured the walls covered in rifles or shot guns and kept an eye on the clock to see how long they’d been down there together. We’re in an unfinished, uncomfortable discussion with Mr. J. about whether he can paint their side of our fence, and it makes me glad that it’s now December and no one’s wanting to paint anything for at least another four months.

Two guys open the back of the van and pop out a gurney, its spindly wheels dropping to the street. They disappear up the walkway, and I keep guard out my window like a meddling Parisian concierge. It’s impossible to work. The shorthaired cat sleeps by the heater vent behind my desk, the longhaired cat stalks something outside in the front lawn; the sky above all of us is city-gray. The medical examiner team emerges on the walkway.

They have to carry the gurney carefully over the brick steps. Their burden: a thick plastic body bag zipped and belted to the stretcher. Its contents are large, bulky. Man-like. Past the walkway, the wheels drop, and the men roll out to the street. Through the leggy branches of the weeping cherry, I watch them load the gurney into the back of the van. The doors snap shut. Several minutes after the van drives away, the police cars disappear, too. Then it’s quiet out my study window.

I wait for activity. For the adult daughter who lives nearby to arrive, skid into a parking spot, and run up the walkway with her blond hair covering her face and her short-legged blond dog yipping at her heels. I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other. But the street is silent.

In the afternoon, Mrs. J. leaves on an errand. Our two kids come home from school, and I tell them the shocking news that Mr. J. probably died. We don’t know our neighbors well, nor do we have warm feelings about them, but we see them every day. We are disturbed by the turn of events. It is devastating to imagine losing a spouse.

I phone my in-laws.

“What do I do? When should I stop by?”

“As soon as possible,” my mother-in-law tells me.

So I draft a vague card and deliver it before dinner.

Dear Mrs. J., We are so sorry for what has happened. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you during this difficult time.

I include our phone number because I’m not sure she has it.

Mrs. J. answers the door in her sweats, rubber cleaning gloves up to her elbows, a cell phone between her shoulder and ear. I hand the card to her, and she closes the door.

We have a neighborhood email list, and I decide it’s my duty to inform the street of Mr. J.’s passing.

“But you don’t know that he actually died,” my husband says.

“I saw a body,” I say. Isn’t a body irrevocable evidence? It’s too awful that no one has stopped by—not even their daughter—to support Mrs. J. There is drama on the street, and I feel information needs to be disseminated. I craft the email.

Dear Neighbors, I wanted to share the sad news that Mr. J. died this morning.

I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

I dislike(d) Mr. J. immensely. We’ve overheard wicked, abusive yelling matches between Mr. J. and his daughter, one time with his wife. His dogs bark furiously at us whenever we are in our backyard; we can’t let the kids retrieve their basketball because we worry for their safety with those dogs. I blame both Mr. and Mrs. J. for the used syringes and cigarette butts we sometimes find on our side of the fence, and wish they had more control over their adult daughter and what she does at their house. The best news to our being homeowners would be that the Js. are moving away.

But there’s no other way to say it: the sad news. Death on a gray winter day is sad. And, equally compelling, is the proximity of tragedy. I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

My husband’s caution tickles my send finger. I decide to wait to publicize the news until I’ve talked with Mrs. J. in person.

The next day, there is no sign of her, no sign of the daughter, no sign of any activity. The dogs are silent. I look at the yellow light from a bedroom, what in most homes would exude warmth now speaks of only loneliness to me. The cold humidity pushes against our two houses. I text Mrs. J.

Hi Mrs. J. I will drop off dinner for you tonight. I’ll bring it by around 6:00. It will be packaged so you can put it right in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it today.

I see a welcomed closure, for myself. I will deliver the food. If I don’t make direct contact with Mrs. J. tonight, at least I will have fulfilled my neighborly duty of expressing sympathy and providing food and offers of support. I don’t look forward to listening to her tell me the details of her loss, but there is no way to avoid it when our two side doors look right at each other and we tend to pick the same sunny days to weed. At least the fence painting disagreement with her husband can be put to bed.

It rains, and I cook curried cream of chicken soup to memories of the Amadeus cinematic funeral scene. I bake cranberry nut bread. I shop for firm grapes and make a last-minute decision to include two small squares of dark chocolate, gourmet and indulgent. Everything fits in a few disposable Tupperware and some layers of aluminum foil. I am particularly attuned to portioning small sizes for Mrs. J., what I entertain as a “widow’s dinner.” I pack it all in a plastic grocery bag.

I leave the kids to their homework and ring Mrs. J.’s door. The dogs are back. They bark murderously from the inside, and bells jingle as someone undoes the locks.

Mr. J. answers the door.

He stands there in front of me, filling the doorframe. I hadn’t remembered him being such a large person, and his presence looms over me like an indictment. The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

“Hi. Mr. J.,” I say, feeling ridiculous about everything that’s gone through my head during the past thirty-six hours. Confused. And also disappointed. “Um.”

Mrs. J. appears behind her husband. Neither of them is smiling, but then they never were before, either.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi. Sorry.” Does my script from when I thought Mr. J. had died still apply? “I saw the police here yesterday. Also, the medical examiner.” They look at each other, raise their eyebrows. The dogs smash their muzzles against the screen, frantic, trying to get to me. “I don’t know what happened. I thought you could use—some help.” I hold up the small—so small—bag of food. “I made you a few things to eat, just a little something. Very little. I’m not sure it will feed,” and I make eye contact with Mr. J., “everyone.”

They look at each other again.

“Should we tell her?” Mrs. J. asks her husband.

“I don’t care. But do it outside,” Mr. J. says, and yells at the dogs to get back while Mrs. J. slips out. She raises her arms like, what can she do?

The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

We step over to the bushes that my husband and I planted near the property line the first year we moved in to block our view of Mr. J.’s marathon television-watching. It’s the first time I’ve noticed translucent red berries tucked into the branches, although in the evening light they look blue. Mr. J. closes the door, disappears.

“Oh, I don’t need to know anything, really,” I say, trying to convey both concern and disinterest. She takes a noisy breath.

“Our daughter’s awful boyfriend overdosed here last night. She was going to break up with him…. But she never wanted this.”

I picture the stuffed body bag. A large man. The colorless, cold body first of Mr. J. with his square frame and glittering pokes of silver facial stubble, his pockmarked cheeks and irritated frown, and then not Mr. J. A man we’ve never met. Never seen, presumably much younger, younger than me.

“Of course not,” I say. The Js.’ porch lights are boxy and dim. I can smell a wood burning fire from their chimney, a smell that always makes me think of my grandparents, and skiing. On dark winter nights, I am grateful for that smell.

“She’s beside herself. I have to leave town for a few days, but Mr. J. will be at home with her.”

I have to fight myself from saying, If there’s anything I can do to help. I hand the food to her.

“It’s very small,” I say. “Honestly,” and I hide my mouth like I’m telling a secret, “we were worried it was Mr. J.”

She laughs out loud. Sometimes, she does share a giant laugh with our kids.

“No, no.” Mrs. J. shakes her head. “Nope.” She thanks me for the food, says Mr. J. and their daughter will save it for lunch the next day, and we retreat to our separate houses.

“Thank god I didn’t send that email,” I say to my husband after telling him that Mr. J. is, in fact, still alive. “Can you imagine?”

“I actually was kind of glad he had died,” my husband says.

It’s true. Since we aren’t able to break up with our neighbors, death would have been our lucky out. Instead, we have the blue lights of their television to flicker outside our windows all winter, and several contentious fence-painting discussions lined up for when the first crocuses peek out of the ground. I set the table for chicken soup and cranberry nut bread. It will feed the four of us.

Milena NigamMilena Nigam is a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, Compose Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs. For many years, Milena worked as a research psychologist and as the director of a non-profit evaluation group. She has recently finished a collection of short stories.

Are We There Yet?

I imagine my father as a small boy, sitting on stone steps. Chin in hand, he glares at the dry towel and swim trunks he’s thrown beside him. The façade of the Hayward Plunge, a public swimming pool near his Oakland, California home, stands in harsh rebuke. How dare you, it seems to say, Chinese aren’t allowed. Not until the end of the month. An hour earlier he’d tried to push his way in with his crowd of friends—all white friends from Cleveland Elementary—but was pulled aside. Not you, they’d told him, pointing at the door. Even if he had told them that he was a fourth-generation American—the truth—it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Later he would know that “Yellow Day” was the next to last day of the month. The last day of the month was “Black Day.” When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

His friends should be done in an hour, maybe two. Shading his eyes from the California sun, he studies the traffic along Mission Boulevard. There’s a brand new 1940 model Cadillac just like his father’s. There’s the bus for the Cleveland Heights neighborhood, the route they need to take home. He memorizes the bus numbers that stop here. After three Cleveland Heights buses pass, he starts to sweat, black hair hot to the touch.

When his friends finally emerge—wet hair combed into blonde and brunette rooster-tails, chlorine smell in the damp of their towels, loud boasts about who can hold his breath the longest—he brushes off his pants and falls in line. When the bus arrives, he sits silent on the ride back to their neighborhood.

*     *     *

As the mellow strains of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” wafted from my clock radio—always tuned to KFRC, the Bay Area’s rock station—I closed my bedroom door and pushed aside the heap of dresses on my bed. I’m such a dork, I thought, I’ve got nothing to wear to my first high school dance! I fingered a homemade white polyester number, the one with the zipper that I’d accidentally sewed shut, snipped open, and resewed three times that summer. Mom had helped me pick the pattern, its modest V-neckline and long puffy sleeves perfect for church. And that was the best of the lot. All my other dresses—A-lines, shirtwaists, and shapeless shifts—had hems at the knee, the proper length for the Lutheran parochial school which, in 1969, I’d just graduated from.

When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

My best option—indeed, my only option—was the green-and-cream herringbone wool jumper with a high-necked Victorian blouse I’d just received for my thirteenth birthday. The deep U of the jumper dipped beneath my bustline, accentuating my small breasts. Its hemline struck mid-thigh, six inches above the knee. Although the blouse and jumper were school clothes, they were far more fashionable than anything else in my closet. I pulled on my blouse and jumper, rolling up my slip so it wouldn’t hang below the hemline. Instead of cabled knee socks, I slid on cream-colored fishnet tights, carefully leaving three inches at the toes and folding them under before sliding on my boots. I hated when my toes got strangled in the fishnet holes.

Dad looked up from his medical journal, peering at me through thick black-rimmed glasses as my heels clicked across our family room’s wood parquet floor. He took it all in: the faintest blue eyeshadow, the thread of eyeliner behind my black cat-eye glasses. The slight curl at the bottom of my waist-length hair. The cream-colored fishnets tucked into white go-go boots.

“Where are you going?” he barked, his crew-cut as severe as his expression. His face held no hint of a smile.

I recoiled at the unexpected heat in his voice. I tried to be nonchalant, enunciating clearly around the new metal braces on my teeth, but my voice trembled. “Umm… there’s a dance tonight. It’s Friday.”

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” His face was still unreadable, but there was an edge I couldn’t quite name.

Because I just met some new friends and they’re counting on me, I wanted to say. I swelled with pride. Two weeks into my freshman year, I’d already found a group of girls I could look for at “our spot” on the lawn at lunchtime. With them, it was easy to fit in. They’d just graduated from Holy Ghost; I’d graduated from Prince of Peace. We shared the parochial cloak of penance and guilt. From them I got a quick lesson on Catholic strictures: school uniforms, cruel nuns, and Stations of the Cross. I told them about my seventh grade teacher, mimed how he’d hurl erasers at misbehaving students. We all laughed with relief that those days were over.

I was especially glad of their attention. For five years, from fourth through eighth grade, I’d been virtually friendless, unexpected fallout from our move to the milk-white California Bay Area suburbs. Mom insisted that my brother and I attend a Lutheran parochial school, as she had years ago in Oakland. Not only were we the only minorities in a sea of Germans, we were also forever the “new” kids. I was an impossible interloper, an awkward Chinese girl with buck teeth and turquoise cat-eye glasses, already a year and a half younger than my fourth grade classmates when word got out that they wanted to skip me another grade. No one invited me over. Mom shrugged, saying only, “Well, maybe it’s your fault you don’t have any friends.”

But now everything could change. Instead of thirteen kids, there were over 500 in my freshman class. I was ready to remake myself, I had something to prove. No one knew I was so young. I steadied myself; I wasn’t used to defying Dad.

“Because I thought it’d be fun! I haven’t been to a dance before.” Before he could object, I assured him, “Oh, and I’m getting a ride there and back, so that’s taken care of.” I was proud that I’d thought ahead. I knew better than to inconvenience him or Mom with my plans.

Dad’s shoulders slumped as he shook his head. But why? Was he upset that he wasn’t going to win this argument? Was he distressed at my new assertiveness? Did he think I was too young to be out with boys?

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated, but now his tone had turned bitter. What he said next shocked me. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

*     *     *

Almost forty years later, as I readied my late parents’ house for sale, I came across a thick tattered file marked, in my mother’s hand, simply “Castlewood.” An odd unease fluttered in my chest. Castlewood Country Club, originally built as a residence for the Hearst family in the dry heat of the Pleasanton foothills, was at that time the premier country club in the East Bay, boasting two golf courses and two clubhouses. My parents had joined the club in 1970; my wedding reception was held there in 1984.

But there was something wrong, the stink of a story passed down. Mom must have told me, because Dad wouldn’t have. He could pretend—and hope—that none of life’s disappointments would touch me, if only he could keep them to himself. But his war with Castlewood, and with himself, remained a scourge.

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

When we moved to California in 1964, Dad took up golf. At first my brother and I laughed—wasn’t golf an old man’s sport? But for Dad, a young doctor with a new private practice, it became a vital link. Not only was it a personal challenge, it was the perfect vehicle to socialize with colleagues. The theory was simple: if you like someone, you’ll refer work to them. Businessmen and businesswomen have used this tactic—golf, Rotary, community fundraisers—for years.

By 1966, Dad was playing golf twice a week. Most Sunday mornings he’d be on the links with his doctor friends, returning home tired and happy, tan lines on his arms. He’d mix himself a drink and press himself into his easy chair. Other times he was more circumspect. Four hours on a golf course told you much about a man. “I won’t play with him again,” Dad said one afternoon. “He cheats. And if you cheat at golf, you cheat at everything.”

Often Dad was invited to Castlewood Country Club, rounding out a foursome of doctors. But there was a hitch: as a guest there wasn’t a way to reciprocate. “Your money’s no good here,” his friends would joke, reaching for the bar bill, the lunch bill, the greens fees silently slipped onto their tabs. Dad felt uncomfortable, used to paying his own way and more. His friends enthusiastically sponsored him, so he applied for membership.

Castlewood turned him down. The day it happened, Mom took me aside. “He was blackballed,” she whispered.

Blackballed. Two years later, when I defied our Lutheran-Missouri Synod pastor and joined the Rainbow Girls, a Masonic youth organization, I finally understood the term. We cast secret ballots. When a prospective member’s name was called, one by one we’d silently file past a small wooden box where we’d pick a white ball for yes, a black ball for no, roll it down the box’s chute, hear it land with a dull thud. After everyone had voted, our leader, our Worthy Advisor, would pull out a little drawer at the bottom of the box and could immediately see if the vote was unanimous. Any black ball was grounds for rejection.

Dad was stunned and humiliated. His friends were outraged. In the file marked “Castlewood” I found letters they wrote, signed by dozens of colleagues, asking the club to reverse its decision. He’s a stalwart member of the community, they wrote. He’s of the highest moral character. There is no reason to exclude him from the Castlewood community.

The club turned him down again.

When I looked at the date on the Castlewood letterhead, I felt a chill. Dad had received his second denial in September 1969, days before my high school dance.

*     *     *

In the end, Dad was right. No one asked me to dance.

In a turn of poetic justice, the Castlewood Clubhouse, the gracious Hacienda built by Phoebe Hearst, had burned to the ground on August 24, 1969. Dad’s rejection letter had slipped out quietly just before the flames began.

*     *     *

Six months later, in early 1970, Castlewood sent Dad an invitation. “Please join our club,” they said. “It’s the premier golf course in the area.” Dad was furious. “No way,” he declared.

I can see Mom now, sitting at the kitchen table, smoke curling from the cigarette in her outstretched fingers. How to approach this? On the one hand, being members of a premier country club would be the culmination of a dream for Dad and her. Isn’t that the height of assimilation? Also, they’d be paving another inroad for the Chinese community, setting a precedent, making it easier for the next family. Two strokes for pragmatism over idealism. But on the other hand, isn’t the club just using them to help rebuild the clubhouse? Bringing them on as members, and then slapping them with a capital assessment? It was so transparent—the “I’ll be your best friend if…” bribe. But who wants to be part of a club that rejected them twice?

Mom finally decided, the voice of reason. “You like the course. Your friends play there,” she told Dad, citing the two most salient points in her favor. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

*     *     *

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it. Even my twenty-four-year-old son, Bryce.

In the warm light of our Seattle kitchen, Bryce, arms folded over his chest, grimaces. Absurdly, a huge cow face is visible on his thrift store T-shirt, its bucolic stare in stark contrast to Bryce, whose eyes darken. He leans against the counter, now cleared of dinner dishes, although the familiar scent of black bean prawns in lobster sauce hangs in the air. He tucks a shoulder length strand of reddish-brown hair behind his ear. Folds his arms closed again.

“How could Goong-Goong do that? Doesn’t he have any pride?” I’m glad that my father, long gone, can’t hear this accusation. Pride—of his heritage, of his integrity—was something Dad had in spades.

I try to explain using my mother’s reasoning, and at first it sounds hopelessly quaint. Bryce shakes his head, regards his tattered sneakers, and it’s obvious he’s not buying it. In 2016, what inroads do Chinese still have to make?

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it.

He doesn’t get that in 1969 America, any progress toward acceptance was seen as a victory.

What could possibly justify my parents’ decision? Bryce and I posit circumstances. What if those who blackballed Dad were outed as racist, and enough other members banded together to offer Dad a membership?

“Okay,” he says evenly, “but those people will still be around, snubbing him.”

“But they lost. And he doesn’t need them, he has his own friends. Goong-Goong’s essentially saying, ‘I made it, I’m here.’ By joining, he’s sort of shoving it in their faces.”

His mood brightens as he nods, a sly grin—just like my father’s—rimming his lips. “Yeah, kind of an ‘up yours!’” Bryce eases up his six-foot two-inch frame and reaches into the refrigerator for the carton of guava juice that I know is his favorite. As he pours a glass, he turns thoughtful. “And if they saw him hanging out with his white doctor friends, maybe they’d be less apt to see him as ‘other.’”

This is our point of mutuality, where I know we have to come. At this age, defiance becomes him, the cloak of impermeability between young adulthood’s earnest twenties and realist thirties. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the diffusion of layers is gradual and, in most cases, silent. When I crossed the Rubicon to adulthood, did the ends suddenly justify the means?

I’m reminded of what my brother recently revealed to me—When you wanted to join the Rainbow Girls, Dad called his Mason friends and made sure you wouldn’t get blackballed. Dad, behind the scenes, making sure I wouldn’t suffer the humiliation that he faced. Trying to make it easier for me and the following generations, and letting us think we did it on our own.

But in today’s modern era, there’s still a question in the back of my mind: Would I press to join a club, an organization, perhaps even an executive team, that’s rejected me twice? Would I be able to rationalize it away, the fox with the grapes?

What would be worth bowing for?

Bryce drains his glass and again stands adamant, intensity smoldering. Now his voice brims with authority, and although I listen hard for the subtle equivocation that my female cousins and I often layer into our voices—well, here’s my opinion, but I’ll understand if you have a different one—I hear none of that. For us, adopting a “saving face” strategy was, and still is, a double-edged sword. Within my family, that nuance allows everyone’s dignity to remain intact. But out in corporate America, it smacks of indecision, or even worse, weakness. Breaking that habit took me twenty years.

“Okay, maybe it was okay for them, but I’d say ‘screw it,’” he concludes. “You don’t want me, I don’t want you.”

It’s an eye-roll of a statement, but—to my surprise—I’m shot with envy. That note of surety in his voice—is it just the bravado of youth? Is it simply a man’s truth in a man’s world? Why should I feel threatened that he, a sixth-generation American, has allowed himself the luxury of letting idealism trump pragmatism? I smile ruefully and shake my head. Is that just his white half talking?

Because by my choice—and a roll of the genetic dice—people look at my son and think, “American.” With his height, titian hair, and a name that bears no witness to his Chinese heritage, he passes for white. No one will call him “chink.” No one will expect him to be quiet and passive, to defer to others in the room. No one will ask, “Where are you from?” with any expectation of an answer outside the United States. With his lifetime immersion into twenty-first century America, all his cultural references are grounded deeply here.

Shouldn’t I be happy for him that his inner cultural identity matches his outer? On our family’s five-generation journey toward cultural acceptance—from laundryman to gambler to Army pilot to doctor to engineer—are we there yet?

With a start I feel the heavy drape of his arm around my shoulders, hear the jingle of car keys in his hand. He’s heading to a music gig, ready to end this standoff. With a gentle pat on my bicep, his unspoken, “Are we good?” is asked and answered. As I lean into his cotton warmth, my frown disappears and my mom persona returns, the one that forgives him everything.

I slip out from under his arm so he can make a graceful exit, and he turns toward me with a lopsided smile. “I’ll be back later tonight,” he says, and I reply as I always do, “So I’ll leave the light on for you.” He nods, our silent contract—to watch out for each other—complete.

He steps into the cool of the night with a singular ease. As I close the door I finally feel the truth of his reassuring pat on my arm. For him there’s no air lock, no threshold change, no cloak of whiteness between out and in. What he inherited from my father was a square chin and towering height. I’m glad of what he didn’t inherit: that hulking, leaden chip on his shoulder.

Amber WongAmber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, her work has also appeared in Slippery Elm, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, We Came Back to Say, and seattletimes.com. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.