Black Sun, 1935

Levee workers,
Plaquemines parish, Louisiana

Fourteen Negroes wheel barrows
along narrow planks laid over mud.
They build a levee to prevent
flooding of land they’ll never own.
Fearing bites of cottonmouths,
copperheads, and diamondbacks,
they sweat in humid bayou heat.

Arrayed along a nearby ridge,
four white overseers look on
in the shadow of a black sun:
an overexposed disc in an archival print
from a negative mutilated by a hole punch.
Without being told, you and I can guess
we weren’t supposed to see this.

David OlsenDavid Olsen’s Unfolding Origami (80pp, 2015) won the Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Award. Poetry chapbooks from U.S. publishers include Sailing to Atlantis (2013), New World Elegies (2011), and Greatest Hits (2001). His work appears widely in leading journals and anthologies in North America and Europe. A poet and professionally produced playwright with a BA in chemistry from University of California-Berkeley and an MA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, David was formerly an energy economist, management consultant, and performing arts critic. He has lived in Oxford, England, since 2002.

Call to Arms

I sip on my coffee and scan over emails: doesn’t apply, not me, junk, I have a meeting with the Colonel today. The Marines’ voices bounce off the walls with excitement as they chug Rip-It energy drinks, the unofficial sponsor of war. When I ask where they get neverending cases of the eight-ounce cans of carbonated super caffeine, the answer is always the same: one of the Marines snaps to attention and announces, “We know people who know people who kill people, Ma’am.” That Marine remains at attention until I lose my bearing, which doesn’t take long, and everyone erupts into laughter. This is how every day starts with the exception of Sunday. Sunday morning, I wake up before dawn and head out for a long run on the lesser-traveled dirt roads that wrap around the perimeter of base. The Marines have the option of going to church or sleeping in, but the workday doesn’t start until noon.

I hit reply to an email from a friend back home and write, “Good morning, things are exactly the same as they were yesterday and the same as they will be tomorrow.” As I hit send, I hear the thick metal door of our warehouse-turned-office creak open, as whoever opens it fails to realize how heavy the door actually is; this is my first clue that it’s not one of the warehouse Marines coming in to grab a Rip-It before carrying out the plan of the day. I slide my chair to the side to stay out of view from the visitor.

Our office is a small warehouse made of cement blocks and filled with dust-covered desks and beat-up office chairs. Along the back wall, next to the fridge full of Rip-Its and bottled water, is a rifle rack where the Marines place their M16 rifles while they work. When they leave for chow, go to the headquarters building, or pick up supplies from the depot, they wrap the various styles of tactical slings they have acquired around their bodies and carry their weapon at their side.

I was warned to be careful. This is the battle I face in war—someone or someones in the unit hiding behind computer screens waiting for me to incriminate myself online.

At some point in the war, a unit that inhabited the space built half-walls out of plywood, making a break room next to the rifle rack. In the small, cluttered space there is a dirty sofa that nobody uses because a poof of dirt explodes when you sit on it; crates of ground coffee; rusty wall lockers filled with boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, candy, paperback romance novels, other random items that strangers have sent in care packages throughout the years of war (including the occasional pink nail polish that Sergeant Browning picks out to secretly paint her toenails); and boxes of letters from school children, women looking for dramatic love stories, and parents remembering the children they have lost. In front of the break room is another segregated area where I share an office with Staff Sergeant Sharpe, my sister-in-arms. The plywood walls were not intended for privacy, nor was the window cut out in front of my desk that allows the Marines to roll their chairs over and pass documents back and forth instead of walking twenty steps to get my signature. In the front of the warehouse are desks lined up where the five supply admin Marines work. Due to the closeness both here and in the barracks (which are also converted warehouses), everyone knows everything about everyone. I can’t even hide it when I get a Dear Jane letter from my boyfriend during the second month of the deployment—some of the Marines offer their own letters for comparison and condolences. We are more than family because we can’t afford to tease and bicker; at war you have to love and support those to the left and right of you, because at any given time they could be the one to save your life, and during the daily grind they are the ones who save your sanity.

I know exactly how far I have to lean to the left to stay out of sight of visitors. My introverted self needs the extra ten seconds to gain awareness of the situation before confronting whoever is on the other side of the wall. As I lean, I overhear the conversation.

“Good morning, sergeant, can I help you?” Lance Corporal (LCpl) Curlee announces with pride. LCpl Curlee is barely nineteen, just over five feet tall and might weigh 100 pounds soaking wet with a bag of pennies in each cargo pocket. She’s one of the most motivated Marines in the shop. When she checked into the unit with LCpl Shivers a month before, they were told, “Pack your bags you’re going to Iraq.” Neither complained; both eagerly prepared for six to thirteen months in a combat zone. I hear her voice over the sergeant she’s addressing. “I don’t know, sergeant, let me see if she’s available.” The office gets quiet as everyone wants to know what business the unexpected visitor has with “The Ma’am.”

“Ma’am, there are three Army sergeants here to see you,” LCpl Curlee says.

“What on earth do three Army sergeants want?” I ask rhetorically.

“I don’t know ma’am, they said something about a blog,” LCpl Curlee says with her normal tone of enthusiasm.

My heart drops as my stomach twists into a tight yoga knot that I can never get the rest of my body to mimic. A week ago, during an unexpected invite to the base coffee shop, I was warned to be careful. Specifically, I was told, “Lieutenant Prifogle, people are reading your blog and I don’t mean for entertainment.” This is the battle I face in war—someone or someones in the unit hiding behind computer screens waiting for me to incriminate myself online. I registered my blog with the all the right authorities, sat through a brief with the public affairs office about what I can and can’t post due to operations security (OpSec). I have been so terrified of posting something that could violate OpSec and cost troops their lives that all I’ve written about is the weather and my daily runs that range from three to fifteen miles. I draw in a deep breath and stand tall.

Nobody wants to hear about the blasé days, they want to hear about triumphs and war stories that change the course of history.

If I’m going to be arrested by PMO in front of my Marines, I will do it with dignity. After all, the sergeants are just the messengers, not the accusers.

I turn the corner of the wall that separates my semi-private office to the open space and am surprised to see three young sergeants eagerly waiting like they are about to meet Megan Fox.

“Can I help you?” I ask confused.

“Ma’am, we just wanted to meet you in person. We’ve been following your blog the past few months and we just really enjoyed it. We’re on our way home and asked all around base to find your office.” The leader of the pack, a male sergeant, smiles and talks rapidly. I look behind at the two other soldiers—one is a female. I shake all their hands, still confused.

“Well, thank you for reading, I’m not really sure why you find it so interesting,” I say. “I’m just a sup-o stuck here on Al-Asad running myself into the ground.”

“Ma’am,” the young woman jumps in from behind the other two, “when you’re out here, nobody back home knows what to say or how to relate. It just feels like I’m not alone when I read your posts.”

I thank them for stopping by and wish them well on their journey home. I think about the young woman’s words. My emails and phone calls are sparse and the details I provide about life out here even more sparse. How can someone back home relate? The never-ending work day, the hurry up and waits, the eagerness to get in the fight, the never discussed fear of death. Nobody wants to hear about the blasé days, they want to hear about triumphs and war stories that change the course of history.

When I return home, I don’t fit into the keyhole that opens the door to my old life. My friends, the restaurants and bars I used to frequent, even the beautiful beaches of San Diego, all seem pointless after living in a war zone. I kept a blog to fulfill Antioch’s field study requirement for its MFA program. The assignment was to keep a blog while deployed, so after I unpack my bags and storage container, I file the paperwork to complete the project and stop blogging. I take the next semester off and stop writing altogether.

Eventually, I finish all the requirements to earn an MFA, but I never go back to writing with the enthusiasm I had before. Even now, as I write this, I struggle to put the words on the page. The various traumas of four years on active duty brings a monsoon of memories that flood my body with hormones of fear, then rage, then finally a sadness that no amount of prescription drugs or alcohol can combat.

After graduating from Antioch, I submitted to literary agents my final manuscript, a memoir that covers my experiences in the military. Some asked for samples, others didn’t—all said it wasn’t marketable, even though it was a remarkable story and excellent writing. I cried, I screamed, I destroyed my computer in a fit of rage, and then I tried to stop writing forever.

Six years after graduating, I share a few of my essays with my fiancé who is also a combat veteran. He says nothing at first, but asks to read them again, and again, and one more time without saying a word. Finally, he looks at me and says, “This isn’t about you. You realize that right? You have to publish this, but not for you.”

I stuff a piece of sushi in my mouth to inhibit my ability to say anything.

“You have to share this for the vets who are out there alone, scared, tired, depressed. You have to share this so they know they aren’t alone, that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way. You have to show them that they can overcome it.”

“But,” I try to interject with my mouth still full of rice and seaweed.

“God gave you this gift, you don’t have a choice, you have to finish and publish your story.”

To date, my story goes untold, as do the stories of countless other veterans struggling to make sense of what they experienced.

I think about the sergeants who came to my office and the many soldiers and marines after them who stopped by to shake my hand and thank me for keeping my blog because it made them feel less alone. I think about how I’ve felt since I stopped writing—like there’s a fog that constantly surrounds me; some days it’s light and misty, almost refreshing, but other days it’s so thick that I can’t find my way out of bed.

Periodically, I get an email or phone call from a fellow veteran chronicling his/her struggles in a journal that he/she wants me to read. They want to know if they can be writer.

“You are writing,” I tell them, “so you are a writer.” I instruct them not to focus on publishing, but focus on the act of writing. I tell them that they can publish it after their wounds are healed. I leave these conversations feeling like a hypocrite because most days I am still afraid of putting words on paper. I hit send or hang up the phone and glance at the manuscript sitting on my desk. I think about what my loving fiancé told me, “God gave you this gift.” I sift through the rejection letters, all saying the same thing—war stories just aren’t marketable.

To date, my story goes untold, as do the stories of countless other veterans struggling to make sense of what they experienced. Stories that could connect us; stories that could alleviate the fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety of joining the old world after a deployment; stories that could save one of the twenty-two veterans every day who just can’t take another day in this new world they are expected to navigate through alone.*

These stories aren’t told because, according to agents and publishers, readers don’t have any interest in war stories that don’t fit the mold of a young boy going off to war, triumphantly leading troops into battle, and coming back a man. We all know intuitively that this archetype isn’t real, but a true war story told well breaks our heart, makes us uncomfortable, forces us to look at heroes in a new light—they are just ordinary people who went down a relentless and unforgiving path in life for the greater good.

So, this is my call to arms to civilians: Go out and purchase the literary magazines and books that don’t sell as well but tell a true narrative of what hell-on-earth looks like. I suggest Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home, but there are plenty of others to explore. Let these stories disturb you, wake you up covered in sweat from the nightmares, make you weep in public for unimaginable losses, and laugh out loud as we retell stories of chugging gallons of milk to see who pukes first. Let it surprise you as you discover you have more in common with the experience of war than you could ever imagine, because war is a part of the human experience. Only then will you know what that sentimental meme you posted on Facebook about supporting the troops really means. Only then will you change the market and help new voices of the war narrative be told.

And this is my call to arms to veterans: Create art no matter what the market looks like or who tells you that you can’t. Write books, plays, songs, poems; draw, paint, make murals through your city. Do it because God gave you a gift, do it for your own peace of mind, do it to give a voice to those who haven’t found theirs yet. Most importantly, do it to connect to a stranger who is lost and needs to know they aren’t alone.

Together we can do more than raise awareness of those twenty-two veterans who commit suicide every day. Together we can reframe the war narrative and change the way the world sees veterans. We are called heroes and put on the highest pedestal, but we’re more like glass figurines of our former selves sitting in a curio cabinet. Together, we can make the shelf stable, together we can protect those who protected us.

 

*Editor’s note: This statistic—that twenty-two American veterans commit suicide every day (or one every sixty-five minutes)—comes from a 2013 report from the Department of Veteran Affairs. More recent sources, such as the Washington Post, have attempted to put the figure in context, saying that it may overestimate service-related suicides among aging veterans; at the same time, it does not include a 2014 update from the VA , which indicates a spike among the youngest (aged 18 to 24) veterans who take their own lives.

Lisbeth Prifogle

Lisbeth Prifogle is an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Her work was featured in Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming HomePoem Memoir Story – Volume 11The Splinter Generation, and Citron Review. She also received an honorable mention in Best American Essays 2012. Lisbeth holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently working on a travel memoir about a two-month, solo trek through Peru immediately following a deployment to Iraq. She lives in domestic bliss with her fiancé and family in Southeast Louisiana.

 

I Don’t Know if I’m Dealing Very Well with Everything That’s Going On Right Now

“We’d be in more danger driving down the 101, Amanda,” Brandon says as we sit on the New York D train. “Statistically, you are literally one thousand times more likely to die in a Volvo after drinking half a glass of chardonnay.”

As he talks, the subway hurtles into Brooklyn. Warm and oxygenless air presses against my throat and thighs as Brandon and I squash into the D’s orange seats. The dark outer world, flickering with small starships of light and featureless faces, whirls past the grimy windows. The dirty floor is barely visible for manifold shoessneakers, black boots. Men in jeans and smirking, pretty-lipped women crush alongside us, insult-flirting with each other. Have you seen Lawrence of A Labia? It’s a really good movie. Shut your dumb mouth. Or else they just slump over, like the homeless-looking woman in a Mets cap sitting next to me. Ugggggghhbbbbbb. I can’t tell if people are upset about the headlines, or the election. Everybody seems fine.

“I see your point,” I say, nodding.

I move my knees to the right as the Mets-cap lady kicks out her legs, and give myself a gold star for not saying, But I wouldn’t have gotten killed in a Volvo, Brandon, because as you know I only take public transportation so as to not participate in the oil-economy time bomb that is detonating as we speak. I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies. I came here for other, diametric reasons, which relate to personal happiness and the prospect of encoupled stability.

I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies.

I am from Studio City, California. I am a media strategist who is also an artist, or a former artist. Brandon is a lawyer from Culver City. He is not a hyphenate or a former hyphenate. We have traveled to New York for our first vacation as a romantic couple. It’s not exactly a romantic time, though, since Orlando happened yesterday.  I’m aware that as a heavily leveraged thirty-eight-year-old single woman, I need to say simple, economical things like, “That’s terrible,” or, “What a tragedy” about the Pulse massacre, but not act unnervingly bizarre in front of my beloved Brandon. In the three months that Brandon and I have been “hanging out,” he has so rewired my neural system with the unlikely astonishments of love that I now (yet again) believe in impossibilities like soulmates and other halves.

However, as I have learned from my roster of failed relationships with both men and women, the preservation of such exquisite passion mandates the attainment of a strangely mundane status: Regardless of how much your boyfriend or girlfriend initially enjoyed your “intensity” and “authenticity,” they must ultimately regard you as a potential real partner. Attaining the coveted status of a real partner requires more than Brandon witnessing my radiant soul as it shines out of my eyes and penetrates the shadowy layers that have accumulated around his heart. He must additionally see me as a healthy and attractively productive person.

Healthily attractive productive people do not, as I have in my not long-ago past, go to Yaddo to make arte povera out of baby clothes and napalm to illustrate the environmentally doomed prospect of childrearing. They also do not use their Slamdance Grand Jury award money to publicize their relationally aesthetic hunger strike protesting the acquittal of Michael Brelo. And they do not have elongated nervous breakdowns when fundamentalists of whatever stripe gun down minorities and queers. Instead, they must be able to demonstrate that they can do things like hold a job, attend social events without getting drunk, safely drive potential future offspring to and from various extracurriculars, and also organize fun vacations that remain unpunctuated by savagely panicked responses to the New Normal.

“Anyway, I’m not worried about being killed by a terrorist,” I say.

That’s why Brandon and I are on one of the sightseeing excursions I planned two weeks ago, to prove myself as a solid and dependable person. I had never developed an “itinerary” before but found it an interesting challenge: I decided almost immediately on a New York art history tour, since that would play to my strengths. So, the day before yesterday Brandon and I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where in 1989 Diamanda Galás participated in the mass “Stop the Church” Act/Up demonstration. I stood by the Lady Chapel and sang her You Must Be Certain of the Devil (“Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord”) until a praying woman wearing a collaborationist I’m With Her T-Shirt brusquely asked us to go. “That was pretty interesting,” Brandon had said, as we hustled out. Then, yesterday, I took him to the Town School Library on East 76th Street, where Audre Lorde was head librarian from 1966-1968. We saw a lot of children’s books there, and I recited a part of Lorde’s The Erotic as Power (“I find the erotic such a kernel within myself”) until told to leave by a male guard. Brandon liked that, too. He bought me a caramel vanilla ice cream cone from a food truck and hugged me while I talked about Sister/Outsider.

But then we found out about the shooting early this morning when I saw the Google Alert. There was also news about Donald Trump tweeting, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord. Brandon just cleaned the shattered glass, though, nodding as I read Mother Jones tweets out loud while crying and standing on the bed wearing nothing but his Stanford sweatshirt. I said I wanted to go home. He kissed me and said that we should stay, that I should distract myself with the Weird Artist Tour and not be sad.

And so that’s what we’re doing. Tonight we have plans to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Lucy Lortell on Christopher Street, but for the larger part of today we’re going to stalk the ghost of one of the nation’s greatest artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat, on the D train.

“Then why did you have a meltdown last night?” Brandon asks-yells over the thwaka thwaka thwaka commotion of the subway. He has buzzed off his blue-black hair, an austerity that gives him an Air Force elegance, though he went to UCLA law school and works for a left-leaning firm called Miller & Watanabe. We met at a Ralph’s.  Today he wears a dark blue insignia-less polo shirt and khakis. Humidity bronzes his high cheekbones, and I’d like to sink my teeth into them, then bite lightly yet firmly onto his jaw so that he can’t escape from me.

“I just needed a reboot,” I say. “I slept, I feel fine now.” I hold Brandon’s hand and look down at my lap. I have black hair, brown eyes, and am a medium-dark brown Xican@. I’m wearing a green flowered dress that I allowed him to buy me yesterday at Forever 21 on Broadway despite F21’s Uzbekistan slave labor problem. My black cotton backpack that I bought in Argentina sits at my feet. I’m also wearing leather huaraches that I purchased four years ago in Mexico City, which was when I endured a couchsurfing/homeless period that finally got resolved at Yaddo. Inside the backpack are my phone and my wallet, the latter of which harbors Chase Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover credit cards. I obtained these economic passports on the strength of my new and astonishing $76k annual salary, as I am done gifting my art to the sacred space that exists beyond the cares of capitalism. In the last half year I’ve become a platform whisperer for Snapchat, which means that I discover trends through campaign-wide analyses and execute strategies to optimize campaign performance and company metrics. At night, I calm myself down by writing criticism for frieze and making collages using a personal Fun Tools app that I designed a few months ago.

“You were really out of it, I was worried,” Bradon says.  

I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord.

He looks across the car to where a woman with painted-on eyebrows and a frilled purple dress, an Anglo skater punk in a green beanie, and an old black man in a khaki jacket all busy themselves reading newspapers. Eyebrows in the purple and the old man both hold subway-crumpled copies of the New York Times that bear the headline “The Orlando Shooting Victims” and selfies of happy-looking men and women. The skater punk’s reading a trashed Post that reads “Gay-Club Attack On Our Freedom.” Eyebrows is taking little bites out of a shedding almond croissant as she scans the articles. Brandon starts raking through his hair with his fingers and gives me a crooked smile. “I’m not saying I’m upset that you got so wigged out.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re not upset,” I say in a strangled voice that is not in keeping with the magnanimous and emotionally composed way that I want to conduct myself on this trip.

Brandon plays footsie with me and tickles my knee. “Babe, life is for living. I just don’t get why it’s better to scream yourself to sleep at the Regis when you could just get up, wash your face, and deal with it like other people do. I mean, who are you helping?”

Or maybe you’ve seen Battlestar OrgasmicaI look up to see a tall, bearded man standing to our left teasing a pretty, petite woman wearing shorts and gold earrings.

Weak, she says, giggling.

“I’m not helping anybody.” I stare at Brandon for one beat, two beats. Thwaka thwaka thuds the subway. “Jesus Christ.”

“I’m seriously asking. I want to know,” he says.

I look down at my huaraches again. When I bought my shoes I worried about maquiladoras all the time and was also going deep into animal rescue. I had no health insurance and was so lonely that I would follow attractive men and women around D.F. taking pictures of them like a lugubrious Sophie Calle. I don’t want to be like that anymore. “Okay, so I forgot to bring my lavender oil and my lorazepam and things got a little out of control.”

Brandon leans back in the orange plastic of his seat and tilts his head at me, cracking up so that I can see the tender pink of his uvula. Then he gets serious.  “Look, I get it. Something terrible happened. And I want to know how you feel about it. I’m not some douche who came here with you just to get into Sushi Zo

“Sushi Zo . . . ”

Brandon smushes up his face and shakes his head. “It’s a hot New York restaurant that you try to impress your girlfriend with.”

My diaphragm twinges, from a cramp caused by the strangely similar sensations of stress and hope. “Girlfriend,” I say.

“It was totally booked except for the rez I got for last night. I was online for two hours. Seriously, if I were a Washington Post reporter I’d have a better shot at getting into the Trump bus.”

I make a shrugging gesture, rolling my eyes, but not crazily. “Trump.  What a guy, right?  He sure is something.”

Brandon enfolds my hand with his and makes little circles on my wrist with his thumb. “The thing is, I’m not some complicated art person with the sexy political depression that I’m starting to worry you might be more drawn to.”

I grip onto him, hard. “No, you’re perfect. You’re beyond perfect. You’re cyborg perfect.” I smile at him. “Sexy depressed artist people just wind up stealing your camera equipment because they’re on meth and then they want to have a foursome with the Martinez sisters but then they don’t even look at you until it’s time for a ride home.”

Brandon tilts his head at me. “How do you know that?”

I shrug. “Not from books.”

Brandon looks up, sternly, as if he’s doing math in his head. “I mean, I like UFC. I shop at The Gap. I don’t always look at the labels to see if my underwear’s made in Bangladesh.”

“Uzbekistan.” I shake my head. “But you do civil rights cases.”

“Yeah, but I can turn it off. I’ll go home and eatwhat did you call it? ‘Blood chocolate.’ I get my clothes dry-cleaned. I sit under outdoor heat lamps at restaurants in the winter. I play ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ I know that the Republicans are very Marine Le Pen right now. I’ve read The Fire Next Time. But I don’t get upset like you do.” Brandon puffs out his cheeks and exhales, thinking. “I switch off CNN and play web poker.”

I jerk, looking over at the woman in the Mets cap, as she has just nudged me in the ribs. She’s sticking her elbows out as if doing some kind of seated calisthenics that keep up the bone density. She’s also chewing on invisible food. She smiles as if she recognizes me.

“Hello Ma’am,” I say.

Brandon lifts my hand up to his mouth and kisses it uncertainly. Then all at once he blurts out: “Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation

The D makes a stop and there’s a humid tumult of people exiting and entering the car. The lady in the Mets cap stays put, though, as does the bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings who are joking around. Eyebrows stands up, molting almond croissant flakes and tossing her paper on the seat. I see all at once that Eyebrows’s face is red, puffy, and wet. There’s a stress bubble of saliva on her lower lip. 

“Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation

Then she disappears, along the Skater Guy and Old Man. Their places are taken by a trio of T-Shirt-wearing teenagers who stare at their phones.

“Do I want to have kids?” I blink, blink again, then make myself focus on Brandon. “Why are you asking me that?”

Brandon blushes so that a stripe of burgundy crosses his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. A thin glimmer of sweat slicks the right side of his face. Almost a full minute of silence passes between us.

I liked White Men Can’t Hump, the girl with the gold earrings says to the bearded guy.

That was a shitty movie full of stereotypes, he says.

“No reason,” Brandon eventually sighs. He looks up at the subway ceiling. “What are we doing here again?”

I’m still holding Brandon’s hand. It’s warm, brown, and has knobby knuckles like baby antlers. Two weeks ago these hands cut and buzzed my hair. Brandon and I were both naked in my bathroom, covered with my fur, and laughing. “It’s our art tour,” I chirp anxiously. “We’re doing 1980s neo-expressionism today.”

Brandon nods. “Oh, yeah. Basquiat? Baskweeat? That artist guy you were talking about.”

I peer closely at the subway walls, looking for any signs of Basquiat’s famous graffiti, while Brandon plays with my foot some more, gently nudging it with his Timberland. There’s no sign of Basquiat’s Kilroy, though: The interior of the car discloses only scuffed gray paint, which is cross-hatched with so many words and scratch marks that it looks like a Cy Twombly.

I wish I had something to show Brandon for today’s tour. The Diamanda Galás and Audre Lorde outings were somehow melancholicly cheerful.  But now I’m distracted, and am starting to feel as if I’m being unstitched. And I don’t know what exactly to tell Brandon about the unhappy tale of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I could tell him how Basquiat used to tag the D in 1978, 1979. That’s why I brought us here in the first place. At the beginning of his career, Basquiat went by the street name SAMO©, which stood for Same Old Shit. He’d spray crazy little sayings on these very walls before he started painting on canvas and got famous. SAMO© Saves Losers, SAMO© as an end to 9-5. Basquiat was a genius, a snappy dresser, a ladies’ man, and a junkie. He had these long dreads that he would tie up into a spiky crown at the top of his head. He created in a frenzy. He would listen to Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie on his earphones and emblazon the back wall of a liquor store with red starbursts and stuttering phrases like Mississippi Mississippi Mississippi. He sketched skeletons, policemen, dogs, and jazz men in small ringed notebooks, purchased for thirty-five cents. He became friends with Andy Warhol and ultimately showed at the Gagosian. He dated Keith Haring. He dated Madonna.

But that’s not why he was special enough to put on our itinerary. Basquiat felt things. It made his life sort of unbearable. He couldn’t cope, for example, with the death of his friend, Michael Stewart, who was a black graffiti artist, too. In 1983, Stewart was arrested by a group of Anglo police officers for tagging a subway station wall on First Avenue. The police killed him, and listed the cause of death as a heart attack, though an independent pathologist said he succumbed to strangulation.

So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.

There’s a picture that photographer Virginia Liberatore took of Basquiat and Madonna around ’83. They were in love. In the image, Madonna is gorgeous and sharp-boned, with spiky blond hair and a tilted, pointy face. Even back then, Madonna understood Market Forces, which require that you at all times remain both relatable and aspirational and not get derailed by emotions. Madonna is relatable and aspirational in the picture as she makes a cute cat’s claw and pounces at the camera. She’s already a star, though her self-titled monster album hadn’t even come out yet. Basquiat, on the other hand, does not understand Market Forces. He looks sad, with a soft smile and wide-set, inconsolable eyes that reflect the terrible truth about Michael Stewart.  He can’t handle the same old shit. You can see what a winner at life Madonna is and what a mess Basquiat was going to be. She broke up with him not too long after Liberatore shot the image.

But, no, I don’t want to tell Brandon about all of that. Once, I had this girlfriend named Xochil who left me after she started eating meat again, “for [her] health,” and I had re-explained in gentle if graphic detail the ethics of factory farming. She, along with Madonna, are just two of the reasons why I will now keep my comments meaningful yet playful, interesting yet not too dark or so deep that they verge on Schopenhauerian pessimism.

“My favorite Basquiat is called Horn Players,” I finally say. “It has Dizzy Gillespie in it, and teeth, and all these crazy scribbled words, and Charlie Parker.” I smile at Brandon, admiring his dark, swashbuckler’s eyes. Brandon’s half ethnic Chinese, though his parents were born in Brazil.

So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.

For a second, I look across the aisle again, at those T-shirted kids playing with their phones, and see one of them has picked up the busted-up Times that Eyebrows had been reading.

“Teeth?” Brandon asks.

“Basquiat had dental problems. Drug problems, really.”

“I love Charlie Parker. In law school, I downed a beer bong and did this crazy sort of romantic spider dance at a party when ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ started playing on Pandora.”

“What’s a romantic spider dance?” I start laughing.

“It involves a lot of kissing, having eight legs, and being extremely unsober.” He nuzzles my head with his. “That was a long time ago.”

Brandon and I now have our arms around each other. The fluorescent lights in the car shimmer on his wide white teeth so that he looks like a toothpaste model. He smells like cinnamon. The bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings have started listening to the same song on his iPhone, sharing spindly white headphones. The kid reading the paper across the car is invisible behind the Times, except for his feet, which are huge and encased in light blue Vans.

Brandon runs his hand through the long part of my hair, tenderly touching my scalp. “You’re so beautiful.”

A small sun begins faintly shining inside of my belly. As we sit there, I begin to feel better, less unraveled. After a minute or two, I realize that I actually am starting to feel happiness approaching me. It feels easy, softer. It feels good.

I start singing, quietly. I’m singing that Charlie Parker song:

I didn’t know what time it was
Then I met you
Oh, what a lovely time it was
How sublime it was too.

The song floats between us. My lips are on Brandon’s cheek. I touch his throat and feel his pulse. I think of how he held me last night at the expensive Regis hotel, after I’d stopped quoting the Mother Jones tweets. I remember the tender things that he whispered to me in bed.

You’re all right, you’re ok, he’d said.  I’m here.

But then I make a mistake. Because when I ponder Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub. And instead of gazing sweetly at Brandon like a solid life partner with whom he can share headphones, playful obscenities, and the morning news, I look across the aisle again. I stare at the kid in the blue Vans studying the paper with a placid face. I hear something all at once, a hacking sound. I look up to the left, and notice that beyond the couple who had been joking about made-up porno movies stands a short, heavy, white, bald man wearing glasses and a yellow button-down shirt. He is also looking at the kid with the Vans. The bald man’s round, apple-shaped face is bulging and trembling as he looks at what the kid is reading. His lips have turned white.  People are staring at him, the bald guy; a young black woman with red beads in her hair and a Latino man wearing a black tank top also start crying. And then, to the right of them, I see a white guy with piercings and a Stonewall T-shirt look at Blue Vans’ NYT with this dead face, and dead eyes.

I shift my gaze again, staring at the kid’s Times the way they are. I see the Orlando victims’ selfies that splash across the front page.

There’s a picture of a woman about my age, with buzzed dark hair. She’s wearing black-rimmed glasses, and a turned-around baseball cap. Her mouth opens wide into a punky, happy grin.

There’s another picture of a guy, who looks like he’s in his late teens, and might have been transitioning. He’s got a wispy little mustache and close-cropped beard, and these doe eyes, and he’s wearing those earlobe extending earrings. You can see that he’s trying to look beautiful for the camera.

And there’s a guy who’s leaning back on a pillow, smiling, so that his dimples show. He looks Latino. They’re all Latina or Latino. He has groomed eyebrows, and maybe cornrows? He’s got frosted tips and a soul patch. And he looks like he’s not thirty-five years old.

But then I make a mistake. Because when I think of Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub.

Brandon kisses me on my cheek, gently, and then smack-kisses me, playfully. “So, what happened to Basquiat?”

I rub my upper lip with my index finger and feel my mouth shaking.

“Um, he died,” I say.

I lean back, put my elbows on my knees, and then rest my head on my thumbs, like a more freaked version of The Thinker. I look down at my huaraches once more, my black backpack. I can hear the bearded guy and the lady with the earrings softly scatting to the song they’re playing on their iPhone. The lady in the Mets cap is grunting again and flexing. I can feel Brandon watching me, confused. My face is wet and I’m making an eeeeehhhhhhhhh sound.

“Bon don da ton ton ton ton, bon ta ta ton ughghggh,” the lady in the Mets cap sings.

Brandon puts his hand on my arm, squeezing it gently. “Amanda.”

I’m still making that animal noise. I try to stop. I wipe my cheek with my shoulder. I reach down, opening my backpack and pulling out my iPhone. I switch the phone on. I get on Chrome and begin searching on Orlando and clip the photos of the smiling woman in the baseball cap, the guy with the wispy mustache, and the guy with the dimples.

I feed them into my Fun Tools collage app. I begin to make a small, shifting, indigo assemblage of their faces. It’s no Horn Players. It’s kitsch. I erase it and start again.

“I – I – ” I shake my head. “Why?”

“Amanda,” Brandon says again, taking his hand off my arm.

I change the collage’s color to orange-violet. I can barely see. Tears drip down my chin. The world looks red. The subway racket is a rapid heartbeat. My hands shake but I press and slide the pictures, press and slide, the woman, the transitioning kid, the man.

I need to get myself to a march or a memorial that must be happening today. I’ll stand in a crowd and cry and it won’t help anybody and it will be better than this. I’ll take Brandon along with me. I hope to God he doesn’t say anything like it’s too depressing.

“No, I don’t want children,” I manage to say.

Yxta MurrayYxta Maya Murray is a writer and a law professor living in Los Angeles.  She is the author of six novels, including The Conquest (2002).  She won a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1999.

 

Since I Got Here

Since you always wanted to know. Since you’ve been asking me ever since I moved here.

I had lost my job and she had lost her mother. We were great at losing things. She asked her therapist, how could we lose all these beautiful things in a small world? Where do they go if we live in the same house, barely leave town? There was no good answer I ever heard. She stopped seeing the guy after he suggested we break up. No way, she shook her head. I can’t lose anything else. He can’t lose anything else. There’s no sense in that, she screamed. She got led out of there by a rent-a-cop.

We sat for hours at the kitchen table, going over the same bills, plucking magical money from the sky. I drank gin and she drank milk as The Band played on our old record player, like a haunted old quartet that roamed the narrow nearby dirt roads. The same piles of dust appeared on our cabinets and duvets. I put a hand on her shoulder and she said, don’t tell me it’ll be all right, I’m just not in the mood to hear that right now. I said, what are you in the mood to hear? She just shot me this pathetic smile and said, this dumb old song on the record player. So I took my gin outside and watched a few hawks fly back and forth in the dark ugly air.

I think what really started it is that her fucking brother showed up one day. He carried this old Sears & Roebuck luggage bag and started asking for money. He was missing a few teeth and was growing this biker beard, much different than the college know-it-all that he was when I first met him. My wife gave him the royal treatment, letting him sit down in my chair, even, and I told him he couldn’t until he shaved off that ridiculous beard. A small fight broke out. I knocked over the lamp. He got me in the kidney with a decent hook. My wife screamed at us to stop and I made sure to put a hand on her shoulder this time to tell her I would be all right. She said something and I said something and her brother did leave and he never got his fucking money. Which is all I wanted in the first place. That takes a real coward, to walk into a house of confusion and ask for something. I never did see him again but I’m sure she ran after him days later when I was off looking for work.

And I did look, too. I tried warehouse and farm work. I even tried the goddamn diner as a fry cook but nothing ever came out of it. Most days I would just sit with a six pack of Shiner and a pack of Parliaments on a park bench and watch the same dark ugly air. This entire place was just coated with the stink of everyone’s lives. I knew the end was coming and I tried to blanket it with as much beer and smoke as I could, as most people around these parts do. 

I drank gin and she drank milk as The Band played on our old record player, like a haunted old quartet that roamed the narrow nearby dirt roads.

I know this story isn’t exciting. But you asked.

So about a few weeks later, what I was waiting to happen finally did happen. I caught her sneaking around. I had come home in a haze and I found them necking on the back porch. He was drinking my gin and they had Blue Cheer on the record player. I tried to be stealthy but all I did was grab the motherfucker by his neck and throw him down and kick him in the ribs. My wife just sat there. Didn’t say a word. Which was surprising. I threw him down in the yard and he tried to run but I caught him down by the marsh and grabbed a big clump of mud and rammed it down his throat. I let him go after. I saw him stumble off towards the ridge up far ahead and those same damn hawks were flying, watching us, watching him, thinking what fools we were, more than likely.

I went back up to the porch and she didn’t say a word. Is it all right now, I said? She sat there, silent, happy probably, in a stupid tiny kingdom. I said, I’m gone. Still nothing. I went in and threw everything I could in a few trash bags. I stood in the doorway then, all these shadows of us and other things dancing around, trying to settle. I called her name and said to kiss me goodbye but she sat there, just listening to the music. I left and took the truck, figuring it’d be a good damn idea to strand her for a while.

Well, it really didn’t end there. Because she found me soon after. It really was a small world. Remember when I said how could we lose such things in a world as small as this? We never lose them. Not finally, anyway.

I moved back home with my mother. She wasn’t doing very well. I did all the housework and was getting it ready to put up for sale since I knew she didn’t have long. I didn’t have much desire to sleep in the same room again, drink gin in the same basement. So it had to go. Everyone would have wanted it that way, I think.

Well, one day my mom was at the doctor’s office, and I came home quick to eat lunch. I was out in the front yard, about to get the mail, when this taxi pulls up and my wife gets out. In this big old white sundress and this ridiculous hat, like she was First Lady or something. Guest speaker at the church bazaar, I guess. Well, she took a long deep look at me, and I held out my arms, as if to say, make your move, this is a boxing match now. She started to weep and I didn’t know what to do so I started to turn back to the house when she grabbed me by the arm. I turned and I finally saw the grief in her eyes. All the sorrow she had conjured in full plain view now. But I didn’t give in. I said, go find the man with mud in his mouth. Go run to him and sing Rock Me Baby, maybe he’ll come by and make you feel sixteen again. She acted like she was going to slap me, but instead just turned and went back into the same taxi. I guess she told him not to leave. She stuck her head out of the window and told me that if I ever changed my mind, I would know where she was. I just spat on the ground and they drove away. I got the mail. Everything became ordinary again.

A month later my mother did die. I guess she just had a bad doctor. I buried her, sold the house, had a yard sale, left everything that didn’t sell in the small dead yard. I posted signs all over wobbly telephone poles and grimy phone booth walls, but no one came biting. No one wanted the things I had, even for free. I expected her to come by, to rifle through all the dust and gin-soaked pieces of my life, but I guess she had enough of seeing the dots and blurs and marks of our ridiculous time spent. I left it all in a box for the trash man and I went to go find another place to live. What I had fit in the trunk of the car. I went to a diner, asked to see a phone book, picked the first town that I thought sounded even halfway welcoming, which was here. Got back in the car, drove down, knowing full well that even though I had a wife I guess I could go home to again, she wouldn’t be able to accept my dust, and I wouldn’t be able to accept the bullshit silence she gave when I beat her lover to an inch of his stupid, rotten life. I couldn’t live with someone who didn’t appreciate what I did for them. I can’t even live with myself, barely. It’s enough to make a man sick.

One day I know she’ll find me, she’ll have to. She’ll search for an address just like I searched for money or reasons or even another glass of something cold to drink. You’re given things throughout your life and you can choose to hang on or you can choose to lose them, only to find them and touch them again. There’s plenty of chances for someone—even if you’re pathetic like that guy who drank with my wife—to find what you want, to find what you need. Right now, I have no reason to get up off this stool and go hunting for something that’s just an ugly piece of an old nightmare. Especially not now, when this town looks the way it does. It’s better than the old ugly air that I saw before, many times, many nights, when I knew that life could get better than what I had.

I’m rambling, I’m sorry. But you wanted to know. You’ve been asking me ever since I got here. Tell me your story, now. Come on. I’ll buy you another beer and we’ll take a table and you can tell me the best story you ever heard or the worst one you ever heard. I promise to listen. I promise not to talk over you.

That promise I can keep, this time.

Kevin Richard WhiteKevin Richard White is the author of the novels Steep Drop and The Face Of A Monster. His short fiction has been previously published by Akashic Books, Tahoe Writers Works, Crack The Spine, and Cactus Heart Press. He is also a contributor to the indie music magazine Manifesto Of Sound, and is the head editor of Viewfinder Literary Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania.

 

Glassfoot

glassfoot

++++++++++three a.m. thirsty and crawling
++++++++++chemo-induced miracle to be endured because
++++++++++(infusion clinic joke) the alternative is

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++glassfoot

++++++++++worse than fire ants worse than shoes full of shards
++++++++++fingernails falling off pulling away one by two afraid
++++++++++what’s in the beds they leave

glassfoot

++++++++++behind sitting on skeleton sharp without my cushion
++++++++++once I wished for skinny
++++++++++now I just wonder will we soon be seeing

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++glassfoot

++++++++++bones right there under the skin
++++++++++muscles like tissue wiping tears
++++++++++weeping just once when nurse asks
++++++++++you didn’t think it would look like a man’s

glassfoot

++++++++++chest bound like iron held together
++++++++++by what’s found in dahlias and peaches and clean sheets
++++++++++after all, when Cinderella had glassfoot
++++++++++she danced

 
Palmar-Plantar Erythrodysesthesia (PPE) is a side effect of some types of chemotherapy. PPE occurs when the drug leaks out of capillaries in the hands and feet, causing damage to the surrounding tissues. Symptoms range from redness and swelling to difficulty walking.

Kathryn PaulKathryn Paul has lived in Seattle longer than she has lived anywhere else. She is a survivor of many things, including cancer and downsizing. Carving out time for poetry is the most important thing she does. Her poems have appeared or will appear in Stirring: A Literary Collection, The Fem, Words Dance, and Lunch Ticket’s “Amuse-Bouche” feature.

Hollow

I dig my fingers into the pockets of my jacket and tilt my face towards the sun. The sharp wind of fall stings my cheeks. I want to drink in the spaciousness of this place, disappear into the rust red canyon, become the shadows dancing on painted rock.

Behind me, there are voices belonging to people pointing cameras and fingers at the enormity that surrounds us. One of the voices belongs to my travel companion for the day, Mark the meteorologist. He’s made a point to stop every tourist we pass, asking them where they’re from and what trails they plan on taking while visiting the Grand Canyon.

We met on Couchsurfing a few weeks earlier, and although I didn’t end up staying with him, I took him up on his offer to take me on a hike. The canyon is his backyard; he knows it the way I know the hidden creeks and wide curves of the slow-moving river down the street from my duplex back in Florida.

“Germany?” I hear Mark ask another tourist.

“Austria!” the man bellows.

I inch closer to the rock’s edge, peering down at the layers of sediment stacked beneath my feet. A shard loosens and falls into the canyon, a tiny part of this massive whole.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” the meteorologist asks his new friend.

“Of course! And then I take one of you and your girlfriend!”

My heart cringes at the word. I feign temporary deafness, but Mark calls my name twice.

The meteorologist and I don’t correct the Austrian. Instead, we hand him our cameras, stand dutifully in front of the unfathomable view, and smile, arms dangling like dead fish at our sides. My smile is tight-lipped, my eyes squinting into the Arizona sun. I won’t bother checking the photo afterwards to make sure he’s taken a decent shot.

It’s not the Austrian’s fault. It’s not wrong to assume that two people visiting the Grand Canyon together would be lovers. How would he know that I only met Mark this morning, in the half-light of morning?

“Thanks,” I say to the Austrian, retrieving my camera from his bulky hands. I try to keep the sarcastic tilt out of my voice.

Back in the car, Mark drives so that I can take in the last of the views on our way out of the park.

“Halloween’s tomorrow,” he says.

“Mhm,” I say. “You going to dress up?”

He laughs. “I just pass out candy to the kids.”

On the steering wheel, his left hand is hairless and naked.

“Are you a vegetarian?” Mark asks.

“Nope,” I say, snapping another picture of the view outside my windowcanyons within canyons. “Why do you ask?”

“I shot my first elk of the season, and I was wondering if you wanted to come over tomorrow night for some elk stew.”

Although my first instinct is to always say yes to venison, I pause.

“I’ll have to see what my friend has planned for Halloween.” How is Mark to know that Cait, the friend I came to the conference with, is leaving tonight?

The whole drive down from the canyon, I go back and forth about the elk stew. You should go, I think. He’s nice enough to show you all over the Grand Canyon, and now he’s inviting you over for dinner. Why not? You don’t have anything else planned.

But the question tugs at me: What’s the point? This is not my town, not my time zone. Kissing men who live in far-off places has lost its appeal over the years.

Later that night, I text him my thanks and an apology. It was a beautiful trip to the canyon. Thanks for being such a great guide! My friend already had Halloween plans so I’ll have to take a rain check on the elk stew.

The next morning, I spy a flyer in the bathroom of a coffee shopa brass band from New Orleans playing a Halloween show at a venue nearby. I buy a single ticket and wait until eight p.m. to apply a single coat of red lipstick.

Walking to the show, I push my hands into my jacket pocket and clutch my key between my fingers; I am a stranger to this city, and I take shadows for bodies waiting to pounce. The streets are dark, and shouts of laughter echo between buildings. I wonder if Mark still made the elk stew, and if he’s eating it alone in his warm house. How many children have come to his door, asking for chocolate and gummy worms in their cheerleader costumes and mummified getups? Beneath my jacket, I am dressed in all black. I think of what I will tell people if they ask about my costume, but I don’t speak to a soul all night.

Carmella de los Angeles GuiolCarmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Florida-based gardener, dancer, adventurer, photographer, and writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review, The Toast, BUST, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Thought Catalog, The Normal School, Slag Glass City, Kudzu House, Tahoma Literary Review, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She is the 2016 recipient of Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. You can often find her working in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.

Nipple Gazing

Nineties Girlhood

No one ever praised me for being smart, only for being good. Good meant pretty and quiet, pressed like a flower in the middle of a bell curve. The first time I thought about becoming an adult had nothing to do with ambition but with a yearning to be beautiful. Baywatch was playing on the television. I asked my mother when my breasts would look like the actress’s. She told me to pray, that women in our family were flat unless they got fat, but then it didn’t matter. I added getting fat to my mental list of life’s worst possible outcomes.

In sixth grade my best friend Monica grew breasts. At a sleepover, she showed them to me, a set of full, pale wonders. I don’t remember nipples. She was like a mannequin, plastic yet somehow organic, important yet lacking function. She asked me if I wanted to touch them. More than anything. I averted my eyes and whispered, “No.”

Millennial Adolescence

I wore padded bras that promised both to lift and enhance. When a clumsy-fingered boy couldn’t undo the Wonderbra’s clasp, he pulled the straps and padded cups down so that he could squeeze and twist my breasts like stress balls.

I thought of Monica. If I’d had the courage, I would’ve said, “Yes.” Stood close enough to catch the lavender scent of her soap and using the tips of my fingers, I’d trace each curve and dent. Cupping her breast with great tenderness, I would’ve treated them like such delicate, special things, art to behold, not a battlefield to conquer.

In a record store, I discovered Easter. The album cover showed a girl whose arm stretched overhead revealing a swatch of pit hair. A dirty camisole caressed her small braless form. I bought the record to know more about the girl. Patti Smith’s music was messy, raw and thick enough to swallow, to carry in the gut of your soul. I quit wearing bras and cut my hair short. I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

Grownup  

After years of barista and thrift-store jobs, I got a grownup gig at an office full of button-ups and sensible heels. I grew out my hair and wore bras. No longer sure who I was, I scrambled to be the person I figured I should be. One by one my friends got married, moved away, and I felt left behind, terminally lonely. So I married a man whom I wasn’t sure I loved because he’d asked, because I needed to check off boxes. First comes marriage and then comes baby. Right?

Pregnancy made my boobs swell three sizes. My areolas transformed from pink wafers to bumpy brown Ritz. The new shade and shape disgusted me. It was hard to reconcile my feminist beliefs with popular aesthetics. Gumdrop nipples were the stuff of nude paintings, of tasteful porn. My sole association with dark, large nipples came from a long-ago overheard conversation.

That bitch had the nastiest nips.  Looked like a couple of salami slices!

I was relieved that my nipples could not accurately be compared to lunchmeat. Still, the remark clung to me burr-like for well over a decade until I adopted the prejudice as my own.

I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

I wondered if I’d ever be happy with my breasts again. It felt like a shallow thought for a new mother. Instead of evaluating shades of areola, wasn’t I supposed to be in a rocking chair, nursing serenely? At those most maternal moments, I was not peaceful; I wore a burp rag and a grimace. No one warned me of the throbbing ache brought by milk surging in, the skin pulling taut, and forging zebra stripes. Whenever my starving infant latched, I swallowed gasps of pain and squeezed my eyes shut, willing the ache to wash over me. I wished to be numb. The lactation consultant provided pamphlets, encouragement, and a rush of guilt when I’d brought up the f-word, formula. Breast is best! Infections came. I dreaded nursing. Where was the blissful bonding? I was struggling with one of the most basic maternal duties.

When I was pregnant I read all the books, ate folic acid, and avoided soft cheeses. I gave birth naturally in a Jacuzzi tub. I was determined to be a perfect mother. Now that the baby was here, I was exhausted; all my lofty ideals seemed ridiculous. My husband and I fought. He got angry, threw things. Slammed the door, disappeared for hours. I couldn’t leave, I had a baby. My body was weak, deflated, and I no longer felt I belonged in it. Purple pustules blistered the undersides of my breasts. I ignored them, figuring that like coarse hairs curling from an areola the pimples were another one of those secrets women hid.

When my left breast morphed into a lobster shell and a fever came, I went to the hospital. At three a.m. a doctor told me I had MRSA. I nodded. I didn’t understand, but I’d Google it later. The doctor said they’d have to act fast before the infection entered the bloodstream. They’d scheduled an emergency surgery. I nodded again. Alone in my hospital room, I read about MRSA. Sepsis. Death. I thought about my five-week-old daughter. It was my first time being away from her for more than a moment. I didn’t sleep; I couldn’t shake the thought of who would tell my sweet girl about periods if I died. At a gut level, I knew my husband wouldn’t. How could I trust him to raise my daughter?

As they wheeled me off to surgery, I stared up at the ceiling tiles and cried. I’d always thought mothers were brave and dignified. My eyes were swollen, and snot dripped from my nose. Before sliding into the cocoon of anesthesia I called my husband. No answer. Texted him that I was afraid. No answer. I decided I’d leave him.

I woke up struggling for breath with my chest wrapped tight, bound into androgyny. Grief clawed up my throat. I would never be one of those hippie mothers fearlessly breastfeeding in public under some flowering tree. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that was what I had wanted. Under the bandages my breasts strained to fill with milk, swelling like a choked hose.

The changing of surgical dressing was a magician’s trick, ribbons of gauze pulled from inside me like endless scarves. Milk pooled in the wound, blood dripped from my nipple. A golf ball-sized hole revealed everything from crust to inner core: reds, pinks, whites and yellows, all meat.

Matriarch

It took three months for the wound to close. The resulting scar resting on my nipple resembled a pirate’s hook. For a long while, my breasts were a stranger’s with their ripples of raised skin and that crescent scar. Almost a year dripped by before I stopped hating those indented streaks and started thinking of them as the flood marks of my history. Another year would pass before I learned to treat my body with tenderness, and demand that others do the same.

My daughter is four. We live in the Sonoran desert where she runs feral, wild curls racing down her bare back. One day we’ll go on a mother-daughter hike and I’ll tell her of the feats and wonders that her body is capable of. I’ll buy her a bra. Teach her how to press circular motions and check for the cancer that curses her genes. But that can wait.

For now, I give her three truths. We are more than our bodies. I’ll always love you. You are enough.

L.L. MadridL.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her daughter and an antisocial cat. When she’s not writing for places like Gamut, Jersey Devil Press, and Spirit’s Tincture, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/.

Instructions for Daughters

Pack sackcloth and ashes in your carry-on.
Bring pens, your toothbrush, a good skirt,
and a magazine you will not read.

At the terminal, do not flinch
at his diminishment.
You are not strong enough
to support the weight of his

grief. You will support it.

Accept tasks before coffee,
urgencies colliding, lists so long
the sun will set
before you have turned the page.

Celebrate the crossing out of items.
Fold laundry. Make soup. Remember.
Say thank you. Do not

be surprised by the number
of times you speak of her
in the present tense. Their home,
their tickets, their checkbook.

Plural fades slowly. Practice.

Distant relatives arrive, circle,
contain his flood of words. Accept
this grace while you continue to sort
and pack her possessions.

Make executive decisions. Regret
them. Cabinets and bookcases will become
the stuff of nightmares. He will bolt
from sleep: searching, inarticulate.
Do not enter his frenzy. Join

the hunt. Preserve her spiral notebooks
filled with travel notes: sixty countries,
five continents, two sentences
a day in her tiny, perfect penmanship.
Tuck them away, destinations to which
he may someday return.

Pray not to make a mistake.
You will make mistakes.

Choose to believe that he is not crying
alone in the dark. Be prepared
to catch him bent double and wailing
when the lost opal pendant slips
suddenly into his hand from a tissue-filled
ziplock he found in the drawer you swear
you checked yesterday:
this one treasure he could not find.

(You cannot be prepared.)

Do not be shocked at his hurry to empty
her side of the closet. It is her faint
cologne that crushes him as he goes
to find his socks in the morning.

Do not break his heart.
Check all the pockets.

Kathryn PaulKathryn Paul has lived in Seattle longer than she has lived anywhere else. She is a survivor of many things, including cancer and downsizing. Carving out time for poetry is the most important thing she does. Her poems have appeared or will appear in Stirring: A Literary Collection, The Fem, Words Dance, and Lunch Ticket’s “Amuse-Bouche” feature.

Don’t Say Anything

One month alone, and Jesse was still getting used to things. He was filling a saucepan for tea—Anna hadn’t let him take the kettle—and when he touched the stove and the faucet at the same time, he got a jolt up his arm. His arm jerked back and the saucepan flew off the stove and clanged on the kitchen floor. The old heap must have been ungrounded. Jesse swore. He curled into a corner of the kitchen floor and rubbed his aching arm. His heart thumped a fast, funny beat.

Anna and Henry were playing in the vacant lot outside. Through the window, Jesse could hear their laughter as they, unaware of his accident, chased a neighbor’s cat around. Anna had brought Henry’s overnight bag and his teddy bear, and now Jesse wished Anna would just bring in Henry, say her goodbyes, and leave. The oven contained a cake for Henry’s birthday, and Jesse figured that he and Henry would eat it all themselves. Jesse had never baked a cake before, and the kitchen smelled surprisingly good, but he didn’t want to touch the oven again. How to get the cake out…

A young woman came down the fire escape outside his window. Jesse saw her bare feet picking spots on the iron grate. The woman peeked in the window, her fingers folding around the sash. She said she lived upstairs. She had heard all the clatter. Was anything wrong? Jesse sat up from the floor and kneeled, still gripping his arm. The woman climbed in the window.

She helped him wipe the water off the floor. She wore a sundress, yellow with red polka dots. The hem of her dress skimmed the wet floor as she squatted down. Her feet left small wet prints on the old linoleum. She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that. She wiped the floor.

She asked, “So what’s your major?” She looked at Jesse and waited for his answer. She had beautiful brown eyes.

Jesse shook his head and held up his hand. “Uh, parenting.”

“You don’t go to the U?”

“No, but obviously you do.”

The young woman smiled. She stood, gathered the ends of her skirt, and climbed out the window. Her arched feet stepped over a dish of cat food on the landing, and she was gone. Jesse’s hands trembled. He left the saucepan in the sink. He didn’t want tea anymore. He was shaking. His body remembered the stove.

She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that.

From the kitchen window, Jesse watched Anna and Henry chasing the cat in wide circles in the grass. The sun cast long shadows across the vacant lot. Fairy rings had sprouted in the open spaces, but college students had worn a path among them. Cars whizzed by. Jesse saw the pink sunset, and he heard his son’s laughter and Anna’s voice, and from the upstairs apartment window he heard dishwater splashing, and the girl, Jessie, singing a tune, “One, two, three, four…” From another window came the sounds of a couple having sex. Jesse closed his eyes for five long seconds. His heart still rattled about.

Wearing a hot-mitt, and using just one hand so as not to complete a circuit, Jesse opened the oven and took out his son’s cake. His hands were shaking as he spread a can of green frosting. Henry had asked for green. The frosting melted on the hot cake, pooling along the edge of the pan. Should have let it cool. Anna would remark about that. She should have left already. He stuck four candles in. Bought them himself. He had never bought birthday candles before. He didn’t know where to put the extra candles. Hadn’t thought of that. A drawer? Above the stove? Fucking stove.

Matches. He had forgotten matches. The neighbor, Jessie, maybe she had some. He wiped his hands on a towel, lifted the cake, and climbed out to the fire-escape landing. Climbing the stairs he heard Jessie on the phone, her voice through her kitchen window talking and laughing, “Dude, that’s so awesome!” Never mind. He turned back, stepped over the dish of cat food, and carried the unlit birthday cake down the iron stairs to his wife and son.

Long light combed through the grass. It was end-of-summer light. End-of-a-good-day light. The sun lit the cottonwood leaves, and the empty lot glowed with pink light through the leaves. Jesse was happy to have this light. Every night, sitting on his fire escape and watching the pink light, he didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, which meant he didn’t explain anything hurtful or bad. The night would come later, hard and alone, but evening was a beautiful time if you could stand the cold. It was always cold. It was Missoula, the northern Rockies, and it was always cold in the evening. You wore a sweater. Anna was wearing a blue sweater. She looked good in a sweater.

Jesse’s little boy was chasing the cat around the lot. Anna sat at a picnic table that the college students had dragged over from a city park. The long light of a Montana summer evening made Anna’s skin look pink and warm. She was drinking wine from one of Jesse’s plastic cups. She frowned as Jesse laid the cake on the table.

“It’s not lit,” she said in her slow sleepy voice. She wasn’t mad.

“I don’t have matches.”

“Jesus, Jess.” She dug through her purse and found a lighter.

“What the fuck,” he said.

“None of your business.”

“So if my son starts smoking and dies of cancer, can I never forgive you?”

Jesse took the lighter and tried to light the candles on the cake. His hands still shook, and the flame danced around the wick. “Uh, I got a little jolt from the stove.”

“The stove? What about Henry?”

“He’ll be fine as long as he’s not grounded when he touches it.”

“Oh good, explain that to a four-year-old.”

“The knobs are just his height too. It’s a funky old—”

“I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.”

“He likes it. I like it. He likes the fire escape, and the Murphy bed, and he likes that stray kitty. Besides, it’s only for a while.”

“Until what.”

“Until I-don’t-know. Heck, I haven’t even told you about the airshaft. See, there’s this little door that—”

“No.” Anna put her hands over her face.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry about what, Jess?”

Jesse sat at the picnic table, and Henry ran over and sat in his lap. They sang Happy Birthday and ate warm pieces of cake. Green frosting stuck on their fingers. Jesse’s heart slowed to a placid pace.

Henry asked why he was getting this second birthday cake.

Anna stepped away from the table. Her face shone in the light. Her shoulders were tight. Her jaw was tight. She must have been cold. Jesse scooted from under Henry’s weight and went over to stand by Anna.

Anna stared into the pink sun, then she looked down. Her sleepy voice. “He thinks I’m spending the night too.”

“You didn’t tell him?”

“He wouldn’t come if he knew.”

“What the fuck. This is my night. My first night. His and mine.”

“There’ll be hitches. It’s okay. I can take him home. I got nothing else to do.”

They walked farther into the grass and into the light. It was cold. Arms touching.

“Damn it, Anna. This is a fucking undermine.”

“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”

“Happy?”

“And then I’ll go, okay?” Anna started to cry but the muscles in her face fought it back.

Behind them came a clatter. The neighbor girl, Jessie, stood on the fire escape. She was putting out a fresh bowl for the cat. She wore an Icelandic sweater over her sundress. It was cold in Missoula. She understood this. She was smoking a cigarette on her landing. So she did have matches. Didn’t matter anymore. That’s the way it was.

“Look at the light.” Jesse was pointing at the apartments. He was thinking about the light on the girl’s long loose hair.

Anna’s voice. “So Jess, I was thinking….”

“What?”

“About his preschool…”

“Sure. But just look at the sunlight. It’s only for a moment.”

“Listen to me.”

“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”

Jesse didn’t listen. He ran back to the picnic table and played with his little boy. Crumbs and frosting smeared Henry’s face: Forget about cleaning that up. They chased the cat. The cat was just a kitten and it stayed close to them, but when Henry and Jesse began chasing each other the cat lost interest, ran through the bushes, and was gone. No matter. Jesse picked up his boy and swung him around and around, matting down the grass. All the things he had wanted from life felt like they weren’t going to happen now. Where could life go? It didn’t matter. They played in the small empty lot and hid in the grass. The cars hissed by.

Two girls came around the front of the apartments and across the worn path. One of them stepped off the path and bent over a fairy ring, picking flowers with her right hand while her left hand held back her hair. The other girl knelt beside her and picked flowers too. They spoke Ukrainian or Russian. The girls stood close, touching. Each girl held a fist of weedy flowers and tucked them into the other’s hair.

“What are you looking at?” Anna stepped up to Jesse and Henry.

“They’re Pentacostal, or something. Their fathers won’t let them see boys. They touch each other because that’s all they have.”

Anna snared Henry in her arms. “Seems to be a lot of pretty co-eds here.” She wiped Henry’s face with a cloth. She looked tired. She still had her ring on. Her fingers looked old.

Henry said, “What’s a co-ed, mommy?”

“Um, I don’t know, a girl.”

“That’s silly.”

“Your mom was a co-ed.”

Anna kicked Jessie.

“A what?”

“A beautiful co-ed.”

Anna laughed and rolled her eyes. She took the wine bottle and refilled her plastic cup. Jesse sat with Anna on the picnic table and drank wine and watched Henry spend all his playful energy running around. Get him good and tired before bed.

Henry stopped and watched them. Puzzled.

“It’s short for co-educational.”

Henry cackled but surely did not understand. Oh well. This would be all right. But it would not be all right. That’s what the marriage counselor had warned. It would not be all right, but what could you do? Poor Henry.

Jesse led Anna and Henry in. They climbed the fire escape, left the cake and the wine on the fire-escape landing, and entered through the window. Inside, while Anna tidied up the kitchen, Jesse tried to demonstrate that he could get it right: changing Henry into a pull-up, brushing his teeth, helping him go pee, singing all the right songs. Henry found the airshaft’s little door right away, but Jesse blocked it with the heaviest box he could find. Good thing he hadn’t unpacked the boxes. Henry bounced on the bed and asked about his mom. Jesse said she was cleaning dishes.

“This is a mess,” she yelled in. “You need some paper for the cabinets. You just do.”

Henry kept bouncing on the bed.

Anna came into the main room. Jesse and Henry began a tug-of-war with the Murphy bed, pushing and pulling the bed into the wall and out again.

“He’ll squish his fingers!”

“Everyone likes it.”

“Everyone? I didn’t know you had so many friends in bed.”

“Knock it off, Anna.”

A voice came from the kitchen. The girl, Jessie, had come into Jesse’s apartment from the fire escape. She peeked around the corner, smiled, and held up Jesse’s serving spoon inquiringly. Then she was gone. Scampered away. Her footsteps made little pings on the iron landing.

“What was that all about?”

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing. He held his son tight and rolled on his back.

“I said, Who was that? Your concubine?”

“I think her name’s Jessie. She goes to the U and—”

“What the fuck is this place?”

“Well, there’s a ton of students, okay? She’s borrowing a spoon. A spoon. She’s probably stoned, watching TV, munching Häagen-Dazs, getting fat.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“I guess.” He and Henry rolled the other way.

“Don’t ‘I guess’ me. You know it. How many other hotties live here?”

“What’s a hottie, Dad?”

“Will you just get on with things? I’ll wait outside.” Jesse climbed off the bed, into the kitchen, and out to the fire escape. He drank wine from the bottle and dangled his legs into the last violet light before dark.

The key to happiness was the light. The last light. It was private, and he wished Anna would go. She was in there, putting Henry down, and he wished to sit alone and say nothing and watch the light’s slender swords slide between the cottonwood leaves, longer, longer, until the night allowed the dark to stay. Loneliness would set in, but Anna would be somewhere else. He could handle loneliness alone. With her it would be too much to bear. He closed his eyes.

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing.

They had been fixing up a rough-timber house on five acres along the Clark Fork. It backed against the river. Half their property was flooded in the spring, but the house was above the water line, and it was beautiful. Swallows nested in the eaves, and at night they circled over the water. Every night, Jesse drank wine in the kitchen and listened to the river whispering. Through the small kitchen window he would watch the swallows fly their long circles. The low sunlight made the fog pink and glowing, and that window became a little box of color, and Jesse swore on the light through that small window: He was going to replace that window with something big. Then Anna would come back from her shift at the hospital. They’d sit in their kitchen and gaze at the small window and think different thoughts. They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over. When the darkness was so complete that the window shrank to nothing, Jesse wandered into the bedroom and the bright light. Anna busied herself knitting. Jesse dreamed of a happier time. He closed his eyes and dreamed of it hard. He couldn’t tell her. There wasn’t supposed to be a time happier than this.

A police car zoomed down the avenue. Everything that was wrong seemed far away.

The Ukrainian girls were sitting at the picnic table, kicking each other’s feet. A man’s voice yelled from a block away. It was time to go. They leaned close and walked the worn path. Their arms brushed. They got to the sidewalk, but they couldn’t hug, and intimacy had to be a game that meant nothing, one of them wrestling and tugging and falling into the other, then giggling and helping her up and smoothing her long hair, and then it was over. One girl ran, her hair lifting back. The other girl ran too, far from this, her fingers clenched around her hair.

Anna came out. The fire escape rang with her steps. She took the bottle of wine and poured two cups, and together they sat on the fire escape and drank the wine. Someone in the apartments was playing Bob Marley.

“I should go.”

“Yeah.”

Anna looked at the wine bottle. “I have to drive. That fucking house.”

“You going to sell it?”

“Did he tell you we saw a cougar? Your little boy saw a cougar. I didn’t believe it until I went out there and saw the tracks by the swing set.”

Jesse poured himself more wine. Plastic cup.

“It’s going to be so dark. I hate that. I hate that house. I hate it there.”

“You should get a gun.”

“Fuck you.”

“Just be civil. This is good wine. Like in Taos. Remember?”

“Yeah.” She poured another cup.

“So, you were saying about his preschool…”

“Shut up about his preschool. I’ll just send you the bill.”

They ate cake. They drank wine. It was cold, and they sat close together.

Anna said, “What the hell are you going to do, Jesse?”

“You know. This is what I do.”

“And it’s fucked.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Fuck you.” She leaned against him.

Her arm felt warm against his, and it felt familiar, and her shoulder fit the way it always did, and her sweater hugged her body the same as always too. Jesse put his arm around her, and her shoulders tensed, then gave, and her head rested on his chest. She was close and warm. She didn’t say anything.

The purple sky of a long northern summer evening held out.

They leaned in and kissed. He pushed back her hair.

“Jesse.”

“No. No. Don’t say anything.” 

They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over.

*     *     *

They fucked like old times. They moved Henry’s little body to the Goodwill sofa, and they fucked on the bed that folded into a wall. Fucking was always something good that they had. They knew how to be tender. Maybe they were used to being cruel, but they put that aside, and they spent the little tenderness that was left. They knew how to please each other decently. The right touches down the muscles along the spine. Finding the contours of the hip bones and pressing together. And all the time, Jesse knew that there would be another girl, someday, but there would never be this. There would never be this again. Did Anna know it too? You didn’t ask those things. They nestled together long after any hope was left, but Montana summer nights did not last long, and dawn was already seeping into the room, and Anna’s wavy hair was tangled, and she pushed it back with the heel of her palm and squinted at the bluing sky. They woke up adrift in the middle of the bed.

Jesse and Anna didn’t say anything. A long time ago, words had broken the ice, opened the heart. Standing beneath aspens on a hike in Taos, Jesse had told her, “You are so beautiful.” She had said, “No, you’re beautiful.” But this time, it would not be words. There was nothing to explain. When the only choice lay in deciding who would break whose heart, you didn’t say anything.

It was Jesse’s turn. He got up. The air against his skin felt cold. The wall hummed with water in the pipes. Someone was singing and taking a bath. You could hear it through the airshaft, a Joni Mitchell tune. Jesse looked at Anna. She looked at him the way she always did in the morning, a smile, only today it was wry and pained.

Jesse went to the window. There was the long lovely light, from the east this time, the shadows slicing the other way. Last week he had seen a coyote. The fairy rings, heavy with dew, slumped over. The Ukrainian girls were in the lot. They sat on the cold wet edge of the picnic table, shoulders touching. They each wore a T-shirt and shorts, and they must have been cold. Later they would leave, and Henry and Jesse would play in the grass. Hide-and-seek and fairy villages. They’d have a picnic. Then the long shadows Jesse loved best would collapse across the grass, and Anna would come back to pick up Henry, and Jesse would watch the sunset alone and make his life go far, far away. He turned.

“This is my time,” he said. “So go.”

“I am going. You don’t tell me.” Anna shoved her hair back and looked around the bed for her clothes.

“So go.”

“I am.” She yelled.

“Shh.”

Henry began to stir.

“He can’t hear me.” She gathered up her things, shuffled to the bathroom.

“Shh… just shh.” Jesse looked away. Don’t say anything. Make it hurt less. When you break a heart, don’t say a thing. Jesse put on shorts and a yellow New Mexico T-shirt. Anna emerged from the bathroom and left quietly. The front door made a soft click.

As the sunrise lit up the room, a girl’s singing floated from the airshaft. A new tune that Jesse did not know. Henry woke up, and he and Jesse played on the bed. Jesse served leftover cake for breakfast. Henry kneeled on a chair at the table and ate two pieces of cake. Small pieces. The bare bright light cut through the trees on the eastern side of the lot. The bare light of a hot day.

A girl passed the window. Those slender feet again. Jessie. She wore a baseball T-shirt and a printed Indian skirt. Wet hair. She peeked in, her fingers on the sash.

“Jesse?”

“Good morning, Jessie. This is my son, Henry.”

Jessie peeked into the main room and smiled sweetly at the boy. Henry did not look up from his cake.

“Hey, Henry. My name’s Jessie too.” She turned. “I brought back your serving spoon. I’m sorry. I’m still getting set up.”

“Me too.”

She leaned against the kitchen counter. “Have you seen my kitty? He didn’t come in last night.”

“Not since then. Do you want some breakfast?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” The girl looked down. She fidgeted her bare feet. She finger-combed her wet hair.

“Please. We have cake.”

“I mean…”

“Don’t say anything. Just eat.”

She smiled. She looked down again, but only for a moment. She looked at Jesse, resting her eyes there, and she smiled. Jesse didn’t know what to say. He liked her, but come on… He wanted to tell her there would be sorrow, hope and abundant sorrow, and someday she would understand. But not today. He wanted to tell her about the light, the beautiful light in the evening, but he did not. He didn’t want words for anything, gazing at the pretty girl who smiled back at him the longest time. She was not shy, but maybe a little, because she kept combing her fingers through her wet hair, and her bare wet feet shifted around, but her gaze was solid on his eyes—until she rested her wet hand on that funky old stove and it happened, the electricity, 220 volts, hard and sharp, seized her muscles and shook her, and she twisted away.

She cried. She sank down, her body balling up, her skirt sticking to her wet skinny legs. She was trembling from her fingertips to her spine.

Jesse kneeled and held her. Henry came running as far as the doorway and watched. “Stay back!” Jesse yelled. He held the wet barefoot girl and stroked her long wet hair, and it took all his strength to say, “Shh.” His breath was spent and dry when he tried to say, “The light in the evening.” And when the girl looked up at him confused as a child, Jesse didn’t have enough breath to whisper, “Don’t say anything.”

Evan Morgan WilliamsEvan Morgan Williams’s collection of stories, Thorn, won the Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). The judge was Al Young. Williams has held an AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship and a residency with Writers in the Schools. He has published over forty stories in such magazines as Witness, Antioch Review, (The) Kenyon Review, and ZYZZYVA. “Don’t Say Anything” is his second story in Lunch Ticket. www.evanmorganwilliams.wordpress.com

Donald Strauss, Urban Sustainability Activist

Donald StraussIn July 2016, I had the opportunity to talk with Donald Strauss, writer and founder of the Master’s of Arts in Urban Sustainability program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Don is also an urban cyclist who wrote a dissertation­­–he calls it a memoir manifesto–on how cycling culture has changed Los Angeles. He is an urban sustainability writer of creative nonfiction whose work stems from a deep understanding and critique of traditional nature writing. Don has much to say about the many forms of environmental injustice that affect marginalized communities and is passionate about how to create sustainability movements that make cities sustainable for all people, not just the privileged few.

His willingness to participate in wherever our dialogue took us made him an engaging interviewee: generous with his answers­­ and able to return to the point after passionate digressions. He spoke enthusiastically about what he calls “the problems and possibilities of cities” from the Los Angeles River to the ritualistic 1000-person night bike rides in LA.

Meredith Arena: I want to ask you about the urban sustainability program and your efforts to connect it with the MFA in Creative Writing program here at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Donald Strauss: For the purposes of full disclosure, I want to give [MFA Program Director] Steve Heller the credit. He is the one who came up with the idea of the dual degree. He came into my office and said, “Hey I have an idea!” And I jumped at it. I thought, this makes sense for many reasons. The origins of the program relate directly to what you referred to [before the interview] as the fetishization of sustainability. My background is not only in creative writing, but also in environmental studies. One of the things that I have been most troubled by comes from the American environmental tradition, which starts back with Thoreau and the Transcendentalists and goes through Muir and those people who were referred to as American nature writers, where there was a tremendous amount of racism, overt racism, that emerged. Obviously racism was not the central preoccupation, but it was an unfortunate byproduct of this movement, which was primarily put forward by white males.

…if the city isn’t a habitable pace to live for everybody, then it is probably not sustainable.

Moving forward into the sustainability movement, if you look at the UN’s Brundtland Report that came out in 1983, which was titled “Our Common Future,” it addresses a number of social and environmental equity issues. But [the report] essentially became a document­­, like so many other things, like The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s Capital, cherry-picked by people who saw particular advantages in particular arguments that the document made. It became an argument for what has become known as sustainable development. It has become a document that serves the larger neo-liberal cause. In cities­­where probably by the end of the century more than eighty percent of the world’s population will be livingthere is a giant influx of energy and material, generally extracted from other ecosystems, brought into the urban ecosystem, and then distributed inequitably. Those are the issues I wanted to address. If you are going to call a place sustainable, like a forest ecosystem left to its own devices is self-sustaining, what would be the argument for cities not being [sustainable]? There is this whole idea of bio-mimicry, the idea that human beings can behave in a way that emulates natural undisturbed ecosystems. Cities are probably the best place to get started on that project, because that is where we live. In thinking about what makes a city sustainable, for me it has always beenand this is probably some schooling I got in the American nature writing movement and environmental justice movement, which happened in the nineties­­if the city isn’t a habitable pace to live for everybody, then it is probably not sustainable. We imposed a human rights frame on the idea of sustainability and are making this argument that if everybody’s human rights aren’t being attended to, then it is not really sustainable.

MA: I like that you begin right there with people. I live in Seattle where the “sustainability” movement is very big and it is great to live in a city where I can compost, etc., but there is also a sense of disconnection. We are using this environmental movement to gentrify the city and exclude poor people and creating systems that attract people from high-income brackets. The city is changing on that foundation. It seems like it should be obvious about the word sustainability. Is it sustainable if people cannot afford to live there?

DS: Not obvious to everybody.

MA: When you spoke on the panel at the MFA residency in June, you mentioned an essay by Rebecca Solnit about Thoreau. She wrote, “Conventional environmental writing has often maintained a strict silence on or even an animosity toward the city, despite its importance as a lower-impact place for the majority to live, its intricate relations to the rural, and the direct routes between the two.”

DS: The way I see it, the background of that thinking is from an essay from William Cronon called The Trouble With Wilderness, for which he was deeply reviled by any number of people from the American nature writing tradition, because of this mass misinterpretation that he was devaluing wilderness. What he was really doing was cautioning us to consider the way that we think about wilderness and what the effect of that thinking is on the places where we live. First of all, he problematizes the notion of wilderness by taking you through a timeline starting with the early Christian traditions through the nineteenth century. Wilderness was a horrible place. It was where the devil lived, it was where savages lived. It was really reviled.

In fact, in our Antiochian tradition, when Horace Mann was originally given the job as president of Antioch College, all his friends in Massachusetts said, “Oh my God, you can’t move out there to the West,” which is what they considered Ohio, “’cause that place is a wasteland. There is nothing but dangerous forests and savages out there.” This was even as late as 1852, also the time that writers began to romanticize wilderness. Thoreau was one of those. That may be true in part, but it is more complicated than that, I think he was also terrified by wilderness, which in some way is more human. Being on top of a mountain when there is a lightning storm is a terrifying thing.

People who can afford to take off and leave their jobs and families, or elect not to have jobs or families, can go off and spend unlimited amounts of time in the wilderness. Or they can pay huge amounts of money to climb Mt. Everest. It has become this place that has been given special status in most people’s minds, which unconsciously or maybe automatically argues: We live in these cities, but they’re just trash heaps. It is okay for us to build crappy buildings and redline and do all these things, these misbehaviors that we have traditionally done in the cities, because if you are privileged, you can escape. If you are the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers, you can have a big complex in the Adirondacks and you don’t have to worry about the challenges of living in New York City or wherever. That is the big problem that American nature writing tradition produced and annunciated and one that we have to get away from.

MA: I want to talk about gentrification. The city has been reviled, but we are in a rebirth of cities because white people want to live in them again. I grew up in New York City in the seventies and eighties, when New York was down-and-out, and now my city is a totally different place where everyone wants to live. This is happening in many other cities. In my early twenties, I lived in the Lower East Side, and when I think about sustainability and humans, I think about the community gardens that were maintained by Puerto Rican and Dominicans; I think about old Polish ladies sitting on crates and talking late into the night. Street life. And we watched as these gardens were destroyed, literally destroyed, and then we watched the same thing happen in Brooklyn. I am wondering what kind of projects you see around sustainability, specifically in LA, that do not gentrify or colonize or take space away from people.

We imposed a human rights frame on the idea of sustainability and are making this argument that if everybody’s human rights aren’t being attended to, then it is not really sustainable.

DS: Just a little sidetrack, there is a woman by the name of Elly Blue. She is a blogger in Portland who blogs about bikes and wrote a book called Bikenomics. A lot of people got very excited about it and people were having seminars around Bikenomics. There was a big argument for bike infrastructure in cities and at some point, Elly Blue said to another colleague of mine, who has written about bike culture in LA, that she discovered that she had basically written a handbook for gentrification. That is a really important issue. With colleagues of mine in the Urban Sustainability program, we have been doing a lot of work on displacement. The term gentrification is a polite pejorative for what we (people who see themselves as progressives) in urban places oppose as a phenomenon. But it is the outcome of gentrification that we most object to, which is displacement. Even in a giant place like Los Angeles, what you are doing is pushing people out and farther into the margins. We have a huge population here that can’t afford even to take public transportation, so they ride bikes and the farther you push that population out past the place where they have potential employment or are employed, the worse you make their circumstances, the more impossible you make it for them to even have employment. I think that the big push-pull is in land use.

There are a couple of land trusts in Los Angeles. There is an organization called T.R.U.S.T. South LA and one of their main goals has been to set up land trusts that are specifically devoted to housing. The point is to take things off the speculative real-estate market because it is one of the only ways of preserving property for peoples who are at an economic disadvantage. If we don’t regulate that, if we don’t address these things and put them into the general plans of cities, then gentrification is an inevitability. And it is just wrong. It’s insane to make a city a place where nobody who is in the work force can afford to live. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a formulation that needs to break at some point.

Look at a place like San Francisco, the ultimate irony: a lot of the people who live there and have driven the housing prices up don’t even work in the city. They take the Google bus up to Mountain View or wherever they are going and the Google bus is usingwithout paying any kind of tax that I know ofthe bus stops. The housing prices have been driven up and there are incremental tax increases and high valuation of property. If you think about it, now the people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there don’t live there. That makes no sense at all. I don’t see any way around regulating that, addressing that problem by virtue of policies. This whole idea of affordable housing is a joke because two people with a combined income of $200,000 can qualify for it. [Often] you can have two people who are making as little as 40k combined. There is an absence of living wages or protections for people who already live in a neighborhood, [coupled with] the unregulated cost of market-rate housing. There is a problem with saying that you can’t build parks, you can’t build bike infrastructure, and other great things because it is going to gentrify the neighborhoods. Essentially that says that wherever you have poor people, that you can’t have nice stuff. They can’t have nice neighborhoods. They can’t have safe streets, which is also insane. I am not an urban planner, so I don’t know the intricacies, but I certainly understand it well enough to know that it is going to be a battleground. It is a battle that has to be waged. There is going to have to be an urban housing policy that protects people from displacement.

MA: Can you think of some writers, ones you work with in the program or other writers you admire, who are moving this cause along?

DS: If I scan that literature, I don’t think there are a lot of people that would fit in the creative nonfiction genre of the MFA program. That really is the intent of the dual degree, to foster those writers. To get writers who are really interested in communicating, not just effectively but beautifully as well, about the problems and the possibilities of cities.

That’s the thing, I don’t want to make it seem like I, or this movement, is only focused on problems. It certainly could be because there are enough problems to go around and not enough people to address them. But it is really important to consider possibilities. There are huge strides being made in addressing housing problems for the chronically homeless, at least in Los Angeles. There is this whole phenomenon of supportive housing that is starting to show some real success in terms of taking people off the street. But not just throwing them into a house without support, it is actually putting people into housing where there are social services, mental health care services, general services, job services. It sounds strange, but that is revolutionary. That is something that has only been going on for a shockingly short period of time.

MA: Your dissertation, Ridazz, Wrenches, & Wonks: A Revolution on Two Wheels Rolls Into Los Angeles, is a really good read, not just a bland presentation of research. You are in the research. You talk about memoir and manifesto as method. You are an observer and a participant. So I see the dual nature of these educational programs begin able to unfold with something like this. Can you talk about how you might guide students to put themselves in their research?

DS: Sure. I do want to jump back and do a shout out to a couple of people who have been huge influences in my writing. Rebecca Solnit is one of those people who is a place-based writer, who gets it, who is doing extremely imaginative things. Her Atlas Trilogy, which began in San Francisco and has extended to New Orleans and New York, is genius. Jenny Price, who has written extensively about the Los Angeles River. Her essay, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA,” is one of my favorite pieces of writing. And her book, which was actually her dissertation, called Flight Maps, also is an amazing example. I encountered her when I was in the MFA program, and then her mentor, William Cronon, who wrote The Trouble With Wilderness. He was her chair at Yale when she was an environmental history doctoral candidate there.

One of the many unique things about the Doctoral program at Antioch New England [that Strauss completed], is that it actively fostered and encouraged writing in the first person regardless of how hard the science was. It’s an interdisciplinary program, so there were people who were writing environmental history dissertations, which mine is close to, but not quite.

Look at a place like San Francisco, the ultimate irony… If you think about it, now the people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there don’t live there. That makes no sense at all.

There were people in conservation biology, environmental education, environmental policy, but all of us were encouraged to move away from the third-person disconnected narrator, passive voice, academic writing tradition. For me, it was a way of humanizing. I took the bait and ran with it as hard as I could. I bumped up against my committee, except for Jenny Price, who was on my committee, because I think they thought that I took it too far. But once they settled on the idea that I was not going to violate this “memoir and manifesto’” idea just for the purposes of doing some traditional method, they got comfortable with it and they let me go. I know other fine writers who have gone through that program. We have our first two students in the dual degree and they’re doing exactly what Steve and I hoped they would do. One of our first courses is called Urban Sustainability, and that’s a course in which we ground students in a lot of earth-systems science. You can’t speak authentically about a lot of these problems unless you really understand the sources of them. For a lot of us, what comes easy is what we can observe on the ground in terms of injustice and inequity, and the harder issues are the ones happening in the atmosphere that are actually having effects on the people on the ground, particularly in communities of color and people who are suffering severe economic challenges. That was my experience. My experience was I was a writer first and then I became this quote-unquote scholar. It was the writing that inspired me to articulate the things that I discovered through the scholarship in ways that weren’t necessarily always the expected ways that scholars were supposed to be working.

That’s the opportunity with the dual degree and we are starting to see that. Our first students are actually going though the program a bit backwards. The original intent is that you would start in Urban Sustainability and complete the program in the MFA program, which I think is a super powerful way to do it because the students will be propelled by all the content that they encounter in the first year and a half of our program and then go into a solid writing process. I mentor all the dual degree students, so I can start that process with the ones who come from the MFA program first and I am really interested in what the students are going to do when they go back for their final semester in their MFA. So we now have two students who have done two semesters of MFA and they will do three semesters with Urban Sustainability and they will have plenty of opportunity to continue to deploy and hone writing skills with us, and then go back and hopefully produce a really powerful final manuscript in MFA. It is going to be exciting to foster their interest in both writing and sustainability and then propel them into the MFA environment where I am sure they will do very powerful work.

MA: You mention LA historian, D.J. Waldie, and his creative use of narrative technique in telling history. What kind of experiments in form do you see happening with sustainability writing? What potential do you see?

DS: Waldie is unique. His book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, is about 120 pages and divided into 300 and some-odd chapters. There are all these beautiful little bites, about this completely mundane and ordinary thing­­the development of the City of Lakewood in the post war era. It’s a housing track with a lot of identical houses in it, but Waldie also looks at the Spanish colonial history of LA and then his own very personal relationship with the Catholic Church. It just takes these elements and braids them together in short pieces that are so lyrical and beautiful and tragic and mundane. It’s hard for me to even describe that book in ways that don’t sound like I have become some kind of religious fanatic. Yes, he is definitely doing interesting things with form. Poets are always doing interesting things with form. Eloise Klein Healy, who is the founder of the AULA MFA program, is very much an LA place-based poet, who writes about the landscape. It is not her primary preoccupation, but she has written very beautifully about it. I certainly attempted that with my dissertation. Jenny Price’s “13 Ways of Seeing Nature” is a revolutionary essay in terms of form and function. It writes very beautifully about the importance of the LA River as a historic and cultural asset that has been forgotten and remembered. I am sure I am missing a hundred people who are doing amazing writing.

MA: Is the Urban Sustainability program also low-residency?

DS: Yes. I am a bit of a low-residency junkie. I was in the second [AULA] MFA cohort in December of 1997, and then the doctoral program in New England is also low-residency. We designed our program to look more like the MFA. We have a six-day and a four-day residency in one semester. The way we distinguish the residencies is that the six-day is like the MFA program [in Creative Writing at Antioch LA, which has a ten-day residency], and then in the four-day residency, we are all living together in the same space for four days and you cook up some very intense working relations in those situations.

I really prefer [bicycle] riding at night. There is something more solitary and intimate, even if you are riding with 3,000 other people, you can have these moments where you are just bathing in this weird urban darkness.

MA: This thing you wrote about your friend telling you to “reindiginate” yourself to a place really resonated with me. You wrote, “… there is ritual that is about place as that which sustains us, that with which we have relationships, that with which we aspire to collaborate and sustain.” I think a lot about creating rituals and how we form relationships to place. Can you talk about how we form that relationship in an intentional way, especially in this shadow of displacement and gentrification? How has that happened for you?

DS: That conversation with Robin Kimmerer occurred on a hike in New England. The whole conversation about being indigenous was, for me, a personal controversy because I felt like I had no indigenous connection to anything, and one of my cohort colleagues got irritated with me when I said that. She said, “Look, we are all indigenous to some place.” It was not a conversation that ended well because nobody convinced anybody that there was a middle ground. Then I had this conversation with Robin, who is somebody whose family has lived in one place for longer than they can even account for. She operates in two knowledge systems, one is the Western-based science tradition and the other is that of the Potawatomi tribe. The temporal scale of how long you have lived in a place is very different from our Western way of looking at things in years. I was decrying this sense of not having an indigenous identity to any place and for her it was just completely natural. She said, “You have to reindiginate yourself,” and I posed this objection, saying, “I can’t stand it when people do that kind of cultural appropriation and everybody pulls out their drums and starts doing something from a culture that they have no connection to and no knowledge of, no guidance or no invitation to do so,” She said, “It doesn’t matter. You have to make your own rituals.” Which was puzzling to me, but it was more comforting that somebody saying, “Sorry, you’re a European invader, so you’re never going to have a sense of being indigenous to a place.” I can’t say that the mission has been accomplished, but I can discuss riding a bike and walking, which I do not do even nearly enough.

I tramped around the Santa Mountains all of my childhood with my friends. We went on these long hikes and when I think about it, there were so many occasions where we could have become food for a mountain lion and I am probably really lucky to be here. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I have this real grounding in what the soil of Los Angeles felt like. As I started studying the environmental history of Los Angeles and started teaching about it, I realized that there was this extraordinary ecosystem of a coastal plain that has now been completely paved over. My appreciation of the Los Angeles River has grown through working with my students around that. With Jenny Price, I came to understand that underneath all this, there is something extraordinary, and to not put your feet on it, even on the pavement that is covering it, is a huge mistake. Of course, everybody knows this is a huge car city, so walking and bike riding and particularly bike riding at night, for reasons I am not 100% certain I can explain, became this kind of land-based ritual for me. I would ride back and forth between this wrenching co-op where I was volunteering and researching, or go on a night ride, and I knew what was going on underneath me in a way that I would never have known if I was in a car. In a car, you don’t particularly care if you are going uphill or downhill. In the car it’s all the same, you can use a little more gas, but on a bike you really have to be conscious and aware. I got to a point that when I was riding, I could do this inventory of street conditions for myself thinking, “Okay, I know up here in about fifty yards, there are a bunch of potholes and so I’ve got to ride more out in the middle of the road. Then I turn this corner, there is going to be a little puff of cooler air, so I knew I was in a different microclimate. Of course the topography is something you are always aware of, whether you are avoiding hills or taking hills. My connection to this place deepened through that process. I don’t know that that qualifies as a ritual practice, because I don’t know enough about ritual practice to say with certainty that that is what that is, but I do know that it was something that was ritualized for me. I did it on a regular basis and when I did it, I made something more of it than just turning the cranks on my bike to make the wheels move forward. It really became an exercise about knowing something about where I lived and I am 100% certain that it has deepened my connection to Los Angeles, to the topography of LA. It also has deepened my connection to a lot of different kinds of people who ride bikes. For me, it was something that I was privileged to do. I would spend a few hours teaching people how to repair bikes every week. Sometimes I was riding on the streets with people who had no choice but to ride bikes. One of our mistakes is that we always think that ritual has to connect you to something up there [points above him] and I think it connects us to something right here [points to his heart]. It’s more immediate and I think that is a lot of what more traditional ritual is intended to do.

I was decrying this sense of not having an indigenous identity to any place and for her it was just completely natural. She said, “You have to reindiginate yourself . . . You have to make your own rituals.”

MA: I was smiling a lot when you were talking. It really reminds me of the kinds of mindfulness that we think of as being developed by nature writers, and I think that is possible anywhere and reminds me of a lot of poetry ideas. I have also spoken with several people who have described riding a bike, especially at night, as the most thrilling, free, joyful experience of their lives.

DS: It really is and it is so shocking to most people who don’t ride. They just think, “Are you crazy?” I wrote in the dissertation that my oldest son introduced me to this and I thought he was insane for riding in these night rides. For me it was a huge conversion of biblical proportions because I went from thinking “this is nuts” to thinking “this is life.” The first and the most counterintuitive thing for me was falling in love with riding at night. One of the reasons for me from a safety perspective was that it is quieter, so you can hear a car coming up, you can feel the air change around you, and you can see [the car] even if you are facing away from it because people’s headlights are on. I love riding in the day too, but I really prefer riding at night. There is something more solitary and intimate, even if you are riding with 3,000 other people, you can have these moments where you are just bathing in this weird urban darkness.

*     *     *

I was moved to share parts of my story with Don. He listened to me talk about the time I participated in the all-night bike race based on the movie The Warriors, my upbringing in New York City, and my studies in Latin America. He told me that I should write about it. “You are the container of a really beautiful, valuable culture. New York culture, bike culture, feminist culture.” He automatically began to curate an anthology about night rides. Finally, I asked him about The Ovarian Psycos. And yes! He has heard about them, knows a few of them, and he was a “huge fan.”

Meredith ArenaMeredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in SHIFT Magazine, a queer literary arts journal.

Falling—A Mothering (Or, a Tale of Postpartum Depression)

Leaves fluttering down on the grave in the fall, and her ashes. And I’m lying, it wasn’t fall, it was February. But the leaves were real. And it felt like she was supposed to die in the fall. Maybe I read that in a book, saw it in a movie. A girl who goes on a journey every fall because that’s when her mom died. Do you know that story? But it wasn’t fall, it was February and there was no crisp autumn sky or warm yellow light. The leaves were brown, like ashes, like skeletons gone brittle, like the webbing of vein when the leaf has rotted away and there was snow on the ground and we wiped away the snow, the brittle skeleton leaves, and underneath was the name of my nephew, his birthdeathdate in stone, and her ashes fell into the wet cracks and stuck.

*     *     *

Kian, he is three and he’s running down the trail littered in yellow leaves, hopping, with his blue cargo pants down around his ankles, the elastic waistband torn. The air is colder than I expected, it’s biting and his legs reddening and his smile wide and thick like it could swallow me—me, my body weakened still from years of overuse of overgiving of single motherhood, but it’s strengthening now and I feel my heart beat, throw blood to my fingers, cold, and toes, feel muscles flex and grab and lift him, his small tight body in the cold air and the smell of fall, of crisp, of broken, of decay, of getting ready to die—and his blood pump-pumps into his little red legs and his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I fell off the front porch and tore my pants, it wasn’t autumn, it was summer, end of summer, it was fall and I was falling. There is ground, drying grass, falling toward a face. Blood on orange linen, peer inside the torn cloth and a body, torn, starts to rebuild. The smell of alcohol is like an image, or a filter, glazing over a hazy moon. Moon bleeding, seeping, white, blue black gray sky. Pain colors over, red is blue is black is orange is torn.

*     *     *

I have written this many times and every time I do the mouth becomes bigger, so by now it is a gaping hole swallowing her chin and some of the universe with it. It is no longer a jaw slung slack, teeth and tongue opened inside; now it is a pit black circle, escaping even the shape of a circle; a passage not to her lungs and the breath contained there (not much longer), a tunnel not leading into her (cancer-spackled) body, but a bridge to nowhere to nothingness to endless open atmosphere-less space. But it was—before I wrote and remembered it too many times—a mouth after all. It was a jaw released by sleep and morphine from any tension or sense of placement or self. A jaw they would later crack closed to put her in the coffin because I don’t think anyone could stomach an openmouthed corpse. There is no gentle way to say it. It was, after all, a tunnel that led to her waterlogged lungs, where the breath was, for its final time, exiting.

It was a mouth, after all. A mother’s mouth. Her mouth. The first mouth that touched you, after all. That breathed life and breath into yours. That licked away the milky trails that marked your passage. That gave you sound before you were even part of this world that spoke you into being.

*     *     *

My body is a body that is cleaved. My body is a body that, I wonder, is it turned inside out? My body is a body in water. The passage that I am is neither open nor closed. Neither whole nor hole. Water passes from within and without, blood tendrils in the water, with shit and piss and amniotic fluid and leaking milk and up curls the blue bubble-wrapped cord linking me to the other side before death but after, what? And on the other end of the cord is Kian, though he is pre-name, he is blue water flesh fish, he is alien and covered in soft fur and he is eyeballs creaking open to brown blue fuzz more than color, not-color, not-name, not yet yelled into being I have not yet spoke him not yet I am calling up sound from the fur of my belly that I moaned just moments before when I cleaved and my cunt cracked the world and out from the watery depths pushed out, carved out, called out. Child. Stranger. Boy.

With my heart beat beating blood into me into him into us, with the blood tearing out of the passage of me as I tear, as the bear wrapped in fur coiled up in my belly bleats a drum-sound so ancient that the sounds—the ones that rip through from the other side to this one with a life in their teeth—get up on all fours up inside of me and begin their growl and ready their claws—he, who isn’t yet even he, is born.

*     *     *

There is a me I don’t know, even though I remember her, standing on the edge of a subway platform. There is a train, rattling in a dark tunnel, yellow lights and faces streaking by. Vision, soaked in red wine, the haze of liquor, the haze of sad, of alone. The me I don’t know is standing, peering down into the abyss of subway tracks. There is track, there is train, there is what if. Just that. Just, what if. Just, that wouldn’t be so hard.

*     *     *

Before there was death. There was breath. Before there was breath. There was cancer. Before cancer there was mother.

Mother was skin and breast and mouth. Mother was milk was sustenance was name. Mother was angry. Mother was sad. Mother was sorrow webbed like veinery around a heart, snaked by briar, beating quiet and soft inside. Hardly a whisper. Mother was unspoken sound.

She died in fall. She died in February. She died before I was born.

*     *     *

What you were never. Maybe never ever. Going to write. Were those nights you wanted. To throw. Him. Against the wall. There is no gentle way to say this. Were those nights that the purring of the blood beating through his body was like sirens in the dark, that those bluebrown eyes peeling open and wide without sleep were like nails against your skin, that the long imagined rope of tomorrow and tomorrow like this trailing out into the distance of infinite future was more. More. Than you could. Bear.

And it doesn’t even matter that I never did. The most monstrous parts of myself, dripping in shame like lighter fluid. Because shame is beautiful fuel to depression.

*     *     *

Her death. But that’s not where the depression came from. It’s the heavy blanket of my life and her life and lives stretched out behind us for miles and miles, skins and bones we tug and trip over as we walk. (Her abusive father, her War, her life as an immigrant.) (Her yelling, her anger, her panic.)

This is not it either. This is not what I was trying to say. What I’m trying to say is that she loved me—but her depression/anxiety lay over my childhood, a heavy blanket blanking out the sun, laying over the beats of my heart until I couldn’t hear it anymore. What else is there to say? I have forgiven her now. I have mostly forgotten her now. She wasn’t bad. She was Mother, she was Love. I fear my son will resent me no matter what I do.

Sometimes one foot in front of the other is too much to move.

*     *     *

There are soggy tears that fill his bones, softening them like papier-mâché and I think how can he ever grow strong and tall and how have I failed him.

Because I promised you that I wouldn’t give this to you. This heavy heart beating, clouds rolling filling cobwebs in my brain. Because I promised that I would not give you this, our family lineage, that trails back through winding capillaries like gray country roads, that fires across rusty synapses and sits coiled in the depths of DNA. The promise I could not keep for you. All I ever wanted to give you. And here am I, drowning in dampened cotton web skies praying that I could keep this from you.

*     *     *

Sometimes life is just a pause. An in-breath. A space between the drops of rain.

*     *     *

I wonder what the swallowed sky is and where I can find it and put it and give it to you in a bow-tied box like I always always promised. No one told me that joy is something you have to fight for, have to claw your way to through flesh and sinews and roiling clouds.

I have been running, now, from it, from the fuzziness and fog of it, like a poison mushroom cloud and now I have to turn, again, and claw my fucking way through.

*     *     *

I lift him, skyward, and feel his heart in beats and pauses against my skull. I feel blood, thick as life, down the shoots of my limbs, as his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I open my mouth, wide, wider than the infinite night and nothingness. In moanscream in bearbleat in languageless sound: I call you.

Falling. We tear through.


Courtney E. MorganCourtney E. Morgan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she has also taught creative writing. Her collection of stories, The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman, was a semifinalist for the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and is forthcoming from FC2 Press in Spring 2017. She is managing editor of The Thought Erotic journal on sexuality and gender. She lives in Denver with her son. www.CourtneyEMorgan.com.

Doug Unger, Author and Activist

Doug UngerDouglas Unger has published four novels and a collection of stories, including Leaving the Land, which won the Society of Midland Authors Award for best fiction, a citation from the PEN Ernest Hemingway award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Robert F. Kennedy awards. His fourth novel, Voices from Silence, was an “experts recommend selection” of the Washington Post Book World. New fiction and essays have appeared in Boulevard, Southwest Review, The Writers Chronicle, and Carve magazines, as well as in West of 98: Living and Writing in the New American West and the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Fiction. He has just completed Dream City, a novel set in Las Vegas.

Unger moved to Las Vegas in 1991, after teaching eight years at Syracuse University. He is the co-founder of the MFA in Creative Writing International program and PhD with Creative Dissertation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Unger serves on the executive boards of Words Without Borders, Point of Contact, The Americas for Conservation and the Arts, and as an advisory editor for The Americas Series with Texas Tech University Press. His awards include a Guggenheim fellowship for fiction, a Fulbright scholarship in Comparative Literature for Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, a fellowship from the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, a State of Washington Governor’s award, the Nevada Board of Regents Creative Activities Award, and induction into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

I met Douglas Unger following a June 2016 panel at the AULA MFA residency that explored the role of writer-activists in an era when sustainability has become imperative. I was struck by Unger’s response to the moderator’s question, “Are you a writer or an activist first?” Unger said, “I would characterize myself as a ‘literary activist.’ I work with groups that engage writers in environmental activism.”

Unger approaches sustainability from his childhood experiences, which included vacations and holidays spent on his father’s sheep ranch in South Dakota. He watched farms and ranches go under as a result of major social and economic changes that included the rise of agribusiness and urban flight. Later, Unger used his writing to engage the challenge of sustaining communities and cultures during periods of rapid transformation.

Unger’s contribution to the sustainability panel was still fresh in my mind when we met for breakfast at the Marriott the following morning. I recognized Unger from the back, thanks to his neat ponytail. He was checking his flight information on a computer in the hotel lobby. He logged out and I ordered a coffee before we slid into a spacious booth to chat.

Juliann Allison: How did you become a writer? How did you transition from reluctant rancher to writer and activist?

Douglas Unger: I’m not sure if I set out to become a writer. I grew up partly in Colorado, partly outside of New York. I went to Argentina on a student exchange and stayed. The system was very strange, and it allowed you to study without having a place as a student at the university, as an estudiante libre. I went to the University of Chicago and took mainly sciences. I was thinking about getting into neurophysiology, and worked in a neurophysiology lab. I had connections with United Press International (UPI) and when all the war demonstrations were going on and there was political turmoil, I started covering that for UPI as a photojournalist. So I started writing, and gravitated toward it. I’m glad because I discovered in the neurophysiology lab that I am not very good with my hands. I think that if I had become a brain surgeon, I would have done terrible damage.

The old family farm-centered agricultural model embodied a kind of independence, a complete thinking about one’s relationship to town, relationship to city, relationship to state that emphasized certain American values…

JA: Did you consider yourself an activist at this point?

DU: Not really. Although I was certainly sympathetic to the activists. As a journalist, I really tried to be objective.

JA: Your first novel, Leaving the Land, is the story of a turkey farmer’s daughter struggling to hold onto her family’s land while their hometown falls victim to corporate farming. Can you tell me more about this novel, which many consider a classic on the vanishing family farm in the American Midwest? To what extent does it capture your own sense about agriculture, the agrarian lifestyle, and contemporary culture?

DU: There’s a big difference between identifying with a character who is integrated into a particular circumstance and being that character yourself. Leaving the Land is much more based on my father’s second wife, and her growing up on a turkey farm outside of Gillete, Wyoming, and listening to her stories about it, and really identifying with her whole sense of the land where she came from. The rest of it is invented.

My attitude toward that kind of agricultural labor is—I don’t want to romanticize it—it’s hard. The work is hard. The labor’s hard. The demands on you are very, very difficult. In my day, whole families would be out working all day long just to make the place work, to make a profit. I identified with the character, but I’m not a big back-to-nature person. If I prefer any kind of jungle, it’s an urban jungle. If you could spin me around three times and drop me into any city, I’d feel at home. I’ve gone through periods of time when I’ve worked out in nature, but I prefer the companionship of people and cultural activity of the city any day.

JA: What about urban environments?

DU: I think about the integration of green space, and open space, and utilized space in cities a great deal. I’ll use Berlin as an example. I’ve become interested in Berlin recently because my wife lives there. I’ve observed the way the city uses big parks, and the way the residents of the city have community gardens on the outskirts of the city. There’s a whole connection with getting out into the green spaces while you’re enjoying the city. There’s a way the European cities have integrated that better than our cities have. I think about city design, and wish that we could do a better job of it.

Las Vegas is getting better. They had no plan up until about 2000, then they started with a nice plan to make walkways and hiking trails. They’re a little late, but they’re doing a much better job. Out in the new areas, like Summerlin, there’s more of a British feel because it has roundabouts and green spaces. That part of Las Vegas is better planned, more walkable.

JA: You’ve talked about the relationship between the agrarian lifestyle and issues of democracy, individualism, and responsibility. If we are losing these virtues associated with agrarianism, where do you see them being re-enacted?

DU: My philosophy has been formed by this Harold Breimyer book, Individual Freedom and the Economic Organization of Agriculture. It adopts, like Wendell Berry does, a Jeffersonian view of American democracy, and I think it’s essentially correct. The old family-farm centered agricultural model embodied a kind of independence, a complete thinking about one’s relationship to town, relationship to city, relationship to state that emphasized certain American values—frugality and connection with agricultural resources that looks at the farm as complete and sustainable entity that diversifies by rotating crops from legumes to wheat. And you have some type of animal, not because there is an intrinsic value to raising animals but because you get an organic fertilizer. This connection cultivates a sustainable, holistic view of a person’s landscape and how to use it that doesn’t spoil or waste it. That attitude was extremely important. Plus there was an independent attitude toward what power and what freedom we wanted inflicted on us by law, and which powers and freedoms we wanted to have control of ourselves. There’s a whole sense of community involvement as well because of cooperative uses of water and markets, and farm co-ops. That kind of thing, which is a quaint model now, really fostered an attitude toward sustainable life.

What happened in the latter part of the twentieth century is that that model was replaced by an economy-of- scale model, in which you had a hundred-sixty-acre small-scale family dairy replaced by a thousand-acre operation, and then by a two-thousand-acre farm. You are dealing with units that are larger than a family can manage, and so you hire laborers, and adopt a monoculture. You have a whole movement in farming to using a lot of fertilizer to produce tremendous yields, and raising one-grain crops, and selling them. In the 1980s and 1990s, corporations bought up farmland. There are exceptions to it. Organic farms, for instance. Now there’s a movement back to the land—millennials trying to teach themselves how to farm.

In the Third World, monoculture farming is promoted. There’s money in it, whereas there isn’t money for sustainable, small farms. Everyone talks about North American free trade and, Oh God! the factories are leaving. But nobody talks about what it did to Mexico. Suddenly, there were farm credits available for large farms so they adopted these huge, corporate-style farming methods and we see the result of that—onions and fruits coming into Trader Joe’s. What NAFTA did was shake up subsistence farming, which the Mexican Revolution was designed to preserve. And now it’s happening all around the world.

JA: Can you talk about how Latinos view their own, or humanity’s, connection to earth, land, or place today?

You have to know who you are to understand your relationship to the place around you and your community, to have some sense of an integrated self that you understand as you, even though that changes

DU: There’s an interesting thing that emerged in the polling of the Latino voter in the United States and our misconceptions about that growing and important sector of America. Everyone assumed that immigration would be a big issue, and jobs and the economy would be a big issue, and there would be all of these conservative values. But the truth is that the top two concerns for Latinos were the environment and climate change.

As far as we can tell at Americas for Conservation + Arts [a Colorado-based organization dedicated to uniting diverse communities for a sustainable future], neighborhood organizations that are out there everyday, organizing Latino families, find that most Mexican-Americans have some connection to the land or have some relatives who have done agricultural work. They saw first-hand the changes that have gone on and they are concerned. There’s also a tremendous sense of community involvement and community support that, in part, comes just from culture, support for community food, community child support, community concerns for each other. When you put on an event, organize literary events, try to get a crowd out in the Mexican-American community, what you’ll see is that not only will they come, but they will bring food for the community, and be thinking about who will take care of the kids. If I do this in the middle of Las Vegas, I’ll have to think about this as an organizer. It won’t just come up out of the community. That’s a different kind of thing, a different kind of relatedness.

I’m sure there are other communities like that. It kind of reminds me of rural farm communities. Maybe you can attribute it to a closeness to the landscape. Maybe you can attribute it to a different way of looking at community. But that community sense is directly related to their concerns about the environment and climate change.

JA: Your writing and activism are clearly integrated around questions of culture and sustainability. What organizations, in addition to Americas for Conservation + Arts, are you engaged with? How do you think your efforts have impacted Latino communities?

DU: Latinos are a tremendously cohesive, organized unit or sector of the population. They understand that to do anything, they have to speak with one voice. But in the Latino community you have to be careful because there’s a real difference between El Salvadorans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans, and each group is different from the Cubans and from the Puerto Ricans. But there is a sense of a common project of assimilation, a common project of community building.

I’ve done an interesting thing with Words without Borders [a nonprofit that recognizes a strong land ethic among Latin American and Latino communities]. When we put together our Mexico unit [one of three country-organized courses]—I chair that project—I thought we had to do something about the Indigenous communities and languages in Mexico. I selected poetry and stories [translated from] Mazateca and Curicha from the backlist of Words without Borders magazine. Then we started to look at the differences among those subcultures in Mexico and discovered, my gosh, that there are whole neighborhoods of these peoples in odd places. Just outside of Seattle, there’s a Uribe community. There’s a Mazateca community right here in LA, where they’re in the same neighborhood and they’re riding the same buses to work, and their getting together to cook their native foods.

I participated in this project with the Nevada Council of the Arts, looking at Oaxaca and Zapoteca embroidery, and how there’s a whole society that is passing on the embroidery arts from mother to daughter, and then doing these festivals among themselves to show off the results of their work and sustain this beautiful and elaborate embroidery, and the symbols in it, and the way one reads the embroidery. We did a whole museum show together. My graduate students and I translated, put the text together for the catalogue for that exhibit.

Even within an ethnic community, there are dozens, often many more subgroups, and each one has its own concerns, and different traditions. I’m still thinking about that, thinking about what that means, certainly, within sustainability and cultural preservation. It’s important and I’m interested in how we preserve these cultural ideas, and art, the songs of these communities, where we make space for them in the American patchwork, the American idea. And how do we encourage cultural cohesion in a society made up of these different parts? That has to do with sustainability.

How do we preserve the beautiful folkloric songs? How do you preserve Mazateca poetry that is so focused on the role of the mother in society? This is really interesting to me as an artist. It’s fascinating that Mazatecans have this preoccupation with mothers in poetry, and then you find a Mexican comedian in the U.S., in a club, making the audience laugh with twenty different mama jokes, right? Where does that whole thing come from? And isn’t that interesting to think about? You can do anything in Mexican culture, generally, you can insult somebody, call them anything you want, use every curse word in the book, but if you insult his mother, it’s a knife fight. You cannot insult his mother. It’s the one thing they don’t do.

If you teach the availability of these cultures and subcultures, the richness of them, who knows what students will make of it, but at least it’s there.

JA: Can you tell us about your new work?

DU: I’ve just spent a long time working on a book about Las Vegas. It’s very complicated. It’s called Dream City and what I’m trying to do with the book is to go against all the available Las Vegas clichés. There’re no murders, no hookers. There’re no gangsters. There’s one old barber who is nostalgic about the mob days, but there’s no mob. What it’s really about is the corporate world of Las Vegas and how it modeled the city. It’s about all the back-stabbing. It’s fiction, but it’s set in that world.

Right now, I’m putting the first section together in another way. I’ve been cutting it down and reshaping it. I’m trying to sell it. It’s very difficult to sell a novel these days. What I’m trying to do is take a look at people who are drawn into aspirational greed. The main character evaluates himself by how far he climbs up the corporate ladder in terms of money, and gets to the point where he is admitted into the wealthy and elite of Las Vegas who have their own rituals, and their own meetings, and their own places to go, their own rights of passage. And so he’s in this group where he’s always wanted to be and the recession happens and in 2010 he loses it all. In the process of getting there, he strips away every kind of passive human value, like compassion and his personal ethics. His marriage gets in real trouble, and he becomes more cynically disposed. He becomes what he never wanted to be, and loses it.

I’m hoping to make that an interesting story, but what I’ve discovered is that editors and readers in publishing houses want to know: where are the gangsters, where are the hookers, where’s the body? They expect a certain thing out of Las Vegas. This is different than that.

Novels, to me, are puzzles. It’s a question of how to structure the story to give your readers just enough so that they are interested in turning the page, and much of that has to do with the ordering of events, how to order events, how to anticipate events, then how to keep rewarding expectations, and reversing them along the way. It’s a structural problem.

JA: It sounds like fun. It sounds like a lot of work, but it could also be fun, a challenge.

DU: Yeah. I just finished writing an essay on teaching the Mexican drug war. It’s [published in] a couple of places. I enjoyed the process of teaching such a dark subject and watching students react to narco culture.

We all have to be activists. When you hear it, you have to confront it. There’s a nice way to be persuasive. But if you don’t, then you’re responsible.

It wasn’t depressing at all, translating, and comparing it to hip hop and rap, looking at it like a cultural phenomenon. Then looking at narco cinema. Who is the most prolific actor? A guy name Mario Almada, who has played the bad guy in 1000 films. What American actor has been in 1000 movies? You have Mexican narco film directors who are doing over twenty movies a year, right? I had students who went to our local Walmart and found titles, movies funded by drug dealers to make themselves look like heroes.

Then there’s the cult of Santo [Jesús] Malverde, which has more than twelve million devotees, that’s one out of every ten people in Mexico. It’s the saint of the drug lords. Yet it’s got this indigenous underpinning to the feminine goddess of underworld of Toltec and Aztec tradition. So it’s a reincarnation of her. It’s a whole new religion. My students were so fascinated by all of this. I wrote an essay about it.

JA: Do you have any advice for writers seeking to lend their voice to the earth or land? How important is a science background?

DU: It’s an individual attitude that you carry with you whether you are a writer or not. The thing is to decide who you are first. You have to know who you are to understand your relationship to the place around you and your community, to have some sense of an integrated self that you understand as you, even though that changes. Then, be very aware of what is around you. I like Henry James’s idea about what writers should be, and that a writer is someone on whom nothing is missed. Just be aware and observant enough to see what’s around you and cultivate that ability as much as you possibly can.

There’s that, and then about sustainability, I think we should all be activists. You can be an activist just by being a poet in your community, and representing that space in the cultural organization of your family, your community, your city. That’s a good thing, but if you look at the kind of crisis that’s coming, I’m very concerned that we all have to do something. In the United States, we are not nearly aware enough or focused enough on it. And it astonishes me that the corporate rhetoric by companies that want to exploit resources and damn the consequences and profit from it has been given such a privileged and unquestioned place in politics and the media.

It’s not that way around the world. You go to Germany, and everyone is aware. The same in France. You go to Argentina, and it’s a struggle, but not a naked struggle. If someone is going to profit, it’s out there. And the whole sense of climate change is out there. They are talking about it, and people are aware that there is more flooding, and every newscaster is saying it’s because of climate change. We don’t have that happening [in the U.S.]. If someone does say it, then there’s a counterargument being financed by someone who wants to do what they’ve always done, to exploit and despoil without paying for it.

We all have to be activists. When you hear it, you have to confront it. There’s a nice way to be persuasive. But if you don’t, then you’re responsible. I don’t want to be responsible. There are things we all really need to be aware of. [Climate change] is the most important issue of our time.

Juliann AllisonJuliann Allison is a feminist scholar, environmentalist, homeschool advocate, yogini, runner, rock climber, mate, and mother of four, with a passion for the outdoors. She is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at UC Riverside, and an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles.

 

Maggie Nelson, Author of The Red Parts

Maggie Nelson AtwoodIn early July, my editor-in-chief emailed me with the good news that Maggie Nelson had agreed to be interviewed for Lunch Ticket. I accepted the task of interviewing her with some degree of trepidation, in part due to her vast accomplishments. She is the author of nine books, including the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Argonauts, the cult classic Bluets, the New York Times bestselling The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, as well as five books of poetry. She directs the MFA writing program at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles with her partner, interdisciplinary artist Harry Dodge. Nelson has also received a 2012 Creative Capital Literature Fellowship, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, a NEA Fellowship in Poetry, an Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant, and, most recently, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

But I was also unsettled because within the canon of books that I would need to read or re-read for this interview were Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, both concerning the murder of her aunt in the early 1960s in Michigan by a serial killer. Unfortunately, like Maggie Nelson, I understand “the murder mind,” an appellation she uses to describe the headspace we inhabit each time we seek to comprehend incomprehensible acts, thereby imprinting on our minds the behaviors of violence. To delve into Maggie Nelson’s work, I would be reopening certain wounds within my own history.

In July of 2014, my forty-eight-year-old cousin was found dead from a single gunshot wound to her left temple in her home in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. The cause of death was officially a suicide, though it was not long before inconsistencies emerged. There was no gunshot powder on her left hand, there was evidence of a robbery, but most obvious, there was the phone call she made to her mother the day before her death, expressing how she was afraid—she had said something she shouldn’t have—and she needed to fly home. What began for my family as a tragedy became the uneven practice of grief, a maddening search for answers, and the honest, yet naïve, desire for justice. We barely succeeded at the first task.

In 2005, Maggie Nelson published Jane: A Murder about her aunt’s murder, a cold case, which had remained unsolved for thirty-five years. The work combines essay, poetry, and Jane’s own diary entries. In her exploration of Jane’s death, the search for the truth reads more like an ellipsis, delineating, perhaps by omission, this young woman whom Maggie Nelson never met but who held so much space within her family history. Missing persons, dead or disappeared, create vacuums that shadow us and redefine us in the process. Our “murder mind” flitters around the absence, the empty space left behind by so many unanswered questions.

There’s something very difficult about writing autobiographical books in which one’s goal is to speak for oneself only, while at the same time wanting to make a text porous enough that other people’s experiences feel invited in rather than consciously or unconsciously excluded.

For Nelson, growing up under the specter of a violent crime, she dissects how it followed her family wherever they went: how she would check the closets upon returning home from school, knife in hand, or how she and her mother had to leave movies that featured the kidnapping, murder, or rape of women (a trope repeated all too often in Hollywood), or how her mother remains startled by her own body, dreaming perhaps “of a body that cannot be injured, violated, or sickened unless it chooses to be.”

Maggie Nelson does not have the answers, but she asks all the right questions, at least the ones we ask quietly, never aloud. She writes, “Conventional wisdom has it that we dredge up family stories to find out more about ourselves, to pursue that all-important goal of ‘self-knowledge,’ to catapult ourselves, like Oedipus, down the track that leads to the revelation of some original crime, some original truth…” But the reality is far more complicated. She says, “Fewer people talk about what happens when this track begins to dissolve, when the path starts to become indistinguishable from the forest.” And so what happens when we get what we desire, this truth? What are we left with? To whom does the truth even belong?

One month after reading the galleys of Jane: A Murder, Nelson’s mother received a call from a detective. New DNA evidence had re-opened the cold case. Gary Leiterman, a sixty-two-year-old nurse, overweight and in poor health, would be prosecuted for the murder of Jane Mixer. Nelson’s family inevitably would relive the gruesome details of Jane’s death in the courtroom, presented with autopsy photographs, visual evidence, and testimony. And for her part, Nelson chose to re-enter the “murder mind” and write an account of the trial. The result, The Red Parts, was first published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster and reprinted by Graywolf Press in the spring of 2016.

It begins with two epigraphs: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known” (Luke 12:2) and “In all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty” (Nietzsche). Later in the book, Nelson seeks a Christian friend’s advice and the woman instructs her to “just read the red parts,” which at first she does not understand. Though the significance of the title is never explained, the literal meaning refers to those Bibles which have Jesus Christ’s direct quotations highlighted in red. The quote from the gospel of Luke, its own “red part,” sets up the counterbalance to Nietzsche. In the kingdom of God there is justice, just don’t expect it to look like anything you might recognize.

The Red Parts goes where Jane: A Murder could not. Out of nothingness, there is now Leiterman and a body of evidence no longer dormant in cardboard boxes. And yet, to Nelson, these heavy facts sometimes make even less sense than the unanswered questions. She is fascinated by the way in which murder transforms the mundane items of a crime scene into “talismans that threatened at every turn to take on allegorical proportions.” Referring to a bloody towel presented as evidence, Nelson says, “… I watched Schroeder snap on a latex glove at the January hearing and pull this towel out of its cardboard evidence box, as if retrieving a piece of flotsam floated in from the far, dark banks of the River Styx. The fabric of reality had to tear a little to allow it into it.” The fabric of our reality must tear a little as well to let this book in: to feel what it’s like on the other side of violence. There is an image I cannot shake either: my cousin wore a short strand of black pearls around her neck the night she was killed. Afterwards, the pearls were found shot across the floor like marbles. I return to this: the pool of blood, the black marbles, the curled body, as if from those mental snapshots I can somehow process my loss.

In The Red Parts, Nelson broaches a theme to be continued in The Art of Cruelty, about how the female body is a site of consumable violence. It is not theoretical: she watched its consumption through the body of her aunt, the autopsy photos disseminated at the trial, republished, and consumed by a specific audience. A television show, 48 Hours Mystery, will feature an episode on Jane, whether or not the family participates. Nelson and her mother agree to be interviewed for the show, but Nelson is keenly aware of the inherent contradictions within their publicized grief. She wonders about the public’s concern over the damaged bodies of young white girls, from middle to upper class backgrounds, and poses the question: “Girls whose lives and deaths, judging by airtime, apparently matter more than all murdered, missing, and suffering brown people combined?” Nelson never shies from to putting her finger right in the throbbing wound, even if it implies that she participates in that wound.

I remember coming home from the hospital after giving birth and looking completely differently at all birth mothers on the street for a few weeks, feeling simply astonished that they’d all been through this experience, which remains mostly removed from us, like some giant secret, separated from daily life by a cordon sanitaire.

What makes The Red Parts so accessible is Maggie Nelson’s sense of detachment, a calm analysis that manages both the horror and untranslatable magnitudes of life. In The Argonauts, it is her pregnancy and childbirth, her mother-in-law’s death, and her partner’s decision to transition with testosterone supplements and surgery. In Bluets, it’s her friend’s car accident and paralysis. Woven throughout The Red Parts are numerous personal tragedies: the sudden death of her father from a heart attack, the period of heartbreak she experiences at the beginning of the trial, her heroin addict ex-boyfriend, her sister’s troubled youth. Yet the text never feels laden with sensationalism or sentimentality.

At various times reading her work, I have felt as if we were sitting together on a couch, giggling (perhaps inappropriately) at dismal things. I have also felt that we may have lived parallel lives. This is obviously far from the truth—no one lives parallel lives. But it is a testament to her uncanny ability to connect with her readers. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson argues against binaries as a reductive system of thought. Instead, she refers to identities that flicker in and out, over spectrums, over time, shape-shifting. And perhaps this is why we are able to see so much of ourselves in her writing. She presents a multiplicity of perspectives. Within her work, contradictory emotions can exist simultaneously. In the interview below, she refers to her work as “porous,” so that within these juxtapositions, we have the space to incorporate our own interpretation, creating a positionality and sense of belonging to the text. But underneath it all, Nelson remains committed to revealing our most damaging societal paradigms: racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or any system of thought that creates unequal power dynamics.

This past August 2016, I contacted Maggie Nelson and we exchanged emails with questions regarding her body of work.

Diana Odasso:  You address a number of binaries in The Argonauts, not just in gender and sexual preference, but also in academic disciplines and how these relate to the materiality of the body. With regard to gender and identity, you mention the identity as something that “flickers” or “becomes” rather than existing on a linear spectrum from A to B.

Yet in the “outside” world, the demand for labels remains high. The government defines. Society defines. Passports, social security cards, mortgages and health care, etc… The humiliations of daily life are particularly hard on the LGBTQ community. I’m not sure if this is your job as an artist to answer, but how can we move from a personal framework of fluidity to a societal framework?

Maggie Nelson: Well put. I think there are many others who could answer your questions better, activists working to remove gender designations from identifying documents, for example, and so on; some countries are already way ahead of the U.S. on this account, so there are some promising models out there.

My critique of the value of video testimonials still stands, which is to say that in an age of “truthiness,” the idea that a condemning video would guarantee, say, convictions of police officers in the wrong, remains a fantasy.

I definitely think that the rush to define and grant rights to a “transgender subject” will be faulty if there isn’t room for the spectrum you describe; otherwise the definition/ recognition/ construction of one subject can become a means of neglecting those whose desires and identifications don’t fit the new box (a perennial problem with defining subjects). You’re right, though—I address these issues most often as an artist more than an activist or advocate per se. I’ve seen first-hand, however, in the eager and grateful reception of The Argonauts, how large the appetite is out there for an insistence on our capacity to make community and commons without basing such in calcified or over-determined identities—something a lot of folks insist can’t be done, but the thing is, it’s already happening, it’s already been done, it’s ongoing.

DO: On the issue of binaries, you challenge the rigidity of both mainstream and radical ideas in your work. This questioning seems to be a useful tool as we redevelop our language surrounding gender and sexuality. How’s the new dialogue being created? Who’s defining it? When the world seems obsessed with the clinical definitions of who gets to pee where and in what receptacle, how do you suggest a nuanced discussion of gender in mainstream society? What space does art have in influencing long-term changes in this dialogue?

MN: I read the New York Times every day and assorted other media sources, but generally speaking, I don’t venture into mainstream Op-Ed modalities because I just don’t think the available forms allow for the nuanced discussions I value most. That isn’t to say there aren’t excellent think pieces or provocations in those forums, or that mainstream visibility performs no function. It’s more to say that the mainstream is often just waking up to issues, or to people, that have existed for some time, but it has the habit of treating them as “new trends,” which is annoying. For example, I’ve heard a lot of people lightly mock this “transdy” moment, when trans and queer issues are suddenly very visible in mainstream venues, but sometimes their scorn slips into focusing on the people who are coming into view, rather than on the venues whose stock in trade is creating the feeling of trendiness. That’s a trap I think we need to watch out for, as it discounts history, it discounts the people who’ve been living and fighting along these lines for a long time without many headlines or fashion shoots.

DO: The Argonauts addresses motherhood full frontal. You write, “Phrases like colostrum, letdown, and hindmilk arrive in one’s life like hieroglyphs from the land of the lost.” Many American women, myself included, enter pregnancy, labor, and early motherhood largely unaware of its physiological demands. Other than doctor’s advice, Good Housekeeping magazines at the ob/gyn’s office, and online mommy wars, childbearing and -rearing remain somewhat of a black hole in our society. Why the erasure of what you term “biological maternity,” both in literature and cultural narratives?

MN: You know, misogyny, matrophobia, etc. The usual suspects. The fact that most things associated with caretaking are feminized and our culture has a long history of despising the feminized. I’ve never in my life received more shocked gasps at a reading than when I’ve read my very simple attempt to describe what my placenta looked like; I naively had no idea beforehand that I was going to provoke such a response. Similarly, so many people have expressed pity for me for my “hard birth experience,” whereas I thought I was narrating a triumphant birth experience. But because there’s pain in it, and fear and blood and mortality, people think it’s a trauma, when really it’s just life. (As one nurse hilariously said to me during my labor, “This isn’t for sissies.”) I remember coming home from the hospital after giving birth and looking completely differently at all birth mothers on the street for a few weeks, feeling simply astonished that they’d all been through this experience, which remains mostly removed from us, like some giant secret, separated from daily life by a cordon sanitaire. Anyway, I don’t know that childbearing and rearing is a black hole—I think the fuzzy, mystified version (what some might call reproductive futurism) is just about everywhere. Needless to say, my interest lies elsewhere.

DO: In The Art of Cruelty, published in 2011, you discuss theories of represented violence. Since then, we’ve seen a proliferation of iPhone videos depicting police brutality, sniper shootings, terrorism—acts perhaps not vastly different from violence we’ve seen before but now occurring “live” with more frequency. (I remain most marked by the policeman shot during the Charlie Hebdo attack and recently, the Philando Castile video. They haunt me not for the killing, but for the subtle moments of humanity, for the dying.) If you were to append The Art of Cruelty in any way, what could be learned of our increased consumption of “real” violence?

The fact that most things associated with caretaking are feminized and our culture has a long history of despising the feminized.

MN: I don’t think I would need to append it. It reminds me of the re-release of The Red Parts, when people have asked me, “What would you add now that true crime is such a huge industry?” It was a huge industry when I wrote those books, too, and it was huge when my aunt was murdered in 1969. I think my critique of the value of video testimonials still stands, which is to say that in an age of “truthiness,” the idea that a condemning video would guarantee, say, convictions of police officers in the wrong, remains a fantasy. (Rodney King, anyone?) Which isn’t to say I’m not pro body cameras or websites to which videotaped incidents can quickly be uploaded, etc. It just means it’s important to remember that such things alone won’t solve the problem of white supremacy and an unjust criminal justice system. But your other point is really interesting—your point about witnessing the subtle moments of humanity, about being haunted by the dying, rather than riveted by the injustice or the violence. Personally I can’t watch the violent videos; the pregnant pause between the cop’s demand that Sandra Bland put out her cigarette and her decision to say, “It’s my car, I’ll smoke in it if I want to,” contains enough agony for me.

DO: You have often brought up issues of intersectionality, moments when you acknowledge the additional burdens placed upon brown bodies.  

When the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando occurred, it became clear that our media had limited ways of addressing intersectional issues—with the majority of victims black and Hispanic, members of the LGBTQ community, but Americans nonetheless, on American soil. Similarly, the murderer was Muslim, also an American citizen, a lone wolf killer, a man who had a history of domestic violence and psychological problems and also documented conflicts about his sexuality. He fit and did not fit several narratives at once. How would you begin to articulate the complexities of these acts of violence?

MN: You just articulate them, I guess. Life is messy, identities are messy, motivations are messy. The public silence from the terrorist-obsessed right wing over the targeting of LGBTQ people of color speaks for itself, but it’s not really surprising. (Remember when the Twin Towers fell because of the gays and feminists?) Anyway, I recommend a book by Ken Corbett called A Murder Over a Girl, about the killing of a high school student Letitia/Larry King by a fellow classmate, Brandon McInerney, as it documents the difficulty of prosecuting a hate crime when various “hates” at issue are all swirled together, or certain hates remain unspoken (transphobia, in this case); or when a human being is full of aggression and just shopping the available avenues of hatred for an outlet. It’s much more pragmatic, in my estimation, to go all-in for gun control rather than trying to parse out which impulse most prevailed in someone’s psychotic decision to kill people.

DO: The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial was just re-released by Graywolf Press. This book challenged me. In 2014, my cousin was murdered in the Galapagos. In a recent LitUp podcast, Angela Ledgerwood also mentions how she trembled while reading The Red Parts because her co-worker had been murdered.

There are a variety of angles from which your readers can enter your “world,” as I did with The Red Parts, as many others may have done with Bluets or The Argonauts. I wonder how you position yourself in regards to the relatability of your work.

MN: I’m so sorry to hear about your cousin. Really sorry. It doesn’t bring me any pleasure to have people “relate” to the book’s material, especially as that relating just underscores the widespread nature of violence against women. But if the book offers a kind of rumination or positionality that feels worthwhile or companionable, I’d be very glad. I’ve heard from people who have felt this way, and it pleases me. There’s something very difficult about writing autobiographical books in which one’s goal is to speak for oneself only, while at the same time wanting to make a text porous enough that other people’s experiences feel invited in rather than consciously or unconsciously excluded. These questions are fascinating and mysterious to me, especially as they have both aesthetic and political dimensions.

DO: I was struck by your Nietzsche quote at the beginning of The Red Parts: “In all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty.” Has writing these books at times been a self-afflicted cruelty? 

MN: Oh yes, it’s felt that way. That’s partly why I chose that epigraph. There are different types of the “desire to know,” of course—there’s the Enlightenment type, the psychoanalytic type, the more spiritual type, and so on. That epigraph was meant to dance with the quotation from Luke, which appears next to it, and ask questions about the Biblical structure of revelation. But I digress.

It’s much more pragmatic, in my estimation, to go all-in for gun control rather than trying to parse out which impulse most prevailed in someone’s psychotic decision to kill people.

DO: Could you say a bit more about the title of the book, The Red Parts? I went to a Baptist middle school, in which the bibles had red writing for all the words spoken by Jesus Christ. The quote from Luke you just mentioned is literally “a red part.” How do “the red parts” function thematically, or perhaps theologically, in the text?

MN: At the risk of sounding tautological or close-mouthed, I would say that the thematic or theological function of the “red parts” in the text is up to the reader. As Nietzsche is famous for presenting (allegorically) the death of God, and for complicating notions of good and evil, it’s obviously meant to be charged, placing his words next to the text from Luke. It’s an undecided relation, as is most else in the text.

DO: In The Art of Cruelty, you write, “Writing, especially autobiographical writing, can be a hothouse of self-deceptions, but it also has the uncanny ability to expose self-deception with the formidable exactitude of surgery.” As you have written these personal texts, have you found yourself in this position of confronting your own self-deceptions?

MN: Oh yes, once again. That’s kind of the whole game. Every draft is slathered with self-deceptions. Or if that puts it too harshly, every draft is full of layers—usually I start off pissed off, blaming others, the way we all tend to do, and I have to burn through those very human habits before getting anywhere interesting. Again, one’s writing reflects where you are in life; you can’t hide. If you’re full of blaming rage toward your folks, and you haven’t yet worked through it, that’s what is going to come out. You can’t just jump over it to forgiveness (if that’s even where you want to go). You have to go through it, as they say. But the amazing thing is, writing freely and then looking honestly at what you’ve put down on the page is, in my experience, a really good way of moving through things. This is why teaching autobiography can be so hard—if you’re a shrink, you know that you can’t tell someone something they aren’t ready to hear and expect them to take it in, rather than freak out in defensiveness. But if you’re a writing teacher, you might have to deliver the news before someone’s ready to hear it, because you only have one workshop, or one semester. I can’t tell you how many students have told me that they finally understood what I or their classmates were trying to tell them about five years after they’ve graduated. I’m still catching up to things people have told me along the way. It’s painful and embarrassing that we’re often so clear to others and so muddled to ourselves. But so it is.

DO: Harry has spoken about being a character in The Argonauts, stating that being with you, “Is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe-light artist.” You address the dangers of writing about loved ones and, even, the temporal dissonance between the time period you write about and the book release, which is a reliving of the past. I wonder if you could speak to that process with the release of The Argonauts.     

MN: Well, we made it through a long year of a lot of publicity, so that’s something! The book garnered way more attention than I ever imagined it would, which was amazing, but presented a tough learning curve for me at times, especially in the face of media people who really, really wanted me to tell them more about Harry (or about his gender, to be exact) or even speak for him, when I had already said what I had to say about him (and what he authorized me to say) in the book, and I wasn’t aiming to travel around as an emissary to explain him or any other genderqueer person to the world.

There’s something very difficult about writing autobiographical books in which one’s goal is to speak for oneself only, while at the same time wanting to make a text porous enough that other people’s experiences feel invited in rather than consciously or unconsciously excluded.

Also, while I usually have a pretty thick skin re: reviews that get things wrong, it wasn’t as easy to ignore misrepresentations of the book if they involved Harry as well as me—for example, a line that recurred quite often was that the book was about my undergoing “arduous IVF treatments” while my partner “transitioned from female to male,” which isn’t true on either account. So in some visible cases, like the New York Times, I asked for a correction, which they issued. Anyway, I’m glad the rush of it is over, and also grateful for the ride.

DO: In a Rumpus interview, you say, “[Annie Dillard] once wrote, ‘You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over.’” And you also say in first pages of The Argonauts, “You can’t fuck up the space for God.”

On one hand, your books are tightly constructed, but on the other, there is a space for reflection, for disagreement, and for the interplay of opposing ideas. How is the notion of space formally used in the construction of your texts?

MN: Space is really important. “Pluralize and specify,” as Sedgwick had it. I wrote a lot about space in the Cruelty book, so I’d direct interested parties there for more cogitation on the subject. But you’re right, space between paragraphs is the only formal device in The Argonauts—there’s either one or two. That’s it. Space in Bluets was marshaled numerically; in The Red Parts, the logic of space was the chapter.

DO: In a video interview with Olivia Laing at the London Review Bookshop, you challenge the idea that your works are collage, which implies simultaneity. You also mention that you have moved away from poetry in your recent books, because the narrative form “does more work.” Does the subject matter dictate form or are you open to new manners of experimenting? What are you working on now?

MN: Subject matter dictates form. Given that, I can’t really talk about what I’m working on until I’ve found its true subject and consequent form. But I’ll keep you posted!

Diana PhotoDiana Odasso is currently finishing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and is managing editor of Lunch Ticket. She has translated French texts (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written for the Huffington Post. She has work published in Lunch Ticket, Waypoints Magazine, Burrow Press, and upcoming on The Thought Erotic. She recently attended the Disquiet International Program in Lisbon on scholarship. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys and Boston Terrier.

The Chicken with a Broken Beak

I want to be the chicken in the front seat of that Cadillac
driving down Route 11. The chicken that reaches
for the steering wheel when there’s another chicken
in the road. The chicken that changes a flat tire
and the chicken that doesn’t get beat up for loving
other chickens. I want to be the red feathered chicken
with white feathered chicks. The chicken with big breasts
that doesn’t wear a bra. The chicken that can actually fly;
I’d soar over Pennsylvania, over cornfields,
and over the prison. I’d free caged chickens
and dig graves for dead chickens.
I’d tie a dollar to a string and catch the guards
who guard jailed chickens. I’d wear my human costume,
patrol the highways, and pull over chicken trucks.
Maybe I want to be a chicken because a chicken’s
life is short; a chicken’s panic is usually caged.
Maybe I am chicken when I don’t hold my wife’s hand
at the movies or on a walk through town. I’m chicken
when I pull my arm off her shoulder after someone
whispers, ew, homos. Chicken feathers have taken over
my face and skin and courage. I’m the chicken
craning my neck through bars and the chicken
with a broken beak.

Nicole SantaluciaNicole Santalucia is the author of Because I Did Not Die (Bordighera Press). She is a recipient of the Ruby Irene Poetry Chapbook Prize from Arcadia Magazine and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry Prize from the Tishman Review. Santalucia received her MFA from The New School University and her PhD in English from Binghamton University. She founded The Binghamton Poetry Project, a literary outreach program that reaches underserved audiences, and she has directed the program for four years. She currently teaches at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and brings poetry workshops into the Cumberland County Prison.

When a Neighbor Dies

When I get home from my morning run, there are two police officers hanging around my driveway. They look like babies, plump skin and short bangs under their caps. Barely in their twenties. They stand under our ancient weeping cherry tree, and scant snowflakes flutter down between the tired skeleton branches. It’s not cold enough to see our breath.

“Are you here for this house?” I ask, a bit incredulous, pointing up our driveway.

One of the officers shakes his head.

“That one,” he says. Next door.

A more senior officer stands at the neighbors’ side entrance, and I see Mrs. J. behind the screen, her hair choppy, flyaway. She’s in her gray sweats.

I shower and make my coffee, wondering about what might be going on. When I sit down at my desk, I see that a white van has pulled up in front of our house. I text my husband.

The medical examiner just showed up.

That can’t be good, he texts back.

I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other.

Our neighbors are older, but not old. Mrs. J. might be sixty. She travels a lot for work. I overlap with her when we garden, but she’s got a sharp edge, exudes weariness. Mr. J., an unfit man in his early seventies, is more acerbic, off-putting. He parks his worn pickup truck in front of our house, the bumper plastered in NRA stickers. Our days are punctuated by his loud voice calling sternly to his hunting dogs or hacking out a dry cough. When my husband went over once to help him with his printer in their basement, I pictured the walls covered in rifles or shot guns and kept an eye on the clock to see how long they’d been down there together. We’re in an unfinished, uncomfortable discussion with Mr. J. about whether he can paint their side of our fence, and it makes me glad that it’s now December and no one’s wanting to paint anything for at least another four months.

Two guys open the back of the van and pop out a gurney, its spindly wheels dropping to the street. They disappear up the walkway, and I keep guard out my window like a meddling Parisian concierge. It’s impossible to work. The shorthaired cat sleeps by the heater vent behind my desk, the longhaired cat stalks something outside in the front lawn; the sky above all of us is city-gray. The medical examiner team emerges on the walkway.

They have to carry the gurney carefully over the brick steps. Their burden: a thick plastic body bag zipped and belted to the stretcher. Its contents are large, bulky. Man-like. Past the walkway, the wheels drop, and the men roll out to the street. Through the leggy branches of the weeping cherry, I watch them load the gurney into the back of the van. The doors snap shut. Several minutes after the van drives away, the police cars disappear, too. Then it’s quiet out my study window.

I wait for activity. For the adult daughter who lives nearby to arrive, skid into a parking spot, and run up the walkway with her blond hair covering her face and her short-legged blond dog yipping at her heels. I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other. But the street is silent.

In the afternoon, Mrs. J. leaves on an errand. Our two kids come home from school, and I tell them the shocking news that Mr. J. probably died. We don’t know our neighbors well, nor do we have warm feelings about them, but we see them every day. We are disturbed by the turn of events. It is devastating to imagine losing a spouse.

I phone my in-laws.

“What do I do? When should I stop by?”

“As soon as possible,” my mother-in-law tells me.

So I draft a vague card and deliver it before dinner.

Dear Mrs. J., We are so sorry for what has happened. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you during this difficult time.

I include our phone number because I’m not sure she has it.

Mrs. J. answers the door in her sweats, rubber cleaning gloves up to her elbows, a cell phone between her shoulder and ear. I hand the card to her, and she closes the door.

We have a neighborhood email list, and I decide it’s my duty to inform the street of Mr. J.’s passing.

“But you don’t know that he actually died,” my husband says.

“I saw a body,” I say. Isn’t a body irrevocable evidence? It’s too awful that no one has stopped by—not even their daughter—to support Mrs. J. There is drama on the street, and I feel information needs to be disseminated. I craft the email.

Dear Neighbors, I wanted to share the sad news that Mr. J. died this morning.

I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

I dislike(d) Mr. J. immensely. We’ve overheard wicked, abusive yelling matches between Mr. J. and his daughter, one time with his wife. His dogs bark furiously at us whenever we are in our backyard; we can’t let the kids retrieve their basketball because we worry for their safety with those dogs. I blame both Mr. and Mrs. J. for the used syringes and cigarette butts we sometimes find on our side of the fence, and wish they had more control over their adult daughter and what she does at their house. The best news to our being homeowners would be that the Js. are moving away.

But there’s no other way to say it: the sad news. Death on a gray winter day is sad. And, equally compelling, is the proximity of tragedy. I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

My husband’s caution tickles my send finger. I decide to wait to publicize the news until I’ve talked with Mrs. J. in person.

The next day, there is no sign of her, no sign of the daughter, no sign of any activity. The dogs are silent. I look at the yellow light from a bedroom, what in most homes would exude warmth now speaks of only loneliness to me. The cold humidity pushes against our two houses. I text Mrs. J.

Hi Mrs. J. I will drop off dinner for you tonight. I’ll bring it by around 6:00. It will be packaged so you can put it right in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it today.

I see a welcomed closure, for myself. I will deliver the food. If I don’t make direct contact with Mrs. J. tonight, at least I will have fulfilled my neighborly duty of expressing sympathy and providing food and offers of support. I don’t look forward to listening to her tell me the details of her loss, but there is no way to avoid it when our two side doors look right at each other and we tend to pick the same sunny days to weed. At least the fence painting disagreement with her husband can be put to bed.

It rains, and I cook curried cream of chicken soup to memories of the Amadeus cinematic funeral scene. I bake cranberry nut bread. I shop for firm grapes and make a last-minute decision to include two small squares of dark chocolate, gourmet and indulgent. Everything fits in a few disposable Tupperware and some layers of aluminum foil. I am particularly attuned to portioning small sizes for Mrs. J., what I entertain as a “widow’s dinner.” I pack it all in a plastic grocery bag.

I leave the kids to their homework and ring Mrs. J.’s door. The dogs are back. They bark murderously from the inside, and bells jingle as someone undoes the locks.

Mr. J. answers the door.

He stands there in front of me, filling the doorframe. I hadn’t remembered him being such a large person, and his presence looms over me like an indictment. The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

“Hi. Mr. J.,” I say, feeling ridiculous about everything that’s gone through my head during the past thirty-six hours. Confused. And also disappointed. “Um.”

Mrs. J. appears behind her husband. Neither of them is smiling, but then they never were before, either.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi. Sorry.” Does my script from when I thought Mr. J. had died still apply? “I saw the police here yesterday. Also, the medical examiner.” They look at each other, raise their eyebrows. The dogs smash their muzzles against the screen, frantic, trying to get to me. “I don’t know what happened. I thought you could use—some help.” I hold up the small—so small—bag of food. “I made you a few things to eat, just a little something. Very little. I’m not sure it will feed,” and I make eye contact with Mr. J., “everyone.”

They look at each other again.

“Should we tell her?” Mrs. J. asks her husband.

“I don’t care. But do it outside,” Mr. J. says, and yells at the dogs to get back while Mrs. J. slips out. She raises her arms like, what can she do?

The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

We step over to the bushes that my husband and I planted near the property line the first year we moved in to block our view of Mr. J.’s marathon television-watching. It’s the first time I’ve noticed translucent red berries tucked into the branches, although in the evening light they look blue. Mr. J. closes the door, disappears.

“Oh, I don’t need to know anything, really,” I say, trying to convey both concern and disinterest. She takes a noisy breath.

“Our daughter’s awful boyfriend overdosed here last night. She was going to break up with him…. But she never wanted this.”

I picture the stuffed body bag. A large man. The colorless, cold body first of Mr. J. with his square frame and glittering pokes of silver facial stubble, his pockmarked cheeks and irritated frown, and then not Mr. J. A man we’ve never met. Never seen, presumably much younger, younger than me.

“Of course not,” I say. The Js.’ porch lights are boxy and dim. I can smell a wood burning fire from their chimney, a smell that always makes me think of my grandparents, and skiing. On dark winter nights, I am grateful for that smell.

“She’s beside herself. I have to leave town for a few days, but Mr. J. will be at home with her.”

I have to fight myself from saying, If there’s anything I can do to help. I hand the food to her.

“It’s very small,” I say. “Honestly,” and I hide my mouth like I’m telling a secret, “we were worried it was Mr. J.”

She laughs out loud. Sometimes, she does share a giant laugh with our kids.

“No, no.” Mrs. J. shakes her head. “Nope.” She thanks me for the food, says Mr. J. and their daughter will save it for lunch the next day, and we retreat to our separate houses.

“Thank god I didn’t send that email,” I say to my husband after telling him that Mr. J. is, in fact, still alive. “Can you imagine?”

“I actually was kind of glad he had died,” my husband says.

It’s true. Since we aren’t able to break up with our neighbors, death would have been our lucky out. Instead, we have the blue lights of their television to flicker outside our windows all winter, and several contentious fence-painting discussions lined up for when the first crocuses peek out of the ground. I set the table for chicken soup and cranberry nut bread. It will feed the four of us.

Milena NigamMilena Nigam is a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, Compose Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs. For many years, Milena worked as a research psychologist and as the director of a non-profit evaluation group. She has recently finished a collection of short stories.

Sarah Van Arsdale, Author

Sarah Van ArsdaleSarah Van Arsdale’s deft, sympathetic portraits remind us that we are not alone in our struggle to be seen, recognized, and yes, even loved.  She is a writer who is deeply engaged with questions of who we are and what we owe each other. Her clarity and precision immerse the reader in a world where characters struggle, yet ultimately find redemption. With language imbued with the curiosity of a naturalist and the grace and virtuosity of a poet, Van Arsdale’s work brings us close to that which is essential to our humanity—identity, attachment, loss, the ties that bind us together and keep us alive.­

Sarah Van Arsdale’s novels include Grand Isle (SUNY Press, 2012), Blue, winner of the 2002 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, (University of Tennessee Press, 2003), and Toward Amnesia, (Riverhead Books, 1996).  Her latest collection of novellas, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, was published in April 2016 by Queen’s Ferry Press. Nomadic Press will release her next book, The Catamount, in 2017. Both In Case of Emergency, Break Glass and The Catamount are illustrated with Van Arsdale’s watercolors. Her poetry has been published in national literary magazines, most recently The New Guard, Blueline, and Clockhouse. She serves on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction, and teaches in the Antioch University MFA Program and at NYU.

Self PortraitI spoke with Sarah Van Arsdale by phone on August 25, 2016.  Over the course of reading her work and talking with her, I was struck by her artistic versatility and her fierce dedication to authenticity. The following are excerpts from our interview.

Melissa Benton Barker: Not only do you write novels, essays, and short fiction, you also work with visual art, in particular, with watercolor painting. Your most recent book, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, is illustrated with some of your watercolors. Can you talk about the play between narrative and visual forms in your work as an artist? Are there things that you feel are better expressed in one medium versus the other?

Sarah Van Arsdale: My next book is a long narrative poem illustrated with my illustrations. It will be released by Nomadic Press this spring. I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist until about ten years ago. I was raised in a family where everybody did art. We made things, we painted things, so it didn’t seem like a particular skill to me that was separate from life. You did the dishes, you drew a little picture, it’s just part of life. It wasn’t until I was well along that somebody saw one of my little drawings and asked me who had drawn it and if I’d bought it somewhere. That woke me up to the idea that maybe I had something that I could work with. For me, the visual art has always been almost like a relief from the writing. Because the writing I’ve always taken really seriously. I have a master’s in poetry and I’ve worked hard at it, and it’s something that I’m vulnerable about. I’m easily injured if somebody doesn’t like my writing, even though I’ve developed a thick skin over the years. But my visual art is something that I haven’t worked at very hard until recently, so I could be more playful with it. I use it often as a break from writing. When I want to be doing something, but writing isn’t quite what I want to be doing, I feel very fortunate that I have this other creative outlet.

The deepest, most important things get expressed by me—and probably by most people—in poetry. That’s where I go for something that is elusive to me. If I’m not quite sure what’s nagging at me that I need to get down on paper, usually poetry is where I go. With illustration, it tends to be lighter and more whimsical than any of my writing. I often think in illustrations. I was recently interviewed for something and I answered a question by saying my wise counselors had talked me out of a different title for In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, and immediately I got a visual image of my three cats, my wise counselors. That’s often how my visual thinking goes, almost like a running cartoon in the background of my life.

MBB: Your published works are very different from one another in scope. Your first novel, Toward Amnesia, is the story of one woman’s grief, and it’s incredibly internal. It seems to be as much about the central character’s relationship with herself and with the natural world as it is about the loss she experiences in being abandoned by her partner. A later novel, Grand Isle, is a portrait of a large cast of characters, a whole community coping with loss. Can you tell me about what it was like to write a piece that is so intimate and internal versus a piece that casts a wider net?

SVA: When I think of my books in sequential order, it’s apparent that I wrote Toward Amnesia when I still thought of myself as a poet. It started as a long prose poem and then gradually, over about a year, I intentionally made it more into fiction, prose. By the time I wrote Grand Isle, I wanted to see if I could write what I thought of as a real novel, not just a big poem. I thought of Toward Amnesia like a big poem without many line breaks, and by the time I got to Grand Isle I wanted a bigger cast of characters. I wanted to see the characters interact with each other and see if I could do it, if I could just throw the line out and let it keep going, how many characters I could get into my scope, and how complicated I could make their relationships.

I wanted to write about the Inuit themselves, or the pre-Inuit, and I wanted to [go back in time] so that it’s a question of human intelligence, a new dawn of human intelligence.

MBB: So you were deliberately challenging yourself here.

SVA: I was making myself write a real novel.

MBB: The natural world plays an important role in your work. In Toward Amnesia, for example, the protagonist’s relationship with the natural world is essential to her healing. Can you talk about the role that the natural world plays in your own life and how this informs your writing?

SVA: Toward Amnesia has more of the natural world than any of the other books, except for the first novella in the new collection, the one that’s set in the Arctic. When I wrote Toward Amnesia I had just been taking some undergrad wildlife biology classes. I took those classes after working at a nature sanctuary in graduate school to support myself. Before that, my older half-brother was very passionate about the natural world as a teenager and a young adult, and he brought that to me. He was into bird watching and he kept snakes in a cage in the backyard. That planted the seed. The year before I wrote Toward Amnesia, I was interested in wildlife biology and thinking about getting another degree in it, and learning a ton by taking these intense science classes. A lot of that went into Toward Amnesia.

The book that I’m working on now is about the mountain lion of the northeast, the catamount.  My relationship with the catamount dates way back to those early days of studying wildlife biology. So I do see that as a thread that’s continuing in my life.

MBB: It comes full circle since the catamount played an important role in your first novel.

SVA: It’s like it walked out of Toward Amnesia into this new book.

MBB: The first novella in your recently published collection, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, is entitled “The Sound in High Cold Places.” This is a story told from the perspective of a prehistoric Inuit woman. Many of the themes addressed here are universal: human attachment and connection, the quest for survival and the choices we make in order to survive. What sparked your interest in writing about this particular time and place?

SVA: I never would have thought that I wanted to write historical fiction, and only after the book came out did it occur to me that I had written historical fiction. I have a lot of students who work in historical fiction and I would think, “I don’t know anything about this” and realize, “No, wait, I did this!”  I happened to go on a trip to the Arctic. There is an [archeological site] with what are called the Greenland Mummies. The Greenland Mummies were found in 1975 and date to the 1400s. I became interested in the question of what would kill off an entire group of people, especially if they were living earlier. I wanted it to be earlier than the 1400s because I didn’t want the question of the European settlers to come into it, since that’s been written about so much and that’s a really heartbreaking story from the Inuit point of view. I wanted to write about the Inuit themselves, or the pre-Inuit, and I wanted to [go back in time] so that it’s a question of human intelligence, a new dawn of human intelligence. That’s why the characters of Simut and Imiut are a bit further along in intelligence than the other people, and that’s part of their bond. They can think more abstractly than the other characters can.

I started writing it with s/he for the pronoun and realized, Oh great! This is perfect! And then it just fell into place, the best character. I was writing it before I was really familiar with the term nonbinary, before the term was even used…

MBB: How did you approach writing about a time for which there is no written record? Did you need to work differently in order to inhabit a time that has been kept alive through oral tradition and our collective human imagination?

SVA: I had to do a lot more research than I ever have with any other book. Research is important to me and it’s important to me to teach students that you have to do research because you have to be specific. With Grand Isle, I was looking up what flowers would be blooming at that time of year at that location, that kind of thing, so that I could be specific and accurate. But I had no idea until I was working on the Arctic book just how much research I was going to have to do. It was constant. I started that story probably in about 2002. Periodically it just kept bugging me. I kept wanting to work on it. I’d go back and work on it some more and then abandon it again for something else. Every time I went back to it I found that there were more inaccuracies, things that I wasn’t sure of, both about the time and the place, like what kind of skin would they have used to make a kayak versus what kind of skin would they have used to make a parka. It was a lot of work and it was challenging imaginatively. I had to really imagine being in a place where the sun doesn’t come up for a long time and yet you don’t have the word “month,” so you’re not thinking the sun is going to come up in a couple of months, because you don’t think in months.

MBB: It’s amazing how much this piece allows the reader to inhabit a world that’s so different from the contemporary world. The research that you did really makes that possible. The Sound in High Cold Places” is the story of a group of humans struggling together to survive in the midst of a brutal yet awe-inspiring environment. At the center of the story is a portrait of a deep attachment, what we in our contemporary culture would call a romantic relationship, between a cisgender woman and a nonbinary person. Can you talk about the process of writing these characters and this relationship within this particular setting and time?

SVA: It’s kind of mysterious to me. That’s one of the things that I love about writing fiction. There’s that mysterious thing that happens where a character will just come into a story, or something will happen in the plot that you had no idea was going to happen. I’d been working on it off-and-on for years, and I had various romantic or marital things happen for Simut, the protagonist. At one point, she was married to a man who was cruel to her, and at another point, her husband died. I tried one thing after another with her. I knew that the plot needed something. There was a big piece missing, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I thought of the old adage about either somebody goes on a trip or a character comes to town. And I thought, what if a stranger comes to town? Then I started writing the scene when Imiut arrives on the shore in the kayak and I realized as I was writing it, I couldn’t decide if this was going to be a male or a female character, and I was hesitant to use either he or she because I couldn’t see clearly one or the other. I thought, well, if it were a female character, that could be really cool, because then Simut could fall in love with a woman, but if it’s a male, there were other advantages. I started writing it with s/he for the pronoun and realized, Oh great! This is perfect! And then it just fell into place, the best character. I was writing it before I was really familiar with the term nonbinary, before the term was even used, since it took a while after finishing it for it to get published. I wrote that part four or five years ago, and I certainly had known transgendered people, but I wasn’t writing that character to make any kind of political point. It just happened, and then it worked. I could see that it filled in that blank spot that was missing and it happens that the timing with our own cultural evolution is right. If it has been published ten years ago as it is, I think a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten it.

Often writing with any political intention falls flat. I’ve seen many people try to make some political point in fiction and it usually doesn’t work. It has to be that the characters take over.

MBB: The second two novellas in the collection center around Americans abroad, traveling in Spain and France, respectively. What do you think taking the central character(s) out of their habitual environment brings to these stories?

SVA: Any time you take a character out of their habitual environment you add some juice to the story. [When traveling] you see yourself differently than you see yourself in your home country. Setting either of those stories in the protagonist’s home would not have worked.  I feel strongly about setting and how important setting is. You couldn’t set those stories anywhere else. They have to take place where they’re taking place. 

The advantage to reading widely and the advantage to knowing a wide range of people is that you get a greater range of perspectives in your own life.

MBB: The third novella in the collection, “Conversion,” is told from the point of view of a woman who shares many of your biographical details. The protagonist is in the midst of writing a chapter with her partner entitled: “Fiction, Memoir, and the Shifting Border Between.”  I’m interested in the title of that fictional chapter. How do you manage the border between fiction and memoir?

SVA: I put that title in there almost like a wink to the reader. [As if to say] in case you don’t know anything about me, this is really autobiographical fiction. If anybody were to know anything about me, that would be clear. Usually my fiction is really fiction, and there’s very little of it drawn from my life the way that story is. More often it’s a combination of stories that I’ve heard from friends, or friends of friends, the stories that float around us. Lyrics to songs, dreams that I’ve had, all that other stuff that funnels into being fiction. In most of my other fiction, there might be some little story from my own life that might fit into a story or a book, more often stories from friends of mine. In Toward Amnesia, the protagonist remembers being given a telescope when she was a child, and she really wanted something else—like a makeup kit or something. When my mother read Toward Amnesia, she said, “Daddy never gave you a telescope,” and I said, “Yeah, you’re right, he didn’t.” But my lover at the time had a story from her childhood where she wanted a soccer ball and she was given a makeup kit as a kid. That’s the kind of transformation where I’m thinking, I need something where the wrong gift is given to a kid, and I go to my own experience in life, which includes stories of friends of mine. “Conversion” is a story where I really deviated from that and wrote a story almost exactly as it happened.

MBB: Did you find that harder or easier to write, or just totally different?

SVA: It was really different. When I write fiction, I see it happening in a different part of my brain, even if it starts in the seed of something that really did happen to me. I was living on a lake in Vermont when I started writing Grand Isle, so the seed of that was a real experience, and as I imagined it, it inhabited a whole different part of my brain than real life does. When I think of the house in “Conversion,” I see the actual house that I was in, not a made up fictional house. I started writing it while I was experiencing it, in part because otherwise I would have gone crazy. I just started writing and I started seeing all the things that were happening around me as if they were fiction, thinking, “Wow this will be really great for the story, oh this is perfect!” It’s a bit like watching Donald Trump now. It’s a bit like, “Oh perfect! That is the perfect thing for him to say! I can’t wait for the next terrible thing he’s going to say!” And then he says something that you could not script any better for him to be so evil. It’s kind of like that.

MBB: Maybe writing “Conversion” was a way of coping with a stressful situation, having some distance or clarity.

SVA: It made what was happening more distant.

MBB: In your 2014 essay published in Guernica Magazine, “I Was a Lesbian Writer,” you wrote, “Can we imagine opening the New York Times Book Review and noticing that there are only two or three men reviewed?” How do you imagine we would all be impacted by this ideal publishing world, where the white, cisgender male is no longer the standard unit of measurement?

SVA: I think our heads would explode, in the best possible way. I was just looking at something the other day, some literary magazine that just came out. Flipping through it I realized that almost everybody in it was a man or at least had a man’s name.  I’m like—really? Still? The advantage to reading widely and the advantage to knowing a wide range of people is that you get a greater range of perspectives in your own life. Reading internationally, reading across genders and ethnicities, makes all of us bigger. And so we’d get bigger and our heads would explode. It would be great!

When you write the thing that you most need to write, there’s no guarantee it will get published, but if it doesn’t get published at least you’ve written the thing you needed to write and then you’re done with that and you can write something else that you need to write.

MBB: Do you have any particular words of wisdom to share with fledgling and emerging writers out there who identify outside the category of white, cisgender male? Are you at all hopeful that the publishing industry is moving towards greater inclusivity?

SVA: First, I would say to anyone, you have to write the story that you most want to write, that you most need to write. You have to find that burning thing inside of you that demands that you write it regardless of what it is. When you write the thing that you most need to write, there’s no guarantee it will get published, but if it doesn’t get published at least you’ve written the thing you needed to write and then you’re done with that and you can write something else that you need to write. But also, when you write the thing that you want to write the chances are greater that it will get published, no matter how weird it is. I can tell you this story, from “My Famous Friend” [Van Arsdale’s essay, published in Bookslut, January 2016], which is that it took [Alison Bechdel] a long time to write Fun Home. She was writing Dykes to Watch Out For for a long time and she said, “I don’t know, I have this crazy idea to write this book. I want to write the story of my father, but nobody’s going to read this. This is insane, nobody wants to read this cockamamie story!” That’s the greatest example I have because we all know what happened with Fun Home. But also with my little catamount book, I wrote it first and handed it out to friends. I never thought it would get published and I didn’t write it to get published. I was even kind of upset that it was going to get published because I had been so adamant that I wasn’t going to send it out and try to get it published because nobody’s going to publish a narrative poem with illustrations by the author about a catamount. Nobody’s going to publish that, and then voila, it got published. I’m sure that there are countless other stories like that, of people who just wrote what they wanted to write and now it’s something that we all enjoy reading.

I am hopeful about the small press world. My hope about the bigger publishing world, the big presses, comes and goes. Every now and then I see something published by a major house that I think is really fantastic and that gives me hope that somebody in there is able to buck the marketing department and get something really good published. I think that the editors in the publishing houses, by and large, are probably really good readers and really want great writing to be published, but I think that they are under the thumb of the marketing department and the need for the house to make a ton of money. Therefore my hope lies in the small presses and that’s where most of the really good writing is coming from these days.

MBB: Thank you for your advice about writing what needs to be written. That’s really good to hear, because there’s really nothing to lose with that, right?

SVA: Right, exactly, there’s nothing to lose. There’s no point in writing something that you don’t feel that way about. You have to have some level of passion about the piece you are working on. Whatever you’re afraid to write, that’s where you have to go.

Melissa TinkerMelissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising childrensometimes simultaneously!  Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-Station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama.

Fat Tuesday in Samsara

Women gathered round the float
like the waters of the night—
nurses, pirates,
schoolgirls in plaid—and they lifted
shirts to necks and their breasts bobbed
up and down.

Beads of prayer fell upon
them and hit their heads and throats
and hearts.

The women dropped to their knees
to collect them—holy objects
on sullied ground—
but boots stomped upon their bony
hands and bodies pushed them left and right.
But they persisted and they
grasped—tarantula
fingers on concrete ground—
and they rose to stand,
lightheaded,

and pressed beads to forehead, beads
to mouth.

And up above the cold moon
hung. The float,
in its salvation,
passed—
drifting cheers of yellow-red, drifting flashes
of golden light—and the turning
waters turned the endless
flotsam: death
and delight.

Lana Spendl

Lana Spendl’s chapbook of flash fiction, We Cradled Each Other In the Air, is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in February 2017. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, Hobart, The Greensboro Review, Quarter After Eight, storySouth, Fiction Southeast, Monkeybicycle, Prick of the Spindle, Gargoyle, and other magazines.

 

Are We There Yet?

I imagine my father as a small boy, sitting on stone steps. Chin in hand, he glares at the dry towel and swim trunks he’s thrown beside him. The façade of the Hayward Plunge, a public swimming pool near his Oakland, California home, stands in harsh rebuke. How dare you, it seems to say, Chinese aren’t allowed. Not until the end of the month. An hour earlier he’d tried to push his way in with his crowd of friends—all white friends from Cleveland Elementary—but was pulled aside. Not you, they’d told him, pointing at the door. Even if he had told them that he was a fourth-generation American—the truth—it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Later he would know that “Yellow Day” was the next to last day of the month. The last day of the month was “Black Day.” When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

His friends should be done in an hour, maybe two. Shading his eyes from the California sun, he studies the traffic along Mission Boulevard. There’s a brand new 1940 model Cadillac just like his father’s. There’s the bus for the Cleveland Heights neighborhood, the route they need to take home. He memorizes the bus numbers that stop here. After three Cleveland Heights buses pass, he starts to sweat, black hair hot to the touch.

When his friends finally emerge—wet hair combed into blonde and brunette rooster-tails, chlorine smell in the damp of their towels, loud boasts about who can hold his breath the longest—he brushes off his pants and falls in line. When the bus arrives, he sits silent on the ride back to their neighborhood.

*     *     *

As the mellow strains of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” wafted from my clock radio—always tuned to KFRC, the Bay Area’s rock station—I closed my bedroom door and pushed aside the heap of dresses on my bed. I’m such a dork, I thought, I’ve got nothing to wear to my first high school dance! I fingered a homemade white polyester number, the one with the zipper that I’d accidentally sewed shut, snipped open, and resewed three times that summer. Mom had helped me pick the pattern, its modest V-neckline and long puffy sleeves perfect for church. And that was the best of the lot. All my other dresses—A-lines, shirtwaists, and shapeless shifts—had hems at the knee, the proper length for the Lutheran parochial school which, in 1969, I’d just graduated from.

When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

My best option—indeed, my only option—was the green-and-cream herringbone wool jumper with a high-necked Victorian blouse I’d just received for my thirteenth birthday. The deep U of the jumper dipped beneath my bustline, accentuating my small breasts. Its hemline struck mid-thigh, six inches above the knee. Although the blouse and jumper were school clothes, they were far more fashionable than anything else in my closet. I pulled on my blouse and jumper, rolling up my slip so it wouldn’t hang below the hemline. Instead of cabled knee socks, I slid on cream-colored fishnet tights, carefully leaving three inches at the toes and folding them under before sliding on my boots. I hated when my toes got strangled in the fishnet holes.

Dad looked up from his medical journal, peering at me through thick black-rimmed glasses as my heels clicked across our family room’s wood parquet floor. He took it all in: the faintest blue eyeshadow, the thread of eyeliner behind my black cat-eye glasses. The slight curl at the bottom of my waist-length hair. The cream-colored fishnets tucked into white go-go boots.

“Where are you going?” he barked, his crew-cut as severe as his expression. His face held no hint of a smile.

I recoiled at the unexpected heat in his voice. I tried to be nonchalant, enunciating clearly around the new metal braces on my teeth, but my voice trembled. “Umm… there’s a dance tonight. It’s Friday.”

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” His face was still unreadable, but there was an edge I couldn’t quite name.

Because I just met some new friends and they’re counting on me, I wanted to say. I swelled with pride. Two weeks into my freshman year, I’d already found a group of girls I could look for at “our spot” on the lawn at lunchtime. With them, it was easy to fit in. They’d just graduated from Holy Ghost; I’d graduated from Prince of Peace. We shared the parochial cloak of penance and guilt. From them I got a quick lesson on Catholic strictures: school uniforms, cruel nuns, and Stations of the Cross. I told them about my seventh grade teacher, mimed how he’d hurl erasers at misbehaving students. We all laughed with relief that those days were over.

I was especially glad of their attention. For five years, from fourth through eighth grade, I’d been virtually friendless, unexpected fallout from our move to the milk-white California Bay Area suburbs. Mom insisted that my brother and I attend a Lutheran parochial school, as she had years ago in Oakland. Not only were we the only minorities in a sea of Germans, we were also forever the “new” kids. I was an impossible interloper, an awkward Chinese girl with buck teeth and turquoise cat-eye glasses, already a year and a half younger than my fourth grade classmates when word got out that they wanted to skip me another grade. No one invited me over. Mom shrugged, saying only, “Well, maybe it’s your fault you don’t have any friends.”

But now everything could change. Instead of thirteen kids, there were over 500 in my freshman class. I was ready to remake myself, I had something to prove. No one knew I was so young. I steadied myself; I wasn’t used to defying Dad.

“Because I thought it’d be fun! I haven’t been to a dance before.” Before he could object, I assured him, “Oh, and I’m getting a ride there and back, so that’s taken care of.” I was proud that I’d thought ahead. I knew better than to inconvenience him or Mom with my plans.

Dad’s shoulders slumped as he shook his head. But why? Was he upset that he wasn’t going to win this argument? Was he distressed at my new assertiveness? Did he think I was too young to be out with boys?

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated, but now his tone had turned bitter. What he said next shocked me. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

*     *     *

Almost forty years later, as I readied my late parents’ house for sale, I came across a thick tattered file marked, in my mother’s hand, simply “Castlewood.” An odd unease fluttered in my chest. Castlewood Country Club, originally built as a residence for the Hearst family in the dry heat of the Pleasanton foothills, was at that time the premier country club in the East Bay, boasting two golf courses and two clubhouses. My parents had joined the club in 1970; my wedding reception was held there in 1984.

But there was something wrong, the stink of a story passed down. Mom must have told me, because Dad wouldn’t have. He could pretend—and hope—that none of life’s disappointments would touch me, if only he could keep them to himself. But his war with Castlewood, and with himself, remained a scourge.

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

When we moved to California in 1964, Dad took up golf. At first my brother and I laughed—wasn’t golf an old man’s sport? But for Dad, a young doctor with a new private practice, it became a vital link. Not only was it a personal challenge, it was the perfect vehicle to socialize with colleagues. The theory was simple: if you like someone, you’ll refer work to them. Businessmen and businesswomen have used this tactic—golf, Rotary, community fundraisers—for years.

By 1966, Dad was playing golf twice a week. Most Sunday mornings he’d be on the links with his doctor friends, returning home tired and happy, tan lines on his arms. He’d mix himself a drink and press himself into his easy chair. Other times he was more circumspect. Four hours on a golf course told you much about a man. “I won’t play with him again,” Dad said one afternoon. “He cheats. And if you cheat at golf, you cheat at everything.”

Often Dad was invited to Castlewood Country Club, rounding out a foursome of doctors. But there was a hitch: as a guest there wasn’t a way to reciprocate. “Your money’s no good here,” his friends would joke, reaching for the bar bill, the lunch bill, the greens fees silently slipped onto their tabs. Dad felt uncomfortable, used to paying his own way and more. His friends enthusiastically sponsored him, so he applied for membership.

Castlewood turned him down. The day it happened, Mom took me aside. “He was blackballed,” she whispered.

Blackballed. Two years later, when I defied our Lutheran-Missouri Synod pastor and joined the Rainbow Girls, a Masonic youth organization, I finally understood the term. We cast secret ballots. When a prospective member’s name was called, one by one we’d silently file past a small wooden box where we’d pick a white ball for yes, a black ball for no, roll it down the box’s chute, hear it land with a dull thud. After everyone had voted, our leader, our Worthy Advisor, would pull out a little drawer at the bottom of the box and could immediately see if the vote was unanimous. Any black ball was grounds for rejection.

Dad was stunned and humiliated. His friends were outraged. In the file marked “Castlewood” I found letters they wrote, signed by dozens of colleagues, asking the club to reverse its decision. He’s a stalwart member of the community, they wrote. He’s of the highest moral character. There is no reason to exclude him from the Castlewood community.

The club turned him down again.

When I looked at the date on the Castlewood letterhead, I felt a chill. Dad had received his second denial in September 1969, days before my high school dance.

*     *     *

In the end, Dad was right. No one asked me to dance.

In a turn of poetic justice, the Castlewood Clubhouse, the gracious Hacienda built by Phoebe Hearst, had burned to the ground on August 24, 1969. Dad’s rejection letter had slipped out quietly just before the flames began.

*     *     *

Six months later, in early 1970, Castlewood sent Dad an invitation. “Please join our club,” they said. “It’s the premier golf course in the area.” Dad was furious. “No way,” he declared.

I can see Mom now, sitting at the kitchen table, smoke curling from the cigarette in her outstretched fingers. How to approach this? On the one hand, being members of a premier country club would be the culmination of a dream for Dad and her. Isn’t that the height of assimilation? Also, they’d be paving another inroad for the Chinese community, setting a precedent, making it easier for the next family. Two strokes for pragmatism over idealism. But on the other hand, isn’t the club just using them to help rebuild the clubhouse? Bringing them on as members, and then slapping them with a capital assessment? It was so transparent—the “I’ll be your best friend if…” bribe. But who wants to be part of a club that rejected them twice?

Mom finally decided, the voice of reason. “You like the course. Your friends play there,” she told Dad, citing the two most salient points in her favor. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

*     *     *

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it. Even my twenty-four-year-old son, Bryce.

In the warm light of our Seattle kitchen, Bryce, arms folded over his chest, grimaces. Absurdly, a huge cow face is visible on his thrift store T-shirt, its bucolic stare in stark contrast to Bryce, whose eyes darken. He leans against the counter, now cleared of dinner dishes, although the familiar scent of black bean prawns in lobster sauce hangs in the air. He tucks a shoulder length strand of reddish-brown hair behind his ear. Folds his arms closed again.

“How could Goong-Goong do that? Doesn’t he have any pride?” I’m glad that my father, long gone, can’t hear this accusation. Pride—of his heritage, of his integrity—was something Dad had in spades.

I try to explain using my mother’s reasoning, and at first it sounds hopelessly quaint. Bryce shakes his head, regards his tattered sneakers, and it’s obvious he’s not buying it. In 2016, what inroads do Chinese still have to make?

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it.

He doesn’t get that in 1969 America, any progress toward acceptance was seen as a victory.

What could possibly justify my parents’ decision? Bryce and I posit circumstances. What if those who blackballed Dad were outed as racist, and enough other members banded together to offer Dad a membership?

“Okay,” he says evenly, “but those people will still be around, snubbing him.”

“But they lost. And he doesn’t need them, he has his own friends. Goong-Goong’s essentially saying, ‘I made it, I’m here.’ By joining, he’s sort of shoving it in their faces.”

His mood brightens as he nods, a sly grin—just like my father’s—rimming his lips. “Yeah, kind of an ‘up yours!’” Bryce eases up his six-foot two-inch frame and reaches into the refrigerator for the carton of guava juice that I know is his favorite. As he pours a glass, he turns thoughtful. “And if they saw him hanging out with his white doctor friends, maybe they’d be less apt to see him as ‘other.’”

This is our point of mutuality, where I know we have to come. At this age, defiance becomes him, the cloak of impermeability between young adulthood’s earnest twenties and realist thirties. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the diffusion of layers is gradual and, in most cases, silent. When I crossed the Rubicon to adulthood, did the ends suddenly justify the means?

I’m reminded of what my brother recently revealed to me—When you wanted to join the Rainbow Girls, Dad called his Mason friends and made sure you wouldn’t get blackballed. Dad, behind the scenes, making sure I wouldn’t suffer the humiliation that he faced. Trying to make it easier for me and the following generations, and letting us think we did it on our own.

But in today’s modern era, there’s still a question in the back of my mind: Would I press to join a club, an organization, perhaps even an executive team, that’s rejected me twice? Would I be able to rationalize it away, the fox with the grapes?

What would be worth bowing for?

Bryce drains his glass and again stands adamant, intensity smoldering. Now his voice brims with authority, and although I listen hard for the subtle equivocation that my female cousins and I often layer into our voices—well, here’s my opinion, but I’ll understand if you have a different one—I hear none of that. For us, adopting a “saving face” strategy was, and still is, a double-edged sword. Within my family, that nuance allows everyone’s dignity to remain intact. But out in corporate America, it smacks of indecision, or even worse, weakness. Breaking that habit took me twenty years.

“Okay, maybe it was okay for them, but I’d say ‘screw it,’” he concludes. “You don’t want me, I don’t want you.”

It’s an eye-roll of a statement, but—to my surprise—I’m shot with envy. That note of surety in his voice—is it just the bravado of youth? Is it simply a man’s truth in a man’s world? Why should I feel threatened that he, a sixth-generation American, has allowed himself the luxury of letting idealism trump pragmatism? I smile ruefully and shake my head. Is that just his white half talking?

Because by my choice—and a roll of the genetic dice—people look at my son and think, “American.” With his height, titian hair, and a name that bears no witness to his Chinese heritage, he passes for white. No one will call him “chink.” No one will expect him to be quiet and passive, to defer to others in the room. No one will ask, “Where are you from?” with any expectation of an answer outside the United States. With his lifetime immersion into twenty-first century America, all his cultural references are grounded deeply here.

Shouldn’t I be happy for him that his inner cultural identity matches his outer? On our family’s five-generation journey toward cultural acceptance—from laundryman to gambler to Army pilot to doctor to engineer—are we there yet?

With a start I feel the heavy drape of his arm around my shoulders, hear the jingle of car keys in his hand. He’s heading to a music gig, ready to end this standoff. With a gentle pat on my bicep, his unspoken, “Are we good?” is asked and answered. As I lean into his cotton warmth, my frown disappears and my mom persona returns, the one that forgives him everything.

I slip out from under his arm so he can make a graceful exit, and he turns toward me with a lopsided smile. “I’ll be back later tonight,” he says, and I reply as I always do, “So I’ll leave the light on for you.” He nods, our silent contract—to watch out for each other—complete.

He steps into the cool of the night with a singular ease. As I close the door I finally feel the truth of his reassuring pat on my arm. For him there’s no air lock, no threshold change, no cloak of whiteness between out and in. What he inherited from my father was a square chin and towering height. I’m glad of what he didn’t inherit: that hulking, leaden chip on his shoulder.

Amber WongAmber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, her work has also appeared in Slippery Elm, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, We Came Back to Say, and seattletimes.com. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.

Logic

The child sits by an open window,
watches rain bounce off red clay
while Rufous-sided towhees wait out the storm,
grip tangled limbs of azaleas.

She hears wind
tear through leaves,
smells rain
as it pounds the earth.

++++++++++Slowly,
she picks up scissors,
cuts off each finger
from her only doll.

The child talks to the doll,
tells her she is safe,
that without her fingers,
he will not tell her to touch him.

Linda WimberlyLinda Wimberly is a writer, artist, and musician from Marietta, GA. She has a degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Alabama and performed as a vocalist and guitarist for over thirty years. Her poetry has appeared in Stone River Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, Kalliope, and others, and a short story appeared in Cricket. Her vocal and choral compositions have been used in and published for schools, churches, and grief counseling centers. Linda is a self-taught abstract contemporary artist who works in acrylic, oil, and mixed media.

The Illusion of Free Will

Before I was confirmed into the Catholic Church, I was reprimanded by a Buddhist monk in a forest thick with mosquitos. My khaki pants stuck to my legs and my collared shirt clung to my damp neck. The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism. I wanted to appeal to the monk, so I hid the fact that I was shopping for other religions like flavors of ice cream at the Winn-Dixie. I desperately wanted to be his next project. I wanted the monk to look at me and see unbounded spiritual potential in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl who would do anything to escape the Catholic Church.

Instead, I killed a mosquito and scraped the blood off my skin with my fingernail. The sound of the slap reverberated as if caught in the trees and the monk spun slowly to face me.

“Have you learned nothing?” he asked. “What is the first precept of Buddhism?”

Shamefully, I recited what I learned while trying to hide the caked blood on my forearm.

“Abstain from taking the lives of living beings.”

The monk nodded slowly. Everything he did was slow.

The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism.

Humidity congregated on his bald head and slid down his temples. I wondered if his bare feet ached from traveling without shoes in the woods; he showed no indication of pain. When he turned back around and started moving down the path leading to the temple, mosquitos continued landing on my exposed arms and neck. I let them take my blood. Nothing made my life more valuable than theirs.

*     *     *

I was told confirmation was the process of becoming recognized as an adult in the eyes of the church, but no one clued in my mother who still insisted on driving me there twice a week as she had done my entire life. She knew that I disagreed with many lessons taught in my religious education classes, but I never told her that I was ejected once during a discussion about women’s roles in the church.

Although my religious education leader was a woman, she maintained that since Jesus did not ordain any women in the Bible, the church should never allow women to hold any positions of power. She argued that God deliberately made women weaker than men and she cited the Bible as evidence.

“Has it ever occurred to you that book was written by men?” I spat. “You act like it came flying down from Heaven and that’s just bullshit.”

I hid in the bathroom for the duration of class, trying to forget the indignant look on my teacher’s face as she silently held open the door for me to leave. On the way home, I stared fixedly out the window so that my mom wouldn’t notice the tears coating my hot cheeks.

When I approached my confirmation mentor to ask if I could explore other religions, she agreed that I should be educated in other systems of faith before committing to Catholicism. She sent me to a synagogue where the Torah was taken down from a sparkling golden shrine and unraveled before my eyes. She took me to an Eastern Orthodox Church where the murals were so bright and enveloping that I forgot to breathe while staring up at them. She even offered me a hijab to wear for my first time entering a mosque.

“Before you enter the masjid, you must cover your head with this,” she said, touching the golden crucifix dangling from her neck. “Non-Muslims are welcome to see the Islamic way of prayer, but you must be modest.”

I think my church knew that my brief voyages into other faiths only provided the illusion of free will. They were constructed to make me feel alien so that when I returned to the familiar wooden benches and stained glass I would feel at home. Catholicism was inevitable for me as long as I lived under the domain of my mother.

For a while, I tried to talk to her about my exploration of other religions. On the way to a Saturday evening mass I told her all about the Muslim’s systematic worship in the mosque. It gave me comfort to remember watching from the balcony as they chanted to Allah and fell to their knees in unison. My hijab kept unraveling and blocking my view, but I pushed it back and kept watching. Their faith was raw and honest and I envied it.

“In Islam, there is no Heaven,” I told my mom. “This life is just preparation for the next realm of existence. So death is just movement, not permanent. Isn’t that interesting?”

My mother didn’t answer. She pulled into our usual spot in the church lot and walked intently through the glass doors leading to the narthex. They swung closed before I could catch up with her, but I entered in time to see her genuflect at the end of our regular pew and drop to her knees. It creaked loudly but I doubt she heard. Her eyes were already squeezed tight and her fingers laced in prayer.

Around the time I was exploring other faiths I was also attending a world history class taught by an elderly man with kind eyes who called himself a determinist.

“Based on what I know of things, I do not believe in free will,” Mr. Johnson told us. “By definition, determinism is the philosophy that every human action is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the ones that came before it.”

I didn’t raise my hand before I spoke.

“Are you saying that you think everything we do is predetermined?”

The old man nodded.

“Exactly. It would require a computer precisely the size of the universe to untangle the future, but I believe we live in a deterministic universe. It’s just best for our sanity to pretend that there is such a thing as free will and act accordingly.”

At night when I was alone, I contemplated free will. I considered determinism and the notion that every single physical movement I made, every thought in my head, every event in my life, was not really my own design and merely a consequence of the events that happened prior. When this became too overwhelming I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined reaching through a sky full of clouds. This image alone put my mind at ease enough to sleep.

*     *     *

My mother taught me at a young age that bodies decompose but the soul is immortal. We rarely discussed death, but my mom once almost drowned in the ocean several years before I was born. She never learned how to swim but she could float on her back, which is how she saw the lifeguard frantically blowing his whistle and waving a green flag to warn her of the undertow. Without her knowledge, the current had already pulled my mom out so far that her toes couldn’t scrape the murky ocean bottom and she quickly sunk under the surface.

Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell.

My mom always discussed Heaven as if it would be lucky to have her. I think it gave her comfort to assume her soul would live forever in a place with no suffering, but Heaven never seemed as inevitable to me.

We read excerpts of Dante’s Inferno in Mr. Johnson’s class. I wrote down the circles of hell in my spiral notebook and tried to decide which circle I would be condemned to after my death. Certainly not the third where the gluttonous lie in vile, freezing slush but perhaps in the sixth circle, where heretics are forever trapped in flaming tombs. The fifth seemed just as likely, where the wrathful and sullen would be forced to fight each other until the end of time. When I started dating another woman soon after I turned eighteen, I changed my mind. My church called gay relationships moral disorder, and maintained that homosexuals are contrary to the natural law. Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell: a level where souls are blown about forever in a violent storm. I belonged in the circle of lust.

*     *     *

I learned I was a sinner at age seven. Around the same time, we were preparing for the sacrament of communion by practicing with a roll of candy Smarties. This specific event was also when my religious education teachers started rightfully identifying me as a threat to their lesson plans and everything about the church they held sacred.

“When I place this on your tongue, you must let it dissolve,” my teacher said. “While it disintegrates you have to contemplate sacrifice.”

The instant the first Smartie hit my tongue I crunched it in half with my teeth.

“No, no, honey. You must let it dissolve,” she said. “Go back to the end of the line and try again.”

Her tone was harsher when I chewed the Smartie a second time.

“Are you deliberately disobeying me? This is the body of Christ,” she said, madly shaking the roll of candy.

It didn’t take long for the other kids to catch on. When they realized that I was being punished with more candy, they all chewed their Smarties too and eventually my teacher threw the extra candy at us in defeat.

The lessons I never interrupted were the ones in which we discussed the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. In high school, one of my friends thought she was pregnant with the next Messiah. She hadn’t had sex but was positive there was a baby inside her. This was never a fear of mine. I sinned enough to be disqualified for the role. That part of Christianity never fascinated me anyway—what did fascinate me was the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Jesus had been born the natural way, but somehow the woman who birthed him was not biologically his mother. He was not a derivative of her and did not share her genetic makeup. It didn’t matter if the Virgin Mary had attached earlobes or a widow’s peak. It didn’t matter if her eyes were blue or brown or if her hair was curly or straight. Jesus was entirely his own person. I wanted to be my own person more than anything in the world.

My mother didn’t pass on many of her physical traits to me, but she blames my grandmother’s genetics for making me queer. She told me one day when we were out at lunch.

“It’s obvious it comes from that woman,” she said. “Think about it—she had three children and the only one that’s not a homosexual is your father. I don’t want you to think I believe this is some sort of genetic problem, though. It’s not. At least it’s not for you. You made a very deliberate choice. And I feel sorry for you, because you’re too stupid to realize that the one you chose will make the rest of your life very hard.”

The first summer I spent away from my mother I worked with artists in Rome and although I walked past hundreds of churches every day, I didn’t attend mass once. Instead, I smoked Macedonian cigarettes in tall grass with people I didn’t understand despite their perfect English. We lay there on the hard ground for hours and stared at the stars, which looked about the same to me as they did in Michigan. The familiarity of the sky gave me the kind of comfort I never found through prayer. I clutched the slim cigarette clumsily between my fingers and expelled the smoke deep from my belly. When it all cleared and I could see the sky again I shut my eyes and smoked and pleaded with the universe not to make me go back home.

*     *     *

Shortly before I was confirmed, I invited Mr. Johnson to a pub down the road from my high school. His stringy gray hair, which was tied back into a low pony tail, stuck to his face at various angles. He drank beer. I drank Diet Coke and swiveled on the stool like a child. He asked me about my future, writing, college, and why I’d wanted to talk to him.

“Of course, as a determinist I would say you had no choice,” he said, chuckling.

I wanted to tell him that his faith in determinism was exactly why I picked him, but instead, I just smiled and shrugged.

I thought of Mr. Johnson when I raised my arms and slid on my white confirmation dress.  Although it hung loosely from my thin frame, I could not take a deep breath while it was on me. I wrapped pieces of my long hair around the curling iron and stared at my hollow reflection.

In church I sat beside my mother. She insisted we should be silent, but before the mass began she knocked her foot against mine and whispered, I hope you get married in this church one day.

Her words knocked the remaining air out of me. Suddenly, I was the one drowning in the ocean. The undertow grabbed my ankles and was dragging me down and I couldn’t fight back. I didn’t know which way was up.

I was confirmed into the Catholic Church feeling violent. When the priest anointed my forehead with oil I felt like a wild horse being held down for branding. His thumb seared my skin and when I opened my eyes and saw everyone watching me and smiling I was struck by how similar they all looked. I wanted to shake them and yell. I don’t belong with you people. This isn’t me. I tried to escape this but the Buddhists didn’t want me and my Jewish books were overdue and my fucking hijab kept falling off. I don’t belong here with you but my teacher says I had no choice. From the moment I was born, I had no choice.

For a brief second I felt faint. From the pew, I concentrated on the window in the lobby. The sky was blue and clouds hung peacefully above the tree line. I shut my eyes and imagined I was reaching into the sky and through the clouds. Slowly I felt my breath even and my chest relax. We lined up for communion and I flattened my white dress calmly. I held my hands in prayer like I had been taught in second grade. I sang the communion hymn from memory.

As I approached the priest, I made a conscious decision. Perhaps the decision was not mine and was predetermined long before I was born. Maybe a computer the size of the universe could have teased out the threads that led to that moment. Or maybe, like my mother insisted, the choice was all my own. I still do not know.

The instant the priest placed the host into my mouth I snapped it in half with my teeth. I hoped everyone heard the sound as loud as the death of a mosquito in a silent forest.

Gabe MontesantiGabe Montesanti is a current MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. She has a BA in mathematics and studio art from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She wrote her senior thesis in Rome, a creative nonfiction piece about working for artists along the Tiber River, and the project was awarded honors from the college. After graduation, she was awarded a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work is featured in Word Riot, Crab Creek Review, Devil’s Lake, and forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom.