Word from the Editor

“Justice work is life work,” Ashaki Jackson says in her interview with Lunch Ticket. “Think of it as a chorus: there will always be more than one voice looking for the perfect, rich harmony.” The staff and contributors at Lunch Ticket are part of this chorus. Issue 12: Winter/Spring 2018 is an offering from our search for this harmony. Justice work is a struggle: bringing many voices together in harmony—vocal tuning—is hard work, but beautiful work. It is necessary work.

The news is relentless. In the hours I began writing to you, I learned that Bear Ears National Monument will be diminished by 85%, and the United States Supreme Court will allow the full travel ban to be enforced. But I process myriad and constant devastations like these without succumbing to despair because I find strength in fellowship. For a few years I’ve been privileged to study and practice writing in an MFA program dedicated to educating literary artists to advance social, economic, and environmental justice. Justice work is inextricable from our journal and our parent institution. In my time at Lunch Ticket—two years and four issues—I’ve been surrounded and supported by the student volunteers who make this journal run, who make our community a safe, powerful, and sacred space. From this space I’ve written to you to describe our collective mourning—how each successive issue finds us confronting new instances of “white supremacy and terrorism in our streets, in our churches, in our institutions of higher learning.” I must now add Charlottesville, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs to our litany, our dirge.

In this difficult year we built two big, diverse, resonant issues we are proud of, and watched our colleagues build Lunch Ticket Special, a celebration of twenty years of the Antioch University Los Angeles creative writing MFA. I’ve written to you about expanding our mission, elevating our goals of diversity to goals of equity in publishing. We take our mission seriously—it threads through all our conversions, from evaluating submissions to deciding which initiatives to pursue. During the production cycle for Issue 12 we launched two new Amuse-Bouche occasional series: À La Carte and Litdish. The first features short pieces from all genres that engage with our mission to publish work by writers from underrepresented or historically misrepresented communities, and/or writing that highlights issues of social, economic, and environmental justice; the second is a series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Some wheels turn slower than we would like, but I anticipate the team of Issue 13 will be able to share with you soon the news of our current seedling, a young voices initiative.

Our community is vibrant. We’ve gained twelve new volunteer staff for the crafting of this issue, and dozens of new voices join the ranks of our published authors. We welcome poet Victoria Chang to the AULA MFA community. When she became part of our faculty, she had already conducted the Lunch Special interview with us. In it, she says that writing the eponymous character in her latest book, Barbie Chang, “became a way for me to write more than about my own experiences as a person of color living in a community that is not always welcoming to people of color, even today in California.” Alongside Jackson and Chang in our interview section, we visit with poet and AULA MFA founding chair Eloise Klein Healy; author Cecil Castellucci discusses her young adult and children’s novels and graphic novels; author Lisa Dickey shares insights into ghostwriting and her own writing; and mystery writer Joe Ide talks story about his multiple award-winning first novel, IQ.

In Issue 11 our essay section explored the myth of a post-racial America. Here in Issue 12 our essays look at workplace silence, workplace violence, and the politics of work in 2017. In our featured essay “The Architect,” Chad Baker brings us the story of his coauthor, Antonio Gutierrez, an immigrant who crossed the border as a small child in the company of family, and who lived the American dream by becoming an architect. When their undocumented status derailed this dream, ending their work as an architect, they became an immigrant rights activist. In her essay, “Workplace Silence,” Nicole Cyrus reveals the sexual harassment and racially motivated violence she has endured at work. And Teresa H. Janssen writes of our national epidemic of school shootings in “Nostalgia”: “Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.”

Explore with us. Our themes are often complex and intersectional. In the poetry section, Roshanda Johnson, inspired by Yehuda Amichai, writes:
I wasn’t one of the stolen.
I wasn’t one of the many million
who had once only known
the sweetness of the sea.
I wasn’t confused cargo
stacked like the bricks of Babel
in the belly of a wooden beast.
I wasn’t shackled to my skin,
forgotten in my filth,
a prisoner of fear and promises. (“I Wasn’t One”)
In creative nonfiction, Sean Enfield also writes of the legacy of human bondage in “Paper Shackles”: “We had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room so that we could tape two, thin, boat-like shapes in the middle of the classroom. The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected.” I wish I had space here to tell you something about each and every piece, and about more pieces from different genres that reflect similar themes: those that harmonize, those that embrace both suffering and joy.

This issue has strong dystopian themes. From water rights, to food scarcity, to a Chicago under Martial law, and a wave that swallowed the world, our fiction writers do not shy away from the political. In our flash prose and young adult sections, too, you’ll find stories of hunger, survival, and a world seemingly absent of adults. Our work is consistent in its urgency and global in scope: words and images from and about Iran, Indonesia, Nigeria, New Zealand, Vietnam, and beyond; and from the borderlands, from the experience of being Indian in Hong Kong, or Hmong in Laos. Elham Hajesmaeili’s featured art portfolio Pendulum of Identity explores being Iranian in the US. The work is an “observation of an identity shifting between two geographical contexts while sexuality remains the silent power holder.”

We’re thrilled to share our contest winners and finalists. Diana Woods Memorial Award winner Kristine Jepsen “makes powerful use of juxtaposition—between time periods and narrative lines—to create subtle but viscerally disturbing parallels between the fates of cows and of women” in her essay, “Gut Instinct.” Gabo Prize-winning translator Patricia Hartland, “a vigilant translator [who] must look in two different linguistic directions while plotting her course in a third,” translates selected poems from Monchoachi’s Black and Blue Partition: ‘Mistry 2. The language of Monchoachi’s Martinican Creole joins our chorus beside Arabic, Chinese, Danish, French, Hebrew, Italian, and Spanish in our translation and Gabo Prize sections.

Issue 12 is big and beautiful; it is our justice work. As for me, my remaining time with Lunch Ticket can be counted in minutes. I’ve earned my MFA and I must move on. I abhor the impending vacuum. I got to do what I love, for a time. I’ve had the honor of publishing friends and new friends made here, first-timers and professionals. I took the responsibility for this journal from good hands and leave it in good hands. What will I do now, without this education to pursue, this journal to glean inspiration from? Until I come up with a better plan, I’ll rely on the mantra I repeat each week to the team: Onward. There is nowhere else to go. And I’ll think of Ashaki Jackson’s chorus of justice work: “Once you hear it, you shouldn’t want to stop singing.”

Thank you for all of your voices,
Katelyn Keating

 

Katelyn Keating studied creative nonfiction and fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles, earning an MFA in 2017. She served as editor in chief of Lunch Ticket for issues 11 and 12. She formerly edited Lunch Ticket‘s Diana Woods Memorial Award and the creative nonfiction genre, and wrote essays as a staff blogger. She was a 2017 fellow of the Los Angeles Review of Books / USC Publishing Workshop. Raised in New England, she’s been living most recently in St. Augustine, Florida with her multi-species family, and is currently wintering in Los Angeles. You can read her work in Lunch Ticket, follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating, and see her read on an AWP 2018 panel in Tampa. Her work is forthcoming in Crab Orchard ReviewFlyway, and the anthology, In Season: Stories of Discovery, Loss, Home, and Places in Between [2018].

The Architect

1996

El edificio más alto en el mundo.

In a primary school in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, an eight-year-old child stares at a picture in a textbook. Their third-grade geography class is studying a big city in the United States called Chicago. They have skyscrapers there. The biggest is the Sears Tower, which, the book tells the class, is el edificio más alto en el mundo. The tallest building in the world.

The child runs their small fingertips over the page. What they see thrills them, fascinates them. The tower is 108 stories tall. The child can’t quite comprehend this. How do you build something so big?

The child thinks about their family’s house. Their father did his best to build a home with what materials he could afford. The father, a bricklayer by trade, goes back and forth across the American border many times each year, looking for work that will allow him to save some money to bring home. The “house” is one room, about fifteen by fifteen feet, with two beds on a dirt floor and no roof. The walls are cinderblock, and over them the father laid laminas, a cheap plastic material that is supposed to keep water out. It does not. The bed that the child and their sister share gets wet when it rains.

The child does not hate this home. It has its own kind of beauty. There is ample space to play outside, and there are always extended family members around to dote on the children. But the child has, with age, become burdened with the knowledge that not everyone lives in houses like this.

The child learns that Chicago is famous for its architecture. They learn that architecture is what you call designing buildings, and the designers are called architects. This new fact opens something inside of them, like the bright-purple petals of the ipomoeas that bloom in Central Mexico, stretching out to receive the cool rains that come in May. Suddenly, a dream unfurls: someday, they will be an architect. They will build something as big as the Sears Tower.

Three years later, the child’s mother will tell the children that their father found good work in the United States, and they are all going to live with him there. She will explain to them that things will be different in America. There will be more money. The child and their sister will have more opportunities. The water will not get inside when it rains. When their mother tells them what city they are going to, the child will be so excited they could scream. Now, they will be able to see it, actually see it. The tallest building in the world.

*     *     *

2012

For most of us, the career dreams that we harbor before all of our adult teeth come in eventually get tossed into the same psychic rubbish pile as our fear of the dark and our attachment to a particular stuffed animal. Most kids who dreamed of becoming an astronaut never orbit the Earth. Most who wrote an elementary school essay about why they want to be a veterinarian never get around to saving all of those horses’ lives. But in 2012, Antonio squirms their way out of a crowded train car, weaves through the kinetic bustle of the Chicago Loop’s morning sidewalks, and takes an elevator up to the offices of the “Park and Associates” architecture firm. [1] They are twenty-three years old, recently graduated from college, and enjoying the dewdrop-speckled dawn of a bright career. They are on their way to becoming an architect.

They learn that architecture is what you call designing buildings, and the designers are called architects. This new fact opens something inside of them, like the bright-purple petals of the ipomoeas that bloom in Central Mexico, stretching out to receive the cool rains that come in May.

The five-year architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology had been grueling. Antonio came to IIT with only a hazy notion of the day-to-day work of an architect. Many of the other students in the program had already done architectural drafting. Antonio started from square one. To add even more pressure, Antonio’s full-ride scholarship required that they not dip below a 3.5 GPA, an especially tall order when all of your coursework is in your second language.

Antonio never lost sight of their dream: to one day build skyscrapers. They took every studio design course available that might help them gain the skills to do that. In those courses, they caught the appraising eye of Professor “Caroline Park,” a rising star in the Chicago architecture scene who’d recently made a splash with her bold design of a downtown hotel. Park invited Antonio to intern with her firm over the summer. Antonio felt particularly lucky to snag this gig. Not only did Antonio like Caroline, but she designed high-rises. Suddenly, they were one step closer to their goal.

Architecture is like a decathlon: you have to be good at many different things. Technical specifications require advanced math and science skills, while reigning in a client’s big ideas requires a warm human touch. You have to speak many different languages, breaking down complex instructions to a construction crew in the morning and then deciphering intricate budget spreadsheets in the afternoon. Finally, architecture is an art: it requires a gift for vision, an innate spark of genius that most aren’t born with. That range of very different skills rarely present themselves bundled together in one person. But Park recognized this elusive combination when she saw it. After the internship, she offered Antonio a part-time job during their last year in school. After they graduated, she offered them a full-time job.

On a blustery December morning six months into their job at Park and Associates, Antonio takes off their coat and sits down at their desk in the workspace they share with a handful of architects. They look the part of the modern cosmopolitan design professional, with their stylish brown glasses and a sharp jacket from Topman. Antonio is settling in to the job and loving it. At a small firm like Park, they get better assignments with more design freedom than they would have at a larger firm. Caroline often gives Antonio interior design work, which lets their creative spirit soar. At the same time, they are also relishing the other freedoms of early adulthood: their salary allowed them to move into their own apartment for the first time in their life, a cozy place in Lakeview. Piece by piece, Antonio’s American dream clicks into place.

“Antonio, can we talk in my office for a second?” Park asks, swinging by Antonio’s work station. They follow her down the hall to her office, walking past design boards that Antonio created for various building interiors, which now hang on the office walls. As they take a seat in Park’s office, Antonio is unconcerned. It’s common enough for Caroline to pull them aside to check in with them about projects.

Park is a great boss. She goes out of her way to mentor Antonio, taking them along to client meetings and construction sites just to give them the experience. Their relationship is friendly. They’ve been out for drinks a couple of times. Antonio deeply admires Park, a woman of color thriving in an industry that has long been a white male’s field.

“Quick thing—we switched payroll companies,” she says, bringing up a window on her computer. “And apparently there was an issue when they were rolling the info over. They said your Social Security number didn’t match your name, I guess?”

Antonio breathes slow, steady. They concentrate on keeping their face natural. Pursed lips. A head cocked slightly in confusion. They try to conceal all signs of the panic that wipes their mind clean of coherent thought in one hot flash. “Oh? That’s strange,” they say.

“Here, can you take a look?” She pivots her screen toward them.

Antonio’s heart hammers. They squint their eyes and study the screen. They pretend to carefully go over the digits. Nine digits that Antonio conjured at random, as one might choose lottery numbers.

Park and Antonio’s co-workers know them as an ebullient extrovert with a bright staccato laugh and as a sharp-eyed designer. They don’t know that Antonio is an undocumented immigrant. It is a secret they keep even outside of work, even among good friends. Antonio was taught not to talk about immigration status the way other children are taught not to talk to strangers. From the day their mother brought them to this country, she warned them to never discuss how they got to America, not with anyone. If someone asks, say that you’re a citizen. If someone accuses you of not having papers, deny it.

They squint their eyes and study the screen. They pretend to carefully go over the digits. Nine digits that Antonio conjured at random, as one might choose lottery numbers.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the right number,” Antonio says in Park’s office. “And they said it didn’t match?” Their puzzled tone says this incident is unexpected and perhaps a little annoying, but ultimately not of any real concern to me, because I am confident this minor mix-up will be sorted out.

“Yeah, that’s what they said.” Her attitude is casual. If Park has begun to suspect that Antonio does not have a valid Social Security number, she isn’t showing it.

“Well, you know, it’s maybe possible I misremembered. Let me check with my Mom. She has my original Social card, back at the house.” Their only thought now is of buying time. Time to breathe, time to think. If they can just get out of this tight, hot room, maybe they can come up with a plan.

As Antonio walks back to their desk, the liquid terror in their head begins to cool into solid, nameable fears. The anxiety comes in layers.

At the molten core of their anxiety sits the same ultimate fear that first comes to any undocumented person’s mind when a situation brings their immigration status to light. Antonio runs through the standard survival questions. How well do I know this person? Would they turn me in? They try to remind themselves that Caroline is a kind person, and she cares about them. But the images bubble up anyway. Images of Park on the phone in her office right now, making a call. Images of officials stepping off the elevator in Kevlar vests with “ICE” stitched across the front. Of handcuffs, white vans, detention cells.

The second layer of anxiety is made of dollars and cents. Antonio knows that they are about to lose the only steady paycheck they’ve ever had. How much longer can they keep paying rent on their apartment? Can they break the lease? How much longer can they keep buying food?

The final layer of anxiety is more existential, a toxic atmosphere that makes it painful to breathe. It is the anxiety of realizing that perhaps nothing Antonio has done in their life matters. Salutatorian of their high school class. Graduating college with honors. Nailing every assignment Caroline has given them. Because Antonio can’t give the company a valid Social Security number, none of that matters at all.

For the next two weeks, Antonio goes to work each morning as if everything is normal. But they carry fear inside them every moment, like a parasite burrowed in their gut. When Antonio doesn’t follow up with Park like they promised, she sheepishly approaches them again. This time, Antonio tries a desperate gambit:

“Do you want me to talk to the payroll company directly?”

Antonio calls them up and attempts to bluff their way out of the mess. But it becomes clear that the payroll company is using “E-Verify,” a name known and feared by many undocumented immigrants in the workforce. The E-verify program is run by the Department of Homeland Security, and once its database flags a mismatch, there is no way to wriggle off the hook.

After that, Antonio is out of moves. They go back to Park’s office, sit down, and do one of the hardest things they have ever done in their life: they tell their boss they are undocumented.

Along with the deep fear of disclosing their status, there is something else in that office with Antonio, something even heavier and more paralyzing: shame. They are ashamed that they lied to Caroline for this long.

Park, for her part, is characteristically nice about it all. She empathizes. She, too, is the daughter of immigrants. But she doesn’t seem to fully understand. She says that once Antonio figures out the situation, the office will get them right back to work. She seems to be under the impression that it will be easy to get immigration status.

Antonio tries. They pay a hefty fee to consult with a lawyer about their eligibility for DACA. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, announced earlier that year, was designed for people like Antonio. It came out of a failed attempt to pass the DREAM Act through Congress, legislation which would have granted status to young people who were brought to this country by their parents when they were young and who received their education in the US. This generation of kids in legal limbo were dubbed the “Dreamers.”

But for Antonio, the dream had been punctured one night the year before. After work, they’d gone out for drinks in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood with friends from the firm. On the way home, Antonio was stopped by the police and failed a field sobriety test. In Illinois, a first-time offense for driving under the influence is typically a misdemeanor, but the charge is aggravated to a felony if the driver doesn’t have a valid license. Antonio couldn’t get a driver’s license—at the time, Illinois residents needed a Social Security number for that, too.

In court on the felony charge, Antonio presented a letter that begged the judge to consider Antonio’s hard work and bright future when imposing a sentence. The letter was written by Caroline Park. Antonio received community service and probation, which they completed successfully, but immigration authorities still consider the incident a conviction, and it prevents Antonio from ever receiving DACA.

Antonio and their lawyer also discuss the possibility of Park and Associates sponsoring them for a business visa. But Antonio would be barred from receiving such a visa because they entered the country illegally—it does not matter that they were brought over at age eleven by their mother. Even if Antonio was eligible for such a visa, Park and Associates would have to pay more in fees and attorney costs than the small firm could possibly afford.

In late December, Antonio leaves the office for the holiday break along with all the other employees at Park. After New Year’s Day, everyone returns. Antonio doesn’t.

*     *     *

2013

As a new year dawns, Antonio scrambles to sublease their place, since the landlord wouldn’t let them break the lease. They move back in with their parents, hauling in boxes they triumphantly carried out less than a year before. Antonio’s parents had left the bedroom exactly the same, though it would now contain things Antonio has brought back from their time in the professional class: a wardrobe of the latest fall fashions, a blue leather briefcase from Zara. Souvenirs from a life put on hold.

Antonio’s parents had left the bedroom exactly the same, though it would now contain things Antonio has brought back from their time in the professional class: a wardrobe of the latest fall fashions, a blue leather briefcase from Zara. Souvenirs from a life put on hold.

Dark winter days stretch out before Antonio with nothing to fill them. Sometimes, they find themselves going downtown for no reason. Sometimes, they hang around the IIT architecture lab, updating their portfolio. They plot ways to get back into the industry. Maybe they could do freelance design work. Maybe they could start their own company. But down every alley Antonio pursues, they find the brick wall of the United States immigration system blocking their path. They drink a lot. They are quickly sliding into a depressive muck they know they might never escape.

In college, Antonio learned from an at-the-time boyfriend about a group of young, undocumented organizers called the Immigrant Youth Justice League. Antonio attended one of the group’s events, but didn’t disclose their status to anyone there and didn’t follow up with the group afterward. Antonio had been too frightened and ashamed to talk about their status with anyone, even others in the same situation. Instead, they kept their focus on school. After graduation, they were focused on their job. They didn’t think much about IYJL again, too busy cashing in on that promised better life that brought their family here. Between work and jogging and going out with friends and all of the other things young professionals do, Antonio didn’t have time for politics.

Now, they have nothing but time. They need something to do with all of that time. And something to do with the pain.

A couple of months after leaving Park, Antonio emails one of the IYJL organizers and asks how they can get involved. As it turns out, IYJL has an event coming up. It’s called “Coming Out of the Shadows.” There, Antonio meets a lot of other undocumented young people. Listening to their stories, Antonio is swept up in the uncanny excitement that comes with discovering that your isolated experience is widely shared. Here are others facing the same struggles. Others dealt the same raw deal. And these young people aren’t wallowing. They are fighting back. Antonio can feel rage and humiliation change shape and become something else that jolts their tired heart awake. They feel empowered.

Suddenly, Antonio has a mission. They attend the weekly IYJL meetings, where the group plans their next moves. IYJL is currently planning a campaign against one of their member’s deportations. They need someone to design the flyer.

“Does anyone have any graphic design experience?”

“Yes,” Antonio says. “I do.”

Antonio quickly becomes a member of the team and is thrown a wide variety of tasks, from social media management to liaising with the press. Being an organizer, as it turns out, is like a decathlon: you have to be good at many different things.

At the press conference IYJL holds to protest the young man’s deportation, they ask Antonio to speak. Antonio likes public speaking, and they’re good at it. But speaking to a throng of strangers and TV cameras about rights for undocumented immigrants? It’s a lot to ask of someone who, just a few months ago, was too frightened and ashamed of their status to voice it to a close mentor. Antonio has to decide if they are ready to face that fear—a decision that will alter the course of their life.

*     *     *

2017

In Chicago’s City Hall, outside the Mayor’s office, a mural depicts the city’s skyline in bright, pastel tones. In the painting, one building soars so high that the top spire is just out of the frame. The building used to be called the Sears Tower, but it’s not anymore. It used to be the tallest building in the world, but it’s not anymore.

The building used to be called the Sears Tower, but it’s not anymore. It used to be the tallest building in the world, but it’s not anymore.

Today, people swarm the area in front of this mural. They are organizers, activists, and protesters. They are black, Latinx, white, Arab, and Asian. They gather in a loosely-organized clump behind a podium while TV crews set up cameras and lights aimed at the press conference that is about to begin.

Antonio works the crowd. They seem to know everyone. They hug one of their comrades from Organized Communities Against Deportation, the group that the Immigrant Youth Justice League has since morphed into. They give a big wave to their friends in the Autonomous Tenants Union, a housing justice group Antonio co-founded and co-leads. Then they glide further into the crowd to catch up with co-workers from their day job, where they are a program administrator at an activist legal group. When another organizer takes the mic to call for attention, Antonio settles into a spot behind the podium.

They quietly review their notes as the first speaker addresses the media. At today’s event, groups from across the city and across racial lines will signal their resistance to President Trump’s attacks on sanctuary cities and demand that Chicago maintain—in fact, increase—its protections for undocumented immigrants. Antonio is speaking on behalf of OCAD, as they often do. They adjust the neckline of the smart blue sweater they wear over a collared shirt. They give their well-coiffed hair a final pat.

The speaker calls Antonio to the podium, to the cheers of the crowd. They stride forward with purpose. They grip the edge of the metal lectern and sweep steady eyes over the press and spectators. The click-click of cameras can be heard as white flash reflects off their glasses. When Antonio speaks, they let some of the anger and resolve and power that rattle inside of them show as a slight quiver in their voice.

“My name is Antonio Gutierrez. I am undocumented, and I am unafraid.”

 

[1] The name of the firm and its principal architect have been changed.

 

Chad Baker is a legal aid attorney in Chicago, IL. He has provided free legal services to low-income communities in the areas of immigration, housing, family, and healthcare law. He graduated Harvard Law School in 2015, where he served as executive director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. He is the author of several plays that have been performed at many theatre festivals around the country. He is currently a student in the master’s writing and publishing program at DePaul University.

Antonio Gutierrez is a queer Latinx immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico. Antonio has lived in Chicago for seventeen years after immigrating to the United States to reunite with family members. Antonio is a graduate from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a bachelor of architecture (B.Arch.). After graduation in 2012, Antonio joined the immigrant rights movement as an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), an undocumented-led organization formed in 2009. Since 2012, Antonio has collectively organized rallies such as the national coming out of the shadows rally, fundraising events, mass marches, national retreats, and civil disobediences. Antonio is the director of operations for the Community Activism Law Alliance in Chicago. Antonio currently volunteers as a tenant organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) and as a member of the steering committee of Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD).

Workplace Silence

“You don’t say no to me,” my colleague said in a thick drawl. “This isn’t over.”

The phone line went dead after the threat—his revenge to my rejection of his business proposal. I didn’t own or want a weapon, but that day I feared for my safety at work.

The muscles in my jaw tensed when I heard his footsteps in the hallway moments later. He used a roaring voice to announce his arrival outside my door. I remained seated at my desk and waited—for what, I wasn’t sure. A brawl in my sunny office? He barged in and slammed the door behind him.

“Who do you think you are?” he said. He was trembling with anger. “I need this deal to go through. I have a family.”

Unsure what to say, I held his gaze, silently pleading with him to understand my predicament. A chunk of his income was at stake, but his proposal was a serious money-loser for the company.

I leapt to my feet, meeting him eye to eye. “Why don’t you take a seat and let’s revise your proposal?” I said.

He rushed over and pushed me off balance. “I’m not changing anything, you black bitch!”

I flinched. The insult cut. It felt as if a thousand razorblades punctured my skin. But I didn’t have time to reel in shock or disappointment. I eyed my stapler, in case he charged at me again.

The tension between us had been building for weeks. Ever since I’d started my new job a few months before, he’d struggled to contain his resentment toward me. I had ignored his grumbling, snickering, and eye rolling—hoping the friction would pass—but this time he scared me. He was acting like Rambo.

“Get out.” I spoke through my teeth.

He looked stunned, as if I had whacked him on the head with a full sales binder. “You’d better watch yourself.” He jabbed his finger in the air, stressing his words. “I know where you park your car.”

I stood stone-faced, but I was terrified. I was an outsider in a new city, thirteen hundred miles away from family and friends. Since the ruckus on the floor didn’t attract curious or concerned onlookers, I knew I was on my own.

*     *     *

For the rest of the day, I kept imagining my colleague vandalizing my Honda. Different scenarios played through my mind. When I rose to leave, I panicked. Sundown came early in the fall, and the parking garage was a lengthy walk. I put my father on the speaker of my cellphone, unlocked my office door, and peeked out. Nothing. I sprinted in my heels toward the elevators. As if on cue, the doors whooshed open, and I hopped in, out of breath.

I was an outsider in a new city, thirteen hundred miles away from family and friends. Since the ruckus on the floor didn’t attract curious or concerned onlookers, I knew I was on my own.

My father’s voice boomed. “Are you okay? Who is this man?” He wasn’t happy about my recent move, believing single women shouldn’t live far away from their home base.

Please stop talking, I thought, hoping he would get the message and skip the lecture.

The elevator opened and I raced through the lobby, a corridor, the dimly lit garage. The blood drained from my face and thundered in my ears. I listened for footsteps and glanced behind me, to my right, to my left. No one. I approached my gold Honda. It was unharmed. I jumped in, locked the doors, and sped away in tears.

*     *     *

The next morning, I bumped into my colleague in an office breakroom. It was too soon. I was alone, stirring cream and sugar into my tea, when he walked in. My emotions were raw. Still, I refused to fall apart in his presence. Neither one of us spoke.

He stayed quiet but was visibly displeased. He leaned against a counter and glowered at me, showing zero remorse for nudging me or calling me out my name.

I’d do it again, his eyes said. This isn’t over.

I tried to turn away, but his withering glare drew me in. Why was he so bitter? Was it because I was a woman? A sister?

Regardless, I was the enemy, and we were at war. A war I didn’t know how to end.

*     *     *

“Ease up on the guy,” my manager said over the phone. It sounded like a warning.

I’d do it again, his eyes said. This isn’t over.

This manager wasn’t my biggest champion—he had wanted a different second-in-command—so I was surprised when he backed my decision to reject the proposal.

I clutched my receiver in annoyance. Why was I on the defensive?

“Did you try to work with him?” he asked.

“Yes.” I hesitated. A voice in my head told me to speak up and expose the incident. My manager deserved to hear the truth. I opened my mouth and nothing came out, not a squeak. The words dried up on my tongue.

“The guys are stressed,” he said. “Please be more supportive.”

*     *     *

In 2017, Telegraph Women created a list of twenty-five words used to describe working women in the UK. The references—all with negative connotations—also apply in the US. Seven of the adjectives jumped out at me: abrasive, bossy, shrill, ambitious, emotional, illogical, and bitchy (not to be confused with bitch). And, as a black woman, I must add the word “angry” because the world is full of us, right? The seven adjectives conveniently roll up under this larger term—angry—making it easy to paint black women as the bogeyman on every occasion.

A myth exists that the corporate world is full of human robots devoid of emotion. This isn’t true. Money, ego, and status are on the line. I’ve seen a male colleague hurl a binder against a wall and another punch a metal bookcase when sales opportunities didn’t go their way.

Yet women live with the negative labels.

The day of the run-in, I felt more frustrated than angry. I was doing my job: protecting the company’s financial assets. A duty I performed well. Even so, I stayed silent about the altercation because I feared physical, financial, and professional retaliation. But I missed the courageous me. I sacrificed one part of me for another.

If there was any good news, it’s that the company let my colleague go for unrelated reasons. I was relieved to have outlasted this bully. To celebrate his departure, I bought myself a wine-red lipstick. I ate a pepperoni pizza and a pint of French vanilla ice cream. I danced furiously to Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” in my apartment’s living room. The music pulsed. I spun around and around, making myself nauseous. Sweat soaked through my blouse. My heart raced.

I waited for a euphoric moment to hit me. It never came. The winning side of me was not at peace.

 

Nicole Cyrus is a career coach, a job far removed from her former life as a finance manager. Her transition has inspired her to help people understand their personal stories.

Photo by Roy Cox Photography

Nostalgia

I am at my classroom door. I reach for my key, unlock the door, prop it open, and turn the key again. Open, but locked. I stand at my door, look up inside the frame, and pause, for the most important step.

I reach for the anti-latch device and flip it sideways. It keeps the door slightly ajar when closed, so neither my students nor I get locked out during the day. If a threat is identified, I can quickly flip the bar without stepping into the hall, close my pre-locked door, and go into emergency mode.

Done. We are safe. Ready for another day.

This morning, we will review French verb conjugations.

It is 7:45 on a Wednesday morning.

When did securing my high school classroom against a gun-wielding intruder become daily routine? Did we begin building our layers of defense after the fifth school shooting? After Columbine? Or Pilchuck High, seventeen miles east of us? I no longer remember. According to the superintendent of Public Instruction’s Weapons in Schools Report during the 2015-16 school year in Washington state, there were ninety-two reported incidents involving guns or firearms on school premises, transportation systems, or school facilities.

I can remember a time when I would not have given a thought to a student I didn’t know walking up the hall in a bulky coat. Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.

When I spot a backpack abandoned in the hall on a Friday after school, I look around. I hesitate, wagering the probability of ill-intent, before I pick it up and deliver it to Lost and Found. (The US military calls this the OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act.) The human mind is adept at forming new neural pathways for survival. We quickly forget the way things used to be.

*     *     *

A dirt trail used to meander through the woods near my house, crossing a stand of seventy-year-old Douglas fir. When the trail was widened to accommodate bikes, the firs were cut to the roots and graveled over. I tried to save them. After the trail crew tied pink plastic ribbons around the trunks, tagging them for demolition, I pulled the markers off, hoping to spare a few. But it was beyond my control. Few remember the trees that once stood—the former peace of the place.

*     *     *

There is profit to be made—in guns, in violence, and in fear. No grenades dropping on our schools, workplaces, and churches, but news releases of shootings and lists of casualties that hit like bombshells. The US guns and ammunition industry generated an estimated revenue of sixteen billion dollars in 2015 alone. The NRA and affiliated organizations’ 2016 revenue was $433.9 million.

Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.

My grandfather, who grew up hunting in the arctic region of Tanana, Alaska, in the early decades of the twentieth century, had been a proud member of the NRA. In the 1970s, he realized that the organization no longer existed to promote hunter safety, but had embraced a larger agenda to protect rights for handgun and automatic weapon ownership. “Those guns are only used to hunt people,” Grampa told me, while pulling his camouflage-brown throw over his lap. That year, he dropped his membership.

When once I cried for innocent children gunned down, after Sandy Hook, I sank into a well of despair, numb with battle fatigue.

Our superintendent assured the community that the district would be taking steps to provide up-to-date active-shooter training for the staff, and install more security devices. State legislators are advocating for arming teachers.

There is profit to be made in making us feel safe—alert systems, surveillance cameras, alarms, remote locks, window shields, bulletproof backpacks, fingerprint recognition systems. Product reviews. Security firms. Consultants. Safe at school. School safe.

IHS Technology, a research company, estimated that security measures spent by schools and universities might rise to $907 million in 2016. These are considered necessary expenditures by often cash-strapped school systems, for which they must divert money from other educational needs.

*     *     *

The middle school was built over a wetland of sedge, slender rush, reed, ninebark, and Nootka rose. The area was surveyed and cordoned off, and then drained, bulldozed, leveled, and covered with concrete. They named the school for the dislocated birds. Twenty years later, children pass through the doors of a school built before they were born. They cannot imagine morning mist over the bulrush, the smell of wild rose in May, or the slow flap of herons that nested there. They shout, skip, and file in, ignorant of the way things used to be.

*     *     *

Over twenty years of teaching, I have stretched to keep up with change, hop-scotching from blackboard to whiteboard, from overhead to PowerPoint to Chrome collaboration. I have learned to recognize the syntax switch of a Wikipedia copy/paste, to spot camouflaged earbuds in long hair and hoodies, intercept test question texts, and have grown accustomed to background checks, bag searches, and police cars on campus. I have been trained to administer EpiPens, report suspicion of child abuse, refer for drug intervention, and assess for concussions. Change is to be expected. The future, faced head-on. Freedom, revered. The Second Amendment, sacred. Capitalism, rewarded. School security, a priority. I falter, unbalanced, no longer sure of the direction of the path we are on.

*     *     *

The American Academy of Pediatrics has defined gun violence as a public health epidemic. Firearm-related deaths are one of the top three causes of death of American youth. According to its 2017 website, for children five to fourteen years of age, firearm suicide rates were eight times higher, and death rates from unintentional firearm injuries were ten times higher in the United States than in other high-income countries. The AAP concludes, “The absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-injuries in children and adolescents.” In my rural county, more than thirty percent of families have guns in or around the home.

Twenty years later, children pass through the doors of a school built before they were born. They cannot imagine morning mist over the bulrush, the smell of wild rose in May, or the slow flap of herons that nested there.

The only thing to do with my despair is to act. I support organizations working for common-sense gun ownership: regulated licensing for transfer and sale, universal background checks and waiting periods, mental health restrictions, concealed-carry laws, Gun-Free Zones, assault weapons bans, gun safety education, and trainings regarding storage and locks. I mutter the nouns patience, persistence, and hope, like a mantra.

*     *     *

Fire drills, earthquake drills, and now lockdown drills. I know that statistically, we are safer at school than on a city street. I tell that to my students, but they read the news. Every year more than 3,600 kids die from gun violence in the United States. I don’t think they believe me.

On the December morning that we have our lockdown drill, I review the protocol with my students. We talk about closing doors, windows, and blinds, and finding a safe place in a room. Which wall would provide the best protection? Where could they sit unseen from someone outside, or in the hall? I try not to cause undue distress. I don’t want to frighten them. It is, after all, a drill.

But the teens do not smile. They crouch, hugging the farthest wall, one curled into a ball. You can talk softly, I assure them, while we wait for the “all clear” sign. You can read a book or do homework. But they remain grim. Anxiety clings to them, like winter frost.

The signal sounds and we move back to our seats. I walk to the door to perform my routine: open it, check the lock, and flip the anti-latch device. I stifle my rage and carry on. Fingers crossed, I push fears away and concentrate on the lesson for the day.

“Today we will review the verb esperer. To wait and to hope.”

 

Teresa H. Janssen is a public school educator who writes about travel and migration, teaching, and the power of place. She has an MA in linguistics from the University of Washington. Her nonfiction has received the Norman Mailer/NCTE Award, the Pacific Northwest Writers 2017 essay prize, and was a finalist for the 2017 Annie Dillard Award. Her writing has appeared or is pending in Anchor Magazine, Zyzzyva, Obra/Artifact, Gold Man Review, Dos Gatos Press, Tide Pools, Wanderlust, and Snapdragon. She is at work on a memoir-in-essays about a year in Ecuador. She can be found online at teresahjanssen.com.