Leaving

Processing

They delivered the news of his death with a sharply creased flag. She was nursing their two-week-old girl-child on the worn couch, lulled by the glow of the television then the hard rap on the door snapped her awake. She yanked her breast back into the nursing bra and bounced the squalling baby in the crook of her arm. The NCO stood at the door haloed by the morning sun. He was wearing dress blues. The golden buttons and white gloves beamed against the terrible sameness of this cul-de-sac. Her mouth was dry.

We regret to inform you. Killed in action. Your husband. In service to this nation and the beloved Corps. His beloved Corps. Regret. Taking fire.

She felt the officer’s fingertips as he pressed the triangle of the flag into her left hand.

Identification

She named the girl child Jonathan Rene after her dead father, whose remains were so damaged the Interment Officer touched her wrist and shook his head when she asked him to open the black bag.

“We have DNA testing now.”

She smiled, all teeth, and stroked Baby Jonathan’s arched lips. “Open it.”

The officer pulled the zipper and she peered into the dark slit. A pile of teeth heaped in the middle of a stubbled jaw. An arm with a tattoo of a skull in a top hat nestled against part of a rib cage. She couldn’t stop grinning. Her breath puffed in front of her and the skull peered at her through a monocle.

“Where is his heart?”

“Ma’am?”

“His heart? His blood? His tongue? Where did it all go? Where is his cock?”

“We were unable to recover all of the remains, ma’am.”

She pressed closer to the officer and pulled the baby blanket away from Jonathan’s face.

“This is our child. Do you think she looks like him?”

He flicked his green eyes to the door and put his arm around her. She could smell formaldehyde and deodorant and sweat and Big Red gum.

“His personal items will be sent within 5-7 days after they are processed, inventoried, and cleaned. His weapon will be issued to another soldier. You will receive his uniform. You will also receive a lump sum of one hundred thousand dollars.”

His voice hung around her as she stepped into the light of the waiting room. Jonathan yawned pink and settled into the creases of her own neck. She never cried. She just opened and closed those fat fists and pulled on her momma’s scabbed tit like a calf with that cruel little mouth.

Interment

Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer’s funeral was brief.

She sat between framed photos of their dead parents and watched some NCO lift the flag from the fiberglass box and snap it in half with another glassy-eyed officer.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She remembered him whole. She remembered him when she was young and he was young, deep in the woods that ran along the river where they fished for yellow mudcats. Before he became a pile of teeth, before he pulled his laces tight, before her pussy stretched and a creature turned inside her, they pinched worms in half and threaded them onto golden hooks. Coors Light nestled in the dirty ice of her daddy’s Styrofoam cooler on the bank of some forgotten inlet of the Mississippi. It was always too warm and the perch nibbled the worms off the hooks, flashing their yellow bellies as they flipped away from her bobber. A couple of times she fucked him out there when the fish weren’t biting, but the deer flies were. They specked his pale thighs with tiny dots of blood. She liked his resolve. He was a born leader.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She hauled them out onto a cinder block that they dragged up from the bank, and rubbed her thumb over the soft spot on their heads. She stabbed a straightened wire hanger through the weak skin and wiggled it until they quit flopping. She hacked off their tails and bled them in the cooler until the ice was pink and gray. She couldn’t let things smaller than her suffer in a crowded bucket, better to kill than to let die slowly.

Now her husband wasn’t. Mist beaded on the Class A casket paid for by the United States Marine Corps. Seven more Marines stood to the left, gripping their rifles in the fog. Twenty-one reports and the brass drone of “Taps.” People coughing. The rustle of fabric and a General Brigadier kneeling in front of her pressing another flag against her chest. His MO: sympathy, empathy, candor, and grief. He let a single tear trail down his nose, mapped with broken capillaries from nights in foreign bars where he smashed glasses and had his money stolen by laughing whores. She twisted a damp napkin from the Waffle House around her pointer finger and looked at a single stray hair in his right nostril. She leaned into him and wondered if he thought about her breasts touching his shoulder. They put some of Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer in the ground.

Housing

Weeks passed. Their lease was up. She sat in her gray manufactured house and listened to an odd bubbling rendition of “Für Elise” coming from the sticker-dotted ice cream truck. Baby Jonathan jerked her pink hands around, batting at her mother’s chest.

The music from the ice cream truck had always made a hard lump stick in her throat. From the time she was six or seven, the tinkling from a music box or the odd mechanical notes drifting through the air made her pull at her eyebrows and bite her thumbnail. She knew it happened on her uncle’s dairy farm. Whatever it was. There was a burn barrel and the neighbor boys throwing chicken bones in the air. They chased her to the shed. It was something, something to do with thrown out dish soap in her eyes and hard hands gripping her shoulders. Something to do with a pink porcelain ballerina balanced on one toe, crushed under mildewed magazines ready for the fire, and the mechanical plinks of a sad song. Something.

Once, when Jonathan was deployed, she sat rubbing her pregnant belly in the same little off-base house and waited for the ice cream truck to come. She stumbled outside when she heard the music, waving bills at the ice cream man, and begged him, “please please please, turn off your music, I’ll buy everyone here ice cream, but please, no more.” The children from the neighborhood pressed their hot little bodies all around her and put their sticky hands on her arms. She looked down at the crusted nostrils and red Kool-Aid stained skin around flaked lips and handed them Tweety Birds with blue bubblegum eyes and Chocolate Rockets and orange Creamsicles. The smells of fake fruit and vanilla and sun-warmed chlorine drifted around her. She gave the ice cream man her phone number and hoped he’d call her even when he wasn’t coming into the neighborhood. He was so young and pretty, with a thick-lipped gap-toothed grin, his fingers brushing hers as she reached for confection after confection.

Now, she pressed her scabbed nipple against the side of Jonathan’s face, praying for a latch this time. Toys and blankets, all in primary colors, were sprinkled over the worn carpet. Unfolded moving boxes leaned against the refrigerator. A straightened coat hanger with threads of hair still clinging to it, from when she tried to unclog the bathroom sink, teetered on the back of the reclining couch. The mail was heaped on the counters and his smell had disappeared before he had even died. She picked up her breast again and squeezed from the base, just like the nurse told her. A pearl of milk grew and dropped on Jonathan’s wrinkled forehead.

“I hate you,” she whispered through clenched teeth. “Just fucking eat, God damn you.” She wrenched Jonathan up and gripped the limp child under the arms, looking straight into her hazy gray eyes. “Do you want to die?” Her sore tit hung from the unclasped nursing bra. “Your daddy wanted to die. He wanted to die the moment he was born. Maybe you got that sickness, too.”

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills.

Custom and Tradition

She had been sitting on the broken recliner couch for two hours. The baby still wouldn’t eat. Jonathan cried and crinkled her forehead specked with scaly cradle cap. The truck was circling the block again. “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought it was all in good fun, pop goes the weasel!” The low rattle of the cicadas reminded her of her grandmother’s story about seeing the devil in the Mississippi woods. The same woods where she and her husband had fucked and caught catfish and hooked their fingers trying to impale grasshoppers. She put the baby down on a pillow with a snoozing puppy printed on it, and pressed her forefinger to Jonathan’s rose petal lips.

“Shhhh, Jonathan, I’ma tell you a story about the time that The Son of The Morning came and told Meemaw just what she needed to do. She was only a little girl, just a few years older than you. She was playing in the woods by the river because the grownups in the house told her that her momma needed privacy. They didn’t know Meemaw had scarlet fever, so they sent her into the bright sun with her rag doll and told her to be back for dinner. Meemaw felt so warm and tired that she sat down by the creek and started to cry. She was so very hot and her knees and elbows were just hurting from the fever. Then, from the other side of the creek, she heard someone crying. She saw a tall man with hair so red and skin so pure, sitting, sitting just like she was, crying. She asked him why was he crying and he said his momma was with the angels just like hers was. She told him that he must think she was someone else because her momma just needed privacy, because Santa Claus was bringing her a little sister for an early Christmas present. The red-headed man said he’d show her where her momma was, and that all she needed to do was come with him to the deeper water. When she asked who he was, he laughed and his laugh sounded just like a tinkling music box, it was so clear and pretty. The man came across the creek to her and offered his hand like a fancy gentleman, and his hand was as soft and creamy as a lady’s. He even had perfect, filed fingernails. Meemaw said she don’t remember where they went, but that his hand was as cool and smooth as magnolia petals. They found her half-asleep on the bank of the Mississippi, nestled in the cold mud. Only thing that had kept her from burning alive from the fever, they said. And guess what? Her momma, my great-grandma, was with the angels. She had died from giving birth to my Great Uncle Eustace. He died in World War II. Isn’t that something?”

Absent Without Leave

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills. He smelled like gunpowder and dirt, like little boys do when they’ve come out of the sun. His black hair was dusted with pale, powdery sand. He put his finger to her lips and raised the catfish up with his other hand. It spoke in the static silence of the room.

“I am,” it said.

Blood soaked her husband’s sleeve. The catfish’s tail had been hacked off and a crimson bead formed on the soft spot on the top of its gray head. Jonathan grinned. His nicotine-stained teeth gleamed.

“See? They sound like they’re talking.”

The catfish sounded just like Jesus in those church films they watched in Sunday school sometimes, when Ms. May was sick and couldn’t teach. “Let the little children come unto me.” The catfish flopped out of Daddy Jonathan’s hand and shivered on the floor, its gills working open and closed until her husband pushed her eyelids closed with his warm palm and pried her mouth open with his tongue. She wasn’t asleep. This was not a dream. He was here again.

Until he wasn’t, and she was holding Baby Jonathan to her stretch-marked breast trying to force her to eat again in the dirty living room. Jonathan’s silky baby skin was very cold and almost slick. A diamond pool of blood on her baby’s head streamed in long ribbons and pooled in the crevices of her elbows. A straightened coat hanger was caught in the fabric of the couch and dangled over the stained carpet. It was coated in blood. The setting sun filled the room with strange light and long slotted shadows from the blinds.

Separation

She felt a warm calm and knew where to take her child. There would be no caskets or paperwork. No flags or death-quelling Lilies of the Valley. She would not sit in a plastic chair in a glinting forest of framed dead faces. No. She would take Baby Jonathan to the mighty river and let her tiny body feed the turtles and the fish, and maybe get swallowed whole by a great mudcat. And when that fish was wrenched from the water and eaten by some family by the delta, they would drink beer and play cards in the front yard, until the night closed over and the warm fat raindrops drove everyone inside hollering. Mommas hushing the drunk men and the teenagers with their fat titties, eyeing their daddy’s friends with that wetness. “Don’t y’all wake them babies. You hear me?” The frogs burping love songs and the patter of rain on the tin roof of some trailer. Maybe her blood, mixed with that catfish blood and sweetish, malty Coors would make some girl dream about the devil and forget that boy with resolve.

R. Peralez HeadshotR. Peralez is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches Freshmen Composition. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English. She is from DeRidder, Louisiana. She is also the fiction editor for Quaint Magazine. She writes short stories about the South and the characters who inhabit it.

You are a Woman

As told through the lips of Nước Hoa.

I stood angry. I entered the waters of the Xepon in a wild and arrogant gait. Meiet, the tallest of all the village teenage girls, quieted my sloppy entry with a stare. It did not register with my tortured mind her appearance. She stood in the river up to her knees. Long braids on each side of her head remained tight, twirling around her hips as she scanned the river surface and the tree line. This behavior was not unusual, but the purple sarong cinched tight on her waist was inappropriate. She was promised to the son of a neighboring village chieftain. Her body no longer belonged to nature, but her future husband. Yet, her style of dress at the shoreline was inappropriate. Why was she covered in front of women and children?

The men of the village were guarding against the marauding spirits that were attacking several villages. The spirits covered with clothing, carrying weapons of great power, kidnapped many children from helpless villages located around Ai Lao Pass. This was not the case with our encampment. The lodges were strong. Our Chiefs sat in the middle surrounded by eight smaller, but still foreboding long houses. Other homes rimmed the central encampment. We were strong.

Bamboo columns held the sturdy grass paneled structure several feet off the ground. Wind, water, or even evil spirits from the dark realm of emptiness could not penetrate our defenses.

She should have been nude as the rest of us. But who was I to argue with her? I was happy she turned her gaze as my behavior improved. A betrothed teen handed me a toddler. With an annoyed expression, I began the loathsome task of washing another’s infant. I wanted my own.

My mother sent me to the shore to help with the bathing of the children. To me it was penance for too many tantrums and too much sobbing. The sun was setting. This seemed an unusual time to do this. But again, I lost the desire to ask or make a fuss. Only minutes before, my father and older brother left the two females of the family yelling and crying. Me crying, my mother yelling.

It was all due to my refusal to act my age. My friend Blata was promised to someone. She entered womanhood the moon before. Her dripping blood signaled a time of maturity and respect. I wanted that. Refusing to be treated as a child, I put my mother’s sarong around my waist, ripping the loincloth from my body. Men and boys, not a grown woman, wore this garment. Young immature girls would stroll with this cover. I am almost a woman, two months older than Blata. This garment is no longer for me. I should be treated as I deserved.

Why be so treated? This is a punishment, due to my body’s inability to bleed. No one could tell me different. My mother’s disgust at the gesture led to the tirade of emotions and my father and brother’s escape.

As the sun began to set, a beautiful array of white light danced on the surface of the Xepon. Mesmerized by the sight, I found myself alone as the mild waves lapped at my hips. At the shoreline stood beautiful Meiet, the majestic young woman whispered something to the crippled daughter of my father’s friend. Ngit was cute of face, but limped due to a shortened left leg. Meiet’s whisper brought a giggle to the oft-pained girl. I observed more after handing the infant to an older girl, and returning to the water. My workday was done.

The striking young woman talked to this lame girl as any friend would. I marveled at the beauty that stood a head above the others. Her authority did not come from height or age. This eldest at the shore possessed a spirit that was for all to see. Though wrapped tight with cloth, stunning braids showed the sparkle that such hair gives off when damp. Breasts pointed as if held up by string. I envied such beauty. I hated such beauty.

Moving toward the shore, I froze at the sight.

Meiet pushed the lame Ngit to the ground, while whipping her sarong into the air. As the garment fluttered its way to the sand, a glint from her hand caused my stumble backward. The blade was hidden in the waistband of her skirt. Now I knew why it was worn. The young guardian looked with intent never seen by my eyes. The other young women, including Blata, stopped any movement, their sarongs already circling their waists.

I fell to my knees due to the clumsy reaction. The water rose to my lips. Attempting to stand, I saw Meiet raise the hand with the blade. She slid the other arm around her stomach, an extended finger pointing to her rear. The path to the village her target. At no time did her gaze lose sight of the jungle.

My father lived as a hunter, or to be more specific, a tracker for the parties that roam the forest for our daily meals. Many times regaling stories of brilliant maneuvers to catch the wild boar and deer that roam our land, he would talk of the silence of the jungle. This seemed strange. The jungle being a cauldron of noise. Sounds of birds, screeching monkeys, and the occasional bellowing of a tiger all joined in the familiar chorus. How could the jungle be silent? The never-ending drone of bugs hummed through the air giving the other lyrical bursts a bass line to follow.

Now, I thought my ears blocked. Silence became so intense my head rang from the muted air. Around me little ripples of water increased as I trembled with fear. Something is going to happen. Something did.

Meiet screamed for the others to run. Her stance remained fixed. With the rising moon’s light I could see the evil spirits that wore clothes.

Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent.

They were the Vietnamese, the people from the east. They came for slaves. Failure after failure to capture our men, costing many the life of a Viet caused enterprising traders to concentrate on children. The girls were to be given to the Court of their Emperor as concubines. Those that did not please the royal selection committee would be sold at auction. The boys would be castrated and given to the Royal House. Eunuchs were prized as potential gifts for the Chinese Emperor.

Screams continued as the evils spirits grabbed the children. Blata stumbled in her attempt at a quick movement. She fell to the ground, only to be pulled up by her hair and thrust into a circle of vine. In a flash, three of the girls were also connected as prisoners held submissively by this long leash.

None of the group at the shore escaped. But the deed would not come without a price. In my preoccupation with the speed of the capture, I did not see Meiet and her blade.

A Viet lay at her feet. Standing with no loss of pride, the nude girl spit at the body of the Viet she had slain. Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent. From the water I saw the leer aimed at her beauty. Would he be willing to pay the price for such pleasure?

All through this standoff, muffled screams from Ngit serenaded the attack. The men realized she could never make the trip to Huế, the Imperial City. They decided to enjoy her fruits on the beach. I saw one man on top of her, then replaced by another. It looked as if a line was forming behind her bobbing head. Her screams muted by a monstrous hand.

The other teenager fumbled with her weapon, also hid in a sarong. It spun from her trembling hand, wilting on the sand. They motioned to Meiet to put down the crimson blade still dripping from its taste of Viet flesh. Her friend whose name I did not know found her knees thrust to the ground as the Viets kept her in a kneeling position. The Viets showed fear of Meiet. Not one would approach her. They wanted this female warrior; as to me she will always be remembered as such, to surrender. She would fetch a good price. Though I could see the other men, as now I knew these were no spirits, possessed the look of a predator eyeing their next meal.

The other teen resigned to her fate remained silent. A kick to her breasts crumpled her further. A Viet with a long blade held it over the semi-conscious young woman. It was obvious; Meiet’s continued fight would lead to her beheading.

It is here where I understood a statement made by my mother.

My father told her, as he looked at the results of another tantrum. “This devil would drive the evil spirits crazy, should they have the misfortune to capture her.”

My mother’s quick response, “Do not joke of such things.” She looked at me with eyes ready to water. “I will slit her throat and then mine before such a thing occurs.”

Meiet held the same opinion. Or so her actions would show. In a move worthy of our noblest warrior she put the knife to her neck, calling to the heavens as the blade sliced through her skin. From my watery seat, I saw her once coconut milk-like skin covered in a tide of blood. Her breasts, that I envied, drenched in seconds.

In disgust, the Viet brought the gleaming blade down on the other teenager. A smack greeted the cheek of the executioner, this being a poor business decision. His leader reacted with another slap. The teenage friend of Meiet squirmed as her head rolled a few inches.

Finally, the cries of Ngit ended. My body felt as if a shrinking of my skin began to take place. I feared the trembling would cause the Viets to notice the stirring at the surface. It was a needless worry. The water became alive with those too young to walk the distance to their Emperor’s Palace. Two infants were flung into the surf as I once saw boys of our village fling rocks into the Xepon, their splashes too far from me to aid. I felt gratitude for this fact. I knew due to my cowardice, my legs would not budge. Amid this scene, I spat at my own soul, for should an infant land by my side, my reaction would be the same.

Hideous laughter circled the beach as the eldest of the young boys, a soft faced eight-year old violated by the fat Viet with long hair, cried out in a wail of pain. Future eunuchs, unlike concubines, fetched the same price, pure or spoiled. An aroma of horror coupled with the sobbing of the captured hung about my head. The only smell worse was my shame at a girl’s cowardice.

I hoped for my father and the other men to save the children. To save me. Though, I knew that would not be. My mother sent me to the river, not for punishment, but for protection. The elders expected an attack from the direction of Ai Lao Pass. They were tricked into believing that. The Viets appeared smarter than the Bru.

There I stayed, a lone survivor of this horrific attack. As the last of the Viets walked, following the neck-bound captives into the jungle, I cursed myself. My shame was of such a magnitude, I thought of wading to the shore and using the knife of Meiet to rip my neck open. Then, as a catfish brushed my leg, I remembered my mother’s expression as she told my father of her zeal.

I would follow the children till I could get close enough to free them, or as my mother would prefer, cut all their throats. It was the only thing that could wash away my shame.

Entrance into the jungle was not without fear. I was Bru, and though schooled in girlish necessities needed for my advance into womanhood, I knew a trail. This fact did not quell the uncertain feeling racing through my body. Holding one blade, I brushed the other hidden in the sarong of Meiet. Walking one foot over the other, I marveled at how well I cut the bottom of the skirt till it fit me as the woman I was. The moonlight pierced through the canopy of the jungle just long enough to show me the clustered tracks of the Vietnamese. Their sandals left scarred marks in the soft jungle bottom. How weak they must be? Being stalked by a woman of the Bru.

My older brother Renko could track a boar, mother, and her piglets before the ninth year of his life. My father took him on the hunt as soon as he could walk. Or so it was told to me. While the boy learned the skill of bow and knife throwing, my hands were used for washing babies and preparing dinner. My mother would take little strolls into the jungle, showing me the area where guavas, pineapple, and mango grow in abundance. As I would reach for my favorite, the slightly toothed leaves of peppermint herbs that would explode with coolness in my mouth, she would explain the importance of using the gifts of the land to liven up a boring meal. Mother would laugh at the thought of my father’s face, when his excitement would show due to the right amount of basil or dill added to a too tough meat.

I recalled words from my father as he tried to end another of my tantrums. I  wanted to know how to read the sky, as he was teaching Renko. My father pulled me to his lap and pointed to the big star and told me where it would be as the night would become day. He whispered that I was his child. The blood of a tracker flowed through my veins. I needn’t worry about such things. My mother would just yell that I was lazy, and would never get a husband.

I never believed what he whispered to me, but now I did. Their trail became a mural that grew larger with each few step. I knew the blood in me. I knew I was my father’s child.

Thump! Thoughts of destiny and greatness shot from me into the darkness of the jungle. The quick tumble showed a lack of agility. The fright at the unexpected obstacle brought my eyes close to tears. Shamed again, as at the water’s edge. I was afraid.

Looking at what I thought was the moist bark of a rotted log my heart skipped a beat. It was the soft-faced boy violated by the fat Viet with long hair. Naked, the boy looked ready to float away on the river of blood that surrounded the bloated body. The tortured face of the boy did not bring the horror I expected. I knelt in the blood of the child. The poor boy must have been too injured to make the trip to slavery; his neck was sliced open. I swore the vengeance needed to wash away the shame of the fat Viet’s act; my muscles grew with the desire fostered by the hunt. My soft stomach hardened as my muscular brother’s, my vow complete. Hate grew in my eyes, as I felt them strain. The bitterness at my cowardice as the babies scrambled for breath a few feet from my safe watery seat turned to anger. My father and the men were nowhere in sight. I heard not a branch stir, hoping for the glimpse of one of my tribe. The decision became my pledge to the spirits of the jungle. I would free the children, or die trying. The sarong was soaked with the blood of the soft-faced boy. My bath of death brought me power. I would kill until all were free. Or all were dead. I advanced.

The Vietnamese were fearful of the jungle. They turned toward the beach, a safe route to the beaten path that would lead to freedom. The fools did not know of their folly. The Bru could easily overtake them. The beach offered no obstacle.

And we feared them as evil spirits?

The group stopped at the tree line. I almost walked into their camp, as they argued and looked everywhere. Their fear was consuming them.

Moving back into the heavy flora of the forest, I sat with full view of the cluster. I needed only to wait. Our men must have discovered the treachery at the water’s edge. I need only sit and wait.

Time passed and I felt my eyes grow heavy. No doubt the blunder of camping at the beach would lead to their undoing. The noise and wail of the children alerted me to the difference.

A boat was in the distance. I could see the cloth that caught the wind. The breezes would bring it close to shore, and my captured people to slavery. Grabbing the naked children, the Viets forced the captives into the river. I did not know what to do.

The wailing prisoners were standing in knee high water. The boat approached, the rushing tide tossing it in the air. That part of the Xepon grew sand bars and collected, rotted tree trunks of the pine that littered the shoreline. I still waited for a plan. Though I knew what must be done.

Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.

I whipped the sarong from me and held the two blades as I have seen men do when they practice killing blows.

Deep breaths fortified my resolve. I would run to the water and kill as many of the children as possible. It was the only way to save them.

“No!” My scream tore at my mind. The shame is already too great for I will free all their bodies from the future the Viet’s planned. Then, as a woman, I will join them in paradise. My father and the rest of the Bru men will do the rest.

Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.

The fat Viet, finishing an argument with the leader threw a pouch that jingled as it was caught. The man looked the opposite of the sweaty blob, slim with short hair; he waved the fat Viet toward the jungle. Blata followed him by her gripped hair. She did not need to stand as she bounced upon the sand, accompanied by hearty laughter from the other Viets.

My eyes widened as the fat one moved past me deeper into the jungle. Blata looked resigned to her fate. Her movements were non-existent.

Scanning the area, he used a free hand to move the vines that blocked the path. A smile appeared as he saw the rotted tree trunk flat to the ground. Throwing Blata toward the clear area to its front, the fat Viet ripped his pants from his body. The laughter was as a roaring tiger. Though I feel this man possessed none of the spirit or character of the beast. The obnoxious and sinister chuckles covered my movements. I was to his back and delighted in what I saw. His vulnerability was increasing. Standing with legs spread, he picked up my friend. I then decided she was my friend, no matter how her body bled, or the size of her breasts. Throwing Blata over the trunk, he moved over the lifeless body. As so did I. I wanted to thank him for the laughter and belches of noise that allowed me to get even closer. I was behind him, he never knew. As a bloated hand grabbed the part of him that so humiliated the soft-faced boy, my arm moved backward. Bending over Blata, my friend, he gave off a deep moan. I could see the sides of his belly shake. I took a breath, inhaling a foul odor from his body. Before his entrance into her, my blade entered him.

The scream woke the sleeping animals of the jungle. A family of spotted monkeys awakened by the screeching cries flooded the area to our front. It was his last vision before death. Blata revived by the howling cry looked at the shimmering blubber of the half-naked man. His fall to the floor caused a rumble at our feet, Meiet’s blade sticking from his scrotum.

“Quickly girl!” I grabbed the stunned friend and took her by the shoulder as an adult woman might. The men on the beach would be upon us. We ran until the pine trees and thorny vines and rotted dead vegetation all looked the same.

It was impossible, but it was also true. My ignorance led us back to the beach.

The hands of men grabbed us. I am now a captive. The shame I hoped to purge from my soul, would be tripled. I lunged with the other blade, hoping to slice my throat on the blades return. A monstrous hand ripped it from me. I began to cry. I wanted to die.

I wanted my mommy.

Dragged to the sand, the grips of the men were not hurtful. Blata realized, and with no resistance, she would be let go. Hair in front of my face covered my vision. I could only look down; my shame too heavy to hold.

On the ground laid the leader of the Viets. His eyes wide open. But where was his body? Using both hands, I cleared the wild mop of hair from my eyes. The children were free, and crying. The joyful cry of innocence restored. Before me stood my father, holding the blood soaked sarong. Beside him stood my brother, a Viet’s head atop his spear.

The men used my trail to lead them to the Viets. The two that piloted the boat were taken at the shore. Their misfortune being taken alive, a condition that would last for two days.

Seeing my father brought my emotions to a swell. I ran the short distance to his arms and buried my head and body into his grasp. My crying matched or surpassed any that the captives endured. Hands pulled me upward as my father hoisted me to his chest, and then the air above his head. I looked down; frightened as the coward I am, not noticing the smile on my oft-serious father’s face. The men yelled in chants. The chants reserved for warriors. I did not want to hear anything. The sand shook as the men jumped and smacked the ground with their weapons. My hysteria did not ebb, as my father spun me in the air, beaming with pride. What pride could I be? A naked child acting the infant she was.

The screaming became united with one simple mantra. I saw my brother in a matching state of hysteria howling with the warriors of the tribe. My father’s voice was loudest of all. They repeated it over and over again.

YOU ARE A WOMAN! YOU ARE A WOMAN!

A month passed from that fateful night. Upon my return to my mother, not one second would be spent from her side. I often would cling to her bare breast as if a suckling child satisfied with nourishment. She relished my behavior and was with me at nature’s call. For a month to the day of my father’s proclamation, my body chose to act the part.

As I quaked with the preparation for motherhood, my clinging personality only continued. Stomachache and nausea spun about my head, along with the obvious colored discharge. Mother held me, and whispered in my ear. The tone of her words eased my body’s strain.

Her strokes continued as I rested at her chest. She whispered once more. You are a woman. My eyes closed knowing when I awoke, I would be so.

Joseph Allan HeadshotJoseph Allan’s tales profess one agenda. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Homebound as a child due to illness, loneliness liberated imagination. Poe’s influence runs through his work. Trained as a Counterintelligence Agent by the US Army, J Allan used his unusual mind’s eye developing strategies protecting Americans abroad. The only non-Vietnam Veteran in his airborne unit, he memorized accounts of special operations in Southeast Asia. Coupled with interviews of North Vietnamese veterans and Montagnards his expertise increased. He submitted a screenplay while in China, and a Vietnam War novel thought too controversial for publication.

 

Orientation Week

In 1962 my parents packed four suitcases, one gray trunk with a brass lock, my stereo, my tennis racket (remnant of happier days and therefore a sign of their hope for my future), and me into our white Lincoln Continental. We headed up Route 301 to the University of Florida campus in Gainesville three hundred miles away.

I was going to have fun. Before I left, Uncle Harry said I envy you, Monica. Four years of leisure to study mankind and the universe. Uncle Harry never recovered from not going to college due to the depression. He supplemented his life with a complete set of Harvard classics. The red books lined his office shelves for years unopened. I know because eventually I inherited them, and except for the pages being brown with age, they were in perfect condition. Yet I knew he was sincere. My psychiatrist was less scholarly minded. He said, “What a great time you’re going to have at college, Monica, sitting around drinking cokes, going to frat parties, bull sessions until four in the morning. It’s going to be a great four years.”

I believed both of them. Both scenarios appealed to me. I suppose that’s why when Dr. Davey said the day before I left, Monica, I can’t do anymore for you right now. (He’d already told me that all you could do for teen age girls was patch them up and hold them together until their hormones changed, so I knew what he meant.) So, you’ll be back here next week, or you’ll enjoy four years of college—it’s up to you. His words sank into my brain. When you consider what other words were clamoring in my head it is truly amazing. Words like glass, fire, poison, death, my fault—always my fault. I had to make it at college. It was that or back to Dr. Davey’s couch.

He really did use a couch. That startled me when I first saw it. I thought shrinks having couches was a stand-up comic joke. This one was a green velour job with no arms that always seemed to capture a few strands of my long blonde hair. Did they sell these things in catalogues I wondered? I’d never seen one in a furniture store. Dr. Davey sat at one end on a hard back chair and leaned his head over mine. We’re going to relax now, Monica, stare at the eraser on the tip of the pencil and relax. The dark room would become very quiet, and I would become very relaxed, but eventually I would have to open my eyes and look into his hazel ones and say, what’s up doc, (feeble attempt at humor). Dr. Davey would sit back and sigh. Monica, you’re not trying he would say.

Yet, I did try, wanting to please. I just didn’t trust anybody that much. Later I read that people who were intelligent had no problems getting hypnotized. I decided the reason I had so much trouble was because I had a mind of my own. So we were stuck with regular therapy. Talk, talk, talk. But the talking got out of hand the month before I left for school. It was then that I felt compelled to tell everyone what was going on inside my head.

Mom, there’s glass in the soup, I can see it. Stop it, Monica. Mom, if you eat that soup it’ll hurt you. Mom, I smell smoke. I’m calling the fire department. Mom, the devil is trying to get in me. Mom, don’t cry. I’ll stop. Mom, you’re purple pillows are evil—I can feel it.

When she cried I felt bad, but I still talked. Dr. Davey said, Monica save it all for here—O.K.? Dear Dr. Davey, there aren’t enough hours in the day to tell it all to you. Strange, but this is the one place I don’t have to tell it. I’m safe in your green and brown office, dear Dr. Davey. Is there something calming about green and brown?

The trip to Gainesville was a nightmare. Eight hours of non-stop talking. Dad, if a man’s penis gets glass chips in it, would it be awful? Dad, there was glass in the bathroom this morning, millions of pieces. Mom, don’t scream at me, please don’t scream at me. I would put my hands over my ears. No, Mom, I don’t want to work in a factory. I do want to go to college. Mom, there was glass in the bathroom this morning.

My parents continued up the highway hanging on to Dr. Davey’s vision for me with a tenacity that was incredible. I sat in the back seat and dealt with the hundred thoughts a minute that were clamoring to be told. I only said one in four, but I tried very hard to say them all.

As we drove into Gainesville, Dad finally gave out. This is insane, Lenore, we can’t leave her here. But he couldn’t make a turn on the skinny two-lane highwayit was too crowded. Suddenly I heard voices—real ones—coming from the white columned ATO house. The clear sound of young men’s singing floated across the air to our car like a gift from God. I looked at the bright green Florida campus, the romantic whitewashed fraternity houses, the solid brick Administration building and I shut up. My college career was saved by heavy traffic and singing frat boys—at least for the moment.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

My parents were thrilled. Dad kept squeezing my shoulders and saying, Good girl! Dr. Davey was right. You’re going to be O.K. His face beamed as he carried my bags up to my second floor dorm room. Mother smoothed her blonde wavy hair into place. Let’s get your suitcases unpacked, Monica. I wonder who your roommate is.

Only I seemed to understand. Of course, only I was privileged to the craziness still going through my brain. I knew what Dr. Davey had said. If I could just keep quiet, the thoughts would stop. I needed my parents to leave so I could be alone. Please, Mom, you have to go. All right, Dad, but first thing tomorrow you have to leave. I can’t hold out. If you stay, I’ll start talking. Don’t you seeI have a chance here. I don’t know anybody and that helps me keep quiet. Please, you’ve got to go.

The next morning we said good-bye in front of Broward Hall. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Mother asked. I could feel her hand trembling on my arm. Her green eyes, so like mine, filled with tears that didn’t quite spill over. I noticed the lines around her mouth. She had never looked old to me before.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

Dad stared at me. “What are you going to do after we leave?” All the joviality from the previous evening was gone.

He was standing two steps below me so I could look right into his face. I had never realized his moustache was turning white. I looked past him to the two rows of royal palms that flanked the entrance way to the dorm. “I’m going to walk by myself. If I’m by myself I can’t talk and school doesn’t start for a week.” It sounded so reasonable that I stopped right there before I started to talk about glass or smoke or the devil. If they didn’t go in the next five minutes I was going to lose it. I clenched my hands into hard fists and bit the inside of my cheek hard. I tried to concentrate on the pain in my mouth. I could see my dad’s dark eyes were becoming shiny so I looked down at my brown penny loafers.

“Come on, Lenore. We’ve come this far. Let’s go home.”

I felt them kiss me on the cheek and when I lifted my head they were halfway to the parking lot walking between those tall palm trees, my father’s arm protectively around my mother’s shoulders.

I headed to the northern part of campus. The Resident Hall Reception was in the afternoon. I knew that from reading the Orientation Week events. I planned to skip most of the events. I hadn’t met my roommate yet and hoped to exhaust myself with a ten mile walk before I did.

I noticed the trees first—palm and pine everywhere. I remembered the words to the Alma Mater—where palm and pine are blowing and southern seas are flowing—I wondered what the melody was; I wondered if I’d be here long enough to learn it.

Three hours later sweaty and tired, but calm, I walked into my room and saw two girls sitting on my bed, and another combing her hair in front of the mirror. The one at the mirror turned to greet me.

“Hi, I’m Susan Watson. I hope you’re my roommate.”

“I’m Monica Farelli, and if this is your room, I am.” The room had undergone a transformation since I’d left. Pink flowered bedspreads covered both beds and matching curtains hung at the wide casement window.

“I hope you like the bedspreads. Mom and I decided it was the only thing that would tone down this ghastly floor.” I noticed the green linoleum floor for the first time. “I wanted to paint the walls pink too, but that’s not allowed.” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll be a Zeta by the end of the week and probably move into the sorority house next semester. How about you? Are you going out for rush? Peggy and Jane aren’t.” She pointed to the two girls on the bed and started to apply bright red lipstick as she leaned closer to the mirror.

All this before I could open my mouth. It occurred to me that I wasn’t going to get a word in edgewise. Great. It also occurred to me that if she was going out for rush, I wouldn’t be seeing much of her. I could see she was the perfect co-ed. Curly brown hair framed an oval face and big brown eyes were set in creamy skin like two smoky topazes.

“Hello, I’m Peggy. I’m three rooms down the hall in 34B.” One of the girls on the bed got up and came toward me with an outstretched hand. “This is Jane.” She turned her head toward the girl still sitting on the bed with the dreamy look on her face. She had straight black hair cut blunt at her chin and bangs that almost came down to her eyebrows. She looked interesting like a character in a mystery novel. I was impressed with her long polished fingernails and the graceful way her hand moved as she waved to me.

“I was just asking Susan if she’d like to walk uptown for some dinner tonight. Would you like to come with us?”

I liked the looks of this girl. She also had brown eyes and hair, but she couldn’t have been more different than Susan. For one thing, she had a million freckles on her face. Something told me I’d better say no. “Sure, what time,” I said.

Six hours later the four of us sat in Woo Ling’s, a Chinese restaurant Susan had picked. Susan and Peggy were talking about school, but Jane and I just listened. I knew Susan had already written me off. Who could blame her? She had been the perfect roommate all afternoon and been met with a monosyllabic response every time. Feel free to borrow my clothes, Monica. Did you break up with your high school boyfriend, too? I do hope Mother doesn’t get upset when I pledge Zeta. She’s a Theta you know. Aren’t mothers pushy sometimes? Of course, mine’s really wonderful, but she’s really being ridiculous about this Theta thing. Don’t you think a person should have the right to pick their own sorority? When she mentioned being the President of the National Honor Society at Carelton High I announced I wanted to take a nap. Uncle Harry and Dr. Davey’s co-ed wrapped into one neat package and she was my roommate. Wonderful. All I wanted was not to say anything stupid at dinner.

Now as I sat in the restaurant I knew my hope for a normal evening wasn’t going to come true. The walls at Woo Ling’s were red and the chairs were lacquered black—bad colors for me. A huge Buddha sat in the center of the room, and a picture of a dragon with Chinese script was hanging right above our table. Evil lurked out of every corner of the room. Peggy and Susan chattered about orientation week, and Jane looked over the menu intently. I dared not lift my eyes from the white table cloth. I heard Jane and the waiter discuss the various satisfactions of General Tso’s Chicken and regular Chicken Szechuan, and I was impressed, but still too terrified to lift my head. When the waiter took my order I pointed to something on the menu while wondering if food prepared in an evil kitchen could make a person bad.

Then I heard Susan, her voice sounding impatient, address me. “Well, who do you like more, Elvis or Pat Boone?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I answered.

“Peggy was saying she thinks Elvis is gorgeous, but I like Pat Boone more.”

I remembered Susan showing me her new white shoes that afternoon and commenting on how all the Zetas were going to be wearing white bucks this semester—one of Pat Boones big trademarks. I shrugged my shoulders. “He’s O.K. I guess.”

Susan sat back, obviously stunned by such indifference. Then she turned to Jane. “What do you think?”

Jane turned her face toward the Buddha, pursed her lips, and then turned back to Susan. “I think they are both entirely inadequate,” she said. Susan rolled her eyes and looked at Peggy.

Meanwhile I looked at Jane as she stared at the Buddha again. Suddenly I noticed Jane’s black hair and heavily made up eyes. The red walls seemed to surround me and I could feel the urge to vocalize my anxiety spill over like a gushing waterfall.

“Do you think we should eat here? This place is evil and besides I think there are little glass chips on the tablecloth that could get into our food.”

Susan put the water glass that was halfway to her mouth back on the table.

“What did you say?” she asked. Peggy looked puzzled, and Jane turned her head toward me and stared with a long unblinking look. I knew I had to get out of the restaurant.

“Are you O.K.?” Peggy said.

Suddenly Jane leaned toward me and smiled. Then very slowly she began to brush the tablecloth in front of me with her hand. I tried to smile my thanks to her, but I couldn’t quite get my face to work. Instead I pushed back my chair, and mumbling something about having to get back to the dorm, I ran out of the restaurant. The last thing I heard was Susan asking Jane if there was really glass on the table.

I walked until I was exhausted, and Susan was asleep when I got back to the dorm. The next morning I was up and out by seven, deciding after looking at the orientation schedule that I could miss the tour of the library and the lecture on the Dewey Decimal System.

I headed north to the Century Tower and University Auditorium. I stopped for a few seconds to get a look at Albert the Alligator locked safely behind a chain link fence in the middle of the lawn. His pen was all muddy and he just sat in the middle of it. I had heard some fraternity boys had tried to whack his tail off, but it seemed to be firmly attached. I kept walking until I reached the Plaza of the Americas. A hundred pine trees stood straight as soldiers among the walkways that crisscrossed the open space. It had rained at dawn and everything smelled fresh and washed. I turned west and passed the gym and finally headed south toward Lake Alice. There were supposed to be gators in the Lake. I stopped in front of a huge pine with a trunk at least two feet across that lifted into the blue like a straight arrow. “Grandfather,” I said, (it seemed like a grandfather because the trunk was so gnarled) “I blew it last night.” I waited and blessedly there was no answer, just a soft swaying of the top branches from the breeze. I smiled to myself. I had one of Dr. Davey’s yellow pills tucked in my pocket. Don’t take one, Monica, unless you have to. You’re really not as sick as you think. O.K., Dr. Davey, if you say so. Time to check out the gators in the lake.

The lake took up the whole of the horizon, but no gators visible. Everything A.O.K., Dr. Davey, as the astronauts would say. I turned north again, walked slowly back to the student union and sat down on a bench beside the steps. Time to take a break.

The school newspaper was stacked in a pile in a green stand. Next to it was a box stating the cost, a nickel, and the admonition that the University of Florida operated under the honor system. I dug out a nickel and picked up the paper. The headline in black bold type read “Half of All Co-eds Not Virgins.” Just then a guy came up, picked up a newspaper, did not deposit a nickel, and sat down next to me on the bench. He had long brown hair tied with a piece of leather in the back and old dirty blue jeans on. Having troubles of my own I ignored him and plunged into the article about fallen women. Who knows, maybe Sr. Agatha had been right about this so called godless secular university. I could see her face swathed in white wimple. They will try to confuse you about your faith, boys and girls! They will use clever arguments to put seeds of doubt into your mind. Now, I hadn’t met any professors yet, but I had my arguments ready.

I looked up and two men in gray suits who were carrying briefcases (obviously professors) were depositing nickels into the box. The hippie was leaning back on the bench, his arms stretching along the back. I was going back to my newspaper when I heard the one with white hair hold the newspaper out toward the hippy and practically accuse him. “I suppose you think this is great, don’t you.”

The hippie shrugged and started to smile. “Hey, man, it’s O.K. Why shouldn’t the girls enjoy life too?”

Then before I could catch my breath at this nonchalant answer the one with the wire rim glasses turned to me. “And you, do you agree with him?”

I gathered myself together. O.K., Sr. Agatha, here we are center stage. God, classes haven’t even begun and here I am defending virtue. “Well, no, I mean, no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” The white-haired one threw the question at me like a bullet.

O.K., let’s see. The community—virginity and faithfulness are necessary to maintain stability in the community—then, of course, the obvious—babies out of wedlock, disease control. I decided to start with the community. That was less obvious and after all this was college. No obvious answers please. “Well, when a young woman decides to maintain her virginity she is in a sense upholding community values and contributing to the stability…”

“Because it’s wrong. Period. Is that right?” The one with the glasses peered into my very soul.

I nodded my head, but I couldn’t believe my ears. Godless professors! Why they sounded like Sr. Agatha, Sr. Margaret Mary, and every other nun who had ever taught me!

Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

Three days later I walked out of my room and there was Peggy ironing a white blouse in the hall. I had calmed down quite a biteven trusted myself to spend a few hours a night with my roommate. (She just wanted me to listen while she exploded after the nightly call from her mother who was determined she join Kappa Alpha Theta.) I hadn’t seen Jane or Peggy since the dinner at Woo Ling’s. I decided to try some normal conversation.

“Hi, what are you doing?” Stupid question since I could see what she was doing, but she took it in the social way it was offered.

“Just catching up on some ironing.” She shook out the blouse and put it on the ironing board, folding it in the back along the yoke.

“Got all your classes yet?” I watched as she ironed the yoke, turned the blouse and ran the iron across the front tab without touching the inset at the sleeve.

She nodded. “How about you?”

“I’m seeing a counselor this afternoon.” I couldn’t believe the way she was ironing this blouse. When she started on the collar before she had even begun the back, I stepped up to the ironing board and gently removed the blouse from her hands. “Look, you’re doing this all wrong. This is how my mother taught me to iron blouses.” I shook the shirt out and carefully set the sleeve into the end of the ironing board. “See,” I said, “if you do the sleeves this way and then the back, you don’t get that line at the yoke. The very last thing you do is the collar.” I ran the iron firmly over the top of the collar, careful not to cause any creases at the stitching and handed her the blouse.

“Is that how your mother irons blouses? Well, guess what, my mother does it this way.” She grabbed the blouse out of my hand and slammed the yoke on the board. Her face flushed a bright pink behind her freckles and I stared speechless as she re-ironed the entire shirt. When she was finished, she looked up at me.

Startled I said, “God, I’m sorry.”

Suddenly her shoulders dropped. “So am I. I’ve got a fierce temper. Forget it. Hey, some of us are going downtown later to check out the shops. You want to come?”

“Sure.” I turned to go back into my room. I was relieved she wasn’t going to stay angry, but what she had said and done stunned me. I sat down on my newly acquired pink floral bedspread. Peggy’s mother didn’t iron shirts like my mother! It seemed there were two legitimate, bona fide ways of ironing a shirt! The implications of this fact had to be taken slowly. My life at school and home had been learning the one proper way of doing things. Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

The next morning I was walking through the lounge when I heard the resident advisor, Miss Simpson, call to me across the room. She hurried up to me carrying important looking papers in a folder. I could see she was a little flustered. Little strands of dark hair had escaped the tight coil at the top of her head and hung down the side of her face. Very unlike Miss Simpson.

“Monica, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Can you walk Jane over to the infirmary? They’re waiting for her, and I can’t get away. I’ve got three sets of parents to see”—she held up the folders—“late coming students, and I can’t find Peggy anywhere.”

“Gosh, yes. Is she sick?”

She hesitated a moment and then tapped her finger against her forehead. “Freaked out this morning. Her parents will be here to get her tomorrow, but she’s got to go to the infirmary now. Oh, don’t look so horrified. She’s not dangerous. Come on, I’ve packed her bag and she’s sitting on the bed staring at the wall. And I’ve got three new students that just arrived. What a day!”

I followed her to Jane and Peggy’s room. Jane didn’t look like herself. Her eyes weren’t dreamy anymore; they were vacant and she was staring straight ahead at the wall. She was using her beautiful fingernails to pick at a scab on the back of her hand.

“Oh my God,” said Miss Simpson. “Stop that, Jane, You’re going to make your hand bleed. There’s her overnight bag, Monica. Do you think you’ll be all right?” I wondered if Miss Simpson knew I had a few emotional problems myself. Her next remark convinced me she didn’t. “Honestly, you’d think somebody would warn me.”

I picked up Jane’s overnight bag and helped her off the bed. “I’ll be fine, Miss Simpson.”

“Okay.” She sighed. “Let me know when you get back.”

It only took us ten minutes to get to the infirmary. I held on to Jane with one hand, and her bag with the other. I knew if I tried to talk to her I’d start crying. The nurse put us in a room with white walls, a black vinyl chair, and an examining table covered with a sheet. I settled Jane in the chair and started walking back and forth in the small room while we waited for the doctor.

I wanted to tell Jane so many things. About how walking had helped me, that she had helped me that night at Woo Ling’s, that I hardly knew her, but I thought her hair was beautiful and her fingernails elegant, and that I’d never heard anyone order from a menu with such sophistication. I wanted to tell her there were two ways of doing things, who knows, maybe a hundred ways to do everything, that professors (some of them anyway) were as pure as Sr. Agatha, that she’d be okay, I knew she would. But I didn’t say anything. I heard the door open and a man with a white coat and stethoscope stepped into the room.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Evans,” He glanced at me and went across the room and knelt in front of Jane. Gently he took her hands in his to keep them from picking at her scab.

I brushed my eyes with the back of my hand and I could taste the tears as they rolled into my mouth.

Dr. Evans looked up at me. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Was I all right? I looked around the room. No glass, no burning smells, and the black chair held no demons, just poor vacant Jane.

“I’m fine,” I said and turned to leave.

As I stepped out of the infirmary I stopped. My eyes were so blurry I couldn’t see. I held on to the railing at the top of the steps. Suddenly I shuddered and it was as if I was shedding some invisible skin. I decided I’d call my mom and dad later on. I wanted them to tell Dr. Davey I’d been up until four in the morning talking to Susan, trying to figure out a way to convince her mother she should be a Zeta, and to tell Uncle Harry I’d gotten my books and they were beautiful, and I wanted to tell my parents that I loved them. Right now, though, I wanted to see some pine trees. I wanted to sit on the cool green grass and feel scratchy bark against my back. I walked down the steps and headed east to the Plaza of the Americas.

Natalie Cornell HeadshotNatalie Cornell has a MA in political science and has taught as an adjunct at Santa Fe Community College and the University of Florida. She was a Contributing Writer to the St. Augustine Catholic and her articles have appeared in several other magazines. She lives with her husband, John, in Gainesville, Florida.

Swagger

I know you. You’re a swagger. A badass. Someone who went and got his mettle tested and returned stateside to the tea drinkers and powderpuffs with a chip on his shoulder and ribbons pinned to your chest. The world had got a whole lot smaller while you were at war: one day walking proud, the next asking permission. Duck your head. Keep your hands to yourself. Stay within the lines.

Now you’re on the barstool across from me. You’re mouthing off about re-enlisting. You can hardly sit still until you go off and get tested again. Dumb fuck. Doesn’t even occur to you that the second test is but another chance to fail.

My first bid was a hold back. It’s my go-to game. Don’t approach the crush, don’t tell him he’s beautiful. Look away. God forbid eyes should lock and a cool fire of embarrassment stiffen my jaw. Too young, too cocksure, too likely to break a heart. That’s you. Delighted with yourself. Each move a flexed muscle. You knew people were watching.

But subtlety was lost on you, and the night got shorter, and the drinks stronger, and praise God, we mortals need the fierce foot soldiers so fucking bad. Taking my cue, I matched you shot for shot over a game of pool that was all straight lines and sharp cracks.

I murmured, “Badass, tell me stories of war. Remind me of how it used to be.”

“You serve?” you asked. Your eyes sparked. Your skin gave off a whiff of burnt cordite.

“My father,” I explained. “Vietnam.”

New respect opened a spigot. Closest thing to a comrade you had in weeks, and you talked until you set down your pool stick.

“What are you doing later?” I asked.

You looked at me like I was plain stupid.

“Fucking,” you said.

“I’ve still got his medals. My father’s. Back at my apartment. You want to see ‘em?”

You nodded, we left, and as I put the key in the lock, I asked, “What are you into?”

“Bareback,” you said.

I didn’t refuse.

Sure, there was a moment of clench and fear, but having won your attention, I couldn’t not go through with it. Instead, I made a mental note to put a reminder in the calendar: on this date six weeks hence, get tested. (For whose sake?)

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

Then I wondered: was six weeks the state of the science? For antibodies to arise, it sounded long and yet short at the same time. Younger people would know, butI’m told, not personal experiencethe young go ahead barebacking on the least assurances of purity, and fuck the bug that took down my generation.

Gratifyingly indifferent, you grunted and came in my ass. I licked my wounds and brought myself to completion, proud you’d done nothing to get me off. I was beside the point. I owed you no debts.

In the morning, you did calisthenics in my kitchen. You trolled the ‘Net to see what else there was to conquer. You traced the spines of certain books on my shelf (Calvino, Heaney, Solzhenitsyn) and delivered an ad hominem coffee-fueled disquisition on the efficacy of microloans in the economies of sub-Saharan Africa the likes of which that I would never would have thought to hear from your filthy mouth. Your erudition briefly shrank you to the size of twice-a-man, almost accessible, before you again resumed being a goddamn hero going home to Mom to tell her you’re heading back to war.

“How old are you anyhow?” I asked.

“What’s it matter?”

“Are you afraid to know how old I am?”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

You prowled the apartment. Observed sightlines from the windows. Measured distance to places where the enemy might take shelter. You opened cupboards. Tried on my clothes. Snacked on raw oats and yoghurt and wolfed down an entire cold chicken.

For an hour, you stared at the cyclids in their tank, their dodge and weave, their fucking, their eating their young. I never knew a man could sit so still. Could cease breathing. The cyclids rushed to and fro and forgot you were there. I never forgot. Not for a second.

You set a mobile in perpetual motion. You flipped an hourglass and let the sand run out. You tested the weight of a cast iron trivet and the hardness of the tile and the looseness of the one floorboard near the stairs. You fixed what needed an extra screw. You drew the shades. You folded blankets with precise corners as if they were a flag from a vet’s casket.

I snuggled deeper in bed. Confident you had secured the perimeter. My house had never been so safe. You can see in the dark. Hear like a dog. You were at the peak of your game. You were born yesterday.

Me? 1968 and glad of it. A decade earlier, and I’d have been the good boy, the closet kill-myself of a prior age. A priest, maybe. A schemer. Maybe not so much predator on little boys or the seminarian in my charge, but who knows? I’ve abandoned all pretensions to superiority, which makes it harder to condemn.

Born after 1968, then what? I might have forgotten I’m controversial. I might have forgotten I’m fierce. Still standing. A warrior like you. A defiant queen of a persecution, backhanding jizz dangling from my chin.

No, complacency won’t do. We gays must always remember to be cock-angry and vicious, gun-toting and axe-wielding. Never forget. I may well have skirted the HIV that cut down my generation, but I pay the price in foreshortened gestures of tenderness like an angry T-Rex with half-sized forelimbs. This is me in San Juan with my former lover. This is me in Miami with a trick. We only ever held hands for these pics after scoping the scene for safety, and by then, the romantic impulse is DOA.

A crash shattered my comfort.

I padded to the living room where you had smashed a side table you had used as a stool to access the top shelf.

You laughed at what you’d done. You blamed the side table for its weakness. The world had unfolded no doubt exactly as it ought to. The strong are strong. The weak, weak.

“Now you’re up,” you said, “get on your shoes/shorts.”

You challenged me to a race to Worcestor Park and gave me two blocks lead.

“Loser bottoms,” you said.

You kicked my ass.

Taken prisoner, I was bodysore and content. Grateful. Overrun. Ransacked. Embarrassed by my fascination with your swagger.

Is there anything worse or more sinful than being obvious? The former most popular kid in the class, the once-upon-a-time rising star, the king of the world in another lifetime, I always wanted to be different.

“You never showed me his medals,” you accused.

“That was just a gambit to get you in the sack,” I admitted.

“Show me his medals.”

I delivered the case of medals and ribbons into your hands as if I was handing you my head on a platter. You scooted down under the covers, pointed at each decoration in turn, and explained what type of service or valor each indicated.

Hope sank. Fear gripped. From the start, your destiny had been to ask exactly the set of unholy questions that would estrange us. There was no such thing as happiness. You were going to war. I never had a chance.

“Tell me about your father,” you urged. “What kind of man was he?”

“Man of habits,” I said mechanically. “Home precisely at 5:20 p.m. Sat at table alone. My mother didn’t presume to ask how his day was. She didn’t presume to ask his needs. We assumed she read his mind. He ate his fill while the rest of us waited. When done, he nodded, and my sister and I scrambled to our places at the table, at attention, wide-eyed, trembling, stiff as pencils.

“Mother served and sat. We all bowed our heads. He never prayed, but instead looked on benevolently as if he were prayer’s object. Before we were done, he retired to the porch for a smoke. We knew better to join him until summoned. When summoned, we roughhoused, indoors or out, according to the season.

“Later still, he’d eye my mother and they’d disappear behind closed doors.”

“You must have loved him.”

“I was afraid of him.”

Your brow furrowed. You couldn’t imagine disobeying the fifth commandment. You wanted unicorns and heroes.

“Don’t you miss him?” you asked. “Aren’t you proud of him? Did he ever tell you stories about how he won these?”

“He hated the word won. He said he didn’t win shit. He said he earned them.”

“Earned, of course, earned,” you acknowledged impatiently.

You looked expectant. I resisted your bullying. I knew how to wait until the table’s cleared.

You wrapped me in an affectionate, intolerable headlock.

“Don’t fuck with me,” you said. “Come on. Never? Really? You never once sat down and ate at the same time as him and talked about what happened over…?”

“The man of the family gets his fill first, because the others depend on him,” I said stiffly, acutely aware I wasn’t the man and you and I were no family.

We were twenty-four into this solitary confinement I ought to have known would be a mistake. Should have gone home and jerked off alone.

“He sounds like a tough old bastard.”

“I never once spoke to him in all my thirty-five years about being gay, but he left me his army duds from Vietnam.”

You said, “He must have thought you earned them.”

You meant it.

Your earnestness was as unsexy as your erudition. I wanted to destroy it.

“When I was a boy,” I said, “I wanted to feel heroic, so I accompanied girls to the dance. I did what I was supposed to. I danced. I told them they were beautiful, but I never could give them what they wanted: to be desired, not just treated with kindness. To be mortified, not simply loved. To be defiled. I could only file their nails and help them choose matching pumps. I was kindness itself.”

I looked you in the eye.

“My father hated me,” I said.

My words punched a hole in that easy confidence. Kicked the stool from beneath you. Struggling for breath and words like a hanged man, you slipped from bed as quickly if I was infected.

I snatched at your wrist, seeking salvation.

“He did say, once, if ever someone knocks on your door and he’s got a black helmet and says he’s from SpecOps Delta, give him a place to sleep. Promise me this.”

“That’s my unit,” you murmured as if in a dream.

“Promise me this,” I said.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more.

“Why would you lie about a thing like that?” you asked. You, who had seen everything. The absolute worst. The nerve of asking me about lies, as if I’d killed Bambi.

You looked as if you’d be happier back in the theater of war, where you knew what was up.

You dressed swiftly in the clothes you came in. I offered you a loan of mine, because I knew they’d fit and this fact seemed like a triumph, an important parting shot.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more. Just name, rank, serial number. Maybe blood type.

What an amazing husband you would have made if you’d just come back to the living and measured your mettle in alternative ways! But then you’d be something other than what you were: undomesticated, savage, a bully, a stiff.

Me? I’m a warm mouth. I swallow them all. I’m capacious. I’m generosity itself.

Your leave is short. Anything is possible. I love you. Warriors like us play by different rules. Test our blood.

Scott David HeadshotScott David has published novels, a memoir, a guide to wine and cocktails, and numerous short stories under various pseudonyms, most recently in Evening Street Review, Apple Valley Review, Ampersand Review, Entasis, Ray’s Roadhouse Review, St. Sebastian Review, Glitterwolf, Blue Penny Quarterly, and Fiction Fix. He lives in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

How Not to Drown

1. Don’t obsess about the reasons you ended it with him. Of course you could think of reasons but none of them would be true and also all of them would be true. Things like: the way he cut the mushrooms for dinner, one at a time instead of bunching them, irritated you. Things like: when you stood in line at the grocery store on a Saturday morning and he thought you didn’t know the difference between granulated and powdered sugar. He explained it to you, carefully, precisely, like when you were in college and showed your grandpa how to use the GPS in his car. You said to him, “Oh really, that’s the difference? I never knew!”

“Yeah, that’s the difference.” He smiled dopily, like a golden retriever, the kind of smile that’s fixed into a face.

You stared at this person you’d been dating for almost eleven months, since you moved to the city and learned that’s what you called it.

“Wait, are you joking?”

“Of course I’m fucking joking, Alex. You think I don’t know the difference between powdered sugar and regular sugar?”

“I can’t tell when you’re joking or not.” His forehead wrinkle appeared. This meant: worried.

You didn’t tell him that wasn’t the point.

 

2. Focus on the real moment: a Monday morning, a few weeks later. Downtown, a new route, one block from his work, two from yours.

“Look,” you said, pointing at the lot across the street.

When he turned his body towards the construction, you could see in his hair the places he’d be bald one day. The building was totally open, and workers stood in the middle of the u-shape they’d made from the inside of it. The concrete revealed, the wires of its insides showing, like crumbling halva.

“That’s so cool,” he said.

“Cool?”

“Yeah, it’s so cool the way the wires are exposed.”

You were maybe already sad before he said this, but you were definitely sadder after.

“I wonder if they tear down buildings the same way every time, or if they do it differently depending on the structure.”

This is the moment you knew you’d eventually have to end it.

Here’s what you were thinking about: your grandpa’s jaw hanging open, drawing in raggedy breaths every five seconds. You sat next to his hospital bed in his room, pleading with him silently to let go, but you wouldn’t say it out loud. Too cheesy. Begging God to take him, but God knew you mostly didn’t believe in Him and so He probably wasn’t listening.

Alex saw exposed wires and you saw your grandpa’s empty mouth, without his teeth in, the darkness of it hanging slack. And this picture you found near his desk, digging through his things while waiting for him to die, which was of yourself as a little girl, wearing a turquoise swimsuit the color of the swimming pool water, and jump-hugging up on his large body, your arms wrapped around his shoulders.

“What?” Alex asked. You knew he was worried he’d be late if you stood there longer.

You shrugged. The construction worker put down his sign and motioned you forward. “Have a great day, okay?” he said, kissing you on the cheek and pushing his sunglasses back on his ears.

 

3. You were stagnant for a week, until it was Monday again, and you still hadn’t done it. You left work early with your tired in the edges of your eye sockets.

You stood on the train—you still called them that even though you knew it wasn’t strictly correct, what a native might say—and tried to feel your skeletal system, align your posture. You weren’t sure where you were going: his house, yours, somewhere new, a neighborhood you’d never been. For seven days, you’d been trying to talk yourself back into it, the relationship.

You got off at 24th only because Jen, one of your best friends from college, was calling. This seemed like enough of a sign to head aboveground. You pushed through the turnstile, phone held in between your ear and cramping shoulder. You tried to get to full service before losing the call—“Hold on, hold on, I’m walking upstairs.” It was windy outside, coming through the stairwell of the BART.

For seven days, you’d been trying to talk yourself back into it, the relationship.

Jen wanted to know what was going on. Jen had a sprained ankle and was waiting for her boyfriend David to come pick her up outside the gym. Jen was still in Boston, where you lived together at the beginning of your Real Lives. Before you felt itchy on your arms and the soles of your feet every time you came home to the house in JP, and started applying for jobs on The West Coast. (You still thought of it in capitals then.)

You walked down 24th, towards no one you knew’s house.

“I’m just sitting in the last moments of sunshine.”

“I’m sorry you sprained your ankle.”

“It’s okay. Have you done it yet?”

“No. Not yet. I think I’m going to though. Really soon.”

“I guess I still don’t really get the issue. Did something happen?”

“No. Yeah. He just…we just don’t see things the same way. He doesn’t get how I feel about anything, he just wants to…I don’t even want to tell you about this. I’m ruining it, I’m making things up and telling you some story about why it doesn’t work but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work.”

“There must be a reason.”

“That’s exactly the point. There’s a reason but there’s also no reason.”

You didn’t want to invent something for all your friends who wanted to know why, so you stopped returning their calls and texts. You were like a teenager again, making excuses for getting a bad grade on a test, who wouldn’t just admit she’d stayed up late, listening to the new Something Corporate/Dashboard Confessional/Taking Back Sunday CD on repeat instead of studying. Letting the music feel your feelings for you.

“Well. You’re entitled to your feelings,” Jen said.

“Maybe.”

“The longer you stay, the harder it’ll be to leave, so, if you’re having all these doubts…yeah.”

“Or maybe I’m overreacting. Did you ever feel like this with David?”

“With David…I mean, I think when we first started dating, it wasn’t like I was like oh my god I’m going to marry this guy. But I remember one night we’d been dating for like six months, and he got out of the bathroom and there were his little shaving hairs all over the edge of the sink, and I was brushing my teeth and noticing them and I didn’t even care, and that’s when I was like shit I am totally in love with this person, because you remember when I lived with Peter and he did that I would flip my shit about it, like, this is so gendered that I’m having to clean up the sink from your chin stubble! But that night I didn’t even care. Also, though, he’s not emotionally manipulative like Peter.”

“Also.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s…hold on. This entire city is fucking under construction. That’s a jackhammer.”

“You’re in a boom, Carrie! I keep reading you’re in a bubble. More jobs. It’s good.”

You walked quickly away from the noise. You saw a dress in a window and you saw, in its printed green and white flowered pattern, an excuse to get off the phone, away from whatever story you were making up for a person who had known you for seven years, who held your hair back while you vomited from tequila plus vodka, whose hand you squeezed at the hospital once when Jen had to get an emergency spinal tap, who lay giggling with you on the floor of your shared bedroom in the dorms until you yelled, “Stop! I’m going to seriously pee on this floor if we don’t stop.”

“Okay,” Jen said from Boston. “I feel like we didn’t really talk about it.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry you twisted your ankle.”

“It’ll be fine.”

“Okay. I’ll call you soon.”

“Yeah, okay, just call whenever. Let me know what happens. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time.”

“I’m fine. I’m just, it’s just today.”

 

4. When you visited your grandpa last summer at his house by the ocean, the wind came off the Atlantic and you were wearing just a t-shirt, pale peach and loose. He said to you, “Aren’t you cold?”

“I’m a little cold. I didn’t want to wear any of my sweaters though. I didn’t want to carry it.”

“You can’t keep arguing with the world like this, Carrie.”

“Grandpa.” You sang it to him.

“Okay, you can keep arguing, but you’re going to lose. The wind, you’re not going to beat the wind with just being stubborn. You’re not going to beat nature.”

“I’m not trying to beat nature.”

“Are you trying to be uncomfortable? Why don’t you just let yourself be comfortable?”

These were the kinds of questions he asked.

 

5. You didn’t look for a dress that night. And you didn’t go to Alex’s for dinner. Or turn around and walk the thirty minutes straight home, to your unmade bed with its twisted grey down comforter.

You walked down the street, towards the fancy ice cream place with the strange flavors, and ordered biscuits and gravy, which came with actual dough pieces. You sat inside, in the heat. Now it was getting dark, sun behind a hill, and all you could see was your own reflection in the window, the place in your left eyebrow that you’d over-plucked by accident earlier in the week, that still needed to grow in.

You left your coat on, scarf wrapped around your neck, tight. Licking slowly, slowly, letting it coat the top of your tongue and the back of your throat with creamy fat, like covering your dry legs with lotion in the winter.

You spun on the stool, pretending the world had ended around you, there’d been the apocalypse but you hadn’t known because you were inside the ice cream place, which somehow had been the only safe place. The luck of it.

When you went outside later, if you went outside later, you’d see only dust, everything transformed to rubble, and there’d be no empty, sad, torn down places, once everything had been reduced to brown, fine silt. The kind you could pick up in your hand and scatter, like cremains.

 

6. In the beginning of the new year, four months after you ended it, and three months after you decided to stop speaking, or rather, after Alex told you he didn’t want to hate you and that he needed you to stop speaking, you are learning a different story. It’s a story about a man with an almost hairless arm. Him, holding his dark arm next to yours to compare shades. A man with a gold band around his finger that looks like a cousin of the one you’ve been wearing on your hand since your grandpa died.

You quit your job in the office and are teaching swimming to middle school girls. Your hair is always crunchy with chlorine.

“Why not? Why not make a mess of it?” your mother said on the phone, when you told her you were quitting your job, just a month after ending things with Alex.

“Of what?”

“Your life. You’ve never done that before. So try it.”

Your arm has more hair on it and is almost the same shade as this man’s. You are probably the only person in the entire city who’s getting tan in the winter, but it’s been a dry one, everyone says, so you can be outside, in Marin or Berkeley, when you’re not at work.

“You like that band?” the man asks, looking at your ring. He’s the kind of man who knows everyone’s name at the front desk of the pool, and they know his.

“Sure,” you say. You don’t tell him it’s your grandpa’s that you got resized. You don’t tell him you’re beholden to no one.

You’re learning city kids are strange creatures outside of the pool. One second they’re children, the next they’re grown-up skinny models, all hips and sassy eyebrows. They know how to protect their bags; they know how to catch a cab and a bus. Sometimes, except in the water, you feel like they know more than you, child of the suburbs of the northeast.

Don’t ask him about his ring.

After, you lie in the bedroom of the studio apartment south of Market where he takes you. He says it’s his friend’s place, only occupied when his friend is in town for work, which is rarely. Something about data and hospitals. His friend is always on the road. The apartment has no photos.

You miss the seasons. You miss the way the leaves falling forces people to think about change, and the cold keeps them inside to consider what they have or haven’t done, and talk to each other. You miss weather that doles out consequences.

The next day, at the pool, one of the lane swimmers pulls you aside as you walk toward the locker room to get ready for work. You want to run from her the way you want to run from everyone, lately. Stay.

“Hun,” she says, in a voice like no one you are related to, a voice of the south. You wonder what turn she’s taken to end up in a community pool in northern California.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve seen you. You’re a good swimmer. You’re a good teacher.”

“Thank you.” The woman wears a purple one-piece and sparkly, blue toenail polish.

“You’ve got an open heart.”

You smile at her like someone with an open heart might.

“Has anyone told you, how good it gets?”

You hold still. The woman has short silver and white hair and is pretty, with sharp features and ballerina cheekbones. She wears no make up.

“Child, you’re young, and you’re beautiful, but let me tell you from sixty, it gets even better.” The woman smiles; the corners of her eyes get crinkly. “I’m in love again! And it can get so good.” Her teeth look strong. They look real. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

She squeezes your shoulders and trots off toward the pool.

You walk to the locker room to put your bag away, to sit on a rubber bench with your head in your open hands, briefly, to try to feel ready to teach those adultbabies how not to drown.

Janet FrishbergJanet Frishberg lives and writes in a light blue room in San Francisco, where she’s currently editing her first book. You can find her work in places like Smokelong QuarterlyPithead Chapel; Literary Orphans; Cease, Cows; the SF Chronicle; and r.kv.r.y quarterly. She’d love to tell you more at janetfrishberg.com.

The Average Man

I do not know exactly when it was that I first started thinking about him. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was the day I went for ribs with my sister. As we ripped into the moist flesh with our hands, I remember wondering where the pig I was eating had come from. For a moment I imagined it, fat and filthy, penned up with a thousand other pigs in a dark warehouse. I comforted myself with the thought that it had known no other world, but the guilt stuck. Still, I kept eating.

Once done, I sat back and sucked the sweet juices off my fingertips, nibbling on ragged cuticles, content. Cleaned my hands on a lemony wipe and started folding it into a damp origami crane. Then I noticed my sister staring.

“You know, there’s a name for that,” she said, “I looked it up on Wikipedia.”

“What,” I feigned, because I knew the name, I too had looked it up on Wikipedia.

“Dermatophagia, it’s a type of obsessive compulsive disorder. You should see someone about it.”

I looked at my fingertips. A tiny spot of blood was welling up where I’d bitten through the skin.

“It’s just a bad habit,”I defended, “Like picking your nose. You pick your nose.”

“I don’t pick my nose. But even if I did, that would be normal. Chewing the skin off your fingertips is totally not normal. The average person doesn’t hurt himself like that.”

It doesn’t hurt, I thought, but didn’t say it in case she thought I also had some kind of delusional disorder.

Yes, I’d say it was probably then that I started thinking about him. Not jealously, just curiously. Since that day he hasn’t left me. Deciding whether a pair of boxers can be worn for the third time without washing, I wonderis this what he’s doing now too? WWAMD… What Would the Average Man Do? It becomes a kind of peer pressure. When the barista flicks her hair at me at Starbucks and I experience a ripple of revulsion, I force myself to smile back flirtatiously as the Average Man would. In fact, I ask for her number and she obliges, and now I must pick her up tomorrow night at seven thirty for organic gourmet burgers even though I do not really like organic gourmet burgers.

At this point I begin doing some research on him: according to Google, the average thirty to thirty-nine year old American man has a body mass index of 29, just shy of the medical definition of obese. His eyes are brown, quite unlike my grey-green ones (the right is greener). He is five foot nine, has a waist of thirty-nine inches, and his name is James. This does not help me much except I do feel slightly better about my large but apparently below average mid-section. There is no mention on the internet whether the Average Man prefers the company of his ferret to his family or whether stepping beyond the yellow line at train platforms constitutes the most rebellious behaviour of his adult life.

Some days I feel as though I know what he is like, in the same way one feels familiar with an actress or writer. On these days I believe that he’s the kind of guy with a girlfriend who works in marketing and comes over to clean his apartment on Sunday afternoons, sometimes staying the night and sometimes going home in a huff because of one too many emails to an attractive female colleague. He himself occupies some kind of middle management role, an adequate but uninspiring corporate subject. He shaves daily and definitely does not have dermatophagia.

On these days, I can finish my grocery shopping in under fifteen minutes (without stopping at every aisle to weigh up the implications of choosing low-fat versus regular), I can make small talk with strangers (without wondering if I come across as a paedophile or particularly annoying strain of extrovert) and I almost, just almost, enjoy my job as an auditor (without feeling over-privileged and under-stimulated). I feel as if I am on stable ground.

Some days I feel as though I know what he is like, in the same way one feels familiar with an actress or writer.

The other days I realize that my image of the Average Man is a pure composition of stereotypes and hence cannot be accurate. It takes time for the average to become the archetype and even longer to become the cliché. My Average Man is maybe the Average Man of the 1990s, listening to Three Doors Down while working out on an elliptical machine. The days I realize this are not so great. I take a full fifteen minutes (or more) to choose a brand of muesli, I alternate between hysterical greetings and suspicion when dealing with friends of friends, and I am nasty to the team secretary over misplaced paperclips.

It is on one of these infuriating days that I finally decide that enough is enough; I will put an end to my fruitless speculation and take matters into my own hands. I will find him, talk to him, take notes, and come away satisfied with a thorough understanding of how I deviate from the mean. In case I miss any points worth noting, I will endeavour to obtain his personal phone number to facilitate future consultations.

I have no idea where to start looking, so I turn to Google once again. Soon I locate several other average things used for measurement of their counterparts’ relative value. The official kilogram, for example, resides in a leafy suburb of Paris under guard of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Because the platinum-iridium cylinder has lost about fifty micrograms (the weight of a single grain of sand) over the last hundred years, disconcerted scientists now want to redefine the kilogram in terms of the Planck constant. The Planck constant is not expected to change any time soon, and this is a good thing for standard units of measure. All this is interesting but not very helpful, so I keep looking.

After six hours of research, I find a tenuous lead. A thread in the sub-forum of a sub-forum of a sub-forum refers briefly to an ‘International Bureau of Human Standards’, or IBHS. Subsequent comments suggest a mysterious but powerful body that tracks all human thought, feeling, act, and appearance in relation to an official Average Man. Even better, under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can request access to this Average Man. I expect that arranging to see him must involve a lengthy hold period on a one eight hundred number, followed by the pronouncement that I am seven thousandth in queue and must hence wait three years before I may visit, but it is actually surprisingly easy, and the IBHS website obligingly registers me for an appointment next week in a few clicks.

Naively, I’d thought that some kind of burden would be lifted off my chest once I took concrete steps towards satisfying my curiosity. Instead I find myself pacing up and down my hundred square foot studio, working myself up into a nervous sweat trying to figure out what questions are worthy of asking in that precious one hour. Do I want to know if it’s weird that my favourite colour has always been fuchsia? Maybe I want to figure out if my diet gives me a higher or lower than average chance of dying from coronary thrombosis. Or inquire if everybody from time to time pretends that they are already dead while lying still in bed at night, trying to imagine what it feels like and realizing it is the most peace you have had all day. No, I will not ask about that, it would make for awkward conversation.

How is one supposed to carry out such an interview anyway? The Average Man must have, by definition, only average patience, which in this tweet-saturated day and age I can’t imagine is all that much. He must get bored pretty quickly, living his life under lock and key in that glass cage (the IBHS occupies the thirty-seventh floor of a tall shiny building in midtown Manhattan). Maybe I should prepare a witty riposte or two. Ought I to read up on certain topics to ensure that I may provide at least a smidgen of entertainment? Perhaps baseball or the latest political rumblings of the Middle East? It is impossible to know what will tickle the Average Man’s fancy. And isn’t that the point of this interview anyway, to find out? I spend the rest of the week feverishly perusing The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Perez Hilton, in hope that I will have imbibed sufficient cultural references to sustain an hour’s worth of interesting conversation.

Finally the day arrives. I find myself in the shiny lobby of the IBHS, being greeted by a receptionist who only registers in my mind as a flash of white teeth and red lips. I am wearing a maroon plaid shirt with nice jeans, dark brown suede belt and matching shoes. I’m not sure why I’m dressed as if on a date; I feel as though I forgot the flowers. My palms are cold and my cuticles bitten right down to the basal cell layer.

“Follow me please,” the receptionist says, opening a door. We step into a long hallway, so long that it ends in a vanishing point. She starts walking, quickly. In her four inch high pumps she sways like a model, but a model capable of Olympic sprint speeds. We pass identical door after door, each one spaced the width of a door apart along the endless wall. The walls are a spotless white, lit by naked bulbs that hang from the ceiling every three doors down. It is a comforting space, in the way that the ugliness of a hospital waiting room sometimes is.

After what feels like forever (my watch sensibly informs me that only seven minutes that have passed) I turn to look in the direction we came from. Another vanishing point. The sound of the receptionist’s clacking heels reminds me to keep going, like the bubbles that lead a nitrogen narcosis stricken scuba diver back to the surface. I hurry to keep up.

There is something about him that evokes the feeling of a high school reunion, being surrounded by ex-classmates swapping stories of babies and yachts.

Without warning, she stops in front of a door no different than any of the three thousand (okay, maybe thirty) others that we’ve passed. “Here we are,” she says, smiling brightly and brandishing one arm towards the door like a game show hostess unveiling a sports car. The thought occurs to me that this is in fact an elaborate reality TV set-up, but an apprehensive glance around identifies no nooks or crannies, no potential hiding places for tiny cameras, save maybe the receptionist herself. “Thank you,” I say, scrutinizing her nostrils for recording devices. My suspicion is met by yet another encouraging smile, before she turns and clacks away.

Soon I am alone in the vertiginous hallway, where if not for the faint sound of the now out-of-sight receptionist’s heels on the hard marble, it feels as though I have stepped out of time altogether. This feeling begins to grow, threatening to snowball into a maddening disorientation, so I push open the door in front of me and enter the room of the Average Man.

The space in which I find myself is modest but cosy, and very clean. It is smaller than the average dentist’s waiting room but larger than a college dorm room. Contents comprise a sofa bed, a bookshelf occupying the entire length of one wall, and in the corner, a dark-haired clean-shaven man in his late twenties or early thirties. I stand awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of the etiquette advised in standard visiting procedure. “Hello,” he says, standing up and walking towards me.

As he approaches, I wonder to myself if we’ve met before. There is something about him that evokes the feeling of a high school reunion, being surrounded by ex-classmates swapping stories of babies and yachts. He looks nothing like the James of my Google-fueled imagination; he is slightly taller, younger, and has a more athletic build. His clothes are fashionable and his manners relaxed. His voice is a strong baritone. Yet still there is something about him that remains familiar. I rack my memory for cluesan old business acquaintance? Friend of a long lost friend? Spin class?but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

It is not until I say “Hello” back, looking him in the eye and returning his firm handshake that I realize something; then the greeting sticks in my throat and a sick feeling rises from the pit of my stomach. It is his eyes that first give it away, but once I see it I don’t see how I could have not seen it right away.

His eyes are the same green-grey as mine, except the left is greener and the right greyer. Looking at him is like looking in a mirror but not exactly, because our features are identical but he is different. It is like looking at a fitter, better groomed, more charismatic version of myself.

As I shake his hand, I glance down. His fingernails are smooth, wholesome squares, so shiny that the slightest movement causes them to catch the light reproachfully. The feeling in my stomach expands into wretchedness, and as I try to choke out the word “Hello” again I tear my hand from his grasp. Stepping back out through the open door, I walk, run and then sprint down the endless hallway until my shirt sticks to my back and my breath goes ragged.

The doors go on and on. It terrifies me to think how many average people reside behind them, like pigs in filthy dark pens. I must have picked the wrong direction to run in, because time keeps passing and I still haven’t found the receptionist’s desk.

Rachel Heng HeadshotRachel recently graduated from Columbia University. She now lives in London.

Peace Comes at a Cost

“That nurse-girl stole my check blanks.”

It’s a conversation starter. I just got here, just sat down in the chair that used to be Grandma’s and we needed a place to start.

The nurse comes in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to check on him and get him to bathe. On Fridays, I show up a half hour after the nurse leaves, and he bitches. As he bitches about that “nurse girl” he points to the front door and I can see his arm because he forgot to button his shirt sleeve and his muscles aren’t big enough to keep the material up. His withered arm, like chicken skin that’s been pulled off raw, slaps at the air. He shakes his fist and that skin jiggles and I can’t eat chicken anymore.

I look away, over to the television that’s not on, to the bookcase filled with Reader’s Digest books in rainbow colors, to the robin’s egg blue paint on the walls and the thick brown shag carpet. But his arm stays up, the skin jiggling back and forth at the edges of my sight line.

“She didn’t steal your check blanks, Grandpa,” I say.

“Listen here, missy, they’re gone.”

“I put them in the desk drawer where you always keep them.”

“That’s not where I like them.”

“Yeah, it is.”

He looks over the 1940’s red metal TV tray he likes to eat at, his brittle blue eyes pale imitations of themselves with white cataract lace crocheted across. The old face, deep wrinkled cheeks, and I make myself remember being told that I’m supposed to love and respect this man. And I want to, I really do. It’s just easier to remember when his skin’s not jiggling at me.

His wrinkled mouth, concaved from losing all his teeth, has that white foamy stuff caught on one corner. He reaches a hand up and wipes at his lips, like he knows the foamy spit is there, but he doesn’t. It’s just one of those things he does.

“Drawer’s where we keep ‘em?” he says.

“Yep.”

“Oh.”

He looks at the air between his face and my face, sort of in my direction but not looking at me. Like every Friday, I wish I could think of ways to get out of the house for the night. That’s not going to happen. It’s my turn. And just like every Friday, I feel a sigh slide up me before it comes out, try to make it stay inside, but it won’t.

“Show’s comin’ on soon,” he says.

That’s Grandpa’s code for me to stand up and turn on the television he’s had forever. The set takes a minute to warm up enough to show a picture, and while it warms I turn it to channel four Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. These shows seem to be on some Old Person Mandatory Viewing list. He watches them six days a week, talks about them with other old people when I take him places. An octogenarian version of water cooler TV.

“You make a good door but not a good window,” he says.

I know my being alive is because of this bent and broken person covered in chicken skin and baggy clothes, this head scattered with liver spots and white hair.

It’s a family saying. One my father repeated too many times when I was growing up. I step to the side of the television set, no longer a door. My jaw is teeth against teeth while I pull the TV tray in front of his chair and take a white napkin from the holder on his wood-like-finished end table, lay the napkin on the tray.

“You cold?” I say.

“What!”

I take a breath in so I can talk in a calm voice.

“You’re in my way,” he says before I can repeat the question. He leans to his right, to look around me although the set hasn’t warmed and neither show is on.

“Didja break my television?”

I step left. Make a Vanna White gesture to the set. “It’s warming up.”

“Oh.”

I know my being alive is because of this bent and broken person covered in chicken skin and baggy clothes, this head scattered with liver spots and white hair. But I’m nineteen and he’s been, like, eighty years old for my entire life, kind of like my parents always being forty. They will always be those ages, even though I’ve grown from kindergarten to college. They are my adults, and now I’m supposed to be old enough to take care of them like they’re children.

“What do you want for dinner?” I say.

“It’s Friday.”

“What kind of fish do you want?”

His wrinkled arm and hand come out at me and wave me away. Jeopardy! is starting. “Whatever you find,” he says. His words, his blue and white eyes aimed more at the TV and Alex Trebek than at me. I pass by him toward the kitchen, and, “You make a good door.”

At the same time I say, “Sorry.”

Inside my head is the little girl in me that wants to smartass back at him with, “I never wanted to be a window,” but I can’t because he’s still my adult.

*     *     *

The kitchen is pink 1950s tile counters, cool rounded edges, a white cast iron sink with chips that show the metal underneath. The place where Grandma used to make fried chicken and ginger cookies while I watched. I lean on the counter, weight into my hands and arms, all of me bent and braced and tired. So damned tired my body could melt into a puddle, lie there until I evaporate into the stale air of this house, because my night, my one night of the week on duty, has only just started.

And he coughs. The cough that comes from smoking filterless Salems until he couldn’t get them anymore. Long enough that the smell of cigarette is ground into the pores of the house.

Then the after-cough sound, a guttural slog of goop out of his lungs and spit into one of his red handkerchiefs. The red handkerchiefs lie all over the house in crusted sculptures of red patterned cloth and dry mucus, waiting for the day my mother or my aunt is here because none of the rest of us will touch them. Waiting for my cousin to come on Wednesday and iron them, because she likes to iron. A pile of dozens of those washed and ironed red handkerchief next to his chair, because when we buy him Kleenex, Grandpa says that a handkerchief was good enough for his father and his grandfather and then he says nothing else because that’s supposed to be an answer.

I think about those handkerchief sculptures and vomit a little in the back of my throat. My own goop that goes back down to my stomach.

On the pea green fridge, the white board has the weekly schedule, the same schedule for every week since Grandma passed and the family had to take over the responsibility of Grandpa. Fish on Friday, chicken on Sunday, laundry on Wednesday. It’s all on the white board, even the “nurse girl” and the in-home-hospice guys who come overnight to doze on a chair in case something happens during the wee-smalls.

My sister has Tuesdays. My brother lives out-of-state and therefore out-of-reach. My cousin, parents, aunt, and uncle each took a shift until all that was left for me was Friday.

Friday because I don’t have a boyfriend.

Friday because I don’t work nights.

Friday because it’s supposed to give me time for homework.

Every fucking Friday.

Friday and therefore fish.

I want to lean on the pink tiles I lovethe tiles that are pale, delicate, old. A single thing inside this house that I can always count on. Even the cracked tiles remain steady in their spot, saying to hell with you, we are not leaving this place without a fight.

Of course, the tiles are just the kitchen version of my grandfather and with that thought my peace is broken. I pull myself up and over to the fridge with the white board, with the schedule, with the fish on Friday.

I get to choose between frozen fish sticks or frozen breaded clams that are like eating deep fried pencil erasers. A handful of clams on a cookie sheet, into the oven, 350 degrees for eleven minutes. I reheat the leftover creamed corn from last night. And ta-da, microwave-and-eleven-minute Haute Cuisine.

Grandpa hollers from the living room. “You ‘bout done in there?”

I’m leaning again, staring out the window over the sink and I holler back, “A couple minutes.”

Wheel of Fortune’s coming on soon.”

“I know.”

“I like to eat when Wheel‘s” his sentence ends in another cough, another hack, another spit, another potential goop and red handkerchief statue.

The vomit taste burns my throat, goes back down into my stomach, that horrible aftertaste of acid sick in my mouth. I come out to the living room, Double Jeopardy, and ‘What’s the Mona Lisa,’ and his cough goes on.

“You okay?” I say.

“Course I’m okay,” he says, and coughs goop into the red cloth. “Just get me my dinner.”

I bite my bottom lip on the little girl that wants to smartass again and go back to the kitchen.

The creamed corn bubbles in the microwave. I rummage to find his tartar sauce behind the milk that will expire tomorrow, plop some onto the plate in a lumpy circle, and wait for the oven timer.

*     *     *

Wheel of Fortune is starting in the living room and Grandpa’s eating batter crusted chewy clam parts from the flowered plates Grandma always used. My chance for a moment of peace and I take it on the toilet.

But peace comes at a cost. His stomach and bowels don’t hold much of anything anymore. The splattered edge of the toilet seat, however, holds whatever is splattered there.

I find the cleanser, the blue plastic cleaning brush, and scrub. A few minutes of bleach activated lemon scented suds, a solid minute of soap and a fingernail scrubber on my hands, and I can finally sit.

While the pee falls into the water under me, I close my eyes and think of all the memories of this place from my childhood. The laughter and conversation that would come through the rooms, us kids running to Grandma where she sat in her chair, lemon drops in the sky blue candy dishhard sugary outside that always cut the tongue and the sharp-sweet lemon beneath. Then I grew up and this became the house where my grandmother died slowly from cancer without telling any of us she was sick. Where my grandfather now sits and rots, Friday by Friday.

A bang against the flimsy bathroom door and my thighs go goose-bump prickly with the interrupt. Is it another time bomb? Another drizzle down the pant leg? The exciting opportunity to put my bare hands into the toilet bowl with real live old man shit?

His voice echoes into the hollow bathroom door. “My corn’s cold.” He slaps a fist on the door again. “D’you hear me in there?”

I take a breath in. “Can I please have a moment?”

No answer.

I count to ten in my head and still nothing. My body relaxes; small drops of pee come out of me. My head falls to the spring green bathroom wall beside me and I think again about how much I miss chicken.

Then his voice again, relentless. “My corn’s cold and they have some spick on Wheel of Fortune.”

With my head against the wall, I can see the ancient yellow shower tiles in the mirror over the sink. The dripping shower head with rust on the pipe. One of Grandpa’s dark blue coffee cups on the counter.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” I say, more to the coffee cup than to him.

“What!” he asks, but it’s not really a question.

The little girl piece of me makes a fist and the fist wants to slam at the door and through the door and I collect my calm and I say, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Oh.”

The sound of his answer bounces around inside the door and repeats itself. Oh, oh, oh. Sad, sorry, pathetic.

At the sink, my Grandma’s green eyes look back at me in the mirror. Her cheekbones and not-quite-pug nose. The memory of her is all over my face and I think of those times when Grandpa is really out of it and he calls me Grandma’s name.

Whatever she saw in him, I don’t see.

I come out and he’s walked back to his chair, the hump of his shoulders pulling the back of his white shirt from his gray pants. He turns around and half-sits-half-falls into the chair where he half-lives his life.

On the ancient red TV tray are the remains of his dinner. Cold creamy stuff with floating corn, tartar sauce with floating clumps of clam batter, half the clam pieces uneaten.

“You want me to warm that up again?” I say.

He looks at the plate and I look at the plate and we pause. My grandfather and I have never spent so much time together, have never been alone-just-the-two-of-us before I took Fridays a couple of months ago. We don’t know how to be silent with each other, how to be just family.

“Do you want it warmed up?” I say again.

His hand raises and shoos me away. “Not hungry anymore,” he says. And he reaches a hand up and wipes at his lips because it’s just one of those things he does.

The memory of her is all over my face and I think of those times when Grandpa is really out of it and he calls me Grandma’s name.

My teeth against teeth make a false smile he isn’t looking at and the girl in me wants to scream, shrill enough and big enough to break something. Break him so I can have my Fridays back. So I can have some memories that haven’t been broken by adulthood.

“Look!” he says, the flap of chicken skin arm falls out of his sleeve while his finger points at the television and his skin points at the kitchen then the bathroom then the kitchen again. “Look, right there on Wheel.”

Some guy named Eduardo asks for an F, gets three. While Vanna White does her bit, Grandpa’s finger stops pointing, his skin stops pointing, and I remember liking chicken.

“Damned people are everywhere,” he says. “Ruined the damned country.”

I pick up the plate and Eduardo solves the puzzle to win two thousand five hundred and fifty dollars. ‘The Eiffel Tower of London.’

“There’s no Eiffel Tower in England,” Grandpa says.

“It’s a before and after puzzle,” I say.

“A what?”

“A before and after.”

He stares hard at me, cataracts over blue.

I point to the television, my second Vanna White moment of the night, and say it louder, “The puzzle is Before and After.”

“Oh,” he says. “Still a damned spick.”

Another end to another conversation.

I cross in front of him to get to the kitchen. I’m not a door this time because he doesn’t mind missing commercials.

“Dessert?” I say.

“Maybe coffee later,” he says.

As I walk toward the kitchen, he says, “You know.”

I stop. Look at the back of his half-balded head.

“I used to care about things,” he says.

He keeps his eyes on the TV set. A new puzzle. The category is Same Name.

*     *     *

In the pink tiled kitchen, I leave behind idiots buying vowels.

I reach for a glass and find the bottle of vodka behind Grandpa’s dark blue coffee cups. I shouldn’t be surprised and I’m not. I know I’m supposed to be angry and reprimand him like he’s some kid sneaking a cookie and I won’t.

Something I never noticed before my Fridays was Grandpa and his coffee cups full of vodka. Grandpa walking back to his chair or into the bedroom or into the bathroom, the cup beside his leg because he thinks if it’s beside his leg no one else can see it. Grandpa moving along every day with badly hidden blue cups of what’s killing him.

I grab a glass and the bottle of vodka. At the sink, I fill my glass from the tap and it clinks on the tile when I set it down. Then I hold the bottle up in the window sunlight. Through vodka bottle glass I see the neighborhood my grandparents have always lived in. None of their friends are in these houses now; they’ve gone to live with relatives, moved to retirement homes, died.

The vodka bottle is more than half gone, hidden away in the cupboard for less than a week since it wasn’t here last Friday. It smells like nothing. Tastes like nothing but a warm burn through my throat and into my chest as I tip it up and empty the bottle. It clears away the vomit taste, gives the evening a lightness.

Then I drink my water and set my glass beside the sink. Under the sink, the garbage smells of mold and bad meat, and I shove the empty vodka bottle under some old tin foil and close the cupboard door.

Sally Lehman HeadshotSally K Lehman is the author of the novella Small Minutes. She has had more than twenty poems and stories published in online literary magazines including Bewildering Stories, The Scruffy Dog Review, Ascent Aspirations, Voice Catcher, and the upcoming Perceptions Magazine of the Arts. Find more about her at SallyKLehman.com and TheIncidentalPoet.com. Sally studied Mathematics at UC Berkeley and worked in the computer industry for many years prior to becoming a full time writer. She currently lives near Portland, Oregon.

Sometime Long Ago

Sun-Min, you all right today, my teacher asked. It could have been any morning during that winter that stung like numbness until late April. It was a little before eight in the morning and barely light outside. Thick grey was on the forecast. On days like that you could taste the air. It was soggy and metallic. I wrapped my black scarf, the one frayed at each end; the one mom gave me, tight around my neck. First block didn’t start until quarter past eight, but I always arrived to school early. Just part of the daily routine: ayi woke me up at seven, breakfastsometimesat seven-thirty, on the way to school by seven forty-five. My head was down, but I wasn’t sleeping. I was staring into outer space. No stars, no moons. Just emptiness, but I could breathe.

Mr. Loynes was cool, I guess. He tried to be funny in class, which usually just came out corny, but at least he tried to be entertaining. At the end of English, he always smirked like he just laid an egg or something and said, “Class, I hope the rest of your day is as awesome as me.” He was like one of those teachers who turned his head when students were a little late to class or turned in a paper a day late, as long as you had a good reason. He thought he could read me, but I didn’t give him anything. Ever.

I sat up kinda hurried, like back in elementary school when we played Heads Up, Seven Up, and faked like I was sleeping. Yes, I’m just tired, I said.

Looks gruesome out, huh?

I just said, yep it does, and played with my phone so I looked busy.

Back then classes were so easy. My report cards were always lined with A’s, even after what happened to mom. That must have been why it was never really a big deal. All my teachers knew, but only once did one of them say something. It was Mr. Loynes.

I can really sympathize with you.

I just nodded.

My step-mom died of breast cancer when I was younger.

I gave him nothing.

It was really tough to watch my dad go through it all.

I coiled the strands of my hair that fell by my cheekbone, it was a habit I had, and looked at the framed picture on his desk. To his right, a man, lanky and blond, like Mr. Loynes, probably American, too, and to his left, a petite Asian woman. I bet it was Mr. Loynes’ brother and girlfriend. They were in a jungle somewhere, maybe Indonesia, maybe Malaysia, with a congress of orangutans in the background.

If you ever need to talk or anything, just letting you know, Sun-Min, I’m here for you.

OK, was all I said. I smiled just enough for him to reassure himself he did what he could and then I returned to my seat and got all A’s, like always.

Mrs. Wallace, my counselor, was the worst. I swear she called me to her office like every other day. It was always the green slip with her signature and the Come at Class Convenience check box marked. Whenever that slip arrived my teachers said, “Sun-Min, you can go now,” even if I was taking a test.

How are you doing, Sun-Min? Her voice was almost a whisper, and her eyes got all serious like she was going to tell me she had cancer.

I’m fine. I gave her my happy voice.

Is your dad at home this week?

No, I think he’s in Bangkok, but it might be Abu Dhabi. I didn’t lie, I really didn’t know.

Is ayi there with you?

I nodded yes. She’s at home every day.

And your driver?

He’s there in the morning. If I need him I can just call.

Is school too much?

No, it’s fine. I gave her nothing.

Her eyes softened. She had kids. I think three of them, all toddlers. You could tell they drove her crazy, because her clothes were never ironed and her blond hair always looked oily, like she didn’t have time to properly wash it.

I smiled just enough for him to reassure himself he did what he could and then I returned to my seat and got all A’s, like always.

That cold spring Mrs. Wallace kept reminding me about the Terry Fox run in September and how it’d be great if I helped out. You know, it might be good for you, she said. I told her I’d think about it, but I didn’t smile. If I did I knew she’d keep asking about it. I think she got the message.

A few of my friends found out, but only Clarisse, this French girl, was cool. Everyone else either tip-toed around me or tried to be all happy all the time, like I was some Make-A-Wish® Foundation kid. Clarisse just acted like she didn’t know anything, but then one week she came in and told everyone she was moving to Guangzhou.

Why? I said.

It’s my dad’s business. He got transferred again. Clarisse had a lisp that twisted her lips when she spoke like she wore braces.

That sucks.

Yeah.

You can’t just finish out the year? There’s only like two months left.

Clarisse said she had to take a bunch of tests just to get in to the school in Guangzhou and her dad didn’t want her to fly back and forth. The next year, our junior year, was supposed to be a big deal. It’d be our first in the IB the International Baccalaureate was the diploma most of us international school kids graduated with, so the stakes were higher, that’s what our counselors said.

It wasn’t like we were best friends, but Clarisse was really nice. I went to her house a few times and her mom let us make crepes. Clarisse’s mom’s French accent when she spoke English was thick, like Nutella chocolate. “Clarisse, make sure you put the honey on the crepes. Don’t forget the honey et la crème,” she said.Clarisse was a straight-A kid like me, so the principal let her finish out her assignments online with her teachers. If you get A’s, you basically get what you want.

Mom and Dad both traveled all the time for work. We lived in San Francisco until I was about ten, and then Dad got the big raise he’d been waiting for. He was a mechanical engineer for Audi.

China? I said.

It’s only for a few years, Dad said. It was clear he and mom were both in on it and had known for a long time.

But, we’re not Chinese.

China’s changing, Sunny. Mom called me Sunny.

They let Taiwanese in China, sweetie. Dad was the eternal optimist. Besides, he said, it’ll be a new move for us, a family move.

It was just us three. I never wanted a brother or sister. We left for Beijing and visited Grandma and Grandpa and my uncles and aunts and cousins every chance we got. Dad traveled so much it seemed like I only saw him when we had holiday, and there we were in Taipei at grandma’s house sipping oolong tea and eating sun cake. After a few years Mom got bored and said she wanted to go back to work.

Who’s going to look after Minny? Dad called me Minny.

I’ll be fine, Dad. I meant it. Ayi basically already lived with us anyway.

Let’s think on it a bit more. Dad was overly cautious and protective, too. Always.

Mom gave it one more year and then her youngest sister came to live with me. Mom came home like once a month. She was a law professor at NTU in Taipei. I swam and read a lot. I didn’t like competitive sports, and running always made my ankles hurt. I was in grade eight and had long been earning the highest marks in my grade.

By the end of ninth grade Mom was already sick. She’d been diagnosed for some time, but I didn’t know. Dad didn’t tell me anything and neither did Auntie or ayi. I should have known, should’ve seen the signs, I guess. During that school year mom had rarely returned to Beijing, and over that summer, before my sophomore year, I only saw her a few times. We talked on the phone like once a week. Then, the visits got even more and more rare. That fall of my sophomore year, supposedly Mom was back in San Francisco teaching a few courses back at Berkeley, but she was really at the hospital, becoming paler and skinnier and losing her charcoal hair that was just like mine, handfuls at a time.

 *     *     *

I met Khoudia a few weeks after the funeral. She had moved to Beijing while I was in Taiwan, getting utterly sick of my family. Khoudia was in my Chinese class. Ms. Yu sat her right next to me and said in Chinese, Sun-Min, you need to get to know Khoudia. I just smiled and said, hao de, lao shi, because you have to respond to the Chinese teachers like that. They aren’t cool, like Mr. Loynes.

No one in the class could get over Khoudia’s mastery of Chinese.

I know it’s in Africa, but, like, where is Senegal? This one boy Billy Chen asked Khoudia. Billy was a jerk, typical high school boy even for this school, full of geeky overachievers.

Actually, it’s a province in China, Khoudia said in spotless Chinese, but we have a darker skin tone and are smarter. Khoudia controlled the class like a Ouija board. Ms. Yu knew it too, but I think she was kinda in awe as well. Khoudia was skinny, but her shoulders were muscular like a boy’s and her neck was firm and defined, like it protected what she was about to say. Khoudia said she was Muslim.

Not like I-pray-five-times-a-day Muslim, but I’m Muslim.

Do you go to Mosque? I said. I was curious. I’d never met a Chinese speaking Senegalese Muslim. Khoudia always wore dangling earrings, even during PE.

Girl, no. I mean, only when my dad tells me to go. Her dad was the Senegalese Ambassador. Khoudia said she was going to be the president of Senegal one day, and I never thought otherwise.

Me and Khoudia had a few classes together, but we didn’t have the same lunch time. One weekend in May she invited me to her house for the weekend. She said it was a Muslim celebration, but it’d be cool if I came, too. Have you ever eaten lamb meat?

Of course.

Not lamb meat like this, Khoudia said. It was true, I hadn’t. I was so stuffed. They slaughtered the lamb right in their house compound. Her dad bragged about how he was the grille master. They spoke French, Chinese, English, and a few other languages that I’ll just call Africanalthough if Khoudia heard me say that she’d suck her teeth at me like she did in Chinese class when she was upset with someone. The house was full, but I met Khoudia’s older brother in town from Abu Dhabi where he worked and a woman in her twenties whom Khoudia called her cousin. She ran around the house like ayi and didn’t quite shine like Khoudia. We ate more than my family did during the New Year Festival.

That night before we went to sleep Khoudia changed her shirt and bra in front of me like it was nothing. She caught me staring at her breasts and laughed. What, you’ve never seen these before?

I didn’t know her nipples would be that dark. Not that I ever really thought about it, but I figured they’d be more pink, like mine. I tried to play it off. I laughed back and buried my head in the bed’s pillows.

Khoudia made me feel like the sun shone everywhere. I changed in front of her, hoping she’d stare at my pink nipples, but she didn’t even raise an eyebrow. We talked a bit more that nightabout boys, about movies, about how difficult Algebra II was getting even though we both still had A’s.

What are you doing this summer? I said.

Going home to Senegal. Can’t wait. You?

Taiwan, and summer camp at Stanford.

I’m so full.

Me too. It was past midnight. Music was still playing downstairs. Khoudia told me that was the music that filled the streets in her hometown. We were quiet for a while, just listening.

My mom died when I was five, Khoudia finally said in Chinese.

I didn’t give her anything and closed my eyes to sleep.

I really didn’t know. I came home one Tuesday and Dad was there. So was ayi and she looked at me hard like she was trying to tell me something. I guess she didn’t trust my dad. Auntie had already left earlier that morning.

We have to go to Taipei tonight, Dad said.

No, Dad. I can’t. I have a Math test tomorrow.

I’ve already called your counselors. We’ll be gone a few weeks. Minny, Mommy’s dying.

That’s exactly how he told me. I’ll never forget that because ayi dropped a glass in the sink and it shattered. Ayi never dropped or broke anything. Dad rushed to help her. She cut herself and the blood ran from her finger like it was mad at her for ruining that moment. I watched for a minute and then went upstairs to pack.

On the plane Dad didn’t really talk. We were in first class, so I tried to watch movies. Only once did Dad touch my hand and rub my wrist like he did when I was little.

Minny, I’m sorry. We all thought she’d be okay. Your mother didn’t want us to tell you. She was afraid.

I didn’t give him anything.

Grandma and Grandpa met us at the airport. We were too late. Mom died while we were flying over the Taiwan Strait, while I was watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dubbed over in Chinese.

It finally warmed up in May. School ended in June, but before we left for summer, and after final exams, our school had our Week without Walls program. No one in grade ten wanted to go. I didn’t mind, really. The teachers told us students we’d get to choose our trip, but really that meant we might be assigned to a trip that wasn’t lame. I was grouped with Khoudia and about twenty others. We were headed somewhere around the Great Wallagainbut this time we were backpacking. The Saturday before our departure we met at school for training. Some wilderness organization our school hired came in and showed us how to read a GPS, how to put up a tent, how to cook on a little Bunsen-burner-looking stove, how to poop in the woods. They said we had to bury our feces and carry out the dirty toilet tissue.

Khoudia sucked her teeth and then raised her hand. Excuse me, she said, um, I see little boys and girls pee and poop through their pee-hole pants like every day and moms and dads here don’t bury it.

Everybody laughed, but the camp leaders said we had to follow some “Leave no Trace” mantra. I guess it made sense, but China was seriously polluted, the least of their worries was human feces and toilet tissue in the wilderness.

We left early Monday. It took us more than half the day just to reach the trailhead. Then, it seemed like we had to stop, like, every fifty steps to rest, it was so steep. Khoudia tried to bring a rolly carry-on suitcase, but they made her transfer her clothes and snacks to a backpack that swallowed her slim frame. She was so pissed. When we got to the top, though, it was worth it. I’d never seen anything like it. Cliffs sprouted above the clouds, almost like they were daring God. The gentle green of the grass and the cool moisture in the air restrained the abrupt sharpness of the rocks, almost like the harmony between the yin and the yang.

Eh, Khoudia sucked her teeth, slowly, like the view was delicious. I thought all of China was smoke stacks and green tea and jiao zi.

It feels like this is the top of the world.

It is the top, like, right here, Khoudia said.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. The next few days were much the same. We hiked all day, set up camp, and cooked on the Bunsen-burner-looking-stove, and I did poop in the woods. Khoudia refused. I only go at my house, she said. On the second to last day our camp leaders said we had alone time in the woods. It was almost mid-day but the fog flooded our vision. We lined up in single-file and our camp leaders directed us this way and that. We had two hours all by ourselves. No iPhone, no watch, no iPad, no homework, no books, no friend to talk to. I settled under the canopy of a few trees. I could barely see five feet in front of me. The ground was soft and moist. I piled up some leaves before I sat. I laid down and fell asleep. When I woke up I thought for sure it’d been at least two hours. There was a rustling behind me. It was Khoudia.

I’m cold, she said.

How long have we been out here?

Like fifteen minutes.

What? I tried to whisper.

I know. Khoudia didn’t, but her voice couldn’t escape the fog.

Where’ve you been?

I took a poop, but don’t tell anyone. I didn’t bury it though, and I left my toilet tissue. Couldn’t be bothered.

I laughed and pictured one of the camp leaders finding her precious droppings. Then, Khoudia walked through the fog. It devoured her footsteps.

I thought about what Khoudia said. Her mom died when she was five. At least I had ten more years with Mom. Sunny, Mom’d say, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. Sunny, Mom’d say, a book is like a garden. Mom read all the time, like me. Sunny, Mom’d say, Grandpa said deep doubts equal deep wisdom; small doubts equal little wisdom.

Sunny, Mom’d say, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Sometime, long ago, I was in our back yard, back in San Francisco, with Mom. Dad was taking the photo. I still have it. It’s curved now around the white edges and it’s not as pixelated as photographs today. She pushed me in the swing and the sun was bright and strong, but not brighter or stronger than Mom. She looks just like me. She pushed me on the swing all day and then we’d stop and she’d pull the crust off my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because I couldn’t stand the texture. My hair was in pigtails. The grass was green and the air was blue and it was warm. Sunny, Mom’d say, I love you always. You’re my sun, always. My name’s Korean by tradition, but Mom loved it. Sunny, Mom’d say, your name means goodness. I smiled like the blue sky, like the green grass, like Mom’s love. I gave her all…sometime, long ago.

I had fallen asleep again. When I woke up the fog somewhat cleared. There was a caterpillar on my shoe. It didn’t have the faintest idea I was watching it move so quickly and uninhibited, almost stealth like. I felt a little like God for a minute and then remembered I had to hike downhill later that day. I made a bridge with my finger for the caterpillar and took it to the nearest tree.

A whistle blew in the distance. That was our signal. When we returned to camp everyone looked a little squeamish, like they’d been riding rollercoasters all day. The camp leaders had hot chocolate ready for us. Khoudia still stood, proud and unreserved.

What’s your mom’s name, I asked.

Huh?

Your mom. What’s her name?

Binta.

Binta?

Yeah.

What’s your mom’s name?

Mingxia.

Oh. It’s cold and foggy. I’m ready to go home, Khoudia said.

Me too. I bet Khoudia talked to her mom, too, out there in the middle of nowhere in China.

That summer, the summer before my junior year, was like every other summer. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa, while dad still worked. I stayed around the house, reading and watching TV, and walking with Grandpa in the afternoon. He liked to play mah jongg and chess. He was really good at chess. I couldn’t beat him. I went swimming at the local pool. It was like every other summer, only we never talked about Mom. I think it was too tough for Grandma and Grandpa. I think they felt guilty for outliving her. Maybe they were quiet because they were thinking about me. I could tell Dad felt guilty. Whenever he flew in from a business trip he was loaded with gifts that I really didn’t want and he’d be all, let’s go see the city, and he’d take me to the top of Taipei 101 and buy me ice cream or take me to a movie. That’s when Dad was soft and I could tell he was sad. I knew it hurt him, so I gave him a little. Not any tears, but I smiled so he’d remember. The last three weeks of summer I went to Stanford and almost scored a perfect score on my SAT.

About a month or so into my junior year and I was back in Mr. Loynes’ homeroom class. It was before class started and I still had my head down. I was still breathing in the emptiness, and then someone pinched me. I knew it wasn’t Mr. Loynes. It was Khoudia. I thought she had transferred since I hadn’t seen her yet.

Where you been?

Senegal. Where else?

You just start school when you want?

Of course. You don’t?

I put my head down again, trying to fake like I was tired. Khoudia didn’t take it.

I know you’re not sleeping.

How do you know? My head was still down when I said that.

Khoudia didn’t answer. She just kept pinching me until I finally stopped staring into space, into the emptiness. I didn’t give her anything, but I knew she knew I knew. I knew she was thinking what I was thinking. We knew. It was sometime long ago, but now we were the caterpillars.

Bradford Philen HeadshotBradford Philen is the author of the novel Autumn Falls. His short fiction has appeared in places like The Monarch ReviewMobius: The Journal of Social Change, and WhiskeyPaper. His full list of publications can be found at bradfordphilen.com. He currently teaches in Beijing, China.

Rock of Ages

On the morning of her twenty-eighth birthday, nearly six months after the birth of our daughter, my wife Emily forgot how to talk.

It was Live-Through-History Day at Crestview Elementary, an invention of my own, and my class of sixth-graders had risen to the occasion. Around the room were icons in miniature: George Washington, Albert Einstein, Clara Barton. Halloween was two weeks away, and the kids considered this a trial run. The Gale twins made the most of it: Cory, who was tall, came as Napoleon. His brother Rory, nearly six inches shorter, was Abe Lincoln. My brightest student, Sarah Marsh, who had a rebellious streak that would cause her parents untold grief for years to come, dressed in moon boots and a nylon bodysuither birthday suit, she called it with twinkling eyes—and as Lady Godiva. I made her put on a sweatshirt.

The students stammered out short prepared speeches, boasting of accomplishments, telling when they were born, who they married, when they died. Now the classroom devolved into a cupcake-eating, orangeade-drinking melee of laughter and horseplay—an anachronistic sugar-fueled battle royale. I was just about to make Eleanor Roosevelt release Genghis Kahn from a headlock when Mrs. Leeuwenhoek, the main secretary, poked her head through the door and beckoned cryptically.

“Your wife’s called twice,” the old woman whispered, as though baffled.

“What does she want?”

Mrs. Leeuwenhoek pondered this question for a moment. She was grandmotherly and sweet, but with a short circuit somewhere—her brain was wired like those goofy children’s straws that loop around in superfluous circles.

“She called twice,” Mrs. Leeuwenhoek said again. “But she didn’t say anything. Your name comes up on the little screen. And I can hear her breathing, but she doesn’t say anything.”

My stomach took a quick step backwards. “Was she crying?”

“I don’t think so.”

That lifted my spirits. Emily was a devout crier—if anything had been wrong, her words might fail, but her tear-ducts would not. I asked Mrs. Leeuwenhoek to referee my class and walked down to the faculty lounge. Nothing was wrong. Nothing major, anyway. If anything major was wrong, it would be wrong with Tessa, and that would involve maternal tears. Maybe the car broke down.

In the lounge, I dug out my cell phone. MISSED 9 CALLS, it read. 9 NEW MESSAGES. That wasn’t heartening. I dialed home. The line picked up immediately, and I could hear breathing.

“Em? Emily?”

The breathing quickened into a kind of labored huff, but nobody spoke. I kept calling her name, but after a while it became both silly and terrifying. I hung up. No longer calm, I arranged for Mrs. Leeuwenhoek to watch my class until a sub could be found for the rest of the afternoon, and jogged out to my car.

Emily was a devout crier—if anything had been wrong, her words might fail, but her tear-ducts would not.

Driving home, I listened to the “voice” messages. The first four were silent, except for that half-panicky breathing. The fifth came from my mother, who wondered in her desultory way if there had been some change of plans, as it had been her understanding that Emily worked today and would be dropping the baby off, and it was fine if things had changed, more than fine, in fact, but it would be nice if someone thought to call her, because if she wasn’t needed to baby-sit, there were plenty of other things she could be doing. Her friend, Greta, for instance, had bought a replacement umbrella for her patio table and…

The rest were more breathing. I told myself not to worry and concentrated instead on hastening the lunchtime traffic of West Des Moines with the brute force of my trepidation, which was now a steady drum against my temples and the backs of my eyes.

I told myself not to worry, not to worry. If anything was wrong, Emily would be sobbing. It was what she did. She cried when she was sad, and when she was happy. She cried when other people cried. She cried at movies and the last episode of Friends. It was one of the few important things I knew about her, and I loved her for it.

 

I burst through the front door, half-expecting something dramatic to greet such a dramatic entrance—a raging fire, a gang of corn-fed hoodlums. Instead I found Emily sitting at the kitchen table, still in her bathrobe. Her face was clean of makeup, but she hadn’t been crying. She didn’t even look at me, but stared dully at the stove. She gripped a pencil in her hand and doodled absently on the TO DO: OR NOT TO DO notepad we kept by the phone.

“The baby?”

Emily shrugged, still looking at the stove, and lifted her arm limply to point upstairs. I scrambled past her and bound up the stairs into Tessa’s room. I found her in the crib, sleeping soundly. Catching my breath for a moment, I began tickling her feet until she gave a weary squeal.

“Hey baby, baby.”

I checked her diaper, which was wet. Affixing a dry one, I made a show of blowing out my cheeks against her belly, but she was too tired to be sufficiently amused.

“You’re a tough crowd, Tess. Let’s go see Mommy.”

I picked her up and headed back downstairs, feeling rather pleased. I had acquitted myself with adequate heroism. Not only was I a good provider, but a devoted family man who had dashed valiantly home when confronted with the first scent of danger. This reaffirmed my worth beyond any doubt. Or did it? Would a better man have played it differently? No, no. I had done pretty well today. And not only that, but it would provide some leverage, a quick chance to gain a pinch of fleeting superiority in the battle of one upmanship that was marriage.

Emily knew quite well that my sick days and personal days had long been used up during the pregnancy and birth and after-birth—and that we, as a union, as a couple joined at the hip by God and Johnny Law, could not afford to lose a dollar. Not if we ever wanted to give Tess a sibling, or give either of them a college education. Nor, I thought, could Emily afford to miss work, which she had been missing all morning and was missing now, while she sat stone-faced in the kitchen staring at the stove.

“It’s nice to know,” I began, twirling Tessa around as I strode into the kitchen, “that no emergency demanded my prompt return.”

Emily sat there, not looking at me, not speaking.

“It’s nice,” I repeated. “After my heart stopped four or five times, after driving like a maniac to get home…”

Emily was taking deep breaths, long gulps of air, but kept silent.

“And to realize that in fact nothing is amiss.” At this, I twirled the baby again, but Tessa’s patience was at an end. She was hungry and decided to flail and wail her way towards lunch.

“I’m all a-flutter, Em, really. What did I do? Is this about your birthday?”

Tessa’s cries gained new momentum. I held her out for the hand-off, but Emily waved me away. She bent down and scribbled something on the notepad. The blank look on her face did not change.

I stared at the paper, then at her.

“What do you mean you can’t talk?”

She tore off the top sheet and wrote, I can’t remember how to. With this, she stood up and almost mechanically took Tessa from me, then retreated to the sofa in the living room and loosened her robe.

 

I comforted her as best I could. It was a role I always played badly, with put-on confidence that no one believed was real, least of all me. And in truth, I was rather dumbfounded. I called the hospital to inform them their duty-nurse had taken ill, then called my mother and made excuses and apologies. But I wasn’t too worried, and spent the afternoon playing with Tess while Emily sat and stared at various inanimate objects. Maybe it was like the two-day flu. Something that would just blow over.

But at dinner, I realized something was very wrong. Emily and I sat facing each other at the table, hardly eating, our separate forks just pushing around the soggy rice I’d made. I asked her the last time she remembered speaking, did she feel sick, was her throat sore?

She barely acknowledged me, but kept flicking her bangs with one finger in an international gesture that meant, Keep talking, sweetheart; talk all night if you want to. Talk until you’re blue, but leave me out of it.

Eventually, I threw up my hands in a gesture that tried for drama and achieved it badly. “Well,” I said, “we could drive down to the ER and ask them to find it for you.”

At this, she perked up a little and grabbed her pencil. I didn’t lose it. I just can’t remember how. Then she frowned and changed the periods to exclamation points. And she glared.

I met her eyes for one sharp moment, and faced with a variety of options, decided to flee. I checked the baby, who was conked out good, and proceeded to dig a small, silver-colored package from one of my shoes in the closet. Back in the kitchen, I came up from behind and placed it in front of my wife. She’d been staring at the stove again and jerked upright, but emitted no sound.

I sat back down. “It’s that watch you liked,” I said. “The one we saw last month.”

At first she only stared at me, that look of patient sufferance I knew so well—and then she licked her lips. She took a deep breath. She tried to smile. And then she cried.

 

She cried for hours, cried without sound—the distraught heroine from a silent film. Finally, I was on solid ground. This was a reaction I understood. I knew what to do. Holding her hand, stroking her shoulder, letting her lean on me.

Around midnight, she stopped crying and took a shower, applied a modest amount of blush and lipstick, and put on her favorite dress—a sleek blue number that was too formal for any school function or mid-priced restaurant. She stood in front of the mirror, fussing and fidgeting in preparation for some imaginary gala. Throughout this process, she kept nodding her head forward in rhythm, as though momentum and wishful thinking might kickstart the words.

I lay on the bed, watching her preen away. “You look lovely,” I said, but she ignored me and stepped into the pair of sleek blue pumps that I couldn’t remember seeing before. Shoes to go with the dress she never wore. I briefly imagined a dashing tuxedo-clad alternate husband who would whirl her off to the kind of swanky event that was fitting for such an outfit. Then I made him disappear and it was just the two of us again: the dowdy schoolteacher and the muted beauty. She looked truly fetching, if rather overdressed to pace up and down the stairs and wear out the carpet between our room and the baby’s room. And eventually, she ended up right back where she started, at the kitchen table, staring at the stove.

Sitting beside her, I fell asleep with my cheek pressed against the tabletop. I woke up in the same position, but with a soft dishtowel for a pillow and Emily’s hand on my head, sifting through my hair.

“I would’ve brought flowers too,” I mumbled, and dropped my head back down.

 

At dawn, I called school and arranged for a sub. Emily switched out her dress for jeans and a sweater. She washed off her makeup and painted it back on thickly, to cover the dark circles beneath her eyes. We dropped off Tessa with my mother—I told her Emily was ill, but was sketchy enough on the details that my mother knew instinctively that I was lying. She flashed a benevolent smile to let me know she knew, then reached out and took the baby basket from my hand.

Emily insisted that we avoid Iowa Lutheran, where she worked, so I drove downtown to Mercy. She had her notepad and insisted on seeing the doctor alone. I objected, casting back through the ages for help from all the other husbands of history; they offered scant assistance. I knew there might come a point where I would have to take charge, to overrule her emotions with my steely masculine resolve. But the argument died pretty quickly. After all, I was the only one arguing. So I shut up and let it go.

In the waiting room, I pretended to read through outdated magazines, mostly for the benefit of the receptionist, who undoubtedly didn’t care. But I wanted to appear the absolute paragon of normalcy. My wife seemed to have similar concerns, and came back to the lobby with a big fake grin. She kept it on in the elevator and past the nurses at the desk downstairs.

I assumed the tears would start as soon as we got to the sanctuary of the car. I readied myself, steadied myself. Time to shine. Be her rock. Be a man. But instead, she looked deep in my eyes with more sadness than I’ve ever seen, and wrote very deliberately on the notepad, which had become a kind of chain. She tore off the page and handed it over.

Psychosomatic.

“Well,” I said, giving a half-hearted shrug.

She bent down again, scrawling furiously. He’s a doctor, she wrote. He doesn’t know anything. I’d think the same thing and be wrong.

 

At home, Emily returned to her bathrobe and sat in the kitchen. Behind her, I worked fingers-to-bone to prepare a first-rate lunch, wondering when, if ever, I would gather the strength for my pep talk. “Of course I believe that you believe,” I’d say, with the kindest lilt I could muster. “But you’ve been under stress and back at work, and you’re not seeing Tess as much, and maybe, just maybe—” I spread out jelly and peanut butter and mashed the bread together. “Maybe it’s all in your head.”

But I wouldn’t say it, because I wasn’t sure, and if I had learned anything in four years of marriage, it was to never, under any circumstances, guess. In part because I never fully understood why Emily fell in love with me, I often treated our relationship with no small degree of superstition. I spent our year-long engagement walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop—pretty much bedeviled by all the applicable clichés. Each time I did something well, something that pleased her, the victory seemed perplexing and accidental. For her part, Emily couldn’t read me too well either. We loved each other without understanding. From my parents, I had learned that this uncertainty would probably never go away, but rather settle into a dull acquiescence—the kind of pleasant banality that strangers mistake for intimate understanding. My parents had made it work somehow, living as they did in a bubble of routine: Wheel of Fortune and microwave lasagna. Emily’s parents had split up years before, remarried different people, and stayed with them only because the prospect of another divorce seemed quite onerous.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t know her: I knew her favorite color was soda blue; her favorite book Jane Eyre; I knew she loved Meg Ryan movies but pretended not to; she loved the smell of woodsmoke and vanilla incense; and she loved how Aspen trees were all connected underneath. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand preferences and idiosyncrasies that could be memorized easily enough. A mile of useless nouns strung together with plus signs that equaled a big question mark, no matter how creatively they were added up. I wanted something concrete, something fundamental. I wanted to uncover the secret places and find some language beyond words. I had assumed I’d find it once the vows were said and done.

Instead we bickered. We played silly games. Whose turn to wash dishes, whose turn to fold laundry. We were very much like roommates who shared a bed and partook of little niceties, like signing grocery lists with Valentine hearts and ending phone conversations with “I love you.” It was all done by rote, conditioned as we were by over two decades of watching married couples on television and in movies. But it was a tired act and we were bad actors. Our victories were told to each other in foreign tongues. Our personal defeats, much the same way, were taken by the other with befuddlement and the awkward, forced pat on the back one gives an ailing stranger. Something would have to change. We needed an intermediary.

Tessa was something we could share. Emily carried the load and I cleared the path. She vomited, and I painted the spare bedroom pink. She ate and I made appointments, re-checked appointments, and served as chauffeur. She ate, and I took a job on weekends at Breadeaux Pizza. The bond between us grew, and had kept growing, until I was confident we were well on our way to constructing a delightful bubble of our very own.

 

That evening Emily went to bed early, exhausted by silence. I retrieved Tessa and fended off my mother as best I could. It was a warm night for October, and back home, instead of going inside, I bundled my daughter in her soda-blue blanket and tucked her snugly into the crook of my shoulder. I walked up and down the block as she slept. I had read once that Lincoln used to borrow neighboring infants and do the same—it helped him think while he was composing his speeches. I composed the speech I would give my wife, then revised, edited, threw it out completely and began anew. I sorted through trite similes and metaphors, as though sifting flakes of gold from the rough dirt at the bottom of a miner’s pan. But the gist of my speech was very simple: Look what I’ve got, Em, right here. Right here in my arms. Look what we’ve made, what binds us a thousand times more than some document at City Hall. Pull it together, darlin’, because I sure the hell can’t do it alone. Don’t go crazy, or I’ll lose my mind.

Two weeks passed. Emily saw another doctor, then a therapist, but nothing helped. I made no speeches, and our lives settled into a bizarre routine. Emily didn’t shed another tear, and instead spent her days staying close to Tessa and working immense jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. I worried at first leaving her all day with the baby, but Emily’s maternal instincts were as honed as ever. Per her request, I bought a miniature dry-erase board and she kept it close whenever she wanted to communicate in words. She lapsed into a strange, silent existence and seemed content. I wrangled Iowa Lutheran into giving her a leave of absence by inventing an illness for my mother-in-law in Arizona.

At work, I received hourly updates by email and text messages, dispatches that Emily kept both short and intimate. She won’t be crawling long, sweetie. She holds onto my fingers and pulls herself upshe wants to walk so bad. She’s sleeping now. I just kissed her for you. I settled in, rather comfortably, to the role of reliable husband—the indefatigable head of the household.

One day I took Tessa to the doctor for inoculations. She had cried herself out by the time we got home, and didn’t stir as I transferred her into Emily’s arms. I looked at the two of them and felt quite happy.

“I picked up the cleaning,” I said. “And the groceries. And made an appointment for her annual check-up.” I flashed Emily a drained smile. “I’m becoming the stereotypical long-suffering housewife,” I said.

Emily lifted her eyes, bemused, and shifted Tessa in order to free her hand. She uncapped the dry-erase marker. Start menstruating, she wrote. Then we’ll see. And she drew a little smiley-face, with Valentine hearts for eyes.

As Emily got more and more used to this new routine, her libido returned to normal, then quickly escalated far past where it had ever been. As if I didn’t have enough to run me ragged, I now had to contend with a wife who was in the mood three or four times a day. There was no longer a “right” time—if Tessa was sleeping and I was near, the time was right. It didn’t matter if we were in the laundry room or the kitchen, the hallway or the bathroom. I woke up straddled by a mute woman who no longer had the slightest aversion to my morning breath, and drifted off at night, worn down past exhaustion, with Emily cradled in my arms. It took some getting used to, because she made only the slightest gasps of sound, but I learned to gauge her stages by the rhythm of her breathing and the way her fingers touched me. At first, the increased frequency had been a nice surprise, but after eight or nine days I had spent all reserves. This didn’t seem to bother her, and instead of sex, we shifted to a kind of “extreme cuddling,” during which Emily would wrap herself tightly around me as though attempting to cut off both our circulations. As though we couldn’t be too close.

 

But still there was the elephant in the room that only one of us could talk about. I chose to keep silent, thinking the situation could certainly be worse—who was I to complain? Most men would kill to have a lusty wife who couldn’t speak. It was like the punchline to some off-color joke.

Other times, I felt the darkness coming in. I ran out of excuses for my parents and finally just had them over for dinner to explain the whole thing. My mother acted as though the situation was quite ordinary and became instantly over-supportive, offering Emily anything she needed—even chiding my father to purchase a long-promised computer so that the two women might better communicate. My father, to his credit, ate his dinner in respectful silence. Later, on the porch, he smoked his daily cigar and put his arm around me, a gesture he hadn’t extended since I was twelve.

“Your mom’s worried,” he said.

“You?”

“Forget what I think. If she’s worried, you should be too.”

“It’ll work itself out, Dad.”

“It won’t,” he spat quietly, and I realized he was choked up. “You owe it to that little pumpkin in there to get her mom some help.”

“There’s nothing physically wrong with her, Dad.”

He took his arm off me and turned away. I watched his cold breath mix with unspooling clouds of cigar smoke. “She won’t talk. Don’t you think that qualifies?”

“Can’t talk, Dad. Not won’t.”

He half turned back to me, but changed his mind and spoke to the cold night instead. “And if she never talks again?”

I didn’t answer him.

They didn’t seem like us. They were other people.

After my parents left, Emily put down the baby and cornered me in the living room, but I told her I wasn’t in the mood, which was true enough. I went for a long walk. Terrible things passed through my head, images of Zelda Fitzgerald and Francis Farmer, images of imposing grey buildings with bland, euphemistic names full of words like health and convalescence in lieu of asylum and lunatic. Places where women who no longer lived in reality went to die. Of course, I was overreacting. But I couldn’t find any middle ground between overreacting and ignoring it all. What happens if it doesn’t work itself out?

I didn’t sleep that night. Instead, I sat downstairs and watched and re-watched the video from our wedding. I listened to us reciting vows, to her cracking wise at my expense moments before I shoved a handful of cake in her face and she returned the favor. They didn’t seem like us. They were other people.

I sat there and thought about Tessa, about the mortgage, about plastic debt and my piddling public-school salary. The young man on the screen had slightly more hair than I did, and fewer lines on his forehead. Don’t be stupid, I told him. As soon as the honeymoon’s over, ditch your plans and go back to school—get a computer science degree, get a business degree. Have some goddamn foresight. Be the kind of man who can support his family on a single income, the kind of man who’s prepared for such eventualities, as when his wife forgets how to talk. A better man would know what to do. A better man wouldn’t be sitting on the couch at 3:00 am., weeping.

Emily, perhaps sensing my mood, stayed away.

 

The next morning was our annual Thanksgiving Day party. Mrs. Leewenhoak looked me over in the morning—haggard face, circles under the eyes—and I could see her mind slowly wondering if I wasn’t hungover. Class was worse. The Gale twins acted out a kind of “Who’s on First?” routine between Pocahontas and John Smith that involved the latter desperately trying to get to second base. And Sarah Marsh, true to form, began a meticulously researched lecture on the premeditated genocide of our continent’s native peoples. I cut her off brusquely halfway through. She sat down in a huff, with that rage-filled look of someone unjustly punished. She had been, and I felt bad enough about it that I intercepted her after the final bell and told her to write her notes into a paper that could be submitted for some contest or the other. I didn’t know of any but if need be, I’d make one up and give her a prize. She left with uplifted spirits and assured me she’d begin writing it the moment she got home.

I went back into the classroom and put my head on the desk for half an hour.

That night I returned to an empty house. A note had been left on the table. T’s at your mom’s. Back soon. Love, E. I unthawed two hot dogs under warm water and ate them raw, then drove over and picked up my daughter. Emily didn’t return till almost eleven. She found me asleep on the couch, shook me gently awake. She sat and guided my head to her lap and combed her fingers through my hair. Thick, warm silence all around us; I never wanted to get up. Could we just stay like this, where it’s quiet and safe, with the baby upstairs, quiet and safe—couldn’t we just stay here forever and leave the rest of it alone?

Instead I sat up. Emily grabbed her dry-erase board.

At the hospital, she wrote. I told them I’m not coming back.

I nodded, already conjuring up images of debtor’s prisons that no longer existed.

We’ll get by. We can live in an apartment if we have to.

The marker against the board was so quiet, like the barest whisper. I tried to match the tone. “I guess so.”

I went to the chapel there, she wrote. I tried to pray.

Absently, I stroked her arm. There was a pair of tiny freckles, just above her wrist. I hadn’t looked at them in a long time, and leaned down now to kiss them quickly.

“How’d it go?” I whispered.

I don’t think I know how. She dabbed her finger with spit and smeared the board clean, then reached out and brushed the ink against each of my cheeks. She tilted her head, examining her work, and smiled sadly. She bent down to write.

Please don’t hate yourself.

“I don’t.”

You do. You hate yourself so much and you love the people around you even more. I know.

“I’m scared, Em.”

She nodded and set aside the board. I took her hand, because she wanted me to. We walked upstairs to Tessa’s room and stood looking down at her. We watched her toes curling up, caught in what I hoped was a very pleasant dream. Emily turned to me in the dark and parted her lips, but the words she was thinking of must have been too hard, if not impossible, to pronounce.

Jonathan RovnerJonathan Rovner grew up just south of Denver, Colorado. His work has recently appeared in the Indiana Review, Wag’s Revue, and Brevity. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.