Bad Mom

By the time I brought my son to vacation in Hawai’i, I knew something was wrong. With him, with me, with the world—take your pick. I remember it as perfect; the month we spent lost among the wild sunshine of the deep Pacific. A time outside of time. Our special little bubble of happiness when, for a few weeks that ended far too quickly, everything was okay.

He was a quiet baby. The first thing I ever noticed about him when I saw my son for the first time, was his fatness. He was like a jelly bean. Short and curved and plump. Double chinned, rolls everywhere, a sort of rubbed, reddish hue; he certainly didn’t look like he was born three weeks preterm. But there was his tinny cry, like a kitten’s mew, struggling to sound from lungs three weeks too small, and there was the small hole hidden inside of his heart, a tiny blip of silence on the echocardiogram.

 

“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation.

I named him Robin, after the mischievous Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I expected Robin to grow to be an energetic boy, full of pranks and chatter. I expected him to be loud, funny, the kind of guy his father would have been if he hadn’t been what he was instead. A part of me prepared for him to be like his father. No part of me was prepared for his silence.

Autism. The thought shuddered behind everything, even then, before the diagnosis. In Hawai’i, when he finally said his first word at age one and a half, and we all celebrated, it was too gleeful. I had the milestone commemorated as a tattoo: a turtle, for the first and—as it would happen—last word he said. On my hand, where it could never be forgotten or hidden away. Later, I would imagine my body cursed.

*     *    *

There is a voice echoing itself and it is mine but it is not mine. It comes from my head, but it fills the whole world. It says “but I didn’t do anything,” on loop. A spiral of protest in that voice that is mine but not mine. I am me but I am not me.

I have traveled outside of my body. Returning is a chaos of sensation. There is something in my mouth, crunchy. At the same time I am returning to my teeth, so the thing in my mouth feels like the crunch of my teeth. I am chewing my teeth. I am swallowing my teeth.

Someone is with me. I grip his hand. It is the only thing that feels familiar and I desperately want that hand to stay in mine.

The loop in my head grows hush, then silent.

“Are you dead? Did I kill you?” the man asks. The way that he looms above me, he fills my whole vision. The blue of his eyes is the sky.

I reach for him, not making sense of his words.

The man is sitting on a bench, and I am in the dirt beneath him.

I am beginning to remember how to breathe.

He scrambles upright. He is leaving. I beg him to stay.

He hesitates, and my vision expands. He and I are the only people around. His bike is a tangle of wheels and frame toppled on the ground. There is a shed. A bench, and the dirt where I find myself after my strange absence. We are behind a house. The house has an empty feeling about it.

I beg the man to stay. He seems anxious. He is pacing. I don’t know what is wrong with him, but I know that his hand is the thing that brought me back to life. I still don’t know where I am. To be alone now would be terrifying. I beg the man to stay, and he listens.

It will take a few more breaths before I remember that the man is my boyfriend, and that he has just strangled me to the point of seizure.

*     *    *

“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation. Like I hadn’t already been living every day in a body tarnished by trauma.

“I know,” I responded. My voice dull. My face blank. My body an anonymous curvature. In the eyes of the world, flat affect is a form of invisibility. In a traumatized body, it is a kind of screaming.

I was screaming at my therapist and she didn’t hear a thing. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that I didn’t go back.

 

Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.

After the hearing tests, the ear tubes, the cardiograms, the nutritional assessments, the rooms full of toys with big observational windows and faceless doctors on the other side; after my son’s diagnosis, a regime was set for him. He needed routine. He needed intensive therapy. He was accepted to a special needs daycare. He began occupational and speech therapy. My PTSD worsened. Day by day, my heart broke a little more.

Before the diagnoses, my son and I traveled to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New York, New Jersey, Hawai’i. I idolized the friend of a friend, a long-haired mother who traveled the world, taking a new lover with each location. I remember listening, infatuated as she recounted eating magic mushrooms while her infant son was strapped to her chest.

“It was like he was back inside of me,” she said, “like I was pregnant again.” She waded into the sea. It was beautiful.

I wanted to travel the world, commune with nature, take lovers, eat psychedelics, swim in every ocean of the world. Live free. The diagnoses were like shackles, chaining me to a life I never wanted. On one arm, PTSD; on the other, autism.

Single mom. Working Mom. Stay-at-home mom. Student mom. Autism Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. I tried each one and none fit the way I wanted it to. Manufactured lives. Disconnected lives. Lives tailored to other people’s desires. Lives shaped by the hands of a man long gone.

*     *    *

I leave Boston after I try to kill myself. My teachers let me finish my classes online, so I am able to keep my grades. As I walk the halls of my BFA program for the last time, past the ridiculous picture of Henry Winkler that hangs alone on some hallway wall, I tell myself I will be back. I know I am lying.

 After the springtime snow and endless grey sludge of Boston, Seattle is a glory of greenery. I want so much to revel in it—to realize the paradise of my homecoming deep in my body; to feel the precious magical connection to nature and blossoming that those of us from the Pacific Northwest are supposed to feel when we return from being away.

Instead I feel lonely. I collect strange hairs from my boyfriend’s bedding, make alters of my palms and mourn them when he isn’t looking. I imagine the impossible beauty of the women who possess these hairs. One day, when I dare to ask him about the curly black one that reminds me of his best friend’s girlfriend, he tells me he will leave me if I don’t stop taking my birth control. There is nothing more to say about that, except that I am nineteen and in love with a man who is not in love with me.

 Maybe we conceive our son on the night maggots worm through the floorboards, rising from some unknown putrefaction beneath the house where my boyfriend rents his basement apartment—or maybe it happens the day he rapes me and drags me across the floor by my hair, dumping me next to a pile of laundry. Or maybe it happens on one of the many times when we just have sex, the way lovers do. What is certain, is that when I say the word “abortion,” he holds me, hands to my throat, and threatens to kill me if I kill his child.

Yet even that is uncertain—the report I give to the police that day says he bit me, then kicked me, before making the threat. The bite mark is noted by the officer. There is no mention of hands to my neck or body pressed to the wall the way I so clearly remember years later.

*     *    *

Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.

I hated that word: Survivor. I hated the strength of it, and the image it brought to my mind.  A world-weary woman standing at the peak of a cliff, her face and body battered, her hands rough like a man’s. Arms akimbo. Jaw set. Eyes firm and mirthless. Her hair whipping in the wind, or sometimes it is braided like a Viking’s. Behind her the sea foams, black as poison. When she walks, the earth trembles—for she is a Survivor, and nothing like me at all.

I felt safer as a victim. As a victim, I was allowed to feel small and sad. As a victim, I could curl in my bed for days. As a victim, I got to behave like the words “weep,” and “maiden,” and “fragile,” which was how I felt. But my motherhood did not leave space for my victimhood. As my son grew, and with him his silence, I began to feel my motherhood left no space for me at all.

 

You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.

My son’s silence became a dirge. In it I heard the absence of the words he would never say, and the life together we would never have.

“I love you mom,” our feet padding across the white sand beaches of Cuba, our ancestral home.

“Mom I’m cold,” so I tighten his coat as we gaze up at Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

“Mom, I’m happy,” as we watch the Aurora Borealis dance their colors across the Icelandic horizon.

And living next to these phantoms of a life that would never be, my terrible cacophony of memory.

*     *    *

We are on the bed in my room at my mom’s apartment, where I live. I have not yet written my application to Emerson, which means I am still very young. The bed has a headboard with shelves. I will use it to my advantage when I have to lie about my bruises. I will say that I stacked too many things on it.

“Like an idiot,” I will add—I have to insult myself.

I will say that all my many things fell on me, bruising me. “The bed was moving a lot,” I will smirk as I say it. I want my life to look sexy and fun.

But before I have to tell the lie, my boyfriend is on top of me, half crouched, knees splayed around my hips, crotch pressed into my belly. He smells like sun-warmed blue jeans and armpit stink, which I like. He is angry. I don’t know why. I never know why he is so angry. His anger is omnipotent. It touches everything. If he is in the mood to be angry there is not a thing in this world that will keep him from it.

His hands imprint themselves in my memory. The knob of his knuckles, the splotches of red across the tops of them. His long fingers. His crime-toughened skin; a different texture than a working man’s hands, but just as rough.

This time when he strangles me, he lets go before the familiar darkness comes.

This time, I can feel the seizure overtake me.

My limbs float upward, like in that game I used to play with my friends when I was a little girl, where we would press our arms against a door frame—hard, as long as we could bear it—and when we walked out they would lift up like balloons. I feel my body shake.  A motion at once both violent, jerky, and also smooth. A motion without a thought behind it. It is my body moving, but I have no control to stop it. Me, but not me.

The seizure ends. The oxygen is already flowing back. My senses are clearing. I am gaining sharpness too fast.  I know I have been strangled. I know who did it. I know that he is still on top of me.

*     *    *

The first time my son had a night terror, I heard his shriek from the bedroom. It was sudden, howling, and once it started, it did not stop. I watched his body writhe in the bed, unresponsive to my touch, my voice, anything. A sound so loud it wracked his entire frame, and yet completely indecipherable. Another louder form of silence.

I carried him as he screamed and struggled against me. I laid him out on the living room floor. I stared as his body lifted and contorted like a thing possessed. Not once did his eyes open. Not once did he say a word. He screamed until dawn. The sound bounced off the walls of my apartment, stitching them together, bringing them slowly down around us.

As the horizon lengthened pinkly out the window, he finally crawled into my lap, rested his head against my chest, and slept.

Later, I would learn that night terrors result from disorder. When a child with certain sensitivities does not follow a strict bedtime routine, his brain function alters and the result is violent sleep disturbances that are worsened by even the most affectionate touch. Later, I would learn that my son was possessed by my own disorganization, a side-effect of my diagnosis.

But that morning, when he lay against my breast, his brow damp with sweat, his face suddenly peaceful, I felt that I was sitting at the precipice of a great and terrible ending. The end of time, the dying of the sun, or maybe only the last moments of my own happiness. The room, which moments ago had been filled with my child’s screams, now seemed crowded by silence. It was this same silence that was suffocating me, day in and day out, and that now pressed upon me with the full weight of the knowledge that it would always be this way.

*     *    *

When I loved my boyfriend, it was a love like terror. I was desperate. I was searching. I would interrogate the trees about his intentions and imagine answers out of wind currents. My love for him was rabid, competitive; a force stronger than any truth because it did not rely on truth for its sustenance.

But when my son was born, love gained new meaning. My love for my son was at once soft, gentle; a blanket of a feeling that I could nuzzle into, and also forceful, raging; something akin to the interlocking of wind and ocean.

One night, I awoke to the sound of my infant son crying in his bassinet. I walked to the living room, where he had been sleeping, lifted him, and sat down on the couch to breastfeed him back to sleep. It worked. My son, who three years later would be diagnosed with autism, was a gentle baby, easily comforted as long as he had access to Mama, and able to sleep through almost anything. I decided to stay up and watch TV.

My boyfriend didn’t like that. He began to yell from the bedroom, demanding that I return.

“Come back, I can’t sleep without you,” he shouted.

I ignored him.

I barely registered that he was in the room with me until he was on top of me, hands around my neck. He strangled me while I held our baby. He strangled me until I could no longer hold our baby. Our son fell to the floor. After my boyfriend’s hands released my throat and my consciousness began to return, I spotted my boy, sitting upright on his chubby bottom, blinking away the sleep.

“Where’s the baby?” My boyfriend shouted, stomping nearer to my son with each iteration. “The baby’s dead!” He kept repeating those words, louder and louder, ignoring me as I tried to warn him that our baby was under his feet. I grabbed for my son but his father’s legs were always in my way.

When I have nightmares about that night, I don’t re-experience the yelling, or the strangulation—just that forest of long, naked legs stomping endlessly while my son waits for me on the other side, unseen and unheard.

When my son turned two, I sent him to live with my family. People who could implement a routine, drive him to his many therapies, and coax the night terrors out of him for good. It was, like so many things in my life, something I was able, but not allowed, to do. When your child has non-verbal autism, there are rules. You are not allowed to grieve the words he will never say. You are not allowed to mourn the independent adult he can’t become. You are only supposed to celebrate his uniqueness, his beauty, the small miracle of his latest accomplishment. You are not allowed to think of him as a burden. You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.

I remember a day, shortly before my boyfriend left forever, when the three of us went walking to the beach. It was one of those grey, windswept beaches that film directors like to use as establishing shots. The kind of beach where you might find crabs or collect small perfect shells that break in your pockets before you reach home. At the beach, my boyfriend lifted the baby from my sling. He cradled my son to his chest. He pulled me to him and asked a stranger to take a picture of us, the ocean foaming in the background. In the picture he is tall and slim and handsome. He holds our baby and smiles. My hair is stringy and scattered across my face like a net or a web newly torn. My body, still inflated from pregnancy, looks as though it might crumple into itself.

“You’re such a great father,” the stranger told my abuser when she handed back the camera.

When my son’s father left for good, everyone agreed it was the best thing. That man—with his anger and his addictions and his enormous self-interest—was in no position to care for an infant.

When I left, everyone agreed I was a Bad Mom. The selfish woman with her anger and her mental illness and her overwhelming need for self-care.

My son was not taken or killed. I gave him away. There are rules about that, too. I am not allowed to say I miss him. I don’t get to say it hurts. I am not allowed to both mourn the mother I could have been, and still not want to want to be her.

For Bad Moms like me, our lost children can only exist as silence.

 

Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer originally from the Pacific Northwest. In 2017, her blog, Betty’s Battleground, was ranked by Feedspotas one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a contributing writer for HealthyPlace. Her work, which often focuses on mental health, addiction, and social justice, has appeared in PoliticoMagazine, Vice, Vox, TalkPoverty, Ozy, The Fix, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.

De roses et d’épines: English, French, & Portuguese

[self-translated poetry]

Roses and spines

The widow’s shaven head
Welcomes the knights of the apocalypse

Sunbeams
Arrows of the day
The husband’s soul
Escapes from the body

The widow’s shaven head
Welcomes the knights of the apocalypse

 


Antidote

He was handsome but ”la fille de Joie” [1]
did not let herself go.

Love is a virus with which we inoculate
Ourselves when we have sold the antidote

to the enemy

 


Ignorance

Tchimpadou [2] !
I do not know!

I do not know the accents of my mother tongue
The scattered vocabulary of a language in the twilight of its time.

I do not know the name of the ancestors
From the father of Ngoumini [3] , to the brother of Tchilongo [4] , counter clerks of
the tombs
I do not know the dance steps of millet ears
Of a field yellowed with doubt
Counsel to tales, stories to legends
I do not know the ritual of the widow’s midnight bath
Even less the initiatory direction of the ballet of the circumcised.
I do not know how to interpret dreams
The limits of my culture!
Ah! This girl in agony
I do not know, I do not know yet
How to dialogue with the dead
These heroes pace the corridors of darkness when night has fallen
When the bitter song of a beaten cur rises.

 


Diwangou coffee

My ambition remains imposing.
It is from this that I learn how to cherish
The ground of men with sides lacerated
by the spiteful wires which trample this ground
which has already given all without complaint.

 


Sounds

With naked madwomen,
The clothed men
On the market square,
Take off the last garments of honour.

Strange wish,
Incipient happiness is stretched
In the plain.

Sing your sorrow.
The son in mourning venerates
The reflection of the moon.

The bad spirit
Communicates with its double,
The Ju ju man

The valley hops
In the throats of Diosso
The squirrel becomes wise.

Dance until death
Cry out when we can speak no more,
My language dies.

The day will be born on the hill.
The volcano will be quiet forever.

 

 

De roses et d’épines

Le crâne rasé de la veuve
Accueille les chevaliers de l’apocalypse

Rayons de soleil
Flèches du jour
L’âme de l’époux
S’échappe du corps

Le crâne rasé de la veuve
Accueille les chevaliers de l’apocalypse.

 


Antidote

Il était beau mais la fille de joie
Ne s’est pas laissée allée.

L’amour est un virus que l’on s’inocule
A soi même quand on a vendu l’antidote
A l’ennemi.

 


Ignorance

Tchimpadou [5]  !
Je ne connais pas

Je ne connais pas les accents de ma langue maternelle
Le vocabulaire épars d’une langue au crépuscule de son temps.

Je ne connais pas le nom des ancêtres
Du père de Ngoumini [6] , du frère de Tchilongo [7] , guichetiers des tombes

Je ne connais pas le pas de la danse du mil
Epis d’un champ jauni au doute
Des conseils aux contes, des histoires aux légendes
Je ne connais pas le rituel du bain de minuit de la veuve
Encore moins la direction initiatique du ballet du circoncis.
Je ne connais pas interpréter les rêves
Les bornes de ma culture ! Ah ! Cette fille a l’agonie
Je ne connais pas, je ne connais pas encore
Dialoguer avec les défunts
Ces héros arpentant les couloirs des ténèbres la nuit tombée
Quand s’élève le chant amer d’une chienne battue.

 


Diwangou café

Mon ambition demeure grandiose.
C’est d’elle que j’apprends à chérir
la terre des hommes au flanc lacéré
par les fils ingrats qui piétinent ce sol
qui a déjà tout donner sans plaintes.

 


Sons

Aux folles nues,
Les hommes vêtus, sur la place du marché,
Otent les derniers haillons d’honneur.

Etrange souhait,
Le bonheur naissant s’étire
Dans la plaine.

Chante ta peine.
Le fils en deuil vénère
Le reflet de la lune.

Le mauvais esprit
Communique avec son double,
Le féticheur.

La vallée sautille
Dans les gorges de Diosso
L’écureuil devient sage.

Danser à pâlir
Pousser des cris pour parler,
Mon langage meurt.

Le jour naîtra sur la colline.
Le volcan sera silencieux à jamais.

 

 

Rosas e espinhos

A cabeça rapada da viúva
Dá as boas-vindas aos cavaleiros do apocalipse

Raios de sol
Flechas do dia
A alma do marido
A abandonar o corpo

A cabeça rapada da viúva
Dá as boas-vindas aos cavaleiros do apocalypse

 


Antídoto

Ele era jeitoso mas ”la fille de Joie” [8]
Não se deixou levar.

O amor é um vírus com o qual nos inoculamos
Depois de vendermos o antídoto
ao inimigo

 


Ignorância

Tchimpadou [9] !
Não sei!

Não conheço os sotaques da minha língua materna
O vocabulário disperso de uma língua no limiar do seu tempo.

Não conheço o nome dos antepassados
Do pai de Ngoumini [10] , ao irmão do Tchilongo [11] , amanuenses
das tumbas
Não conheço os passos de dança das espigas de milho-miúdo
De um campo amarelecido com a dúvida
Conselhos para contos, histórias para lendas
Não conheço o ritual do banho da meia-noite da viúva
Ainda menos o sentido iniciático do ballet dos circuncidados.
Não sei como interpretar sonhos
Os limites da minha cultura!
Ah! Esta moça em agonia
Não sei, ainda não sei
Como dialogar com os mortos
Estes heróis percorrem os corredores das trevas quando a noite cai
Quando se levanta o latido pungente de um cachorro maltratado.

 


O café de Diwangou

A minha ambição mantém-se imponente.
É dela que eu aprendo a guardar no meu íntimo
O chão de homens com flancos lacerados
pelos arames rancorosos que esmagam este chão
que já deu tudo sem se queixar.

 


Sons

Com malucas nuas,
O homem vestido
No largo do mercado,
Despe-se das últimas roupagens da honra.

Estranho desejo,
Felicidade incipiente estende-se
Na planície.

Canta as tuas mágoas.
O filho enlutado venera
O reflexo da lua.

O espírito mau
Comunica com o seu duplo,
O homem enfeitiçado

O vale salta
Nas gargantas de Diosso
O esquilo torna-se sábio.

Dança até à morte
Chora quando já não podemos falar,
A minha língua morre.

O dia vai nascer na colina.
O vulcão calar-se-á para sempre.

 

Author’s note:

[1] Prostitute

[2] Female head of the soko clan. Tribe from the dense forest of Central Africa which inherited 1000 words at the start of life. Everyone who dies takes 30 words to go and speak to the dead. Each newborn arrives with one word. The Soko people will only find speech again when the original 1000 words are reunited.

[3] Ancestor

[4] Ancestor

[5] Femme chef du clan Soko. Une tribu de la forêt dense d’Afrique Centrale qui a reçu en héritage mille mots au début du monde. Chaque mort emporte trente mots pour communiquer avec les morts. Chaque nouveau né arrive au monde avec un mot. Le people Soko retrouve la parole seulement quand les mille mots d’origine sont réunis.

[6] Ancêtre

[7] Ancêtre

[8] Prostituta

[9] Mulher chefe do clã Soko. Tribo da densa floresta da África Central que herdou 1000 palavras no princípio do tempo. Cada pessoa que morre leva consigo 30 palavras para falar com os mortos. Cada recém-nascido chega com uma palavra. O povo Soko só voltará a encontrar o discurso quando as 1000 palavras originais forem reunidas.

[10] Antepassado

[11] Antepassado

 

Landa wo is a poet from Angola, Cabinda, and France. His work has previously appeared in Cultura – Jornal Angolano de Artes e Letras, Blackmail Press, Boyne Berries, Cyphers, Nashville Review, Scrivener Creative Review, Star 82 Review, Raleigh Review, Poetry New Zealand, The Cape Rock, and Weyfarers, among others. Landa wo has won a number of awards including first prize in Metro Eireann writing competition 2007, Eist poetry competition 2006, and Feile Filiochta international poetry competition 2005.

 

A Glazier

Gabo Finalist Summer/Fall 2018

[translated poetry]

He was the same as other people

who know nothing about the white gray glass:

about the flat drop of sameness

in a frame

of white-lacquered window

like a gray block of longing

lying in a day rectangle of colored dough of encounters.

 

He has installed the window panes

in a gray house with white window frames,

in a white house with gray shops.

The first window pane. Second. Tenth.

 

The panes are flat and still, like rectangles.

The panes are colorful tears:

The glass is the color of watery joy.

Glass has a rhythmical smile

like a person after seven years of waiting.

 

Now his face is a transparent glass pane

which takes into itself

streets. Houses. Circulating bodies.

And a flat drop of sameness,

which smiles measured with watery joy:

everything should always be as is.

 

דער גלעזער

 

ער איז געװען גלײך צו אַנדערע מענטשן

װאָס װײסן גאָרנישט װעגן גראָ־װײסן גלאָז׃

װעגן דעם פֿלאַכן טראָפּן גלײכקײט,

װאָס ליגט אין אַ רעם

פֿון װײס לאַקירטע פֿענצטער

װי אין אַ טאָג־רעכטעק פֿון לאַקירטן טײג פֿון באַגעגנישן

ליגט דער גראָער בלעק פֿון דער בענקשאַפֿט.

 

ער האָט אַרײנגעשטעלט שױבן׃

אין אַ גראָען הױז מיט װײסע פֿענצטער־רעמען,

אין אַ װײסן הױז מיט גראָע לאָדענס.

ערשטע שױב. צװײטע. צענטע.

 

די שױבן זענען פֿלאַך און שטיל, װי רעכטעקן.

די שױבן זענען טרערן־קאָלירטע׃

ס’איז דער קאָליר פֿון װאַסעריקער פֿרײד.

גלאָז שמײכלט ריטמיש

װי אַ מענטש נאָך זיבן יאָר װאַרטן.

 

איצט איז זײַן פּנים אַ דורכזיכטיקע גלאָז־שױב

װאָס נעמט אױף אין זיך

גאַסן. הײזער. קרײזנדיקע גופֿים.

און אַ פֿלאַכער טראָפּן גלײכקײט,

װאָס שמײכלט אָפּגעמאָסטן מיט װאַסעריקער פֿרײד׃

ס’זאָל תּמיד אַלץ זײן װי ס’איז גראָד.

 

Translator’s Note:

Debora Vogel’s language could be best described in terms of its plasticity. We may think of plastic as stiff but it’s also a pliable material. It is the material that best exhibits the fact that form is constantly being transformed. The poem “Glazier” from Day Figures poetry collection (1930) is an example of an author’s stylistic play with linguistic malleability and rigidity. The poem is executed in the aesthetic of Constructivism; it is “constructed” as an artwork from the material of words mirroring the preoccupation with materiality of existence in this avant-garde artistic movement. Glass as material fascinated artists, designers, and architects because of its qualities of transparency and opacity, and the possibilities it presented for modern urbanism. Vogel utilizes glass as a “plastic” material, it is both “watery” and angular, voluminous and flat, clear and opaque. Her vocabulary is minimalist, the color palette is sparse (with white and gray colors predominating), yet repetition and lack of color engenders rhythm and colorfulness. The mood oscillates between stasis and dynamism, sameness and difference. The world of circulating bodies and encounters is fitted into a rectangular frame of a window-pane. There is a certain sense of wonder which arises out of monotony and everydayness in this synesthetic creation. These are the elements that my translation strives to reflect, or perhaps, it would be fitting to say, to mirror.

 

Anastasiya Lyubas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature in Binghamton University where she is currently at work on her dissertation “Language and Plasticity in Debora Vogel’s Poetics.” Lyubas is a 2017-2018 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and a Max Weinreich research fellow in YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Her translations of Debora Vogel’s work appeared in The InTranslationat the Brooklyn Rail, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Pakn Treger, and are to be published by The Odessa Review. Lyubas is working on a full collection of Debora Vogel’s essays, reviews, polemics, and correspondence, which she translated from Yiddish and Polish into Ukrainian, to be published by Dukh I Litera publishing house in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Debora Vogel (1900-1942) was a Polish-Jewish writer, philosopher, art critic, and translator. She was a “wandering star” of Polish and Yiddish Modernisms in Eastern Europe and North America. Her writing is comparable to Gertrude Stein’s in its striking originality. Born in Eastern Poland (now Western Ukraine), she was educated in Vienna and Kraków, and travelled extensively in Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm, which is reflected in her work. Given her engagement with visual arts and avant-garde movements, her highly experimental texts challenged every notion of writing in Yiddish in her own lifetime. Her poems are examples of Cubist-Constructivist experimentation in a language that is at once lyrical and philosophical.

LIGO

Every year when my breast is squeezed into the machine and the woman behind the Plexiglas tells me not to move, when the radiologist reads the film and says, “You’re high risk,” I’m forced to think of Barbara, my maternal aunt, who found a lump at fifty-six, the age I am now.

My mammogram happens in July, so Barbara wasn’t on my mind on February 10, 2017. That night, the Snow Moon was in partial eclipse, and then comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, named after the astronomers who discovered it, was burning across the Milky Way.

I’m a sucker for outer space, for how it is out there but inside too. When we inhale and exhale, we offer ourselves to space one moment and draw it into ourselves the next. Every few weeks there’s some new cosmic event to take in. I’ve learned the names of stars, clusters, galaxies, and exoplanets, and downloaded apps I point skyward to find constellations and space junk floating unseen. Astronomers can tell us a lot about outer space, but there’s so much they still don’t know. I’ve learned to trust the invisible. But even more, I stalk the sky for what I can see.

*     *     *

It was cloudy in Moscow, Idaho, where I live, so I had no hope of watching the night’s events. On the other hand, the forecast for Hanford, Washington, three hours away, was clear. I’d been eyeing Hanford’s brand-new astronomy observatory called LIGO. The weekend of February 10 was the first anniversary of LIGO’s biggest discovery to date. It had found something new in the universe that proved Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This new thing had the potential to change the way we think about space, time, and ourselves. So I packed the car and set out, though it was already 9 p.m. on a Friday.

I’m a sucker for outer space, for how it is out there but inside too. When we inhale and exhale, we offer ourselves to space one moment and draw it into ourselves the next.

Highway 26 winds across Washington state over undulating hills planted in a dozen strains of wheat. It’s a lonely road, and I met only two other vehicles in seventy miles. We’d had above normal snowfall that winter. The snow had melted, but the hills shimmered with patches of white that seemed, in the darkness, to stretch and contract like spots on a leopard.

I knew the Hanford Reservation—a sprawling complex of nuclear reactors and buildings dedicated to research—and Richland, the nearby city of 80,000. I’d once lived on the edge of the reservation, teaching high school while my husband, Myron, tried to get an engineering job. I hadn’t been back in twenty-eight years. I didn’t know anyone there. I couldn’t really remember what the place looked like. But as soon as I drove into town, cruised down the long straight road past buildings squatting under the streetlights and the Snow Moon, I found myself among scenes from my earlier life, which I had not thought about in a long time.

I arrived at midnight and checked in to the Hampton Inn on the Columbia River, one of America’s great arteries, fed by the Snake, Deschutes, Willamette, and Yakima Rivers before making its way to the Pacific Ocean. The government built its reservation here because of the Columbia. Nuclear reactors, like people, need water.

Outside the hotel, the river flowed wide and placid. The woman at the front desk remarked on the Canada geese, how they had not migrated that winter as usual. “I’ve seen them on the golf course all year,” she said as she handed me the key.

“They sure are noisy,” I said.

In my room, I flung open the window. The air smelled desert-y and dark. I could tell by my giddiness that the river and the very air were bringing me somewhere. I stepped out on the deck looking for the green tail of the comet with my small telescope. But I couldn’t see anything special. Tired, I folded into bed, bathroom light reflecting in the mirror, moon glowing outside. Throughout the night, I slipped in and out of sleep, conscious of the chirps of grebes, plovers, and the Canada geese.

*     *     *

Perhaps it was the geese that drew me back to when Myron and I first arrived in Hanford in 1986 to begin our lives. When we’d entered college in Calgary, he in engineering, me in education, oil companies were handing out signing bonuses to engineering graduates. We assumed we’d end up north of Edmonton or Fort McMurray in the tar sands. But during our senior year, the oil industry plummeted, jobs dried up, and we made our way south to Spokane where my parents lived. We moved into my old bedroom with the soiled white carpet. Myron worked for my parents’ plumbing company. I hit the pavement with my teaching degree, interviewing at schools in Connell, Clarkston, Asotin, and Milton-Freewater, though Myron’s job prospects in these small western towns were grim. When the principle at Hanford High School told me that Richland had more engineers than any city in the state and offered me a position as a drama teacher, I took it.

At Hanford, I started directing plays and teaching Shakespeare. We rented an apartment across from the school. To our west grew a huge field of Russian thistle that threw roots ten feet down and bloomed into prickly green barrels that tumbled across the highway. From a distance, those barrels looked like moon rocks. Beyond the field was the 600-square-mile nuclear reservation where engineers worked. Myron began applying for jobs at Westinghouse, Battelle, Rockwell, and the Department of Energy. Neither of us knew the reservation was a response to a 1939 letter from Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt. Much later, when I started work as a professor at Washington State University in Pullman, I learned from an exhibit in the library that Einstein and fellow physicist Leó Szilárd informed the president in that letter that it was possible to use uranium to set up a nuclear chain reaction and create an unfathomable amount of energy. This process would lead, they said, “to the construction of bombs.”

In my own high school days, I had watched grainy films of nuclear detonations, the Trinity test in New Mexico and the Castle Bravo in the South Pacific. No one who grew up in 1960s American public schools can forget the trembling footage of a black, simmering sea and a sunrise lasting a split second followed by fire, dust, smoke, and then slow-forming rings, like giant halos, appearing above it all. There was something about those perfect rings I never got out of my mind, something more powerful than the mushroom cloud itself because the rings made terror look holy. The footage entered the dreams of thousands, becoming an archetype like the cross or the flood, and even seeped into the imagination of Hollywood, giving birth to Godzilla.

What seemed strange to me now as I tossed in the ample hotel bed, is how Myron and I moved to Hanford that summer of 1986 and I didn’t even think about the footage of the slow-forming rings in the South Pacific. The only way I could account for it was that Hanford and other nuclear towns of the Manhattan Project like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos were secret cities. Employees were forbidden from talking about their work. The bombs they made killed tens and tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet during World War II and the Cold War, less than one percent of Hanford’s 50,000 employees knew they were doing nuclear research, much less making bombs. Some thought they were working in a sandpaper factory.

Shortly before dawn, I checked my telescope again. Still no sign of the comet, just a warm glimmer on the river.

*     *     *

The Hampton Inn breakfast lounge had a great glass window facing the Columbia. The deck outside, strewn with aluminum umbrella poles, wicker tables, and plastic chairs—all coated with ice and snow—looked desolate. I wandered out. The hotel guests, separated from me by the glass wall, watched news reports on the TV about possible Russian interference in the United States election, piling their plates with muffins, toast, and waffles, as if Russian meddling were nothing to worry about. On the river, geese swam curlicues, their black necks flecked with patches of white. Ripples traveled in concentric rings toward the edge. The patrons, the birds, me. Three worlds brought together in silence.

I sipped my coffee watching the birds, remembering that I may not have come to Hanford all those years ago if not for my Aunt Barbara. Barbara’s husband Merle had been a high school principal in several dust-blown Eastern Washington towns, and they knew the superintendent at Richland. Unbeknownst to me, they’d called the school district the morning of my interview. When I signed my contract at the district office, the superintendent said, “Your application went straight to the top when I found out who you’re related to.”

Barbara and Merle made quite the pair. The image I carried in my head was him standing under a tree, a portly man with prematurely white hair and a wide, gleaming smile, and her next to him, slight and emotionally remote, arms folded across her chest. I always felt as if I should have known Barbara better, given that she was my mother’s only sister. I was connected to her in one special way at least. I had inherited her feet, petite, arched, and lightly padded, with the middle digit on the left foot just a stub.

Barbara and my mother, ten years apart, looked like twins, with their black eyes and bony shoulders. Their brother, unable to hit a ball because of his glass eye, was too artsy to please their baseball-loving father and too disobedient to satisfy their mother. That left my mother and Barbara to compete for their parents’ affection, or so I understood from the way my mother talked. Barbara was forever ahead in those competitions: she folded socks in a neat twist while my mother’s were lumpy; she had boyfriends while my mother spent her time with her horse; and she played the sleek, sultry clarinet while my mother chose the loud trumpet. Barbara could do no wrong. But miraculously, my mother didn’t resent Barbara. “I looked up to her just like everyone else did,” my mother would say. Throughout my childhood, I saw Barbara as someone born under a lucky star.

Though I was bundled up as I sat on the deck at the Hampton Inn, a chill cut through me. I was remembering more things now, connecting the dots. Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year I started teaching at Hanford—could that be right? I did the math. Yes, it was.

More than two hours may have passed before I gathered my camera, my notebook, and my courage. Under a pale sky and bright sun, I hopped in my car and drove down George Washington Way, the main road through town, toward LIGO, the place that some claimed had made the most important discovery in astronomy since the telescope.

And I somehow thought she would be okay. How could I have not been concerned? My mother was my pulse for how to feel about family crises, and I recall her saying the doctor told Barbara to “watch the lump” to make sure it didn’t get worse. For some reason, we all assumed she would get better. And, in a childish way, I thought of Barbara as too beautiful and beloved to get seriously ill.

I walked back into the breakfast lounge. The other patrons had left, and the hotel staff were busy cleaning up the buffet. Back at my room, I checked the Internet for some credible information about the nuclear bomb, thinking I would jot down a quick timeline before I left for LIGO, but soon I was deep into a puzzle. I figured out that the April before Myron and I moved to Hanford, Chernobyl had melted down. Vaguely, I recalled photos showing steel innards of concrete buildings and piles of rubble, a landscape in outlines. I pulled up some old newspapers, where phrases like “nuclear disaster” and “thousands dead” danced across the screen. I wasn’t aware until that moment just how closely Chernobyl’s failed operations mirrored those at Hanford.

In fact, I realized, Myron and I had arrived at Hanford with our newly minted college degrees, our hopes and dreams, when the first wave of documents exposing the contamination of the 1940s and ‘50s was released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Also that year whistle-blower Casey Ruud leaked information to the Seattle Times about Hanford’s safety violations. As a result, the largest plutonium production facility for nuclear weapons at Hanford—Reactor N, of similar design to the one at Chernobyl—ceased production.

In the hot tub at our apartment complex, I recalled, we had soaked in the water while talking with our neighbors. “Do you work at Hanford?” I’d said in a chirpy voice, angling for a contact that might turn into a job interview. Men and women five or ten years older than we were narrowed their eyes and said nothing, as if they weren’t vulnerable, as if we all weren’t practically naked. The hot tub jets bubbled. Our words vanished in the damp air. Myron and I had walked into Richland’s forty-year history of refusing to know about the risks, not talking shop, and shunning or expelling those who did talk. The community focus was on how whistle-blower Casey Ruud cost people their jobs, a fact to which we were oblivious.

*     *     *

More than two hours may have passed before I gathered my camera, my notebook, and my courage. Under a pale sky and bright sun, I hopped in my car and drove down George Washington Way, the main road through town, toward LIGO, the place that some claimed had made the most important discovery in astronomy since the telescope. I was overcome with a sense of presentiment thinking about how this strange place where I had once lived was now at the center of describing the universe. I passed the courthouse and glanced over at the hospital, Richland Bell Furniture, and the Red Lion Motel, buildings suddenly familiar.

I sailed by the high school and down the grid-like roads of the reservation, past the barbed wire and thistled tumbleweeds. Even now, long after Hanford had quit producing mass quantities of plutonium, after the government had launched a $110 billion cleanup, I had a sense of entering a forbidden zone, signs warning: “All Persons/Vehicles Are Subject to Search” and “Roadways on the Hanford Site Are Private Roads Owned and Maintained by the Department of Energy for the Department of Energy.” Some fifty years earlier, those signs would have said: “Loose talk—a chain reaction from espionage” and “Protection for all—don’t talk. Silence means security.” The government was worried about information leaks when they should have worried about radiation leaking into the ground, air, and water.

I wanted to focus on LIGO but couldn’t put to rest what I’d just read. The nuclear program at Hanford had left behind fifty-six million gallons of radioactive waste—not just fourteen-foot-long fuel rods and fingernail-sized uranium pellets, but regular things, a pile of computers, a bag of clothes, rags, faucets, plastic gloves, scissors, shoes, hair brushes, a book about the migration habits of geese—which they had buried in tunnels and underground storage units in the 1980s.

I passed the sturdy research buildings of the reservation, like Pacific Northwest Labs and Test America, some made of corrugated aluminum, others poured concrete, and then the desert fanned out before me, flat, treeless, seemingly endless. Now half under snow, with bromegrass poking through, it was hard to imagine the place being the most contaminated nuclear site in America. In some ways, it felt pristine, undeveloped, except for the remains of nine reactors, now shut down, simple cement squares or domes. 

The room was quiet. The sound left me breathless. I was in love with it, the way you’re in love with what can open you up.

I made a couple of wrong turns, the roads not being marked and with no helpful signs to guide me, before I pulled up to six gleaming white buildings set against crusty snow. I had imagined the facility to be a windowless cement structure similar to the mothballed reactors. But no, it was a celestial city. A small sign read: LIGO, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

The sky was a high chroma blue and the sun at an angle as I pulled into the parking lot. Minutes later I was in a pleasant foyer full of displays. Einstein played a central role. The outline of his face was drawn in stars across a wall, as if he were a constellation. A man came and shooed us away from the exhibit. “The program’s about to start.” He wore square glasses that darkened in the light and a nametag, “Raymond—Research Engineer.” I shook his hand and told him I’d lived here in the ‘80s. He only said, “Go sit down in the theater.” Perhaps he’d heard that too many times.

The theater reminded me of a university lecture hall, dimly lit, staunch, hushed. Raymond, I could see now, was a fragile man with a precise nose and chin. He stood at the front fiddling with a computer. He didn’t seem to know how to operate his PowerPoint show. I wondered how those skills translated to his operation of LIGO, which he told us was the world’s most sensitive instrument. “In 1907, Einstein had what he described as his happiest thought, that gravity disappears when you free fall,” Raymond said in a soft voice. He told us we had all experienced that on a roller coaster. “What happens in free fall,” he continued, “is we’re going as straight as possible through empty space, yet we’re on a curved path, the curvature of space and time.”

The metaphor worked for me, sitting there imagining the thrill and terror of free fall, the way we all migrate through the universe. “And Einstein,” Raymond said with a crooked smile, “came up with the idea of relativity by thinking about things like that.” Raymond didn’t mention the irony that Einstein would not have been permitted at Hanford during the war because the US Army denied the famous scientist a clearance to work on the Manhattan Project, or that after the war, Einstein regretted writing to Roosevelt. He told friend Max von Laue he did so only because he was afraid Hitler would make the bomb first. If not for that, he said, “I would not have participated in opening this Pandora’s box. For my distrust of government was not limited to Germany.”

Einstein had predicted gravitational waves in a 1916 paper, Raymond told us. “No one, until now, knew if those waves existed”—and here his voice rose in excitement—“but LIGO sensed them by measuring distances in two different locations!” Besides Hanford, the government had built an identical LIGO in Louisiana. The two LIGOs had detected two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. The black holes had spiraled around one another, then collided, then merged. The event was so catastrophic it actually bent space and time, sending a ripple like a rock dropped in water.

The beauty of the idea overwhelmed me. That the black holes had been so massive in the first place, that they circled one another like lovers—not even Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet ball could have been so powerfully attracted—that they wrinkled the very universe, flowing backward in human time, and now the faintest swell could be heard on Earth at Hanford—it seemed mythic.

“One day LIGO may even hear the Big Bang itself,” Raymond said. He clicked the computer off and on and then nothing happened. He got on his phone and called another engineer who came and pressed buttons and checked wires. After ten minutes, the theater shook with rumbling sounds, the kind of aggressive noise of World War II bombers. Then another vibration abruptly took over, strange and comic, and carved out a soft space in me. A whooop. People smiled. These instruments had recorded the waves on a graph and translated them into sound. Raymond replayed it. Whooop. “It’s a chirp,” he said. “The cosmos is talking to us at Hanford.”

The room was quiet. The sound left me breathless. I was in love with it, the way you’re in love with what can open you up. But underneath the love was another, darker, feeling. The machinery of death and murder at Hanford had been retooled to hear the universe.

*     *     *

In 1955, Barbara finished college and started her teaching career in Washtucna, an ordinary small town on Highway 26 with one gas pump, one store, and a main street. I had just passed it on my drive the night before. But that same year, something extraordinary was happening at Hanford. Swallows were building nests out of radioactive mud. It soon became apparent to the few people paying attention that everything around Hanford was “hot.” Hot rabbits, mice, ducks, and coyotes. Hot salmon and trout. Hot mulberry bushes, sagebrush, and Russian thistle. Hot garbage—apple cores and banana peels. Even geese were hot. But the worst were ants, mosquitoes, flies, gnats, wasps, and worms. Radioactivity concentrated in the tissues of invertebrates at vastly higher levels than what had originally discharged into the environment. Miniature Godzillas. Miniature bombs, slowly detonating.

Barbara married Merle a few years after she started in Washtucna, and over the years, the two of them moved to one little Washington town after the other, including Washtucna a second time. All of those places were downwind from Hanford, and of course the 237 different radionuclides leaked into the ground, air, and water on the reservation eventually affected people as much as they did banana peels, ants, and geese. Over two million individuals, who were later saddled with the grim moniker “downwinders,” got sick with lung diseases and cancers of the liver, thyroid, lungs, pancreas, and breast.

Halfway through my second year of teaching at Hanford, I got pregnant. That year, Barbara’s breast lump grew worse. She went back to the doctor and told him it hurt. She was tired of watching it. My mother and I visited her in the hospital in Spokane after her mastectomy. When we came in, me with my newborn daughter in my arms, an orderly was leading Barbara around the ward, bathed in broken light from the slatted blinds. She seemed strong, more radiant than I had ever seen her, dark hair curled at her temples. Suddenly I remembered her spaghetti sauce made from tomatoes and basil grown in her garden when our family would come for dinner, how rich and earthy it tasted, or how when she held her grandchildren on her lap they wiggled and her body moved like a curve of music.

“You look wonderful,” my mother said, offering her arm to Barbara. The two talked the way close sisters do, heads bent toward one another. When we went to leave, Barbara opened her arms to hug me. Our bodies came together, my daughter wedged between, the three of us one braided strand, and I felt very close to her.

“She’s walking,” my mother whispered as we boarded the hospital elevator. “They always want you up walking after surgery. It means you’re getting better.”

*     *     *

Raymond led us outside. LIGO, the actual instrument, was two long detectors made of steel vacuum tubes and set at right angles. We crunched over the snow, walking in the footsteps of people who had done the tour before us. Feathery contrails shot across the sky like shadows. From the outside LIGO appeared like an ordinary engineering site. Water tanks. Pipes. A tractor. A place in flux.

The tubes stretched into the horizon two and a half miles. We couldn’t see inside the tubes—they were sheathed in heavy concrete—we had to take it on faith. “We’re sending lasers down these long vacuum tubes, and if LIGO hears something, the distance changes by something that’s one-hundred million billion times smaller than the thickness of a human hair,” Raymond said.

“That’s one way to say really small,” I said, and a man who looked to be in his thirties smiled. Raymond did not smile. The man and I took photos of one another in front of the tubes, him in a new Carhartt jacket with his hands snuggled into the pockets and me in my neon yellow ski parka. We continued chatting as Raymond led us back inside. His name was Victor, I learned, and he had immigrated from Mexico a few years earlier to work “on the cleanup” at the Hanford Vit Plant. It was hazardous work. The radioactive waste that had been buried in the 1980s had leaked, he told me, and now he and others were digging it up and turning it into glass and reburying it, a process called vitrification. We walked through the LIGO office buildings, which seemed too ordinary to be listening for the Big Bang. A watercooler, a fern, a carton of disinfectant wipes, makeshift cubicles, pink Post-Its on computers, photos of people smiling with their children. I asked Victor if he was putting himself in danger by working on the cleanup. He shook his head “no” but his smile lifted into a slight smirk. “We wear suits and masks,” he said. “Don’t worry.” I nodded, and because his eyes were so kind, I half believed him.

*     *     *

My mother was with Barbara for her last meal in the hospital. “It was heartbreaking,” my mother said. Even after the mastectomy, the cancer spread to her liver and bones. “They brought her a tray of food. There was soup, some fruit. A salad. And do you know what she said? ‘I’m trying to eat healthy.’ It makes me so sad to think about it now. She was eating healthy, but her health was gone.”

I would have gone to see her then, but a few months after our daughter was born, Myron and I left Hanford. Every manager Myron met with during his job search turned him away saying he was a Canadian and couldn’t get a security clearance. Casey Ruud, the whistleblower, left shortly thereafter. He started a construction business, and then a brewery in another corner of Washington away from the controversy and the contamination.

*     *     *

As different as they were, Hanford and LIGO had some things in common. The power of the nuclear bomb was the closest thing to the two black holes colliding that humans could devise. Violent events bent space and time, sending out ripples long afterward. Violent events in human history sent ripples out long afterward, as well. Sites across Hanford continue to exhibit newly found contamination, even to this day, Victor had told me. Radioactive plumes inched closer to the Columbia River. Wildlife was still radioactive. “The environment will never be the same,” he said. It struck me how I couldn’t see the contamination with my naked eye. I had to see it through scientific measurements and newspaper reports. That day at LIGO required imagination too. All we could see were steel tubes covered in cement. The waves were invisible.

But a person could see the effects of Barbara’s disease when Merle brought her home to die. She lifted her shirt for my mother. “And the cancer had eaten through her body,” my mother told me. “There were round, open sores up and down her torso.” Rings spreading outward, I thought, devouring her skin. Signs of cancer’s migration through a body.

I love the transitional moment of being in a place and leaving it. It’s a moment of having no home but the now, a small opening before the finality of having left. The middle-aged couple who had been sitting next to me in the theater, the mother and daughter a few rows down, Victor, and Raymond, we had driven from wherever we were to the Hanford Reservation to lose ourselves in the whispers of the universe, and now we were dispersing. We got back in our cars and left the dream of LIGO.

I stopped for a double espresso in Richland, then headed back across the state on Highway 26. I was settling accounts with myself. The tender and tough part of a woman—breast tissue—connected Barbara and me in strange ways, yet I had always been afraid to think about it, afraid of statistics and risk factors, of what else I might have inherited from her besides a left foot and a love of teaching. I was even afraid to talk to my mother about her sister’s death, and maybe, unconsciously, to think about what we all had inherited with the nuclear bomb. Instead, I had lived in denial, not letting myself free fall into memory.

The sun had already set as I drove past Washtucna, but the Snow Moon was keeping the darkness awake.

 

DJ Lee is Regents Professor of English at Washington State University. She has published over twenty nonfiction essays in the Los Angeles Review of BooksNarrativeVelaTerrain, and Superstition Review, as well as other journals and anthologies. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant and a Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, she has written or edited seven books on environmental history, oral history, British poetry, and travel literature.

 

Souvenirs

Souvenir is one of the first French words I learned in childhood, before taking any language lessons at school. I was enamored with its luxurious vowels, its music. I learned the Arabic-accented pronunciation of it from my mother and her friends, women of the Levant, as the French would designate their homelands, living in Saudi Arabia, polyglots, multicultural exiles and expatriates, whose conversations, like their wardrobes, were layered in silks smooth and raw. The word was lavished on their pretty lips, gathered into a bouquet and then unfolded in two more elegant pouts of different shapes, a series of kisses, long and short.

Souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake.

In the climate-controlled snow globe of my childhood, souvenir was a noun, the treasure to be found or selected at the end of a journey to a place visited for the first time. In childhood, the world unfolds as a series of sensory adventures, from visits to friends’ homes so different from our own, to cities only recently named in geography class. From Athens, I brought home a postcard depicting the Evzones at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their pleated skirts and pompom shoes. From our Aleppan friends’ home, a candied quince from a tray of fruits glistening, bejeweled with sugar crystals. From Vienna, a tin of chocolates emblazoned with the image of a blushing Mozart. And in the kingdom where we lived, a birthday invitation to a real princess’s palace. My third-grade classmate, a decidedly ordinary girl who took tennis lessons and dreaded math class as I did, handed out the gilded invitations one Tuesday afternoon. She was one of us, and like many of my classmates, she was picked up from school by the family driver. Her family’s driver, however, arrived in a Mercedes, its back window obscured by pink velvet drapes.

The gilded invitation is long lost, but I have another souvenir of the birthday party I attended at her family’s home. There was a pet peacock roaming the grounds. Possibly two. The tail feathers flashed before my eyes, unraveling a game of tag in which I was engrossed. I remember the sound the girls made, almost in unison, when the elusive pet sauntered past us, and the nanny cautioned us not to chase it, her voice trailing behind our quickening steps. From that evening with twenty third-grade girls in their best dresses playing in a marble-floored minor palace among several on a compound ringed by a high stone wall and heavy metal gates, my souvenir is a Polaroid photograph. I am smiling, grasping the edge of my new dress with one hand and holding my blue paper bag of treats with the other. In childhood, the souvenir that mattered most was the treat bag. This one had, among other wonders, a pack of melon-flavored chewing gum. My mother preserved the Polaroid that commemorates this temporary suspension of everyday life in a photo album. Much like the ubiquitous gold bangles of the Saudi souks, my yellowing artifact only grows more valuable with age. A souvenir of a world now inaccessible, that seems almost imagined.

But souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake. Its Latin predecessor subveniresuggests that the remembered must be brought up from the depths in order to come over, to cross into our memory, which lives in the present. Souvenir as time travel.

During the winter of tenth grade, at the height of the first Intifada which unfolded on our television screens in Amman every night, my friend’s parents decided to take her to visit relatives in Jerusalem. My father scoffed at what he deemed dangerous, to take children to a place that was even more unstable than it had already been, not even a wedding or a funeral to justify such risk. I had inherited his fear or had been raised in it. That fear, manifesting in an instant bile that floods the throat and reduces all words to sour shards, was the souvenir of my only childhood visit to Palestine. I was one or two years old, too young to claim any of the memories for myself, just water-color drifts from my parents’ narrations. We travelled across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine. The crossing involved a series of transports, as it does today, the hyper-management of our bodies from station to station for careful inspection, from the security forces of the Jordanian government to those of the Israeli military occupation. My parents had only been married for a few years, and so did not yet share the same citizenship. My father, already a US citizen, and I, his Seattle-born daughter, were placed in a different queue than my mother, who had nothing but her Jordanian passport to speak for her. I was predictably distraught. And in the retelling of my loud meltdown and the methodical insistence of the Israeli soldiers to keep me from my mother are many souvenirs.

My father’s anxieties, exacerbated by the crying of his child, raised the slow simmer of his experience of lining up to return to his occupied homeland to a rolling boil. The heat of the summer near this lowest point on earth, with its stretch of barren hills and military checkpoints awaiting us even after we crossed, all shimmer in the crystal of this souvenir like the beads of sweat I can imagine on my father’s brow. My mother’s narrative of this day is imbued with intention. Her attempts to reason with a soldier as a woman, as a mother whose baby is crying. Her attempts to reason with an occupier from the line reserved for Arabs whose presence is grudgingly tolerated on good days. Her attempts to reason with a very young man toting a large machine gun, someone whose hatred for her she could feel on her skin, someone towards whom she actively resisted full-fledged contempt.

Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing.

In the pantheon of border-crossing experiences, my own is a non-story. Nothing really happened. I cried and was miserable. My parents were powerless to do anything other than sit through the exercise of abject power by the occupier. And then we made it through. The souvenir of the story is a cautionary tale, a long string of what-could-have-beens clicked like worry beads every time a relative narrates their own journey.

When my tenth-grade friend returned from her trip to Palestine in the winter of 1989, she wore a kuffiyeh around her neck every day well into the warm months of spring. “It’s my uncle’s,” she told me, new stars dancing in her eyes. The headlines of nightly news reports were of teenage boys and girls our own age, wrapped in kuffiyehs like her uncle’s, hurling stones the color of which I had preserved in my mind. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her as we lined up to buy our za’atar sandwiches for lunch. It was not the right question, one that was inappropriate in Palestinian company. Fear was a scarlet letter, the privilege of those who did not live under the boot of soldiers in the Yitzhak Rabin era of Broken Bones. But my soft-spoken friend, the accomplished pianist, the thoughtful writer just said: “You can’t believe how beautiful it is there.” And she looked at me as if to pour into my eyes what she had seen, the way she had seen it, the fullness of its rain-drenched beauty, beyond the tear gas and rubble of news. “You have to go one day and see for yourself. You just have to.”

I asked my friend why her father thought now was the right time for her to visit. Her answer was surprisingly simple. The people inside Palestine and the hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting to return to Palestine bled and suffered and wasted away, but in neighboring Arab capitals, we engaged in prose, not wars of liberation or any substantive solutions. We waged our battles in gymnastic flourishes of speech and hyperbolic proclamations. Governments expressed their devotion to the cause in an unending stream of adjectives, an exhaustion of abstract nouns. So, I was disarmed by her very matter-of-fact choice of verb: “To remember.” James Baldwin tells us that “history is not the past. It is the present. We are our history.” My friend’s act of remembering was a journey not into a fabled past, into the landscape of her parents’ youth before it was scarred by the violence of dispossession and occupation. It was an act of resistance in the present. To remember was to insist on her, on our history in this place, the history made of this moment. To remember is to resist the transformative powers of violence. If occupation tries to reduce a homeland to collapsing camps and ominous military checkpoints, resistance is remembering its beauty, is seeking out the stones and red anemones and wild thyme of the hillsides.

Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing. Damascus was not yet a war-torn capital, but it had long ceased to be the palace of her childhood. She lamented with equal ardor the security regime that suffocated its citizens and the slow collapse of a style she had consecrated as authentic. She was powerless over the changes that swept across her city, the old homes with mosaic tiles and jasmine vines perfuming the fountains in their courtyards giving way to sprawl, the honeyed apricots and plump almonds of the ghouta valley shriveling in the drought.  Her only power was to transmogrify—memory made word. Her language—her voice and its inflections, the stories of her childhood—were dusted to shining, placed on the highest shelf, and gifted to us. Souvenirs of a place we were yet to learn we could never visit again.

A few summers ago, I returned, in a way, to a souvenir of my grandmother’s city. In Spain’s southern province, Andalusia, the city of Cordoba is home to the largest mosque in the West. Like all Levantine Arabs, people whose homeland French colonizers of previous centuries labeled the native land of sunrise (levant, French—to rise), there was a memory rising in me, forging a path into the now. The mosque, like all great monuments, is the site of layered stories. Many conquerors have etched their names on the place. Under the stones of the courtyard, ruins of Janus’ temple sleep, and the caverns of Visigothic shrines are buried beneath a forest of rose-colored double arches in the Muslim prayer hall.  A cavalcade of golden saints and angels burst from the altar of the chapel installed by a Catholic king in the heart of the mosque. A Spanish guide with a healthy sense of humor walked us through the onion of the place, peeling back the skins of architecture and sacred geometries. The Umayyads who built the mosque were Arabs from Damascus, and the courtyard of soft-singing ba7ras—octagonal fountains shaded by citrus trees—recalls the homes of my grandmother’s stories.

At the Mihrab, the altar of Muslim prayer, the guide stopped to explain at length. She had been rapid-fire, hurling information and anecdotes quickly as we followed her around the building. She seemed bemused by the history she was narrating up until this point. At the Mihrab, a wistfulness befell her, her gaze travelling over the tesserae of the arch, and toward the ribbed dome above us. “This Mihrab is a mistake” she said softly. In the translation void between Spanish and English, the Qur’anic verses glinting around us, a silence filled me. “When you build a Mihrab, you are supposed to face Makka, all Muslims face to Makka when they pray. But where is Makka? It is not in this direction.” The Khalifa who commissioned the mosque, Abderahman I, was a Syrian refugee. He fled a homeland that he loved and longed for. He commissioned a tribute to his beloved city, of marble columns and sinewy arches, ornate wooden panels and stones the color of his, of my skin. A monument of memory, raised up from the heart of his longing. He sent for the trees and flowers of his homeland and nurtured them in the grand courtyard of the mosque. “This mihrab would have faced Makka if he was still praying in Damascus,” the guide explained. The heart’s stubborn coordinates. Was is it a mistake? Or was it a final love letter to his city?  Until I heard that story I had assumed the resonance I felt in this place was due to the familiarity of architectural elements, the sensory delights of sunlight falling in familiar hues on limestone, or the calligraphy of prayers. But maybe this Khalifa had a rebel heart? A rebel heart that quietly subverted mosque-building tradition in favor of his love for Damascus. Who can resist, even across centuries, the magnetic pull of a rebel heart? And so, I found myself walking the cobble stone streets of a city that was not his beloved, a city that was not mine, touching the walls and looking for souvenirs of the refugee khalifa’s memory, like a jasmine vine, and the mirror of a ba7ra, waiting to receive its falling petals.

 

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an American writer of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage. Her book of poems, Water & Salt, is published by Red Hen Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize for her chapbook Arab in Newsland. She has been published and has work forthcoming in journals including Kenyon Review Online, World Literature Today,Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Tinderbox, and New England Review. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and also anthologized in books including Being Palestinian and Bettering American Poetry v.2. She holds a BA in comparative literature from the University of Washington and an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University. Visit her at www.lenakhalaftuffaha.com.

Elementary

Most mornings I deliver my child
into the arms of strangers

who will lead him through passages
papered in apples and rainbows,

pencils and stars, each holding
a single name, the names’ owners a crush

shouting cascades of syllables, furious energy
heating the room, swallowing my joyful son.

Not safe to play outside today
—shadows hoard snow, perilous footing—

so they’ll gossip and make messes, grow
irritated with each other in a room

where one side is all glass, spilling
light over their worksheets and books,

their backpacks and tissue boxes
their chairs with grimy tennis-ball feet.

Their teacher is winter-tired. I feel it too,
walking home in the keen wind

through the silent neighborhood.
Behind me the school looms lightly

jutting out from a hill like a glacial castoff,
red boulder among pebble houses.

I don’t know the grit in my neighbors, just
their placid shells: yards and sensible siding,

cat under a pergola, dutiful recycling bins.
Landscape painted with smoke and pine sap.

Potted cypresses guard a red door.
Here’s a garage left open, a crisp flag,

a stack of pallets tenderly grazing a gutter,
old oak arresting the downward press of sky.

This afternoon, a shell cracks: something
brackish spurts. Fighting, maybe guns.

Police come. At the school locked doors,
lights turned out. No help for windows.

Later, my arms shaking around
the luscious weight of not this time,

I listen while my six-year-old explains,
calmly, as if there is no other way,

how they turned their desks into shields
“like Captain America,” how they huddled

near the sink where they wash away
paint and glue, how they were oh so quiet,

how today, they needed to be perfect.

 

Carolyn Oliver’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in FIELD, The Shallow Ends, The Greensboro Review, Booth, Gulf Stream Magazine, Tar River Poetry, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, she lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to more of her writing can be found at carolynoliver.net.

5 Poems by Feng Na

[translated poetry]

Chinese Fable

When I was small my father’s coworker ran off
coming back with one of those briefcases full of money
close, smutty talk filled our town
about what he’d done to get it
he smiled and disappeared again
Next we heard
he’d been sentenced to death for drug trafficking
a family member claimed the ashes, but the box was stolen in the metro
—It obsesses me, this box
like a fable or something
Other people are like me
they want to know its whereabouts
like standing at the exit
searching for this story’s entrance

 


Searching for Cranes

Cattle hidden in the prairie shadows
Bayinbuluke     I have met a rearer of cranes
his beaked neck
his broken-winged brogue
Cranes dip into the water’s surface
for nine inverted suns
He makes me feel the prairie
misses something of itself

The evening indulges itself in vastness
I wait for cranes to burst from his sleeves
I wish another would drop from the sky
narrow-faced, thin-ankled     myself
loved by the rearer of cranes, spurned
and fatuously clinging
Four cornered wildness
She has a hundred and eight ways to hide
to find her, he needs only one:
at night in Bayinbuluke
the cranes he’s touched     must all return to roost

 


Greeting

-After listening to Masi Cong’s “Homesick”

That is no bow
but a tree not yet carved into bow
All my life a river, running low
with fever, has          drawn itself
across my body

 


In Memory of my Uncle He Daoqing

Camellia growing on Xiaowanzi,
forgive a lame man his leg
his timing was poor
he hauled away for half his life
before he found the branch you grew on

 


The Spring Wind Blows

What drab mercy    is this noontime pool
a bird flies to the other bank
felled sugar cane disrupts the mist

By the peach tree is a windswept grave
bees busy themselves long-shoring
this season what is sweet     is hard to come by
no birds fly above
to open a vigil keeper’s chest
the earth hums
unknowing of the glories carved into the rocks
the sorrows passed down
as heirlooms

 


Rifle

I’ve memorized the order: open the breech, load powder and bullets,
close the breech.
Shut my left eye, pretend to be a hunter taking aim.
A bird falls, the trees shudder and descend into deeper quiet.
The metallic cold gives off a living stench.
Since growing up I’ve often smelled it in crowds.
I know the trigger pull and the instant of fire.
I’m glad to live in a country where guns are not for sale.

 

 

中国寓言

小时候,父亲的一位同事停薪留职不知所踪
某天突然出现,腰缠万贯满面春风
关于他的经历,在当地秘密而热闹地流传
他笑而不答,旋即再次消失
再一次听到他的消息
因贩毒在另一个省份被执行死刑
家人领回他的骨灰盒,却在车站被人偷走
——像一个诡异的寓言,它困扰着我
很多人和我一样
一直想知道那个骨灰盒的下落
就像站在出口
想知道这个故事的入口

 


寻鹤

牛羊藏在草原的阴影中
巴音布鲁克 我遇见一个养鹤的人
他有长喙一般的脖颈
断翅一般的腔调
鹤群掏空落在水面的九个太阳
他让我觉得草原应该另有模样

黄昏轻易纵容了辽阔
我等待着鹤群从他的袍袖中飞起
我祈愿天空落下另一个我
她有狭窄的脸庞 瘦细的脚踝
与养鹤人相爱 厌弃 痴缠
四野茫茫 她有一百零八种躲藏的途径
养鹤人只需一种寻找的方法:
在巴音布鲁克
被他抚摸过的鹤 都必将在夜里归巢

 


问候

——听马思聪《思乡曲》
那不是谁的琴弓
是谁的手伸向未被制成琴身的树林
一条发着低烧的河流
始终在我身上 慢慢拉

 


纪念我的伯伯和道清

小湾子山上的茶花啊,
请你原谅一个跛脚的人
他赶不上任何好时辰
他驮完了一生,才走到你的枝桠下面

 


春风到处流传

正午的水泽 是一处黯淡的慈悲
一只鸟替我飞到了对岸
雾气紧随着甘蔗林里的砍伐声消散

春风吹过桃树下的墓碑
蜜蜂来回搬运着 时令里不可多得的甜蜜
再没有另一只鸟飞过头顶
掀开一个守夜人的心脏
大地嗡嗡作响
不理会石头上刻满的荣华
也不知晓哪一些将传世的悲伤

 


猎枪

我默记它的顺序:开膛、填进火药铁弹子、上膛
捂着左眼模仿真正的猎人们怎么用一只眼瞄准
一只鸟掉下去,山林抖过之后跌进更深的寂静
铁质的冰冷,冒着生灵附体的腥气
成年后我常常会在人群中嗅到这种气味
我知道扣动扳机的时刻和走火的瞬间
常常庆幸生在一个不允许私人持枪的国度

 

Translator’s Statement

Here are five poems by Chinese poet, Feng Na. Feng writes about transit, migration, yearning, the great fight for recognition, and the pain of it being denied us. Each poem, I think, offers a window into contemporary China, yet explodes narrow notions of Chinese poets as mere dissidents, or noble savages—as though their poems were good as pamphlets, or expressions of their “authentic, ethnic selves,” but nothing else.

Feng’s poem, “Rifle,” ends with these chilling words: “I’m glad to live in a country where guns are not for sale.” They ought to strike a nerve deep in the American psyche, troubled by school shootings and upsurges in white terrorism, and terrified that America has lost its moral mandate in geopolitics—lost the right to say, in other words, See how barbaric things are in China? Yet the poem eludes this single reading: it is also about sublimation—wanting to harm someone, but transforming this hate into poetry.

“Chinese Fable,” on the other hand, could easily be about the massive economic developments sweeping China in the last several decades, bringing it from one of the poorest and most egalitarian countries, to one of the wealthiest and most unequal. As Chinese markets liberalized some folks were willing to do anything to prosper—thus the man in this fable who is put to death for “drug trafficking.” Yet the speaker of the poem herself cannot monopolize its meaning, which is why she says that it is like a fable. We might say, just as convincingly, that this is a poem about the surplus meaning that escapes even the most airtight analyses, just like the man’s ashes, “stolen at the metro.”

The richness in Feng’s poems complicates our ideas of a China “over there.” Reading her, we realize that we cannot define ourselves against her—we are imbricated with her, just as, halfway across the world, whether she means to or not, her words give us pause.

 

Henry Zhang is a master’s student at Beijing Normal University. His writing and translations have appeared in Drunken Boat, Los Angeles Review of Books, Music and Literature Magazine, and Leap. He is the recipient of the 2017 Henry Luce Translation Fellowship, and his translations have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

 

Feng Na was born in Lijiang, Yunnan province, China. She is ethnically Bai. Feng works in her alma mater, Sun Yat-sen University, and is a member of the China Writers Association. Her collections include Chosen Night, Numberless Lights, Searching for Cranes, and Tibet in a Season. Her poems have been translated into English and Russian, and have won her numerous awards, including the Lu Xun Literary Award for Guangdong Province, as well as a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She was the 12th poet-in-residence at Capital Normal University.

People I / III: Mixed Media

Leaving Cleveland

It was June 24, 1994. A Friday. And it was my last day in Cleveland. I was surrounded by stacks of boxes piled high in makeshift towers. I’d spent the last week shredding papers, dusting, and mopping. Toiling and cleaning was in my blood, gifted to me by my Caribbean ancestors. I was holding a stack of playbills, trying to decide which ones to toss, when I heard a knock at my front door.

“Who is it?”

“Cherie. Inspection time.”

As part of the move out procedure, my landlord had requested that my apartment be inspected. The only thing standing between me and my $900 security deposit was Cherie.

Toiling and cleaning was in my blood, gifted to me by my Caribbean ancestors.

Cherie’s the super; a light-skinned black woman who missed the lesson on the “nod,” rarely, if ever acknowledging my presence. I opened the door and Cherie, nose upturned, remained true to form. Without glancing at me, she made a beeline to the alcove that held my kitchen. The year before, as I struggled to pay my student loans, I had traded down from a spacious two bedroom. I missed my old galley kitchen with the large oven and tons of counter space. There I had turned to baking as a respite from the stress of my medical training.

Cherie opened the refrigerator. Empty. She pulled a few cabinet doors open. Empty. Then with her index finger she scrawled a “C” on the stovetop.

Bingo.

Cherie held her finger up to my face, so close I was able to make out a whorl pattern formed in droplets of cooking grease.

“Stove is not clean.”

Her words tumbled out like a verse from a song, one she clearly enjoyed singing. I held my tongue but I wondered, How many drops of white blood someone had to possess to put a fingerprint of cooking grease in a black woman’s face?

*     *     *

In the afternoon, I went to University Hospital for my exit interview with Dr. Craig. I’d endured three years of residency training and during that time Craig had ascended from awkward, gangly attending physician to Chairman of the Ophthalmology department. My eyes scanned his family photos on the credenza behind him as I sat down in a chair in front of his mahogany desk. There was one of him in black tie holding his cello. Every year he played in a concert held at the annual academy meeting. He bragged about paying for a first-class ticket for his cello.

I want to fall in love and have my man hold me like that. Like a beloved cello.

With his gold wire rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Craig flipped through my file. I wondered if there are photos of me in the file. “Before” residency and “after” residency.  My “before” face would be narrow but smiling, full of promise. My “after” face—fuller, a soft veneer of sadness peeking through.

What was left of Craig’s hair is dyed shoe-polish black, deftly parted above his right ear and flipped to the left side of his head.

Why doesn’t he shave it off like the brothers do?

He reminded me in size, shape, and demeanor of Big Bird. Dr. Big Bird. I suppressed a snort.

What muppet am I? What muppet is there that is a black girl from Brooklyn, the first American born daughter of Caribbean parents, now a doctor, on her last day of residency, being judged by Big Bird.

The fingering of paper stopped and Craig cleared his throat.

“Umm…. I’m worried about you… umm…passing your boards.”

His words fluttered past me, a winged butterfly of insults. All the things I had worried about flickered on a screen in my mind. I felt as if I was looking through my favorite childhood toy, a Viewmaster, as images of my life in Cleveland clicked by.

Does Craig see these things?

This program had existed for over a hundred years but I was the first black woman admitted for training.

I endured three winters in Ohio with a no-wheel drive econobox.

I was terrified of driving in snow.

Does he see me skidding on black ice?

*     *     *

Dr. Craig had a favorite nurse, Jane. Jane was a horse of a woman, six feet tall with sturdy arms and legs. She was prone to turning red in the face and crying when he lashed out at her, which was often.

“Wrong—I want balanced salt solution.”

“Raise the infusion bottle. No, lower it.”

“Where’s my diamond knife?”

He issued directives the way my dad cursed, one right after the other, pummeling the recipient and not waiting for a response

*     *     *

When I first arrived in Cleveland I’d kept up on weekly manicures. Getting my nails done reminded me of New York. Glamorous and cheap. Until one day during my first year of training, Jane pulled me aside at the scrub sink. She tapped the tip of my index finger.

“He says you need to cut your nails.”

My nails.

I had kept them squared and fairly short. No polish, no decals, no stick-on bling. I did not cheat like the OR nurses who wore clear polish or French manicures. I didn’t dare do like Marie, another resident, a white girl with a bouffant hairdo from the 1950s, who professed to love Jesus but barely spoke to me. Marie had nails so long I feared she’d use one to pluck out an eye. I imagined the case written up in a medical journal, “Enucleation By Fingernail.” Had he sent Jane to talk to Marie?

The following week, Jane stood over me as I peeled open the povidone iodine scrub package. She watched as I used the green spoke tipped plastic applicator to remove what little dirt was beneath the stubs that used to be my nails. She gave me a slight nod.

*     *     *

I met a man in my first year in Cleveland. He was a dentist in Shaker Heights with skin the color of caramel toffee. He was a tall glass of water at six feet and four inches. He prayed to Allah, didn’t eat pork, and told big tall tales. All these things and his talk about being in Special Forces and plans to become an oral maxillofacial surgeon made the white boys I worked with crazy. He lied and he cheated. Yet I loved him. 

In America, people are people. In America, if you work hard you can make it. In America, everyone is valued, respected and worthy. I did not want to ruin America for them.

In my third year he gave me the biggest diamond I’d ever seen. I decided to get the ring appraised.

I had to get it insured. Right?

When the jeweler called me, I was in the clinic between patients, on a phone behind the desk where Sue Ellen, the unit clerk sat. Months before I’d caught Sue Ellen removing patients from my schedule—patients who didn’t want a black doctor. When I confronted her, Sue Ellen rendered an explanation, without any trace of regret or emotion.

“Well Mrs. Bubba is from Virginia.”

Her tone was filled with the exasperation of a mother trying to explain some existential fact to a young child.

I went to my chief resident and complained about Sue Ellen. He looked down at his feet. The shoe stare. The shoe stare was what the white boys I worked with did when I caught them in their shit. He knew.

I went to my hospital chief, Dr. Rappaport. On the outside, Rappaport was quite a beautiful man, tall and dapper. He was always tanned, his salt and pepper hair with every strand in place, gelled and coiffed to perfection. His clothing was never rumpled and he always wore cufflinks and shiny polished shoes. He had a mouth full of straight, white teeth, which was unusual in Ohio. I imagined that although he knew how to use a hammer, he wouldn’t risk chipping his fingernails. With a fake grin, he tipped back slightly in his chair as he twirled his pen and then proffered a peace offering.

“Oh, Sue Ellen is a diamond in the rough.”

A Diamond.

I made sure not to raise my voice, or gesture wildly. I tried to not be the angry black woman we both knew I was.

“My tax dollars pay for Mrs. Bubba’s Medicaid. If she wants a white doctor, she needs to pay for that with her private funds and not taxpayer dollars.”

He looked down at his shiny black shoes. His smile shriveled up; his face resembled a dried-up prune.

I was staring at Sue Ellen’s round back, her overly teased brown hair, when I heard the jeweler say, “I’m sorry. This is fake. It’s a cubic zirconia.”

My diamond engagement ring is fake, but Sue Ellen is real.

*     *     *

I broke up with the dentist. He threatened me, promised to ram his BMW into oncoming traffic. I remembered his guns; hundreds of bullets scattered in the trunk of his car like rice pellets.

Does Craig realize I’d spent the last few months fighting for my life?

*     *     *

Does Craig know about the doctor who vigorously rubbed his leg against mine during a surgical case, while I looked for veins, arteries, muscles—all pink and sinewy—just like in my atlas?

I turned to Dr. Leg Rub and asked, “Have you been touching me under the operating table for the last five minutes?” In that moment I had felt brave. Dr. Leg Rub was braver.

“Yes. I have.” he replied.

Does he know about Dr. Pepper Pike, widely published, who drove a red Porsche? Every Monday I assisted him. He’d lean over and through his sky blue surgical mask ask, “Can we make zebra babies?”

The night before our graduation dinner he said, “My wife’s coming.”  Code for don’t tell. I want to tell him to kiss my black ass. But I don’t say anything.

I was alone at that dinner. The dentist was gone and my family in Brooklyn does not have the time, money, or inclination for such events. I was glad they did not come. It would have been hard to explain all that I had endured in Cleveland. In America, people are people. In America, if you work hard you can make it. In America, everyone is valued, respected and worthy. I did not want to ruin America for them.

*     *     *

I heard my heart pounding. I heard a voice. It was mine.

“Dr. Craig, how does it affect you if I don’t pass the boards? Do you have to take them for me again?”

Big Bird turned beet red. Then he looked down at his shoes. I got up and extended my hand.

“Goodbye Dr. Craig.”

His hand felt clammy and weak and I didn’t hear his reply. I’d moved on to thinking about moving later and what I had to do to get my security deposit back. One thing I knew for sure; I was not cleaning that stove again.

 

Ann Arthur-Andrew is a New York City based mother, wife, physician, travel/leisure blogger, and emerging writer. Raised in Brooklyn by Grenadian parents, Ann uses her heritage as a first generation American, to explore issues of family, legacy, belonging, voice, and black womanhood. Ann holds a BA in political science from Brown University and an MD from the Yale University School of Medicine. When not practicing medicine or attending a PTA Meeting, Ann enjoys the piano, reading, cuddling with her dog, or watching movies with her husband and children. Ann can be found online at annarthurandrew.com.

Photo Credit: Rashida De Vore

 

 

The Mirror Game

[fiction]

Walking into rehearsal that day, I felt awkward and out of place. I sat at my little producer’s desk in a quiet corner of the drama room. I tried to scan the space from under the cover of my bangs, while pretending to read texts. The room looked like other classrooms—beige linoleum floors, once-white walls, fluorescent overhead lights—except that the ceiling was much higher and most of the floor space was bare. As I spotted actors I knew from class and others who were only vaguely familiar from the cafeteria, I realised that the person I really wanted to see was absent. Charlotte, our star, was nowhere to be seen, but she often entered at the last minute. She seemed to enjoy making an entrance. I tried to use my peripheral vision to find Mr. Evans, the director. He might be as short as the average grade-nine student, but his animated gesticulations usually stood out in a crowd. Unfortunately, there was too much hair in my way to even spot Mr. Evans’s talkative hands, so I attempted to blow some of the bangs out of my face. Instead, I managed to spit on my phone. Lovely. I wiped the screen on my jeans and looked up in time to see Mr. Evans giving me a funny look. Oh god! Had he seen me spit on my phone then wipe it on my jeans like some grimy toddler smearing a booger on her leg?

Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.

Before I could figure out what to do, Charlotte breezed into the room, tossing her jean jacket on top of a pile of backpacks with a coordination and confidence I could only admire. She grinned at the room and this somehow worked as a signal to the other actors who all gathered in a circle. Mr. Evans joined them, but I hesitated. Did I have to join the circle? I wasn’t one of the creative types. I was just the student producer, the person who kept things organised and did basic math to make a budget. I looked down at my phone again, hoping for an answer. It was, as usual, totally unhelpful. Smartphone, my ass, I thought.

“Alison, phones aren’t allowed in rehearsal. Put it away and join us.” Mr. Evans stepped back to make room for me to squeeze between him and one of the actors.

“Now close your eyes. Listen to your breath.” The room was silent except for the sound of the prehistoric ventilation system rattling away above our heads. “Try to match your breathing to the people next to you. If we can breathe together, we can create art together.”

How could I match two different people’s breathing? I unintentionally held my breath while trying to listen to the breathing of my neighbours. The room gradually got louder as some people shifted uncomfortably and others tried to help those around them by inhaling and exhaling loudly. Mr. Evans either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. “Excellent work! I can feel our energies coming into alignment.” Our energies coming into alignment felt a lot like a class of kids trying to suppress giggles, but who was I to judge? “Now open your eyes and find a partner for our warmups.”

I held back as I watched the actors pair off. Even the freshmen seemed confident enough to make overtures to near-strangers. It looked like everyone else had found a partner and I was about to tell Mr. Evans that I would skip the rest of the warmup when a pair of cool blue eyes froze me to the spot.

“Looks like we’re the odd ones out.” This close, I could see that one of Charlotte’s incisors protruded a little.

I was so nervous that I couldn’t swallow my own saliva. So this is a thing I do now, I thought. My saliva tasted acidic, like warm diet soda. I nodded at Charlotte, unable to think of anything else to do. I couldn’t speak and it would be unutterably rude to just walk away. I was going to have to partner with Charlotte for whatever mad “game” Mr. Evans made us play next.

At a signal from Mr. Evans, all the actors sat on the ground. Charlotte sat cross-legged in a single fluid move. I made my way down in increments, like my arthritic grandmother: first I bent my knees a little, then I put a hand down to balance myself and finally I lowered myself all the way. At least I didn’t grunt or groan like an old person. Of course, that was probably only because I couldn’t make a sound unless I wanted to drool all over myself like some over-excited bulldog.

I craned my neck to look at Mr. Evans, pretending that I needed to see him to properly follow his directions. Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.

“We’re warming up with a classic today. You’re going to act as mirrors. The job of the mirror is to reflect exactly what their partner is doing. The leader’s job is to make sure that the mirror can follow their movements. Use eye contact to help you communicate. This warmup is about building bonds and paying attention to how we move. I’ll tell you when to change so that the mirror becomes the leader.” Why would awkward eye contact make people better actors? Theatre people were baffling.

Mr. Evans switched on some weirdo spa music and people shifted so that they were facing each other. It looked like the other pairs were staying seated on the floor, so I turned my body to face Charlotte and forced myself to look directly into her eyes. The cool blue of her irises were outlined in midnight blue. Her eyes reminded me of colouring books when I was a little kid. I would follow the lines with my colouring crayon, pressing down to create a satisfying dark outline, then I would lightly colour in the centre.

“Want to be the leader first?” Charlotte offered. I shook my head no. “Okay. I’ll go first,” she said.

Charlotte slowly raised her right arm, long fingers splayed in a languid hello. I tried to match her loose-limbed movements, but everything in me felt too tight. To an outsider, she must have looked like a cool ballerina, while I must have looked like a robotic facsimile of a human being.

I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.

Charlotte lowered her arm and I followed her as she rested her hand on the floor. It was difficult to concentrate on the outer edges of my body. It felt like every atom of my being was being drawn into the point where our eyes met. Charlotte smiled and my brain reminded me, a beat too late, that I was supposed to do what she did. I smiled back and her smile grew almost imperceptibly. Was it possible I had made Charlotte happy, even in some small way? I could now feel my heart as well as the hot point between us.

Charlotte reached her left hand forward, fingertips at the very edge of our imaginary boundary. I moved my own hand without thinking. In the periphery of my vision, I could see the contrast between my pale skin and her lightly tanned skin. Then she twitched her index finger forward and every atom in my body rushed to that point of contact. Emptied of my atoms, I forgot to breathe. The next moment, she slid her hand up, as if it rested against the mirror between us. My entire palm was now pressed against hers. My fingers were shorter than hers and I wondered vaguely what it would feel like if she wrapped her hand around mine.

“Everyone up! Mirrors are the leaders now!” Mr. Evans’s peppy instructions jarred me out of my reverie.

When Charlotte stood up, I followed her, still attuned to her every action. I almost mirrored her raised eyebrows until I realised she was reminding me that it was my turn to lead. Though I wanted to touch her again, I couldn’t bring myself to be that forward. Instead, I modestly nodded my head yes. She followed, frowning.

I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.

Her lips turned up, but no protruding incisor. I told myself to smile big and there it was. I took a deep breath and so did she. So this is what it was like to breathe with someone. Maybe Mr. Evans had been on to something.

Mr. Evans clapped his hands together. I didn’t break eye contact with Charlotte until he instructed the actors to take their places for Act I. At that point, I reluctantly made my way to my table. Only when I was seated did I realise I had somehow managed to swallow like a normal person during the mirror exercise. Miracle!

The rehearsal seemed to drag, probably because I had to ration my glimpses at Charlotte. I didn’t want to act like a stalker, so I made myself look at six other people before looking back at her. She was in character, which meant she seemed more regal and untouchable than ever. But I had touched her. My stomach clenched at the thought.

When Mr. Evans finally instructed the group to give themselves a round of applause, I thrilled at the sight of her walking towards me.

She stopped in front of my table. “You make me look much better than my mirror at home. Can you come to my house every morning to make me feel hot?” She laughed. Her laugh was a bit hiccup-y. I loved it. I wanted to hear more of it. “Sorry. That’s a terrible line.”

I smiled and considered flirting back. (She had to be flirting, right?) And then, with the worst possible timing, Mr. Evans interrupted. “Alison, can we speak?”

“Of course,” I said. I turned back to Charlotte, desperate to say something, anything, to let her know I was interested. “I’ll be sure to reflect on your offer.” It was a terrible pun and I regretted it the second I said it, but then she laughed again. I sketched an awkward wave as I turned away from her and readied myself for producer work.

Mr. Evans rambled on about props and costumes, but I kept thinking about Charlotte. I wondered if she was gay. Then I wondered if she knew I was gay. It’s not like I was in the closet or anything, but I also wasn’t a member of our Gay-Straight Alliance. The movies make it seem like coming out is a single, cathartic (or traumatic) moment, but it’s actually a constant process. It’s exhausting and it makes dating in high school even more confusing than it already is.

Maybe I had imagined the heated moment between us when we were playing the mirror game. Maybe I was just seeing my desire reflected back at me. Maybe it had all been performance. But wasn’t all flirting a kind of performance? If that was true, then maybe I was a bad actor. Maybe I didn’t know the right cues, the subtle signs I was supposed to use to communicate my attraction and gayness to my audience.

I left rehearsal feeling out of place with myself.

 

Dani Jansen is a writer, teacher and tea aficionado living in Montreal, Canada. Her work has appeared in The A3 Review, Kazka Press, and Fiction Southeast. “The Mirror Game” is a chapter from her first YA novel.

 

 

and so we wind ourselves up

If you ask me now, I could still do it. Not all of it, of course—not now, not anymore. The more esoteric things—the notes for B minor, the exactitude between allegro and allegretto—those have long since been forgotten, faded with time and disuse. But hand me the sheet music, my bent Bach primers and blue Schumann workbooks, and I could play you a sonatina, a minuet, an arabesque, any of the carefully-annotated pieces I once knew by heart. The mechanics, after all these years, are still there: how to read treble and bass clefs, which sharps to match with which scales, the proper way to properly hold my hands (fingertips on the keys, wrist loose but high, fingers rounded as if clutching a tennis ball)—that is all it would take.

And if you were to ask me to play, I could still remember, still try. Für Elise, The Doll’s Dream, Minuet in G Major—though it has been years since I last touched a keyboard, I still find myself humming at odd moments, in class suddenly, unconsciously tapping out snatches of song.

*    *     *

I was a good student. Your typical Asian student, really: straight As, math club, 4.0 and AP tests—everything a good stereotype requires. I took BC Calculus and SAT subject tests, did quiz bowl and National Honor Society, dutifully attended ACT prep classes, where seventy dollars an hour helped improve my score by two points.

 

Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.

And then there was, of course, the piano.

Here is how the rest would go if this were a proper story. The curtains, drawing back; the lights, overhead, shining down on a lone figure, the protagonist of this play. A girl, the sole daughter of Chinese peasants born during Mao’s Revolution and now come to the New World—you’ve heard the script; you know how it goes. The childhoods of hunger and uphill both ways; the struggle, long and laborious, to overcome them; the victories; the PhDs; and then America, the promised land that gave both more and less than what it had promised. Classic underdog story, in other words. But remember—that’s all backstory, all lead-up to the grand finale that will make it all pay off. Our protagonist, she remembers: remembers and knows they are important, holds her parents’ stories as close as Narnia and Harry Potter. Knows the stories, and knows she must top them, finish this quest they have begun.

And one-two-three, lights-camera-action—here it is, the first real task on our hero’s journey. Not poverty or politics, but no less daunting: the piano, dark and glossy with its many, many keys. It looms over her, high and proud and oh-so-very complex, but her parents’ memories reassure her, give her back her strength—compared to their pains, this was not so bad, not so hard. They had done what they had, so she could do this. And so she perseveres, and so she practices, plays scales ten times each and practices each song ten times more—until one day it is done, she has done it! And as she sits on the stage, the song she plays so sweet the birds outside quiet, the audience inside weeps at its loveliness—

And when she finishes, she stands up and curtsies to them—accomplished at last, a pianist against all the odds.

*     *     *

Which would have been nice, if I had been able to actually play.

Part of it was natural, I suppose: I had no sense of rhythm, no intuitive sense to tell me the difference between allegro and larghissimo or how to play in 4/4 time. Notes were as long or as short as I felt they were, holistic as opposed to ordered time. I distinctly remember, once, attending a church retreat and clapping along to the hymns out of time.

The other part, though, was practice. My parents started me at eight—late, compared to my friends, but still young enough to chafe at sitting in a chair for forty-five minutes each day, drilling the same scales over and over again. One day without practice, my mother would chide me, shuffling flashcards in the dim light of our apartment, and you know the difference. One day.

At eight, these are the things you smile at, nod at without quite hearing, ignore as easily as your grandmother’s admonishments to wash before and after meals. At eight, these are the things you can let slide away, that you can forget.

At eighteen, these are the things you remember, dredge up through the years as you retreat into an armchair curled up and away, tea growing cold on the cream-colored coffee table nearby. The woman across from you leaning back, smiling as she asks, well, and how did that make you feel?

Funny, the difference a few years can make.

Because you see, at eight, it has not happened yet; at eight, none of what will plague you at eighteen has yet bothered you. Your mother tells you to do your summer homework, and you do it; your father calls you in to practice piano, and you, grumbling, obey. But these are just things you do; they affect nothing of what you feel, who you are. At eight, you have a self, a center.

But just jump five years ahead—and, well. At thirteen, things get muddier. Boys you played tag with begin ignoring you; girls you’d climbed trees with begin wearing makeup and talking about calories and waistlines. All around you, your friends finding niches, taking places as easily as seats in musical chairs—the pretty one, the sporty one, the good one—

And you? You, you get stuck with, “Gifted.”

*     *     *

And there’s the thing, about being thirteen and being “Gifted.” When you are twelve or thirteen, and you’ve demonstrated an aptitude in math or science or English or best of all, all three, then the world narrows. Suddenly, it is just you, you and the four or five other students whose test scores have proven equally high, sitting in the front row of Honors English and eyeing each other across chess club—wary, suspicious.

Or perhaps that was just me, my personal paranoia and neuroses painting sixth-grade friendships in Darwinian shades. Perhaps.

It certainly felt that way, around my parents. At parties with the other Chinese families, while the kids sat in the basement playing Mario or idly browsing through their phones. The adults would all stay upstairs, playing cards late into the night and gossiping like tabloid reporters about their children, who got what grades and who got into Stanford or Harvard. At thirteen, you begin to enter into these conversations; at thirteen, you begin to become relevant, another variable in the bell curve of who would Make It—

One moment, you were eight. The next, you are thirteen, and your parents are buying you ACT prep books and taking you to talks by Harvard freshmen on how to apply to college, and no one is questioning the absurdity of it, the fact that you are taking sixth-graders, fucking sixth-graders, kids who still watch Hannah Montana and blush at French kissing—taking them and sitting down in all seriousness to tell them what AP classes to take, what sports to play, and what tests to take and and and

*     *     *

And look. I like to think, in my better moments, that I’m not that myopically bitter—that somewhere over the course of overpriced medications and specialists, I have gained some degree of self-knowledge. And so I know—I do!—that I am being unfair. That there were other parts to it, social and historical factors that led my parents and their friends to the values they hold—Mao and deprivation and Confucius, tradition and cultural values so deeply entrenched that to reject them would be to reject identity itself. That higher test grades equaled higher income equaled higher quality of life and hence greater happiness—I can still do enough math to understand that. That I am speaking in stereotypes, and stereotypes are not life: do not have the kindness and love that go into them, soften the tropes into something livable. That parents, in the end, are people, too.

 

I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why?

But, well. I was thirteen, then, and higher reasoning is less pertinent when you are entering puberty and a pronounced hating-the-world phase. Thirteen-fourteen, lurking in the enclaves at parties with my diet Pepsi and iceberg salad, I began to despise it all: the constant comparing and critiquing, whose kids are going where and got what grades. Yes, there may have been utility behind it—higher grades, higher income, correlation/causation et cetera—but at some point, listening to it all, aunts telling cousins to follow in the steps of more studious friends, fathers lecturing sixth-graders on the importance of community service not on grounds of altruism, but because it would look good on a college resume—well. At some point, it gets to you.

Maybe I wouldn’t have put it in those words, not then—thirteen, remember, fresh out of three weeks in the hospital and still tearing up over Bs in gym—and maybe I wouldn’t have said it until I was Well and Truly into therapy, but that was how I felt then. That was what I thought.

*     *     *

And like summer vacation, and like community service, music became another casualty, another part of the daily march towards Making It. From the time your parents were putting you through chess club and hiring math tutors, they were taking you to your piano or violin teacher’s house to learn petals and positions. It did not matter if you actually liked the instrument; if you were smart and wanted to get into a good school (a real school), then you played the piano or the violin. And if you were not good at it, then it could not be because you had no musical talent—it was because you were simply not trying hard enough.It was a very Asian belief, that, but also a very American one: self-cultivation and Horatio Alger, the American dream and Mao’s voluntarism mixing in a red-red-white-blue combination that would have made your revolutionary ancestors roll over in their graves. “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step;” “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration;” et cetera, et cetera. If you wish upon a star and try, try, and try again, then you too can be talented; then you, too, can be special.

Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.

*     *     *

A curious thing, about fifteen-sixteen-year-old Amber and standardized tests. I did well on exams generally, had few logical reasons to worry about failing all my classes and forced to attend community college. But I used to work myself up anyways, talking myself into hyper-awareness before tests, rehearsing every wrong thing that could happen—a ball player, winding herself up before a game. After all, if I let my guard down, if I let myself relax for only one second, then that was it, that was the path of stupid errors and bubbling in the wrong answers. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; stop being smart, and you’ll break her heart.

I suppose, beyond the superstitious hyperbole of the feeling, it made an odd sense. God knows I’d made plenty of careless mistakes by not paying enough attention to the placement of a decimal or the insertion of a “NOT” before “all of the above”—by not paying attention, my mother said; by being complacent, I thought. And hell, maybe it did work—I did pretty well in high school, took all the right tests and got all the right test scores. When the time came, even made it to University of Chicago, which on the nerd ladder is pretty good.

But. But but but but but.

But there were things, other places where winding yourself so tight-tight-tight is not good, does not work. Try talking to people like that—see how well it works. I did that, for a while. Would walk out of AP Chemistry after a quiz, head aching too much to focus on anything other than the tiles immediately before me—only to start, nearly jumping as someone said, “Hi, Amber!” Turning around, heart jumping a beat as I forced out, “Hi”—hating the way my voice went up an octave when I was nervous, dear God what was wrong with you, Amber, so stupid so ridiculous, couldn’t even talk to people without freezing up—and God, God, those had been popular kids, hadn’t they? Cheerleaders and prom queens, oh you knew, Amber that they only smiled at you because they felt sorry for you, because you were so, so very pathetic and they all knew—

Try that. Try that with talking, with writing or drawing or eating or anything else, really. Try that with piano.

At fifteen, I had finally done it—at fifteen, finally achieved the discipline I had lacked at eight and thirteen. Like clockwork, I dutifully played my forty minutes each day—not as much as other students, I was well aware, but an achievement for me. A small victory.

But even then, even with all that, I was still no better than before. My piano teacher, after years of clucking at my lack of precision, now told me I played too rigidly, too mechanically. Relax, she told me, watching the rigid claw of my hand upon the keys, don’t slam them down—let your hands fall on the keys, naturally. And I had tried, tried all the exercises and techniques she suggested, but how could I? How could I, when she there, always a watching eye, always ready to tell me what I did wrong and how? How could I relax, how could I relax when I knew (knew oh so well, familiar lump in my throat, my chest, my lungs) that once I did, once I let my guard down for the slightest, slightest second, it would all come crumbling, crumbling down—

I cried in front of her a few times, I remember. I cried in front of a lot of people. It seemed to be a thing I did.

*     *     *

Like all things, I talked with my therapist about this. I was, what, fourteen?—eighth or ninth grade, a year after I’d done the essentially thirteen-year-old thing of taking a crash course in fad dieting. In any other subject, I would have gotten a gold star; here, all my self-discipline had gotten me was three weeks in the hospital and a doctor’s ultimatum that unless I followed up with a therapist, I could not be medically discharged.

Despite the whiff of coercion hanging over our beginning, I like to think we had an amiable relationship, Cassie and me. There was always plenty of coffee, which I pretended to like without cream, and even more silence, which I actually did like and now did my best to maintain. Occasionally, Cassie would speak—a handful of observations, a few questions to fish out replies—and even more occasionally, I would answer, cool and monosyllabic as a John Wayne character. Mostly, I kept silent.

And then, one day—in response to a journal, a passing comment, some art therapy collage I’d made at her request, I don’t remember what—she said something so radically heretical that I had stared at her for a moment, gaping at the sheer temerity to even think such a thing:

Well, Cassie said, is it really that bad if you get a B?

Later, when she came to pick me up, I told my mother about it. In the foyer of the glass building, we shared the same startled, almost offended stare of disbelief—she had said what? That it didn’t matter if I let myself get poor grades, that it didn’t matter if I had no standards, if I didn’t try?

It must have been a culture thing, my mother concluded, back in our gray Honda, and I agreed. And that, coupled with my extreme distaste for sitting in a chair and talking about my feelings, meant that not long after, I stopped going to therapy.

It has been seven years since then. These days, it is my mother—conscious of my anxieties, as careful around me as if already teetering towards a third hospitalization—it is she who reassures me, reminds me that a B on my transcript will not doom me to a life of mediocrity and trailer park alcoholism. Half an adolescence spent in doctor’s offices, and it is she who has learned more from it. And I—self-dramatizing, self-eulogizing, ninety-eight percent cured and thirteen after all this time—I, I have never quite been able to let it go.

*     *     *

In the end, I stopped playing piano. I was sixteen; college was on the horizon, ACTs and SATs and the roulette of other acronyms I had been preparing for since age thirteen. Forty minutes a day were now a luxury, and my mother—after years of insisting that putting aside an hour each day was not that difficult, not really—seemed to have finally realized that I took to the piano like a lead duck to water—i.e., not at all. Quitting, I was surprised not to be elated. I’d never had any talent, but I had grown used to the structure, thought I might finally have a chance at improving—but well, the piano and I had never been the best of friends. Our breakup was quick, almost painless.

I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends.

And so came the ACTS, so came the SATs, the APs and the Common App essay and three more from the University of Chicago. And like a good little machine, I wound myself up for them—a little more carefully now from the therapy, a little better oiled now from the meds. Maybe not quite kicking the habit of worrying, but managing it: a lesser vice now, under control. Old habits are hard to give up, after all, especially ones that had been double, triple, quadruple-checked to work.

*     *     *

Walking in from the cold into the warm foyer of Lewis dorm, one of the first things you notice is the piano. Beyond the quartets of soft armchairs and the warm wood, in a corner next to the stairwells and facing the entire room, it stands: a tall, black concert grand, its wood well-kept and well-loved, keys as glossy as the notes they produced.

It was certainly one of the first things I noticed, walking in that first day of college. Not necessarily the most immediate, processed as it was into the overall atmosphere of Old World grace and comforting hominess—oh wow, so I am going to live here, aren’t I?—but still there, still present. Just one brushstroke in the painting.

And that was how it was, for the first few days or so, a part of the decor I noticed but did not linger over.

I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends. All smart kids of course, all talented, but not like the smart and talented kids I’d known in high school, aggressive about knowing each other’s grades and always jockeying for the highest position on the academic ladder. Perhaps there was some of that, seething down under. We were all high-achieving students at a high-achieving school; there had to be other similarities outside of the test scores. Or perhaps that was just me. Already, I was noting the similarities, seeing how I measured up—mathletes and poets and fantasy geeks, boys who had taken the same AP classes, girls with the same pained memories of Chinese school—

And then there were, of course, those who had played the piano.

I noticed at the beginning of first week, maybe the last days of orientation. Walking into the dorm lounge, bright chandeliers and familiar faces in chintzy chairs—Hey Dan! Hi Maddie!—I would see, maybe two times out of five, that someone was playing the piano. I didn’t think much of initially—it was the University of Chicago, of course everyone knew how to play the piano—but after a while, I began to wonder. Some of these musicians had been playing for nine, ten, eleven years—meaning they’d been, what, seven, eight when they’d started?  Practically the same time age I’d been.

And I wondered about that. Wondered about how they did it, the way they took such evident joy in learning melodies and technique—so different from my history with playing the piano, the years of parental disapproval and kicking/screaming that had eventually settled into failed hopes and lingering regret. Wondered about that, whether music had been as hard for them as it had been for me. Watching them play, humming even through the missed notes, not cringing but smiling when others paused to listen, it didn’t seem so.

And yet. Maybe it had been—at least at first, at the start. Few eight-year-olds, after all, have the innate motivation to sit still for forty-plus minutes at a time; few eight-year-olds have the discipline to practice scales twenty minutes each day, every day. Concert pianist Lang Lang Guoren tells journalists that he became interested in the piano when he was two, at three was practicing hours each day at his father’s demand—and just look at him now. World-famous, and grateful to his father for pushing him. Maybe, if I had followed his example like I had been exhorted to, I could have gotten there too, that glittering plateau where all the gritted teeth and lifted bootstraps paid off. Maybe. Maybe.

*     *     *

My mom talks, these days, about selling our piano. It would be the logical thing to do, of course; no one plays it anymore, and it takes up space, sitting alone in a corner of our sunroom, a bin of bent lesson books next to it. A secondhand standup, but still good after all these years, keys still mostly in tune despite the years of disuse.

Listening, I brush my hands over the key bed, say nothing. Dust has gathered on the keys, over the years—on the wood yellowed with age, in the flat crevices between E and F. I think of my stuffed animals, missing fur and missing eyes, mutely sitting in the dark of old closets; I think of my mother, eighteen and envious of the other students, girls who had had money, who wore pretty dresses and could play piano and guitar. I tell her, I don’t know.

But when she asks me whether we should buy a new one, a sleek baby grand or sleek new Steinway, I scoff at it: what would be the point of that, spending thousands of dollars on something no one would use? How was that in any way necessary, how did that in any way make sense?

Well, my mother says, smiling wistfully, it would make the room look nice.

Nice.

Because that was why they’d come here, wasn’t it? Why they’d worked so hard in grad school, spent so much money on private tutors, and so much time cutting personal luxury down to necessity—because it would all pay off here, in this land of new hopes and opportunity; because America would be better, brighter. Would be nicer.

My parents hadn’t had very many nice things, growing up. They’d come to America so that I could have all the crisp clothes and bright holidays they’d never had. All the sullen, long drives to Chinese school, all the evenings spent fidgeting on a piano bench, waiting for the timer to tell me my forty minutes were up—it all had been for this, my parents’ simple wish that I have a future better than they had. In the end, that was what it had all been for; in the end, that was all they had wanted.

*     *     *

I still think, with some nostalgia, of being her again: Amber at thirteen, at sixteen, the girl who would sleep four hours a night to study for AP exams and refuse to eat anything before knowing exact number of carbs first. Time makes fools of us all, makes romantic what had in actuality been terrifying and suffocating—but it is tempting, sometimes, to indulge in the lie. It is a simpler world there, brighter colors and sharper contrasts: up is always up, down is always down, and the whole world is yours, if only you will reach out and try.

From a distance, it is a very beautiful world, very white and very pristine.

And then I hear tales from my classmates, Kyoto-born boyfriends worrying about the number of A-minuses on Ivy League transcripts; and then I hear tales from my friends, old classmates’ younger sisters who are already landing themselves in hospitals, already breaking down. I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why? I think of classmates I know, old dorm mates who discuss bad grades in the context of Bs and 88s, while the next moment dismissing Sylvia Plath’s suicide as selfish. I think: alright. So that is how it happens, how the story goes now.

And then fourteen-year-olds come to me at parties, eager to ask how I had done it—what AP classes had I taken, what clubs had I joined, which standardized tests I had taken and what I had scored on them. And then I look down at them, these rows of young faces so sincere and intense, and I realize that at twenty, I have done it—become the success story, the Harvard inductee instructing others on how they could do it, how they could make it. I look down, and I do not know what to say.

And then I come home, and my parents are nearly in hysterics over the B on my brother’s report card, berating him for not doing as well in Honors English as he does Honors Chemistry, asking him, why can’t you be a little more like your sister—not completely, of course, because God knows how well that ended, but still. Just a little.

And then I think of lying in a white hospital bed, at thirteen, bones brittle as those of an old woman, heart rate resting at the 30s, sobbing not from frustration or fear, but because I was missing school, because I had quiz bowl practice I was missing and teammates I was disappointing, because they were going to make me gain so much weight and people were going to know—I think, and then I remember: this is not a way of life. This is a way of dying, by inches.

And yet. Malcolm Gladwell tells us you need to put in ten thousand hours of effort before greatness. Stephen King tells us that you need a million words of practice before writing anything worthwhile. Marie Curie fainting because she had forgotten to eat. Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in temples and living on tea and clean mountain air. High school students in China opting for intravenous feeding in order to carve out more time for studying—these are the stories we tell, the idols we make for myth. Privation and self-deprivation the paths to sainthood and transcendence and not egoistic want.

And yet. And yet.

*     *     *

And in the revised, reedited edition of my life, here is how it would happen. In the final draft, I would go back to sixteen, to thirteen, to eight, and this time around, all the equations would add up precisely—time plus persistence equals success, equals happiness, equals the America dream without any thorny remainders left over. This time, the story would run better, smoother, stagehands in their places and actors knowing all their lines—this time, it would go right.

*     *     *

But in the end, it is always the same story. In the end—after all the hours of self-doubt and self-recrimination, of staring at still-familiar keys and wondering what if, what if—after all that and all the years, it always ends the same way.

I stand up. Take my fingers off the keys: Put my old sheet music away, thinking maybe, someday as I push the bench back in, brush the dust off the music rack. Glance one last time at middle C and F sharp, before lowering the fallboard over the keys.

And then—because it is late and I work best at night—I make myself a cup of coffee, stirring in two packets of sugar to cut the tinfoil taste of instant, make it tolerable. Then, kissing my dog goodnight, I go upstairs with my coffee and my laptop, and I write.

 

Amber Wu is an aspiring academic, part-time writer, and former pianist. An alumna of the University of Chicago, where she studied comparative literature and creative writing, she currently lives in Chicago with her books, a collection of dog-themed paraphernalia, and her plans to pursue a PhD at the University of Southern California. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Memoryhouse Magazine, daCunha Global, and The Other Stories.

Siel Ju, Author

I found LA based writer Siel Ju’s novel Cake Time: a novel-in-stories during a trip to LA in December 2017, and I was hooked. I easily fell into the rhythm of the book’s structure and style, and Siel’s use of language: witty and sharp. The next logical step for me, of course, was to use Google to find out more about her. I immediately learned that she is obsessed with smoothie bowls. This is by her own admission. There are tons of brightly colored pictures plastered to her social media accounts—smoothies artfully posed next to current books she is reading. Food, books, and an eye for color: all of my favorite things.

Siel has a talent for making strange combinations work. She has an innate ability to capture the drama and humor of everyday life. These types of intersections unfold in Cake Time where Siel explores the connections and disconnections found in the intimacy. Cake Time explores themes of consent, exploitation, and power dynamics between men and women. Classic themes, but Siel writes for a digital world and illustrates the way boundaries are blurred and crossed in a modern world.

Siel received a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks Praise for Might Club and Feelings are Chemicals in Transit. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Confrontation, and Denver Quarterly. Her debut novel Cake Time won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award in 2015.

In March 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Siel Ju via email. The following is our conversation. It has been edited for clarity.

Kori Kessler: Your novel Cake Time won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award in 2015. What’s it like to be an emerging writer and win an award like that? What advice do you have for other women who are emerging writers?

Siel Ju: I was so surprised when I got the call from Kate Gale at Red Hen that Cake Time had won the award that I almost hung up on her! For a few days I felt like a happy disbelief—that a book of mine was finally going to come out into the world. Which is to say: Cake Time—both the individual stories in the book and the complete manuscript—went through a lot of rejections before it won the award. So my advice to other women would be to take rejection lightly and keep going.

KK: Your website is brilliant: quirky and individual. Your voice seems to be present on every webpage. Do you find branding to be essential to a writer in 2018? Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to set up their own sites and create their own brands?

SJ: Thank you! I do think having an online presence helps you find an audience if you’re a writer today. On a practical level, it makes it a lot easier for people to find you and reach out to you, for opportunities big and small. I think just the fact that you can tell from my website that I often give readings makes reading and event organizers more likely to reach out to me more often. A regular blog and newsletter helps keep me on people’s minds too.

There are feelings and emotions that are very specific to certain moments in life—the feelings you have as a teenage girl are pretty different from the ones you have as a woman in her thirties, etc.

That said, social media and blogging and personal branding can be huge time sucks. And some writers really hate spending time on it. And others—There are friends of mine with writerly ambitions who are very prolific Tweeters and Facebookers but not very prolific at all in terms of producing the creative work they say actually matters to them.

So I would say it’s a good idea to have at least a rudimentary website that lets people find and contact you, but beyond that do just what you enjoy and don’t spend more time on this stuff than you do on writing what really matters to you. There’s not much point in working on your author profile if you’re not actually writing.

KK: As a writer, how has your process changed over the years? When drafting Cake Time how much did the novel and the protagonist change?

SJ: I don’t know that my writing process changed that much while I was writing Cake Time, but it’s changed somewhat since then. With Cake Time, I was really writing short stories—stories short enough that I could kind of hold all the pieces in my head and move them around in my mind without worrying about outlines and such. Now, I’m working on a novel that’s not a novel-in-stories—and I find that I do actually need to do a lot of planning, creating a structure to follow before I start what I consider the real writing part of the novel writing.

Otherwise I end up writing a whole lot of drivel that doesn’t actually go anywhere…. This is just me though. There are plenty of novelists who write sans outline.

KK: In Cake Time, readers follow an unnamed narrator as she dives into one bad relationship after another. The anonymity of the narrator and her experiences in dating gives her an “everywoman” feeling, like she could be any one of us. What drew you to center the experience of dating?

SJ: I can’t remember which book of Andre Breton’s I’m thinking of here, but in one of them, he pictures all his ex-lovers sitting in a row, across from a row of his former selves. Or at least that’s how I remember what he wrote. In any case I think in many ways our memories of past relationships are really memories of our past selves, selves that did and said things or acted and reacted in ways that can seem bizarre and illogical and confounding to our present selves. And romantic relationships—most of which tend to have a relatively clear beginning and an end (vs. friendships or familial relationships that go on for long periods of time with lots of permutations), and are serial in nature (most people have multiple friends but usually just one romantic partner at a time)—can be an interesting way of looking at the phases of our lives, the ways we and our wants and desires and motivations have changed or haven’t.

That said I’m not sure what I just said is what I was really thinking about when I was writing Cake Time. Even now, I don’t really think of the stories as being about a series of relationships—I think rather of phases of a girl/woman’s life. There are feelings and emotions that are very specific to certain moments in life—the feelings you have as a teenage girl are pretty different from the ones you have as a woman in her thirties, etc.—and I wanted to distill some of those feelings and emotions in discrete moments for Cake Time‘s protagonist.

KK: The structure of Cake Time is a novel-in-stories. Readers follow the same narrator through a series of encounters written as short stories. What inspired this structure?

SJ: The structure kind of came out of a lack of overall planning. Basically, I was just writing random short stories, with no sense of a bigger plan beyond that I wanted to publish a book of short stories. Then I started reading short story collections and realized that I really needed to have some sort of overarching thing that held the stories together as a collection if my goal was to publish a book. So, at that point I went through the stories I had and saw that a handful of them could be revised to have the same protagonist in different points in her life. After that, I wrote more stories to fill in the gaps and give an overall arc to the collection.

KK: A general rule of thumb is to resolve a novel, but leave a short story open ended. How does this affect writing a novel in short stories?

SJ: There’s a rule?! This is news to me.

KK: How do you write characters outside of your own experience? For example, Alek, Christian, Jeff, Matt or any of the other men who the narrator dates or hooks up with in Cake Time?

SJ: Well, Cake Time is all written from a female character’s point of view, so I didn’t have to worry so much about getting into the heads of the male characters. But I have worried more about the issue of sounding authentic when writing from a male character’s point of view for other stories I’ve written. I don’t know—I think men and women do have a lot of differences—but also have a lot of similarities…. Human needs and desires are human needs and desires.

KK: LA becomes the backdrop for the novel, but more than that, it’s almost another messy, flawed character. What kind of role does LA play in your writing? Why did you set the scene of most of the stories in LA? What kind of effect does LA have on the stories as opposed to misadventures in a more rural town?

SJ: Honestly, I think I often choose LA as a setting because I don’t want to spend a lot of time doing research about other settings—I have very little time to dedicate to writing as it is, so I don’t want to spend that time googling things. And maybe more than that, I do like to experience places I write about—yet I’m also reluctant to move anywhere for a significant period of time or to write “tourist” stories, you know, those protagonist visits a new place as an American tourist or as a writer at a writing conference / retreat / college speaker type stories and has interesting thoughts about the place and some odd adventures type stories….

Despite all the social media networks today, I think it’s still tough for people to figure out what events are happening, what workshops are available, what little communities exist, especially if you’re just starting out as a writer….

I think it would be cool to write a historical novel—I loved Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, for example—but when it comes down to it, I love reading those types of books a lot more than I’m truly driven to write them.

KK: You wrote A Guide to Literary Los Angeles: Find Your Writing Community in a Sprawling City. What made you realize the need for a literary guide to the city? What makes LA’s literary scene different than other literary scenes across America?

SJ: The short answer to that is that I knew a lot of writer friends and acquaintances organizing cool events and struggling to find a bigger, more diverse (as in not always the same dozen or two people) audience for them—and I sensed there were a lot of writers who wished they could be part of a literary community but didn’t know where to start. So I wanted to create something that connected those two groups. Despite all the social media networks today, I think it’s still tough for people to figure out what events are happening, what workshops are available, what little communities exist, especially if you’re just starting out as a writer….

KK: You interview fellow authors yourself. What do you gain from interviewing different authors?

SJ: It’s a cool chance to talk about a book I admire with the author herself. Plus, as I writer I feel like writing is intimately tied to living—like our ways of writing are ways of living, if that makes sense. So I guess through the interviews, I’m trying to better figure out how to write—and how to live—for myself.

KK: What are you working on now?

SJ: I’m working on a novel about a woman who leaves her orderly life in the Midwest, moves to LA, starts dancing, and learns to let life get messy—too messy. Trouble ensues.

KK: Which non-writing related aspect of your life influences your writing the most?

SJ: Right now, I guess the salsa dancing aspect, since that’s a big topic in the novel I’m writing.

KK: Is there anything you feel like I should have asked you that I didn’t?

SJ: No. And thank you!

 

Kori Kessler has work published in Tiferet Journal. Currently, she is traveling Europe and attends Antioch University Los Angeles. She is co-associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket. One of these days she plans on settling down in LA with her dog, Ginsberg.

After Winter, Intrinsic Silence

Gabo Finalist Summer/Fall 2018

[bilingual poetry]

The first cable-car ride
brings him before tourists,
far above the daily concerns,
where a trail climbs and winds
in the shades of ancient woods.
A trunk and moss can be heard,
but many a tree leaf is gasping,
when the largest deer on earth
stops at six yards, watching.
From top to toe it forgot:
there are walking beings
who will gape and freeze.

In a mist over the waters,
an eagle breaks the prism:
above glistening grasslands,
almost still, it reaches no one.
The air extends an empty sigh.
Unnoticed, the distance is close
and returns colors to the world.
Nobody is getting in their way.
The molehill thinks it’s Mount
and a high oak muses light-footed.
I’m sure all is safe, says a young reindeer,
and weasel explores the absence of moving humans.

 

 

Oerstil
na de winter

De eerste kabelrit
brengt me vóór toeristen
tot ver boven beslommeringen.
Daar klimt en kronkelt een paadje
door de schaduw van een grillig bos.
De stronken en mossen zijn hoorbaar,
maar elk boomblad hapt naar adem,
nu het grootste edelhert op aarde
pal voor me staat, waarneemt,
van top tot teen vergeten was:
er zijn wandelende wezens
die staren en verstenen.

In de nevel boven water
breekt een arend het prisma:
over de glinster van het grasland
reikt het bijna roerloos naar niemand.
De lucht spreidt en zucht zich leeg.
De verte komt hier onmerkbaar
om weer een kleur te geven.
Niemand houdt iets tegen.
De molshoop waant zich Berg
en een hoge berk mijmert lichtlijvig.
Klein rendier denkt: volgens mij is het veilig,
en wezel verkent de afwezigheid van een mens in beweging.

 

Arno Bohlmeijer is a bilingual author in English and Dutch. He is the winner of the National Charlotte Köhler Prize and a finalist for the Gabo Prize and the 2018 Poetry Matters Project. The BBC calls his work “Consistently original. Evocative. Strongly atmospheric, very distinctive and interesting.” He holds an MA in English literature and a BA in French. Visit his website for more information www.arnobohlmeijer.com.

LONELY POET, QUIET RESTAURANT/ ONLY YOU

[translated poetry]

LONELY POET, QUIET RESTAURANT

Words in the head, restaurant nearby
Clouds have amassed in the month of Asharh reminding of
Distressed days—streets are bumpy all over.
Who knows when they’ll be cleared of mud-heaps!

In these hours he has to find a way out.
Poetry and coffee are waiting for him.
Suddenly rain starts, with thunderbolts.
The poet falls down slipping.

His whole body gets smudged with mud.
Should he still go now?
He stands motionless passing hours.
Yet, does love stop its course?
It continues to stay even in distress.

Though streets are slippery, clothes muddy,
Walk, keep walking, don’t delay.
However frantic or antagonistic time is—
Don’t stop flow of poetry.

Is poetry to remain static?
After a storm, take a notebook in hand.
Coffee and light from the restaurant beckon,
Milk is replaced by memories, black coffee and words.

2.
Flowers in the vase dispensing rain-soaked smell
Create illusion in the restaurant at night.
Whose unfurled hair falls on the lonesome chest?
The crazy Padma devours land during Asharh.

Fire flares up, wants to jump straight—
It’s not easy to forget burning.
The poet went to stars, not the past
That day he knew the heavenly touch.

Now flowers and hair smell the same.
Now it’s only smell, only darkness.

3.
The smell of steaming coffee. Two flowers drawn in a plate
Have hugged each other in two long stalks.
The poet came to the restaurant many times
And endured pangs
Of separation alone. This Asharh it rained a lot.

The notebook to write poetry is nearby.
Alone in the restaurant, the poet continues
Sipping coffee.
Vast is the world, everything can be
A subject matter of poetry.
But today there’s nothing except a
Sole face.

The first light of dawn falls on the face every day.
Love continues—but coffee ends
As he keeps sipping.

4.
She’s gone, but the poet is still in the restaurant.
He slowly pours black coffee in a white plate.
This is that chair, this is that table.
Still blue, window curtains rustle.
Loneliness is white, death deep black.
What made life meaningful was lost in an instant.

Flowers and ashtrays are still on the table.
Only she’s no more. Ash in the ashtray flies
In despondent air as a reminiscence today.
The flowers still smell in the restaurant.
Light goes out in a river of memory.
The fountain pen has water instead of ink.

 


ONLY YOU

Leaving you behind
Can I go anywhere?
You’re my flag, the delta of agriculture.

Dream of my palms, you’re the smell of aman rice
Brush of my artwork.
Rhythm of poetry, you’re my words,
The very first utterance of a child.

Thirteen hundred milk rivers flow within you.
I descend from hills to the plains

Like a new strip of land, your cheeks are wakeful
You’re mine—in love, I’m yours.

You shine forth all around so gracefully
Wherever I go, I see you, only you.
Even in the dark, I feel you in my breath,
You also exist in the first light of dawn!

 

 

নিঃসঙ্গ কবি, নির্জন রেস্তোরাঁ

মাথার ভেতরে লেখা। অদূরে রেস্তোরাঁ।
আষাঢ় সেজেছে খুব মেঘে মেঘে-মনে সে করাবে
বিরহ বিপন্ন দিন-রাস্তাঘাট আদ্যোপান্ত খোঁড়া।
মাটির পাহাড়গুলো কতদিনে কে জানে সরাবে!

এরই মধ্যে পথ করে নিতে হবে আজ।
অপেক্ষায় কবিতা ও কফি।
হঠাৎ বৃষ্টির শুরু, ধমকাল বাজ।
পিছলে পা পড়ে গেল কবি।

সমস্ত শরীরে কাদা। এভাবে কি যাওয়া যেতে পারে?
বিমূঢ় দাঁড়িয়ে থেকে কেটে যায় কাল।
তবুও কি প্রেম কিছু ছাড়ে?
বিরহেও রয়েছে বহাল!

যদিও পিছল পথ, জামা কাদা লেপা।
হেঁটে চলো,হেঁটে চলো,দাঁড়িয়ে থেকো না।
সময় যতই হোক বিরুদ্ধ বা খেপা-
কবিতাকে ঠেকিয়ে রেখো না।

কবিতা কি থেমে থাকবার!
দুর্গতির একশেষ, খাতা তবু শক্ত হাতে ধরা।
হাতছানি দেয় কফি, আলো রেস্তোরাঁর,
দুধের বদলে স্মৃতি, কালো কফি, শব্দের শর্করা


বৃষ্টিভেজা গন্ধ ছড়ায় ফুলদানিতে ফুল।
ঘটিয়ে দেয় ইন্দ্রজাল রাতের রেস্তোরাঁয়।
একলা বুকে আছড়ে পড়ে ও কার খোলা চুল।
আষাঢ় এলে পদ্মা পাগল-পেলেই ভূমি খায়!

আগুন ওঠে দপদপিয়ে, লাফাতে চায় খাড়া-
ভোলা তো খুব সহজ নয় চিরে ফেলার ধাঁচ।
অতীতও নয় গেছেন কবি নক্ষত্রের পাড়া,
সেদিন কবি জেনেছিলেন স্বর্গীয় তার আঁচ।

ফুলের সাথে চুলের গন্ধ এখন একাকার।
এখন শুধু গন্ধটুকুই-এবং অন্ধকার ু


কফির গরম গন্ধ। পেয়ালায় আঁকা দুটি ফুল
দীর্ঘ দুটি বৃন্তে তারা পরস্পর জড়িয়ে রয়েছে।
কত দীর্ঘদিন কবি রেস্তোরাঁয় এসেছে ও
একাকী সহেছে
বিরহ বিচ্ছেদ তার। আষাঢ়ের বৃষ্টিপাত হয়েছে তুমুল।

কবিতার খাতাটি পাশেই।
রেস্তোরাঁয় একা কবি চুমুকে চুমুকে
পান করে চলে কফি।
পৃথিবী বিপুল আর লেখার বিষয় তার
হতে পারে সবই।
কিন্তু আজ সেই মুখ-একটি সে মুখ ছাড়া
আর কিছু নেই।

ভোরের প্রথম আলো প্রতি ভোরে পড়ে সেই মুখে।
ফুরোয় না ভালোবাসা-কফি শেষ হয়ে যায়
চুমুকে চুমুকে


সে নেই,তবুও কবি আসে রেস্তোরাঁয়।
ধীরে কালো কফি ঢালে শাদা পেয়ালায়।
এই সে চেয়ার আর এই সে টেবিল।
জানালার পর্দা ওড়ে এখনো তো নীল।
শূন্যতার রং শাদা, মৃত্যু ঘন কালো।
যা ছিল জীবনব্যাপী-মুহূর্তে মিলাল।

এখনো টেবিলে ফুল-ছাইদান পড়ে।
কেবল সে নেই আর। স্মৃতি হয়ে ওড়ে
ছাইদানে ছাই আজ করুণ বাতাসে।
রেস্তোরাঁয় সেদিনের ফুলগন্ধ ভাসে।
স্মৃতির নদীতে নেভা আলোর বিকন।
কালির কলমে লেখা জলের লিখন

 


তুমিই শুধু তুমি

আমি কি আর তোমাকে ছেড়ে
কোথাও যেতে পারি?
তুমি আমার পতাকা, আমার কৃষির বদ্বীপ।

করতলের স্বপ্ন-আমন ধানের গন্ধ তুমি
তুমি আমার চিত্রকলার তুলি।
পদ্য লেখার ছন্দ তুমি সকল শব্দভুমি।
সন্তানের মুখে প্রথম বুলি।

বুকে তোমার দুধের নদী সংখ্যা তেরো শত।
পাহাড় থেকে সমতলে যে নামি

নতুন চরের মতো তোমার চিবুক জাগ্রত
তুমি আমার, প্রেমে তোমার আমি।

এমন তুমি রেখেছ ঘিরে এমন করে সব
যেদিকে যাই তুমিই শুধু তুমি!
অন্ধকারেও নিঃশ্বাসে পাই তোমার অনুভব,
ভোরের প্রথম আলোতেও তো তুমি!

 

Translator’s Statement:

Syed Shamsul Haq, one of the leading poets and writers of Bengali literature, is best known as an ambidextrous author—his work is powerful both in content and style. Bengali speaking people around the world read and praise his poems and novels. His dramas, mostly written in verse, are also popular, and they are staged for a wider audience around the country. His work is also critically acclaimed, and he received all the great and prestigious national prizes for his outstanding contributions to literature. Haq deals with a wide range of themes, including Bangladeshi reality, love, human suffering, conflict, and so on. A major portion of his work features the Liberation War of Bangladesh that took place in 1971, resulting in the emergence of Bangladesh, though at the cost of millions of lives. A valuable poetic voice, Haq deserves to be translated into English for a wider audience.

As an enthusiast of poetry, I love reading poems, both Bengali and English, by various poets in Bangladesh and around the world. Besides writing poetry in English, I translate from Bengali, my mother tongue, into English. Bengali literature is very rich and needs to reach global readership through extensive translation. With that note, I would like to state that I feel inspired to translate major poets and fiction writers of Bengali literature into English.

Haq is one of my favorite poets, but it is distressing that he has not drawn widespread attention for translation, though a few works by him have appeared in English translation recently. After translating a few of his short stories, I have attempted to carry across his poems into English. It would be my distinct pleasure to translate a book-length work of the poet, and I look forward to the project. Translation, to me, is inevitable, because without translation we cannot imagine the contemporary world or build bridges between nations. Literary translation connects countries and continents, widening scopes for cultural collaborations.

“Lonely Poet, Quiet Restaurant” and “Only You” are among Haq’s important poems. While translating, I cast emphasis, in general, on the intended meaning of the original text. Instead of being more faithful to the original, I attempt to concentrate on flow and readability in the target language. The same is true about these two poems—I have attempted to keep the intended meaning of the original intact in the translation. Both poems are charged with deep emotion, so I have endeavored to render the romantic atmosphere for the target audience. Without hinging upon the original, I have carried across the poet’s “mind’s speech.” Literary translation, no doubt, is my area of interest and passion, and translating Bengali poetry for international readers is always special for me. Translating Haq’s work into English, thus, gives me immense pleasure.

 

Mohammad Shafiqul Islam is author of three books: Wings of Winds (Poetry, 2015), Humayun Ahmed: Selected Short Stories (Translation, 2016), and Aphorisms of Humayun Azad (Translation, 2017). In February 2017, he was a poet-in-residence at the Anuvad Arts Festival, India, and his poetry and translation have appeared in Critical Survey, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Poem, SNReviewReckoning, Dibur, Armarolla, Light, Bengal Lights, and elsewhere. His work has been anthologized in a number of books, including The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English, Assam University, India, and teaches English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh.

Syed Shamsul Haq (1935-2016), a leading Bangladeshi poet, is also widely known as an ambidextrous writer and a renowned playwright. Haq chose writing as the sole profession for his livelihood, an example which is rare in the history of Bengali literature. He enriches Bengali literature by contributing a wide range of poetry, fiction, and drama. His work features Bangladeshi reality along with universal themes of literature. He received prestigious literary prizes, including Ekushey Padak, Bangla Academy Award, and Independence Award. His notable works include Payer Awaj Pawa Jai, Nuruldiner Sara Jibon,Khelaram Khele Ja, Duratwa, Neel Dongshan, Nishiddho Loban, and Boishekhe Rochito Ponktimala.

 

Girls Only

[fiction]

Once again, here I am with a bursting bladder and a fried brain, frozen between two doors.

They mounted it overnight, cemented the rule so that there’d be no mistaking my high school for a safe space. The engraved letters of the white-and-gray sign, so new that it hasn’t even been vandalized yet, scream at me from above the bathroom door:

Girls ONLY.

It used to say Girls. That ONLY wasn’t there yesterday. And anyone who reads this new sign will know immediately that it was carved for only one person.

Me. The only student in this whole school who struggles to pick one of two options.

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re a girl, so just use the girls’ room.” Duh. It should be that simple. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Nothing is simple when people refuse to see you for who you really are. And right now, most of the people in my life refuse to see me as anything resembling the triangle-dress stick figure on the bathroom door.

Not all people, thankfully. My mom sees me, and I’m grateful for that. My best friends see me. The other theater kids see me. Hell, they were the first ones I came out to. They taught me how to curl my eyelashes, how to bronze my face, how to pluck my eyebrows (shape the arch with liner beforehand, and always pluck from underneath).

Screw this. I’m done choosing between a bladder infection and a bloody nose.

But my principal doesn’t see me. Neither do the prim, stone-faced sticklers behind the desks at the DMV. Neither do the other parents—I found that out the hard way when I tried out for cheerleading last month. The cheerleaders run the school, right? They’re the gatekeepers. The ambassadors. I figured if I could get in with them, I’d be in with everyone. But that was before their parents caught wind of my tryout and complained to my mom, in hushed tones over our landline, that the idea of a “boy” in the girls’ locker rooms and restrooms made them uncomfortable.

All they’d have to do is look at me to know that I’m not a boy. But they don’t want to look at me because they don’t want to see me. All they know is that they don’t want me occupying the same spaces as their daughters anymore. They bitched, and the school listened. And now, we have this sign.

I cram my knees together and rock on the balls of my feet. I only have two options and they both suck. The first is to just wait until I get home, but that will be five whole hours from now. I waited that long one too many times last month, and I ended up in the doctor’s office with a bladder infection, swallowing pills that turned my pee Gatorade-orange. My other option is to use the boys’ room, like the school wants me to. But I tried that, too, a few times, and the real boys weren’t having it. I’d come out of the stall to hostile stares. Unplucked eyebrows knitted in confusion and disgust. Flinching football players. You think those jocks are tough? Put them in a public restroom with someone like me and watch how fast the fear takes over. A few of them threatened me. One guy got so freaked out that he picked me up by my shirt collar and threw me out the door—slam!—right into the painted concrete wall. Again, I ended up in the doctor’s office, this time with a golf ball-sized lump on the back of my head and a concussion that kept me out of school for two days. And still I came back, expected by all to use the same bathroom that chewed me up and spat me out. Let’s see those squeamish jocks do that day after day, and then we can talk about what it really means to be tough.

The door to the boys’ room opens suddenly, and out walks a scrawny freshman with a Simpsons overbite. The kid gives me a look fit for a sideshow freak and clutches his math book to his chest, like armor, before walking away. He’s wearing one of those blue Coexist shirts. The irony is stunning.

I’ve now been standing here for five whole minutes. Any longer, and my history teacher will get suspicious about where I am. I can’t risk another write-up.

I tuck my hair behind my newly pierced ears (fake diamond studs from Claire’s) and check the hallway. Not another sophomore in sight, in either direction.

Screw this. I’m done choosing between a bladder infection and a bloody nose.

I yank open the door to the girls’ room and scurry into the first stall on the right.

Within seconds, all the stress of my day pours out of me and into the porcelain bowl, the stream echoing like xylophone plinks around the stall, as my eyes practically roll back in my head. Because I’m alone, I let myself sigh out loud. Sweet relief. I feel like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, lulled into a sleepy coma by the sounds of my own little endless waterfall. But I can’t forget that, just like Tom Hanks, I’m being timed, too. So I stand up and flush the toilet, fighting the temptation to just sit here in peace for the rest of the day.

Just as I’m about to leave my stall, the silence flies out of the small square space in a vacuumed whoosh. Someone has opened the bathroom door.

Three overlapping feminine voices bounce off the tiled walls. I scan the floor through the crack in my door: six grass-stained white sneakers come traipsing in. The little room becomes an echo chamber, and it sounds to me like they’re all refreshing their makeup. I hear plastic containers of eyeshadow or blush snap open and click closed. Sticky lip gloss wands plunge into puckering tubes. Faux-wooden hair brushes clatter on the countertop.

Her words paralyze me. All I can do is blink, my lips parted, like a wonderstruck child.

They’re gossiping, trading he-said-she-saids in scandalized voices, talking slow like they’ve got nowhere important to be right this second. For all I know, they could be in here for the next several minutes. Shit. If I stay that much longer, I will definitely get written up. I have no choice but to leave as quickly as possible. But it’s okay, it will be fine. I’ll be supersonic. I’ll keep my eyes down. I won’t even wash my hands. If I get out of here fast enough, they might not even notice it was me. It will be fine.

I take a deep breath and unlock the stall door.

When I push the door open, I see a trio of yellow-and-blue uniforms crowding the sinks. Skirts pleated and neatly pressed. Toned white legs, shiny from shaving. Ponytails combed to bumpless perfection, pinched by color coordinated hair ties.

Three cheerleaders. Six eyes on me.

“Oh. Hey, Tanner.” The blonde one speaks first, and I realize I know her. Actually, I recognize all three of them: they were on the field the day of my doomed tryout. But I don’t remember their names. A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. Huh.

“Hi.” I can feel my face turning as crimson as her lipstick. Dammit. Keep it together, Tanner. “Sorry, um, I was just… um… but I’m done, I swear, I’ll go now.”

“It’s okay,” the brunette says, holding her palms up as if in surrender. “You can use our bathroom if you want.”

Her words paralyze me. All I can do is blink, my lips parted, like a wonderstruck child.

I’m quiet because I’m waiting. Waiting for the snickers. The cutting hyena laughter that will echo all through the sophomore hallway. The cruel, roving eyes that size up my body and secretly judge my outfit. The yeah-right scoff that follows her invitation. But none of it comes. None of it. For a moment, the only sound is the humming fluorescent light flickering above us.

“For real?” My f comes out as a stutter—a tell of my nervousness. But when the redhead speaks, she doesn’t stutter at all.

“Yeah,” she says calmly. “We don’t mind.”

They all look at me, expecting some kind of response. But I’m still speechless.

The blonde says, “We won’t tell anyone.”

The three of them nod with solemn expressions, their eyes darting from face to face in conspiratorial glances. No non-theater-kid is this good at keeping a straight face. They’re serious. Dead serious. I’ve never seen three cheerleaders look so serious in my whole life. I want to tell them thank you, but the words don’t surface. And if they did, they wouldn’t feel like enough.

“Really, Tanner, we won’t tell. We promise. It’s nobody else’s business.” The brunette’s palms are still up, a wand slicked with pink lip gloss lodged between her fingers. “Girls only, right?”

The three of them giggle at their little in-joke. I guess it’s my in-joke, too. My lips curve into a cautious smile. But still I can’t speak.

The blonde seems to take pity on my loss for words. She slides her makeup over a few inches and steps to the side, freeing up one of the sinks. I nod awkwardly in gratitude and step forward to wash my hands. As I lather the iridescent soap into foamy bubbles, they all turn back to their own reflections and pick up their conversation like nothing ever happened. Like this is normal.

Like I am normal.

They probably don’t notice, but I’m still smiling. Grinning uncontrollably. Beaming brighter than I have in months.

I may not have landed a spot on the cheerleading squad. And it might be a long time before the adults get used to the idea of me wanting something like that.

But for now, in this sacred space, these triangle-dress girls have made room for me. On some level, they consider me one of them. And if I’m in with the cheerleaders, I’ll be in with everyone—it’s only a matter of time.

Just knowing that will get me through the day. And maybe tomorrow. And maybe the next day, too.

I dry my hands with paper towels, no longer in a hurry, and make my way toward the exit. The blonde speaks just as I’m walking out the door.

“And by the way, Tanner,” she says to me. “Just so you know, if it was up to me, you totally would have made the squad. That high kick was spectacular.”

 

Katlyn Minard is an aspiring young adult novelist whose short fiction has appeared in Moon City Review, 101 Words, and LOGOS. She lives in Los Angeles.

 

 

Encounters with Snakes

1981

When I am born in Taos, New Mexico, following my parents’ raucous 1970s commune living, my mom and dad agree they will not raise me with any religion. This means I will not learn the story of the Garden of Eden and the snake that goads Eve to eat the apple until much, much later. There is a conspicuous absence of snakes for the first few years of my life.

1986

Our driveway is the last stop for the Peñasco public school bus. In kindergarten I walk the mile-long dirt road to my house, accompanied by my cat Wailin’. Three hundred feet from the house I see a dead garter snake in the road. It is little and yellow-brown and very flat. I pee my pants.

1988

My dad decides to scare the Jehovah’s Witnesses off by opening the door naked. It works; they never come back. He also reads Native American stories and Greek mythology to me and my sister. I am fascinated by the illustrations of Medusa. She doesn’t scare me. Even if she were real, I decide, the snakes wouldn’t really grow back if they were chopped off.

1991

We live in El Petén—the jungles of Guatemala. I almost step on a boa constrictor—ten feet long and eight inches wide. “Culebra!” I scream to Orlando. He arrives quickly and hacks the boa in half with a machete. Both ends start twisting and curling and one end wraps itself around a dog’s neck, coiling tighter and tighter. Orlando hacks it off.

1996

My cousin Jessie introduces me to Ani Difranco’s music. I sing incessantly and memorize words to songs I don’t understand. One of my favorite lines is: “I happen to like apples and I am not afraid of snakes.” Ani is fierce and fearless, and at fifteen I aspire to such bad-assery.

1999

At my high school in India the biology students go into the hills to collect poisonous snakes and later pass a jar around at assembly. A bright red snake is coiled inside, floating in formaldehyde. It’s newly dead and as the jar sloshes the snake moves as if still alive. Are its eyes gleaming or is it just refracted light on the glass? When it’s my turn to hold the jar, I pass.

2001

In her book As Eve Said to the Serpent, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Imagine Eve as one of the few scientists to discuss the long-term consequences of her acts before she began her apple-eating experiment. Imagine what she and the snake might have had to say to each other about becoming symbols and scapegoats, about how they would be represented and misrepresented.”

2003

The snake pictographs on the cliffs in Gallinas Canyon are faint and hard to see. Apaches used to live here where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, and to them skin-shedding snakes provided evidence of death and rebirth, regeneration.

2005

I am introduced to Gloria Anzaldúa. We read “Entering Into the Serpent” in class. She writes, “Snakes, víboras: since that day I’ve sought and shunned them. Always when they cross my path, fear and elation flood my body. I know things older than Freud, older than gender. She—that’s how I think of la Víbora, Snake Woman. Like the ancient Olmecs, I know the earth is a coiled Serpent. Forty years it’s taken me to enter into the Serpent, to acknowledge that I have a body, that I am a body and to assimilate the animal body, the animal soul.”

I want to feel the elation she feels.

2006

I take my two-year-old daughter to the children’s museum where she likes to pet the corn snake. I watch from a distance, stroking my pregnant belly.

2007

Somehow I have never seen a rattlesnake in all my years in New Mexico. But my brother-in-law encounters them every day as he weeds his garden in La Liendre. His farmhouse faces an old ghost town. I shiver. Who would live in such a snake-infested place?

2008

Some people go through amicable divorces, I hear. Mine was anything but. I meet with lawyers in town who seem more interested in hitting on me than representing me. A friend tells me a joke: “What’s the difference between a lawyer in the road and a snake in the road?” I wait for the punch-line: “The skid-marks in front of the snake.”

2011

Riding with my first girlfriend in her red pick-up truck in Golandrinas, we see a massive brown and yellow snake on the dirt road ahead of us. She identifies it as a bull snake, not a rattler, and she uses a stick to nudge it into the ditch and away from danger.

2013

In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta I visit a python farm that uses python dung to generate electricity through a biogas system. When the snakes get big enough they are sold as a delicacy for a good price. The building is lined with huge cages made of wood and thick, meshed wire. One or two snakes occupy each cage. Each snake grows to about 20 feet long before it is sold. They appear to be a foot in diameter in some places. I watch as a man uses metal tongs to force-feed one python a dead rat. The snakes mostly sleep in an overstuffed stupor, but sometimes, I am told, a snake escapes.

2014

A woman I have been talking to online agrees to meet me in person on the banks of the Clark Fork. We sit near the water, our silences full to spilling over. A garter snake, pencil-width, is looped around the speared tips of the tall grass, staring at us. We stare back. The suspense between us shimmers in the summer heat until it becomes too bright to bear. Time elongates like the shadows. When we stand up to brush the dirt from our clothes, the snake has vanished.

2016

I peer at the mass of brown writhing in the grass along the banks of the East Fork of the Wallowa River. A den of snakes. I am reminded of the time, a few months ago, when one of my sixth grade poetry students stomped on a spider. When her classmate asked what it had done to her, she shrieked in response, “But it’s scary!” I want to tell her now that maybe Genesis is like the poetry we’re writing—there’s so much meaning in what is not said. I want to point out that Eve chose knowledge in the end, not fear.

In the fall, I teach Genesis to college students. Despite my attempts to point out that the Serpent is not named as the Devil in the text and that the Old Testament was written before the conceptions of Heaven and Hell were in place, the Devil enters my students’ essays as a serpent. I teach them Gloria Anzaldúa, then. Their essays whisper devil, devil, devil. I ask them to point to the devil in the texts. They cannot.

2017

I read the news every day and think of serpents. I imagine myself a rattlesnake, rattling my tail like a yucca pod. I imagine a million Medusas marching along Pennsylvania Avenue, my head wound with snakes writhing, snakes seething, snakes shedding old skin.

 

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor and teaches poetry to young people. She holds an MS in environmental writing from the University of Montana, and her essays and poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, High Country News, Ms. Magazine, and The Fourth River, among other publications. Emily is currently at work on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two kids.

Photo Credit: Nick Triolo

Contemporary Landscapes: Acrylic Paintings

Do Architects Name Their Buildings

Three minutes before the mudslide,
I sit in the gardenshed of you—
woodrot, pardoned
given to the carpenter ants.

I peel at plywood,
name my body a townhouse

built to be the walls of someone else.

 

 

One minute after the mudslide,
I am asked to qualify what happened
give it a name:

this is the passing, remembering
of something being built.

 

Three minutes after,
you name me stilt house,
call my body leggy and sound

not much to rebuild.

You ask me how I survived:
I show you the blueprints
pulled from your shelf.

 

Mariah Perkins is a poet originally from Grand Rapids, MI, where she came up at the best open mic around—The Drunken Retort. She is an MFA candidate at Wichita State University. Mariah is currently the Nonfiction editor at WSU’s literary magazines Mikrokosmos and mojo. Her work has appeared in fugue and Crack the Spine. You can also hear her work online through WYCE’s Electric Poetry.

 

 

Amy,

Picture the big
windy-soft
midcentury rain
rinsing the windows of
the San Fran hospital
where it’s the goofy
John Cage’s job
this afternoon to babysit
a roomful of kids whose
parents just
doors down are
dying, so silently
with his spindle arms
he mimes first
a fast breaststroke
against the window’s
water then,
even better, strikes
the roboto pose
of a broken clock,
his sputtering, spastic
hands snapping
back and forth between
5 and 3
o’clock, then 9 then
3 again, 11, and all
to get these poor
kids laughing—
and they like it,
they do—haywire, wilder,
the crackup pace
increasing, he’s
slinging sweat now
across the dimming room,
his face flush,
rusting from
the effort of enforcing
time in its ludic,
lyric mode,
time of no
one orphaned
and no one bereft, a kind
of metaphysical
childcare—
the kids rising to the sudden
lip of laughter now,
cinching their eyes and
stuffing shirt fronts
into their small
avid mouths
to stifle a sound
the rushing sense-
lessness of which
if we heard it
would strip us
utterly of custom
and warrant, like the sighing
curve cut
by stretcher tracks in ash
just fallen,
like the racket
toys make
when startled impossibly
into art…
But these kids, Amy,
they can’t make noise,
they’re in a hospital,
they know that, so
what are we
listening for?

 

Originally from Cleveland, OH, and a graduate of Oberlin College and Purdue University’s MFA program, Matt Kilbane is currently a PhD candidate at Cornell University. His work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Jacket2, DIAGRAM, the Best of the Net anthology, and elsewhere.

FOR THE FILMS OF NURI BILGE CEYLAN

[translated poetry]

He had said, My woman, come to the lamppost when the coldest night arrives There will
be a rock / Sit on it Or at least set your heart on it / The fog will envelop you from all
sides On this canvas of fog, your breath will be visible like sweeps of a paintbrush Even
in that coldest night you’ll remove your gloves / With your cold hands touch your belly /
Near your navel you’ll find images of my caresses those you’ll try reading in braille

A shiver will pass through the icy land of your nose

The coldest night comes only once in a year
Our coldest night will come once in our life

 

With my eyes closed I stand here
As promised under the lamppost
Sweeping with my hand a piece of fog
Trying to peer far across

My clothes fight the cold The damp that descends on them is an experienced fellow /
Says in its slippery wet voice Go home, girl… Go back home There will be nights colder
than this The warmth is presently away on loan

I do not know which night that will be
So I stand here from the first day of winter
My body becomes a thermometer

I hear the sound of someone coming
Whoever is coming is only fog

Whoever is coming will only be fog

My woman,
You’ve gone far away from me
Disappeared even from the sight of my
memory
That I cannot recognise your face now

That I cannot remember you
Just by one face

Things that reminded me of you
Came into being
When you left
This is how I’m bound to our past

Only an outline remains of a cold morning:
A shape filled with dots
Today is an eye
Yesterday gone by, a scene
A hazy h hangs between the two—

The niqab of fog looks good on you

 

 

नूरी बिल्गे जेलान की फिल्मों के लिए

मेरी स्‍त्री, जब सबसे ठंडी रात आएगी, तुम इस लैंपपोस्ट के नीचे आ जाना / यहां एक पत्थर है, तुम
इस पर बैठ जाना / न भी बैठना, तो भी अपने मन को यहां ज़रूर बिठाले रखना / चारों ओर कोहरा
होगा / तुम्हारी सांसें कोहरे के कैनवास पर ब्रश के स्ट्रोक्स की तरह होंगी / सबसे ठंडी रात में भी तुम
अपने दस्ताने उतारोगी और अपने ठंडे हाथों से अपने पेट का स्पर्श करोगी / तुम्हारी नाभि के पास मेरी
छुअन से बनी पेंटिंग्स होंगी / मेरे स्पर्श के चित्र को तुम ब्रेल लिपि में पढ़ोगी

तुम्हारे नाक की हिमभूमि पर सिहरन होगी

सबसे ठंडी रात साल में एक बार आएगी
हमारे जीवन की सबसे ठंडी रात जीवन में सिर्फ़ एक बार आएगी

 

मैं तब से अपनी आंखें मूंदे यहां खड़ी हूं
वादे के मुताबिक़ एक लैंपपोस्ट के नीचे
कोहरे के टुकड़े को हाथों से हटाकर
दूर तक देखने की कोशिश करती हुई

मेरे कपड़े ठंड से लड़ रहे हैं / उन पर जमा हो रहा गीलापन बेहद अनुभवी है / वह गीलापन एक गीली
आवाज़ में ही कहता है / मेरी मानो, घर लौट जाओ / अभी इससे भी ठंडी कई रातें आएंगी / गर्मास
अभी क़र्ज़े पर चढ़ी हुई रहेगी

मुझे नहीं पता, वह कौन-सी रात होगी
मैं सर्दियों की शुरुआत में ही यहां खड़ी हो जाती हूं
मेरी देह तापमान मापने वाला यंत्र बन जाती है

ऐसा लगता है, कोई इस तरफ़ आ रहा है
जो आ रहा है, वह भी कोहरा ही है

मेरी स्‍त्री,
तुम इतनी दूर पहुंच चुकी हो,
स्मृति की दृष्टि से भी ओझल
कि अब तुम्हारा चेहरा नहीं पहचान सकता

तुम्हें सिर्फ़ एक चेहरे से याद भी नहीं कर सकता

इस तरह बनता है अतीत से हमारा रिश्ता
कि जिन चीज़ों को देख तुम्हारी याद आती है
वे चीज़ें तुम्हारे चले जाने के बाद
वजूद में आई थीं

बस एक रेखाचित्र है सर्द सुबह का
एक आकृति है बिंदुओं से बनी हुई
आज एक आंख है
बीता हुआ कल एक दृश्य
दोनों के बीच एक धुंधला-सा ध है—

कोहरे का नक़ाब तुम पर फबता है

 

Translator’s Statement:

The poem “For the Films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan,” part of Geet Chaturvedi’s World Cinema series, appears in his poetry book Nyoonatam Main. It is a fine example of Chaturvedi being more a Borgesian writer who loves to play with intertextuality. He wrote his poems on Cinema after watching and meditating on various master filmmakers’ works. The poem is a delicious smorgasbord of impressions—a kind of conversation or poetic ‘jugalbandi’ held by the poet with the filmmaker—scenes from particular movies enmeshed with the improvised general mood created by the whole cinematic body of the master filmmaker. The poet’s voice keeps changing, at one level talking with the filmmaker, at the other talking with his lover, and at a much deeper level with the system. Fine experiments in incoherent form, the lines of the poem are like characters of a movie. They come as incomplete sentences and tell their incomplete stories. The completeness is derived from the many small incomplete instances that coalesce into one cohesive unit of cinematic beauty.

 

Anita Gopalan is a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient. Her translated poetry chapbook, an Anomalous Press winner, is forthcoming in 2018. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Words without Borders, Two Lines JournalWorld Literature Today, Asymptote, PEN America, Drunken BoatModern Poetry in Translation, Rhino, and elsewhere.

Geet Chaturvedi (b. 1977) is a writer of contemporary Hindi literature. He has authored seven books, including the highly acclaimed two collections of novellas, and two collections of poetry. His poems have been translated into seventeen languages. He was awarded Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Award for poetry, Krishna Pratap Award for fiction, and named one of “Ten Best Writers” of India by the reputed English Daily Indian Express. After spending sixteen years in journalism as the editor of Dainik Bhaskar, Chaturvedi spends much of his time now working on his novels Kavipriya and Ranikhet Xpress. He lives in Bhopal, India.

 

Boyfriends and Leftovers

[fiction]

After Dad left, Mom stayed up late at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine, staining her teeth purple and chewing the edges of her nails.

She did this for about three months. Then one day I came home after my last class—geography, I was in the sixth grade—and found her at her vanity mirror in her bra and leopard-print underpants, the scent of Diamonds perfume filling the room.

I caught my breath. “Is Dad coming home?”

My mother began rummaging through her closet; her voice was flat but commanding: “Oh, who the hell knows where he is.”

“Where are you going?”

She struggled to pull a fancy dress over her head without messing her hair and makeup. She gazed in the mirror, adjusting the straps. “Zipper me.”

Her bright red lips matched the polka dot pattern and I could smell the hairspray over her perfume. As I zippered her outfit, the fabric tightened around her hips and chest. My mother turned and posed like a model: one hand at her hip, one on the curve of her chin. “How do I look?”

“But what about Dad?”

The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man.

My mother crouched down to my level and said in a sweet voice, “You should forget about that man. It’s just us girls now.” She smiled as if I should be happy. Before I could respond, she grabbed her handbag and reached for the door. “Your sister’s going to cook Hamburger Helper. It’s like mac and cheese except hamburger gets mixed in with the noodles. There’s a package in the refrigerator, keep it there until you’re ready to eat.”

I sat on the chair with my shoulders slouched. My sister was two years older and was often left in charge. After Mom shut the door, Rachel poked her head out of the bathroom. “Is she gone?”

“I think she went on a date,” I said, perplexed by my own words.

Rachel hurried from the bathroom toward our bedroom. “I’m going to Kara’s.” She pulled a pink blouse off its hanger.

“You can’t go to her apartment.”

Rachel pushed an arm through the sleeve. “Why not?”

“Mom said you have to make me dinner. If she finds out, you’ll be in big trouble.”

Rachel pulled a shirt over her head and stared me down. “Who’s going to tell?”

She kept staring until I said, “No one.”

I didn’t believe what Mom said about Dad. He wouldn’t leave us. Where would he go? I pictured him sitting at the counter of a truck stop diner, eating chicken-fried steak. I wondered where he was headed. Maybe he’s driving home this very minute. I indulged this fantasy for a moment, even let myself get excited about the possibility, but then imagined what might happen ifhe came home while Mom was out on her date.

I stood on my tiptoes and peered out the window over the sink to see if anyone was in the courtyard. It was empty except for big fat Chrissie Lester, who liked to drag Tippi, her mother’s Chihuahua, through the tall grass as the dog tried to pee. I turned back to the counter, spun the box of Hamburger Helper around and looked at the pictures. It looked nothing like the roasts or chicken dinners Mom made when Dad was around. Rachel passed by like a breeze. “I’ll be back later.”

The door closed and her clogs echoed in the stairwell.

The apartment was quiet. When my stomach started to rumble, I opened the box and turned on the stove.

*     *     *

The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man. Most of the noodles stuck to the bottom of the pan and when I’d stirred in the hamburger the steaming noodles became cold. I’d fallen asleep with a heavy stomach, knowing something was wrong.

I rolled into my blankets. My belly gurgled and I heard what sounded like a pan being dropped into the kitchen sink. My mother screamed words she usually reserved for my father:

“What the hell did you do?”

Rachel jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen.

“Look at this spot,” Mom shrieked. “You ruined my table!” My mother was always wiping her kitchen table and matching chairs with a washcloth. When finished, she’d push all the chairs into position, stand back and admire the shine.

After cooking the noodles, I’d put the pot on the table and spooned them into a bowl. I hadn’t realized the Formica tabletop was blistering underneath until I returned the pot to the stove. I wiped at the brown spot, but it didn’t come off. There was a circular burn about half the size of the pan.

Mom yelled, “What were you thinking?”

There were no excuses when Mom was mad.

Rachel said, “I made a mistake. I won’t do it again.”

“That’s not going to fix my table!”

I was glad that Rachel took the blame, but then I realized she had to. If Mom found out she’d gone to Kara’s place, she would ground Rachel—for a year, probably.

“I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

Just then I felt a powerful slosh in my belly. I ran to the bathroom and yanked down my pajama bottoms just in time. When Mom finished chewing out Rachel, she called for me.

I wished for her to leave me alone, but the bathroom door swung open and there she stood. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Diarrhea.”

“You poor thing,” she said, waving her burning cigarette.

With my head on my knees, I saw a sideways view of Mom and Rachel standing at the door, staring back. My mother took a long drag off her cigarette and pointed at Rachel as she exhaled. “Look what you did. You poisoned your sister.”

Rachel lingered in the doorway for a few seconds and with weary eyes we apologized to each other.

I crawled back to bed and slept the rest of the morning.

*     *     *

Later that day, my mother pranced through my room, smelling of Diamonds and hairspray, carrying a cup of Kool-Aid. “I’ve got to run some errands. Drink this,” she said, placing the plastic cup on the nightstand.

Mom never ran quick errands. Once she left, it took hours for her to return. After the front door closed, I slid out of my covers. I felt like I’d just gotten off a merry-go-round. I sipped Kool-Aid while studying my map of the United States, following the trail of pins. I traced the routes Dad frequently traveled. Imagining his eighteen-wheeler rolling along the highway, I wondered where he was at that very moment and if he was thinking about me.

A scream from the courtyard derailed my thoughts. I shuffled to the window to see Chrissie Lester yelling at her poor Chihuahua. Chrissie said she hated Tippi because her mother made her walk the dog until it did its business, but I suspected she was jealous. Her mother dressed the dog like a princess, carried it around in a handbag and spoiled it with treats, doling out doggie bonbons in a baby voice. Chrissie was the same age as Rachel, but much taller and wider. The kids at school called her “The Blob.” She’d stayed back a couple of years and was now in my grade. Mom told me to stay away from her, pronouncing simply, “She’s trash just like her mother.” I avoided her around the complex for my own reasons. Once she’d smacked my hand with a stick after I tried to pet Tippi. When I threatened to tell, Chrissie handed me the stick and said, “Hit me as hard as you want. I don’t care. Go ahead.” I told her I wanted to hold Tippi’s leash and she reluctantly agreed.

Now, Chrissie pulled the miniature mutt in its pink dress across the courtyard. The dog struggled to keep up, but Chrissie tugged her along, practically dragging the thing by its neck.

“Stupid dog! Can’t you even walk right?”

I kneeled on the floor, concealing myself, and put my mouth to the window and yelled, “Pissy Chrissie!”

Chrissie stopped. I crouched so only my eyes peered into the courtyard. Chrissie put a hand up to her forehead and looked up at the buildings, scanning from window to window.

That was the thing about the courtyard; you could hear everything but you could never tell, for sure, where it came from. I waited until she looked in the other direction and shouted, “Pissy Chrissie! What a sissy!”

“Who’s there?” she yelled, turning around.

“It’s your Mama!” I hollered.

After that, I got the giggles and fell to the floor with my hand over my mouth so no one would hear.

*     *     *

 

We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag.

Mom seemed happier without Dad, which made life easier on Rachel and me. She’d tease her hair, put on her face and run out the door in a low-cut dress. My sister and I did what we wanted when she was gone, but there were lonesome days when I’d sit outside on the picnic table and think about my father. Our favorite outdoor game was Hide and Seek and the picnic table was always base. He would sit, resting his big head of brown hair in his hands, and start the countdown. Rachel and I would take cover around the sides of buildings, behind trash barrels, or between prickly shrubs. My dad was tall and more muscular than most, but even so, he never managed to catch Rachel or I as we made a mad dash for base. He usually feigned an unfortunate fall, lying on the ground groaning until we came close enough to grab and tickle.

“What’s the matter, crybaby?”

I turned to see Chrissie Lester. She lifted her big fat leg and rested it on the picnic table bench. I wondered how the hulking brute had come up on me so quick and quiet. I felt safe with the table between us, confident in my ability to outrun her. Tippi jumped onto the picnic table, panting and drooling on the silver-tipped collar of her polka-dot dress. I reached to pet her head but stopped halfway, recalling the smack I’d received last time.

“You can pet her. I don’t care,” Chrissie said.

“I don’t want to,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Suit yourself.”

I tried to think of something to say, but all I could think of were the terrible names the kids at school called Chrissie, the same names I’d yelled out my bedroom window.

“Your mother’s a whore,” Chrissie said. “I caught her in the basement doing something nasty with the landlord.”

I couldn’t think of a good response, so I said, “Your mother dresses Tippi better than you.” It seemed like a lame comeback, particularly since Chrissie and I were dressed almost exactly the same—navy blue T-shirt and tan Chinos—and Tippi wore a dress that looked like one of my mother’s date night outfits. Then to my own surprise I added, “Your mother dresses Tippi like a whore.”

Chrissie let out a real belly laugh. I didn’t know exactly why. She dropped Tippi’s leash and put her hand over her stomach as her head tilted forward. When she was out of air and red-faced, she sucked in another breath and laughed it back out. As I watched her, I couldn’t help smiling.

“My mother has that same dress!” I exclaimed as I pointed to Tippi.

Tippi licked Chrissie as she laughed, but then turned to bark at a figure in the distance. Holding my hand to my brow, I shaded the sun from my eyes and spotted her mother heading toward us. Chrissie saw her too. She grabbed Tippi’s leash.

“I gotta go,” she said, backing away from the table. “See you later.”

“Bye,” I mumbled, unsure of whether we were supposed to be friends now. Chrissie strolled away, gently coaxing Tippi along. She turned and said, “And I don’t care that you called me those names. It was kind of funny.”

*     *     *

Rachel and I never met Mom’s dates because they waited in their cars in the parking lot around the side of the building. She didn’t want them coming to the door. “You don’t need to meet them unless they’re serious,” she told us.

We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag. One of her first boyfriends liked Chinese. Mom didn’t care for Chinese food, so she always came home with little white boxes filled with General Tso’s or Kung Pao chicken. In the morning, when Rachel and I saw the white container with silver handles in the refrigerator, we’d say in unison:

“Stanley.”

Chinese was our favorite. We’d warm the leftovers on the stove and devour them at the table.

When Mom finally crawled out of bed, she complained about the smell. “Do you have to eat that slop so early in the morning?” she said, a cigarette hanging from her lips.

 

After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names.

While Chinese leftovers kept us happy on the weekends, Wednesdays became fettuccine Alfredo. Rachel and I knew, even before finding the gooey noodles soaked in a congealed cream sauce, that she’d been out with Morton. We could smell his cologne radiating off her as soon as she got up in the morning. We’d hold our noses and tell her, “You stink!” Mom called Morton the “Prince of the City,” even if she agreed that his cologne was a bit strong. She said he looked “regal” in his diamond-encrusted watch and tangle of gold necklaces. “Confident men aren’t afraid to wear jewelry,” she informed us.

One evening she bragged, “Everyoneknows him.” Her face lit up as she confessed, “No matter where we go, someone recognizes him. Always someone greeting him by name, calling him Morty, or Mr. Costello. We’re treated like royalty. Waiters give us the best tables. They bring bottles of wine, fancy desserts—always ‘on the house.’ I doubt he ever has to pay for anything!” She stood up, as giddy as a teenager and said, “I’ve got to show you something.”

She ran into her room and returned with a long, thin velvet box. She lifted the lid unveiling a string of bright diamonds. “What do you think?” Mom slipped the gleaming bracelet across her wrist, clasping the ends, twisting her arm side to side, allowing the facets to catch and reflect the light. “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you ever saw? He said it put an extra sparkle in my blue eyes.”

“Mom, your eyes are green.”

“I know that, silly. But you should never contradict a man who gives expensive gifts.”

Mom wore the bracelet on her Wednesday night dates with Morton. She would plan her outfit around it. If the dress or blouse didn’t go with the bracelet, she would strip off the garment and try another. Between dates, the bracelet remained tucked in her underwear drawer; but one day when she thought I’d gone outside with Rachel, she left her bedroom door half open and I saw her lying in bed, naked, holding the string of diamonds at one end, and letting them dangle across her thigh. She then slid them up over her navel leading them through the soft crevice of her bare breasts. I backed away from her door, hoping the floor didn’t creak, wondering what she was thinking about.

On what turned out to be her last date with Morton, Mom came home early with her mascara smeared. Rachel and I were still up, watching The Love Boat.We knew something was wrong. The fettuccine Alfredo she always brought home was splattered across the front of her blue cotton dress. A few noodles were stuck to her heels. Her hair was tousled, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. She dropped the diamond bracelet on the kitchen table and it fell into pieces. Mom pushed back a strand of hair that dangled in her face and said in Clint Eastwood calm, “The bastard’s married.”

*     *     *

After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names. Rachel and I preferred Stanley, or at least his taste in Chinese, but when Mom first mentioned Jimmy, we knew Stanley’s days were numbered. According to my mother, Jimmy was “young and fun.” Stanley, who had nurtured our taste for Kung Pao chicken for eight months, suddenly became “a big fat bore.”

“You’d think Dingle Balls could afford something besides the Mongolian Wok,” she complained, spraying her hair.

I laughed at her calling him Dingle Balls, even though I didn’t know what it meant.

“Every time I come back smelling like soy sauce.” She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray and pulled a flower-patterned dress from her closet. “I can’t stand sitting across from him as he shovels it into his mouth.”

“Tell him you want to go somewhere new,” I offered, fingering the dainty necklace on the vanity.

“Don’t be silly, Jane. That would be rude.”

*     *     *

Even though Rachel and I hadn’t met Jimmy, we didn’t like him. Mother praised him for being “lively company” and “knowing how to treat a lady,” but he never showed up on time, which made Mom crabby, and he never produced any leftovers—no doggie bags or Styrofoam containers.

This went on for a few weeks. Then one night Mom bounded through the door early, red-faced and panting, and headed straight for the phone. I stood quietly in front of the sink as she dialed the numbers and cradled the receiver in her shoulder, pacing back and forth.

“Go to the living room,” she said.

I couldn’t hear my mother’s brief conversation, but she hung up and disappeared into her bedroom, then went out again a half-hour later.

In the morning, Rachel and I found a Styrofoam container. Rachel grabbed it and held it out of my reach as I jumped for it. “Hold on, Shorty,” she said, placing the container on the counter. The Styrofoam squeaked open and we found a grilled chicken breast with onions and peppers. We looked at each other in amazement.

Mom appeared in the doorway, looking tired but happy:

“It’s Tex-Mex, girls.”

*     *     *

Despite the new cuisine, Mom was still hopelessly in love with Jimmy-No-Leftovers. I overheard her talking about him on the phone with Sandy Horowitz. “He’s so wild. It’s what I love about him. What am I going to do? He’s handsome and funny but the guy can’t even commit to a time for dinner… I know… I know… I really should, but I can’t help it, he makes me feel so good.”

I repeated, word for word, Mom’s conversation with Sandy Horowitz for Rachel. She rolled her eyes and said, “Big deal.”

“She said sheloves him.That means she’ll want to marry him!”

“Does not,” she said. “We’ve never even met him.”

That Friday, Rachel and I hid outside between buildings, keeping watch around the corner at Mom standing at the edge of the parking lot. She stood prim, her dress pressed and hair smoothed, but as the minutes passed she paced the walkway in her heels and cursed. She was furious, we knew. After a half hour, she gave up and stomped back to our apartment. Jimmy-No-Leftovers became Jimmy-No-Show, so we hung out in the courtyard to give her time to cool off.

The next night, a stooped man with a bald patch emerged from an old brown sedan. He opened the passenger’s door and Mom slid into the car. Rachel and I giggled because he was such a dork. His comb-over barely covered half his head and it flipped up in the breeze. After the car pulled away, we headed back to the apartment. I parted my hair way off to the left and flipped it to the other side. “Hi, I’m Sy Sperling. I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”

We joked about it the rest of the night. Could Mom really date someone that goofy?

The next morning, Rachel and I swung open the refrigerator door and gasped, “Oh, my God!”

Inside sat a white container with silver handles and a little packet of soy sauce resting on top.

“That was Stanley!”

*     *     *

The following Friday Mom got “ready” faster than I’d ever seen. She patted powder on her face at high-speed and wriggled into her red polka dot dress.

I told Rachel, “She’s going out with Jimmy-No-Leftovers, I just know it.”

At five-thirty there was a knock on the door. From the bedroom, Mom yelled, “Can someone get that?”

Rachel was sprawled across the couch. She poked me with her foot and said, “You go.”

I slid off the couch, hoping it was Sandy Horowitz lending Mom a handbag, not the landlord looking for rent. In the past week I’d already given him two lame excuses. I wasn’t sure why Mom stopped paying the rent on time, but she insisted that Rachel and I put him off. The landlord was an overweight man with hair sprouting from his ears. The first time he came collecting, I pretended I had no idea what “rent” was, and I told him I’d give the message to my mother. He returned two days later standing in our doorway picking his teeth with his thumbnail. I told him Mom wasn’t home. Looking me straight in the eye, he removed his thumb, sucked his tooth and said with a doubtful expression, “All right, then. Tell your mother. She knows where to find me.”

I swung the door open and saw a man with Elvis Presley hair.

“Hey, kid,” he said in a deep voice. He leaned back, glancing down the hallway. “Looks like I got the wrong apartment. I’m looking for Gerty Girl.” He chuckled, then corrected himself, “Gertrude Beckwith, that is.”

I stood frozen and astonished. I knew, even before my mother raced into the kitchen, heels dangling from her hands, trying to button her blouse, that this was the infamous Jimmy-No-Leftovers.

“What are you doing here?” Mom said breathlessly. “You’re supposed to—”

“I thought I’d surprise you.” He surveyed the apartment and focused on me and then Rachel, now standing behind me. “But I see I’m the one getting the surprise.”

Mom’s eyes widened as Jimmy did an about-face.

“Jimmy, wait!” she screamed from the doorway. He disappeared down the stairs. Mom slipped on her shoes and clattered after him, all the while pleading, “Stop, Jimmy, let me explain!”

Outside she tugged on his arm, crying, “Jimmy, please, don’t do this.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, but Jimmy kept walking. He pulled away from her with such force that my mother landed on the ground, but she reached out and clutched him by the leg.

That’s when I noticed all the people—neighbors, drawn by the spectacle—gathering. The landlord, out on his rounds, came toward our building. Chrissie Lester stood among the crowd, holding Tippi’s bedazzled leash. When Jimmy shouted at my mother to let go of his leg, Tippi bared her teeth and broke free, attacking Jimmy’s ankle. The little dog ducked Jimmy’s swats and bit and pulled at his pant-leg, barking and growling. Finally, Jimmy grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled himself free. My mother gave out one final cry, her voice cracking: “Jimmy, no! I’ll do anything you want.” Jimmy got into his car and tore out of the parking lot, leaving the air thick with burnt rubber. The landlord helped my mother to her feet and the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had gathered with low murmurs and shaking heads.

That night, Mom settled at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine. Rachel went over to Kara’s house. I sat alone at my desk, staring at the wall, following the course of Dad’s highway travels. Before going to bed, I took out the pins, folded the map, and dropped it into the wastebasket. Dad was never coming back.

It was just us girls now.

 

Lynn Wilcox lives in Connecticut with her teenaged daughter. Her young adult stories focus on issues such as neglected kids, body–image, and sexual initiation. Boyfriends and Leftovers is an excerpt from her young adult novel, Raising Jane, which was longlisted in the Mslexia International Women’s Novel Writing Contest. She is currently at work on her second novel.

Photo Credit: Dan Pope

Losing Faith

My daughter’s hand was gone. It took me only moments to slide coins across a counter on Santa Cruz’s boardwalk. When I dropped my hand back, hers was missing. In my left hand, I found the familiar grip of her five-year-old brother, Austin. As I used my chin to snap my wallet, I groped around to my right, searching for three-year-old Faith’s plump, soft fingers, certain they were seeking mine through the crush of people near the ice cream stand. I felt bony arms and sticky chins, but my hand came back empty. I pressed my back against the crowd to open the space where Faith had been standing. Gone.

A mile a minute: the speed at which an abducted child can be distanced from her place of origin. This statistic raced through my head as I shoved aside strollers and teenagers and beer bellies, frantic to find my daughter’s face.

“Faith!” I called out once, maybe twice, in a voice too weak to be my own. A tiny voice afraid of letting strangers know that I had lost my child.

I held tight to Austin’s wrist. He sobbed at my side.

“I’m going to miss her so much,” he cried.

*     *     *

I never wanted to be a mom. My friends feared the loss of their figures, freedom, or finances. But I feared failure as a mom.

“From the minute your child takes their first breath,” a mother once told me, “your life is no longer your own.”

As I used my chin to snap my wallet, I groped around to my right, searching for three-year-old Faith’s plump, soft fingers, certain they were seeking mine through the crush of people near the ice cream stand.

She said this the same way other moms did, not as a warning, but more as a source of pride for surviving the challenge. As if motherhood was a badge you earn when you’re thrown into the middle of a lake and manage to swim to shore. This was not a badge I wanted. As I listened to their tales of motherhood survival, I felt certain I would drown.

I never hid this from my then-fiancé, and I reiterated as our wedding drew near.

“I’m fine without kids,” Tom told me, eyes avoiding mine.

*     *     *

“Lady! Lady!” the carnie barked at me with an urgency that could only mean he found the child no one knew I lost. When I spun to face him, he offered only a consolation prize.

“Win this for your little boy.” He shook a green and black tiger plushie at me. “He’ll stop crying.”

Five minutes. Five miles.

*     *     *

My husband was the middle child in a brood of nine, a young helper with nighttime bottle feedings and morning diaper changes. Still, I was surprised in my thirties when he brought up children. I had checked off items on my youthful bucket list—trekked through New Zealand, promoted to management, bought a house—when he asked, “Then how about kids?”

He knew my list of reasons.

“Children are too unpredictable.”

He knew to listen when I recited them.

“There’s no guarantee they’ll be healthy.”

He even knew to agree with me.

“Parenthood is irreversible.”

But he also knew the story I told at neighborhood barbeques, about a clutch of his old girlfriends cornering me at his brother’s wedding. Our neighbors laughed as I feigned the role of victim in the story, acting as if these women had me pinned against a wall.

“You know Tom has always wanted kids, right?”

“Yeah, sure. I know.” I had no intention of letting his former girlfriends think they knew my husband better than I did. Their faces blurred together as doubt clouded the image I had of Tom and I as a happy twosome.

*     *     *

Tom knew I knew. And now he was asking.

I surveyed parent friends. Marriage had been a smoother transition than friends had warned, perhaps motherhood would be, too. I was surprised that the thought of being a mom no longer entirely panicked me. I poured the same energy into learning about childhood vaccinations and mommy meditation as I had for other decisions I deemed of equal importance: moving solo across the country, working my way through college, accepting a high-stress job offer. When fear swelled in my chest, I reminded myself of those successes. Convinced of my abilities and encouraged by Tom’s baby-tending experience, I decided I wouldn’t drown.

*     *     *

Eight minutes—eight miles—had passed since I lost Faith. A mustached man with red-veined eyes pressed too close against me as he passed, the oily scent of fries mingling with his Budweiser breath. Children screamed out to me above the clanging metal of rides that jerked them left and right, back and forth. I was light-headed and sick, on my own private ride, jostled by sweat-slicked adults, their children safe at their sides. The boardwalk’s mob of strangers, most disguised as parents, crisscrossed in front of me, north and south, east and west, all potential predators. I struggled to breathe as I looked over the sea of heads. The erratic flow spilled onto the beach on one side and down to the busy city street on the other. My heart pounded in my ears.

Minutes and miles ticked away. Austin continued to sob.

*     *     *

Our son came into the world tawny, towheaded, and calm—already possessing traits of the lifeguard he would become. When we eased him into his crib his first night at home, he fell fast asleep, seamlessly transitioning into our lives. Buoyed by the ease with which he joined us, Tom and I decided to have a second child. Surely our next baby would be just as easy.

 

I had them fooled, my family and friends. No one knew how I fretted and floundered. Just as I had feared, there were so many opportunities—from food to discipline to boardwalks—to fail my children.

We chose the name Faith as a testament to Tom’s confidence that I would master this full immersion into motherhood.

“Have faith,” he told me. A year later I did.

Our baby girl arrived screaming and hairy all over. Faith was what my dad called a handful, her months of colicky crying a sharp contrast to Austin’s contented calm. I wore smooth the hardwood floor in her nursery as I tried to soothe both her and me. Too new to motherhood, I didn’t know that Faith’s colic would pass; instead it reinforced my fears of life with children. Our first baby was an easy float on the lake. With my new inconsolable baby, I was losing sight of the shore.

*     *     *

The reverberation of the rollercoaster rattled the boardwalk beneath our feet. Ten minutes—ten miles—had passed since Faith’s hand slipped from mine. I pulled Austin along, retracing our steps back to the ice cream stand, wanting to convince myself I could turn back the clock, erase my error. I tried to focus at a three-year old’s level. Cotton-candied hands, plushie prizes, and tails of tickets passed by in a blur. When our backtracking resulted in only the passage of precious minutes, my chest squeezed tighter. A high-pitched cry of “Mommy!” whirled me around. Three feet away I saw a pig-tailed kernel of a girl with her arms outstretched towards a beleaguered, but competent, mom.

Twelve minutes. Twelve miles.

*     *     *

On one of our kids’ first trips to the beach, I kept Faith corralled as she scurried about in the sand while Tom dipped Austin’s toes in the water at the ocean’s edge. They hit like people say they do, those rogue waves. I heard the crash behind me and turned to see Tom chasing after Austin into the surf. Austin disappeared into a wave as fast and easily as Faith disappeared into the crowd on the boardwalk. But Tom’s reaction was quick and spot-on. He lunged over the next wave and plunged his arm into the sea. When he lifted it, he held a handful of Austin’s white hair, Austin gasping. Another wave tumbled them out of the water and onto the sand. Tom sputtering, Austin wailing.

*     *     *

Austin slowed my search, stumbling along beside me. I scanned the crowd for an information booth, a person of authority, but found none. I pushed through the back door of the ice cream stand, startling the two teenagers inside.

“Please, please watch my son.” My voice shook. “I’ve lost my daughter and have to find her.”

“We can’t do that ma’am.”

“Is there someone I can call? Is there a security person, a phone number, anything?”

They answered with shrugs.

Even if they had answers, I couldn’t describe my daughter’s appearance with any clarity. I squeezed my eyes shut but my jumbled brain couldn’t recall the clothes she wore, the length of her hair, or even the color of her eyes. I was failing as a mom. With the teenagers’ attention turned back to customers, I planted Austin inside the doorway of their booth—their protests be damned—and took a step toward the boardwalk crowd. Austin stumbled a step or two as he tried to follow me.

“Don’t you move!” I shook a finger at him. “You stay there!”

He backed up into the doorway, sobbing and rocking. He was not my adventurer. I pressed back into the crowd.

*     *     *

Faith was barely three when she developed a penchant for talking. At the library, the pool, the grocery store, her round face bubbled up to anyone who would listen.

My mom warned me about this. “You have to stop her. Faith should feel frightened by strangers.”

I had a tough time teaching fear. Faith had no problem ignoring it.

During our group walks home from Austin’s kindergarten, Faith often led the conversations, walking backwards, sideways, whichever way ensured that everyone could hear her. One day, as she animated a story, she stepped off the curb right into the path of an oncoming school bus. I grabbed for her but caught only air. My core went cold. A quick-acting crossing guard plucked her from the street.

*     *     *

Fifteen minutes. Fifteen miles.

At the boardwalk, thoughts of these near misses—the beach, the bus, and others—slowed my steps. I dug my fingernails into my palms as I tried to coax these memories into calming me. These near-misses turned out fine. Instead my breathing shallowed. What if we had used up our mistakes? What if this one was fatal? I had neither Tom nor that crossing guard there to rescue my child.

I pictured Austin alone at the ice-cream stand and pushed through the crowd to get back to him. One of the teenagers stood beside Austin, not comforting him, but keeping a watchful eye. When Austin saw me, he bolted from the booth and wrapped himself around my legs. The relief I felt dissolved as I pictured his life without his sister.

*     *     *

I had them fooled, my family and friends. No one knew how I fretted and floundered. Just as I had feared, there were so many opportunities—from food to discipline to boardwalks—to fail my children. And there was more. I hadn’t foreseen how my own resilience would be tested and retested as I saw my children fall and recover and fall again. Cradling my shivering baby in an emergency room made me stronger and more vulnerable; pausing to watch snails crawl with Austin made me more relaxed and more alert; hearing Faith sing made me full-hearted and soul-stretched. The soft pastel intensity of my life with children melded together fear and fulfillment in such a way that I had to remind myself to breathe. Motherhood shaped me into a person that I could not have come to be by any other means. And I liked that person, however flawed.

*     *     *

Twenty minutes after I lost Faith on the boardwalk, my teary-eyed daughter was returned to me. She had crossed the busy street alone to look for our car, following instructions I had given on a different outing. Kind strangers found my three-year-old wandering two city-blocks away. Once Faith told them what happened, they brought her back to the boardwalk.

When I spotted her threading towards me through the crowd, I took my first full breath. I sank to my knees and scooped her into the circle of Austin and me. There, on the sun-soaked boardwalk, the three of us clung to each other, rocking and crying and laughing as the rollercoaster roared on by.

 

MJ Lemire is a Northern California writer whose work has appeared in Literary Mama, Cosumnes River Journal and elsewhere. She’s been a regular columnist for UC Davis’ In the Know and fiction editor of American River Review. Currently working on a collection of essays, MJ divides her time between her writing, her family, and teaching local first graders how to read.

Photo credit: Faith Lemire-Baeten.

 

Transfigured Migrations: Mixed Media

Tony Lewis, Jr., Author

Tony Lewis, Jr is a husband, father, son, author and activist. He works diligently, fighting for the rights of incarcerated men and women who have left family behind. But most importantly, he is fighting for the DCPS school system to offer aid to children who have an incarcerated parent. He also uses his voice to support inmates re-entering the community. His father is serving a life sentence in prison for his involvement in the DC drug trade during the 80s. Despite being the son of a Kingpin, Mr. Lewis has decided to use his voice advocating for social justice, in addition to changing the legacy and meaning behind the name “Tony Lewis.”

Mr. Lewis’s hard work and dedication has been featured on Elite Daily, CNN, BET, in the Washington Post, and most recently on The Breakfast Club Power 105.1 radio broadcast. He has also garnered awards such as the Steve Harvey/Ford Motor Company “Best Community Leader” award and the Presidential Call to Service award. His career accomplishments include his first book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2015), which he uses as a blueprint for children and young teens to use as a survival guide, aiding them through the difficult moments of losing a parent to incarceration. Mr. Lewis’s commitment to communities and social justice has been lifelong and continuing.

Tony Lewis, Jr. and I conducted our interview in person in early January 2018.

Shaneka Cook: In your book you talk a lot about your mother’s mental illness. Why do you think mental illness and depression are such taboo issues in our community when our community could benefit from honest discussion about this topic?

Tony Lewis: Yeah, that’s a great question. I was so transparent about my mother’s situation in hopes that I would in some way chip away at that stigma and it was very strategic. … It was very difficult for me to talk about it and be so transparent, but at the same time my hope is that it will help people, that it will free people to know that this is something that you could talk about, that this is not something that just the pastor can fix, right. You have to seek professional help and it’s OK to do that, and I’m even honest about me going to see a psychiatrist later on in the book. … So that comfortability came from a lifetime of dealing with my mother’s issues and being right there with her as she went through her battles.

You really have to look at the correlation between mass incarceration and the destabilization of communities, how many poor people were in Washington, how many people rented in Washington, how easy it was to displace folks and like you said, it’s capitalism and the agenda to quote on quote “redevelop Washington or improve Washington from the infrastructure standpoint and the development standpoint,” but nobody develops people.

Why is it stigma—­­I think in the black community it’s been something that’s just been swept under the rug. It’s gone undiagnosed. I think poverty and things of that nature play a part in it as well. It was something you were hushed about, or like I said, some people were told to go see [their] pastor and pray about it and not look at it as just a health issue and one that we can deal with. … This is just the shame that comes along with having a mentally ill relative or loved one. This is something we don’t understand, why a person is behaving the way that they are, acting the way that they are. I wanted Slugg to be a bridge for that, for our community, in mental health. I’ve heard that actually over the last two years that [Slugg] has been out, readers have talked about that. I’m glad that you touched on that, I didn’t want people to know my mother was like that, or my aunt or my cousin or my girlfriend was like that. So, I can only hope it can touch hearts and minds and souls to let people know that there’s no problem with having [mental health] issues. We’re all human and we go through things and we need to seek help, professional help.

SC: I believe mental illness runs in my family. I thought maybe something was wrong with me, and I too went to speak with a therapist. When I finished talking, the therapist informed me there was nothing wrong with me, and the entire time I talked about my relationship with my father. She suggested I start there, fixing the relationship I have with him. Like you said, they always say, go to church and pray, talk to the pastor. We have to really let people know there is nothing wrong with seeking help, and this behavior can be treated.

TL: That is so true and not to devalue the pastor, the priest, the rabbi, or the Imam or none of that, but at the same time if you break your leg that is not the first person you are going to go to see. So we have to look at a mental illness the same way. We just have to let people know that that it is OK and remove that shame.

SC: Ever since I read your book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, there have been a few questions that have stuck with me. In the book, you describe your experience growing up with a father who had been very successful in the drug trade, who you then lost at age nine to incarceration. In your book, you talk a lot about spending time with your father. If he was released today, what would you do with him, just you and him alone? 

TL: I would probably just sit down and have dinner and talk, something we haven’t been able to do in terms of having dinner together. I would ride around the city. I would enjoy just riding with him around the city so he can see how much it’s changed and watch his reaction to that. Probably go to the movies, go bowling. I know you said just he and I, but [I would like] to have him accompany me to see what I do in the community. Just stuff like that; I would really be looking forward to spending time with him. We could just be sitting on a bench somewhere, it wouldn’t really matter.

SC: Slugg touches on so many issues in the Black community. You wrote about gentrification in your childhood neighborhood located in DC on Hanover Place. My grandparents once owned a home in DC in the H Street, NE area. Today that area has evolved and changed in ways that I can no longer recognize the old neighborhood. Despite our city changing, there is still homelessness, and unfortunately the poor are being driven out into Maryland and even Virginia. I believe gentrification is just another example of capitalism at its best. How do you feel about the issues of gentrification that are specific to the Black community in DC? 

TL: I think gentrification has to be looked at in the District of Columbia in a more intensive way than anywhere, any place in America, in terms of its impact, because you’ve never had a place in America that was this black, so the displacement of black people in the last twenty years in the District of Columbia has been so intense—the volume, the speed, neighborhoods of one hundred percent African American has almost turned into being one hundred percent white and you really have to think about that. How it happens, why it happens.

You really have to look at the correlation between mass incarceration and the destabilization of communities, how many poor people were in Washington, how many people rented in Washington, how easy it was to displace folks and like you said, it’s capitalism and the agenda to quote on quote “redevelop Washington or improve Washington from the infrastructure standpoint and the development standpoint,” but nobody develops people.

So you know DC once was Chocolate City, seventy-five, eighty percent black, now you look up, it’s forty-eight percent black, and that forty-eight percent, majority of them live in Wards 7 and 8. And so Wards 1 through 6 are only about eighteen percent black, and you see neighborhoods like mine where again, were once one hundred percent African American. I don’t even know what the overall demographics are, but I do know the overall white population has risen to forty, fifty percent in a ten-year span. Some of those numbers are unheard of anywhere else. To me that’s the biggest threat to black existence.

Our black people are vanishing. It’s particularly the native Washingtonian. You know, I’m gonna drill that down just a little bit more, it’s not just about Black people, I’m talking about people born here. That population has dwindled down, that population is now forty-eight percent. I don’t even know what that population is, if you just talked about purely native Washingtonian. You look around at jobs, you look around in the social scenes; you don’t run into native Washingtonians in Washington. Take a place like New York City, 8,000,000 people, the most cosmopolitan place probably in America and one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth, right. People from all over the world in New York City but you meet New Yorkers; do you understand what I’m saying? You will run into, will meet New Yorkers, everywhere you turn, you will meet them, someone born and raised New York City, but in DC, not so much. What happened here in the eighties, in the nineties, in the early 2000s, really laid the framework for gentrification to happen in this way and I do know that gentrification is happening in many major cities across the country, but none in the way it is happening here.

SC: Your mother didn’t participate in any of your father’s illegal activities, but she benefited from it and because of this she could have easily become Kemba Smith, the young lady who was sent to prison for conspiracy to participate in her boyfriend’s drug activities. Ms. Smith was aware her boyfriend did not have gainful employment and she chose to live off the proceeds from his drug crimes. Do you speak to young girls about the repercussion of having a drug dealer boyfriend?

TL: Yeah, yeah, I speak to women and young women a lot about the power of association and dealing with guys in the life, and not just from the threat of being involved from a law enforcement standpoint. But also, when you talk about the repercussions that could come from guys trying to rob their boyfriends or kidnapping the women, holding them as ransom or all of the above. That’s what comes along the way when you have a boyfriend that participates in that lifestyle. It’s just dangerous; it is not wise. I also talk a lot about them getting involved into illegal activity as well, whether it’s scamming or busting [stealing] or any other things, like fighting and assaults.

To me it’s super important that when people do return from incarceration, that we keep them here, that we keep them here in freedom, that we keep them here with their families because the children are only going to go as far as the adults go.

I work in reentry and women are selling drugs themselves. It has evolved from that time, in my mother’s era, the woman, she dated the drug dealer, but in my era and the eras younger than me, women have become the drug dealers. I just really talk to women about not getting involved in the criminal lifestyle, staying away from it, and don’t let love pull you in because when law enforcement comes into it, they don’t care. They’re going to take you to jail and sometimes women feel like they have more to lose. They are loosely involved, if involved at all, but they will use that leverage to get you to become an informant, so they put you in a situation whether, you know, either you’re going to help us send him to jail or you’re going to jail yourself. I am clear about that, with that to young women.

SC: There were times you escaped death and incarceration. I’m not sure if you are a spiritual person. Do you believe there was a higher power watching over you because there was a purpose for your life?

TL: I absolutely believe in divine intervention, that I was protected. That’s kind of my motivation, that is why I go so hard. I just feel like I was spared for a reason. I wrote Slugg trying to not only describe it but to kind of figure it out. I get asked that question a lot: “How did you get here?” I definitely feel like the Creator spared me and protected me in order for me to be an example for those coming from communities like mines.

SC: Have you considered writing a book with your father discussing how having an incarcerated parent affects the family?

TL: This was what Slugg was. I didn’t write it with him. Slugg for me was showing what happens in my life. The book is about me, but in so many ways is about us. What happens when the father goes to prison, how it destabilizes the mom and destabilizes that child, but then the bigger framework is when that’s happening all across the community, all across the city, all across the country. It’s showing how things devolve and what the collateral damage is of that person leaving his or her family and going to prison, the consequences that happen as a result of that incarceration. To me that was the real focus of this. But you know, this kind of really shows what happened in the age of mass incarceration when adults were removed from communities and as teenagers we were forced to make decisions and how the community and everything around it felt the brunt of that. And then you had a generation of people that was just lost. So, in some instances, I have thought about possibly writing a book about parental incarceration and its impact on the education system, and a lot of my advocacy has been around trying to have schools and teachers be more supportive of children with incarcerated parents. I feel like I might do something in that lane eventually.

SC: As a community leader, in the near future, do you have any plans on running for a political office such as mayor or city council? What do you think are some of the most important ways that those holding political office should advocate for our community?

I’d tell nine-year-old Tony to be strong, to make his parents proud. His faith is going to be tested, but he must hold on to it, be patient, show resolve, do what his parents taught him. 

TL: No! [laughter] And to answer that question about running for any political office, I am asked that question literally ten times a day. I get it, but I don’t have a political aspiration at this point. I never have. But I do like to be in close counsel with politicians and try to lobby and advocate on behalf of our people; so to your point, and the second part of the question as it relates to any responsibility for things they can do, they definitely have to create a policy and legislation that could empower folks, help people become a part of the process, remove barriers, address discrimination against people, particularly those returning from incarceration. I have tried to position myself as a person to influence them around that and to give guidance. Over the last few years we actually have had success in doing so. I’m not saying they see me as a threat, but as long as I can have an impact to the point where if they know I did run, I might take their job. I feel like they’re more inclined to work with me and help me out so I won’t run against them.

SC: The overwhelming mass incarceration of Black men and women in disadvantaged and poor communities has also imprisoned the lives of Black children. What are your thoughts on how mass incarceration has impacted the Black community?

TL: It has destabilized the black community. It has changed the dynamics of the family, what families look like. It really is something that has impacted us in measurable ways, and I don’t think people really even know just how deep this goes in the collateral damage that mass incarceration has caused in a black community, particularly its impact on children. It’s marginalized black children. One in seven black children have an incarcerated parent. That’s why I speak about the need for more mentoring or more counseling, more support, particularly via our educational system because the children are in school and not being supported enough around this issue.

To me it’s super important that when people do return from incarceration, that we keep them here, that we keep them here in freedom, that we keep them here with their families because the children are only going to go as far as the adults go. We have had this approach that we can say we can circumvent their parents and help them now. I don’t believe that, not if you want to impact a lot of people’s lives. You know, there always will be a shining star, like somebody who gets by, but we’re talking about numbers. We want to see most children make it, not some of them, so you have to have a plan that’s really aimed at helping the family and not just a child. Mass incarceration’s impact goes far beyond the person that is incarcerated and it may even hurt the family member, any children, even more because the person that is incarcerated is so vital to them. I hope this country can understand that.

SC: After all that you’ve been through and knowing what you know now, if you could travel back in time what would you tell nine-year-old Tony?

TL: I’d tell nine-year-old Tony to be strong, to make his parents proud. His faith is going to be tested, but he must hold on to it, be patient, show resolve, do what his parents taught him. That’s kind of what helped me get by. I never got outside of the values that my parents instilled in me early on in life, even when I no longer had them in my life the way that I had them prior to my father’s incarceration. But I also would tell him it’s gonna be hard bro. It’s gonna be extremely hard man, but you can do it though, you can pull through. As I think back, I’m still him in so many ways. I’m still that nine-year-old, just because I never got my parents back, you know what I’m saying? Like, that longing for that kind of thing, that don’t go away. Also, that’s been my motivation, because I know there are other nine-year-olds out here right now that’s just like him, and I gotta help them see their way through. I felt like Slugg was my contribution to them. I wanted that to be a blueprint—­here you are, hopefully everything that happened to me, or some of the things that happened to me, or that I saw and experienced, does not happen to you. But in the event that they do, here’s how you should handle it, here’s how I handled it, here is a blueprint or map I created out of some difficult situations. But nothing is impossible, no matter what happens, you can push through it.

 

Shaneka Jones Cook is currently preparing to graduate from Antioch University Los Angeles receiving her MFA in creative writing, with plans to go back to work on her associates degree in mortuary science. She is a former elementary school teacher who writes fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction, in addition to be a freelance writer. She’s been published in The Record (Trinity Washington University), and most recently Antioch University’s very own Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a children’s book based on her two younger sons, and a collection of essays about mother/son relationships. She is the founder of the book and poetry club Chapter Chicks. She was an assistant editor for Amuse-Bouche, and on the fiction team, and was a guest interviewer for Lunch Ticket. She resides in Washington, DC with her daughter and three sons. When Shaneka’s not writing, she’s either watching the Syfy channel or binge-watching Hulu and Netflix.

Learning to Leave Home

I

That spring
I counted hydrogen ions, followed waste
through porous membranes
into silent bio-soups,
waited for the nucleus
to wake.
It was
late in the last century: pale
blue moons and sugar cereals,
Baghdad statues coming down,
anti-aircraft tracers
loverly in the amniotic night.

II

Can you guess
where I’m calling from?

The county jail? A last station on the edge
of the last desert? Are you not

a friend of my youth, and is this
not the end of all things?

So I visited him in the hospital.
We read a story by Le Guin together.

The doors had no locks, not here.
Fishes and eels swarmed in pencil

on the table top between us.

III

The summer came. I learned
words I was ashamed not to know
already: apocrypha, Septuagint.
Even now these taste of barbecue
sauce, scraped from drive-thru plastic.

IV

By August,
the cheapest burger barn
had closed.

There were rumors.
The franchise owners
were forced out—

Saddam paranoia,
Texas sized. Even now,
the lot is grass-

groped, blank
as leeches sluggard
in the furnace jar.

V

All weekend I drove round town,
taking photos. Every shot stilled
a heart.

Tastee Treet, Sizzler
husks, dread Mobil chems.

The night before I left,
cops came to the door,

demanded
my cameras,
wiped the record witless. Wished me well.

 

James Miller is a native of Houston, though he has spent time in the American Midwest, Europe, China, South America, and India. He has published poetry in Riversedge, the Houston Poetry Fest 2016, Sweet Tree Review, Lullwater Review, Burnt Pine, Boston Accent, Plainsongs, Cold Mountain Review, The Tishman Review, The Maine Review, Bird’s Thumb, Straight Forward Poetry, Gyroscope, 2River (forthcoming), After the Pause (forthcoming), Main Street Rag (forthcoming), and Lunch Ticket.

You Memorize The Way Your Hand Lets Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Fleeing Syria

[self-translated fiction]

Sitting on the wooden boat, Farid shook from the cold.

It was night. The moon shone like a pearl on the smooth surface of the Mediterranean Sea. It was dark, dark like the smoke of fires, tragic like the body of his father, dark like the cave where Farid, who was only eight years old, had hidden with his mom and his five-year-old sister, Maliki.

Farid would never know what he had forgotten because at that moment a missile fell on the house.

One morning, two months ago, Farid was playing with Maliki when suddenly he saw his father running quickly towards him looking as if he was being pursued by a man with a gun. His father ran inside the house where Farid and his parents and all his ancestors had lived and yelled, “Yasmina! They’re coming! We have to leave immediately!”

His mom was cutting vegetables; Farid heard the knife fall to the floor. Five minutes later, his parents appeared outside with a bag full of their belongings. “Farid! Maliki!” his mom yelled. “Let’s go!”

“One moment!” his father said. “I forgot something important!” He went back into the house.

Farid would never know what he had forgotten because at that moment a missile fell on the house.

When Farid could see again, he was disoriented. Where was his house? Where was his father? He tried to get up but he fell. Finally he crawled onto the ruins where his house once stood and saw the body. And then he knew.

The voyage had been difficult. First they hid from ISIS in a cave darker than Hell. Then they walked and walked, and Farid really wanted to lie down and sleep and maybe never wake up again. His mom took him by one hand and Maliki by the other. They continued to walk, walk, walk in silence, numb.

Finally they arrived at a port. His mom knew some relatives, who had given them a bit of money. It wasn’t very much but his mom told him that it was enough. A day later they were on the wooden boat. His mom told him that they were going to Europe. Farid didn’t know anything about “Europe.” Where will they live? Will their neighbors be nice? Will ISIS find them? What will they do in Europe?

Farid sat and watched the Mediterranean, contemplating these questions. The moon shone like a pearl on the dark waters.

 

 

S’enfuyant La Syrie

Assis sur le bateau de bois, Farid a frissonné du froid.

Il faisait nuit. La Lune brillait comme une perle sur la surface lisse de la Méditerranée. Il était sombre, sombre comme les fumées des incendies, sombre comme le cadavre de son père, sombre comme la caverne ou Farid, qui n’avait que huit ans, s’était caché avec sa mère et sa petite soeur de cinq ans, Maliki.

Un matin, il y a deux mois, Farid jouait avec Maliki quand tout à coup il a vu son père en courant très vite vers lui, en ayant l’air que quelqu’un le poursuit avec un fusil. Il a couru dans la maison où Farid et ses parents et tous leurs ancêtres ont habité, et il a crié à sa femme, “Yasmina! Ils viennent! Nous devons partir immédiatement!”

Sa mère hachait les légumes; tout d’un coup Farid a entendu le couteau tombe au sol. Cinq minutes plus tard, ils ont apparu dehors avec un sac rempli des affaires. “Farid! Maliki!” sa mère a crié. “On y va!”

“Un moment!” son père a dit. “J’ai oublié quelque chose d’important!” Et il est rentré dans la maison. Farid ne saurait jamais ce qu’il a oublié parce que à ce moment-là un missile est tombé sur sa maison.

Quand Farid pouvait a pu voir de nouveau il était désorienté. Ou est sa maison et son père? Il a essayé de se lever mais il est tombé. Finalement il a rampé aux décombres qui était sa maison et il a vu un corps. Et puis il a su.

Le voyage était difficile. D’abord ils se sont cachés d’ISIS dans une caverne plus sombre que l’enfer. Puis ils ont marché et marché, et Farid voudrait bien s’allonger et dormir et peut-être ne jamais se réveiller. Sa mère l’a pris par une main et Maliki par l’autre. Ils ont continué de marcher, marcher, marcher en silence, engourdis.

Finalement ils sont arrivés à un port. Sa mère connaissait des parents, qui leur ont donné un peu d’argent. Ce n’était pas beaucoup mais sa mère a dit que c’était assez. Après un jour ils sont dans le bateau de bois. Sa mère lui a dit qu’ils vont en Europe, qu’ils ont de la chance d’avoir l’argent pour le voyage. Mais Farid ne savait aucune chose d’«Europe». Où habiteront-ils? Ses voisins seront-ils gentils? ISIS trouveront-ils sa famille? Que feront-ils en Europe?

Farid est assis et il a regardé la Méditerranée, en réfléchissant à ces questions. La Lune brille comme une perle sur les eaux sombres.

 

Michael Wang is a rising senior at the Harker School in San Jose, California. Like many of his American-born Chinese peers, he enjoys math, chess, friends, and running cross country/track. Michael cares deeply about issues of social justice. After reading about Syrian refugees and the ensuing U.S. ban on immigrants, he imagined how a young boy might feel fleeing a war-torn country. Michael is fluent in three languages: English, Chinese, and French. His story is produced here in two of those languages. He has been trained by his cat Pebbles to rub her belly when she rolls over on her back.

Photo credit: Zhe Yang

Yellow Roses: Digital Collage

LUST-LETTER TO ONE OF THE REGULARS

“look, we don’t know each other, but we don’t have to—”

just give me your careless, normal hunger—
i know we saw each other on that gay app
we won’t ever mention out loud irl—

i’ve served you the coffee breath that lives,
sometimes, in another man’s mouth—
you’ve seen me bloodshot and rude—

maybe you think it’s cute that i’m broke,
or maybe the tufts of hair i miss while
shaving my head turn you on, or you’ve

found me shallow and wounded on
the internet—you learned my name
and remembered it and milked it for

answers—none of this changes how
i feel about you, customer-i-have-a
crush-on. i still want to watch you

quiver under moonlight. i still want
to feed you your own soft wail until
we are feeling again. i still want

a man’s throat to hold my whole
religion, for him to struggle
my shirt off my lying chest

and still fuck me as a boy.

Linette Reeman (they/them) exist on the internet at LINETTEREEMAN.NET

Notes to Self

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

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

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

The last scud of day holds back for me,

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

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

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

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

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

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

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

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could not go to her funeral.

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

Elliot

 

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