Memento Meninges

1.

Despite my protests, neither my mother nor my father will concede the point. I was not, according to them, in my right mind when I called from a hospital bed at Ajou University Hospital. They detected something. An aberrance. Like an incoherence of speech, or a delirious register of voice. It’s only natural they would conclude that my memory of the episode is suspect. I was admitted to the hospital at Ajou University, a few blocks from my apartment in Suwon, with a preliminary diagnosis of viral meningitis. I spoke to my parents several times from my hospital bed, sounding—distressed; unglued? I was in a lot of pain. But I’m certain I was lucid. The pain no doubt hindered my capacity to speak in plain, clear sentences. The memories nonetheless are as clear as day—as clear as the taxi ride from Incheon International Airport; or the wide expanse of the Han River; or the heavy, stinging prick of the anesthetic needle in the Operating Room of Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital a few months prior.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert expounds on the shortcomings of memory. The brain doesn’t preserve every bit of palpable information that comes to it through the senses. Memory isn’t stored in its entirety as neuro-electrical equivalents of the sights and tastes and so on of our past experiences. So why does it seem like it’s all there? Gilbert explains that memory has a way of filling in the gaps of experience. This is less a glitch than a practical adaptation, one that allows human beings to remember the past with remarkable coherence, if not complete accuracy. Without this basic mechanism, memory would be too patchy and muddled to be useful. The artifice makes the act of remembering relatively smooth and efficient, an important function in the spontaneous, sometimes dangerous contexts of human life. For the same reason, however, the details of memory are often flawed. This is especially true of remembered feelings—details related to emotions and subjective experiences. It is the basic predicament of memory that its coherence goes hand in hand with its unreliability.

Much later, when I recall this scene in writing, I will want to sympathize with her. I will want to write—the nursing profession seems taxing and thankless and I genuinely admire the dedication of anyone who undertakes it. But here, in the crowded space behind the ER, my sympathy finds no channel to pass through.

The predicament of memory makes the writing of memoir especially hazardous. If your life is a story you tell yourself about yourself, then it is not a reliable one. There are plenty of things that can be recalled with accuracy: names; dates; even some dialogue. But experience is another matter. What does it mean to remember something that was felt vividly at the time, in a condition of sound mind, if not sound body? To recall it as if it were happening once more? Memoir isn’t reportage. The writer doesn’t take notes or speak into a voice recorder for playback later. It is remembered. And the past can never be made whole again. As Gilbert notes, to remember an experience with absolute accuracy would mean having to replay it in your head in real time, which would effectively paralyze us. We’d be stuck endlessly replaying memories and never attending to the present. Instead, we remember the gist, the essence, the bullet points, the threads that help us survive better. Memoir, wherein the past is distilled in language, is as much a process of deformation as revelation. It can only ever recall a past that is out of focus and extinct, and meditate in the present (that other perilous zone) where time slows down and hardens into some willful meaning. Therefore, it must be conceded in advance and without evasion that, as memory goes, the course of memoir will be more than a little—dishonest.

2.

I’m certain of at least one thing—all of the events will unfold and come close to being resolved within the span of seven days. It was Friday when I first noticed a dull pain in the node of my left armpit. Saturday, the fever picked up steam and dehydration set in. Sunday, I began to notice a deep ache in my right abdomen. Monday night, I was admitted to Ajou University Hospital. It will be Friday again when the headache finally subsides.

It’s late Monday night. It’s early Tuesday morning. It feels like Monday night. There are no vacant beds upstairs. I will remain in the ER ward tonight, or rather this morning. It’s just past midnight. I drift into a fitful half-sleep. When I wake, I’m lying crumpled on my left side. It can’t have been more than an hour. A nurse must have started an IV drip. And I changed into hospital clothes at some point. When I look down at the IV, I can see red running through the line. The blood is backing up. I don’t know for how long. When I roll onto my back, a red stain is revealed to cover most of the left side of my shirt. The sight of the large red smear startles me. I lift the gown to check my torso—no apparent rips or slits in the flesh—then carefully wheel the IV pole to the nurses’ station. I wave to one of them and direct her attention to the dark red seeping into the fabric of the shirt. She draws a small, quick breath. I point to the IV in my arm. She seems to register what has happened. In fact, she seems a little irritated, as if to suggest that the ruined shirt was the result of my carelessness. Her impatience irks me, and I in turn become irritated. I shake my head and hold up both hands, indicating something like—how’s this my fault? We talk over each other in our respective languages. I unbutton my top, and she hands me a new one. Much later, when I recall this scene in writing, I will want to sympathize with her. I will want to write—the nursing profession seems taxing and thankless and I genuinely admire the dedication of anyone who undertakes it. But here, in the crowded space behind the ER, my sympathy finds no channel to pass through. I don’t see the nurse standing in front of me holding a bloody shirt. I only see an obstacle frustrating my expectations—I’m the patient; this isn’t my fault; it’s your job to help me and so on. I can’t know what she sees standing in front of her—a frightened patient; an inconsiderate lout; one more in an endless series of interruptions; or someone in distress. I don’t know enough Korean to ask her what she’s feeling. I can only guess. And she wouldn’t be able to answer me in English. And anyways there’s no time and a million other things to do. It really is an admirable profession. I shuffle back to my bed buttoning the smear-less shirt as I go.

3.

It’s Tuesday morning. The headache, which will continue unbroken for the next three days, wakes me up. A man is leaning over my bed—a specialist from Infectious Diseases. He informs me that the most recent blood work indicates a serious illness. My head pounds up and down like a parabola. I ask him for something to ease the pain. I mistakenly assume that, lying inert on a hospital bed behind the ER, the drugs will come straightaway. They do not. In the days to follow I will make numerous requests for pain medication. My requests will be rebuffed with halting English and untranslated Korean. By degrees I will become paranoid and desperate. I’ll convince myself that the nurses and doctors are spitefully withholding the drugs that could otherwise mute this damn racket in my head like a damned TV that lands on static with the volume maxed out. Their repeated instructions to take Extra Strength Tylenol will be met with exasperation and impatience and more than a few sniveling protests meant to indicate something like—are you goddamn kidding me? What I will repeatedly fail to consider is the possibility that no medication can assuage the headache caused by meningitis.

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes, called meninges, that surround the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis, each defined by its underlying cause. Bacterial meningitis is extremely serious. Even with treatment, the mortality rate in adults is 19-37%. Viral meningitis, on the other hand, rarely causes death and typically resolves on its own. It will be weeks before I read about this on Wikipedia. For now, I’m mostly in the dark. My doctor seems confident that I have viral meningitis. I trust him. The aggressive, infectious agents in which he specializes do not bespeak his manner, which is one of unaffected regard. But he won’t be able to make a definitive diagnosis until my spinal fluid is examined. In two days, a young resident will extract the fluid with a spinal needle, a procedure known as a lumbar puncture or, more commonly, a spinal tap. The specialist says the lumbar puncture will involve “some amount of pain.” Something to look forward to, eh? No one responds to my mocking, rhetorical question because I’m speaking only to myself inside my pounding head.

A single-occupancy room is open on the eighth floor. No other rooms will be available for two days. A single room is not covered by insurance, but there’s no room in my head to worry about that now. Despite my very private and very expensive room, I won’t be able to sleep because of the headache. They say severe to describe the pain; they say the pain associated with the headache as if it were a business partnership. These descriptors are stupidly inert. They impart a technical designation. The classic 1-10 pain scale, another impotent gauge, is replaced with oblique words like mild, moderate, and severe. In the face of a real, honest-to-god pain that you never would have imagined (because no person in their right mind would), the numbers and words lose whatever substance they might have had in ordinary life. Perhaps someday far removed from this moment I’ll feel grateful. The ordeal will prove to be a test of character, and I’ll come out the other side stronger—or something like that. In the midst of its unfolding, however, I am not grateful. I’m ill-tempered, defensive, misanthropic. I recoil from words of consolation. And who gives a damn about personal growth anyway? Or the condition of my liver and kidneys, which could be damaged by the overuse of certain medications that nonetheless reduce the fever and diminish, by just a hair, the headache, and I’ll take a hair. I’ll take anything. My liver and kidneys can shrivel and rot as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get new kidneys. And my liver will grow back. But I swear to god this throbbing is going to blow my cranium wide open, and goddammit if the gooey insides won’t make a perfect mess of my very expensive room. When a doctor or nurse drops in and asks me to indicate my level of pain, I have no recourse to any meaningful response. Just grab hold of the sheets and make a fist as tight as you can and ride it out. They look puzzled standing over me unable to quantify what they’ve observed. For a second, I take comfort in the thought of them standing at the foot of my bed, covered from head to waist in the clumps and shards of brain matter and skull.

4.

I am sitting upright in bed. The door has been left open a crack. The opening forms a cleft through which the hallway light cuts down my face in a vertical dash. The light falls over one or the other of my eyes. I could close the door, but that would mean getting up. Getting up is a problem. The headache falls loud and heavy like a factory machine; its pounding coincides with the blood propelled by the pounding of my heart. If my heart stopped beating then my head would stop beating. The beating feels like what a heart attack might feel like—too much blood trying to squeeze through too small a vessel. I press my fingers to my temples. Trying to open something up in there. Nothing opens. But it’s better to keep pressing because the movement of my fingers is a diversion, a way of forgetting, if only for a second or two. I keep pressing and the pressing is a rhythm and I sigh after every seventh or eighth beat and the sighing is a rhythm and soon there’s a whole chorus of noiseless effects. These details—the door and the rhythms and the light—will one day seem like a sterile cloud, devoid of that potent agony of the present moment.

I will continue to not eat, save for some homemade yogurt one of the teachers from my school brings me. They will eventually have to start a nutrition IV and weigh me every few hours. And that’s how it will go for the next few days. Everyone will continue urging me to eat. But they don’t get it. And I don’t get how they don’t get it. And none of us will get it.

Movement, at the moment, presents a dilemma. It amplifies the pounding. But it is necessary—to avoid getting sore; to go to the bathroom; to change the cold wet rag against my forehead. The pounding arouses a keen awareness of movement. Not movement in a hypothetical sense, but the singularity of each and every movement. The pounding thus encourages a kind of kinesthetic efficiency. Even a few inches registers like forty dump trucks driving off a four-mile cliff, hitting the ground and getting reduced to a fine metallic dust. The relationship between pounding and movement is exponential—if movement were graphed horizontally and pounding graphed vertically, then a point less than one horizontal value would shoot straight up. Walking to the bathroom involves the longest and most dramatic movement. It’s so big and sustained that the pounding registers beyond any threshold of pain. For a second, it actually ebbs. And, so, going to the bathroom offers a tiny respite, a relief more acute than that of emptying the bladder. The insane pounding nullifies itself on the way to the bathroom. But because movement halts at the toilet, the pounding slows just enough to register below that neutralizing point as a sustained, concrete pain. Urinate with eyes closed. Walk back to bed. The pounding is neutered again. Get into bed. The worst of it comes when getting into bed. Unspeakable really. The pounding will slow in the morning. It’s morning now because it’s past midnight. It will slow when the sun comes up in seven hours. An hour of sleep, at most, will offer the only real break. Then it will be time to wake up and get looked over by all the people who mean to take care of me.

5.

It’s Wednesday morning. Presently a young doctor will enter my room. She will sit in the chair next to my bed and ask me questions—about my pain; my symptoms; my condition in general. Finally, she will ask about the quality of my sleep:

– Did you sleep well?

– I didn’t sleep.

– How long did you sleep?

– Not at all.

– Really?

– Maybe one hour.

– Are you sure?

– Not more than an hour and a half.

– I think you slept more than that.

– No.

– How can you be sure?

– I didn’t sleep.

It will go on like this for a few minutes until I fall silent. I won’t have an answer that satisfies her. I’ll even start to second guess myself. Wouldn’t the inflamed tissue surrounding my brain and spine affect my ability to accurately report the previous night’s sleep after all? Maybe the young doctor checked up on me during the night. Maybe she really does know better than I do.

Later, a hospital administrator will come to my room to inquire about my meals. Besides the headache, the other major symptom has been a persistent nausea—a weight on my abdomen that kills all appetite, gastric or otherwise. The headache and nausea of meningitis don’t amount to a cleansing sort of pain. They don’t clarify anything, like quitting coffee or fasting for a day might. They only blunt vitality and magnify every awful feeling, physical and mental, until any trace of cheerful confidence is scraped clean. The spirit, irradiated.

When lunch arrives, I’ll lift the metal lid from the tray to find a pile of pasta drenched in cream sauce. I’ll immediately cover the tray and put a hand to my mouth, heaving several times until nothing comes up. The administrator will arrive after lunch, the covered tray of food still sitting on a cart behind her as she addresses me:

– Do you not like the food here?

– I can’t eat.

– I will talk to the chef.

– I’m too sick to eat.

– We can change the menu.

– I’m throwing up an empty stomach all day.

– Would you like to try some Korean food?

– I can’t eat.

It will go on like this until a half-formed feeling fizzles inside me. A feeling of wanting to grab her and make her understand how I feel and shake her until she knows exactly how it is. Like I want to do to everyone who comes to see me. The empty stomach and the pounding head will preclude any action, or even quibbling, on my part. I will continue to not eat, save for some homemade yogurt one of the teachers from my school brings me. They will eventually have to start a nutrition IV and weigh me every few hours. And that’s how it will go for the next few days. Everyone will continue urging me to eat. But they don’t get it. And I don’t get how they don’t get it. And none of us will get it.

6.

It’s late Wednesday night. It’s early Thursday morning. Mrs. H has come to stay with me for a few hours. She retrieves a small cloth from the wardrobe and soaks it in cold water under the bathroom faucet and leans on the edge of the bed to press it against my forehead. She stretches out on the short sofa against the far wall and falls asleep. I remain awake trying not to move. She wakes up and asks me if I’ve slept. When I tell her no, I haven’t, she takes the cloth from my forehead and goes into the bathroom to soak it in cold water again.

Mrs. H is a teacher at the elementary school where I work as an ESL instructor. We didn’t meet for the first time until almost a year after I had arrived in Korea. She’s in her early thirties and seems to be filled at all times with a vibrant and persuasive enthusiasm.

There’s a reason I didn’t meet Mrs. H until many months after arriving in Korea. During that time, she herself was a patient at Ajou University Hospital. I picked up the details of her illness in bits and pieces after she returned to work. I was never able to assemble a complete picture of what had happened to her. But I’m reasonably confident about the following: Mrs. H had an operation at Ajou University Hospital; there were post-op complications; the exact nature of the complications remains unclear, just that they were very serious; Mrs. H spent several months recovering, both in the hospital and at home. After I’m discharged, Mrs. H will describe her experience to me in some detail. She will tell me about the medication she was given every day, several times a day, to relieve her pain. She will describe the stabbing sensations that afflicted her whole abdomen day and night, as if her organs were simultaneously riven from the inside. She will convey the sense of the pain by miming the gnarled contortions to which her body succumbed. She will note how the effects of the medication disappeared after only a short while, leaving her in a fit of panicked anguish. She will tell me how she thought she was going to die and received visitors in a fog of misery and occasionally asked them will I die? in Korean. She will not mention how, or if, they responded.

I will wonder, many months after leaving the hospital, if it is useful, or even possible, to remember my experience of meningitis in any faithful way. Why would I even want to reconstruct so rigorously a painful memory like that?

It seems obvious to say that imagery is the most vivid form of memory. I can recall so many indefinite images—the AUH Emergency Room; the red-soaked shirt; the spinal needle; Mrs. H’s evanescent face—that collectively suggest an entire world. The other senses can usually be inferred from the images—the low hum of the fluorescent lights; the cold of the cotton bed sheets; the needle’s sting. For this same reason, imagery is also the most hazardous form of memory. Imagery seduces us into a facile belief that we have found a clear and definite route to the past. It makes the act of remembering accessible and, therefore, prone to error. Perhaps the more compelling provocateur of memory is smell. Smell perplexes because it cannot be conjured so freely and confidently as imagery. A forgotten smell has to be located again in a real encounter with the world, where it hits the individual unawares and throws him into a strange oblivion between past and present. And it evaporates in equally swift and furtive form—a whiff that rebuffs any attempt at expression. Smell does not seduce. It confronts the individual with a nagging suspicion that the past is only ever ephemeral and cannot be known again exactly as it was.

I straighten my legs and neck but do not sit up. The resident tells me I must remain horizontal for the next six hours. It’s not clear why. Perhaps I am liable to lose my balance and fall. A nurse places the call button in my hand. My head is pointed towards the foot of the bed. Other than the clock on the far wall, there is almost nothing to observe.

According to my parents I was a blue baby—an unnatural blue tinge colored most of my little newborn body. The cause was a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot that would eventually require open-heart surgery. The surgery was performed just before my first birthday. It was the only other time before moving to Korea that I had been hospitalized. Not a single trace of the surgery or recovery remains in my memory. I know it happened because there are other traces—the accounts of my mother and father and other relatives who were present at the time; the long scar running the length of my sternum and the two smaller scars just below it; the scar on the underside of my right wrist and the one above my right clavicle running over the carotid artery; a handful of photographs. There is ample evidence for me to consult, but no memories. Perhaps the past is so bewildering because it suggests a paradox. In one sense, the past is always with us; there is no way to completely separate oneself from what came before. In another sense, the past has nothing to do with us; it is, by definition, never present. Always gone. There is no perfect analogy for the past, no unadulterated version. Memory provides a connection, but a tenuous one and always flirting with oblivion. Even the same experience repeated—like another case of meningitis, perish the thought—would be different. The context, the surroundings, will have changed at the very least. The present feels like this. But the past was that—that open wound; that inflamed tissue; that pounding under the cheek or inside the skull in the membranes around the brain; that pain and anger. That and no other.

7.

It’s Thursday morning. A resident will arrive shortly toting a bag of tools. He will insert a spinal needle into the middle of my back and extract fluid from my spine. The entire procedure will last about twenty minutes. Despite the unnerving image of a large needle puncturing my spine, I am looking forward to the procedure. It was something the specialist said to me not long after I was admitted: because a spinal tap draws fluid from around the inflamed tissue, the procedure can potentially relieve some of the pressure on the brain and diminish the headache.

At ten o’clock, the resident enters my room. He instructs me to lie down on my right side, pull my knees up to my chest, and scrunch my body into a ball. The position, appropriately fetal- like, helps to spread apart the vertebrae and make room for the insertion of the needle. He says it’s important to keep still throughout the procedure. It’s okay to yell if it hurts, just don’t move. The part about the yelling isn’t reassuring. When the needle goes in, a sudden sharp pain is followed by numbness. The needle stops at a precise spot, then continues, then stops again when it reaches the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.

The fluid, which will be tested to confirm the initial diagnosis, is called cerebrospinal fluid. No one ever says lumbar puncture or spinal tap. They all just keep referring to CSF in that peculiar language, partial to acronyms, of hospital-speak. Once the resident has collected enough CSF, he places a bandage over the spot where the needle went in. I straighten my legs and neck but do not sit up. The resident tells me I must remain horizontal for the next six hours. It’s not clear why. Perhaps I am liable to lose my balance and fall. A nurse places the call button in my hand. My head is pointed towards the foot of the bed. Other than the clock on the far wall, there is almost nothing to observe.

8.

Friday morning—one week has passed since I first felt the dull pain in my armpit. The headache has retreated. My appetite has returned. A couple of teachers from my school escort me to the basement floor where the food court is located. We pass a Burger King and end up at a little cafe called SANDRICH where one of them buys me a sandwich.

I have been in the hospital for four days and will remain for another three. Mrs. H’s sister, who works as a doctor here, has come to check on me every day and will continue to do so until I leave. We were introduced on Monday evening a few hours before I was admitted. On Wednesday, she came to my room to discuss something that she said had been weighing on her. It was her opinion that I should be transferred to the Neurology department so that I could be under the direct care of a neurologist. My doctor, the specialist of Infectious Diseases, seemed confident that I would recover on my own without complications. As far as I could tell, he saw no reason to move me to another department. Mrs. H’s sister never explicitly contradicted his judgment. But her concern for me suggested that she did not entirely agree with him. The situation is more delicate than it might seem. My doctor is technically her boss. And in Korea there is an unspoken, but rigid, protocol when it comes to the chain of command. In coming to me directly, Mrs. H’s sister had potentially subverted that protocol. She was taking a risk in going over the head of her superior. She did what she thought was right at the time. After I recover and am discharged, she will apologize to me for, as she put it, letting her emotions get the better of her. She seemed to feel that her personal connection to me, however thin, had clouded her judgment. After the apology, I will think to myself how unnecessary it is. Her actions were not unseemly but admirable.

The truth is Mrs. H’s sister had a good reason to be emotional at the time. It’s the same reason Mrs. H was at the hospital the night she slept on the couch in my room. Their father is a patient at Ajou University Hospital. That night he lay in the Oncology ward, just a few floors below my room, dying of cancer. I was aware of this fact at the time and insisted more than once that she go back to his room. But she declined. Perhaps she was glad to have an excuse to leave his room and forget the weight of her feelings, if only for an hour or two. Their father will pass away not long after I am discharged from AUH. I will attend the funeral with the principal and a handful of teachers from my school. In a large rented van, we will drive to Mrs. H’s hometown more than two hours from Suwon. It’s spring, so the air will be clear and cool. We’ll drive straight through the evening as the sun goes down. The light will strike the hills at shallow angles, and the steep hills of ash and pine and the road ahead of us and the tunnels, one after the next, propelling the van like a spring-loaded toy, will be washed in the pallid light of a nascent blossoming. At the service, I will want to offer Mrs. H and her sister some condolence, a word or an embrace to repay their generosity. I will want to say the right thing. Why is there always a trace of self-indulgence in sympathy? You almost feel more sorry for the sad guests, searching desperately for something meaningful to say, than the bereaved family. But why should anything be said? Nothing can fix the condition of death or the ruins it leaves behind. It’s as if the act of consoling, apparently directed at the grieving individual, reverses course and returns to the actor. Finally, it is himself he consoles, his own anxiety over the fact of death, so nakedly on display, a fact to which he and everyone else are obliged to witness. Blessed are those who have already passed. When the moment arrives, no words will come. I will stand with the other teachers facing the funeral display—the wreaths of flowers; the burning sticks of incense; the photo of the dead man—and offer my sympathy in silence.

 

Tyler Arndt was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2005 with a bachelor’s in English literature. Since 2012, he has been working on a memoir of the years he spent teaching ESL in South Korea. In September 2015 Tyler stayed at the Vermont Studio Center as a resident in nonfiction writing. His writing has appeared in the Rappahannock Review. He lives in Seattle with his books.

Shifting Gear

I remember Camp David. Not actually being there, of course. But I remember hearing about it on the news. And I remember Jerusalem, awaking to a new millennium, the feeling that the whole city was rubbed raw, like a skinned knee. Tension was building everywhere, and with it, the blood pressure of the entire population was steadily rising. Everywhere a hum-buzz-whisper. On the streets, in the corner stores, in the dry, desert air that mixed with exhaust fumes to hang low over our busy streets.

My dad drove my sisters and I to school every morning during those first years of the new century. I had been taking public buses alone for years, but this year my wings were clipped. Transportation had become too risky. Even walking down the sidewalk was too risky, sometimes. There would be five suicide bombings in Israel in the year 2000—rising sharply to forty the following year. In response, my parents had bought a second used car, just like most other parents who could afford it, and they took us everywhere in the interminable, choked traffic. Many other Israelis had stopped taking buses, too, and so there we all sat, unified in our exasperation with the endless lines of cars. My dad shifted from first to second gear, then back again. Time stood still.

We chatted sparsely as we crawled along, taking part of this eternal human centipede, offering opinions on school and politics and music. We listened to whatever pop music was on the only radio station that came through clearly and, of course, the news report every thirty minutes. The DJs spinning Will Smith’s “Willenium” are all soldiers; it’s an army-run radio station. Mostly, my dad is waiting for the news to give him a short reprieve from the crap I like to listen to.

On this October morning, I’m in the front seat, applying thick black and silver eye makeup and cultivating my bad attitude for homeroom. My older sister is in the back seat, sulking because I got to sit upfront and dreading school. Ours is a religious high school, complete with an hour of prayers every morning and afternoon. She was already a passionate atheist. Her opinions on religion were not well received by the administration, to say the least.

The clock hits 7:30, the DJ cuts the tunes in favor of the news, and the station jingle plays, echoey and electronic. Then three beeps—two short and one long—pierce the silence.

“Nu, what’s the bad news today?” my dad asks, turning the volume dial up.

A deep, male voice comes on, stating, “The time is 7:30. And now the news, from Kol Israel. President Clinton made a statement this morning, strongly condemning the violence on both sides and encouraging PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reconsider the terms of the Camp David negotiations as a step on the path to peace.”

There is no savior, no prophet with our best intentions at heart. There are only fallible humans with personal interests in mind, eyes glinting as they jockey for the best position in the rat race, cutting each other off in their attempt to get ahead.

My dad has gotten quiet.

“An aide to the Prime Minister has said that there is a great deal of optimism about ending the violence. Demonstrations and violent clashes continue in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

My dad shifts from neutral back into first and eases the car forward a few meters.

“Temperatures remain unseasonably high, with rain expected towards the end of the week.”

The announcer lists the main traffic jams, signs off, and Eminem comes on with Dr. Dre. I was hoping for Madonna’s new single, “Ray of Light.”

The radio dial clicks shut as my dad seethes, “What is that?” I guess the combination of traffic, war, and hip-hop were too much for him that morning. My dad is more of a Beatles fan. Call it a generational gap.

A thick silence descends on the car. The atmosphere in the car is tinted burnt orange by my dad’s frustration. I gaze out the window of our champagne colored Mazda, taking in the road and buildings. Trying not to tick him off any more.

I notice that, incidentally, the road we’re on used to be the border between Israel and Jordan, from 1949 until 1967, when the Israeli army conquered huge swaths of territories in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. We’d learned about it in history class. There was a wall right here where our tire tread grasps the asphalt and drags us forwards. Barbed wire adorned the top and round guard towers were set, like jewels in a concrete chain, dotting the landscape for as far as you could see. All this was before I was born, but it’s obvious even today. On either side of us, the buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes. On the east side, all the store signs are in Arabic. On the west, they’re all in Hebrew. We don’t turn eastward on this morning. We never do.

My dad breaks the stillness, stirring me from my haze.

“You know…,” his voice trails off as he navigates the lanes. Someone cuts us off. He beeps, shifts back into neutral.

“What?” I asked with extra grumpiness.

“I don’t think Arafat actually has the power to stop it anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I glance at him, confused. His face is tired and serious and sad.

“I think he had control at first,” he goes on, “that he was allowing the attacks to continue, to put pressure on Israel for a good deal. But it might be out of his hands now. It might be out of everyone’s hands now. It might have gone too far.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about the violence. We all thought about it constantly. In the coming years, there would be so many, too many close calls. No one would be left untouched by the grief on both sides. And all of this searing pain would culminate in the Wall, a scar across the Judean desert, an eight-meter-tall concrete testament to this time in our lives standing like a hatchet blade in the dunes that bleeds suffering on all sides. I can still see it from my parent’s backyard.

I’m sure my dad doesn’t remember this conversation. It wasn’t a special day. But to me, it was a turning point. This was the first time I understood that maybe no one was in charge. I’d always assumed that the adults would fix this, find a plan soon to stop the hurting and the deaths. Naïve, maybe. Childish, certainly. I left a part of my innocence, splattered like roadkill, behind us that morning.

The truth sank in. There is no savior, no prophet with our best intentions at heart. There are only fallible humans with personal interests in mind, eyes glinting as they jockey for the best position in the rat race, cutting each other off in their attempt to get ahead. The future is in our hands. No one else is coming to put out the fire.

On that slate-gray morning in Jerusalem, I waited a few moments of silence longer and clicked the radio back on. Pop-rock nonsense surrounded us, three weary pilgrims in a ’93 Mazda. We drove on, past the Muslim quarter, then the Jewish quarter, gliding past the Jaffa gate. We fought our way through downtown and the German Colony, whose main street is called the Valley of Ghosts. On either side of us, rows of homes, once owned by Arab families, ‘til they were taken in a war. Israeli Jews now live and love and raise children in those houses. So many fates intertwined; the thicket is so thick here. Turning right at the street named for Rachel, our Matriarch, my dad pulled over and let us climb out. We waved goodbye, blew kisses, and headed inside, just in time to join our classmates for a morning prayer.

 

Mikhal Weiner is a writer and musician, originally from Israel, currently writing and living in Brooklyn. She studied classical composition at Berklee College of Music, graduating with honors. Her work, whether text or music, is deeply influenced by her experiences as an Israeli gay woman and her love of poetry and all genres of music. She loves writing about people, places, and the ways their stories intersect.

Theodore Draws Wolves

[fiction]

Theodore Loupeson’s feet dangled from the straight-backed chair across the desk from Headmaster Clay. Rain battered against the windows of the Briarwright school for boys—runoff poured from the granite lips of gargoyles onto November-bare rose bushes below.

“Theodore.” Headmaster Clay slid a mess of papers onto the desk. “Let’s take a look at your work, shall we?”

Theodore’s work consisted largely of mathematics exercises, half-finished. On the backs of the pages, and in the margins, he had drawn wolves in delicate black ink—remarkably realistic wolves that slithered between the notations and howled at hole-punch moons.

“What do we have here, Theodore?”

“Mathematics, sir.”

“We might have mathematics if you didn’t spend all your time drawing these silly beasts. Have you seen your marks lately? Do you think your education’s some kind of jest?”

Theodore stared at his lap. “No, sir.”

“Do you have any idea why your mother sent you here?”

“So I can study mathematics.”

“And why does she wish for you to study mathematics?”

“So I don’t… so I don’t end up like my father.”

“Your father. A-ne’er-do well in debtor’s prison, I do believe.”

Theodore shook his head. “No!”

Headmaster Clay leaned over the desk. “Excuse me?”

“My father’s dead. The hunter shot him.”

Headmaster Clay exhaled slowly. “Are we really still nursing this infantile fantasy that your father was a wolf?”

Theodore remained silent.

“Your mother will be dreadfully disappointed in you, Theodore. For multiple accounts.”

 

When Theodore was seven, according to his mother, he had been kidnapped. As he recalled the occasion, he’d been picking white strawberries at the edge of the orchard when a wolf approached him and asked if its gravelly wolf-voice if he would like to come to live in the hills.

 

Theo was a quiet boy with middle-parted hair, wet socks, small frame, who talked to himself. His mother, dropping him off at Briarwright, had used the word “unhinged” to describe his recent behavior to the headmaster. Later, she realized he might have overheard. He had overheard. He wore the word as a curse and a badge.

That night he left. He wanted to go home. Into his bookbag, he packed three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, a tin of ginger biscuits, all his pocket money, a thermos of tea, and a box of drawing charcoal. At one in the morning when the Nightwatch went on his smoking break, Theo snuck out into the night. The rain had stopped. Everything smelled of petrichor and ozone. Big clouds hurried overhead. Freedom hit him in the lungs as he scurried to the trainyard at the edge of town. For an hour he crouched in the tall thistles, where broken bottles gleamed like onyx in the moonlight, and watched the men move about the tracks, carrying crates of cargo.

Four months ago, when Theodore had first arrived in the station on the train, a steel fence had separated the tracks from the yard. Now the fence had been removed, melted down for the war effort, replaced by flimsy chainlink, already torn in places. When the tracks were clear, Theodore wriggled through one of these holes and slipped aboard a cargo car. At a quarter past three in the morning the train rattled to life. He nuzzled into a bushel of coarse fabric (parachutes he wondered), watched the moon follow the car through a slat in the siding, nibbling the ginger biscuits. Eventually, he fell asleep.

When he woke the train had stopped moving. Thin morning light flooded through the slats. Stiffly, he poked his head out. All clear. He hopped out of the car to see what town he was in.

Not a town at all, it turned out—just a railway junction at the edge of a forest of pines. Theodore shouldered his bag and stared into the trees, which creaked and sang in the wind, ruffling shaggy shadows through their branches. I should be brave now, he thought, because he had read enough stories about children in forests to know that he had to be brave, whatever that meant, though grown-ups rarely rewarded bravery in children. The train blew its whistle and rumbled out of the yard. Watching it leave, Theo was half-relieved he wouldn’t have to sneak aboard again. He turned into the woods. Pine needles brushed soft underfoot. Sap dripped from diseased trunks. The white-bright sun promised warmth that it didn’t quite deliver. As he wandered, he could hear woodpeckers in the canopy but he only caught a glimpse of one specimen: red underwings flitting between boughs.

When Theodore was seven, according to his mother, he had been kidnapped. As he recalled the occasion, he’d been picking white strawberries at the edge of the orchard when a wolf approached him and asked in its gravelly wolf-voice if he would like to come to live in the hills. The day before, Theodore had gotten in an argument with another boy in his class, and the boy challenged him to a duel and said he would bring his grandfather’s sword from the French-and-Indian war to skewer him. If he went with the wolf, he would not have to go to school and get skewered, so he said yes and clambered onto the wolf’s muscular back and twisted his fists into its greasy grey mane. The wolf ran over the ridge, into the hills. It let him down at a den lined with soft grasses. Later that afternoon the wolf brought back a rabbit to eat and set a portion in front of him. It was raw. He wouldn’t eat it, so the wolf left again and came back with a box of matches he’d stolen from outside a farmhouse. Theo lit a fire and roasted the rabbit. The rabbit came out burned and bleeding and tasted wonderful.

All spring he played in and around the den, sometimes alone, sometimes with the wolf, who could not play games with sticks and stones and leaves because he had no thumbs, but knew all kinds of hiding-and-running-and-searching games. Sometimes wolf pups from a nearby litter came by, and Theodore played with them too. He got nipped, and at first, he cried out, but with time the nips only raised the stakes of the game, and he nipped back too. His wolf curled up with him at night to keep him warm. The wolf said, I will always protect you.

They lived like that for eight weeks, until a night when there were voices in the night that weren’t cicadas, but barks and gunshots. Men in heavy canvas pants and sweating armpits hoisted Theodore from the den and pushed him onto the back of a horse with his arms wrapped around the waist of a constable, who took him back to his mother who loved him with ferocity and vanilla and hot baths and at first she frightened him and later he frightened her with his calm grieving and recounting of events. His mother insisted that he had been kidnapped by his-ne’er-do-well father, a debtor and petty thief who wanted domain over the boy—that he had been recovered from his father’s greasy grasp and the father placed in debtor’s prison.

That summer, Theo had begun drawing wolves. He didn’t get angry when his mother challenged him, but he didn’t back down either. So she had decided it was some devilry his father had put into him and sent him off to Briarwright to study mathematics in the hopes of one day becoming a logical and healthy member of society.

Theodore ate the rest of his ginger biscuits and drank the rest of his tea by lunchtime. He wished he had some idea of where he was going. Eventually, the woods thinned he saw a church spire—a town, how fortuitous. It was a small town with just a greengrocer, a butcher, some kind of pub, a well where a girl in red wellingtons stood filling a chipped pitcher with water.

“You came from the woods,” she said. She was exceedingly tall and bony, like a bird. “I watched you come.”

Theo nodded.

“You don’t live here.”

“No.”

“You know what they say.” She sipped from the lip of the pitcher, lowering the water level enough to carry it without spilling. “I shouldn’t be talking to you. I shouldn’t be talking to anyone I don’t know. You could be the man in the dark felt hat. Well. Not really. You’re too small. Still.”

Theodore, dreadfully curious, struggled to maintain a neutral tone. “Who’s that?”

“No one knows, really. I heard he was some kind of German spy, but I don’t think it can be true. If he was a German spy, he’d be lying low, not prowlin’ up and down the countryside terrorizin’.”

“Terrorizin’?”

 

He did not like the feeling of being alone in the house, so he took the charcoal from his bag and drew wolves on the walls – huge, loping wolves with wind-burnished fur and long snouts, tails streaming behind them – he drew and drew until he was circled by wolves, his protectors, then he lay down on the master bed on the third floor and stared at the ceiling and breathed deliberately until he fell asleep.

 

“My mother wouldn’t tell me the details but Agatha, my friend from school, says he drags people underground and then stuffs rags in their throats and puts them on a spit and roasts them till they’re crisp.”

Theodore considered this, thought about the rabbit he had eaten. “That’s wicked,” he said. “Do you know where there might be a bakery? I’m awfully hungry.”

She pointed him toward the bakery, where he bought a roll of bread, then plums and cheese at the greengrocer, and sat on the steps of the church to eat. Afterwards, he followed the road out of town. Where it veered north into a farmer’s field, he struck out into the woods. The trees were centuries-old, memory-gnarled, scarred with lightning. It grew dark. Theodore shivered. He should have stayed in town for the night, he thought.

Perhaps the man in the felt hat was behind these very trees, waiting with a string garrote and a butcher’s knife. Unhinged, he remembered his mother whispering. I do believe he’s unhinged. Unhinged people ended up like that, stuffing their victims’ mouths with wadded-up rags and newspapers. Guilt poured over Theodore like a summer rain, chilling him, but leaving him sticky. He hoped his unhinged-ness would be a kind of kinship with the man in the dark felt hat—maybe he wouldn’t hurt him.

He didn’t quite believe that.

He came to a clearing. A house stood in the center of the clearing: peeling cream clapboard, turrets, huge bay windows, a sagging second-story balcony, steep gabled roof plush with moss.

No one had been home for a long time. Theodore tiptoed room to room over wide floorboards hewn from ancient oak.

He did not like the feeling of being alone in the house, so he took the charcoal from his bag and drew wolves on the walls—huge, loping wolves with wind-burnished fur and long snouts, tails streaming behind them. He drew and drew until he was circled by wolves, his protectors, then he lay down on the master bed on the third floor and stared at the ceiling and breathed deliberately until he fell asleep.

Three o’clock in the morning, Theodore dreamed of a creaking downstairs. He woke and lay shivering. The creaking continued, footsteps, then a snarl, then a howl, a crescendo of paws on wood, a thrashing, a man’s voice—

Theodore rolled from the bed, veins hot with fear, ran up the staircase, into the attic, where he crouched between old suitcases and slings of cobwebs. Growls and yells reverberated from downstairs. Then there were noises Theo didn’t have words for. Then Quiet.

Theo stayed upstairs until the sun rose out of the pines and struck the thick glass of the attic windows. He crept back down the stairs, quiet as a ghost, into the drawing room.

The table lay overturned, the sofa ripped, a chair with legs broken off.

A tatter of dark felt. A smear of blood.

The wolves on the walls held the positions he had drawn them in. But they weren’t the same. Their snouts were tacky with blood and their bellies looked full.

 

Elizabeth Wing is an undergraduate at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in 21 journals and venues including Hanging Loose, Euphony: Prose and Poetry of the University of Chicago, Jet Fuel Review, Defiant Scribe, and is forthcoming in The West Marin Review. Her short story “Leda’s Daughters” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Gordon Square Review. She describes her literary aesthetic as “cherry blossoms and dead whales.”

In the Zone

Folks, it’s a beautiful, clear day here on the Florida coast. We have just been given a go for today’s space shuttle launch.

*     *     *

I grew up in south Florida not too far from Cape Canaveral when the shuttle program was active in the eighties. The heady days of the space race were not yet a distant memory, and Reagan wanted to beat the Russians at star wars. I remember watching morning shuttle launches from my front yard, and I once saw a night launch from a friend’s back patio. It looked like a shooting star momentarily blazing with light, before disappearing into the clouds beyond human sight.

I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.”

There was a buzz at my elementary school about the Challenger mission in 1986. It was to be a late morning launch, and everyone in my grade was going outside to view it from our playground field. Even more exciting was the plan for us to take science classes (from outer space!) with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to join a shuttle mission. Sadly, those lessons never occurred. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, Challenger did something no one had ever seen. There was a look of shock and confusion on my classmates’ faces when we witnessed that disastrous launch. Everyone was oddly silent and I—usually a very quiet kid—blurted out: “It’s just the rocket boosters dropping off.” I glanced at my teacher for confirmation. The concern in her eyes told a different story.

*     *     *

T minus nine minutes and counting. Start automatic ground launch sequencer.

*     *     *

My family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1990. One day in tenth grade English class, my teacher announced that we could enter an annual speech contest sponsored by the Optimist Club. My ears perked up. The winner, if one made it to the state competition, would receive a college scholarship. The theme that year was: “I can make a difference.” I felt immediately that I wanted to enter the contest. I went home and talked to my Pop. He was a preacher and had recently helped me prepare an oral book report on The Red Badge of Courage. It had been so well received that the students spontaneously clapped when I stepped from the podium. I wondered aloud to Pop, “What could I do that would be unique for this speech competition?” We came up with the idea of doing something on Christa McAuliffe because I had been inspired by her bravery and the story of the Challenger was close to my heart.

Excitedly, the next day I told my teacher about the idea. She thought it was far too unconventional that I wanted to weave together the shuttle liftoff within the narrative of the speech. Her words, “It will never fly,” echoed in my ears. I cried silently at my seat in class that day as we discussed Shakespeare. My aspirations crushed, I told Pop that night how my teacher had responded. “Write the speech the way you want to,” Pop counseled me. Even if I lost, I would enjoy the process of writing about something meaningful to me.

*     *     *

T minus two minutes. Crew members close and lock their visors.

*     *     *

I soon girded myself for the school-wide contest. Clutching my speech on the podium and reading it word for word, I was constantly aware of my teacher’s glare from the back of the room. She was one of the judges. Because he was a preacher and active in the local Toastmaster’s club, Pop had also been recruited as a judge. It was comforting to see a friendly face in the crowd.

I paced outside the classroom where the judges convened after I delivered that first speech. All of the students were gone for the day and the hallway was unusually quiet and dim. Suddenly one of the judges came out. Putting on her sunglasses to go home, she called out as she briskly strode toward the door: “You won, Lindsey.” My heart raced. I knew I had a lot of work to do on the speech. And I knew my teacher was not going to help me because I had defied her. That night, Pop told me he would be my coach for the rest of the competition.

*     *     *

T minus fifty seconds. Orbiter transfers from ground to internal power.

*     *     *

Pop and I only had a couple of weeks to revise the speech for the city contest. On a road trip to one of his church lectures, I pulled out the speech and we chopped it up. Pop called it: “Cutting the dead wood.” We were relentless. Every word had to convey something vital. Nothing extraneous was left on the page. We started going to his church at night when it was empty. I rehearsed from the stage and he patiently directed me. Timing was crucial: a few seconds over time and I would be immediately disqualified.

The city contest was held in the banquet hall of a local restaurant. There were about fifteen kids in the contest and I was pretty tense. Only the top male and female competitors would advance to the next round. Pop was busy that night and could not attend the event, but my English teacher had come which only heightened my consternation. I stared at my shrimp and baked potato as they got cold because I was far too anxious about hearing the results to enjoy the free dinner. Winning that round was more of a relief than anything else. I felt that my speech had been vindicated and my teacher proven incorrect (in person).

*     *     *

T minus thirty-one seconds. Ground launch sequencer is go for auto sequence start.

*     *     *

The county contest was held at The Citadel, the storied military university. That location was more than a little intimidating to me. There were armed security checkpoints at every entrance. Cadets in uniform looked stern as they marched across campus. The local Optimist Club leaders were at the event to arrange travel for the winners to the state capital for the final round. The stakes were high. However, I was feeling more comfortable with the speech. Pop had continued to coach me, and I was heartened to learn that there were only a few competitors in this round. Thankfully, my teacher decided to stay home. As I delivered the speech, I felt like my speech might be going against the grain. I could not read the judges’ faces as I meandered through each phrase. Standing stiffly as the winners were named, I was exceedingly proud to make my way to the finals. My whole family had attended this round, and the Optimist Club was going to pay for our hotel stay in Columbia, South Carolina. It felt significant that I was representing my school and my city in the upstate.

*     *     *

T minus sixteen seconds and counting. Activate launch pad sound suppression system.

*     *     *

As the state competition neared, Pop and I were in full rehearsal mode. Every night that it was available, we went to the church to practice. The speech narrative was trimmed and honed. Only a single page of notes could be carried onstage during the seven-minute speech. I could not fit the entire speech on a single page, so I made sure the speech was totally committed to memory. Using scotch tape, I affixed a picture of the Challenger that I had cut from a magazine to my page of notes for inspiration. Pop directed me to move from behind the lectern at two pivotal moments in the speech. He advised, “You should only move for emphasis of specific words. Don’t move around just for the sake of it.” We timed the speech relentlessly and plugged in moments of pause to underscore important phrases. Christa McAuliffe’s quote, “I touch the future, I teach,” was the idea I wanted to leave with the audience.

When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday.

As we worked, Pop and I became like a single entity. In between recitations, he told me stories about speeches of his that won trophies and times when he was “in the zone.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “You want to be so familiar with your speech that it becomes part of you,” he clarified. “It’s like watching Dan Marino on the football field. It’s fourth down and the Dolphins must score to win. He knows precisely where to throw the ball before Mark Duper even gets there.” Sports metaphors were a favorite of his. “Watch Marino drop back. Those seconds right before he heaves the ball are crucial. The nights when he can’t miss: he’s in the zone. Everything—the ball, the receiver, the timing—flows together flawlessly,” Pop explained. “Could I ever achieve that?” I wondered. Could I be like Dan Marino in the Orange Bowl: oblivious to the noise, moving through time and space in a harmonious energy?

*     *     *

T minus ten seconds. Activate main engine hydrogen burn off system.

*     *     *

I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.” She had never had a student get this far in the competition, and she was being suspiciously friendly. She tried slyly to praise the speech even though she had not initially supported it.

The morning of the competition, I woke up early to shower and dress. I was wearing a suit with pumps for the first time. Too anxious to eat breakfast, I walked down to the main ballroom after only a cup of coffee. Shockingly, there were hundreds of people gathering, and I saw that there were ten women and ten men competing. The room was much larger than I had anticipated. Most of the seats were filling quickly, and the trophies were prominently placed on a table in the front of the room. The stage was set. My eyes were wide as I left Pop’s side to join the other speakers.

We drew from a bowl for our speaking order. I would compete last! A rush of excitement surged in my chest. Pop had told me that going last was a gift because you got to see the other competitors, and the judges would remember your speech when they convened. I turned around and scanned the crowd for Pop. We locked eyes and I mouthed the words: “I go last.” He nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. I watched the other speakers carefully and calmly. When my name was called, I approached the stage unhurriedly, with confidence. My heart was full and ready to breathe life into this story.

*     *     *

T minus six seconds. Main engines start. 5-4-3-2-1-0. Solid rocket booster ignition. We have liftoff!

*     *     *

When I placed my page of notes onto the podium, I breathed in deeply and looked at the photo of the Challenger taking off. When I began to speak, it was as if time stopped. Immediately, I gained the full attention of the audience. They were visibly moved by the story I was telling! My speech was different from everyone else’s and they were hungry to hear each word. Every time I paused, it was calculated. Each word was stressed with precision. The crowd was like clay in my hands. I moved around the stage with complete ease. No phrase fell flat. Every pass I hurled was caught. I was Dan Marino throwing perfect spirals to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton on a Monday night in the Orange Bowl. I couldn’t miss. The energy inside of me was electric and I was in perfect sync with the universe. My conviction was powerful: I was doing what I was born to do.

*     *     *

When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday. But a little girl in south Florida had been inspired to become an educator and to “make a difference” the way Christa McAuliffe did for her students and school children around the country.

I have long since spent that college scholarship money, and the trophy was lost in a move years ago. But this is what was eternal from that day: When I stepped down off that stage, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I had won the competition. And yet, strangely, the contest did not matter at all to me anymore. I had been in the zone, and it was the most exhilarating moment of my life. The huge crowd was standing, applauding loudly, and everyone seemed to be surging toward the front of the room. I was searching in the commotion for one person. There was only one person who would understand what I had just experienced. I pushed through the shaking hands and pats on the back. Then my Pop’s face appeared above the people in the aisle. There were tears streaming down from his eyes and a huge smile on his face. He knew. We embraced but said nothing. We just held that moment and laughed joyfully. I had been Marino. The words had flowed and I had been in complete harmony with the story, the audience, the moment. There was nothing more to say.

 

Lindsey R. Swindall, PhD teaches US history and the freshman colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles in the field of African American history. Working with actor Grant Cooper, she has developed a dramatization of her biography of Paul Robeson for middle and high school students. She also co-facilitates public discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.

Bich Minh Nguyen, Author

Throughout her work and life, Bich Minh Nguyen has explored identity. In her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, she describes how as a child in Michigan, she craved Hamburger Helper and was perplexed when eating bánh chung, the special sticky rice cakes her Vietnamese family enjoyed at Tet, didn’t tantalize her taste buds. In her novels, characters grapple with living on the outskirts of Midwestern suburbia, understanding where the strip malls and split levels intersect with fraught refugee journeys that are similar to that of Nguyen’s own family.

In regular life, Bich Minh Nguyen goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. It has been featured as a common read selection within numerous communities, schools, and universities. Short Girls, a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Her most recent novel, Pioneer Girl, is about the mysterious ties between a Vietnamese immigrant family and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Nguyen has been a Bread Loaf Fellow, among other honors, and her work has appeared in anthologies and publications including The New York Times. She has also coedited three anthologies: 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty YearsContemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye; and The Contemporary American Short Story.

Nguyen received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won Hopwood Awards in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She currently directs and teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. She and her family live in the Bay Area.

She joined Lunch Ticket to discuss writing across genres, immigration and the literary world, and what counts as “home.”

Gabriella Souza: I saw on your website that you are working on a series of essays, Owner of a Lonely Heart—calling to mind the Yes song—and your most recent book was the novel Pioneer Girl. How does it feel to be an amazing unicorn that can write successfully in both genres?

Bich Minh Nguyen: Ha, I never thought of myself that way! But I sure did love unicorns when I was a kid. I honestly think that any writer can work in more than one genre. I mean, why not? And I’m not sure it’s always helpful or healthy to think about genre distinctions. Sometimes it’s the material—the subject, the content—that must determine the form and the genre.

GS: How do the two genres complement one another in your day-to-day writing? Do you have different mindsets for each or do you approach your writing the same, regardless of genre?

I think of writing memoir as just one person’s point of view, one person’s set of memories, observations, and experiences. Developing any character, whether in nonfiction or fiction, requires complication and the exploration of human complexity.

BMN: I try to let myself be guided by subject matter. One thing I love about nonfiction is the freedom to combine narration with reflection—that thinking on the page. One thing I love about fiction is the freedom of plot. Each requires a different mindset, which depends on the day, time of day, weather, mood, and what I’ve been reading.

GS: Speaking of Pioneer Girl, I thought of your 2014 novel the other day because it was recently Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday. The plot of Pioneer Girl centers on a young woman whose family has mysterious ties to Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books. I know those books had a special resonance with you when you were growing up. How has that changed for you and do you still have an appreciation for Wilder’s work?

BMN: I might use the word fascination rather than appreciation. I grew up reading those Little House books, as so many in my generation did, and at the time, we read them basically without context. That is very troubling, and I am interested in that kind of complication because it’s part of the necessary work of rethinking the past—what we learned, what we didn’t learn, what we were taught, what we weren’t taught. How do we deal with those silences, absences, and erasures now? What can we learn through further research and investigation? And what surprises us? Pioneer Girl started because I was surprised to discover that Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter who co-wrote, uncredited, the Little House books, once went to Vietnam as a journalist.

GS: Your 2007 memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, tells the story of your family’s journey from Vietnam to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and your growing up amid distinctly different cultural experiences. I noticed that on your website, you have a Where Are They Now? tab, where you give details about the family members you featured in your memoir. What was it like writing about your family, particularly when chronicling disagreements with your sisters, for example, or your parents’ relationship? What has the experience been like watching readers resonate with your family members as characters?

BMN: Writing about one’s family requires an awareness of perspective. I think of writing memoir as just one person’s point of view, one person’s set of memories, observations, and experiences. Developing any character, whether in nonfiction or fiction, requires complication and the exploration of human complexity. All of this can feel risky and a little scary, but often that’s what writing just feels like. I love when readers tell me that they love my grandmother, or when they have a particular feeling or reaction to a character’s words, actions. It reminds me that we’re all looking for connection, all the time.

GS: Immigration continues to dominate the national news and is a frequent theme in recently published literature. How have you seen the literary world and the publishing industry change in terms of telling stories of immigrants and refugees? And if you have noticed a change, was that a reaction to people wanting to share their own stories or a need from the publishers to follow the natural conversation?

BMN: It’s wonderful that the idea of “immigration” has become more comprehensive and complicated in recent years; we are getting to see a wider range of immigrant narratives. I do think that tokenism is still a problem in publishing and literature. Part of that is rooted in publishing itself. [See recent examples here and here.] But I’m heartened to see more immigrant and refugee stories out there, in any genre, particularly ones that challenge “traditional” modes and viewpoints.

GS: After moving to the Midwest from Vietnam as a baby, you have since moved to California. What do you consider home? Is it possible that the idea of “home” is obsolete?

“I’ve always been uncertain about what to call home and where to call home. Perhaps for that reason, home for me is usually defined by the physical space in which I live and the sense of comfort I feel when I have to leave that space.

BMN: I’ve always been uncertain about what to call home and where to call home. Perhaps for that reason, home for me is usually defined by the physical space in which I live and the sense of comfort I feel when I have to leave that space. When I moved to the Bay Area, I realized what it meant to be just another Asian American person in the crowd—not viewed as a perpetual foreigner but just as a regular person, every day.

It was astoundingly wonderful because I’d never known that level of comfort—by which I mean such absence of self-consciousness.

GS: Your name on your book jackets is Bich Minh Nguyen, but you also go by Beth. As someone who has grappled with different names and the various identities they bring herself, I’m curious how you see name as related to identity.

BMN: I started going by Beth as a social experiment, to see if people would view me as “more American” with such a simple, straightforward name. I was also curious if that would affect how I thought of myself. I have a long essay about this in the works, that will be included in my next book. One thing I discovered, and this isn’t really a spoiler, is that, yes, I am more easily, typically seen as “American” when I go by Beth. It’s been an interesting experience that has made me reconsider ideas on identity and the role of names and naming.

GS: You teach in the MFA in Writing program at San Francisco University. How does teaching affect your writing, and vice versa? Have you ever been tempted to write about your classroom experiences?

BMN: I’ve always loved teaching because it keeps me thinking and learning about the craft of writing. I mean craft in a dynamic way, as in Matthew Salesses’s crucial “Pure Craft Is a Lie” series. Teaching writing can lead to energy and ideas for everyone in the room. I’ve only written about classroom experiences for conference papers or essays on pedagogy and craft. It’s crucial to have care and great respect for students’ individual experiences and their privacy, which every writer should have as they figure out their work and their process.

GS: I mentioned before that you’re working on Owner of a Lonely Heart, a new series of essays that you described as “about high school, music, and the Midwest.” Are you picking up where Stealing Buddha’s Dinner left off? Are you working on anything else that we should be on the lookout for?

BMN: Owner of a Lonely Heart is kind of a sequel to Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, in linked essay form. Many characters return—like my family! Some of the essays have to do with middle school, high school, or college; some are about parenthood; some are about the now. Music, refugee and post-refugee life, identity, food and culture and landscapes—these are all ongoing subjects for me. The title goes back to that awful, catchy Yes song because it has always posed a dilemma for me: is an owner of a lonely heart indeed much better off than an owner of a broken heart?

GS: One of the most entertaining aspects of your work are the popular culture references you pepper throughout your prose—from descriptions of Hamburger Helper and lists of the candy you craved as a kid to details of MTV music videos and beauty regimens, hairspray and all. What was behind your decision to include popular culture in your writing, and does it continue to play as big of a role in your life currently?

BMN: Writing and literature must include setting, and setting involves time and place, and time and place must include details, images, and moments particular to time and place. I don’t really distinguish “popular culture” from “culture.” It’s all how we live and what we take in. I’m always interested in that which affects and shapes us before we realize it, which is why I often write about childhood and adolescence. Everything we’re consuming (in all senses of that word) can define our sense of self and place—only we may not understand that for many years. What do we think of as culture? Who determines that? Whose stories and perspectives are we getting—and not getting? What we experience and observe on a day to day basis—sure, that could be mundane but it can also be the stuff of wonder and certainly the stuff of intense inquiry.

 

Gabriella Souza is an MFA candidate at Antioch University in Los Angeles, and she lives and work as a writer and editor in Baltimore. She began her writing career as a journalist and has won local and national awards for her work that has appeared in publications such as Brine Literary, USA Today, The Virginian-Pilot, and Baltimore magazine. She serves as the art editor for Lunch Ticket.

Dis/obedience, Synecdoche, Vice Versa, & Machinations of the Absurdly Happy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Wang is a high school student from Illinois. Her writing has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Hollins University, Columbia College, and the National YoungArts Foundation, among others. Her work appears in Hyphen, YARN, Red Queen Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she practices spoken word or attempts to puzzle out a lighthouse jigsaw.

Sustained Attention: Graphite

True Passion in Paradise

Representation of Systemic Racism

Small Oddity: Digital Gifs

NLB: Oil Painting

The World to Me was a Secret: Mixed Media