Animal or Winter Solstice

Nonfiction / Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach


:: Animal or Winter Solstice  ::

There is something moving inside our walls. Something trying to get out or work its way in deeper.  
Something animal. Alive. I heard it first as scratching in the middle of the night, a sound soft
enough, it could have been my husband, moving his calloused big toe against the sheets or the dog,
twitching in her sleep, her long nails grazing the hardwood, or my son, clawing at the shelf beside his
bed with nails chewed down to skin. The next night, again peeing in the dark after again being
woken by my child screaming out for me, I thought it could have been the toilet tank, something
loose, unhinged perhaps, the way parts of me are slowly coming undone with each sleepless night.
My child’s screams lodged between the cartridges of my neck and ear so every turn of the head
creeks or pops, quiet, but noticeable if you are close. But the night before longest night of the year,
I swear I heard teeth. And an unsteady rhythm, like a woodpecker unable to keep time against the
bark. But this is no bird. This, inside our walls, is wingless and angry. The sound got closer and
louder, chewing, grating, incessant. I pressed my palm to the wall and nearly thought I felt it. Its
longing to be anywhere else. I banged with the heal of my hand, so loud and hard the shampoo fell
down to the shower tile. For a moment, it silenced. I kept my palm on the wall, willing it to stay that
way. Quiet. My child was still asleep. I knew I didn’t have long before he’d be awake again. The
gnawing and scraping returned. Parenthood, a repetition to a point beyond singularity. We tuck
and kiss and hug and calm and hold until everything feels like one long night, indiscernible from another.
Even touch, so repeated it becomes almost unfelt. Almost. I thought I saw a crack begin to form in
the drywall, but I have terrible eyesight. I trust my hands more, and the wall felt cold, smooth,
unruptured. Today, the sun will appear to stand still at its lowest point. I will listen for the moment
it sinks below the horizon. It will be like a slow, steady drip from the faucet. So soft and consistent,
we don’t hear it after a while. I’m sure we will get used to the animal too. It will find a way out or
burrow so deep we forget it was ever there. But I know its body’s longing. The teeth and nails will
persist, eating, moving, devouring the house while we sleep. I know it’s not its fault. Impulse.
Repetition. Animal. How can I blame it for its nature of need unbound by want. Tomorrow,
the night will be a glimmer shorter. We won’t feel this difference. My son will still wake screaming.
Mama! a sound more animal than love. Mama! a hunger. He will refuse anyone else’s hands or words.
He will demand more light and touch, no matter how bright or long each last. He will demand
proximity. The earth closer to the sun. His body close to mine. My palm on the wall close to the
trace of an animal. He will lose his breath and hide under the blankets on the floor at the foot of our
bed. Close your eyes, my love, find your way towards sleep and you won’t hear terror tearing up the

From the writer


:: Account ::

While I had writ­ten most­ly poet­ry, when I had to teach a cre­ative non­fic­tion course, I began to write along­side my stu­dents, read­ing vora­cious­ly and try­ing to learn the form of the lyric essay as I was teach­ing it. So, for the last few years, I have been work­ing on what I now real­ize are linked lyric essays that deal with par­ent­ing a neu­ro­di­verse child with ADHD and autism spec­trum dis­or­der. I often found myself writ­ing the same moment, event, or sto­ry, in both poet­ry and prose, try­ing to fig­ure out which genre and form was the bet­ter fit. With “Ani­mal or Win­ter Sol­stice,” I felt myself enter a hybrid space that found a union between poem and essay. The prose blocks allow me to linger and med­i­tate on some­thing longer, and with a more nar­ra­tive pro­gres­sion, than I might in a lin­eat­ed lyric, but the inden­ta­tions, poet­ry-like, felt nec­es­sary for the move­ment of the piece, the sta­t­ic pro­gres­sion of time.  This was the first lyric essay I wrote where with­in me, and on the page, the gen­res weren’t fight­ing against each oth­er, but rather com­ing togeth­er to cre­ate some­thing new. This was the first piece I did not feel the need to write as both prose and poet­ry, because it had found a way of being both. Tell Me it Gets Eas­i­er, the larg­er book project this piece comes from, is an unfil­tered account of tak­ing care of the many bod­ies depend­ing on mine, while con­tin­u­ing to take care of my own through the act of writ­ing. In oth­er essays from this project, the strug­gles with par­ent­ing over­lap with pro­cess­ing the war in my birth­place, Ukraine, as my now sev­en-year-old express­es his own fas­ci­na­tion with death, vio­lence, and the grotesque. In the essays, I am reach­ing towards under­stand­ing him as much as I am try­ing to under­stand myself, and what it means to be his mother.


Julia Kolchin­sky Das­bach ( emi­grat­ed from Dnipro, Ukraine as a Jew­ish refugee in 1993, when she was six years old. She is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: 40 Weeks (YesYes Books, 2023), Don’t Touch the Bones, and The Many Names for Moth­er, win­ner of the Wick Poet­ry Prize (Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019) and final­ist for the Jew­ish Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Poet­ry, Ploughshares, and Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, among oth­ers. Her recent awards include the Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Review Poet­ry Prize and a Sus­tain­able Arts Foun­da­tion Grant. She is the author of the mod­el poem for “Dear Ukraine”: A Glob­al Com­mu­ni­ty Poem She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a new poet­ry col­lec­tion as well as a book of linked lyric essays which grap­ples with rais­ing a neu­ro­di­verse child with a dis­abled part­ner under the shad­ow of the war against Ukraine, Juli­a’s birth­place. She is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Deni­son Uni­ver­si­ty and lives with her fam­i­ly in Colum­bus, Ohio

All That I Can Say Now

Nonfiction / Jasmina Kuenzli


:: All That I Can Say Now ::

            It was beautiful.

            That’s what I hold onto. Even after every­thing that hap­pened, the flash­es of glow­ing joy and sud­den, rag­ing warmth, the blasts of cold that shiv­ered me apart and turned my breath to frost, the way he built my Earth only to break open the ground beneath me …

            It was beautiful. 


            When was the first time your heart was real­ly bro­ken? What did it feel like?

            It was like this—

            Koi no yokan—a Japan­ese con­cept known as ‘love at sec­ond sight.’ Not love at first sight—you know bet­ter than that. But he is a match, and you are a pyro­ma­ni­ac. And you know it’s only a mat­ter of time.

            Koi no yokan—that boy over there—with the back­wards hat and the Har­ry Pot­ter tat­too, that one who has the best jokes, who always seems like the cen­ter of atten­tion, who feels the strongest out of everyone—you’re going to fall in love with him. And it’s going to break you in half. 

            What do you call koi no yokan if you see the crash, and you don’t do any­thing to stop the train bar­rel­ing down upon you? Even after all the oppor­tu­ni­ties to throw your­self out of the way, you remain there, not even both­er­ing to brace for impact…

            What do you call it, then?




            On the first day, he stopped and start­ed three sen­tences before he just smiled, show­ing that gap between his two front teeth, “Words.” He shrugged.  Caught me.  

            And I thought, Don’t.

            It was that gap between his teeth. Keep­ing him from being too attrac­tive, too unat­tain­able. It made him look like some­one you could trust.


            I don’t want to lie to you, let you oper­ate under any assump­tions. I wasn’t the damsel, inno­cent­ly lured in by some­one old­er and dark­er and dangerous.

He was 18 when we met, and I was 21.

            I was the one who knew better.

I was the one who should have walked away.



            Spoil­er alert: this is not a love story.

            Spoil­er alert: I’m an unre­li­able narrator.

Spoil­er alert: we nev­er even kissed.


            If we didn’t feel like talk­ing, we would sit next to each oth­er and read or write while we drank cof­fee. Lean, ever so slight­ly, against each oth­er. Easy. 

            I nev­er felt ner­vous, nev­er count­ed the spaces between his leg and mine, nev­er mea­sured out the dis­tance between us. I nev­er cal­cu­lat­ed when to break and run.

            With all the oth­er guys, I was crawl­ing out of my skin, inti­mate­ly aware of every hand brush, every acci­den­tal moment of eye contact.

            But I nev­er cared about any of that when I was with him.

            He was safe.


            What else?

            We tried to make up secret hand­shakes, but we nev­er could, because for all of my con­sid­er­able men­tal capac­i­ty, I couldn’t get over the way my hand would slide through his.

            He liked to tug on my hair ties, brush­ing his fin­gers against my wrist, when­ev­er he was try­ing to tell me some­thing important.

            We stayed behind dur­ing a thun­der­storm to watch The Princess Bride togeth­er.


            We nev­er said it out loud, because say­ing it was a curse. Like the name of a demon or a bogey­man, say­ing the words would spring some­thing enor­mous and ter­ri­fy­ing into being, and it would destroy us.

            What we were build­ing was too insub­stan­tial, too frag­ile to with­stand the weight of language.

            We pre­tend­ed not to hear the whispers.

            And I thought, Please.


            But then there was this.

A leaf blew into the pool deck from out­side, and it was shaped like a heart. I picked it up and hand­ed it to him.

For you.”

            He rolled his eyes, but he was blush­ing when he took it.

            When I came back, the leaf was on the ground, shredded.

            “This is what you did to my heart!” I ges­tured to the wreckage.

            “No,” he cor­rect­ed. “This is what you did to my heart.”


            And all I’ve got is spec­u­la­tion, and my own insignif­i­cant feel­ings. Try­ing to con­vince a biased jury with cir­cum­stan­tial evidence.

            Con­struct­ing cir­cles of log­ic that nev­er lead to any­thing but more circles.

            I think I wasn’t the only one…

            Koi no yokan echo­ing in my ears, keep­ing me awake at night.

            We could look into each other’s eyes and know what the oth­er was thinking.

            I think


             But this is what happened:

            I asked him.

            We drove around for two hours, try­ing to get past the wall that had fall­en between us. A big plas­tic some­thing, turn­ing the car’s space from com­fort to suf­fo­ca­tion. Awk­ward yawned between us, unfath­omable and claus­tro­pho­bic all at once. 

            So that’s it, I thought.

            And then I thought the word that’s still chas­ing me.



             Because then there was this.

            He told me he loved me. And then imme­di­ate­ly qual­i­fied it, but not in a weird way. He bab­bled and mum­bled and stut­tered, until I slammed the door in his face.

            We didn’t talk about it. 

            The words unsaid piled up just like the words we said used to, hard­er and hard­er to break through. Our silences were stilt­ed, and I couldn’t sit still if we were even in the same room.


            These were the last times that I nev­er knew were the last times. You don’t know the end until it’s over.

            No, that’s not right.

            What I mean is: I thought we were endgame.

            Koi no yokan. Inevitable.

            And we did talk again. We talked about our fam­i­lies, about the par­al­lel lines our lives had run. How we’d been in sync before we met.

            And I could see us in the future, sit­ting just like this. My head on his shoulder.

            I told you I was crazy.


            Because it was like this:

            He didn’t care about me if there was some­one else around to see it.

            Like this:

            His eyes fol­lowed her no mat­ter where she was. The way they would fol­low me when she wasn’t around.

            And this:

            “He’s fucked over every oth­er girl. You’re not the only one.”


            He lost weight and gained mus­cle. Start­ed to look more like a mod­el and less like an awk­ward for­mer band kid who was suf­fer­ing beneath the weight of his inse­cu­ri­ties. Start­ed to look less like you can trust me and more like you don’t have a shot in Hell. 

            It was like this.

            We were still friends, but he only want­ed to talk to her, and he only want­ed to talk about her, and it was rip­ping me open, and even though he could have seen it, he always looked away.


            What do I tell you?

            He was my best friend, but only when no one was watch­ing. And he saved my life, but he was hurt­ing me, and he was kiss­ing her, kiss­ing her, and I was cry­ing alone in a bath­room stall, because no one knew or would under­stand, because no one could see me break down, it’s been a year and you’re not even friends any­more, it’s nev­er been you, it was always her, and they’re kiss­ing, and I’m bit­ing my knuck­les to stop from scream­ing, and they’re kiss­ing, and I’m…crazy. 



            I wrote a poem about him, and when it was pub­lished, he and his friends who used to be mine took it and mocked it, read­ing it aloud and call­ing me all the things I’d thought about myself. Imma­ture. Pathet­ic. Crazy.



            He walked out with­out say­ing good­bye, two years, all those long con­ver­sa­tions and the con­nec­tions and the hands against my skin, the way his eyes would fol­low me across a room, gone. Like noth­ing ever happened.

            Koi no yokan. Bullshit. 



            The first time I saw him again, I had a pan­ic attack.



            But it’s been a long time.

            And all I can say now is:

            It was beautiful.


            And this:

            My best poems are about him.



            I will nev­er again won­der if I am capa­ble of lov­ing some­one that much.


           And I don’t think you ever real­ly fall out of love with some­one you’ve loved like this.


            I don’t think you ever love the same way twice.

From the writer


:: Account ::

            When I was 22, I learned an impor­tant les­son: You can be wrong about your soulmate. 

            When I met the sub­ject of this piece, I felt some­thing I nev­er felt before. A sense of know­ing, of under­stand­ing that couldn’t be shak­en, no mat­ter how hard I tried to ignore it, or talk myself out of it. A few weeks lat­er,   I came across the term koi no yokan while read­ing, and I knew exact­ly what it was:  a Japan­ese con­cept mean­ing love at sec­ond sight. I was sure: it was only a mat­ter of time.

            Unre­quit­ed love is an embar­rass­ing emo­tion to have when you’re 22. All of your friends are going off on adven­tures in love, rid­ing the roller­coast­ers of first rela­tion­ships, the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic breakup may­hem, of ‘real’ love.  But you are stuck at the sta­tion, wait­ing for a train that’s nev­er com­ing. Unre­quit­ed love means mem­o­riz­ing tiny lit­tle things about the oth­er per­son every day, and tal­ly­ing them up like a score­board of spec­u­la­tion, all for that most stub­born and dan­ger­ous of emo­tions: hope.

            He was one of my clos­est friends. There were times when I would get that feel­ing again, and my vision would zoom into the future, and I would see our slow talks, run­ning laps around each other’s brains, tak­ing note of all the knick­knacks and hang ups, the sud­den pit­falls and the places hid­den by cur­tains, where we nev­er let any­one else go. There were times that I felt under­stood in a way I can’t explain, a way that went beyond words. I thought that was cer­tain­ty, the call of two souls across space and time to one anoth­er. Koi no yokan. Inevitable. 

            But just because you believe some­thing, doesn’t make it true.

           Still,  I lit a can­dle and held it in the fog of his grow­ing dis­tance, of the girls he did want that he always took home, the way he always ignored me when­ev­er they were around. I wait­ed, and I was calm and petu­lant and fear­less and ter­ri­fied and awed at the strength of my devo­tion. It took a year to accept what was, instead of what I wanted.

            When I final­ly real­ized it was over, I wrote it all down. “All That I Can Say Now,” is that piece, where I lay out all the evi­dence, from the first day to the last. Where I try to con­vince myself that unre­quit­ed love wasn’t crazy; or even if it was, it was beau­ti­ful. When I first wrote it, I called it my “All Too Well.”

            “All That I Can Say Now,” says, in the same wild, heart-stop­ping defi­ance that can have you writ­ing hand­writ­ten notes in your favorite book, dri­ving through the lights of Austin, scream­ing your heart into the steer­ing wheel, sink­ing to the floor in a bath­room stall, and pick­ing up a shred­ded leaf from the dis­gust­ing pool deck: “I was there. I remember.”


Jas­mi­na Kuen­zli is an author of poet­ry, cre­ative non­fic­tion, and fic­tion and has been pub­lished with Crow & Cross Keys, The Blue Riv­er Review, The Elpis Pages and many oth­ers. When she isn’t writ­ing, Jas­mi­na can be found weightlift­ing, run­ning, and hold­ing impromp­tu dance par­ties in her car.  Her life goals include land­ing a back flip, get­ting legal­ly adopt­ed by Dwayne “The Rock” John­son, and being a con­trib­u­tor on Drunk His­to­ry. She would like to thank Bren­na and Sarah, who hear all these sto­ries first, and Har­ry Styles, who is sun­shine dis­tilled in a human being. Find her on Twit­ter @jasmina62442.

Like a Polaroid Transfer 

Nonfiction / R G Pagano 


:: Like a Polaroid Transfer  ::

I Along the Way.


The point of liv­ing in Italy the first time was to write a nov­el, some­thing that had escaped me. So I had this idea that I would try again, not know­ing what would emerge while fol­low­ing Nan­cy wher­ev­er she might wan­der and learn­ing more Ital­ian along the way.

            “Only a kitchen is miss­ing,” Gio­van­ni emailed, “which could be installed in the entrance. I could close the entrance with a glass wall and sep­a­rate it from the stair­way. To get to the flat you would go through the gar­den, our liv­ing room, and up the stair­way to the sec­ond floor.”

            “Gra­zie,” I replied.

            Around Inde­pen­dence Day, sev­er­al weeks before our depar­ture, Nan­cy received her sab­bat­i­cal, along with a let­ter from the super­in­ten­dent of schools, who out­lined all terms includ­ing what Nan­cy want­ed to do most — paint and live in Italy.



I met Nan­cy in Boston on my way to the Muse­um of Fine Arts. On that snowy day, we talked about our lives — look­ing sky­ward, catch­ing snowflakes, float­ing with the wind.

            Nan­cy told me about All Soul’s Day in Venice, and the Lido where she found a green-tiled Hun­gar­i­an hotel among palm trees and over­grown vines. Her descrip­tion of its emp­ty patio and three-door entrance at the top of cres­cent stairs made of cement engaged me.

            Ten months lat­er, we were married.



At the edge of Bas­sano del Grap­pa, near the baby Dolomites, we live on the top floor of a large home with a gar­den. Exot­ic plants and old pine trees com­mune with a Bel­gian Sheep­dog named Gedi, sev­er­al cats and ducks, and five duck­lings promised to a friend after the summer.

            Chic­ca, the moth­er duck, likes to go inside the house, most­ly for Gedi’s water but also to be in a cool place away from the August heat, not a bad instinct except she’s not trained.

            I’m not sure you can train a duck.

            She doesn’t know, so I car­ry her out­side to the pond where she pre­tends to walk on water.

            Once dur­ing din­ner in the gar­den, Chic­ca tossed my nap­kin on the ground, more than once. I car­ried her to the pond, but she returned after I car­ried her back again until I locked her in the laun­dry room by the garage, which worked except she’s not trained.



We’d bicy­cle with traf­fic, sig­nal­ing with our hands or using the side­walk to the old hos­pi­tal, then enter­ing the old part of Bas­sano past medieval walls and our favorite pizze­ria, against more cars and around peo­ple, by a stat­ue of Gia­co­mo da Ponte in a pri­vate square. Coast­ing down­ward took us by Palaz­zo Rober­ti, where Napoleon Bona­parte stayed twice before the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry, and into Piaz­za Garibaldi.

            Bicy­cle racks wait­ed along­side a 13th-cen­tu­ry church across from our usu­al stop for espres­so before con­tin­u­ing through Piaz­za Lib­ertà toward a stat­ue of San Bassiano, our way through the cen­ter past build­ings with colon­nades and a Zodi­ac clock across the top of the town hall. For­mer flour, oil, and salt ware­hous­es sped by, and ceram­ic and antique stores and places to buy grappa.

            Ponte Vec­chio, a wood-cov­ered bridge designed by Andrea Pal­la­dio in the mid­dle 1500s, nev­er dis­ap­point­ed. Dur­ing sum­mer, we saw men in the Brenta Riv­er swing­ing fish­ing rods, caus­ing their lines to arch in the wind. Swans glid­ed upstream. Behind us stood the back of a yel­low build­ing scarred with bul­let marks left from the Great War.

            Late in the after­noon, over­look­ing the Brenta Val­ley and its hills, we’d some­times pause under the umbrel­la trees with black cross­es and the names of men or the unknown who were hung on Sep­tem­ber 26, 1944 for resist­ing the occupation.



On an Inter­ci­ty train, we left the rain storms after weeks of intense heat.

            Gray clouds hung close to the hills.

            Nan­cy opened a small box of 12 water­col­or cubes, and with six brush­es, a white palette, and water in a yogurt cup, pro­ceed­ed to paint. Her ini­tial work formed a tow­er with high volt­age wires and pur­ple moun­tains along the top, and brown fields and trees along the edge. The wires appeared to fall off the paper.

            The train climbed hills before going into a tun­nel; then came out as high as the clouds in the dis­tance float­ing through val­leys and above fields of sunflowers.

            The ini­tial wash of anoth­er water­col­or showed a woman titling in front of two large win­dows. Nan­cy added col­or — red to her dress, pink to her face, brown to the tile floor, and blue around the windows.

            “This is a woman wait­ing at a train sta­tion,” Nan­cy said.



Atri­pal­da is nes­tled in a green province, with vine­yards over hills along­side tree-lined roads over more hills, and vil­lages wind­ing around the tops of oth­er hills, and in the dis­tance, pine-cov­ered mountains.

            Atri­pal­da had been my first home in Italy. It was where I learned Ital­ian — where I wrote Ital­ian words I had heard in con­ver­sa­tion or over­heard or read in the papers, and their Eng­lish mean­ings lat­er. Read­ing was eas­i­er. The words did not move into each oth­er the way they did in con­ver­sa­tion to pro­duce a rhythm that did not dis­crim­i­nate between begin­nings or endings.

            I was there for six months sev­er­al years after the 1980 earth­quake, and six months two years lat­er, not far from the birth­place of my grand­fa­ther near the church of Sant’Ippolisto.



Before the wed­ding, Nan­cy and I stepped inside Sant’Ippolisto.

            We inspect­ed the restora­tion, look­ing up at what was saved after the earth­quake and what was not, and how the two were joined with post-mod­ern lines and shapes to bal­ance what had sev­ered the sym­me­try. Below, we saw crypts with bones of ear­ly Chris­tians in cas­es of glass and bronze in a chapel with fres­coes on its ceil­ings and walls, and beyond the chapel, oth­er fres­coes of baby angels hold­ing flags, staffs, and flowers.

            The baby angels were above us, above the bride and groom too, inject­ing joy into the cel­e­bra­tion out of the choir and through­out the church, with Sant’Ippolisto and San Sabi­no, the patron saint and pro­tec­tor of Atri­pal­da, giv­ing their blessings.



They were most­ly but­ter­flies whose broad wings were still yel­low and orange and pur­ple on slen­der frames, next to wasps and oth­er winged insects, black with anten­nas longer than their bod­ies, and metal­lic beetles.

            Gio­van­ni start­ed the col­lec­tion in his teen years.



We were in the gar­den that after­noon. It was after­noon for us in Bassano.

            On can­vas, Nan­cy was paint­ing red flow­ers inside scrub veg­e­ta­tion with white palms on long stems under pine tree branch­es, and in the back, a fence with vines.

            I was writing.

            Chic­ca, Drake, and Duck, and the five duck­lings, almost ful­ly grown now, were bathing in a pond behind us and Gedi, asleep in the sun and dream­ing I suppose.

            “That’s the cell­phone,” Nan­cy said.

            I looked down and reached for the phone from under the news­pa­pers. It rang again, and inside its win­dow, ANSWER? appeared.

            “Pron­to,” I said. “Ciao Carmelina.”

            “Hai sen­ti­to Riccardo?”


            “… into the Twin Towers.”

            “You’re break­ing up.”


II Seek­ing Cover.


The sky was almost white. The morn­ing mist obscured the hori­zon and con­cealed the moun­tains, but in the gar­den enriched the greens and yel­lows to cre­ate an illu­sion that noth­ing else existed.

            Birds awoke on pines taller than the house.

            Rain start­ed to fall.

            After flap­ping his wings, Duck set­tled down and fell into a kind of med­i­ta­tion. He was still except for his breath­ing. By the end of the morn­ing, Duck was stand­ing on one leg, lean­ing and stretch­ing it in some yoga way. Then on the oth­er leg, he extend­ed a wing, point­ing and hold­ing the position.



A small stat­ue of Saint Antho­ny of Pad­ua saw us off. From his niche on a stone col­umn, which along with its twin marked the way to our neighbor’s corn­field, he looked as we walked past him and baby Jesus that he held next to dried ros­es in a worn vase behind a wire screen.

            I car­ried a French easel, oil paints inside of it, a Plex­i­glas square and can­vas, some­times two, along with my writ­ing note­books. Nan­cy had the rest — brush­es in a jar and tur­pen­tine in anoth­er, both inside a Grand Marnier tin, and rags.

            Nan­cy paint­ed out­doors at Ca’ Cornaro, before the cold when the day began to draw back.

            On one can­vas, she inter­pret­ed a stone path­way cov­ered with vines. Autumn vines, cast­ing their shad­ows, lined across the stones mov­ing over the edge of the path and turn­ing up and slant­i­ng on the grass towards a gray wall and the ever­greens behind it. Beyond the vine cov­ered walk­way, a stat­ue enters the painting.

            The stat­ues watched over us — Apol­lo and Artemide among the ferns and cac­ti on our way up the stair­way, Pomona in the court­yard, and three chil­dren of Fati­ma, but most of all Vir­gin Mary, who accom­pa­nied us out of this Renais­sance vil­la designed as a coun­try res­i­dence for rest and agri­cul­tur­al works among a for­est of cedars and pines.



I won­der if most artists have a sense of what they want to express, or if their instincts guide them to cre­ate and recre­ate before fin­ish­ing, then see­ing how far their work has moved away from the begin­ning and what has hap­pened along the way. The process, alive and dis­cov­ery-filled, might be more impor­tant than the result.

            Like an instant out of a Polaroid. Like a Polaroid transfer.

           The emul­sion, lift­ed from the instant and trans­ferred to water­col­or paper, con­veys an emo­tion­al con­tent cre­at­ing art that reveals who we are. Some­times the images are bare­ly rec­og­niz­able and some­times they are too familiar.

            If art reflects human­i­ty, what does it show? What did it show before Sep­tem­ber 11th? Did it warn us, cry out for help? Or is it impos­si­ble to say know­ing what hap­pened will bend the expla­na­tions mak­ing them seem some­thing else — mak­ing the symp­toms obvi­ous and eas­i­ly fore­see­able, caus­ing us to feel guilty as if we could have changed some­thing, done some­thing to pre­vent it, spec­u­lat­ing in “what ifs” to bring back our fel­low Amer­i­cans, then feel­ing angry and afraid and sad and want­i­ng to under­stand the holes in the fam­i­ly of man.



At the 49th Venice Bien­ni­al, South Kore­an artist Do-Ho Suh installed a room filled with minia­ture carv­ings of peo­ple under­neath a glass floor. These fig­ures look up with out­stretched arms and hands push­ing against the bot­tom side of the floor, want­i­ng to get out but con­fined to sup­port the floor on which we walked.



It was Dante look­ing for farm mice who chased the ducks out from under the bush­es and their home, except for Chic­ca know­ing that cat too well to be bullied.

            Drake regained his balance.

            White Col­lar, one of the five orig­i­nal duck­lings, used his beak to throw water on the oth­er duck­lings, except for Grey. I wasn’t at all sure if Grey was part of the five or adopt­ed, but I couldn’t see Chic­ca adopt­ing any duck.

            I saw light in the stu­dio at the top of the house.

            I could see Nan­cy painting.



The col­ors are work­ing,” Nan­cy told me.

            She filled the paper with water­col­or — a bright strip around the edge to frame the soft­er tones against nine trees bend­ing with the wind she could not paint the way she could paint the sky. The leaves inter­twined to cast a place in the shade.

From the writer


:: Account ::

Dur­ing the 2001/02 school year, I accom­pa­nied my wife on her art sab­bat­i­cal in Italy. While Nan­cy paint­ed in her stu­dio, I hand wrote impres­sions about our experiences.

The unpub­lished col­lec­tion includes past vis­its to Italy, pri­mar­i­ly about my Ital­ian her­itage. The impres­sions acknowl­edge the ani­mals, even a baby mouse or topoli­no. They ref­er­ence heav­en and hell, Dan­te’s tow­er in the Valle di San­ta Felic­ità. They are sto­ries about the Great War on Monte Grap­pa, the 49th Venice Bien­nale on human­i­ty, Padre Pio and his stig­ma­ta, Sep­tem­ber 11th and under­stand­ing why while recov­er­ing from bronchial pneumonia.

Like a Polaroid Trans­fer” is a small slice of that col­lec­tion. The slice is more sub­tle, more flash in its struc­ture; yet still con­veys the inflec­tion point after the events of 9/11, which moves the work from obser­va­tions to seek­ing out sim­ple places of peace.

This work, like the unpub­lished col­lec­tion, com­bines aspects of a jour­nal, mem­oir, and reminiscence.


Rich Pagano lives in New­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts. His writ­ing is some­times lyri­cal and often visu­al but always in the direc­tion of mean­ing-mak­ing. He resided in Italy for a peri­od of time and fre­quent­ly trav­els there with his wife, draw­ing on those expe­ri­ences for his cre­ative work.


Versions of Truth

Nonfiction / H. P. 


:: Versions of Truth ::


In this ver­sion, you are talk­ing to me and her at the same time. I am not the only one you’re send­ing dai­ly emails to. I am not the only one who com­mis­er­ates with you about the per­plex­i­ties of being human and a writer at the same time. But I mis­took your Face­book posts and Spo­ti­fy playlists as signs for me when they were for her. It’s hilar­i­ous. Every­one but me is crouch­ing in laugh­ter. I’m crouch­ing, too. In agony. Worst hang­over ever.


She’s hit­ting your arm now. She’s say­ing, between chuck­les, “That poor girl!” She’s look­ing in your eyes now. You’re look­ing in her eyes now. You’re say­ing, between chuck­les, “That poor girl!” You are tak­ing her arm now. You are mak­ing it soft. You are mak­ing it yours.



In this ver­sion, you are talk­ing to me and try­ing, ever so slow­ly, to be my lover. In a few years. In a decade. In what­ev­er time our lives need to align like stars and plan­ets in an eclipse. You are try­ing to be my friend first, some­one I trust. You are try­ing to let me know that it’s okay to lean on you.


I am so close to rest­ing my head on your shoul­der. I am so close to hang­ing onto your arm for bal­ance. I am so close to inhal­ing the air you expel from your lungs. You are so close to inhal­ing the air I expel from my lungs. You are so close to leav­ing your arms open. You are so close to tip­ping your body side­ways so I can reach your shoulders.



In this ver­sion, you are talk­ing to me like one of the orphans you vis­it on week­ends. You see me but you don’t real­ly know who I am beyond my weak­ness and my need. You only see me because of my tears. Because of the scars I thought I already cov­ered up with my tattoos.


My orphan­hood is not the only thing you should know about me. I am telling you I am also a capa­ble KTV singer. I am also a mod­est­ly suc­cess­ful jester. I am also a self-taught make­up artist. Tell me more about you. Tell me about your four sib­lings. Tell me how you learned to play the gui­tar. Tell me your bad jokes. Tell me your go-to karaoke song. Tell me why you love orphans.



In this ver­sion, you are talk­ing to me about Sartre and Beau­voir and that’s when I real­ize you’re the one I’ve been wait­ing for. You are the one I want to be my lover. You can be the sub­ject of my end­less long­ing, my best love poems, and my sap­pi­est KTV songs.


I have no boyfriend in this ver­sion. I have no one at home wait­ing for me. I have all the time in the world to fall in love with you. I have all the heart in the world for you to break open. I am hand­ing you a knife. I am hand­ing you a gun. I am hand­ing you a bomb. Destroy me. Please.



In this ver­sion, you are talk­ing to me about tak­ing up Phi­los­o­phy in col­lege and there’s noth­ing more to it. You aren’t hid­ing the fact that you are a priest. You did not get ordained in 2018. You did not become the youngest priest in your province. You did not ful­fill your mother’s dreams for you.


You can get mar­ried in this ver­sion. You have no church wait­ing for you. You have all the time in the world to fall in love with me. You have all the heart in the world for me to break open. You are hand­ing me a knife. You are hand­ing me a gun. You are hand­ing me a bomb. I will destroy you. As gen­tly as quick­ly as hun­gri­ly as possible.

From the writer


:: Account ::

This essay is my attempt at pin­ning down a flur­ry of emo­tions from a recent heart­break I had. It is an uncon­ven­tion­al love sto­ry, to say the least. There are lay­ers upon lay­ers of hurt and betray­al. Essen­tial­ly, this is me telling myself mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the same sto­ry. For bet­ter or worse, I have decid­ed to share it with the rest of the world. I am not expect­ing sal­va­tion or clar­i­ty. My love has been doomed from the start. There were more ques­tions than answers from the start. But writ­ing about my grief is my way of reach­ing out to myself and say­ing, “You don’t need to drown.”


There is a lot of rep­e­ti­tion in this piece. I also used stream of con­scious­ness writ­ing. The goal was to be as raw and vul­ner­a­ble as pos­si­ble. This is prob­a­bly the only space in the world where these feel­ings will see the light of day. I am con­tent with that.


H.P. is a heart­bro­ken poet from the high­lands of the Philippines.

Ne me quitte pas

Nonfiction / Karis Ryu


:: Ne me quitte pas ::


**CW: men­tions of death.

Did you know?

            In ele­men­tary school, I was assigned to the same table as a boy I had a crush on and start­ed scor­ing low­er in class behav­ior because of it. When I got my report card back and saw the unfa­mil­iar let­ters star­ing back at me, the wave of shame that hit was sud­den and colos­sal. Before the age of ten, I learned that lik­ing boys came at the expense of being myself. So I cut him out of my head as quick­ly and as sharply as he had popped into it, and through sheer force of will I drilled back into myself the words MY FUTURE IS MY OWN MY FUTURE IS MY OWN.

            In mid­dle school, the clos­est I came to telling a boy I had a crush on him was by proxy. He was old­er, and a line of girls had already liked him. I scoffed ini­tial­ly, so sure I would nev­er join that line, and then a few months lat­er I was run­ning out of rooms the moment he entered them. On my last day, two younger girls approached me with mis­chie­vous eyes and asked if they could tell him.

            “Why not?” I shrugged, feign­ing non­cha­lance. The truth was I was relieved, because I actu­al­ly want­ed them to tell him. I want­ed him to know with­out hav­ing to tell him myself. I think I was afraid that if I told him myself, I would trem­ble and my spir­it would crack into pieces and he would end up tak­ing some of me with him, parts of me I would nev­er get back.

            I was twelve: old enough to under­stand that girls who felt things and said so lost their faces and nev­er got them back.


Did you know?

            I am twen­ty one and I am so young. Peo­ple are so quick to press their hands to their fore­heads and per­form dra­mat­ic faux strokes when they hear how young I am. We are in the same place, yet I am three, four, five, six, ten years younger. I have worked so hard to get here. All I have done is work. After all, MY FUTURE IS MY OWN MY FUTURE IS MY OWN.

            At first I thought he was impressed. Then he kept pok­ing at it, pok­ing at me, in nudges of embar­rassed laugh­ter and patron­iz­ing nods that bol­stered his pride by push­ing me down. Now I can­not help but won­der whether my pres­ence emas­cu­lates those who have to breathe the same air as me. So I wor­ried, when I real­ized how well we got along, that you would poke like he had. I wor­ried our silences sig­naled your dis­com­fort. I wor­ried our silences sig­naled your bore­dom. That my pres­ence damp­ened the room with how heavy it was. That my pres­ence bur­dened you with how too-much it was. My worst fear con­firmed, set in stone, the cold hard truth: I am a strange and over­whelm­ing con­coc­tion of fren­zy and fear and too many ideas, and you say I am bril­liant, but that is only as long as I am at arm’s reach because if you look any clos­er, you will real­ize what I already know: I am unpalatable.

            A boy I liked said this about me once, that I was too good for the guys at school. That’s all well and good, but where does that leave me? Some­times com­pli­ments don’t mean shit if you’re lonely.

            I am twen­ty one. I am sit­ting out­side of a cof­fee shop and cry­ing because I am so young, yes, but being so young at this stage in this place means that I am alone. I am alone, and it is heart­break­ing. I have a bright future ahead of me, so they say, but I can­not do any­thing about it right now because I am so young. I might have grown up quick­ly and I might know how to do lots of grown-up things, but ban­dag­ing my own bro­ken heart is not one of them. So I sit on this bench and cry because that’s what girls in love and pain do.


Did you know?

            When I was thir­teen I walked cir­cles and cir­cles around a lake in my neigh­bor­hood. When we lived in a city a one-hour train ride from my mother’s birth­place and a thir­teen-hour flight across an ocean away from mine. Cou­ples dou­ble-ped­aled duck boats across the water. At night some­one would busk on the plat­form, their voice echo­ing through the mic and through my head.

            When I was thir­teen I thought a lot about death. I thought a lot about whether or not I want­ed to die, and how I had no answer. I thought about how my lack of an answer at the very least sig­naled how I felt about life: that is, my utter lack of a desire for it. Yet I could not bring myself to die.

            I looked at every­one around me and remem­bered I was sur­round­ed by a dialect adja­cent to my mother’s, a lan­guage I kind-of-under­stood and just as much kind-of-didn’t, a lan­guage I was so glad not to speak and just as much longed to.

            Yet I could not bring myself to die.

            I thought about death so much I believed I no longer thought about boys. That wasn’t true, because there was a boy that year, there was always a boy, wasn’t there, for each new wound that the world ripped into me that I then fum­bled to balm with what­ev­er sub­stance was closest—whatever would do for a fan­ta­sy. I thought more and more about death in the hopes that it would make me think less of the boy, of what I want­ed him to be and what I knew he was not. Dying was eas­i­er. Dying felt more mean­ing­ful. It is more poet­ic to die than to like a boy. It kind-of-worked.

            I walked the lake in a bizarre jaunt that the bright­ness of the sun made even more macabre. I walked the lake while think­ing about dying while lis­ten­ing to a marim­ba play while Regi­na Spek­tor asked peo­ple not to leave her, feel­ing some­what more livened up by it but then because of that, feel­ing sad­der than before. Yet I could not bring myself to die.


Did you know?

            I am praised a lot for my hon­esty nowa­days, which is inter­est­ing because it’s when I’m being hon­est that I’m most wor­ried about being dis­hon­est. Like I’m deploy­ing my hon­esty because I know that’s what works, that’s what endears me to peo­ple. At the same time, I can­not help the things that come out of my mouth and I am very much at the mer­cy of the per­son sit­ting across from me as I help­less­ly watch, eyes crossed, my guts push out from between my teeth and spill onto the table. I am ter­ri­fied of being per­ceived as a too-earnest child and noth­ing more, but this is the only way I know how to be that feels the clos­est I can ever get to “true.”

            I’m sure you would rather be with some­body else right now, some­one nicer, some­one more pleas­ant, not some­one who was born with a tri­an­gu­lar mouth and had to train her­self out of a rest­ing bitch face by star­ing into a mir­ror and push­ing the cor­ners of her lips up for years. Here are some things I have learned over those years:

            I am admired; I am not approached. I am a stat­ue; I am not a girl. I believed that too for a while, but I am tired now. I am a girl. I was a girl all along. I will always be a girl. A girl who gig­gles and feels and cries and loves and flut­ters and laughs like every­one else.

            When I was nine­teen, I walked all the way down a hill in the dead of the night. It was a dead night. My legs were dead and my eyes were dead but my soul refused to die. It just refused to fuck­ing die. I could have walked for­ev­er. I could have walked until I died.

            Please, I cried. Let me die.

            Please, it begged. Don’t leave me, too.

            I am just a girl who does not want to be alone.


Did you know?

            I think I am thank­ful I did not take my life that night, or that oth­er night, or that oth­er oth­er oth­er night when I thought about doing it. It has tak­en me years to get to this thought. Late­ly I’ve been think­ing it more and more. Here are just a few:

            I think it when it is our sec­ond week of col­lege and we sit next to each oth­er in a small group where we both feel out of place. You, too? we gasp, look­ing at each oth­er. We walk in the same direc­tion after it’s over and after a while of talk­ing out­side your dorm build­ing, you say to me: Hey, do you want to just come inside? So we talk inside your dorm for two more hours, and that night our friend­ship is born.

            I think it when I turn sev­en­teen and my plan was to sit in my dorm and eat a dou­ble-choco­late Insom­nia cook­ie alone. That is when you call me, a girl you bare­ly know, because Face­book said it is my birth­day and am I doing any­thing to cel­e­brate? Let’s get froyo. No, don’t bring mon­ey, you are treat­ing me to froyo because it’s my birthday!

            I think it when years pass and it is my birth­day again, and anoth­er you waves a card into my hands, say­ing HAPPY BIRTHDAY, YOU ABSOLUTE ANIMAL, which I know is a com­pli­ment because I know you. The card is almost illeg­i­ble because of your noto­ri­ous­ly loopy pen­man­ship but I can read it. It is detailed, love­ly, and tru­ly some­thing only you could write to me.

            I think it when it is the mid­dle of what was look­ing like the best semes­ter of col­lege yet, but a virus hits our lit­tle life of laugh­ter and sud­den­ly we are three friends sit­ting in Meet­ing Street Cafe, angry and in shock but most of all scared that our first time togeth­er in this booth might be our last one too. Yet all we can do is smile for one anoth­er, trem­bling mouths hold­ing up taut frames. Lat­er we sit by the water and we can­not help it, the words that flow out of us. When peace like a riv­er atten­deth my way. When sor­rows like sea bil­lows roll. What­ev­er my lot, Thou hast taught me to say. It is well, it is well with my soul. We cry and I won­der if I will ever know ten­der­ness like this again.

            I think it after I move to a new city and we have known each oth­er for maybe a month at most when you invite me over for bagel brunch, and I assume that this is for some par­ty or gath­er­ing because the only way I would be includ­ed in an invi­ta­tion is if it was a mass one. But I show up at your house and it is just me, and I ask you if any­one else is com­ing and you smile and shake your head and say no, today it’s just me.

            I think it when you remem­ber me on New Year’s and send me a text because I am who you’re thank­ful for.

            I think it when you invite me at ten o’clock at night on an impromp­tu excur­sion to the beach because you missed me, you say, and there is anoth­er one of us, anoth­er friend, look, you again, you’re there!—to love is to be one and isn’t that won­der­ful—in the pas­sen­ger seat of the car you are dri­ving, and there is a pack of lychee beers in the back, and any­way you’ll be in front of my apart­ment in three min­utes so get dressed and don’t go to sleep!

            I think it when two years after we cried by the water, you are grad­u­at­ing and at your depart­men­tal cer­e­mo­ny we stand there beam­ing at you. We hand you a bag, and inside that bag is our gift: a cook­ie from Meet­ing Street Cafe. I almost cried while I stood in line for it, did you know? So cir­cles do end some­where after all.

            I think it dur­ing the silences between our con­ver­sa­tions every time you walk me home. I won­der if this is spe­cial for you, too. I think about how wor­ried I was and at times still am that no one would ever want to exist with me like this. I think about how there is no one else I would rather exist with right now than you. I hope I mean some­thing sim­i­lar to you, and while that hope is tinged with fear that I am wrong, it is beau­ti­ful pre­cise­ly because it is frag­ile, and I would much rather cling to it than have noth­ing to cling to at all. Any­way, we keep going, held by the same deep indi­go sky each time, in mur­mur and laugh­ter and silence, cush­ioned in all that I do not yet know how to say but want to let you know some­how. I am scared of what will hap­pen when I do find the words. I am scared I already have them. I am scared of what they mean. Of los­ing my face. My room­mate told me once that to ask for a place in someone’s heart is to ask for per­mis­sion to break it one day. God for­bid, but it could hap­pen. I don’t want to hurt you. Even in my own fear of my own heart­break, my first thought is of you. That scares me most of all. But some­times I dare to believe that your word­less thoughts might be search­ing for me too. I dare to trust that what­ev­er we are fig­ur­ing out togeth­er is good, very good.

            (To make a dec­la­ra­tion is to, in the back of your mind, always won­der just a lit­tle bit if you even believe what you are declar­ing. But to feel any­thing at all is to risk being wrong, and that ten­sion is what makes life real. So lean into it. Embrace it.)

            I think God is telling me there is a way. A way to con­fess with­out los­ing my face. A way to love that keeps the heart intact.

            (Or: Love is an exer­cise in trust.)

            I used to think that love was about what is said. What is spo­ken aloud. What is com­mu­ni­cat­ed through touch, through stare, what is pro­ject­ed onto a wall in blaz­ing let­ters and yelled from across a long, long room. That love is some­thing you can­not miss.

            But love is trust, and silence is sound. Love is hav­ing faith in what has not been said. Believ­ing in a glance and per­haps in the absence of a touch entire­ly. Maybe you are care­ful with how you touch me because I am some­one to treat with care. Maybe we sit side by side because we hope the time we give each oth­er says what we do not speak aloud, because the dam hold­ing back every­thing we could say or do is so thin and oh, how excit­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing it is, how dear­ly I would hold you to me if you would let me. But first I have to let you know.

            Love is as shy as it is bold. It is shy because it is bold. It takes the breath out of you to expose the heart for one sec­ond. Blink and you might miss it. But if you do, that’s okay. Trust that it is there, because you are loved. You are loved and so you love, because I trust you, I trust you.

            You are my friend. You say my name. “Have you ever judged some­one for being hon­est about their feelings?”

            No, I respond. I always thought they were brave.

            “Exact­ly.” You nod your head. You say my name again. “So why are you scared?”

            In May, you tell me how strange it is to think we have only known each oth­er for less than a year, because you feel like, in the best way, a life­time has passed between us. And I say, I can’t com­pre­hend some­times how I love you as fierce­ly as I do. And you say, you know where it says that eter­ni­ty is writ­ten on our hearts or some­thing like that, and I think, yes, and you say, in feel­ing like I’ve known you for a long time, eter­ni­ty is the free­dom to love you as if I have.

From the writer


:: Account ::

As the read­er can tell, I was twen­ty one years old when I wrote this piece. It has been revis­it­ed and revised peri­od­i­cal­ly since then, but at the beat­ing heart of this con­fes­sion of an essay was and is the earnest­ness of a per­son craft­ing a bur­geon­ing def­i­n­i­tion of love as she learns to love oth­ers and to love herself.

The inspi­ra­tion to write this piece first struck me one spring after­noon, while I cried on a bench out­side of a cof­fee shop near my apart­ment. (This scene made it into the essay. In a way, per­haps I start­ed there.) I was, in short, pro­cess­ing many firsts: my first year out of col­lege, my first year in a new city, and the chances I had tak­en on expe­ri­ences and peo­ple dur­ing that time. The love those risks had brought me, but also the hurts and the losses—and the heart­break of real­iz­ing that the time had come to say good­bye again. Grow­ing up as a mil­i­tary child, I had built up anti­so­cial detach­ment mech­a­nisms in order to mit­i­gate the hurt of get­ting attached. Twen­ty one was the year I tru­ly began to shed those walls—and had to face the beau­ti­ful consequences.

These ongo­ing tumults wouldn’t quite resolve for some months’ time. But writ­ing this piece over those dif­fi­cult sum­mer months kept me com­pa­ny dur­ing peri­ods of lone­li­ness, con­fu­sion, and grow­ing pains. I have, of course, grown since I first wrote this, and am shar­ing the expe­ri­ences and feel­ings of a past me, but I con­tin­ue to hold this piece dear­ly for its vul­ner­a­ble hon­esty. That’s the per­son I want to stay true to in all that I write and do.


Karis Ryu is a writer, artist, and grad­u­ate stu­dent cur­rent­ly based in New Haven, Con­necti­cut. She grew up mov­ing fre­quent­ly across North Amer­i­ca and the Pacif­ic as a U.S. mil­i­tary child of Kore­an descent. Her work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Chaot­ic Merge Mag­a­zine, HerStry, The B’K, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Find her in a cof­fee shop, a library, or at


Nonfiction / Faye Srala


:: Unspoken ::

            Sis­ter, can I come in? The door opens slight­ly, par­tial­ly obstruct­ed by fur­ni­ture behind it. Yap­ping dogs come run­ning. Down, DOWN! STOP IT, you yell. Some­where inside a TV blares a com­mer­cial and the par­rot who learned how to bark long ago adds to the cacoph­o­ny. The cats arrive, their lethar­gy hav­ing been defeat­ed by their curios­i­ty. I take small steps into your house, care­ful not to step on lit­tle paws; they are not so care­ful with me. I try to get clos­er to you for a hug but give up in the brown and black eddy swirling below my knees.

            Can we talk? My mind is mud­dled. Wispy images flick­er, like a pho­to aban­doned in a damp base­ment. Water spots obscure por­tions, and the edges blur. Shards of bro­ken glass pulse frac­tured images; a man, legs plant­ed wide, his fists clenched, leans into a woman scream­ing. Nei­ther are whole, they are dis­tort­ed by fuzzy edges of the same torn pic­ture, pieces are miss­ing. Can you remem­ber? I ask, was it real? Stop it, you yell – the dogs are chas­ing the cats. Stop it, stop it,the par­rot chimes in from her perch in the cor­ner. Frag­ments of improb­a­ble scenes flick­er in my mind. They seethe and froth, just out of the cor­ner of my eye, slink­ing, sneak­ing, and sulk­ing. They want out – you open the door and four­teen ani­mals sprint for the back­yard. You fix your­self a drink and ask if I want one too.

            I sit at the din­ing table and fid­get while I wait, care­ful­ly craft­ing my open­ing words. I part the drapes beside me a lit­tle. A wel­come blade of sun­light cuts a yel­low swath through the dim­ness illu­mi­nat­ing float­ing par­ti­cles of dirt and fur rear­rang­ing them­selves. Unopened UPS deliv­er­ies lin­ing the walls come into focus; throw rugs and pre­car­i­ous­ly stacked junk mail com­plete the tow­ers, and I won­der in what way the for­got­ten specters of our past man­i­fest them­selves in my life. Nei­ther of us sleep. I was well into my twen­ties when I real­ized the gaunt dark and hol­low eyes of insom­nia wasn’t just a genet­ic attribute. I take a sip of the drink you hand me and wince at the glass of iced vod­ka with a splash of orange juice.

            I need to know. We can speak about it now, can’t we? Sure­ly you can explain why my child­hood is veiled behind a shroud, like a body unfit for view­ing. Do you know how hun­gry I was, or that I was four going on five when our father asked me to kiss his…, That’s enough, STOP IT, you rise to break up a cat fight. The par­rot starts to sing her ABCs in a crack­ling falsetto. 

            Your pets, they found sanc­tu­ary with you after mis­treat­ment and neglect. My splin­tered mem­o­ries, like these ani­mals, need res­cu­ing. They need to find a home too, some­where they can be safe from harm and learn to be them­selves. Some­where they can run, with­out judge­ment. Just one place of com­fort. Can they have a home with you too? You’re the only oth­er one that knows them.

            Let’s rem­i­nis­cence, sis­ter, pre­tend we’re just like every­one else. Let’s talk about our fam­i­ly tra­di­tions; except when we get to the part about what dad did, instead of in stitch­es at his antics, like nor­mal peo­ple, we’ll talk about the time mom need­ed stitch­es. Instead of crack­ing up at his pranks, we’ll talk about mom’s cracked ribs. WILL YOU STOPYou scold Pro­fes­sor Jame­son for gnaw­ing on Cook­ie. STOP IT STOP IT, the par­rot can’t help herself.

            Was mom very bold or just naïve when she gave our father his walk­ing papers? Did she know what await­ed her? Was it nor­mal to watch our mom raise her fists in the air and scream at an impo­tent sky, then drop to her knees and pound the floor in fury hop­ing the phys­i­cal pain replaced the emo­tion­al. God and the dev­il were house guests that nev­er left; we fed them, but not our­selves. As the hands of jus­tice hov­ered above us unde­cid­ed whether or not to snatch us up in the rap­ture, depraved pul­sat­ing pais­leys of flame nipped at our heels. Pros­per­i­ty preach­ers con­vinced her their offer­ing plates on our table was all that was need­ed to tip the scale. “Sow what you have in order to reap what you need. God will pro­vide,” the TV preach­er would bel­low. “Plant the seed and it will grow. The Lord mul­ti­plies the reward for a faith­ful fol­low­er.” Delight­ed to be the con­duit, his voice would cul­mi­nate in a crescen­do to encour­age the hes­i­tant. Mom gave. She gave until the cock­roach­es fled in search of spoils else­where. She blamed her­self for our dif­fi­cul­ties. Her faith was not strong enough. Maybe it was nor­mal to pre­pare din­ner from a few crack­ers and moldy cheese. Maybe that’s why mom liked wine so much, it kills the taste of cheese mold. It does.

            Years have van­ished between this per­vert­ed parade of night­mares that flair in bits of strobe light and dis­si­pate upon wak­ing. This miss­ing time, is this the rea­son nei­ther of us had chil­dren, or why you live block­ad­ed in per­pet­u­al twi­light, or for my for­mer youth­ful pow­er­less­ness to thwart unwant­ed male atten­tion? I tried once, remem­ber? I asked if you were hun­gry, too. The next day you gift­ed me two cats, res­cued from abuse. Like I need­ed a dis­trac­tion. I was think­ing too much. Please, talk to me. Hmmm? You say, as your eyes swing back from the menagerie of fos­ter fails.

            They tum­ble, swirl and curl. They need to be let out, they ask you to go out, they can’t escape on their own, they need your help, your con­sent. You open the door and a rotat­ing vor­tex of mad­ness races away.  But you’re hap­pi­er when they’re in, bet­ter than when they’re out. It’s safe to keep them in, so no one can see how many there are, or how unac­cept­able they are, even though they need to get out occa­sion­al­ly, but once they do, peo­ple will see, they’re too exposed, you’re too exposed. Bet­ter to bring them back in, where it’s more com­fort­able. You close the slight part in the cur­tains, end­ing the dance of the dust.

            The par­rot bab­bles her full reper­toire in her pierc­ing scratch; hel­lo, good­bye, A B C D E F G, peanut mm mm, bad bird bad bird whatcha gonna do (to the tune of the TV show “Cops” theme song), hel­lo, good­bye, A B C… All this inter­spers­es with bark­ing and hissing.

            My drink is fin­ished. The ani­mals come run­ning when I stand up. Wag­ging tails fol­low swarm­ing teeth and claws. I pick my way care­ful­ly through them and the cats mount­ed on box­es like sen­tries man­ning a tur­ret over­look­ing a fortress. You move the small table behind the door so I can leave eas­i­er. The parrot’s acrid voice ris­es above the rest, good­bye.

            Unspo­ken doesn’t mean nev­er hap­pened, dear Sis.

From the writer


:: Account ::

Unspo­ken” is true in its entire­ty, except for the part about the cock­roach­es, they actu­al­ly stayed. I’ve writ­ten a series of poems and prose pieces in an attempt to under­stand, and heal, a painful child­hood. In all of my work, my intent is to place the raw ache, humil­i­a­tion, and rage on the paper while still hon­or­ing my moth­er for her brav­ery and unwa­ver­ing mater­nal instincts, who nev­er expect­ed to be a sin­gle moth­er in the 1970s. It’s not easy to be hon­est after a life­time of try­ing to sup­press mem­o­ries, and some­times cre­ative choic­es can help explain the inex­plic­a­ble. This is why I chose a metaphor – the dis­trac­tion of a house full of ani­mals is used to avoid con­fronting the past. It is an apt choice to describe the rela­tion­ship between my sis­ter and I, who is old­er and suf­fered through those extra years with our abu­sive father. My cre­ative lib­er­ties are inspired by Bren­da Miller’s “A Case Against Courage in Cre­ative Non­fic­tion,” which appeared in AWP Writer’s Chron­i­cle, Oct/Nov 2011. In her essay, Miller makes the argu­ment that some­times courage doesn’t always pay off in CNF, some­times cow­ardice in the form of metaphor, syn­tax, imagery, or using a con­tain­er, much like a her­mit crab uses a shell for pro­tec­tion, pro­duces bet­ter literature.


Faye Srala is a retired chemist liv­ing in Ida­ho pur­su­ing a cre­ative out­let with writ­ing. She earned a BS in Chem­istry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado at Col­orado Springs, an MBA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah, and is a cur­rent Eng­lish major with the cre­ative writ­ing empha­sis at Ida­ho State Uni­ver­si­ty. She wait­ed until retire­ment to pur­sue an artis­tic out­let because her career was both reward­ing and demand­ing, and because she didn’t trust her cre­ativ­i­ty enough make a switch. When not busy with class­es, she bakes deca­dent desserts, drinks wine, and hikes off those calo­ries in the exten­sive Ida­ho wilderness.


 Nonfiction / Caitlin Cowan

:: Smoke::

        In 1989, I lit myself on fire, just a lit­tle bit. At a Fourth of July bar­be­cue, some­one gave me a sparkler and it caught the hem of my dress on fire. Every year the sto­ry looms like smoke, is smoke, made of and by its fog­gy tongues. I was three. I was on fire. I’ve nev­er for­got­ten that day, though I’ve for­got­ten every fire­works dis­play I’ve ever watched. It’s easy to remem­ber the first time you ever felt tru­ly alone.  


        My father liked to smoke a cig­ar on the Fourth of July. More than any­thing, he liked to light the fire­works with their glow­ing tips. No—most of all, he liked run­ning away from the spark­ing promise of their explo­sion, cig­ar in hand, boat shoes on his feet though the lake was neigh­bor­hoods away and we nev­er used it any­way. One day, years from now, he’ll run our boat up on some rocks in Lake Michigan—my moth­er will say he did it to ensure it would have no val­ue when it was ordered to be sold in their divorce. But that blaze comes lat­er. For now, a con­trolled burn. 

        The Fourth was the only time my moth­er allowed him to smoke. Or at least the only time when her protests were qui­et enough for him to ignore them. An occa­sion­al cig­ar seemed like a mid­dle-class indul­gence, not a lethal habit. I expect that he looked for­ward to this hol­i­day very much. Mos­qui­tos, smoke, sparkling, and the tang of tobac­co. 

        The way he feigned his fear: that’s what I remem­ber most. After bend­ing low in the grass to light the puny legal fire­works we’d pro­cure in a mul­ti­pack from a local Mei­jer, he would anoint the fuse with a kiss of his cig­ar. He would run, mut­ter­ing a lit­tle too loud­ly, oh shit! He would com­i­cal­ly dart away from the siz­zling dis­play as fast as he could, as if he were actu­al­ly in dan­ger, as if the great­est dan­gers he would face were behind, not ahead of him. He would smile, almost imper­cep­ti­bly, as he ran. All mem­o­ries I have of his per­for­mance on the Fourth are now, so many years into his absence, the same mem­o­ry. 

        Allen Carr, author of The Easy Way to Stop Smok­ing, says that the occa­sion­al smok­er suf­fers much more than the habit­u­al one. The habit­u­al smok­er is able to assuage his crav­ings on a near-con­stant basis if he choos­es, while the social or occa­sion­al smok­er must dis­ci­pline him­self ter­ri­bly. Think of how hard he must work, Carr says, to sus­tain him­self between smokes. I think that my father was this kind of smok­er. No, he was not the pious reformed smok­er my moth­er imag­ined him to be nor the invet­er­ate liar, furtive­ly smok­ing at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, steal­ing away in the night to crouch behind the garage with a Marl­boro, as I once imag­ined him to be. I think he abstained most of the time in order to smoke some of the time, assur­ing him­self that his dark­er impuls­es could be con­trolled. But some­thing that can com­bust will always com­bust. If you can burn, you burn. 


        Gestalt psy­chol­o­gist Fritz Perls, an invet­er­ate smok­er for all of his 76 years on earth, once wrote that smok­ing sep­a­rates the self from oth­ers. When I heard this wis­dom for the first time, it star­tled me like a sud­den crack­ling in the sky. I knew it to be true in every sinew. 

        Smok­ing sur­rounds you with a lit­er­al bar­ri­er, if an eas­i­ly pen­e­tra­ble one: a cur­tain of gray pol­lu­tion that’s all your own. Even smok­ers pre­fer not to be enveloped in some­one else’s smoke, choos­ing to stay safe­ly ensconced in their own. It’s pri­vate. Blow­ing smoke in someone’s face can be con­sid­ered bat­tery in some places in the world; in oth­ers, it’s an invi­ta­tion to fuck. There is inti­ma­cy in that cor­rupt­ed air: the smoke enters your body, gets to know you inside, then makes itself vis­i­ble out­side, hav­ing absorbed some­thing essen­tial from you. Per­haps it’s even stolen a lit­tle piece of your life. 

        Though I bare­ly remem­ber the moment of my first cig­a­rette, I remem­ber the path that led me there acute­ly. It wasn’t pouty-lipped celebri­ties let­ting them dan­gle beau­ti­ful­ly from their lips or the allure of being trans­gres­sive. It was their emo­tion­al short­hand, I think, that I admired the most. 

        Before my senior year of high school, I had to decide whether or not to take AP Cal­cu­lus. I’m only a lit­tle ashamed to say that I took it out of arro­gance, out of a sense of chal­lenge. I earned two A+ grades on the first two exams. Then, hav­ing already got­ten into the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, I let the heavy man­tle of aca­d­e­mics go. I fin­ished the year with a D in AP Calc. I then received a let­ter from the uni­ver­si­ty say­ing that my offer of admis­sion might be revoked because my senior-year grades had slipped.  

        Gripped by ter­ror, uncer­tain­ty, and res­ig­na­tion, I became a fist of pain. I had not secured admis­sion to any oth­er schools. I had been raised to val­ue edu­ca­tion over every­thing else, and when I found out that I might not go to col­lege, I felt as if I’d been hand­ed a death sen­tence. It was, I can see now, my first inter­ac­tion with grief since my par­ents had split up when I was 12. But an 18-year-old can do a lot of things that a 12-year-old can’t. And one of them is pur­chas­ing a pack of cig­a­rettes at a gas sta­tion, as I did after receiv­ing that let­ter from the aca­d­e­m­ic review board. 

        An 18-year-old can find a phys­i­cal out­let for her pain. She can find a spot under a tree. That tree will not be in a park or a qui­et for­est. It will jut out from some com­mer­cial land­scap­ing near a strip mall or park­ing lot, because that’s what the vis­tas of sub­ur­bia are. She will sit and smoke cig­a­rette after cig­a­rette, bare­ly inhal­ing at first, but brav­ing up to inhale deep­er and deep­er as she goes along. Sick­ness will set­tle in.  

        She can think to her­self, You are no longer alive. Your life, brief as it has been, is over. You do not serve a pur­pose. You are not as smart as every­one says you are, as you think you are, you arro­gant lit­tle shit. You will nev­er escape this sor­did town, your mother’s house, your reach that per­pet­u­al­ly exceeds your grasp. Cig­a­rettes seemed to be the best way to tele­graph to myself a sin­gu­lar, per­verse mes­sage: I am bad and fucked up. And though I would get into U of M after my teach­ers wrote let­ters on my behalf, I would hold onto my smok­ing habit for anoth­er 15 years. It helped me keep myself separate—separate from myself. 


        Dusk. Chok­ing. The Fourth of July. And yes, the run­ning. This is the fire and the rest is the tinder—two years lat­er, my moth­er made me hold an unlit cig­a­rette to shame my father. Six years lat­er I would write an award-win­ning school essay about avoid­ing cig­a­rettes, drugs, and alco­hol, though I would not be offered any for two more years beyond that. Four­teen years lat­er, I would buy my first pack of cig­a­rettes, and when I tried on that shroud of smoke, it felt like it was made just for me. I wore its nox­ious lace for decades, always smelling vague­ly of burn­ing.  

        Why couldn’t they see I was on fire? I was burn­ing and they didn’t know. No one could help me. Every breath choked me so my brain said run. I had to keep run­ning. If I stopped: pain. Like I always would, when some­thing went wrong I ran away from oth­ers, ran toward myself, into myself. My moth­er insists that it was a minor inci­dent: noth­ing more than a singe. A scorched dress. But to a child, there is no sense of rel­a­tiv­i­ty: not now and not ever. I have so few mem­o­ries of my ear­ly child­hood. This one pulsates—has its own heat.  


        One thing I know for cer­tain is that I start­ed smok­ing because it seemed like the adult thing to do at that pre­cise junc­ture in my life. Look­ing back, I think that young girl, crouch­ing under a tree and won­der­ing how she would get the stink of cig­a­rettes off her hands before she went home, want­ed some­one, an actu­al adult, to see that mes­sage and send help. 

        But no one saw it. My moth­er saw my aca­d­e­m­ic fail­ure but did not see my pain. I think she would con­tin­ue to turn a blind eye, and a blind nose, on my pain in its var­i­ous forms for years. When I ran out to grab bak­ing pow­der from the store on Christ­mas Eve for a pie, when I got up ear­ly to go to Star­bucks to buy us both lat­tés, run­ning out to the car at the mall to drop off our bags because they were “too heavy.” I think to myself now, she must have known. Though I’ve now quit for good, my part­ner was able to smell my only slip-up on me even though I hadn’t smoked in eight hours, had brushed my teeth, and had washed my face. If he could tell, then so could she. She had so many more chances to see, and smell, the truth.  

        Some part of me thought I was get­ting away with my furtive smok­ing, dous­ing myself in Design­er Imposters Coco Made­moi­selle, rolling the win­dows down to let the wind have its way with my hair, stud­ding my cheeks with sug­ared mint gum so strong it made my teeth ache. The oth­er part of me wished to god that I would get caught. I remem­ber a friend of a friend in high school say­ing that her moth­er issued her the fol­low­ing warn­ing: If you come home smellin’ up of spray with gum in your mouth, you’re ground­ed. She was smart enough, as I assume most human beings are, to rec­og­nize the smell of the cov­er-up as eas­i­ly as the smell of the crime. 

        There were times when my moth­er would say “Give me a hug!” soon after I walked through the door after a night out with friends while I was home from col­lege for the sum­mer or vis­it­ing over Christ­mas dur­ing grad school. I used to think this was a test. Maybe it was. I don’t under­stand why she didn’t explode with anger when she smelled it, if she did. I kept think­ing, sure­ly, this time… But I got to keep my secret for years. Some­how, it stayed down there with every­thing else, ready as kin­dling. 


        I didn’t tell my moth­er about the let­ter that came from U of M at first. I sim­ply sweat­ed it out, held my fear like anoth­er body, breath­ing life into it with every pass­ing day. This pat­tern of rely­ing only on myself, of hid­ing the most dif­fi­cult parts of my life from my moth­er, of retreat­ing, Scor­pi­onic, into my hole, fos­so­r­i­al like the star sign I was born under, nev­er abat­ed. A divorce, a breakup, a trau­mat­ic cross-coun­try move… I dealt with these things alone, smok­ing my way through them, wreathed in gray, dis­si­pat­ing gar­lands that kept me apart from oth­ers.  

        But the smok­ing itself, of course, was the thing I hid most ardent­ly from my moth­er. Even after she caught me smok­ing one day out­side the Tar­get I worked at dur­ing the sum­mers between semes­ters, even after she tear­ful­ly invoked the child­hood asth­ma that had hos­pi­tal­ized me count­less times in my child­hood, her own father’s col­lapsed lung, her best friend’s death from lung can­cer. 

        It was as if noth­ing she said and noth­ing I did had any mean­ing at all. We were both locked in a dance, out of breath. One night, when I admit­ted to her that I had been smok­ing while on the phone with her, she said “I can’t believe I’m your ash­tray.” She sobbed. Sobbed. To this day I do not under­stand her histri­on­ic reac­tion. It’s so sil­ly it makes me laugh. What does it even mean? It is, like most things, not about me. It’s about her. Some­times I think she is angry at her own par­ents, who smoked for decades. That night, and so many nights after, I stared into her inex­plic­a­ble pain, look­ing into the black abyss of the tele­phone con­nec­tion. I lived in that void for­ev­er, inured myself to real­i­ty and to my own body, burn­ing myself in earnest, mak­ing up for the mere scorch­ing I’d suf­fered as a child. I had made myself into her worst night­mare. And for a long time, it felt so, so good.  


        I remem­ber my baby thoughts, far away from the adults assem­bled on the lawn, can still taste the sour­ness of the smoke. It burned: some tiny, styl­ish frock my moth­er had prob­a­bly pur­chased at Jacobsen’s in down­town Birm­ing­ham, a ring of burnt umber seared into the fab­ric over my tiny thigh.  

        The dif­fer­ence between the truth absolute and the truth of the mind is burned away, here, and per­haps is burned away always. There was no pan­ic about the burn­ing dress. That’s what I remem­ber. My moth­er says they didn’t know it was hap­pen­ing. I feel for my moth­er on the oth­er side of the divide: She did not intend to make me feel alone as I choked on the fumes of my lit­tle burn­ing dress. And yet alone I felt. My truth as good, as heavy as hers. As hot. 

        What chem­istry did I taste in that first fear? Alu­minum, zinc, a mil­lion mag­ne­sium stars I swal­lowed. Unsuit­able for birth­day cakes; do not con­sume the ash. Dear read­er, I con­sumed the ash. Con­sumed the smoke, the binder, the oxi­diz­er, the fuel, the wire, and my own hand hold­ing it. As the years go by I can’t see it as well but I can feel it: the back­yard hazy with cit­ronel­la, the boozed-up grand­par­ents who could not see me, the par­ents who still laugh about that day, the lawn, the evening sky, my sick lungs that would nev­er let me run until I ran.  

        I run now, am run­ning, towards a man who seems both new and famil­iar, who sends me pho­tographs of his nephew on his lap, pulling his face into a beau­ti­ful gri­mace before the fire­works explode. Some­times he looks like my father, the one who lit a cig­ar every Fourth to det­o­nate the horde, would run from its sput­ter­ing once he start­ed some­thing that he could not stop: fire, new love, a child’s heart. I won­der if the film will soon start over again from the begin­ning. Maybe this time it won’t end in flames. 


        Pyrotech­nics are born to blow up, but sparklers are born to burn. It’s slow­er. It takes time. Like Nat­ur­al Amer­i­can Spir­its: my brand of choice through­out grad­u­ate school and right up until the bit­ter end. But before that first sparkler and before the Spir­its, it was Par­lia­ment Lights in my under­grad years at Michi­gan. When my moth­er found a pack of those in my purse back then, she scoffed, “that was your grandmother’s brand.” My friends and I used to make jokes about sniff­ing coke because of their recessed fil­ter. I had nev­er tried cocaine but still brought it up at par­ties to seem like I was in the know. I did not know any­thing, least of all how much con­sump­tion and addic­tion dic­tat­ed my young life.  

        When I start­ed smok­ing Spir­its, the hip­ster cig­a­rette of choice for all free-think­ing starv­ing artists in Den­ton, TX, it meant that I was away for longer, out­side, hud­dled in alley­ways, shroud­ed in furtive cor­ners for sev­en, eight, maybe even ten min­utes. Smok­ing ulti­mate­ly iso­lates you from oth­er peo­ple. If you squint your eyes hard enough, it might feel for a moment, or a year, or a life­time, like it’s keep­ing you safe.  

        But we humans have a fun­ny mech­a­nism built right in. The more we are alone, the more our brains push us toward oth­er peo­ple. In “Evo­lu­tion­ary Mech­a­nisms for Lone­li­ness,” soci­ol­o­gists Caciop­po, Caciop­po, & Booms­ma argue that “lone­li­ness may serve as a sig­nal to increase social con­nec­tion and thus increase chances of sur­vival.” As in, I went out­side to smoke so I could come back in to the warm glow of my friends at the bar. Can you fuck­ing believe that lone­li­ness exists to keep us alive?  

        If we hold that in our hands along with the sparkler, an unlit cig­a­rette, and the bald fact that smok­ing phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rates us from oth­ers, we might be able to ask this ques­tion: Did I smoke to dri­ve myself to the edge? And more impor­tant­ly, did I go there just so I could learn how to come back? 


        I was six the first time I touched a cig­a­rette. The details are veiled in a haze. We were parked in front of a McDonald’s on a fam­i­ly trip up north. My father had gone inside to use the restroom or order food. My moth­er, search­ing for some­thing in the car, had come across a pack of cig­a­rettes he had appar­ent­ly hid­den (though not very well). He had told her that he quit many times over. Could she already tell that he would hide oth­er things from her in the years to come? The bot­tle of pills I’d found in his suit coat pock­et, the false busi­ness trips… the oth­er woman?  

        That after­noon on the road, she didn’t explode. She smol­dered, a spark trav­el­ing down the wick of her anger. She pulled two cig­a­rettes from the pack and hand­ed me one. I didn’t under­stand. Just hold it, she kept say­ing. I vague­ly remem­ber her even try­ing to show me how to hold it, the verisimil­i­tude of an actu­al, adult, smok­ing hand. A deflat­ed peace sign. I obeyed. I did not know what I was doing or why, but I did it. 

        Mem­o­ry tells me that my moth­er rolled down her win­dow and went so far as to light hers, though she did not take a drag from it. And there we sat, one woman and one woman-in-train­ing, pre­tend­ing to smoke for a rea­son that, even now, three decades lat­er, smok­ing and quit­ting and smok­ing and quit­ting and smok­ing one last time after a set­back at work and then final­ly, bless­ed­ly, quit­ting again, I still scarce­ly under­stand.  

        What was she try­ing to prove? She want­ed my father to return to the car and see it. I sup­pose she want­ed to cause him alarm. But what was the mes­sage? What would the equiv­a­lent be if it were a gun she had found and not a pack of cigarettes—something that kills you quick­ly rather than over the years? Would she have point­ed it at my head? Asked me to hold it? Maybe she could have torn open some ketchup pack­ets, told me to close my eyes, daub­ing her paint­ing with alizarin crim­son, could have wrapped my limp fin­gers around the bar­rel.  

        Her anger stoked her cre­ativ­i­ty, like mine does now. She mor­phed from moth­er to mas­ter direc­tor, set­ting her stage just the way she want­ed. And the cen­ter­piece, the most crit­i­cal prop on the stage, was the cig­a­rette. Can you see it? If you squint your eyes, it doesn’t look like a con­dem­na­tion at all. It looks a bit like a mon­u­ment. 

        All these lit­tle parts, lit­tle sto­ries: the smoke I choked on as my dress burned, the smoke I gulped between sobs when things went wrong, the smoke I imag­ined curl­ing from the end of a prop cig­a­rette my moth­er once hand­ed me. The whole of it is so much greater than each hazy ten­dril, each pol­lut­ed breath. I have to look at it all, even when there’s so much smoke I can hard­ly see.  


        Though all four of my par­ents’ par­ents, my mother’s broth­er, and my father all smoked at some point in their lives, cig­a­rettes were the high­est taboo in my house­hold. The sto­ry of sto­ries is that my mother’s par­ents quit after some 40 years. My grand­fa­ther quit cold turkey, but it was hard­er for my grand­moth­er. She had slip-ups, used nico­tine replace­ment, and gen­er­al­ly strug­gled to kick the habit. She reminds me of me, which made my mother’s con­dem­na­tion of her own mother’s sup­posed “weak­ness” dif­fi­cult. The fact that her father was able to quit eas­i­ly after four decades per­ma­nent­ly destroyed my mother’s abil­i­ty to think of cig­a­rette smok­ing as an addic­tion instead of as a moral fail­ing.  

        But in its own way, too, this deep­ened her anger toward him. If it’s so easy to quit, she won­dered, why didn’t he do it soon­er? Of course, she can nev­er under­stand what it’s real­ly like to quit smok­ing. She also couldn’t know his inter­nal strug­gles. She could not know the white-hot shame and anger that my father must have felt rip through him like an unfil­tered Lucky Strike when he saw our faux-smoky pageant in the McDonald’s park­ing lot. She could not under­stand how her vio­lent pro­hi­bi­tion of smok­ing made it sim­ple for me to take my habit under­ground, deep into my scorpion’s nest—solitude on soli­tude on soli­tude.  

        The smok­er per­pet­u­al­ly lives in a state of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Smok­ing feels like com­pan­ion­ship but isn’t. The smok­er knows, with com­plete cer­tain­ty, that what she is doing will harm her, has the pow­er to kill her, even. But she also knows that she enjoys what she is doing. I think this is what Carr meant when he said that quit­ting smok­ing frees you from the “black thoughts” that plague smok­ers: I have to quit. I’m going to get lung can­cer. This is going to kill me. Maybe I’ll be ok if I quit this year. Next year. When I grad­u­ate. When I move. Next year. Next year. But Carr says less about the smoke-white thoughts: I’m enjoy­ing this. I am tru­ly alive because I know I am dying.  


        I do not remem­ber how my father react­ed. This knowl­edge may come as a dis­ap­point­ment to you. Have I blocked it out? Has time mere­ly tak­en it from me as a small kind­ness? I do know that noth­ing momen­tous hap­pened. He came back, said some­thing to my moth­er. Some­one would have tak­en the cig­a­rette from me. And then we nev­er spoke of it again. So final was our denial of that bizarre tableau that my moth­er insists that it nev­er hap­pened, and if pressed she will only admit she “doesn’t remem­ber it that way.” Every time I’ve burned, she’s dis­ap­peared it with words, let­ting it all van­ish like one last drag. What’s a mem­o­ry worth if you’re the only one who has it? If you smoke a cig­a­rette all alone in a court­yard, who are you sep­a­rat­ing your­self from? 

        On Arrest­ed Devel­op­ment, hap­less patri­arch George Bluth was fond of teach­ing his chil­dren a les­son by scar­ing them near­ly to death. At the end of his tau­to­log­i­cal pranks, he or the one-armed col­league he often hired to ter­ri­fy young Michael, Lind­say, and Gob would intone, “and that’s why you always leave a note,” or “and that’s why you don’t yell.” Like any good writer, he pre­ferred show­ing to telling. On TV, I laugh at it; in life, there’s less humor.  

        Some­times I think my moth­er enrolled in the same school of thought when it came to her mar­riage. She want­ed to teach my father a les­son that day on our way up north: And that’s why you nev­er smoke a cig­a­rette. But I’m not sure how the math­e­mat­ics of her the­atrics add up, even to this day. Was she hop­ing to point out that smok­ing made my father a bad role mod­el? That his smok­ing would cause me to smoke? To this day, I’ve nev­er seen him smoke a cig­a­rette, and haven’t seen him at all since I was a young teenag­er. I smoked any­way, and with great rel­ish. 

        Instead, that weird after­noon in the park­ing lot became an echo, sound­ing its report through­out my life in var­i­ous ran­cid per­mu­ta­tions. My moth­er didn’t have an actor friend with one arm like George Bluth did. Instead, she had a daugh­ter with two arms and two hands with which to clutch tens of thou­sands of cig­a­rettes she would han­dle in her life. Lit­tle paper ghosts pass­ing through the for­est, ten pine trunks, my baby fin­gers. And that’s why you don’t look for the smoke. You look for the fire.  


        We start to smoke because we don’t believe we’ll die. But of course, we will. We smoke because we don’t care if we die, or we want to pre­tend that this is true. We smoke because we believe in god. Because we don’t. Because you were raised as an athe­ist. Because when you asked your moth­er what hap­pens when we die, she said our bod­ies go into the ground and flow­ers grow out of us.  

        We smoke because we feel that we are spe­cial, that we can beat the odds, that we are the pro­tag­o­nists of our own lit­tle dra­mas. How bad could it real­ly be? We keep smok­ing because the smoke starts to feel like a shit­ty friend who, in spite of every­thing, always returns your calls. We smoke when it’s expen­sive, when it’s cheap, when we feel sick, when we feel young and healthy.  

        We keep smok­ing because the cig­a­rettes are organ­ic, the box is made of post-con­sumer mate­ri­als, and the com­pa­ny sends you lit­tle seed bombs to plant in your yard to show how friend­ly they are. You nev­er remem­ber to plant them, so nothing—not one sin­gle thing—ever grows.

From the writer


:: Account ::

Recent­ly I’ve focused on try­ing to tell sto­ries I’ve nev­er told. One such sto­ry relayed in this essay is a core child­hood mem­o­ry of mine that my moth­er insists is apoc­ryphal. As I bur­rowed into it,I real­ized that the core plot ele­ment of the story—the why—was not only slip­pery but also, sur­pris­ing­ly, less inter­est­ing than what the mem­o­ry has to say about shame, addic­tion, and lone­li­ness. Because cig­a­rette smok­ing, the larg­er sub­ject of the essay, is a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, branch­ing out from this core expe­ri­ence also made me want to engage with the ques­tion of what the act of smok­ing means, if any­thing, in the larg­er sense. Here again, I found more ques­tions than answers, but in con­stel­lat­ing those ques­tions, I felt, ulti­mate­ly, like I could see a rec­og­niz­able fig­ure anyhow.

The work of psy­chol­o­gist Fritz Perls seed­ed this project in that respect: a jot­ted-down note in my jour­nal about Perls’ asser­tion that smok­ing is designed to sep­a­rate us from oth­ers had been trou­bling me for years, and it final­ly led me back here and to my child­hood, ado­les­cent, and adult­hood con­nec­tions to smok­ing. Author Allen Carr, whose audio­books about self-hyp­no­sis and smok­ing ces­sa­tion I lis­tened to, also haunts this piece. The cen­tral tenet of Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smok­ing was my first encounter with the idea smok­ing is actu­al­ly not enjoy­able at all. Carr died of lung can­cer in 2006, 23 years after smok­ing his last cigarette.

This essay is part of a man­u­script called Soli­tary, which is a hybrid CNF/poetry project that uses the struc­ture of a pop­u­lar pagan song to inter­ro­gate the ter­res­tri­al and spir­i­tu­al ori­gins of soli­tude and its rela­tion­ship to wom­an­hood, from soli­tary witch­craft to the pecu­liar weird­ness of only childhood.

Born and raised out­side Detroit, Caitlin Cow­an earned a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas and an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the New School in New York City before return­ing to the Mid­west. Her debut full-length col­lec­tion of poet­ry is forth­com­ing from Cor­ner­stone Press (2024). Her poet­ry, fic­tion, and non­fic­tion have appeared in Best New Poets (2021), The Rum­pus, New Ohio Review, Mis­souri Review, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, South­ern Human­i­ties Review, Smoke­Long Quar­ter­ly, the Rap­pa­han­nock Review, and in oth­er jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Erase the Patri­archy (Uni­ver­si­ty of Hell Press). Her work has received sup­port from the Ham­bidge Cen­ter for Cre­ative Arts, the Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, and else­where. She is a Poet­ry Edi­tor for Pleiades and serves as the Chair of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Caitlin writes reg­u­lar­ly about the inter­sec­tion of poet­ry and pop­u­lar cul­ture at Pop­Po­et­ry.

Going to the Hospital

 Nonfiction / Brittany Ackerman

:: Going to the Hospital :: 

You are thir­ty-three and today you need help. You teach a class from your lit­tle desk at home, your remote set-up, and you hope the kids can’t tell that you’ve been up all night, beg­ging your hus­band to take you to the hos­pi­tal. He wrapped his body around yours and told you it would be okay, but you knew it wouldn’t. You told him you felt bad that he has to be mar­ried to you, that he isn’t with some­one who can live, laugh, love. Some­one who can enjoy life. 

In the morn­ing, you call your insur­ance com­pa­ny. You have been look­ing for a new ther­a­pist, some­one to talk to because you want to get better—you real­ly do—but you’ve also been hav­ing visions of stand­ing in your back­yard and let­ting the wind take you away. You pic­ture your body dis­in­te­grat­ing into par­ti­cles that dis­solve and pix­e­late and van­ish into thin air. 

Your insur­ance can’t find any open­ings, even for Tele-health. Noth­ing for this month or one after that. They send you a list of phone num­bers to try and you call the num­bers, one after anoth­er. Some places don’t take insur­ance, they aren’t sure why they’re on the list; or they’re too busy, not tak­ing any new clients, but they can put you on wait­list. You don’t know how long the wait­list is and you need help now. You’re not sure how many oth­er peo­ple are wait­ing on the list, but you assume it is a lot. All these places advise you to call your insur­ance, again. 

You sit in your car out­side your new home and refuse to come inside. You have packed a bag because you thought you might go to the gym, take a Pilates class and have a steam, clear your head, but real­is­ti­cal­ly you know that won’t work, that the whole class you’d be anx­ious the entire time while you wait for phone calls, for good news. 

Your hus­band comes out to the car and encour­ages you to come back in. You tell your hus­band you are going to the hos­pi­tal.  You close the door, start the car, and dri­ve. It is just after 11:30AM when you pull up to ER and roll down your win­dow. Here is where you start yelling, where you scream at every atten­dant, every passer­by, that you need help, that you are hav­ing a break­down, that you are not okay. This is the begin­ning of the yelling, of com­plete­ly los­ing your mind. The day seems stretched and mea­sured by fits like these. 

Your hus­band fol­lows you in his car and pulls up short­ly after. He han­dles your keys that you have thrown on the ground. Your ID.  Your wal­let. He han­dles every­thing.  The whole check-in process. You cry and yell and want to know if you can talk to a doc­tor soon. A woman comes up to you in the wait­ing room, she tells you what a great hos­pi­tal this is. A man in a flow­ered shirt and a cow­boy hat tells you you’re in the right place. He says he was once in your posi­tion, that we’ve all been here before. You are tak­en to triage. Your vitals are tak­en. The nurse asks how you are doing and you don’t answer.  When she asks again you say, Not good. 

You are admit­ted to the ER and giv­en a bed, num­ber 36, in an area where there are many patients in their own respec­tive beds. Some have their cur­tains closed, some rest out in the open. Your blood is drawn, your nose is swabbed, you pee in a cup and are sent back to your bed. No one knows how long it’ll be until a doc­tor can vis­it. You hear the woman to your right talk­ing about how much she loves oat­meal. The nurse asks for her favorite recipe. She’s too tired to give the whole thing, but she loves to add choco­late. You think of your mom who once told you that the mean­ing of life was good sex and choco­late. Your mom doesn’t know you are in the ER. Your mom is a sub­sti­tute teacher at a pri­vate school in Flori­da. Your mom calls your phone and you don’t answer. She writes, Not impor­tant, just dri­ving home, love you. 

The woman in the bed across from you has her cur­tain closed. She talks in whis­pers on her cell phone say­ing she will have the mon­ey, she promis­es. She is giv­en Ati­van and then a nurse asks if you would like some Ati­van, maybe a small dose just to take the edge off. You say no. You want to have a clear head when you talk to the doc­tor.   

The woman cat­ty-cor­ner has flu­id in her knee. A young man is wheeled past with a swollen tes­ti­cle. He has a copay of $100. You nev­er find out what hap­pens to his tes­ti­cle. 

Every­thing in the hos­pi­tal is blue: the cur­tains, the uni­forms for both nurs­es and doc­tors, the piece of rub­ber they use to tie your arm to find a vein to take your blood, the rail­ings on your cot, the plas­tic water bot­tles they give patients to drink, the chairs in the lob­by, the ceil­ings and the floor tiles, the fan­ny pack the social work­er wears.   

But the blan­kets are sea foam green, a col­or that reminds you of Flori­da. Sea shells and pas­tels.  Sandy beach­es and the waves spread­ing across the shore. You final­ly call your mom and she wish­es she could jump on the next flight to see you. Your dad tells you to get some rest, to relax. You can bare­ly breathe when you speak to them, these peo­ple who brought you into this world. You are wor­ried they are dis­ap­point­ed in you, but when they tell you they are root­ing for you it makes every­thing worse. You can’t explain that you feel like a fail­ure, that you are not sure you will ever be okay, if you will be able to bounce back. 

A nurse named Julie in the hos­pi­tal asks you what you do for work. You say you don’t want to talk about it.  Your hus­band spills the beans that you are a writer. Julie tells you that to write is a gift, that when you write a book, no one can take that away from you. It is your pow­er. You want to believe her. You want to believe that your work is impor­tant, that you can make sense of your life. You want to love your­self, but you don’t. She tells you to let your­self be who you’re meant to be. 

You won­der if it’s worth it to keep try­ing. It is hard to feel like what­ev­er you do is enough.  You write about your life, about what you know. You often tell your stu­dents noth­ing is more inter­est­ing than real life. In real life, you are sit­ting in a hos­pi­tal bed. You are tak­ing notes on your phone because you think this might make for a good essay. 

You think of your child­hood, the things that may have brought you to this present moment. It always felt like a par­ty you weren’t invit­ed to. Even though you were there, you were only ever watch­ing it hap­pen. You were nev­er a part of things, even though you had the same name as your friends, even though you went to the same school.   

You text your Rab­bi and he tells you that you are a child of God, that you have pow­er and mean­ing that can­not be tak­en away from you. It is inher­ent. It is immutable. He tells you that you are strong. 

You do not feel strong here. You feel sick, worth­less. You stand in the mid­dle of the lob­by with your hands on your face. You cry and scream and your hus­band takes you aside. “They will keep you here,” he says, afraid. And he’s not wrong. Your broth­er has been here before, has coached you on what not to say in the ER. He told you about how they strip you naked, how you can’t call any­one, how you are treat­ed like an ani­mal. You haven’t spo­ken to him yet, but you can feel him here in the hos­pi­tal with you.   

You go back to your bed and lie down. You cry into the green blan­ket. You drink apple juice out of a small alu­minum pouch.   

When the sun starts to set, you see a psy­chi­a­trist through video chat. He’s hav­ing tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, so his screen remains black. He spends an hour with you. You can­not see him, but he can see you. In this way, he might as well be God. As you talk to the black screen, you feel okay for the first time all day. Some­one is final­ly watch­ing you, tak­ing care of you, despite the fact that you can­not see him. But in that hour, he diag­noses you with some­thing that makes sense. He says there is a way to live a nor­mal life. He com­pares what you expe­ri­ence to dri­ving a car, to the gas ped­al being stuck so that your mind is going, going all the time. He says you need some­thing in order for the ped­al to release. 

He sug­gests you might ben­e­fit from being put “on a hold” in the hos­pi­tal, from stay­ing put for a while and being mon­i­tored. But he gives you the option to leave, as you might start feel­ing bet­ter soon. 

And then the ER doc­tor clears you for release. Your vitals are tak­en again. You will not be held here. You walk toward the wait­ing room, toward the door, and then you are out­side. You feel some­thing like relief, the cold air on your face, the world com­ing back to you. Your car pulls up and you get in.   

You wait at home until your hus­band pulls up. You ask if you can go to Top­pers Piz­za. You haven’t eat­en all day and you are starv­ing. Top­pers is your favorite piz­za place in town, a local restau­rant where there’s a build-your-own sal­ad bar and teenagers bring your food to the table. You order a medi­um cheese piz­za and a Coke, a warm cook­ie with vanil­la ice cream for dessert. The first time you came to Top­pers was the day you moved to this new town. It had been over­whelm­ing, but you want­ed your new life here to work out. You want­ed to start over. Some­thing about Top­pers always brings you back to who you are. It’s stu­pid, you know, but you feel at peace here. You feel hope­ful.   

The next day you resume teach­ing, not men­tion­ing to your stu­dents what hap­pened the day before. You look for ther­a­pists and make more calls. While you are on your way to a yoga class, a sec­re­tary calls you back with the good news of an open­ing. You book the appoint­ment and keep dri­ving.   

Your mom texts you that the WiFi is out on her cam­pus, that her and the kids are play­ing cha­rades to pass the time. It’s the end of the school day on the oth­er side of the coun­try and you imag­ine your mom in her cardi­gan, the way she shuf­fles her sore feet in and out of her shoes at her desk. You won­der if the room is cold, what she had for lunch, what she’ll make for din­ner. You tell her that cha­rades sounds fun.   

She writes back: Got to go, it’s my turn.  

You will start writ­ing again soon. It’s just a mat­ter of time. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

Going to the Hos­pi­tal is a true sto­ry—my sto­ry. I start­ed writ­ing this piece the day it hap­pened in an attempt to doc­u­ment most accu­rate­ly the expe­ri­ence. Men­tal ill­ness per­me­ates my whole life, and most, if not all of my writ­ing embod­ies the inner strug­gles that peo­pleboth real and imag­inedface day to day. I think we often want to project a lin­ear ver­sion of heal­ing in sto­ries; a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end to the suf­fer­ing. But the truth is that pain is per­pet­u­al. This does­n’t mean its a hope­less pur­suit to get help, but that it will be a life­long ride of ups and downs, leaps and hur­dles, and thats okay. Post hos­pi­tal trip, I encoun­tered a lot of back­lash and ques­tion­ing about my men­tal health. I had friends dis­tance them­selves from me, not sure what to say, how to deal with me, how to be around me. I had peo­ple tell me that my life was so good from the out­side, there­fore how could I strug­gle so much? While I cant imag­ine com­bat­ing some­ones open­ness with skep­ti­cism, I do under­stand the way that soci­ety and media have flat­tened and fal­si­fied the expe­ri­ence of men­tal ill­ness. With the advent of the glit­tery meme came slo­gans of nor­mal­iz­ing and open­ing dia­logue about men­tal health. But can a tweet or a small carousel of words and images accu­rate­ly por­tray the com­plex, unique expe­ri­ence of what hap­pens in some­ones brain? The more posts I see, the worse I feel. I dont feel the glow of com­mu­ni­ty, but rather it feels like some­one else, some face­less account, is speak­ing for me. I write in order to share my account, which is just one sin­gle sto­ry. I dont pro­claim I am one for all. I only wish to be one voice that inspires oth­er voic­es to share.  

Brit­tany Ack­er­man is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in Eng­lish from Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty and an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Flori­da Atlantic Uni­ver­si­ty. She has led work­shops for UCLA’s Exten­sion pro­gram, Cat­a­pult, HerStry, Write or Die Tribe, The Porch, and forth­com­ing for Light­house Writ­ers. She cur­rent­ly teach­es writ­ing at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty in the Eng­lish Depart­ment. She is a 2x Push­cart Prize Nom­i­nee and her work has been fea­tured in Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, Lit Hub, The Los Ange­les Review, No Tokens, Hobart, and more. Her first col­lec­tion of essays enti­tled The Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine (Red Hen Press, 2018) , and her debut nov­el The Brit­tanys is out now with Vin­tage. She lives in Nashville, Ten­nessee. 

Since We Broke Up

Nonfiction / Cydney Mangubat

:: Since We Broke Up ::


         When quar­an­tine began in March of 2020—when the pan­dem­ic was just start­ing to take apart the world we’ve come to know—my rela­tion­ship with my then part­ner of 4 years was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly on the brink of shat­ter­ing. And in 3 months we would end our rela­tion­ship. What unfold­ed in between remains fogged in my rec­ol­lec­tion, a road I can’t trick myself into tra­vers­ing. My mind instinc­tive­ly knows that this sto­ry doesn’t begin with the messi­ness of our rela­tion­ship, of what went wrong and why we end­ed up where we did. It begins after we broke up, when the cru­el­ty of the pan­dem­ic made itself known to us and took con­trol of our lives. 

          At first, news of the virus felt like a halt. I treat­ed it like a tem­po­rary inter­rup­tion to my usu­al course, a blip not wor­thy of wor­ry. Quar­an­tine was just a pre­cau­tion, it would end in a few months—I believed this. But when it didn’t, some of us (most of us) remained caught in that illu­sion of a momen­tary pause, con­sumed by the ache of a return to the ver­sions of our­selves we had left behind. Like a child in a tantrum, I was revert­ed to that state of rest­less­ness I felt help­less in, just wait­ing to be picked up, com­fort­ed, relieved of the weight of my long­ing. 

          I was clum­si­ly pro­cess­ing a breakup in the midst of nav­i­gat­ing a new real­i­ty. Those days, clo­sure was a lux­u­ry I only rarely tast­ed. Things, thoughts, often felt unfin­ished, aban­doned. Like a door left slight­ly open. Or an up strum on a gui­tar. Or a bot­tle cap angled the wrong way, it’s closed but not real­ly. As much as I want­ed to give myself the space to feel as freely as I could, to ride the unend­ing whirl of emo­tions that came with a breakup, it was almost impos­si­ble to let my mind wan­der when my body was stuck in quar­an­tine. I longed for the kind aura of a cof­fee shop, where a table for one was not mis­tak­en for lone­li­ness. Or a trip to the gro­cery, the qui­et thrill of going aisle to aisle search­ing for that one ingre­di­ent. Nev­er did I appre­ci­ate the com­fort of being around strangers until the virus deemed it unsafe. 


          In an email, a friend tells me about spend­ing two months in recu­per­a­tion. She’s been focus­ing on her­self, find­ing time to do things she’s been putting on hold, and griev­ing, in qui­et ways, for the per­son she used to be. Grief, I imag­ine, in its many cru­el forms, is some­thing that has tak­en a hold of every­one one way or anoth­er dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. To be pushed into the well of loss, free falling and brac­ing for an impact that will end the mis­ery. I, too, am in con­stant grief for the per­son I used to be. 

          There is a line by Helen Mac­don­ald in H is for Hawk that has stuck with me since I first read it ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic: “We car­ry the lives we’ve imag­ined as we car­ry the lives we have, and some­times a reck­on­ing comes of all of the lives we have lost.” I have since rec­og­nized that I am fur­ther in grief for the per­son I could’ve been, the expe­ri­ences I could’ve had, robbed even of a prop­er post-breakup expe­ri­ence. 

          If the pan­dem­ic didn’t hap­pen, I would’ve gone through the breakup around the com­fort and sup­port of friends who would take me out to drink, do any­thing to dis­tract me. Or who would sit beside me as I stayed in the cycle of sad­ness and regret. Friends who would empathize with me because they had the chance to know my part­ner, to wit­ness who I was around her. See, as painful and exhaust­ing as it was to lose a part­ner I loved, what even­tu­al­ly scarred me was not the rela­tion­ship end­ing, but the lone­ly and help­less expe­ri­ence of being a clos­et­ed adult going through a breakup around fam­i­ly who nev­er even knew the rela­tion­ship exist­ed. Four years, and I was nev­er able to intro­duce her as my part­ner. I was griev­ing not in qui­et ways, but in pur­pose­ly hid­den spaces—away from the com­fort and sta­bil­i­ty of a safe space. In locked com­fort rooms, where bare­ness rere­ferred more to the strip­ping of a façade than being undressed. On a bed fac­ing a wall that mocked me like a mir­ror, fur­ther com­press­ing an already tight space. I could not risk being seen in tears, being asked why. I feared telling the truth on impulse or vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, a des­per­ate attempt to get it over with. As much as I want­ed to turn to my fam­i­ly for sup­port, as much as I craved the relief of their pres­ence, of their voic­es assur­ing me with words I need­ed to hear, I couldn’t. Not with­out caus­ing myself the even heav­ier, more ago­niz­ing uncer­tain­ty of what may come after mouthing the words I dat­ed a girl. To run to my fam­i­ly at that time meant com­ing out to them. 

          Many times, I’ve inval­i­dat­ed the urgency and mean­ing of nar­rat­ing this in the midst of a pan­dem­ic. There are sto­ries more impor­tant than mine. Quar­an­tine, I’ve learned, has forced me into a rou­tine of self-nega­tion. I have deemed it self­ish to be faced by my desires and not look away. When peo­ple are sick and dying, am I allowed to strug­gle and be bur­dened by some­thing so per­son­al? To fear rejec­tion more than the virus. 


          Nev­er have I felt a stronger urge to come out, spend­ing every day close to my par­ents, sit­ting beside them, spend­ing each meal togeth­er, want­i­ng to just tap them on the shoul­der and tell them. The back and forth of step­ping over fear and being swal­lowed by it. Like play­ing with a light switch, the bright­ness of courage flick­er­ing in front of me on and off, but nev­er left long enough for me to be embraced by it. 

          In the film Hap­pi­est Sea­son, Dan Levy cap­tured the expe­ri­ence of com­ing out best when his char­ac­ter says:

My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for 13 years after I told him. Everybody’s sto­ry is dif­fer­ent. There’s your ver­sion, and my ver­sion, and every­thing in between. But the one thing that all of those sto­ries have in com­mon is that moment, right before you say those words. When your heart is rac­ing, and you don’t know what’s com­ing next. That moment’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing. And once you say those words, you can’t unsay them. A chap­ter has end­ed and a new one’s begun. And you have to be ready for that. 

          The moment right before com­ing out that Levy described—when you can feel your bound­ing pulse con­trol your whole body—is a feel­ing I’ve long been famil­iar with. There are many instances when I’ve felt close to com­ing out, to my mom the most. When we’re watch­ing a film with a gay char­ac­ter and she tells me after that she enjoyed the sto­ry. When we’re in the car, and the small­ness of the space and blur­ring of the out­side invites vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. When I was rushed to the hos­pi­tal at 3am and she spent the entire night beside me. When she came to my room two weeks after the breakup to give me cof­fee because she felt that some­thing was wrong. Among every­one in my fam­i­ly, I longed for her pres­ence the most. For her short reas­sur­ing replies telling me kaya mo ‘yan ikaw pa. Or the tran­quil­i­ty of a moment when I opened up to her, how the silence would remind me that she was real­ly lis­ten­ing. Or her embrace. I longed for the ten­der­ness of a mother’s embrace dur­ing the nights I spent cry­ing over my part­ner, how the idea of it still embod­ies the still­ing encounter of see­ing a mom calm a cry­ing baby to sleep. 


          “I want him to see that I’m smil­ing this big for the first time in my life. I’m feel­ing like I tru­ly am myself, but there is just one thing miss­ing. I just want my dad back, like I just want my dad back. He has­n’t been here.” These are words from Angel Flo­res, a 22-year-old transwoman ath­lete and coach intro­duced in one of the episodes of the makeover real­i­ty show Queer Eye. Her father was an influ­en­tial fig­ure in her life who inspired her towards ath­let­ics, but whom she has lost con­tact with since telling him of her choice to tran­si­tion. Any­one who has seen the episode will attest to the light Angel car­ries. It is impos­si­ble not to be empow­ered by her, to smile and laugh when she does, to be over­whelmed with joy in wit­ness­ing her fall in love with who she sees in the mir­ror. But there is a void inside of her, any­one will feel it too. She wants her dad back, I hear myself plead­ing in return. 

          Towards the end of the episode, Angel and her dad do reunite. As soon as he walked in the room, they both got lost in tears and fell into each other’s arms. The same void, it turns out, found itself in her father’s life and their long­ing for each other’s pres­ence grew more pow­er­ful than their dif­fer­ences. 

          But what has stuck with me since is this: right before Angel’s dad entered the room, Karamo Brown, the show’s cul­ture expert, sat with Angel and said, “I don’t sub­scribe to the word ‘com­ing out’ because the act is actu­al­ly let­ting peo­ple in. And when you say com­ing out, you’re actu­al­ly giv­ing the oth­er per­son the pow­er to reject or deny you. And for me, it’s like, ‘you don’t have that pow­er.’” 

          While I car­ry the same outlook—as I have most of my high school and col­lege days—I can’t bring myself to hold that con­vic­tion at home. I have had peo­ple come into my life who have reject­ed me upon hear­ing how I iden­ti­fy, and with­out hes­i­ta­tion I have nev­er, not even once, giv­en them that pow­er over me. I don’t seek their approval and can walk away liv­ing my truth with­out any loss. I am, as Karamo puts it, invit­ing them in and not wait­ing for them to open the door so I can safe­ly come out. But with my par­ents and my sis­ters, it is not about pow­er. It is about fam­i­ly. I have since under­stood that my need­ing to come out to them is a mat­ter of long­ing, of want­i­ng their assur­ance that I will be loved regard­less, of fill­ing a void in me that already exists even before I’ve told my truth. I need them. I will be plead­ing to have them back if I lose them. 

          Read­er, there is noth­ing more ter­ri­fy­ing to me than the thought of los­ing my par­ents. How does one even pre­pare for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of it? How do you con­vince your­self that it is worth tak­ing that risk for the sake of who you are? I want the ver­sion of the sto­ry where I don’t have to weigh those options. 


          I briefly dat­ed some­one else a year into the pan­dem­ic, a guy whom I had been friends with for a while. It was dif­fer­ent, the world is kinder to these kinds of rela­tion­ships. There was no risk involved or fear of being found out. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t give me moments of peace, unbur­dened by the con­se­quences of being queer. I got to talk to my sis­ters about him. Over din­ner, I told my par­ents where he was from, how kind he was. For a while, I was cer­tain that the hurt I car­ried with me as a result of my hid­ing was dim­ming itself, and that the urgency I felt to come out dur­ing the pan­dem­ic had passed. But how­ev­er free­ing it was, it didn’t come with­out resent­ment, anger towards a real­i­ty that dat­ing a man was safer, a life that was more bear­able com­pared to the oth­er. With my pre­vi­ous part­ner, I had to whis­per on the phone with her when­ev­er I was home. I set­tled on rou­tines out of para­noia, phone always locked, any trace of our rela­tion­ship to be kept in my dorm or a shoe­box under the bed I was cer­tain no one will find. She once sent me flow­ers and a pho­to of us in a frame I could nev­er take home and put up. At din­ner, my par­ents would ask after my sister’s boyfriend, his work, fam­i­ly, when he’d vis­it. I want­ed them to ask me too. I want­ed, more than any­thing dur­ing our rela­tion­ship, to be able to tell my par­ents about her. All this I still car­ried through­out my new rela­tion­ship. There is now a deep hurt in me caused by 4 years in hid­ing that I’m afraid will only find heal­ing in my family’s accep­tance of me.  


          When we were young, my sis­ters and I ran­dom­ly found a board game in a box of toys. It was a sim­ple ‘dice and move’ game across a num­bered board; the goal was to get from start to fin­ish first. But the board had its own tricks, every square housed a com­mand: “take 4 steps back,” “7 steps back.” You’d be five steps away from win­ning and you’d end on a tile with “go back to start.” We laughed at each other’s mis­for­tune, always going back. But it stopped being fun when none of us could reach the end and we had to stop play­ing. Each square was col­ored in annoy­ing red, almost mock­ing you: you’ll nev­er get there. This is what the pan­dem­ic is like. Just when you think you’re close to the end—restrictions eas­ing up, chil­dren get­ting vac­ci­nat­ed, schools slow­ly shift­ing onsite—you get pulled right back, find­ing your­self stuck again and again at the begin­ning. When the Jan­u­ary 2022 surge came, almost every­one I checked up on was either sick or had some­one in their fam­i­ly in iso­la­tion. I had to take a breath for each how are you sent, always antic­i­pat­ing bad news. It was only a mat­ter of time, I thought, until it reached our home. 

          My old­er sis­ter was the first to get sick. It didn’t mat­ter how long we pre­pared in antic­i­pa­tion; the thought of the virus invad­ing your home is dis­qui­et­ing. My younger sis­ter and I expe­ri­enced symp­toms two weeks lat­er. 

          I remem­ber I was 7 when my fam­i­ly vis­it­ed a muse­um once where a house of mir­rors was in exhib­it. As any child would, I ran in excite­ment; the video by the entrance made it look invit­ing. But I would lat­er dis­cov­er that there was noth­ing more suf­fo­cat­ing to me than being end­less­ly sur­round­ed by my own image, hav­ing no place to look away to. Find­ing the one way out was impos­si­ble; my moth­er had to guide me out. Being in iso­la­tion, phys­i­cal­ly away from my fam­i­ly, was being back in that maze every day but no longer need­ing the mir­rors. My room had nev­er felt small­er. Every way I looked I was remind­ed that I could not walk out. Not from my room, not from my hid­ing, not from myself. Noth­ing has embod­ied the months of suf­fo­ca­tion of being clos­et­ed in a pan­dem­ic than being in iso­la­tion in your own home, hav­ing my fam­i­ly just out­side my door but nev­er being able to come out. 


          I once saw a video online of a girl com­ing out to her par­ents with a cake that said “sur­prise I’m bi.” As I watched those moments right before she walked up to them, I could tell that she was trem­bling inside from the oth­er side of the screen. Her face was red, she had been cry­ing even before she put the cake down, her voice edged with fear. It took her par­ents a while to catch up, but they did even­tu­al­ly. They hugged her, assured her it was good news, remind­ed her they love her no mat­ter what. I remem­ber this video each time I go out to din­ner with my par­ents. On those nights I always con­sid­er telling them, until fear seals up my throat, per­haps the same fear that pulsed through the girl in the video right before she came out. 

          I’ve since learned that there is a name for this fear: it’s called antic­i­pa­to­ry anx­i­ety. It describes fear or wor­ry for events or sce­nar­ios that haven’t hap­pened yet. This includes spend­ing a lot of time antic­i­pat­ing worst-case sce­nar­ios, which can then lead to frus­tra­tion and hope­less­ness. I read in an arti­cle by the non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Anx­i­ety Cana­da that this antic­i­pa­tion to pro­tect one­self is a sys­tem that is “crit­i­cal to our sur­vival when there is actu­al threat or danger, ​​it’s a big prob­lem when there isn’t.” 

          This is the part where I turn away and hide (it took me a month before return­ing to this sec­tion again). Read­ing up on antic­i­pa­to­ry anx­i­ety is like answer­ing a cross­word puz­zle and then real­iz­ing that per­haps I’ve been using the wrong let­ters the entire time. I hes­i­tate to spell this out, but I am begin­ning to con­sid­er that what if all this—me fear­ing los­ing my par­ents, not being able to come out, fail­ing to intro­duce my pre­vi­ous partner—are all just sto­ries I tell myself, a way of pro­tect­ing myself from com­ing out. What if I con­vince myself I can’t come out, because I’m not ready to con­front the hard­er-to-admit real­iza­tion that my par­ents accept­ing me is prob­a­bly not as dis­tant and impos­si­ble a real­i­ty as I have believed it to be. How ter­ri­fy­ing a prospect it is for me to even con­sid­er that I cling to a tra­di­tion­al view of my fam­i­ly as a defense mech­a­nism. What if, what I am most ter­ri­fied of is this: that they’ll accept me when I final­ly tell them, tell me they love me no mat­ter what, and I’ll real­ize that all this time I was the only one hold­ing myself back. I’ve since real­ized that it is for this rea­son that I long even more for the pan­dem­ic to end—so I can stay in the clos­et, escape con­fronting these haunt­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties, and return to the ver­sion of my sto­ry I’ve come to know. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

Writ­ing to me is often a way of under­stand­ing things, of find­ing mean­ing in sto­ries, expe­ri­ences, rela­tion­ships. I reck­on that few peo­ple write with the cer­tain­ty of know­ing exact­ly what will be writ­ten down. When I write, I’m forced to under­stand as I write, to find struc­ture to events, con­nect them, reflect. Going through that process is what I have feared most since I start­ed writ­ing my essay “Since We Broke Up.” I have been afraid to con­front the parts of my iden­ti­ty I have left sus­pend­ed along­side the pan­dem­ic. There are works that require greater and longer reflec­tion before it can ever be writ­ten. This essay was a work I ini­tial­ly start­ed writ­ing in my sopho­more year but was nev­er able to com­plete until my senior year of col­lege because there were still aspects of my iden­ti­ty in rela­tion to my sex­u­al­i­ty that I had yet to under­stand myself. It was­n’t the right time for me to write about it then. I need­ed the months spent writ­ing and rewrit­ing down reflec­tions, get­ting things wrong before I could even­tu­al­ly get them right. 

Cyd­ney Man­gu­bat lives in the Philip­pines. She is a BFA Cre­ative Writ­ing grad­u­ate from Ate­neo de Mani­la Uni­ver­si­ty and a recip­i­ent of the Loy­ola Schools Awards for the Arts for Non­fic­tion, as well as the Mul­ry Award for Lit­er­ary Excel­lence. Most days, she craves pael­la or but­tered chick­en. 

Seek and Hide

Nonfiction / Laura Valeri

:: Seek and Hide ::

Sleep paral­y­sis. Recur­ring night­mares. I’m three. I dream of a play­ground behind the school in  Milan where I live. I am in the sand­box, mak­ing sand cas­tles, the only child still at school after hours. A woman crouch­es next to me, inter­est­ed in my moats, my half-formed mounds. The cher­ry-red of my scoop stands out in the col­or­less dream. Smil­ing, the woman asks why I’m alone. Where are the oth­er chil­dren? Where is my moth­er? She can find her for me. What is my name? My cross­wired brain con­fus­es dream­self with body­self and dous­es both in nar­cot­ic paral­y­sis. I try to speak but can­not reach my voice. Soon, more women come. They cir­cle me. They think I’m shy, non fare la tim­i­da, bam­bi­na, then grad­u­al­ly become impa­tient, dic­ci come ti chi­a­mi. I’m immured in gran­ite sleep, my chest a tomb­stone. I try but my voice is sieved through the slow flow of my breath, and I bare­ly man­age a hiss. The women cross their arms, call me bad man­nered. They’ll tell my moth­er that I’m dis­re­spect­ful. Who am I?  They want my name, my name, my name. I will it to come. I pull my breath through my numb chest, until my name explodes into a shout that jolts me awake and echoes into the emp­ty bedroom.

My father’s exec­u­tive job moves us to Paris. I am four. The apart­ment is maze-like and unfa­mil­iar, dark, tiny rooms, a long nar­row hall­way with sharp angles. I sit alone in the guest room. The tele­vi­sion plays a car­toon in a lan­guage I don’t yet know to call French. It bores me. I hear a casu­al “Where is Lau­ra?” from the kitchen, and I think, come and find me. At first, it’s only my moth­er, her vow­els stretch­ing sing-song through the hall­way, then my grand­moth­er joins her, a choir. My name in their voic­es cross­es the hall­way, from bed­room to liv­ing room, then back to the kitchen. Here, I think, but don’t speak. How can they pos­si­bly miss this room? When my father calls my name, his voice deep and seri­ous, I know. What start­ed as a game will earn me a spank­ing. When the door han­dle jig­gles, I prop my head on the table and close my eyes, slow­ing my breath, let­ting my mouth slacken.

The sto­ry is shared often with rel­a­tives at hol­i­day din­ners: “Once, in Paris, we found her asleep before the tv, with her head on a glass cof­fee table. Can you believe it? This girl can sleep anywhere.”

Hid­ing is a game, a trick to see how long it will take them to notice that I am not around. It’s about my hid­ing place, if it’s clever enough — if I’m clever enough. But the voic­es always grow urgent too sud­den­ly. I only know I’ve gone too far when it’s already too late.

I’m five. Back home in Milan. The large armoire stores my mother’s fresh­ly pressed linens — embroi­dered table cloths in the bot­tom draw­ers; top shelves for col­or coor­di­nat­ed bed sheets, ivory white, pas­tel pink and cerulean blue. Under each set, a soap bar, a cou­ple of moth­balls. I climb in, and find that I fit on the bot­tom shelf over the draw­ers, below the first shelf. I pull the doors closed and hold my breath, wait­ing for my moth­er to real­ize that I am not in the room any­more. The snug­ness. The warmth of the new­ly pressed sheets. The sliv­er of sun that slips through the crack between the doors. I hear my mother’s foot­steps, my name called mind­less­ly, once — then, already, I’m in trouble.

At sev­en, I am small enough to fit between the cur­tain and the glass slid­ing doors that give out to the liv­ing room bal­cony. I sit qui­et­ly with my knees tucked to my chest, my chin on my knees, my fore­head pressed against the cold glass. I wait to be missed. My eyes roam the view out­side, the sun­ny after­noon after school, the pris­tine walls of the build­ing across, iden­ti­cal to ours inside the gat­ed con­do com­plex. A half block away, just over the brick wall perime­ter and the gat­ed garage ramp, there’s an aban­doned ware­house and a sooty low-rise ten­e­ment where I am warned nev­er to go play. On a third-floor bal­cony, girls prac­tice dance steps to the record­ed music of a vari­ety show. They take turns speak­ing into a mop han­dle, pre­tend-inter­view­ing one anoth­er. Across the block, a world away, they spot me. They speak to one anoth­er in agi­tat­ed whis­pers but when they turn to me, their voic­es are clear, their words unmistakable.

Tu, stron­za! Cago­na. Put­tana.” They say I’m spy­ing. They want me to go away.

They can use words I’m not allowed to think. They shout for min­utes at a time across the miles and worlds that sep­a­rate us, and no moth­er yanks those bal­cony doors open to slap their mouths for embar­rass­ing a “good fam­i­ly” before the whole neigh­bor­hood. I pre­tend not to hear or see them. I’m so far away. How could they be talk­ing to me?

Stron­za! Fai fin­ta? Ti vedi­amo benis­si­mo, sai?

I’m a fly trapped behind glass. They are free, foul-mouthed anger in the sun. I am a princess in braces and ortho­pe­dic shoes. They are strik­ing, union­ized Cin­derel­las club­bing the rich step­sis­ter with cusses.

I’ll cut your face, bitch. Sneaky, sneaky snake. We said, go away. Go away. Go away.

Inside the apart­ment, the melo­di­ous chant of my name in my mother’s throat turns trag­ic against the rhythm of the girls’ mount­ing threats.

Then final­ly: “There you are. Nap­ping? There? I was look­ing for you, call­ing you, didn’t you hear me?” She doesn’t seem to hear the ruckus out­side, the two girls, or the ten­e­ment woman one floor below who yells at them, want­i­ng to know what it’s all about.

This need and tal­ent to dis­ap­pear, to be unde­tect­ed, turns into some­thing else over the years, a curse, a virus resis­tant to the space-time con­tin­u­um that embeds itself in my DNA.

I’m twen­ty in Madrid. The boys, unin­vit­ed, sit them­selves at our table. They say “You girls” to describe how intrigued they are by the Ital­ian accent behind my Eng­lish, but they look only at busty, red-head­ed Dina, my Amer­i­can room­mate. My jokes, when acknowl­edged, pro­voke chuck­les they direct only at her.

New York. Twen­ty-three. I demon­strate how to back­door into the DOS pro­gram­ming lan­guage to the new hire, an Ivy League blond my boss tor­ments with pre­dictable jokes. I answer her ques­tions, guide her steps, repeat the same sim­ple anal­o­gy to explain the process. “Wait, wait,” she turns to a col­league who just stepped into our work space. “You know what this is like?”  My anal­o­gy in the new girl’s mouth becomes her orig­i­nal insight.

On a month­ly catch-up phone call with my sis­ter in Rome, I hear repeat­ed to me the same details of the bul­ly­ing episode from my child­hood I shared with her a month ago. My sis­ter recasts her­self as the vic­tim, denies it when I offer evi­dence that it couldn’t be her — yes, we both had short hair, but I had the braces, the ortho­pe­dic shoes. I was mas­chio con la gonna, boy in a skirt.

In a lengthy email exchange, I offer teach­ing advice to a for­mer stu­dent. It appears weeks lat­er on her social media post. “I can’t remem­ber when I start­ed think­ing like this,” her post con­cludes. “It must have been a nat­ur­al shift in per­cep­tion that occurred organ­i­cal­ly, with experience.”

Maybe it’s a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy. It’s that sub­ver­sive desire entwined with my father’s deep voice that threat­ens a spank­ing; it’s the ten­e­ment girls call­ing me out.

I stum­ble on a respect­ed author’s edi­to­r­i­al about their deci­sion to leave acad­e­mia. Bit­ter, dis­il­lu­sioned, the author rants against stu­dents — lazy, unpre­pared, enti­tled. I think of the say­ing, those who can’t, teach, and reverse it, those who teach, can. How con­ve­nient to expect only tal­ent­ed, ded­i­cat­ed stu­dents, I write on my blog. Teach­ing is dif­fi­cult because every chal­lenge and every stu­dent deserves a teacher equipped to help. For the first time, thou­sands of hits. The spike in my blog’s ana­lyt­ics chart reminds me of a lie in a polygraph.

There I am, the child at the cen­ter of a cir­cle of clam­or­ing adults.

I read a mes­sage from a sub­scriber. “Go to the author’s web­site. There’s a response. Have you read it? Are you going to reply?”

The jolt of sur­prise, the embar­rass­ing shout in the emp­ty room.

No. I said my piece, already.” 

I shut down my blog. Not like this, I tell myself. 

I don’t actu­al­ly remem­ber how many hits I got and when I shut down the blog. I remem­ber that it was a lot of hits com­ing in thick­ly and I got scared and I shut the blog down. 

I’m asleep when some­one calls my name, a voice almost famil­iar, urgent in the way of a school­teacher call­ing me out for get­ting dis­tract­ed. The voice star­tles me out of the dream, free­ing me from the con­jured realm of the sleep­ing mind. I open my eyes to silence. I tune my ears to an emp­ty darkness.

From the writer


:: Account ::

When I first start­ed writ­ing “Seek and Hide,” I was think­ing about fam­i­ly mythos. It’s curi­ous how the lore of who you are accord­ing to the sto­ries told about you by fam­i­ly mem­bers starts to take over what­ev­er oth­er expla­na­tion you may have about a par­tic­u­lar episode or event. It was just a start­ing point for the explo­ration of cer­tain con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es that end up in tox­ic self-sab­o­tage, and of the sto­ries we tell to our­selves and oth­ers about who we are. I turn to cre­ative writ­ing when I sense con­nec­tions that are not entire­ly log­i­cal or trans­par­ent, using nar­ra­tive struc­tures that resem­ble more close­ly the way our sub­con­scious process­es orga­nize and asso­ciate memories. 

Many women, espe­cial­ly after they reach a cer­tain age, are “invis­i­ble” in soci­ety. Like many women, I’ve had my share of instances where I felt like a ghost, speak­ing up at meet­ings with­out being acknowl­edged, for instance, only to have a male col­league repeat what I said and receive praise for it. But in the writ­ing process I made the delib­er­ate choice to esca­late to moments of invis­i­bil­i­ty in my life that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly attrib­ut­able to the uncon­scious bias­es women nor­mal­ly expe­ri­ence. My sis­ter recast­ing her­self as the vic­tim in the bul­ly­ing episode from my child­hood, for instance, was very dis­turb­ing to me. I felt as though even the ugly parts of my life were for sale on a mar­ket stand to be auc­tioned at a good price. I asked myself just how much of our inte­ri­or life, our mem­o­ries, our imag­i­na­tion, and every­thing we think defines us is tru­ly our own. 

I sensed a con­nec­tion, albeit not an obvi­ous one, between the iso­la­tion, invis­i­bil­i­ty, and incon­se­quen­tial­i­ty that I’ve often felt in my adult life with my inex­plic­a­ble impulse to hide, to not be seen, and to put up bar­ri­ers that would pre­vent oth­ers from under­stand­ing my thought-process­es when I was a child. 

The recur­ring dream in the first image of the piece is actu­al­ly one of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries. I read a lot about cog­ni­tive sci­ence. The human brain is a sto­ry-telling machine. The mem­o­ries that we choose to res­cue out of the bil­lions of events, dreams, con­ver­sa­tions, and oth­er bits of impres­sions in our lives that we will oth­er­wise nev­er rec­ol­lect con­nects to the sto­ry that the brain wants to tell about who we are, so I pay atten­tion. Though I did not con­scious­ly set out to have the sleep-paral­y­sis become the con­trol­ling metaphor for the piece, it was inevitable that it would cir­cle back at the end, uncon­scious as that process was. 

The first time that some­thing I wrote went viral, I froze, even if it was only a blog post. I’m a writer. Writ­ers write to be read, but I can­not enu­mer­ate how many times I’ve sab­o­taged my own best efforts. I can­not explain that fear in log­i­cal terms. I can only illus­trate it by jux­ta­pos­ing oth­er expe­ri­ences that, though dis­sim­i­lar, nonethe­less share deep sub­con­scious con­nec­tions. Thus, the oner­ous effort of try­ing to speak my name, and the fad­ing echo in the emp­ty room. 

Lau­ra Valeri was born in Piom­bi­no, Italy and moved to the Unit­ed States at age twelve. She is the author of two short sto­ry col­lec­tions and a sto­ry cycle, and most recent­ly, a book of linked essays titled After Life as a Human (Rain Chain Press, 2020) a Geor­gia Author of the Year nom­i­na­tion in mem­oir. Lau­ra Valeri’s fic­tion, essays, and trans­la­tions appear most recent­ly in Grif­fel, (mac)ro(mic), Hunger Moun­tain, Litro, and oth­ers. Lau­ra Valeri is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Wrap­around South, a jour­nal of South­ern lit­er­a­ture. She teach­es cre­ative writ­ing in the under­grad­u­ate pro­gram at Geor­gia South­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. 

Twenty-Five Years of Marriage 

Nonfiction / Heather Bartos

:: Twenty-Five Years of Marriage ::

We first saw the movie “Two for the Road” when we were engaged. Audrey Hep­burn and Albert Finney show the twists and turns of twelve years of marriage.

They were begin­ners, but we didn’t know that then.

Our mar­riage begins on a sev­en­ty-degree Sat­ur­day under a Cal­i­for­nia sycamore at high noon. Your uncle is five min­utes late and miss­es it. The cake comes from Safe­way. We dri­ve off with a set of hand­cuffs dan­gling from the rearview mir­ror. Strangers in Las Vegas see the “Just Mar­ried” sign and scream, “Losers!” We watch bad pub­lic access TV after a freak snow­storm buries the first floor of our motel in Flagstaff, Ari­zona. I hold my ring up to the light, watch it wink and sparkle, an inside joke, a pub­lic promise, the hope of a sol­id-gold guarantee.

Our first apart­ment, one-bed­room, mys­te­ri­ous stains on the car­pet. The hide-a-bed couch aban­doned by pre­vi­ous ten­ants and too heavy to move. Par­ti­cle board book­shelves hold nov­els like the ones I dream of writ­ing some­day. The kitchen win­dow where I can watch anoth­er woman wash­ing dish­es each night as I wash ours. The white Toy­ota with the fried alter­na­tor, where we can’t turn it off at the gro­cery store since it may not re-start. Two and a half years of cook­ies for the kids down the way, mag­no­lias bloom­ing by the mail­box. The black and white cat catch­es a rat right in front of the dump­ster and you shout, “Just like Nation­al Geographic!”

Blink and you’ll miss it.

Two years of grad­u­ate school. Con­fronting the land­lord with the fact that it is ille­gal to rent a place with­out a source of heat. No bath­room sink, show­er leak­ing into the yard. A blue Toy­ota with a trans­mis­sion leak. Wal-Mart, beer, piz­za and maple scones. The six‑a.m. phone call that my father has died, and the week­end spent pack­ing his life into milk crates. Small town base­ball, stu­dent dis­counts, escap­ing 110-degree heat watch­ing bad action movies.

Our first apart­ment in Ore­gon, two whole bed­rooms. At night racoons swim and frol­ic in the pool. Sat­ur­day lunch at the farmer’s mar­ket, sausage and sauer­kraut. The August night that the Toy­ota died at a rest area off High­way 5. Start­ing our first real jobs with two-hour bus com­mutes, right after 9–11. Dis­cov­er­ing that some­one had bro­ken into the car and left behind string cheese wrap­pers and a screw­driv­er. Buy­ing a TV, buy­ing a couch, then buy­ing a two-bed­room ranch house with some­one else’s odds and ends stashed in the crawl space. That red Mer­cury Topaz that drops its muf­fler right in front of the house. Anoth­er trip to the used car place.

Blink and you’ll miss it.

Friends have babies.

We don’t.

We still don’t.

The July after­noon when we get the call that our baby girl is com­ing home. The mad scram­ble for a stroller, for a dress­er, for a stuffed kan­ga­roo with a lit­tle kan­ga­roo nes­tled in its pouch.

She slept through the first night.

And none of the ones after that.

Lit­tle out­fits, twen­ty-four months, 2T, 4T, 6T, size 6X. Up and down, back and forth. Alpha­bet by eigh­teen months, read­ing before age three, blurred flash in motion. Our pink-despis­ing, nin­ja-wor­ship­ping, Imag­ine Drag­ons-lov­ing lit­tle light­ning bolt.

Blink and you’ll miss her.

Age nine at Legoland, eat­ing ice cream for break­fast and find­ing trea­sures hid­den in the hotel room.

Age eleven, upside down in the front seat of the car, pro­cess­ing the facts of life, shout­ing, “Mom! Does this mean my kinder­garten teacher has had sex?”

Blink and you’ll miss her.

Domes­tic wear and tear, moun­tains of dish­es and laun­dry, tired, naps dur­ing foot­ball on TV.

For the parents.

Nev­er for the child.

Dec­o­rat­ing for Hal­loween in August, trips to the beach, fish tacos, salt on our lips and sand in our shoes. Seals catch­ing fish in their paws. Shells at our ears, lis­ten­ing for the pulse and roar of the sea. Christ­mas lights and brown­ies on your birth­day, store-bought cake on hers, straw­ber­ries and whipped cream on mine, with the April twi­light lin­ger­ing like a beloved guest.

Blink and you’ll miss it.

 The neigh­bors’ chil­dren grow tall and stur­dy like sun­flow­ers. I over pay them for babysit­ting and mow­ing the lawn because we can. Putting down roots, becom­ing gnarled like the oaks and wil­low we plant­ed. I look at our neigh­bors in their eight­ies, and I see the future. The veins on my hands stand out, recall­ing they belong to the earth.

The after­noon when some­one has bro­ken into your car, stolen from your stash of coupons. You con­tin­ue to leave the door unlocked since they must need them more than we do.

Two funer­als. And then silence.

Blink­ing back tears.

Three surg­eries. Three recov­er­ies, com­plete with Vicodin and vanil­la ice cream.

The approach of age, read­ing glass­es, heel lifts, vit­a­mins and lit­tle bot­tles of bit­ter pills. Things that ache because we did stu­pid things when we were younger. Things that ache because we do stu­pid things now.

A pan­dem­ic that forces us inside and apart, that smoth­ers our smiles, con­straints and con­stricts and con­fines. It won’t wave the white flag. It won’t surrender.

First we con­tort, then we explore what we con­tain. We dig in and grow things. I teach on Zoom. The kids show me their pets, their Lego cre­ations, their lives.

 We won’t wave the white flag or sur­ren­der either. Life is dif­fer­ent now. Life ought to know bet­ter by now. We give, but we don’t give in. Deep­er instead of wider, less of but not less than.

Just like the TV show “Sur­vivor.” We will out­last, out­wit, out­play you. We were build­ing immu­ni­ty before you were born or thought of. Catch us if you can.

We watch March Mad­ness and eat grilled chick­en sand­wich­es and Jo Jos from Big’s Chick­en, drench them in Yukon Gold Sauce, home-baked, mayo-sat­u­rat­ed sat­is­fac­tion, defi­ant in our joy.

Hap­py anniver­sary. Again.

Blink and you’ll miss it all.

From the writer


:: Account ::

This short essay was inspired by the 1966 movie “Two for The Road,” with Albert Finney and Audrey Hep­burn. The movie fol­lows a young cou­ple through their ini­tial meet­ing, as new­ly­weds, as new par­ents, and final­ly as embit­tered mid­dle-aged adults try­ing to remem­ber what they saw in each oth­er. The film­mak­ing is inge­nious in the sense that mem­o­ries over­lap and at times, the char­ac­ters pass their younger selves on the screen. My essay starts on the day of the wed­ding and moves for­ward through time. Mar­riages, or any long-term part­ner­ships, go through phas­es relat­ed to the stages of life the indi­vid­ual part­ners are expe­ri­enc­ing. This essay shows the ephemer­al, quick­sil­ver nature of the pas­sage of time, as well as how moments, both mun­dane and extra­or­di­nary, come togeth­er to form some­thing larg­er that their indi­vid­ual fragments.

Heather Bar­tos writes both fic­tion and non­fic­tion. Her essays have appeared in Fatal Flaw, Stoneboat Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, HerStry, and else­where. Her flash fic­tion has appeared in The Dil­ly­doun Review, The Closed Eye Open, Tan­gled Locks Jour­nal, and in oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and also won first place in the Bal­ti­more Review 2022 Micro Lit Con­test. Her short sto­ries have appeared in Pon­der Review, Bridge Eight, and elsewhere.

Before & After

Nonfiction / Brianna Pike

:: Before & After ::

Before & After PDF





From the writer

:: Account ::

Up until two years ago, I was writ­ing pri­mar­i­ly poet­ry as it’s been my genre of choice since I fin­ished my MFA in 2009. How­ev­er, in the fall of 2018 I wrote a lyric essay about the birth of my son and my strug­gle as a new moth­er, and I dis­cov­ered this form opened me up to a whole new way of writ­ing. I am very inter­est­ed in the idea of grief, and much of my writ­ing, poet­ry and non­fic­tion, exam­ines grief in all its dif­fer­ent forms. Grief was the dri­ving force behind this essay and has been the focus of sev­er­al oth­er lyric essays I’ve writ­ten in the past year. The form of the essay comes from show­ing the con­trast between the “before” and “after” of grief and how it trans­forms spaces that one used to love and find com­fort in places that are, some­times, unrec­og­niz­able. I also see it as a kind of tour for the audi­ence through a place that was so impor­tant to me and to show how grief per­me­ates so many dif­fer­ent facets of our lives. The two columns also call back to stan­zas and allow a blend, struc­tural­ly, between poet­ry and cre­ative nonfiction. 


Bri­an­na Pike is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Ivy Tech Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. Her poems and essays have appeared in Paren­the­ses, Fish Bar­rel Review, Writer’s Resist Jux­taprose, Thim­ble, & After Hap­py Hour Review. She cur­rent­ly serves as an edi­to­r­i­al assis­tant for the Indi­anapo­lis Review​ and lives in Indy with her hus­band & son. She blogs at Find her on Insta­gram @Bri33081.

Traveling the Red Road: The Life of a Menstruant

Nonfiction / Rachel Neve-Midbar


:: Traveling the Red Road: The Life of a Menstruant ::

I am bleed­ing the day he disappears. 

A wave of cramps hits me, mak­ing me nau­seous. This body, my body—my body that bleeds—how has it led me to this con­strict­ed place?  


Thy soule foule beast is like a men­stru­al cloath,
Pol­lut­ed with unpar­don­able sinners.” 

—Barn­abe Barnes, The Devil’s Charter


Blood is mag­ic
Blood is holy
And whol­ly riv­et­ing of our attention.” 

—Judy Grahn, “All Blood is Men­stru­al Blood” 


All the kids on Brook­side Cir­cle play togeth­er. I am per­haps four years old. A. and I are kneel­ing at the edge of the road, draw­ing with chalk on the con­crete. A. tells me her moth­er pees blood. “No,” I tell her, “Mom­mies don’t pee blood.” She offers to show me and takes me into her house at the end of the block. We remove our shoes in the front hall and walk up the stairs. A. enters her mother’s bath­room first and then motions me to join her. We look togeth­er into the bowl of a beige toi­let where a bit of paper stained with the small­est whiff of blood floats in the water. “Will she die?” I ask. 


the flow­ers,” “the cours­es,” “the terms,” “the mis­ery,” “month­ly dis­ease,” “the time of her wont­ed grief,” “excre­ment,” “those evac­u­a­tions of the weak­er sex,” “the moon,” “weep­ing womb,” “pack­age of trou­bles,” “jam & bread,” “on the rag,” “too wet to plow,” “a snatch box dec­o­rat­ed with red ros­es,” “can’t go swim­ming,” “tide’s in,” “tide’s out,” “fly­ing bak­er” (a Navy sig­nal mean­ing “keep off”), “rid­ing the red tide,” “the red flag is up” 

—Houp­pert, The Curse 


When my sis­ter gets her first peri­od, she is per­fec­tion, light. In the guest bath­room: right across from the TV-room where my moth­er is always splayed in her orange easy chair. Just the right age for a good girl: thir­teen and a half. “Mom­my, Mom­my,” she calls, “I got my peri­od.” How my moth­er touch­es her, “Hon­ey I’m so proud,” smiles, takes her into her room to get belt and pad. Our father is equal­ly proud as he has her dress in Dan­skin, put up her hair. He then spends hours pho­tograph­ing her, over and over: pro­file, chin up, chin down. “Now take down your hair.”   


The word ‘taboo’ itself even comes from a Poly­ne­sian word that both means ‘sacred’ and ‘men­stru­a­tion’”  

Why Are Peri­ods Still a Taboo in 2018? 


I know it’s the time for bad girls when mine comes just two months lat­er. Only twelve, the age for sluts, for trash, for oth­er dirty things. In the upstairs kid’s bath­room.    

Maybe I wasn’t born for joy because just before I dis­cov­er the red stain I am joy­ful at a sixth-grade square dance. Do-si-do. Just once allow­ing myself to fly around the gym not wor­ry­ing how I look. And then this. “Don’t for­get,” my body whis­pers, “don’t for­get what you are.” 

So, I tell no one, stuff my under­wear full of toi­let paper, go on as usu­al, a secret between my legs. 


The duplic­i­ty of blood as both the source of life and the cause of cor­rup­tion was con­cen­trat­ed most in medieval and ear­ly mod­ern per­cep­tions of men­stru­al blood. Despite the men­stru­at­ing body’s func­tion as an exem­plary mod­el for nature’s expul­sive and self-reg­u­lat­ing pow­er, men­stru­al blood itself car­ried the period’s anx­i­eties about woman’s moral duplic­i­ty and bio­log­i­cal weak­ness. Men­stru­al blood and men­stru­at­ing woman were thought to be cor­rupt­ing: they could bring mad­ness, dis­ease, and death to those who touched or looked upon them….”

—John­son, Decamp, Blood Mat­ters 


I’m not real­ly sure what hap­pens to you if you swim while men­stru­at­ing. Prob­a­bly it’s lethal if my mother’s reac­tion is any indi­ca­tion. So, because of a swim invi­ta­tion, I final­ly tell my secret. 

I arrange myself in the guest bath­room, call, “Mom­my, Mom­my.” She does ask me what the bloody wad of school paper tow­el is in the toi­let. “Noth­ing,” I mum­ble and push the flush­er. Then, yes, the belt. Yes, men­stru­al pad that cov­ers me from naval to back­bone: though those don’t last too long. It’s 1975. Tam­pons will be pos­si­ble. Swim­ming too. Even­tu­al­ly even for my mother. 

But, no. No Dan­skin. No Leica lens. Now in the moments my father gets close enough to me he lifts my arm and yanks on the new hairs grow­ing there. And laughs. If I fight him off, he takes a pinch of new­ly bud­ded breast. And laughs harder. 


I have peri­ods now, like nor­mal girls; I too am among the know­ing, I too can sit out vol­ley­ball games and go to the nurse’s for aspirin and wad­dle along the halls with a pad like a flat­tened rab­bit tail wadded between my legs, sop­ping with liv­er-col­ored blood.” 

—Mar­garet Atwood, Cat’s Eye 


The sum­mer after my sec­ond year at Sarah Lawrence I meet D. and start to keep kosher and Shab­bat. The paper­work is com­plete for my junior year abroad, and some­time that sum­mer I will leave for Israel. I tell myself I am look­ing for free­dom inside a sys­tem of law, but real­ly I am look­ing to run as fast as I can into some oth­er life.   

I fol­low D.’s fam­i­ly to a cot­tage on a lake in Penn­syl­va­nia. My oth­er­ness is always on dis­play. They don’t like the way I pro­nounce “Torah.” They don’t like my bare feet, and when I walk around the house in socks they say I dress like a mourn­er. His lit­tle sis­ter asks if I am a shik­sa.   

When I men­stru­ate I take a tam­pon from the box hid­den in my clos­et. I care­ful­ly wrap what is used in toi­let paper, set it in the bas­ket. One morn­ing his moth­er takes me by the arm and pulls me into the bath­room. She shows me a pile of old news­pa­per inside the bath­room cab­i­net. She is 5’10,” Euro­pean; upright and prop­er, her gir­dle always in place, even under her bathing suit. In her accent­ed Eng­lish she tells me I must wrap my used tam­pons in news­pa­per. No one can know. “No one needs to see that.” She is almost spitting. 


OED. taboo | tabu, adj. and n. 
Ety­mol­o­gy: < Ton­gan ˈtabu  
     The putting of a per­son or thing under pro­hi­bi­tion or interdict. 


Women’s reg­u­lar bleed­ing engen­ders phantoms.” 



D. lat­er fol­lows me to Israel, asks me to mar­ry him. I want to say, “Wait.” I want to say, “I don’t know who I am.” But I see how much he needs me. 

I am 21 years old.  


Leviti­cus 15:19 states: “A woman who has a flow of blood in her body shall be a ‘nid­dah’ for sev­en days, and all who touch her shall be rit­u­al­ly impure until sun­down.”  

Leviti­cus 18:19 states: “A woman in the rit­u­al­ly impure state of nid­dah, you shall not approach for sex­u­al relations.” 

The first verse refers to the laws of rit­u­al impu­ri­ty (tumah v’taharah), most of which are no longer applic­a­ble today. 

The sec­ond verse, how­ev­er, appears in the list of the most severe­ly for­bid­den sex­u­al rela­tion­ships, such as adul­tery and incest, which remain ful­ly rel­e­vant to this day. 

A woman ceas­es to be niddah—and returns to a state of rit­u­al puri­ty (taharah)—by con­firm­ing that bleed­ing has ceased (hef­sek taharah), count­ing sev­en blood-free days (shiv­ah neki’im), and immers­ing in a prop­er mikveh.” 

The Nid­dah Status


C. is my kallah teacher. She has a face creased to smile and she smiles a lot. She is also a very strin­gent woman, care­ful in her prac­tice, and she pass­es that care­ful­ness on to me. In the weeks lead­ing up to my wed­ding I vis­it her twice a week. She teach­es me how to keep the laws of fam­i­ly puri­ty: how to under­stand the work­ings of my body, to come close to my rhythms and join togeth­er with them, to watch for stains, to exam­ine, to check, to pre­pare and final­ly, to immerse my body deep in liv­ing water and return each time to myself. 


The night before my wed­ding, I walk to the mikveh with my moth­er and C. I take my time prepar­ing. I have nev­er before giv­en myself this permission—this con­cen­tra­tion. What can I tell you about this care­ful­ness, atten­tion to myself with no one to wit­ness, no one to watch, no one to ridicule? No one look­ing to see how deep and long I bow dur­ing shmona-esrei, no one to taste a good meal I’ve pre­pared so I can see the plea­sure in their eyes. Here in the mikveh bath­room there is only me. Does God care if I comb my eye­brows? I have no idea. I only know that in the warm liv­ing water His hands reach around me, cra­dle me as I loosen my fin­gers and half open my eyes so the water can touch every part of me at once. I bow my head, fold my hands across my breasts, “Blessed are you, God. Blessed.” 


My moth­er asks me after if I feel dif­fer­ent. “Yes,” I answer and she looks sur­prised. We don’t say any­thing else.  


The next morn­ing I rise ear­ly. I go to the apart­ment in Jerusalem that D. and I have rent­ed to make up our bed. I am fast­ing and it is sum­mer, so I take a taxi to the Kotel where I pray for hap­pi­ness, for peace. Yes, per­haps that would be enough. 

It would be enough to hang some dress­es in a clos­et. To open that clos­et in the morn­ing and choose what to wear. Final­ly to just be home. 

After a long Viduy at the Kotel, I make my way west and south to the Bay­it Veg­an neigh­bor­hood, to the Holy­land Hotel. There I will stand under the chup­pah.   


The Halakha details strict rules gov­ern­ing every aspect of the dai­ly lives of Jews, includ­ing the sex­u­al lives of mar­ried cou­ples. Jew­ish law express­ly for­bids any phys­i­cal con­tact between spous­es dur­ing the days of men­stru­a­tion and for a week there­after. Accord­ing to stip­u­lat­ed rit­u­al, an Ortho­dox Jew­ish wife is respon­si­ble for ensur­ing that she is no longer exhibit­ing vagi­nal bleed­ing by swab­bing her­self care­ful­ly with a linen cloth for each of the sev­en days fol­low­ing the overt ces­sa­tion of the men­stru­al flow. The sev­en clean days after men­stru­a­tion cul­mi­nate with the wife’s oblig­a­tion to immerse that night in the Mik­vah, the rit­u­al bath. It is only at the end of the Nid­dah inter­val, after the rit­u­al bath, that spous­es are per­mit­ted to phys­i­cal­ly touch one anoth­er. This ‘‘two weeks on/two weeks off’’ pat­tern of con­tact char­ac­ter­izes mar­i­tal life until menopause, with two notable time frame excep­tions: preg­nan­cy and nurs­ing (until post­par­tum men­stru­a­tion resumes), when unin­ter­rupt­ed con­tact is per­mit­ted. These ‘Laws of Fam­i­ly Puri­ty’ rep­re­sent an inte­gral aspect of iden­ti­ty as an Ortho­dox Jew.” 

—Guter­man, Archives of Sex­u­al Behav­ior  


The first mikveh night about a month after we are mar­ried, I come home to find fresh sheets on the bed, a spaghet­ti meal, a beau­ti­ful note of love and hope for our future fam­i­ly. D. is wear­ing my short, black-silk kimono. It makes his green-gray eyes shine. Wow, I think as I fall into his arms, I could get used to this mar­riage thing.   

That is the first and last time. I nev­er see this ver­sion of him again. 


I remem­ber the still­ness, the still­ness of thun­der left behind, the still­ness of knees held tight togeth­er, breath exhaled once, twice. 

Over time, each sec­ond, sweat on my palms. Bro­ken records stored in a clos­et, their shards gleam in the dark­ness, each groove a year of life. Moments on the floor, sur­round­ed by books writ­ten in a lan­guage no one even reads anymore. 

Don’t move or you’ll upset some­thing. Wait. Don’t speak. Some­one might think well of you. Hold your breath and time will stop, a sun held between my two palms, no big­ger than the space between my fin­gers.   

There is always that still­ness. Qui­et quakes in my chest, drips down my back. A chair flies across the room, hits me right on the tem­ple. For some rea­son I live. Make-up cov­ers the bruise, cov­ers every­thing. He hands me a glass of some­thing dark to drink. It changes from pur­ple to black, a sun drop­ping to the bot­tom of an ocean. 

Was it me who pushed back the entire wall of my house to become the doll inside?  


From the diary of Jane Sharp in 1671:  

some­times flow too soon, some­times too late, they are too many or too few, or are quite stopt that they flow not at all. Some­times they fall by drops, and again some­times they over­flow; some­times they cause pain, some­times they are void­ed not by the womb but some oth­er way; some­times strange things are sent forth by the womb.” 

—Sara Read, Men­stru­a­tion and the Female Body in Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­land 


Twice I have hem­or­rhaged, left bath­rooms look­ing like mur­der scenes.   


I will tell you about the sec­ond time first. It’s the eas­i­er sto­ry. It’s an after birth sto­ry, from the time right after my youngest son was born. My hor­mones mis-cal­i­brat­ing, my uterus six weeks after the C‑section, just start­ing to return to itself, sud­den­ly fill­ing with blood bal­loons like a wash­ing machine gyrat­ing too much soap. 

In my paper gown in the exam­i­na­tion room the Dr. tells me to take off my under­wear, sit on the chair that becomes a bed with stir­rups. How can I undress when I am gush­ing blood like a faucet? When I glance down, he says with so much kind­ness, “Don’t wor­ry. I have seen everything.” 

Lat­er when I walk into the oper­at­ing room for the D&C, the Dr. is wait­ing for me, capped and gowned all in white, his hands clasped in front of him­self, sway­ing slight­ly as if in prayer, he looks like a groom, com­plete­ly kit­tled, wait­ing for me under the chup­pah. What would my life be like if I had mar­ried instead this kind man?  



“we need a god who bleeds now 
a god whose wounds are not 
some small male vengeance”

—Ntoza­ke Shange, “We Need a God who Bleeds Now” 


red light,” “red let­ter day,” “my red­head­ed friend,” “cher­ry in the sher­ry,” “the red king,” “trav­el­ing the red road,” “the red sea’s out,” “the reds are in,” “bloody mary,” “the chick is a com­mu­nist,” “white cylin­der week,” “moth­er nature’s gift,” “it’s rain­ing down south,”  

—Houp­pert, The Curse


The first time I hem­or­rhage I am in my mother-in-law’s house. I am ten weeks preg­nant. My arms are already full with a two year old and a ten month old. I car­ry them up and down the steep stairs to the attic where we sleep. Some­thing hurts. I am exhaust­ed. I can’t do any­thing but sit all day, let­ting the girls play at my feet. Some­thing is wrong. Some­thing is wrong with this preg­nan­cy. A pull. It hurts. 

Final­ly it tears. Some­thing tears inside my abdomen. The pain is excru­ci­at­ing. I set the girls down, run to the bath­room. There is blood every­where. I clean up as best I can and go down­stairs to tell my moth­er-in-law that I think I am hav­ing a miscarriage. 

She looks at her watch, tells me we can’t go to the hos­pi­tal for a few more hours, until her hus­band comes home to watch my twelve-year-old sis­ter-in-law. I feed my girls din­ner, get them tucked in. 

On the dri­ve into Man­hat­tan sev­er­al hours lat­er she tells me “it’s all for the best.” But I know she is wrong. I am twen­ty-four years old, moth­er of two, and her son blames me for every bad thing that hap­pens to us. Every­thing. Both big and small: when he los­es his driver’s license from too many tick­ets. When he fights with some­one in shul. From our mon­ey prob­lems to his own desire for oth­er women, every­thing is my fault.  I can’t imag­ine what he will do to me if I lose this pregnancy. 


taboo: adj. (syn.) ille­gal, restrict­ed, unmen­tion­able, unacceptable 


The baby isn’t dead, though I won’t find this out until the next day. At NYU Med­ical, the bed they give me is bro­ken, the floor is cov­ered with blood. Not mine. I am no longer bleed­ing.   

The Dr. who exam­ines me tells me my cervix is still closed. Mat­ter-of-fact­ly she explains this means: 1. that the fetus was already expelled and my cervix then closed right back up after her like a slammed door. Or 2. that I have yet to expel the lit­tle life and that she will find her way out in the next few days. Or 3. that I am still preg­nant. “So why all the blood then?” I ask. She shrugs.  

No blood test, no ultra­sound, I ride back to Queens, absent­ly lis­ten­ing to my moth­er-in-law talk about the man in the bed next to mine who had slashed his foot on a can top when he stepped on his kitchen garbage. For­ev­er after, as long as I will know her, she will very care­ful­ly insert the top back into the emp­ty can before throw­ing it away. She will tell any­one who is will­ing to lis­ten that you can’t be too care­ful with the torn top of a can. 

The next day I drink a half a gal­lon of water and trav­el alone back into Man­hat­tan for an ultra­sound to see my daugh­ter. No, she is not lying qui­et­ly inside me. She is not suck­ing her lit­tle thumb. On the screen my daugh­ter is upright and break-danc­ing just above a pla­cen­tal tear. 


Many medieval Jew­ish mys­tics saw men­stru­a­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. Accord­ing to a sec­tion of the Zohar, the most pop­u­lar work of medieval Kab­bal­ah, the menstruant’s title of nid­dah tells us that ‘God flees from her.’ God aban­dons men­stru­ants because God can­not suf­fer impu­ri­ty. The nid­dah repels the forces of the holy, and her spir­i­tu­al vac­u­um is imme­di­ate­ly filled by the forces of evil and impurity.” 

Zohar, 3:226a (RM


There is always some­thing we woman can’t do, some­where we can’t go, some­thing we can’t touch because we men­stru­ate. We are not allowed to touch the Torah, even when it’s “dressed,” mean­ing there is a bound­ary between the holy vel­lum and our taint­ed fin­gers. We can­not dance with the holy scroll on the hol­i­day of Sim­chat Torah, even if we have gone to the mikveh and are as rit­u­al­ly clean as our hus­bands. Why? Because then “peo­ple will see” who is in nid­dah among the women and who is not and that is “immod­est.”   

My hus­band loves the idea of my immod­esty and when­ev­er he wants to ridicule me and set me in my place he brings it up. My immod­est dress, my immod­est speech, my immod­est behav­ior. When I wear san­dals that “show my toes” or a dress in a shade of red, when I stick my tongue out at him in the street, when I use the word “putz” at a fam­i­ly party—any of these and many more are rea­sons to pun­ish me. 

He trav­els often, leav­ing us alone for weeks at a time. He nev­er needs to be home for any rea­son because I am always there.  My men­stru­a­tion gives my hus­band com­plete con­trol over me, it ren­ders me weak, dirty, dif­fer­ent. This is the tool of his pow­er.   


And when I am “immod­est”? Yes, there are pun­ish­ments. Some­times it is the set of his jaw, a cold stare. Some­times it is a chilly silence that can last for days or weeks. It might be the hav­dalah wine thrown in my face in front of the chil­dren when I sing too loud­ly or my cred­it cards cut to pieces if I buy some­thing with­out per­mis­sion. Or it might be a back­hand to the face or being thrown to the base­ment floor, his hands around my neck if I smile too warm­ly with the dish­wash­er repairman. 


How often does he show me his back on mikveh nights? After all the effort of bathing and the dress­ing, the undress­ing, the dunk­ing, the dress­ing once again only to find him already asleep, turned away from me. 


“Come you spirits  
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, 
And fill me from crown to the toe, top-full 
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood, 
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse, 
That no compunctious visitings of nature 
Shake my fell purpose, not keep peace between 
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts, 
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers” 

—Shake­speare, Mac­beth, (1.5.41–49)


Con­tact with [men­stru­al blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become bar­ren, grafts die, seed in gar­dens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a hor­ri­ble smell fills the air; to taste it dri­ves dogs mad and infects their bites with an incur­able poi­son.”  

—Pliny the Elder, Nat­ur­al His­to­ry: A Selec­tion 


I just want him to stop being so angry. I pray for this every week when I light my Shab­bat can­dles and again when I burn a small piece of chal­lah dough. In the mikveh I dunk sev­en times instead of the reg­u­lar three and pray final­ly, final­ly, for peace. 


And then comes the day he dis­ap­pears. He does call—once. I ask him where he is, but he won’t tell me. Instead he tele­phones our daugh­ters, tells them he is in Hawaii.  

Usu­al­ly he tele­phones con­stant­ly, but he doesn’t call again. I wait. Every day. I am ice inside, walk­ing ice as I pack the kids’ lunch­es, as I fold laun­dry, as I take care of the com­pa­ny bank­ing, watch the trad­ing accounts. I know he can’t be alone; he always needs some­one to talk to. 

But he doesn’t call. Not Tues­day, not Thurs­day. Not before Shab­bat to wish his chil­dren a good week.  

My clean days come and I don’t check; my mikveh night arrives and I don’t go. When he final­ly comes home I am still in nid­dah. I tell him this when he reach­es his arm out to bring me close and says, “Babe, come to bed.” 

Lat­er that day he reveals that he wasn’t in Hawaii alone, that he is in love with some­one else, has been for the past eigh­teen months. It turns out she is the con­sul­tant he hired to help us locate gold mine deals in Neva­da. It turns out there are no deals in Neva­da. It turns out I have been pay­ing $5,000 a month, about $40,000 total of com­pa­ny mon­ey, to his mis­tress, and that it was me who put through and signed the wire trans­fer orders. 

I ask him to leave. 


we need a god who bleeds 
spreads her lunar vul­va & show­ers us in shades of scar­let 
thick & warm like the breath of her” 

—Ntoza­ke Shange, “We Need a God Who Bleeds Now” 


In the dream we are as we are now, aged, lay­ered, yet our pas­sion grows as it always did, our appetite for each oth­er in my cries that still echo thir­ty years lat­er down from the long cor­ri­dor of a col­lege dorm, our desire takes root, intact and as you reach your hand between the part­ed branch­es of my legs there flows a Nia­gara of blood—the blood that so repelled you shoots forth, an artery opened, pushed out of me with each heart­beat, a riv­er that moves the water-wheel that cir­cles between the secrets of life and death, and remains in that pun­gent place between, that place I am in now where my breasts hang, two tears upon my chest and my face is an aban­doned land. 


I am men­stru­at­ing the day we go to the Rab­bin­ut for the ghett. And I am acute­ly aware of it as the three rab­bis have me stand side­ways in front of their dais and hold my hands up to receive the fold­ed vel­lum doc­u­ment. “High­er,” they say, “high­er.” I stretch my hands over my head. I can feel their eyes mov­ing up and down my body.   


OED: taˈ­booness  n. the state or con­di­tion of being taboo. 

1974   Ver­ba­tim I. i. 4/1   The tabooness of fuck


Then come the years alone. My men­stru­a­tion starts to change, my peri­ods get­ting longer, stronger, last­ing for weeks with days when I can’t leave the house because I need to change my pad/tampon com­bo every hour.   


The moon ris­es full, over­whelm­ing the dark sky and all of us on the deck of this boat in Yafo port tonight. We are all women, pray­ing and med­i­tat­ing togeth­er. M., sit­ting next to me, tells me her sto­ry: how she left her par­ents’ reli­gious home for col­lege and nev­er went back. How after grad­u­a­tion she got a job on the sea and, for the next twen­ty years moved from job to job, from port to port, from ocean to ocean. “I have nev­er slept with a man who wouldn’t go down on me when I had my peri­od,” she tells me.

Incred­u­lous, I ask, “Not one?” 


My girls are get­ting old­er. They are young women. They reject the pill; spend long weeks hik­ing in the desert, work­ing on kib­butz, trav­el­ing the world with back­packs. They ask me to order them men­stru­al cups from Ama­zon. Small rub­ber bowls to be insert­ed inside: health­i­er and bet­ter for the envi­ron­ment. They tell me their blood will be used to water some organ­ic gar­den. I won­der, can they taste them­selves in each toma­to bite? 


I buy a pair of hik­ing boots, look at myself in the mir­ror. There are no lines on my face. 


I google “Tel Aviv clubs for the old­er set”; I google “Best online dat­ing sites in Israel.” A cat­a­logue of faces. What many of these guys are into, I learn, is mutu­al mas­tur­ba­tion via Skype. So many of them are wear­ing base­ball caps and shades—incognito and hold­ing their com­put­ers.   

One guy keeps nudg­ing me to meet in per­son. His face stands out, sculpt­ed and strong. F. writes in Eng­lish, already a relief. 

I haven’t dat­ed any­one except my hus­band since I was nine­teen. I slip into a filmy red blouse, spread Jo Mal­one Lime Blos­som along my neck and wrists and head to Tel Aviv. 


I have no idea where I am—a dark room, a night­light switch­ing from red to blue to the back­beat of what sounds like old dis­co. He touch­es me, kiss­es me, undress­es me. His arms are long, reach around me. The sand­pa­per of his hands moves over every part of my body. My eyes adjust and I see him, long lines of satin skin, taut and strong. And his cock. Thick, so heavy it doesn’t stand away from his body, beau­ti­ful­ly pro­por­tioned. He is talk­ing to me. Whis­per­ing that he doesn’t do well with con­doms, that he will lose his erec­tion. I am on my back on his bed; he is stand­ing over me. I think, “I want this.” I want this more than I have want­ed any­thing in my life. Acronyms like STDs and AIDS flit through my mind. Six chil­dren, all mine. Tomor­row. I will deal with the con­se­quences tomor­row. Tonight I just want the gift on this bare cock in me. “Yes,” I say, and as he slips inside, a fore­arm under each of my knees, he car­ries me through a door and into the life of my own desire. 


It’s like this every time we see each oth­er. Elec­tric. No con­ver­sa­tion, very lit­tle sleep. I would hap­pi­ly see F. every night, but he tells me he “has church.” Mon­day night church, Thurs­day night church. Lots of church. Really? 

We aver­age twice a week and I become a stretched cord of desire. I walk around the house wait­ing for him to call and when he does, I fly to the car, speed all the way to his lips, his hands, his penis. That beau­ti­ful cock that soon becomes a divin­ing rod to my uncer­tain men­stru­a­tion. Our sex calls my body to bleed. More time apart. But not like D. Not Ortho­dox apart. No, F. will still get his: in my hands, my mouth, against my ass. 


I fell off the roof,” “I’ve got my flow­ers,” “I’ve got my friend,” “I’ve got the grannies,” “lady in the red dress,” “Grandma’s here,” “Aunt Rosa is com­ing from Amer­i­ca,” My red­head­ed Aunt from Red Bank.” 

—Houp­pert, The Curse 


Final­ly the day comes when he calls and, as I get ready for a show­er, I see a small stain of blood in my panties. And I’m done. Done. It is, after all, the small­est stain and what is this? It’s not some God thing. No, it’s a most human thing. My thing. My body. And I am done with let­ting it stop me.   

I tell him nothing—shower and dri­ve to Tel Aviv. We are togeth­er for hours in his pitch-dark room, fall asleep in each other’s arms. The next morn­ing I leave very ear­ly to get home to my children. 


For the next five weeks I don’t hear from F. He doesn’t call and when I tele­phone him the phone rings and rings. When he final­ly invites me to Tel Aviv it’s to show me the stained sheets. Sheets he nev­er threw away, that have sat all this time in the cor­ner of his room. He holds up the cloth and informs me he wants no part of my “bad-lady juju.” 


Ntoza­ke Shange, we need a “God who bleeds.” Is she here? 


This is my blood. 

A lit­tle his­to­ry of the rules, of those who have them and of those who make them. 

The men­stru­al rev­o­lu­tion, in any case, is in progress. And it will prob­a­bly be the first in the world to be both bloody and peaceful.” 

—Élise Thiebaut, “The Men­stru­al Revolution” 


“The name—of it—is ‘Autumn’— 
The hue—of it—is Blood— 
An Artery—upon the Hill— 
A Vein—along the Road— 
Great Globules—in the Alleys— 
And Oh, the Shower of Stain— 
When Winds—upset the Basin— 
And spill the Scarlet Rain— 
It sprinkles Bonnets—far below— 
It gathers ruddy Pools— 
Then—eddies like a Rose—away— 
Upon Vermilion Wheels—” 

—Emi­ly Dick­in­son (J 656)


At last a man steps out of the cat­a­logue of faces, a man who sees me, who lets me know that I am seen. This is plea­sure of a whole new kind, a deep plea­sure. I am hand­ed drinks before I know I am thirsty. Noth­ing I do or say ever upsets him.   

He touch­es me, mas­sages me, loves me—everywhere: between my toes, the base of my hair­line, the place at where my back meets my but­tocks, which he calls “nabakoo.” It might mean “dim­ple” or “space”; he nev­er says. He does tell me, his voice thick with pas­sion, that noth­ing is more beau­ti­ful. He sees me beau­ti­ful and this makes me beau­ti­ful. His hands are huge, but they nev­er touch me with any­thing but gen­tle­ness. And they nev­er stop touch­ing me. In the street, in shops, every­where. And, wher­ev­er we go, peo­ple stop to look at our grey-haired hap­pi­ness.   


Two weeks after we start dat­ing, I am accept­ed as a PhD can­di­date at a uni­ver­si­ty in Cal­i­for­nia and from that time our rela­tion­ship forms itself around the knowl­edge that I am leav­ing. Four days before I am due to fly, my suit­cas­es most­ly packed, I begin to stain. I ask him if he has made love to a woman who is bleed­ing? He tells me he has not. Then he kneels in front of me, takes my hands in his. His face car­ries years, years of trav­el, of hard­ship, of life, but his eyes hold mine. “We are one body,” he says. “When you bleed, I am also bleed­ing.”  

He makes love to me then, holds noth­ing back, touch­es me every­where. If his penis is cov­ered with blood after, he doesn’t bur­den me with it, just steps away to wash and comes back to bed where he wraps his arms around me, braids his legs with mine into twist­ed roots.   


“thirty-eight years and you 
never arrived 
splendid in your red dress 
without trouble for me” 

—Lucille Clifton, “to my last peri­od”  


Our bod­ies shape-shift and writhe” 

—Darcey Steinke, Flash Count Diary


Noth­ing can pre­pare you for this.” 

—Mary Reu­fle, “Pause” 


I am new­ly arrived in L.A. for grad­u­ate school, stay­ing in a North Hol­ly­wood McMan­sion with friends, when the bleed­ing becomes full. The bed in the gue­stroom is mas­sive­ly pil­lowed, the sheets pris­tine. Luck­i­ly I brought a tow­el from home to tuck under me at night. Despite this, I still wake in the murky light before dawn, a fresh gush slip­ping from me. 

In the bath­room I reach down to remove my tam­pon and look at the full pad attached to my under­wear, the streaks of brown and pur­ple and maroon there, run a fin­ger over this sun­set of col­or. Some­times, when it was espe­cial­ly bad with D., I would lock myself in the bath­room, sit on the toi­let and lay my head down on my knees. The smell of me in those moments, the scent of how life and death could coin­cide inside me would bring me com­fort. Now, see­ing a streak of blood caught on my thumb, I touch it to my tongue before wip­ing it away, taste the salt and rust of me.   

Forty-three years of month­ly peri­ods. At fifty-five I am fac­ing the change. The first signs of per­i­menopause have start­ed to creep in, the heat and fog­gy brain, the exhaus­tion. But haven’t I always been chang­ing? Or has my month­ly flow kept me in rhythm, pro­vid­ed a back-beat to my life? And in this next iter­a­tion, who will this new woman, this new being be? Will I know her, rec­og­nize her bet­ter than I saw myself at 21? Or accept her as I nev­er did that girl of 12, a girl who iden­ti­fied inside a dime sized, rusty stain the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of every mis­un­der­stand­ing, every mis­take, every embar­rass­ment of her young life? And the biggest ques­tion: will I ever find it in me to for­give her? 






From the writer

:: Account ::

My jour­ney into this piece began in the first semes­ter of my PhD at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. I took a class in Shake­speare where­in we ana­lyzed each play via one word from the text. In addi­tion, we each need­ed to choose one word for our own semes­ter research. In an irrev­er­ent moment, on the day we need­ed to announce our per­son­al words, I chose the word “men­stru­a­tion,” not com­pre­hend­ing in that moment that I was com­plete­ly chang­ing the direc­tion of my research and my life. It didn’t take long to real­ize that I had inad­ver­tent­ly put my fin­ger on the very pulse of the most ancient and per­va­sive way a patri­ar­chal soci­ety has abused women. My answer could only be to tell my own sto­ry not only as an Ortho­dox Jew­ish wife but as a woman in mod­ern soci­ety. How do we undo misog­y­ny? We learned from #MeToo to share our sto­ries and find pow­er in solidarity. 


Rachel Neve-Mid­bar’s col­lec­tion Salaam of Birds won the 2018 Patri­cia Bib­by First Book Award and was pub­lished by Tebot Bach in Jan­u­ary 2020. She is also the author of the chap­book What the Light Reveals (Tebot Bach, 2014), win­ner of The Clock­work Prize. Rachel’s work has appeared in Black­bird, Prairie Schooner, Grist, and The Geor­gia Review as well as oth­er pub­li­ca­tions and antholo­gies. Her awards include the Crab Orchard Review Richard Peter­son Prize, the Pas­sen­ger Poet­ry Prize, and nom­i­na­tions for The Push­cart Prize. Rachel is cur­rent­ly edit­ing the AuntFlo2020 Project, an anthol­o­gy of writ­ing about men­stru­a­tion, and she is cur­rent­ly a PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. More at

Here’s Your Terrifying Cat

Nonfiction / Brenden Layte

:: Here’s Your Terrifying Cat ::

I’m sit­ting in a rent­ed car in a park­ing lot, and I’m con­vinced that my cat is dying. I breathe and try to talk myself down and think I remem­ber there being a word like hypochon­dri­ac but for some­one wor­ried about some­thing oth­er than them­selves. If I take my phone out to look it up, I’ll end up search­ing his symp­toms for ten min­utes and for­get what I took it out for, so I don’t. Maybe the word I’m look­ing for is just anx­i­ety.  

An abridged list of my recent inter­net search­es: cat fast breath­ing, cat heavy breath­ing, cat heavy and fast breath­ing, cat pant­i­ng, cat pant­i­ng for no rea­son, cat pant­i­ng no exer­cise, cat flared nos­trils, cat pant­i­ng and cough­ing, cat not able to jump, cat heavy fast breath­ing and pant­i­ng, cat sleep­ing in dif­fer­ent places, cat trou­ble get­ting up, cat smells dif­fer­ent.  

Maybe it’s not a case of me hav­ing what­ev­er the word I’m try­ing to remem­ber is, or the fact that he is sick, but the real­i­ty that he’s not the ani­mal he was a year, or even a few months ago, and had been in one way or anoth­er for nine years before that. And between his age and how sick­ness has a way of aging us even more, there’s a real­iza­tion that he might nev­er be the ani­mal he was again. I reach over to his car­ri­er on the pas­sen­ger seat and awk­ward­ly angle my hand through a hole to touch him. He licks my fin­gers until my hand begins to hurt from the carrier’s plas­tic and I pull it away.  

I fid­get in my seat, try­ing to com­fort both myself and the scared ani­mal next to me, and I think maybe I should just try to find that word to dis­tract myself, but then my phone vibrates and it’s a num­ber I don’t know, which I know means it’s the vet. I answer and they’re ready to see him. I get out and go around the car to open the door and grab the pet car­ri­er, then wait awk­ward­ly by the door before putting him down on a gur­ney when it rolls out­side. The car­ri­er was cov­ered in cau­tion tape the last time I left this ani­mal hos­pi­tal with him four years ago. 

I apol­o­gize to the vet tech in advance for the chaos they’re going to deal with when they open the car­ri­er, then walk back to the car and start rolling a cig­a­rette. I won­der how far away I’m sup­posed to go from the entrance to smoke here. Next to the car, I’m about 15 feet from the tents they’ve put out for peo­ple to sit under because there’s a pan­dem­ic and we can’t wait inside. That doesn’t seem far enough. I know there are rules at human hos­pi­tals, and I try to remem­ber what they are.  

I start walk­ing and end up at the far end of the park­ing lot hud­dled on a small tri­an­gle of lawn, smil­ing at the few peo­ple who pass by to use the near­by dog park. Their glances linger and I feel a tinge of embar­rass­ment and the urge to tell them that I smoke like five cig­a­rettes a month and only when I’m real­ly anx­ious and it’s bet­ter than the alter­na­tives. Instead, I look toward the build­ing and think that my being out here instead of inside with the cat is not going to go well for them. Depend­ing on how long things take, it’s prob­a­bly not going to be great for me either. 

The Hal­loween week­end before the pan­dem­ic, my friend leaned toward me at a bar, telling me about the time she was called into an exam room for a real pain in the ass of a cat at the ani­mal hos­pi­tal she used to work at. Since it was Hal­loween week­end, a band duti­ful­ly wore skele­ton cos­tumes and played a Mis­fits cov­er behind her. My friend said that when she entered the exam room, she saw a gray and white cat half-cov­ered by a pile of tow­els in the mid­dle of the floor hiss­ing and attack­ing any­one that came close. It wasn’t just show­ing the fear­ful defense pos­ture that all ani­mals have when they’re scared, but was ini­ti­at­ing attacks with the pri­mal anger that crea­tures save for those they’re sure mean to destroy them. The kind of anger that says, “I’ll destroy you first.” The vet techs already in the room were hid­ing or pressed into cor­ners. At one point, she said, one of them screamed, “He’s already been tranq’ed three times!” In the com­mo­tion, she didn’t rec­og­nize him as a cat she’d met many times before. She told me that my cat calmed down after the fourth shot. 

When my cat does tricks and gets pieces of food as a reward, he picks each up with his paw and brings it up to his face and some­times he drops it. If cats could be exas­per­at­ed, I’d swear he is in those moments, but instead of tak­ing the short cut and just reach­ing his mouth down, he grabs the food with his paw and brings it up to his mouth again. My cat responds to come, sit, high five, lay down, and roll-over, all of which are about what you’d think except roll-over, which has the embell­ish­ment of a protest meow about halfway through. And final­ly, there’s jump, which involves him jump­ing through a hoop made from card­board and duct tape and meow­ing at the peak of the jump, this time with more pride than protes­ta­tion. It’s a good thing to show peo­ple to prove that he’s actu­al­ly good when they were just attacked and maybe have blood on their legs because we were out­side and they came in with­out me to use the bathroom. 

When I’m get­ting the cat to do tricks, he often decides that he’s had enough and just stops in the mid­dle of roll-over and lays on his back, tail wag­ging side-to-side like one of those art deco nov­el­ty cat clocks. It’s not that he lays in a stu­pid posi­tion, or at least it’s not just that. It’s that he looks to me and seems to be try­ing to find a com­pro­mise, meow­ing up impa­tient­ly while he’s halfway through this thing that has become part of his social con­tract. Wait­ing for me to tell him that it’s okay to be tired or just not feel like it any­more and stop.  

Some­times I joke, or some­body else jokes, about how dam­aged my cat would be if he were a human and then I feel awful because most of the peo­ple I care about are dam­aged and it’s actu­al­ly not that fun­ny of a thing to joke about. My cat’s name is Pablo. He’s named after the poet and also a pen­guin from a car­toon I’ve nev­er seen that a per­son I don’t talk to any­more watched. I did have a friend who had a ger­bil named after the drug king­pin if that’s what you were think­ing, though. I don’t talk to him any­more either. 

Because of the attack­ing peo­ple and the four tran­quil­iz­ers need­ed the last time he was at the ani­mal hos­pi­tal, it took hours for them to get a diag­no­sis and tell me that Pablo had a uri­nary obstruc­tion and need­ed to be catheter­ized for a few days. It took less time than that for them to learn that his cage had to be cov­ered with a blan­ket at all times because oth­er­wise he would slam him­self into the sides of it and try to fight his way through the met­al to get to any­one that walked by.   

When he got home a few days lat­er, the usu­al­ly vocal cat had laryn­gi­tis from hiss­ing and growl­ing and doing the cat ver­sion of mani­a­cal­ly scream­ing the entire time he was in the hos­pi­tal. His mouth still con­stant­ly opened, but noth­ing came out. He stub­born­ly kept doing it, either try­ing to will noise from his bat­tered throat, or maybe he knew that I knew what the noise would have sound­ed like if it were there, and he was fine with let­ting me fill in the silence.  

Pablo was adopt­ed and brought back a cou­ple times before I end­ed up with him and when I tell peo­ple this, they nod know­ing­ly before real­iz­ing what they’re doing and being polite and stop­ping. When I first saw him, he was just under a year old and play­ing with anoth­er kit­ten through a glass win­dow at the shel­ter. The game was him run­ning around the lit­tle room he was in, bound­ing through a cat tree, and stop­ping hard at the glass and then the kit­ten, no more than a cou­ple months old, would stum­ble and wave his paws in the air and then Pablo would rub the glass and start anoth­er lap. When they stopped and Pablo laid in the lit­tle bed they had in his room, I asked the woman work­ing at the shel­ter to see him. She opened the door and I reached in and our first phys­i­cal con­tact was him grab­bing my hand with a paw, bring­ing it to his face, lick­ing it, and start­ing to purr. It wasn’t until after this that I saw his paper­work and found out he liked to hide around cor­ners and pounce at peo­ple, and some­times got real­ly upset for no good rea­son, and also that he real­ly didn’t like guests. By the time I found all that out, it didn’t mat­ter. He was com­ing home with me. 

Maybe it’s because of how he is, at least to peo­ple he doesn’t know, but maybe not being good enough for peo­ple who are sup­posed to love you and take care of you can make crea­tures a lit­tle dif­fi­cult and prone to emo­tion­al out­bursts. Peo­ple don’t believe me when I tell them that Pablo often waits for me at the bot­tom of the stairs to my door when I go out and if I’m gone too long, he cries until my down­stairs neigh­bor sticks his fin­gers under the door to com­fort him and give him food. When I get home, he climbs me and des­per­ate­ly rubs his face into me, some­times until he drools, and meows until I cra­dle him so that he can lick me until he gets over­whelmed and cud­dles into my arms to doze off, limp oth­er than the vibra­tions of his purring. Some­times peo­ple don’t get the whole sto­ry because they don’t know how we act when we feel safe. 

Before he got sick, while we were trapped inside for the pan­dem­ic, I’d real­ly got­ten to know Pablo’s dai­ly rhythms and needs in a dif­fer­ent way than I had before. I knew what would keep his com­plaints under con­trol before they even came. What each lit­tle noise meant: a sur­prised, soft trill; a two-part meow that falls in the mid­dle before com­ing back up and fill­ing the room; a purr that seems to push the lim­its of the hap­pi­ness a crea­ture can expe­ri­ence. I was famil­iar with them before, but I began to antic­i­pate his needs and have some­thing resem­bling two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I learned what each tail swish and head tilt meant, what sleep­ing spots were for short- and long-term stays, what toys he liked at what time of day. With this, he began to stay clos­er for longer peri­ods of time. The love and affec­tion from him used to be aggres­sive, but often brief. Now, he sought pets and begged to be picked up. Now he came close and cud­dled up more often, even going so far as to begin meow­ing at a cer­tain pil­low every night so that I’d lay it next to me for him to sleep on, his paws draped over my arm. At ease; con­tent even. 

I’m not in the park­ing lot much longer after the cig­a­rette before I get a call and find out that they can’t real­ly exam­ine Pablo because he’s attack­ing every­one, and I have to come back next week and give him some stuff before­hand that will sup­pos­ed­ly relax him. The good news is that there were no obvi­ous heart mur­murs through the mul­ti­ple tow­els they were hold­ing him down with. I guess no obvi­ous heart mur­murs is bet­ter than obvi­ous even through tow­els heart murmurs. 

Anoth­er week of Pablo’s chest heav­ing, and his body curled up next to the sooth­ing cool­ness of the toi­let or the sink. He has trou­ble mov­ing or get­ting up. When he tries to, his front paws strain to get enough of his body up to com­mit to the act. And when he tries to play or exert him­self, his eyes widen before long and he freezes and lays down right where he is, even if it’s not a spot he likes. He used to jump on top of the refrig­er­a­tor from the floor, now he needs a chair just to occa­sion­al­ly vis­it me on the counter where I work. When he tries to get into the bath­room sink, a favorite sleep­ing spot that he’s climbed into a thou­sand times, he comes up short and has to pull him­self up, or he comes up real­ly short, slides down the cab­i­net, and just lies where he falls. He sleeps all day, his only move­ment the rest­less­ness of try­ing to find comfort. 


After a week, I get up at 6:00 a.m. and give Pablo his sec­ond dose of the med­i­cine that the vet gave me that will sup­pos­ed­ly make him eas­i­er to deal with, and he does seem more docile than usu­al. I think about how easy it is for me to give the med­i­cine to him, and then think about how I can clip all of his toe­nails in a minute or two with him purring the entire time, hap­py for the close­ness and atten­tion. Most peo­ple that know him wouldn’t believe these things, but to me they’re just who he is. 

I walk to get the Zip­car I rent­ed; it’s ear­ly July and it’s the ear­li­est I’ve been out­side since the win­ter. We’ve been in a months-long series of heat waves, swel­ter­ing air crash­ing over and engulf­ing every­thing and then giv­ing us just a day or two to wring every­thing out before crash­ing down again. This morn­ing is cool. I dri­ve back home and pick Pablo up and drop him off to wait for news all day. 

I half­heart­ed­ly try to work when I get home. The lack of his pres­ence makes the apart­ment seem like a dif­fer­ent place. Final­ly, the vet calls. Pablo has asth­ma and seri­ous hyper­thy­roidism. It only took three tran­quil­iz­ers to exam­ine him this time. 

I’m back in the park­ing lot, wait­ing to pick Pablo up and wrestling with the pros and cons of treat­ment options. It sounds like he should be okay for a while but might slow down per­ma­nent­ly. Despite this, I can’t shake the thoughts about his death. They’ve been there a lot late­ly, not just these last two vis­its, but for months now. Part of me thinks it’s because death is such a nat­ur­al thing to fix­ate on right now, but it’s more than that. I had cats as a child, but their deaths nev­er occurred to me as a pos­si­bil­i­ty until they actu­al­ly hap­pened and the mourn­ing set in. When a creature’s well­be­ing is in your hands, it’s dif­fer­ent. There’s a sense of dread when some­thing goes wrong. A sense that when things change, it’s always for the worse and that it’s your fault and in the best-case sce­nario, you have to learn to care in a dif­fer­ent way, and in the worst, you might not have any­thing to care about anymore. 

But then I remem­ber how Pablo still jumped up on the counter to sleep next to me while I worked from home, even when he was sick. One day he was right up against me, upside down with a paw over his snor­ing face, con­tent until I made the wrong move and he nipped me and then vault­ed over a chair to the floor and dart­ed out of the room. And how one day he strung togeth­er a series of this noise he makes that I’d nev­er heard before I heard him make it—a meow that he holds as it gets high­er in pitch, then dives back into his throat and right back up again—and it sound­ed like he was hap­pi­ly ser­e­nad­ing me as I got home. Or that he some­how man­aged to rip off a huge piece of a spi­der plant that’s five feet off the ground when he could bare­ly move ear­li­er that day.   

I also think about the fact that although I’ve been treat­ed as ten­der­ly as he treats me by so few, ani­mal or human, I also know that he’d be damned if he’d let any­one or any­thing else do any­thing that made him uncom­fort­able for even a sec­ond with­out reper­cus­sions. One time my friend was too drunk to go home, and I woke up to him being attacked and yelling, “I am a per­son, you are a cat,” over and over again and either Pablo wasn’t into dis­cussing meta­physics at 6 a.m. or he’d had enough of the strange per­son on his couch and sim­ply didn’t care and wasn’t going to let a per­ceived pow­er imbal­ance stop him from fight­ing. And I start think­ing that atti­tude prob­a­bly applies even if the fight is between his will and his body. 

Maybe this will be what kills him even­tu­al­ly, and maybe his age is final­ly catch­ing up to him and it’s not pos­si­ble to run so hard or so with­out fear for­ev­er. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe hav­ing a favorite pil­low to set­tle into next to some­one you love instead of run­ning around all night is okay. Maybe slow­ing down a lit­tle is some­thing we earn, not some­thing we lose.  

It’s this that I’m think­ing as the vet tech approach­es me, hands me Pablo’s case, and says, “Here’s your ter­ri­fy­ing cat.” 



From the writer

:: Account ::

The first notes that would become this piece were writ­ten dur­ing what we now know were still the ear­ly months of the COVID pan­dem­ic. Watch­ing the unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing of so many, it felt strange to be wor­ry­ing so much about the health of an ani­mal that, part­ly through the nature of pets and part­ly through his par­tic­u­lar atti­tude toward most humans, only real­ly mat­tered to me. At least in any kind of seri­ous way. The idea that my remain­ing time with him could be lim­it­ed, or even end­ing soon, real­ly shook me. I’ve always had pets and loved a few of them a great deal, but Pablo is the first one I’ve been mature enough to love in a way that isn’t self­ish. I care about him not as a play­thing or a dis­trac­tion, but as a crea­ture wor­thy of a cer­tain lev­el of dig­ni­ty, and there was a feel­ing of help­less­ness in not being able to pro­vide that while he was sick. The core of this sto­ry is just that—what it’s like to watch some­thing you care about grow old, but I also want­ed part of the piece to be about the ways that I’d also changed since I’d adopt­ed him, and how steady and com­fort­ing of a pres­ence he has been over those years. 


Bren­den Layte is an edi­tor of edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, a lin­guist, and a writer. His work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in places like Entropy, Ellip­sis Zine, and Pit­head Chapel. He lives in Jamaica Plain, Mass­a­chu­setts, with his girl­friend, some gold­fish, and Pablo, the ter­ri­fy­ing cat at the cen­ter of this piece. 


The Chino Center for Oral and Facial Surgery

Nonfiction / Silas Jones

:: The Chino Center for Oral and Facial Surgery ::

Today, my dad got his tooth pulled. He had an abscess. Now, he’s lying down. It’s so fuck­ing hot here. Here equals Ari­zona. All day, I’m wait­ing for the Ari­zona air to cool off and try­ing to decide what to put in the card­board box I’m mail­ing home to my apart­ment in New York. A wig from col­lege, my CD col­lec­tion in two fat black leather binders, a cou­ple half-full jour­nals. My flight home is on Sun­day and I don’t want to check a bag. All week­end, I’m wait­ing to leave. 

How to get to The Chi­no Cen­ter for Oral and Facial Surgery (It’s way out on 89): Pass the church that used to be a movie the­atre. Take the exit after Glass­ford Hill, the one that swoops you around to face Ante­lope Val­ley. Notice for the first time since being back at dad’s that Ante­lope Val­ley is fill­ing up with hous­es, iden­ti­cal, unfin­ished, with tem­po­rary blue tarp roofs weighed down with black stacks of shingles. 

Behind the hous­es, there’s Min­gus Moun­tain, and behind that, there’s the Verde Val­ley. My sense of direc­tion is like those children’s books with acetate over­lays that can be peeled away one by one to reveal: the hold of a pirate ship, the inner work­ings of an oil rig, the anato­my of the human body. 

Peel back Ante­lope Val­ley, peel back Min­gus Moun­tain, peel back Verde Val­ley and see a 1000-year-old stone vil­lage beside a 50-year-old heap of grey tail­ings from the cop­per mine up the hill. Peel back the Mogol­lon Rim and see the woods on top of it, see the San Fran­cis­co Peaks. Peel back the San Fran­cis­co Peaks and see a wilder­ness of pur­ple cin­der cones with Pon­derosa pines grow­ing straight from their peb­bled, vol­canic flanks. Behind them, the Paint­ed Desert and Black Moun­tain and then the Ver­mil­lion Cliffs, their feet buried in umber bad­lands. Peel back the Glen Canyon Dam and see Escalante and the white sand­stone piled in mile-high drifts out along State Route 12. 

On the car ride home, my dad speaks to me through a wad of bloody gauze. 

Wait, flip back five or six lay­ers and return to the Mogol­lon Rim; he says he’s con­sid­er­ing mov­ing up there. He’s think­ing about Payson. He’s think­ing about Pine or Straw­ber­ry. Hell, what about Hap­py Jack? Up there, it’s cool­er and the devel­op­ment is under con­trol. It rains still. He’s think­ing of mov­ing to the last intact colo­nial town in Mex­i­co. There’s no air­port; that keeps the riffraff out. We get off 89 and whip around a new traf­fic cir­cle pinned down at its pea-stone cen­ter by a giant, bronze stat­ue of a cowboy. 

The Oral Sur­geon was wear­ing square-toed cow­boy boots and teal scrubs and a wed­ding band made of grey sil­i­cone. I won­der if, after he pulls his hand out of the last mouth of the day, he trades the sil­i­cone ring for a gold one before dri­ving home to Ante­lope Valley. 

How are you relat­ed to the patient?” he asked me when I came to grab my dad. I look at his cow­boy boots and weigh my options. I’ve made enough mod­i­fi­ca­tions to my body that I look, I think, approx­i­mate to boy; my ID says Sophie. 

I’m his, uh, daugh­ter,” I said, trot­ting after him to a small room where my dad was reclined, fuck­ing with his IV. The oral sur­geon stands with his hands on his hips and looks at me. Behind him, there’s a framed por­trait of his fam­i­ly: a blonde wife and three small brunette daugh­ters posed in East­er dress­es beside Gran­ite Creek. In the building’s front office, less than an hour ear­li­er, my dad looked up from paper­work to point to an iden­ti­cal pic­ture and said too loud­ly, “Are they scoops or what?” Scoops is what my dad calls Mor­mons. Scoops miss­ing from their brains. 

The scoop sur­geon was wear­ing a mask and so was I, but my dad wasn’t. He looked acti­vat­ed some­how. I adjust­ed my eye­brows to express calm obliv­i­ous­ness to any embar­rass­ing resid­ual dis­ori­en­ta­tion he might be expe­ri­enc­ing. I smiled behind my mask and tried to look like a daughter. 

When your father was going under, we noticed some irreg­u­lar­i­ties with his heart­beat,” the sur­geon said. I reori­ent­ed my eye­brows to show an appro­pri­ate amount of con­cern plus casu­al dis­re­gard, for my dad’s sake. “Your dad says he exer­cis­es all the time and that he’s a healthy guy,” the sur­geon said. 

He is,” I said. 

I am,” my dad said. 

Well, it’s some­thing he should fol­low up with his pri­ma­ry care physi­cian about,” said the sur­geon (the scoop). He held his hand in a fist; “the heart is like any mus­cle.” He opened and closed his fin­gers, squeak­ing his sil­i­cone band; “it tires, it gets spas­my.” I made a hum­ming sound. 

Okay,” I said. 

A nurse showed my dad and then me how to irri­gate the hole where his tooth used to be. I won­der what they’ve done with it. She loaded my dad into a wheel­chair and I held the door for her, all daugh­ter­ly. My dad slid into the pas­sen­ger seat of my Sub­aru, told the nurse that he can han­dle his drugs, thank you very much, and then we drove away. 

The devel­op­ment out here is just out of con­trol,” he says sev­er­al times between the Surgery Cen­ter and home. There’s blood dry­ing on his lips. 

Yes­ter­day, my dad and me went for a bike ride through the raw pink gran­ite boul­ders beyond Glass­ford Hill. The rocks emerge glit­ter­ing from the erod­ing slope in a tum­ble, like mud squeezed in drips from a toddler’s tight lit­tle fist and left to dry in pil­lars and blobs. There are miles and miles of them. The trail is long, wide, and flat; it used to be a rail­road for the mine. We ped­al past four pairs of dads and daugh­ters. The daugh­ters are learn­ing how to ride bikes, or how to enjoy it. Bik­ing care­ful­ly behind my dad, I feel like the old­est mem­ber of a club. 

At the end of the trail, you can see out across Ante­lope Val­ley. To the west, you can see almost out to King­man, out to Bagh­dad and Search­light. Cow­boy towns. Peel them back and see the Mojave; see Cal­i­for­nia (on fire), see the Pacific. 

The land beyond the trail has been cleared and lev­eled and mea­sured out in squares. In the thin strip of shade cast by the near­est gran­ite spire, some kind of bad-look­ing machin­ery is parked. I can hear the beep­ing of some­thing back­ing up. It’s been rainy this sum­mer, and Glass­ford Hill is like Ire­land: green and empty. 

After I get him home from the Surgery Cen­ter, I make my dad a man­go smooth­ie. With it, he takes two Tylenol and three ibupro­fen because the scoop won’t give him opi­ates. Then, he goes to sleep. I dri­ve to CVS and buy ice packs and navy blue liq­uid eye­lin­er that I spend all after­noon try­ing to put on right. When I am not yelling down the stairs to ask my dad if he wants any­thing, I am as qui­et as pos­si­ble. He’s read­ing a huge book called Nixon­land, or maybe he’s sleep­ing. I avoid him because it feels like the kind thing to do; I don’t want him to see me see him in pain. I wor­ry I’m being inattentive. 

I used to date a boy with an ill­ness that required him to sit on an IV drip once every six weeks. He was real­ly sick, but he was also real­ly rich, so the treat­ment was admin­is­tered by a home health aide in the rec room in the base­ment of his par­ents’ brown­stone. The home health aide was an old­er black man in navy blue scrubs and match­ing crocs named Wil­son. The needle’s fold­ed plas­tic sheath looked like a but­ter­fly alight­ed on my boyfriend’s arm. It stayed there for hours. I stared at the TV. I was unsure of how much my boyfriend want­ed to be touched, or of how much was appro­pri­ate to touch him. I didn’t ask. Wil­son sat on a plush ottoman and when my boyfriend’s dad appeared with an arm­ful of hot sand­wich­es drip­ping oil, Wil­son chose turkey. 

Last time I saw my ex-boyfriend, we wan­dered end­less­ly around Fort Greene instead of sit­ting down for a beer like we’d planned because he was in so much pain he said he couldn’t stop mov­ing. He fin­ished a pack of Marl­boros; he start­ed anoth­er. We bought a six pack at a bode­ga and split it, and then we split anoth­er one. When the side­walk was busy, I fell into step behind him so I could watch him walk with a beer in one hand and his aching bel­ly flat beneath the oth­er. I real­ized I’d missed my chance to take good care of him. I put my hand on his back and steered him through a crowd gath­ered around a bad bike accident. 

I used to think he was a girl because when he gets drunk (relaxed) he is floun­cy and inse­cure. When he was sick in the rec room, he was too qui­et and still, sat on the couch with his sand­wich unwrapped and untouched in his lap. That’s how I knew he was a boy for sure. 

My dad keeps the win­dows of his house open all day and all night. Indoors, it is cool. Except today, it’s not. When the sun final­ly pass­es over­head, I escape onto the shad­ed porch. Behind the house, the Brad­shaw Peaks sling black shad­ows over the whole neigh­bor­hood. Hid­den in their wood­ed slopes are shal­low pits cleared by pio­neers a hun­dred years ago. Peo­ple call them mines, but they’re just hand-dug holes grad­u­al­ly refill­ing them­selves with pine nee­dles and crum­bling gran­ite and lit­ter. In front of the house, across 89, there’s a huge machine smash­ing bedrock into lev­el dust; they are build­ing a hotel. This neigh­bor­hood is a fire trap. 

I hear my dad come upstairs and I go back inside to ask him again if he wants soup, a milk­shake, an edi­ble from the unmarked jar in the fridge. There is sweat show­ing through his t‑shirt. He’s stand­ing per­fect­ly still over the kitchen trash can with his foot on the ped­al so the lid is stuck open, like a mouth. His jaw is slack and his eyes are trained on the wall. 

Dad?” I say, “dad?” and he doesn’t answer, just moves his lips like he’s talk­ing. It dawns on me; I am in one of those moments. In this moment, I am stand­ing half on the porch and star­ing at my dad who is star­ing at the wall. I am real­iz­ing that some­thing is real­ly, seri­ous­ly wrong. I am in the moment of every­thing get­ting fucked up. I am in the moment before every­thing changes. 

I’ve been in these moments before; see­ing my ex-boyfriend stag­ger back when he stood up too fast from tying his shoes; watch­ing my sister’s lumi­nous face grow small­er and green­er the deep­er she sank into the pond; leav­ing Andy alone for ten min­utes, ten min­utes I swear, to run to the phar­ma­cy for anti-nau­sea meds. They’d just had top surgery and had been throw­ing up for hours from the opi­ates. I was sup­posed to be tak­ing care of them. 

From those times, I rec­og­nized the sen­sa­tion of a life about to be dif­fer­ent. But those times, every­thing had turned out okay, stayed the same; my boyfriend caught him­self against the ban­is­ter, I grabbed my sis­ter by her wrist, Andy took the med­i­cine, kept some water down. 

Then, my dad straight­ened up. He opened his mouth wide and began to talk around the mov­ing shape of his own tongue. “They pulled the wrong tooth, those fuck­ers,” I stared into the red black space where his molar had been. They had pulled the right tooth. 

It’s fine, dad” I said, and then I helped him put his ear­ring back in. The scoop sur­geon had made him take the sil­ver hoop out of his ear and put it in a lit­tle dime bag. 

My dad hat­ed my ex-boyfriend, I think, but he won’t tell me for sure. They met once at my col­lege grad­u­a­tion and then a sec­ond time here, when my boyfriend flew out to vis­it and got imme­di­ate­ly sick from the dry air and high ele­va­tion. There was a dis­tance between them, even though I imag­ined they’d read the same selec­tion of non­fic­tion and nov­els that smart, sen­si­tive boys feel oblig­at­ed to: Von­negut and like, what­ev­er else. 

We had already been late for our flight home when my boyfriend slammed his fin­ger in my car door. From the porch, my dad saw it hap­pen and threw down a bag of frozen peas that left smelly, wet spots on my boyfriend’s cor­duroy lap. With­out tak­ing my eyes off 41 to Phoenix, I lift­ed a hand from the steer­ing wheel and rest­ed it on his head. He radi­at­ed heat. 

Please, don’t touch me right now,” he said. The fin­ger­nail turned grey and fell off and a few months lat­er, he dumped me. 

The oth­er night, perched beside him on a park bench, I asked to see it. His hands were long and bony and the same; his fin­ger­nails were uni­form. We sat for as long as he could han­dle, and then we kept walk­ing. He asked me if top surgery hurt, and I told him yes. 

You know how I am with doc­tors,” I said, “I’m a mess.” I looked at him to see if he thought I was a mess. He didn’t say anything. 

I don’t know what I would have done with­out Andy,” I said. I want­ed him to know; Andy is my best friend. Andy had been unafraid of the IVs and hos­pi­tal smells and asked good ques­tions of the nurs­es; they’d brought a pil­low for the Uber ride from the hos­pi­tal and made me a lit­tle snack plate when we got home and had done every dish. 

Andy got top surgery three months before I did, and I had done these things for them too. I want­ed him to know: I had run through the wet snow to get the med­i­cine, Pedi­alyte, and gin­ger ale, stuff I prob­a­bly should have thought to buy ahead of time. For a ter­ri­ble moment when I returned to the apart­ment, I was sure that they’d aspi­rat­ed on their own vomit. 

I didn’t tell him any of that. 

No one’s ever known how to take such good care of me,” I said. I laid it on thick. 

I thought about him after I cut my tits off, when I was watch­ing TV, high and nau­seous. Even though we hadn’t spo­ken in near­ly a year, I’d con­sid­ered call­ing him the night before, when I was so afraid I could hard­ly speak to the friends I’d invit­ed over. Andy noticed me wig­ging out and asked every­one to leave soon after we’d fin­ished the piz­za. I didn’t tell him any of that, either. 

You seem real­ly hap­py,” my ex-boyfriend said over his shoul­der. “Are you happy?” 

I am,” I said, scis­sor­ing two fin­gers togeth­er until he passed me a cig­a­rette, already lit and canoe­ing in the breeze off the riv­er. Peel back Fort Green and that big hill and down­town Brook­lyn and the cour­t­house and the Duane Reed. Peel back Jorale­mon street. We had walked all the way to his par­ents’ house; he was spend­ing the night there and meet­ing Wil­son in the morn­ing. We kept walk­ing until we got to the river. 

Once, on the way home from a par­ty at a spa­cious loft that belonged to one of his friends’ par­ents, I’d thrown up right exact­ly here while my boyfriend watched ner­vous­ly from far away. The par­ty had been all boys and their girl­friends. The loft had been all high ceil­ings and pol­ished stain­less-steel sur­faces across which our reflec­tions slipped and slid like an upside-down reflec­tion in a cere­al spoon. 

The win­dow to the fire escape was so large that when I want­ed a smoke, I sim­ply stepped through it like a door instead of hav­ing to clam­ber or crouch. I remem­ber how the wet met­al slats left stripes on my socked feet, the flip­book flash of car head­lights between the truss­es of the bridge. Peel back the bridge and see ??? I was drunk and didn’t yet under­stand how any­thing fit togeth­er or stacked up in the city. I threw up and my vom­it slapped the cob­bled street below, scat­ter­ing tourists tak­ing pho­tographs with Man­hat­tan. My boyfriend walked me back through filmy acetate lay­ers to his par­ents’ house. He washed my coat and my pants while I slept. 

I always knew you would tran­si­tion,” my ex-boyfriend said, offer­ing me anoth­er cig­a­rette. “Of course,” he added, see­ing my sur­prise in the glow of the riv­er. Peel back the riv­er, peel back the dock where we’d once caught a fer­ry out to the Rock­aways, peel back the finan­cial dis­trict, and Bat­tery Park, and then anoth­er riv­er. Peel back crowd­ed state after crowd­ed state until you get to the one where he and me met, at col­lege. Peel back the woods and wide main­streets and state­ly red brick and then peel back a few more fly-over states and see Ari­zona; see my dad on the porch read­ing Nixon­land, his cat sprawled beside him. 

At your grad­u­a­tion, when your dad got so drunk?” he said. 

Yeah?” I said. 

I was a real­ly good boyfriend then,” he said, “I took good care of you then.” I walked him back to his par­ents’ house. He told me he’d like to see me again, and then I walked home. He has a new girl­friend; they’ve been in love for like, a year. Peel back the fan­ci­est parts of Brook­lyn until you reach the Children’s Muse­um; turn left, and there’s my build­ing. The next morn­ing, I drove to vis­it my dad in Ari­zona. I texted my boyfriend from Penn­syl­va­nia; hi to Wilson. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

I’m very attached to the land­scape of the state where I most­ly grew up. I lis­ten to peo­ple I know from my life in New York talk­ing about dri­ving through Ari­zona on their way from L.A. to White Sands and I get real­ly grumpy. Then, when I end up in the actu­al land­scape, vis­it­ing home, I feel real­ly grumpy too. It’s hard to be there because there’s no water and so much smoke and so many bor­der patrol and the vio­lence feels so present in gen­er­al. I wrote this sto­ry about watch­ing a land­scape change, about see­ing rela­tion­ships change. I also grew up part­ly in Wash­ing­ton state and have always loved the way Carv­er throws around the toponyms I know from child­hood to estab­lish a scene. It reminds me of how my par­ents and uncles—outdoor guides and seri­ous know­ers of the West, hip­pie drug­store cowboys—talk about Ari­zona. I tried to do some­thing sim­i­lar here. 


Silas Jones’s writ­ing has appeared in Hobart and The Wilder Voice, and is forth­com­ing in this Fall’s Foglifter and in Ice Floe Press’s Pan­dem­ic Love anthology.

Names Are Always Changed to Protect the Innocent

Nonfiction / Chanel Earl

:: Names Are Always Changed to Protect the Innocent ::

So when I say that tomor­row my nephews, Peter, James, and John, will be inter­viewed by the police, and that after­ward it will be decid­ed if they will live with one or the oth­er of their par­ents, you know their names have been changed. 

And when I write that my friend Lazarus—who is sev­en years old and spent the last twelve months receiv­ing reg­u­lar injec­tions of chem­i­cal poi­son through a port in his chest—just returned from a trip to Dis­ney World, and decided—after los­ing his leg, his hair, and most of his body weight—to stop chemo, that his name has been changed too. 

So have the names of his par­ents, Phillip and Mary, who have four healthy chil­dren, and will soon have four in the ground. I’ll call the oth­er three—who nev­er took in their first breaths—Bartholomew, Tabitha, and Matthew, and—for my sake, not theirs—imagine a moun­tain of flow­ers on their graves. 

I sit and write in silence, and I know that Anna, Eliz­a­beth, and Thomas are asleep in the next room. Eliz­a­beth has strep throat, which has pro­gressed into scar­let fever. Just a hun­dred years ago I would have been up all night won­der­ing if this was our last, but I have been instruct­ed to relax because she took antibi­otics, and the doc­tor insists she can go to school tomorrow. 

I go to her when she cries. Her fore­head is still cov­ered with bright pink spots, and I place my hands on her face and whis­per, Every­thing will be okay. Our breath­ing aligns. Thomas rolls over. He is hav­ing a dream. And I know we are all going to lose each oth­er some­day, but I can’t believe that mat­ters right now because my name is Martha, and I am going to feel this moment, and the next, and always the next. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

Every­thing in this piece is true. One evening while pro­cess­ing the pain of my sis­ter as she went through a divorce, the pain of my friend whose son was dying of can­cer, and my own wor­ry about my four-year-old daughter’s scar­let fever diag­no­sis, I got real­ly worked up about the inno­cence of the chil­dren and par­ents involved in every one of these sit­u­a­tions. I ate ice cream, and cried, and made lists about what I could do to help. Then this came out. I have tried many times to turn this piece into a poem, adding line breaks and play­ing with the rhythm. Ulti­mate­ly, it is and remains a micro-essay about a moment in my life. A moment of grief, con­fu­sion, and the real­iza­tion of mortality. 


Chanel Earl is a recent MFA grad­u­ate, a moth­er of four, and an aspir­ing gar­den­er. Her work has appeared in print and online. For more infor­ma­tion about her and her writ­ing, vis­it

The Makeshift Years

Nonfiction / Debra Monroe


:: The Makeshift Years ::

For ten years I was a sin­gle par­ent, not the first, last, nor only. Because I adopt­ed, my ideas, my house, my char­ac­ter, and my income were assessed in advance by experts. I planned ahead for like­ly set­backs, and the adop­tion agency dou­blechecked. Pre­emp­tive prob­lem-solv­ing is a skill and a tic. On one hand, it’s plan­ning, and plan­ning helps. On the oth­er, no one can antic­i­pate all future bad luck or glar­ing mis­cal­cu­la­tions always so obvi­ous after the fact. Still, as I wait­ed for my baby, I envi­sioned upcom­ing hur­dles: my wor­ry­ing and ready­ing, and rush­es of ela­tion as I’d clear them. I’ve day­dreamed like this since I can remem­ber, with hope or hubris or willed faith in my abil­i­ty to spot loom­ing pitfalls.

The ele­men­tary school prin­ci­pal lat­er said: “No ex-hus­band, no grand­ma, no aunt, not even an uncle?” My extend­ed fam­i­ly was geo­graph­i­cal­ly afar. I vis­it­ed rarely and called often. Geo­graph­i­cal­ly afar worked: unfix­able his­to­ry and latent erup­tions, even by phone. So I began as a moth­er who hoped to fore­stall all prob­lems and then noticed my daugh­ter was emerg­ing into con­scious­ness with the idea that, if push came to shove, no one else would love her, feed her, and save her. She asked often about her con­tin­gency plan.

She was sick when she was lit­tle, which I did fore­see, that a child might have spe­cial needs. Hers were appoint­ments with med­ical spe­cial­ists in a city an hour away. But a prob­lem I didn’t fore­see was that I would get sick. One day she was wear­ing cozy paja­mas and watch­ing TV. I lay on the couch, won­der­ing why nurs­es rushed me when I phoned to say I hadn’t recov­ered from surgery yet. My daugh­ter said, “How will Aunt Cindy”—a friend in Flori­da, and we lived in Texas—“know to come on a plane and get me?” 

I thought: some fan­ta­sy about going to Disneyworld? 

When you die,” she said. She’d arranged her expres­sion to con­vey that she need­ed this infor­ma­tion but knew I was overex­tend­ed. I’d trav­eled to my mother’s funer­al. The moth­er of a sit­ter had died a good death at home in the room near the room where my daugh­ter napped and played. “I’m not dying,” I said, ignor­ing my post-op malaise. 

Care­givers had a finite inter­est in her. They wor­ried about their own chil­dren, their own moth­ers. None were ter­ri­ble, though one sev­en­teen-year-old had bulim­ia. I could tell by the can­dy wrap­pers and the state of the bath­room. I won­dered whether to tell her moth­er, whom I’d first met when the moth­er was a child­care work­er at a Methodist Church pro­gram called Mother’s Day Out, which I’d used for day­care when my daugh­ter was two. You left your child there—Tuesdays, Thurs­days, nine to three, steep fines if you’re late for pickup—to relax or shop. The child­care work­er who turned out to be the sitter’s moth­er told me she knew by my clothes I was going to work at the uni­ver­si­ty in the col­lege town a half-hour away. I couldn’t use day­cares there. My hours were errat­ic, mid­day class­es Tues­days and Thurs­days, also a Thurs­day night class requir­ing a sec­ond arrangement. 

The church board is strict,” she said. “Be discreet.” 

I nod­ded and tried to seem on the verge of shopping. 

This was anoth­er prob­lem I’d failed to fore­see. I owned a small house near a visu­al­ly appeal­ing vil­lage with a low cost of liv­ing, but it had just one day­care cen­ter that every­one described as dodgy, in a pole barn between the dance­hall and auto body shop. Social work­ers must have assumed I’d devise child­care. I did. Here are max­ims I lived by:

  • Impatience is a virtue. It helps you get chores done quickly. 
  • Worry is precaution.
  • If you predict bad outcomes, you’ll have spare solutions stockpiled.
  • Wait, wait. We’re almost at the palace. It’s not midnight. Something good will happen. (This began as an ironic aside but, after long repetition, turned sincere.)


When at last my daugh­ter was enrolled in all-day kinder­garten, I need­ed just one sit­ter one night a week for night class. I said this when I ran across the Mother’s Day Out child­care work­er, who first told me I should put my daugh­ter in Sat­ur­day morn­ing bal­let class­es in the city an hour away, expen­sive yet excel­lent class­es she’d heard. Sure­ly I wasn’t work­ing on Sat­ur­day morn­ings? Then she said I should hire her daugh­ter who had a car.

I hired the daugh­ter and dis­cov­ered the bulim­ia. My habit of mis­giv­ing tum­bled onto a new ques­tion: Was it my place to tell the sitter’s moth­er about the bulim­ia? Telling the moth­er might be wrong, thank­less. This was an eti­quette ques­tion, I real­ized. Eti­quette is about con­vey­ing dif­fi­cult facts kind­ly. Next I had to fire the sit­ter for not pick­ing up my daughter—leaving my daughter’s small, dear self at the top of a hill where the school bus dropped her. One of my neigh­bors’ oth­er neigh­bors, called Crab­by Old Man, but nev­er to his face, drove her back to school where the prin­ci­pal called me at work, and I rushed out of a sem­i­nar in which I let stu­dents keep their cell phones on, a new gad­get then, because I couldn’t object to theirs if, alert to predica­ments, I kept mine on.

After I found a new sit­ter, I found myself odd­ly miss­ing the pre­vi­ous nonur­gent ques­tion of whether I should tell the sitter’s moth­er her daugh­ter wasn’t okay. Next I pon­dered why I’d found the ques­tion mild­ly intrigu­ing. I’d rolled it over in my mind as I drove to and from work, as I vac­u­umed and fold­ed laun­dry, as I’d answered my daughter’s ques­tions about who made the sky and were ani­mals peo­ple, as I’d helped her with her kinder­garten home­work, easy, fun, the two of us past­ing feath­ers onto a draw­ing of a turkey for Thanks­giv­ing or read­ing aloud a list of sea­son­al words as I quelled pan­ic about how super­vis­ing her home­work would get hard­er in years ahead, tak­ing up more focus.

I prob­a­bly nev­er would have found the spare courage to tell the sitter’s moth­er about her daughter’s eat­ing dis­or­der, which was con­cern­ing. A red flag about the sitter’s well-being. A red flag about the sitter’s fit­ness. Some­thing to keep an eye on. But not a fir­ing offense, not yet, I must have decid­ed, com­ing home from teach­ing at ten p.m. to emp­ty the waste­bas­kets and clean the bath­room. Prob­lem-solv­ing in a pros-ver­sus-cons way had turned reflex­ive. Think­ing about some­one else’s prob­lem, hard for them but eas­i­er for me, had felt like a pas­time. Mother’s Day Out had the right idea—I need­ed to relax. But any new pas­time had to over­lap with time I’d spend with my child. Maybe gardening? 

The next sit­ter picked up my daugh­ter right at the school, along with the sitter’s daugh­ter who was the same age, and at ten p.m. I’d dri­ve to this sitter’s, head­ing north off my route home, oth­er­wise west­ern, then south again home, twen­ty extra miles but just one night a week. This sit­ter was affec­tion­ate, big-heart­ed, with a dry sense of humor, but she’d just begun tak­ing an anti­de­pres­sant, the first rough weeks of adjust­ing to a drug. When I knocked on the door to pick up my daugh­ter, this sit­ter was dis­turbing­ly hard to wake.

Don’t wor­ry about keep­ing my sit­ters straight. Think of them as mem­bers of a frac­tious Greek cho­rus, con­tra­dict­ing each oth­er while let­ting spill with advice derived from their cir­cum­stances, dif­fer­ent from mine. But I had to prize them as indi­vid­u­als since I need­ed them to prize my daugh­ter. I didn’t treat them as inter­change­able as they interchanged.


I slept light­ly and woke often, and my dreams were as busy as action movies. I’d be dri­ving home but couldn’t deci­pher the infi­nite­ly branch­ing roads just beyond the wind­shield. Or I was in an unfa­mil­iar city, wide express­ways criss­cross­ing before me like lines in an M. C. Esch­er lith­o­graph. In one dream, my car wouldn’t start. So I stole a motor­cy­cle, kick­start­ed it, and sped off, one hand steady­ing the baby draped over the gas tank. I woke, relieved to find myself in bed, my child asleep, nowhere I had to be for two hours. 

Lin­ear time was my roadmap. Mon­day Tues­day Wednes­day Thurs­day (dif­fer­ent due to night class), Fri­day again. Sat­ur­day and Sun­day unstruc­tured but full of to-dos. Week­days, sev­en a.m., eight, nine, ten … Start­ing at four p.m. on week­days except Thurs­days: meet the school bus, fix a snack, see to home­work, chat hap­pi­ly, fix din­ner. We ate. She bathed. For TV, she liked phys­i­cal com­e­dy, extrav­a­gant prat­falls. I’d be in the next room, wash­ing dish­es, and hear her help­less with laugh­ter, chortling. On week­nights, America’s Fun­ni­est Home Videos. Sat­ur­day, British come­dies like Fawl­ty Tow­ers.

I now see that, despite dai­ly progress—the clock map­ping my day, the cal­en­dar map­ping my week and, zoom­ing out for a dis­ori­ent­ing minute, my month—I’d get stuck. Any inter­sec­tion with a fork­ing set of options, with more than one way for­ward, pos­si­bly two, three, or four, all poten­tial­ly the right or wrong way, unset­tled me. Friend­ly land­marks looked strange. I mean those tal­is­man-like assur­ances of rou­tine like the yel­low school bus com­ing on time in the after­noon, the alarm clock’s reli­able beep every morn­ing, Arthur switch­ing to PBS New­sHour my cue for din­ner prep. When new fac­tors forced me to change my nav­i­ga­tion, these tal­is­man-like mark­ers marked a now-obso­lete route. 

When my daugh­ter had asked how Aunt Cindy would know to come and get her, I won­dered if not feel­ing well was psy­cho­so­mat­ic, as the surgeon’s nurs­es on the phone implied. They had respon­si­bil­i­ties too, long lists of patient calls to return. They’d say “every­one has pain,” and I’d say “three weeks lat­er and I have a fever,” and they’d say “but not a high fever,” also “so make an appoint­ment.” I had made an appoint­ment ten days ear­li­er, which required the after­school sit­ter a sec­ond time that week, and I’d used one of my at-home days when I should have grad­ed papers to dri­ve into the city to the surgeon’s. 

If my daugh­ter rode the bus in the after­noon, I had forty more min­utes to work; if I drove her to school in the morn­ing, I had forty more min­utes to sleep. I drove her to school the next morn­ing and, infused with caf­feine, social reserve not yet oper­a­tional, I spoke to some­one else as if to myself. After deliv­er­ing my daugh­ter into the class­room, I walked to the park­ing lot beside a father I knew from vil­lage gath­er­ings, our kids in slip­pery herds around us in Hal­loween cos­tumes or bib tags for field day, clam­or­ing about cup­cakes, hot dogs. Most dads avoid­ed me, sin­gle by choice. Moth­ers were curi­ous. One said, “I have friends who are sin­gle moth­ers and they don’t endan­ger their kids, but they’re so busy they for­get to turn on the old men­tal cam­corder. They miss the fun.”

As the pleas­ant dad and I unlocked our cars, I said, “I had a surgery almost a month ago and don’t feel bet­ter.” He got a look on his face like a good hus­band would get. I even­tu­al­ly had a good hus­band so that’s how I know. But he wasn’t my hus­band. We’d chat­ted as he dropped off and picked up kids because his job was near­by and his wife’s wasn’t. I was wear­ing a sweat­suit. It was a cold day, so I’d thrown on my warmest coat, fake-fur, knee-length. Paired with styl­ish but under­stat­ed clothes, with my hair washed and make­up applied, it could be an inter­est­ing fash­ion state­ment. He looked at my face, my wild eyes. My hair was wild too. I know because a few sec­onds lat­er I got in my car and flipped down the visor mir­ror. “Maybe talk to a doc­tor,” he said, back­ing away. 

I drove to the vil­lage doctor’s. 

I said to the recep­tion­ist, “The doc­tor referred me to have a surgery three weeks ago, and I nev­er got well.” She told me to sit down as oth­er patients arrived. Then a nurse took me to a room and returned with the doc­tor who said he’d do a field test since lab test results wouldn’t come back in time. He’d place a fin­ger on each side of my cervix, deep to the lat­er­al fornix with pres­sure towards the ante­ri­or abdomen, while using his oth­er hand to apply exter­nal pres­sure to the pubic bones in the cen­ter of the pelvis while watch­ing for the chan­de­lier sign, as text­books call it, where­in if the patient has a post-op infec­tion she shrieks and reach­es for an imag­i­nary chan­de­lier, he said, as I shrieked while reaching.

The nurse drew blood for a white blood cell count, which the doc­tor com­plet­ed in his tiny onsite lab. He wrote a pre­scrip­tion for a broad-spec­trum antibi­ot­ic. He said: “I know you’re a sin­gle par­ent. Make child­care arrange­ments.” He explained I’d come back for anoth­er test in the morn­ing. If the count stayed the same or went up, he’d check me into a hos­pi­tal in the city or col­lege town. “If this infec­tion is resis­tant, time is not on our side.” 

I called the big-heart­ed, sar­don­ic sit­ter and asked, if need be, she could watch my daugh­ter. I called the sit­ter I’d used a few years before, JoAnn, whose moth­er had died a good death, for a sec­ond lay­er of my daughter’s safe­ty net. Or third; I was first. JoAnn hadn’t worked since her moth­er died but said to give her num­ber to the oth­er sit­ter in case the oth­er sit­ter had a con­flict. My next white blood cell count was low­er. But, the nurse said, if over the week­end I had ver­ti­go, a spike in fever, changes in vision, I’d go to the ER. On Sun­day my daugh­ter and I stood in line pick­ing up break­fast tacos, and we saw this nurse again. She put her wrist on my fore­head. “No fever. I fig­ured. You look almost peppy.”


Anoth­er prob­lem I didn’t fore­see was that since my sched­ule required not just day­care but, once a week, night­care, which isn’t a thing, my night­time sit­ters would be hard to find and unre­li­able because a job so inter­mit­tent is a side­line. I asked to switch this class to day­time but my super­vi­sor, due to a blind spot or preter­nat­u­ral­ly rigid man­age­r­i­al style, said no. When I made the request over his head, he changed my sched­ule to make it harder. 

Who can find a vir­tu­ous woman? Her price is beyond rubies. Proverbs 31:10. That’s about a wife, though. At first, I’d found my sit­ter named JoAnn. I worked at home when I could, and when I couldn’t, I left my daugh­ter at JoAnn’s, her house eight miles away, but I found a semi-short­cut, impass­able in wet weath­er, from JoAnn’s house to the col­lege town, and my daugh­ter was still a babe in arms, easy to car­ry. When she was one, I used Mother’s Day Out to give JoAnn time off, JoAnn’s Day Off. Mother’s Day Out was also said to be good for the child’s social­iza­tion. I still used JoAnn for night class. When my daugh­ter was two and three, I used JoAnn a few days a week and for my night class. 

JoAnn’s car­ing was a low-key mir­a­cle that last­ed until it didn’t. True, she argued about giv­ing my daugh­ter one of her med­ica­tions. It made her heart beat too fast, JoAnn felt. I took my daugh­ter back to the spe­cial­ist who said my daughter’s heart rate was fine, that “some agi­ta­tion is unavoid­able,” and “this med­ica­tion is vital.” JoAnn still said no, she wasn’t giv­ing a baby speedy med­i­cine through a plas­tic mask like a gas mask. One day a week, my daugh­ter missed a dose, which the doc­tor okayed. He said: “I take it this is the grand­ma.” JoAnn also not­ed my daughter’s food aller­gies and cooked and pureed, report­ing foods my daugh­ter loved. My daugh­ter loved JoAnn, call­ing out in baby patois: OJann! 

But after JoAnn’s moth­er died, JoAnn was bone-tired. Peo­ple get this way after a hard stretch of weeks, months, years. Not dur­ing. So for one year, the year my daugh­ter was four, before kinder­garten, which I relied on to go to work, along with the bulim­ic sit­ter and her suc­ces­sor the sar­don­ic sit­ter, I used a Bap­tist preschool, eigh­teen-miles round trip, thir­ty-six extra miles every day. For night class, I hired a grad­u­ate stu­dent who end­ed up hav­ing absen­teeism and, to replace her, an under­grad­u­ate with stel­lar ref­er­ences who one day stopped com­ing. So I called JoAnn, who fin­ished out that semes­ter, my night classes.

JoAnn said years lat­er it had been hard to watch me make plans. Trig­ger­ing, as we say now. She’d been a sin­gle moth­er. “I don’t assume child­care will fall through,” she said, “but it can.” When it did, my week stalled, bro­ken until fixed. JoAnn’s par­ent­hood hadn’t had the pre-super­vi­sion mine did, the inter­views with social work­ers and pre-adop­tion check­lists cre­at­ing false con­fi­dence, no stone unturned. I turned over stones for years.

One night dur­ing the year before kindergarten—so the year I used the Bap­tist preschool, before I fired the grad­u­ate stu­dent with absen­teeism, not a fir­ing offense yet, I’d so far decid­ed, find­ing sub­sti­tutes, ask­ing her to please not can­cel again—the phone rang, my new step­fa­ther. My moth­er was in the ICU. My expe­ri­ence with extend­ed fam­i­ly didn’t match the advice I got from the Bap­tist preschool work­ers. They weren’t my friends, as one of them, not even a super­vi­sor, said. She was a sin­gle moth­er who worked at the preschool to be near her son. “Don’t be friend­ly,” she said in a tense, puz­zling whisper.

But I’d told one child­care work­er, who’d said I looked tired, that my moth­er was in the ICU, and she’d told the oth­ers. Advice based on the advice-giver’s cir­cum­stance mate­ri­al­ized. For con­text, I recount­ed a con­densed ver­sion of my cir­cum­stance. Peo­ple said: Still! Go see her or you’ll feel ever­last­ing regret! The sit­ter I hadn’t fired—I liked her but couldn’t count on her—was close to her moth­er and told me she’d reserved cheap plane tick­ets for me, “bereave­ment fare,” which was a thing then. I just had to con­firm them.

My moth­er had been mar­ried less than a year, her third mar­riage. Her first, to my alco­holic father, had last­ed twen­ty-odd years. Her sec­ond, to an obscene­ly vio­lent man, last­ed anoth­er twen­ty years. He was vio­lent to every­one, so I’d stopped vis­it­ing out of con­cern for my safe­ty, though I remained con­cerned for hers, and, yes, I did advise her to leave him, but she nev­er did. Then he died, lucky break, and she mar­ried an appar­ent­ly pleas­ant man. When I met him and his grown chil­dren at the wed­ding, they seemed nice. Eight months lat­er I flew to see her in the ICU because I hoped not to feel regret, and she died unex­pect­ed­ly while I was on my way, while I was on a plane read­ing a book by Dave Eggers. As we planned her funer­al, her hus­band and his grown chil­dren still seemed nice. 

But I’d dithered before trav­el­ing because rac­ing to and from Ore­gon with a four-year-old sound­ed hard. This deci­sion was anoth­er fork in the road with option­al routes into the future. Who would watch my daugh­ter? The grad­u­ate stu­dent who’d so far can­celed every oth­er week wasn’t good at rou­tines, but she loved emer­gen­cies. She offered to stay overnight with my daugh­ter one night. JoAnn took a few days. Two child­care work­ers from the Bap­tist preschool, younger than me, the age of aunts, each vol­un­teered for an overnight. Peo­ple passed my daugh­ter around, dropped her off, picked her up. 

The short trip to see my moth­er in the ICU to pre­empt regret turned into ten days and nights, none of the nights with sleep for me. Even before I left, I hadn’t slept, decid­ing to stay, go, spec­u­lat­ing how my mother’s death at some far-off future point might be hard to process. The night before I trav­eled I didn’t sleep, typ­i­cal, not sleep­ing the night before trav­el, nor dur­ing, the unfa­mil­iar bed, lights, nois­es. Choos­ing a cof­fin and bur­ial clothes, writ­ing a eulo­gy, deliv­er­ing it, good man­ners by day, grief at night—my brain ran on high, mak­ing new neur­al paths to reg­is­ter that my moth­er, locus of love and regret, was dead. 

I assumed a return to my bed, my neighbor’s dusk-to-dawn yard light mak­ing famil­iar squares on my bed­room walls, would relax me. When I got home, a Bap­tist preschool work­er said, “Some­one is glad to see you!” My daughter’s face was a mix of glee and ter­ror. I put her to bed. I got into bed. I couldn’t have slept forty min­utes when she shook me awake. All night, all week, all month. Weeks into these mul­ti­ple shak­ings-awake per night, I wasn’t sleepy, just dull-wit­ted and, once I bestirred myself, robot­i­cal­ly coherent. 

A Bap­tist preschool work­er advised me to let my daugh­ter sleep in my bed, but nei­ther of us slept. I called JoAnn, who said to put a pal­let in my room, show it to my daugh­ter, and tell her if she went to bed in her room and woke she could move there only if she didn’t wake me. I went to REI in the col­lege town and bought a pal­let. A year lat­er, dur­ing kinder­garten, she was still mov­ing to the pallet—during the months I fell ill, dur­ing the lead-up to surgery, and after­ward, the vir­u­lent post-op malaise. She out­grew it, so I went to town and bought a big­ger pal­let. I’d kiss her good­night in her own room, breath­ing deep the scent of child skin, and go to bed alone. I nev­er woke until daytime’s first placid minute. She’d have slipped across the house, to the pal­let, under the quilt, to sleep.


I tried mov­ing the pal­let a few feet from my bed with the plan to bit-by-bit move it far­ther from my small room toward hers. But every morn­ing it was tucked back in the rec­tan­gu­lar spot near my bed. She kept grow­ing until, rolling over, she’d thump the clos­et and wake me. I explained this, and she offered to move to the hall out­side my room and sleep there on a pal­lia­tive pal­let, thin lay­er on a hard, cold floor, hard­er and cold­er in the hall.

Quit­ting the pal­let always reg­is­tered as bet­ter sleep for both of us in a hypo­thet­i­cal future but a bad night right now, tonight. So I didn’t. To be clear, pal­let-reliance wasn’t co-sleep­ing. Co-sleep­ing was when my daugh­ter slept in a cra­dle next to my bed. Co-sleep­ing was when she was too big for the cra­dle and moved to a crib in her room, and a baby mon­i­tor ampli­fied her small cries and I’d go feed her, falling asleep on her floor, my hand through the crib rail­ing. Before my daugh­ter arrived, a social work­er described both bed-shar­ing and co-sleep­ing as good for bond­ing, though not every­one gets enough sleep while bed-shar­ing, she added. Co-sleep­ing, with the baby in your room in a pla­yard, was eas­i­er. Pla­yard? I’d asked her. Pla­yard is anoth­er word for “playpen,” archa­ic now, bad con­no­ta­tions. The social work­er said, “You, if you fall in love, will want pri­va­cy.” She point­ed out that it would be tricky in a new rela­tion­ship to have sex only dur­ing school or daycare. 

When my hus­band and I first began to date—rare, thrilling, phys­i­cal encoun­ters, and con­ver­sa­tion about child­care that made encoun­ters possible—we emailed. Tex­ting wasn’t a thing yet. I most­ly nixed phone calls because, after putting my daugh­ter to bed, I had chores. He had a clean­ing ser­vice. He and his ex-wife lived near each oth­er, with shared cus­tody and dove­tailed sched­ules. When his son was a baby, they’d had a nan­ny. One phone call to the agency will replace an unsuit­able nan­ny, as when, for instance, a neigh­bor informed them their nan­ny smoked a cig­a­rette in the yard as the baby napped. This couldn’t have been a fir­ing offense for me, I’d have rea­soned, think­ing that even non­smok­ers step out­side while a baby is nap­ping. I expressed envy, then self-cas­ti­ga­tion about my pecu­liar, extem­po­rized child­care, per­fect­ed plans for­ev­er foiled, and he added that he and his ex-wife lived in a city with more options and two salaries to pay for options.

The first Sat­ur­day I drove into the city to ini­ti­ate the rare and thrilling phys­i­cal encoun­ters, I paid the big-heart­ed, sar­don­ic sit­ter, who had a daugh­ter my daughter’s age, for my daugh­ter to spend the night, but this sit­ter was still dis­turbing­ly hard to wake. So soon­er than planned, then, I was hav­ing thrilling encoun­ters fre­quent­ly and always at my house. 

I’d put my daugh­ter to bed, then go to bed with my new boyfriend, who so far seemed unob­jec­tion­able. After­ward, I’d open the door, unroll the pal­let. “My daugh­ter has sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety since I made a trip to my mother’s funer­al,” I explained, leav­ing out that years had passed. One night as I unrolled the pal­let, he said he was afraid of step­ping on her when he got up in the night. I told him pal­let-reliance was like a tide-you-over sleep­ing pill, easy to start and hell­ish to stop. I laughed wild­ly as I some­times did when a moth­er in the vil­lage would cri­tique my child maybe in order to check off a devel­op­men­tal mile­stone for hers, say­ing, “she’s not walk­ing!?” or “don’t tell me she still naps!?” 

He asked for my per­mis­sion to pro­pose a plan. The next morn­ing he got down on one knee and held my daughter’s hand. “Is there a toy you real­ly want?” For months she’d asked for an expen­sive pre­tend-CD play­er that played pre­tend-CDs that came with it, four tin­ny, shouty children’s songs. I object­ed. She had a real CD play­er with real CDs, I said. He shook his head no to me. To her, he said, “If you try to sleep one night in your room, I’ll buy it.” She slept all night in her room the first try. She liked this bet­ter, she said in the morn­ing, bet­ter than the floor. My boyfriend and I sipped cof­fee. My daugh­ter put a pre­tend-CD in a plas­tic box, as a song about a muf­fin man flood­ed the kitchen. 


What the pre-adop­tion check­list missed:

  • Many single parents have extended family or something like it.
  • A job with vaunted “flextime” means improvised childcare.
  • A village is a childcare desert.
  • You can get so reliant on a schedule planned by the day, the hour, the minute, that a small tweak derails you, and you’re bone-tired after, not during. 

Post-adop­tion, your adult daugh­ter won’t care one whit about your ret­ro­spec­tive doubts, your belat­ed clar­i­ty as you real­ize years lat­er that the entire plan, prechecked, checked and dou­blechecked, was flawed, that every week wob­bled on the verge of col­lapse like a house you’d built your­self out of odds and ends creak­ing and shak­ing and shud­der­ing at every unex­pect­ed gust. She’ll blink and say, “That’s not how I remem­ber it at all.” And describe instead a gar­den you once plant­ed, tiny car­rots she pulled out too soon; how she fol­lowed you with a toy vac­u­um when you used the big one; some­thing she calls Wine and Pop­si­cle Night; the tree­house you built for her birth­day a serene porch high, high in branches. 


Every week­day except night-class day, I’d wait in my car for my daughter’s school bus and talk by phone to Aunt Cindy in Flori­da, her voice via the cell phone tow­er waves like the voice of a non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist god, con­sol­ing but too far-off for mate­r­i­al help. JoAnn’s help was prac­ti­cal and near­by. Twen­ty years lat­er, which is to say last week, she sent me this unex­pect­ed mes­sage by way of her boyfriend’s social media “chat”:

Debra, this is OJann. I had a dream at dawn about our girl. She lay in my arms. I enjoyed her so much, her sweet face. How pre­cious she was to hold those years ago. When I had this same dream 5 years ago, I ran into her in a restau­rant with her friends when I had an errand in the city that day! I’m not going out today so that won’t repeat, but she is in my heart.

Five years ear­li­er my daugh­ter had come home from a restau­rant near her high school where she’d gone to eat. She’d heard JoAnn call­ing her name. They’d hugged hel­lo, smiling. 

After I got mar­ried and my daugh­ter and I moved to the city, my com­mute to work was long but no longer spi­ral­ing or ever sub­ject to change as it had been in the vil­lage, new byways always added, back when I’d be at work in mid­day and my body, con­di­tioned to mapped blocks of time, shift­ed into pal­pa­ble high-alert before I even saw the clock telling me that Mother’s Day Out or the Bap­tist preschool or the ele­men­tary school was end­ing soon. I’d wrap up my class or meet­ing, think­ing: get in the car and dri­ve. On night-class day, I’d think: sit­ter, arrive! In the city, my hus­band picked up my daugh­ter at onsite after­school care. He made din­ner, then super­vised home­work, get­ting harder. 

A way­ward sit­ter replaced. An ill­ness cor­rect­ly diag­nosed. When my moth­er died, a dis­tress­ing gap in child­care filled as I nego­ti­at­ed tan­gled sched­ules, con­flict­ing phone mes­sages. I strate­gized. I made snap deci­sions about the reli­a­bil­i­ty of the care and car­ing on offer. Stop­gap expe­di­en­cy assem­bled out of short­ages isn’t everyone’s expe­ri­ence. It was mine. 

When the sev­en­teen-year-old sit­ter one after­noon left my daugh­ter alone on a hill, my neigh­bor the oth­er neigh­bors called Crab­by Old Man saw her and drove her back to school, and the prin­ci­pal called me to come quick­ly. I knocked on this neighbor’s door to thank him, and he said: “All on your own then?” I had sit­ters, I said. A few days lat­er as I wait­ed for her bus, he came out­side and said he wished for my sake I was mar­ried so I’d have help. Then he smiled and said: “I guess you’ve thought of that.” I hadn’t. Despite my pen­chant for plan­ning to fore­stall all future glitch­es, I’d nev­er thought about a help­ful hus­band because I couldn’t prob­lem-solve one into being, nor a life in which I wouldn’t be so tired, a life in which more peo­ple than me would love my daugh­ter all day and all night, no strings attached, no caveats, would bound­less­ly and unlim­it­ed­ly love her as my hus­band does now. I was enough, timetabled, adap­tive, assess­ing late-break­ing threats, mak­ing a plan, my relief surg­ing as reward when I cleared hur­dles. I’d have con­tin­ued to be. But future wind­falls are as unex­pect­ed as future pit­falls. I got lucky and didn’t have to be.



From the writer

:: Account ::

When I began to write this essay about the dearth of child­care in a small, rur­al town, I knew its struc­ture wouldn’t be nar­ra­tive. The sto­ry of my life as a sin­gle moth­er was often a sto­ry of fused emer­gen­cies. Even when I used to write fic­tion, I felt out of patience with the idea that causal­i­ty and lin­ear time explain every­thing. I was walk­ing on trails in woods one day, feel­ing lost, and I under­stood that this essay would be about being lost in a zone not ade­quate­ly mapped by cal­en­dars and clocks. While writ­ing, I also read an arti­cle about game theory—about how the gamer’s risk-tak­ing is reward­ed and perpetuated—and I under­stood why, back when I was arrang­ing my extem­po­rized and some­times sub­stan­dard child­care, I was inter­mit­tent­ly and mys­te­ri­ous­ly elat­ed, adren­a­line rush. 


Debra Mon­roe is the author of sev­en books, includ­ing It Takes a Wor­ried Woman: Essays (forth­com­ing from The Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press, 2022) in which this essay will appear. She has also writ­ten two sto­ry col­lec­tions, The Source of Trou­ble (Simon & Schus­ter, 1990) and A Wild, Cold State (Simon & Schus­ter, 1995); two nov­els, New­fan­gled (Simon & Schus­ter, 1998) and Sham­bles (SMU Press, 2004); and two mem­oirs, On the Out­skirts of Nor­mal (The Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press, 2010) and My Unsen­ti­men­tal Edu­ca­tion (The Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press, 2015). She is the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Con­tem­po­rary Cre­ative Non­fic­tion. Her essays have appeared in many venues, includ­ing Lon­greads, The South­ern Review, The New York Times, The Amer­i­can Schol­ar, Guer­ni­ca, and The Rum­pus.

Cycle & Circumstances

Nonfiction / Jane Hertenstein

:: Cycle & Circumstances ::

A hybrid mem­oir about rid­ing from the top to the bot­tom of the UK 

 When I was fif­teen, my moth­er worked at the local hard­ware store where she got a dis­count. That’s where I bought my Huffy Scout—I actu­al­ly called it Scout (after the char­ac­ter in To Kill a Mock­ing­bird). I would ride well beyond Cen­ter­ville into the out­skirts of Day­ton and then beyond that. One time I woke ear­ly and left the house. By noon I was in Indiana. 

On the way back I remem­ber get­ting as far as Miamis­burg (see: Stu­pid Kids). I’d call Mom from a pay­phone (remem­ber those?) and beg her to have Dad come pick me up. It got to be a run­ning routine—me rid­ing too far and need­ing a ride home. Often when I called, Mom would be dis­mayed, “I thought you were upstairs in bed!” 

Lat­er she got used to my calls and would sim­ply ask, 

Where are you now?” 





Stu­pid Kids 

Stuff you don’t think about when you’re fif­teen and decide to go for a ride: 

Sun­screen, food, water, mon­ey, sun­glass­es, no cell­phone because they haven’t been invent­ed yet, no maps or GPS, no spare inner tubes or patch kit, or tools, or any way to fix anything 





Wak­ing up ear­ly before the dust of night has blown off. There is a dis­tant pale light throb­bing on the hori­zon. Birds are atwit­ter. The dew-grass soaks my sneak­ers as I pull open the garage door and grab my bike lean­ing against the wall. 

Scout is mus­tard yel­low with brown let­ter­ing and accents. A Huffy 10-speed. Just the idea that I can go any­where stirs my blood. 

There is nev­er any plan. I’ll be home before lunch, I think, before any­one even knows I’m gone—or cares. 

The roads are emp­ty, white lines mark the black asphalt sur­face. Ahead of me a rib­bon that I ride, col­lect­ing speed to make it up the next swell. Small white but­ter­flies flit above stalks of corn­flow­ers, fields of gold­en­rod, tiger lilies blow in the wind grow­ing in a ditch by the road­way, a fox skit­ters into a hole in a stone wall, turn­ing a cor­ner on a dew drenched morn­ing and com­ing across a deer, star­tled, it darts into the riv­er. Slow­ly the sun climbs. 

After a while I am hot and thirsty and go faster in order to fan myself. A dog chas­es after me, and I stand up on the ped­als and crank as hard as I can. He runs in front of my wheel and I almost hit him, only man­ag­ing to slow down. His teeth nip at my heels. I escape and mean­while for­get how hun­gry I am. 

Grasshop­pers thud me in the fore­head, leav­ing a tobac­co-stain pee. I’m not wear­ing a hel­met. It’s not a thing yet. I count tele­phone poles, low-hang­ing wires strung like a lady’s neck­lace. Glass insu­la­tors stud the top of the cross bar, glis­ten­ing like gem­stones as the sun bears down. 

I stop, sud­den­ly feel­ing light-head­ed. My breath is ragged and dense with humid­i­ty and exhaus­tion. I reck­on I’ve been rid­ing for four or five hours. At a small gro­cery store I ask about a water foun­tain and drink long and hard before get­ting back on my steed. If I can get as far as Miamis­burg where Dad works at Monarch Mar­ket­ing where they make labels, then I can wait until he’s done and hitch a ride home with him. 

At home I lie on the couch and drink a Coke. Lat­er, I’ll eat sup­per and go to bed, to wake up ear­ly to ride my bike. 





I might have been fif­teen or six­teen. I was on my bike rid­ing around in the coun­try on an asphalt road in the mid­dle of nowhere when a car pulled up at a T‑intersection beside me. It was one of those big-boat ’70s cars, the dri­ver had long Lynyrd Skynyrd hair. “Hey!” he called me over. 

And of course I leaned in the open win­dow to see what he wanted. 

He asked me direc­tions, said a street name that I didn’t rec­og­nize. In his lap he fin­gered what looked vague­ly like an ice cream cone, puls­ing with veiny red sprinkles. 

Sud­den­ly dread washed over me. I sped away with­out look­ing back. When I got home I nev­er once thought about shar­ing this inci­dent with my moth­er. I only wished I could tear my eyes out. 

What am I sup­posed to do now? I had thought. Too many girls have this same story.





My mom could be arbi­trary. I nev­er knew which Mom I was going to get. The nice one who would promise me any­thing or the one who would sud­den­ly take it all back. Who might one day sign a per­mis­sion slip for camp and the next day rip it up. She was a depres­sive, the daugh­ter of a depres­sive. When things got bad, real­ly bad, she’d go off to the “hos­pi­tal” for a few months of “rest.” The worst was the shock treat­ments. One Christ­mas she came home for a vis­it and pre­sent­ed me and my sis­ter with gifts made dur­ing occu­pa­tion­al ther­a­py. I opened a box con­tain­ing a leather bracelet embossed with my name. Except she had spelled Jane as Jayne. I con­sid­ered point­ing this out, but thought bet­ter. I kept it at the back of my clos­et for years, even­tu­al­ly leav­ing it when I moved out. 

As a kid you have no pow­er. No mon­ey. No con­trol. I was always at the whim of her will. The trick was not to want. To give off the air of what­ev­er. But this was hard; invari­ably I’d show my hand and blow it. 

Cycling became a cop­ing mech­a­nism. Hills. Wind. I couldn’t make them go away, but I could tack­le prob­lems one by one. All I had to do was pedal. 

Rid­ing nar­rowed life down into the now. To the present moment. The wind in my face, tiger lilies wav­ing at me as I passed, the rib­bon of asphalt ris­ing up to meet me, but­ter­flies and bees, the thirst, the sun, the poet­ry of motion. 

Bicy­cling saved me. 





When I was a kid back in Ohio, I saw an adver­tise­ment for a talk at the library. A cou­ple had just rid­den their bikes from Alas­ka to the south­ern tip of Argenti­na, a Hemis­tour. Now they were propos­ing just in time for the country’s Bicen­ten­ni­al, Bikecen­ten­ni­al, an event intend­ed to get peo­ple on their bikes for a ride across the coun­try, from Asto­ria, Ore­gon, to York­town, Virginia. 

Bike­cen­ten­ni­al appealed to my vagabond spir­it. I sat spell­bound lis­ten­ing to Dan and Lys Bur­den describe their project. Folks would ride back roads, stay overnight in camp­grounds, city parks, church base­ments, com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters; they’d see the coun­try close-hand from the sad­dle; they’d expe­ri­ence weath­er and the out­pour­ing of hos­pi­tal­i­ty. They’d make friends and come home with stories. 

Count me in! Except I was fif­teen years old and would nev­er be able to get my par­ents on board with my plan. 

But it did plant a seed in my heart and mind—that some­day I would strap a sleep­ing bag onto the back of my bike and ride and ride until tired. I’d sleep and eat beside the road. I’d be free. 





At age 58 I had come to a point of reck­on­ing, or what some peo­ple call the buck­et list. 

When a per­son is old but not too old. When on the time­line of life they are more than halfway, far from the begin­ning, clos­er to the end. When the tolling of bells reminds you of mor­tal­i­ty, that death will one day come for thee. 

It is a time of assess­ment, to review regrets and add up cher­ished moments. What is it you did, and what is it you didn’t do? 

Mary Oliv­er, in her poem “The Sum­mer Day,” details the minu­ti­ae of the nat­ur­al world revolv­ing around her before zoom­ing out. The big­ger pic­ture requires us to take stock. She ends the poem with a ques­tion:   

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and pre­cious life? 





Was it midlife malaise? Grief from los­ing my par­ents? The feel­ing that I was on the cusp of los­ing my mar­riage?  

St. Antho­ny is the patron saint of lost items / lost peo­ple. He is said to have suf­fered from despair. In this way I think we can all relate to him, from one wound­ed heart to anoth­er.  He was told that any phys­i­cal task done in the prop­er spir­it would bring him deliverance. 

Seek­ing solace, I did what I’d always done in the past—I got on my bike. I would ped­al my way into sal­va­tion, ride to rid myself of the awful­ness inside of me. 

I bought a tick­et to England. 





So sigh­ing for new worlds to con­quer, I jumped into a JOGLE. I decid­ed I would ride my bike from John O’Groats in Scot­land to Land’s End in Cornwall—the length of the UK

Just to put this into per­spec­tive: it would be a jour­ney of 1,100 miles. 

Just to put this into per­spec­tive: most peo­ple who attempt a JOGLE or LEJOG (if going in the oppo­site direc­tion, south to north) are fit. I, on the oth­er hand, was not fit but a frumpy post-menopausal woman in her late fifties. 

Just to put this into per­spec­tive: I had no idea what I was get­ting into. 

I assumed Eng­land would be one great, big gar­den path with rows of cute thatch-roof cot­tages. I had no idea that the Scot­tish High­lands was lit­er­al. Not only would I have to tra­verse the High­lands but sev­er­al oth­er small­er ranges. The Lake Dis­trict was not only lakes but moun­tains, includ­ing the high­est peak in England. 

I didn’t have the right bike or the right gear. 

Per­haps it was bet­ter that I didn’t under­stand. Most ratio­nal peo­ple would have turned back, stayed on the lake­front path, or nev­er left the com­fort of their couch. 





I had to remind myself I was that girl who dared to dream, to risk. Who start­ed off ear­ly in the morn­ing with only a small ruck­sack slung over her back. Mus­cle mem­o­ry recalled that gyp­sy spir­it. Deep beneath my grey hair were blonde roots that turned white under the hot sum­mer sun.   

I just need­ed to sum­mon her back, call her forth. 

I had to believe it was possible. 





What was I doing? I asked myself this ques­tion a thou­sand times. 

What was I doing all alone in the far-flung High­lands on a bike? This was crazy. Stu­pid. I wasn’t Super­woman. I couldn’t believe what I had got­ten myself into. And, why? 

I ful­ly thought after sep­a­rat­ing from my hus­band that we would be able to begin again. We were smart, we both loved to read, we were on the same page polit­i­cal­ly, we loved our daugh­ter, now grown and out of the house. We had all the tools to fix what­ev­er was bro­ken. But, maybe that was the prob­lem: we didn’t know how bro­ken we were. 

I ped­aled in the mist, crying. 

                    Going down a road hoping to end up somewhere, to be found,  





It can­not be over­stat­ed, I got lost. A lot.




Get­ting lost is all about per­cep­tions. You start with a cer­tain frame­work and fig­ure out ref­er­ence points. With­out know­ing where I was, I couldn’t even begin to mea­sure how far off route I’d wandered. 

The same could be said of my mar­riage. I had no idea how far off the mark I was or where to go next. 

On my JOGLE I’d zigzag, careen from one cross­roads to anoth­er veer­ing toward my even­tu­al goal. 

In my mar­riage I moved from blun­der to blun­der, hop­ing to get some­where, together. 

I lacked a con­text; I assumed too much, and once I under­stood, I knew a course cor­rec­tion would cost in time and effort. I was far from where I want­ed to be. 





Shop­keep­ers, once they saw that I was by myself, would exclaim: You’re all alone!  

Yes. I was con­stant­ly aware that I was a stranger in a strange land. One time I stopped at a cafe. I couldn’t fig­ure out how to open the door. I could see they were open. Final­ly the counter per­son came out and let me in. I was pulling instead of push­ing. While sit­ting there eat­ing the best soup ever I shed a few tears. Alone. By myself. 





After fin­ish­ing my JOGLE, cycling back to Penzance—it hit me: I’d reached my goal after nine­teen days, 1,100 miles of wind, rain, round-abouts, get­ting lost, sting­ing net­tles, thigh-burn­ing climbs, and bro­ken spokes. I began to cry. 

I didn’t know I pos­sessed such endurance; I had no idea I was this strong. I deserved a pat on the back, or at least a cream tea. I prac­ti­cal­ly flew back to the hos­tel, pushed along this time by the wind. 





I sat in a tea room in late after­noon, my table fac­ing a win­dow look­ing out upon the street. I watched peo­ple flood past, their faces down­turned, hur­ry­ing to escape the rain now com­ing down. I’d plunged head­long, thrown cau­tion to the wind, and gone to Eng­land to cycle the coun­try top to bot­tom, and now I was done. What would I do next? My life, my future seemed to waver before me like heat off a hot high­way. I glimpsed a head­line in a news­pa­per left on an adjoin­ing table. Brad and Angeli­na had separated. 

I con­tem­plat­ed my mar­riage. I vowed I would return and tack­le this prob­lem head-on. I’d pow­er through it. I’d set up coun­sel­ing ses­sions. Ener­gized, I made lists. I was a new woman. 





My hus­band agreed to pick me up at the air­port. I texted him when I land­ed in Cana­da for a trans­fer. “In North Amer­i­ca!”  

At the Chica­go air­port I wait­ed with my bike box. And wait­ed. And wait­ed. I cart­ed it up and down the esca­la­tor, the ele­va­tor, bang­ing it against clos­ing doors think­ing I might be on the wrong floor. By this time I’d been awake and in trav­el mode for eigh­teen hours. 

Suf­fice it to say nei­ther of us was in a wel­com­ing mood when we met up. The van ride into the city was filled with awk­ward silence and the hum of traffic. 

Some­time after this he informed me that he had tak­en off his wed­ding ring. 





My heart was broken. 

At writer’s con­fer­ences I’d sit invis­i­ble. The mid­dle-aged woman. There was noth­ing remark­able about me. My once blonde hair had turned the col­or of cold shrimp. 

I had no plat­form. I wasn’t on Twit­ter or Instagram. 

Sell­ing books at a book fair, sit­ting behind a table with peo­ple stream­ing by, wait­ing for some­one to final­ly buy my book, I’d for­get I’d done amaz­ing things. I’d have to remind myself that I had a secret pow­er. It was under my clothes. 

                    Tan lines, left by my bike shorts.






After my divorce I went to New York City to see a friend.  

When Elanor sug­gest­ed we rent Citi Bikes, I hes­i­tat­ed. “C’mon,” she berat­ed me, “you ride your bike all over the world.” 

An exag­ger­a­tion. Though since my JOGLE I’d man­aged a few oth­er trips—one of which took me from Ams­ter­dam along the North Sea and over the Tele­mark Moun­tains in Norway. 

She talked me into it. We jerked the ungain­ly bikes out of iron racks and set off. In busy Brook­lyn traf­fic, my over­sized han­dle­bars jig­gled as I swerved to stay in a bike lane, jug­gling my phone and bag that kept slip­ping out of the loose bungee at the front of the bike. 

At first all I could see was the pot­holes, the cars dri­ving way too close, the trash in the streets. But then, some­thing mag­i­cal hap­pened. I began to forget. 

Soon I was a tourist fly­ing around a big city, see­ing things for the first time. The Ortho­dox Jews push­ing baby bug­gies, dog walk­ers in the new park along the East Riv­er, old men play­ing chess out­side a bar. They waved at us. 

It was weird, peo­ple were stop­ping and smil­ing. Para­noid, I checked to see if my under­wear was show­ing. I was rid­ing in a skirt and pulled at the hem that kept blow­ing up. I tucked my tank top in at the back. 

Slow­ly I came to real­ize we were sum­mer girls. We rep­re­sent­ed free­dom. We had tak­en a step away from the every­day rou­tine and were buzzing around hav­ing fun.   

Life at its best and happiest.





These days I dream more and more of riding my bike.  
In my mind I ride a thousand roads.  
After years, the light has changed, yet still I see,  
                    up around the next curve—a wider world! 
          So I keep going.




From the writer

:: Account ::

Fragili­ty. That was the theme of the year 2020. Work­ing as a full-time vol­un­teer at a home­less shel­ter, I encoun­tered many peo­ple who con­tract­ed COVID and a few who died from the virus. I got to see first­hand how frag­ile life is—especially for those liv­ing on the mar­gins. As a woman, I’m used to being invis­i­ble, but these past few years have felt like a weight. Under the pan­dem­ic I real­ized I had very lit­tle agency in my life; thus, when lock­down lift­ed in Illi­nois at the end of May, I jumped on my bicy­cle and rode 2,400 miles to the Pacif­ic Ocean, Chica­go to Sea­side, OR, fol­low­ing an approx­i­ma­tion of the Lewis & Clark Trail. 

I had plen­ty of time to think in the 45 days it took me to com­plete the trek. I decid­ed, per the ques­tion put forth in the poem “The Sum­mer Day” by Mary Oliv­er, that I need­ed to live my one wild and pre­cious life, start­ing by tak­ing risks. 

In my piece “Cycle & Cir­cum­stances,” I write about the ori­gins of my cycling passion—and how I believe cycling saved me from a chaot­ic child­hood. Fol­low­ing up on that, in 2016 I rode the length of the UK from John O’Groats to Lands’ End in an effort to make sense of the breakup of my mar­riage. I need­ed to find once again a place of well-being—the fact that I turned my life upside down to do it is doc­u­ment­ed in the piece. 



Jane Herten­stein is the author of over 90 pub­lished sto­ries both macro and micro: fic­tion, cre­ative non­fic­tion, and blurred genre. In addi­tion she has pub­lished a YA nov­el, Beyond Par­adise (Harper­Collins, 1999), and a non-fic­tion project, Orphan Girl: The Mem­oir of a Chica­go Bag Lady (Cor­ner­stone Press, 1998), which gar­nered nation­al reviews. Jane is the recip­i­ent of a grant from the Illi­nois Arts Coun­cil. Her lat­est book is Cloud of Wit­ness­es (2018) from Gold­en Alley Press. She teach­es a work­shop on flash mem­oir and can be found blog­ging at  

Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love

Nonfiction / Amie Whittemore 

:: Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love ::

1. Sit­ting on the front porch of a dive bar in Nashville with a man on our first Tin­der date (he drank rail whisky on the rocks; I nursed a local IPA), two very drunk women approached us. Hav­ing heard our dis­cus­sion about poet­ry, they asked to buy copies of my book, they asked to bum cig­a­rettes from the man. I walked back to the grav­el park­ing lot and pulled two copies from my trunk, sign­ing them in the dark, amid the cig­a­rette smoke, on the sour-smelling porch. 

Two years lat­er, one of those women found me on Insta­gram and, since it’s a pan­dem­ic, told me she paint­ed lines from one of my poems on her win­dow. That man? We went out twice more. He kissed like salt­wa­ter, pale and thirsty. Not my thirst. Some­times we wish each oth­er hap­py birthday. 

2. In col­lege my friends and I were very into Björk, so we went to the art the­ater twen­ty miles away to watch Dancer in the Dark. The haunt­ing, trag­ic film filled me with rest­less ener­gy, as if the spring air had stuffed me with lilac buds, as if the night had thread­ed its wings through my ribs. I walked past my favorite cof­fee shop and a man I bare­ly knew called out to me to join him and his friends. It was the kind of night where you say yes to strange things, so I said yes. 

He and I took a long walk around cam­pus, end­ing at his effi­cien­cy on the oth­er side of town. We drank cheap red wine, lis­ten­ing to Mazzy Star, and he asked if he could kiss me. I said yes. 

In those days, I wore my hair in twisty buns, like Björk, like hum­ming­bird nests, held togeth­er by bob­by pins. They fell around us on the bed like met­al rain. After a while, his toothy kiss­es tired me out. It’s late, I whis­pered, his head pil­lowed on my chest, and he offered to dri­ve me home. 

Home, in the bath­room mir­ror, I saw he’d left bruis­es on my neck, my breasts: lilacs unclench­ing their watery vio­lets. I ran into him once more, weeks lat­er, between class­es. He said he still found bob­by pins in his bed. 

3. The night after yet anoth­er Tin­der date, I dreamt my date and I were rid­ing in a self-dri­ving car; the dream turned lucid and I made the car fly, told him we could do any­thing. I woke ecsta­t­ic and texted him in the morn­ing. I was in bed with the Sun­day Times, my cats. It was June, the air balmy with promis­es. Some­times that sum­mer, he’d bite my thigh and leave such bril­liant flow­ers there, blue and crum­pled. Some­times his kiss­es were black holes I didn’t want to leave. He talked and talked and nev­er asked me any­thing. The last time I saw him I left a peri­od stain on his sheets and felt embar­rassed though I had warned him I had a body. I had a body I could bare­ly control. 

4. My first girl­friend asked me if it was impor­tant for both part­ners to orgasm and that’s how I learned I wasn’t giv­ing her orgasms. This made me try hard­er, though it also made me wilt and turn toward the blue light that streams from TVs left on in emp­ty liv­ing rooms overnight. 

My sec­ond girl­friend called our sex-life “cli­torif­ic” at a sex toy par­ty. I blushed. I still feel like some­one who doesn’t know how to give any­one orgasms. 

5. At his cousin’s wed­ding, my hus­band and I were recov­er­ing from one of our—I wouldn’t call them fights. It was less that we fought and more that we retreat­ed, like waves at low tide. Still, the moon swung us back again and again; we too often found our­selves on famil­iar beach­es, exhaust­ed and hurt. We kept touch­ing the parts of the oth­er person’s body where the bruis­es bloomed, crum­pled blue flowers. 

The priest didn’t men­tion the rip­tide of mar­riage. Only that the bride and groom had found “not the per­son they could live with, but the per­son they couldn’t live without.” 

For weeks, my hus­band and I chewed on that phrase, spat it out like gris­tle. The tide turned again. I have lived with­out him for as long as I lived with him: six years. 

6. The woman I was dat­ing invit­ed me to join her and two vis­it­ing friends for a Nashville bar crawl. Their names, occu­pa­tions, the way they wore their hair: unim­por­tant. They were a straight cou­ple and the woman loved Anne of Green Gables as much as I did. We talked about Anne on the roof, Anne in the woods, Ril­la by the light­house in her green dress, poor, doomed Wal­ter. The woman I was dat­ing and the vis­it­ing man looked at each oth­er, bemused out­siders to an unfath­omable intimacy. 

Lat­er, at the woman’s home, we kissed on her bed as she tried to talk me into spend­ing the night for the first time. Her friends in the next room, play­ing with her dog. Some­thing blue haunt­ed her—I imag­ined a bro­ken kite caught in her ribs. I want­ed to go home, to my cats, to my bed. What she didn’t know then is I had learned how not to feel respon­si­ble for the sad things I found in people’s chests—torn kites, wilt­ed bou­quets. Keys to nowhere. 

7. Tak­ing free yoga class­es in a ware­house in Port­land before Port­land was Port­land, I met a white woman named Saige. She had short black hair and two per­fect cir­cle tat­toos on her inner wrists. One cir­cle had a frog inside it, the oth­er some­thing else (a moth?). I was not good at talk­ing to peo­ple I desired then, nor am I now, but some­how I invit­ed her over so I could teach her to knit. And some­how I end­ed up at her house one evening, for sup­per, where I learned she and her room­mates were elim­i­nat­ing processed sug­ar from their diets. I thought this was stu­pid (this was before sug­ar-free diets were trendy) and I led them through a med­i­ta­tion my first yoga teacher taught me. It involves a for­est, a lake, a bear. A key, a throat with a stone lodged in it, if you’re me. 

We lost track of each oth­er; I moved away. Return­ing for a vis­it two years lat­er, a friend and I saw her at the food co-op. I had to look at her wrists to rec­og­nize her. 

In the park­ing lot after­wards, my friend said, damn that girl likes you, and it felt like a drought-thick after­noon, where it feels like it’ll rain but it doesn’t.  

8.  My first boyfriend was 19; I was 14. Some­times we sat on the couch in his par­ents’ base­ment and took turns run­ning our fin­gers through the other’s hair. Some­times he drew sketch­es of my hands or turned us into car­toons. After he kissed me for the first time, my first kiss, which was wet­ter and fuller than I expect­ed, he told me he loved me and I said it back not know­ing if I meant it, which is the same as know­ing I didn’t. But I did feel pow­er­ful and wor­thy when he showed me the blue and bro­ken toys he kept in his chest, and I held them care­ful­ly as if doing so could mend them. I thrilled know­ing no mat­ter how he touched me he could nev­er touch the stone in my throat, the one that hadn’t learned how to sing yet. 

9. Some peo­ple want your whole hand inside them. Your whole hand. As if you could cup their swal­low-nest heart, the mud and weeds of it. As if then noth­ing would be empty. 

I don’t want anyone’s whole hand inside me. I don’t want to put my whole hand inside any­one else. 

10. Two days before the pan­dem­ic shut every­thing down, I went on a first date with a woman. We vis­it­ed the Frist Art Muse­um, where an exhib­it inspired by the Voy­ager Gold­en Record was on dis­play. Images and sounds were pressed onto the record for the aliens so they could under­stand what it is to be a human on earth, the blue and salt of it. The music qui­et­ly played, the images flick­ered in a dark room. I love the gold­en record and the woman let me go on and on about it. 

Over din­ner, she asked ques­tions. Over din­ner, I hand­ed her a piece of the gray stone I car­ry inside, and she hand­ed me a cloth fox in need of mending. 

After din­ner, we walked in ner­vous time-stretch­ing cir­cles until we passed our cars twice and had to admit the date had end­ed. She gave me a suc­cu­lent. We hugged. We pulled away from each oth­er, the desire to kiss lin­ger­ing in the air like the promise of rain. I thought about pulling her toward me, mak­ing it rain. I thought there would be more time. 

She ghost­ed, or per­haps more apt­ly, the pandemic’s thick grav­i­ty kept her far from my shores. I lis­tened to the songs the aliens might be lis­ten­ing to for days. Some­times I look at her paint­ings on Insta­gram and her palette echoes some­thing inside me—the lilac and blue of them, the green spring of them. The row­dy, man­ic pink. Some­thing bright inside of me call­ing out, remind­ing me of what I want.

From the writer

:: Account ::

At the start of quar­an­tine, I found myself feel­ing both lone­ly and with more time than I usu­al­ly have. I often think about writ­ing cre­ative non­fic­tion but get intim­i­dat­ed by the scope of it; as a poet, I feel much more com­fort­able work­ing with a few hun­dred words rather than over a thou­sand. This means I often have to trick myself into writ­ing a per­son­al essay, usu­al­ly by mak­ing it as much like a poem as possible. 

I have read many love­ly vignette-dri­ven essays by writ­ers (who are also often poets) and have long felt the form might get me over my fear of cre­ative non­fic­tion. Works like The Cry­ing Book by Heather Chris­tle and Julia Cohen’s beau­ti­ful lyric essay “Genius­es of Love: To be held at arm’s length is not to be held at all” served both as maps and light­hous­es for me—offering both direc­tion and assurance. 

I also, in my quar­an­tine lone­li­ness, found myself think­ing about past roman­tic encoun­ters, how some of them held a lot of emo­tion­al heat but were not actu­al­ly moments of love. The moments cat­a­logued here all occur on love’s peripheries—outside it, after it, before it, along­side it. Through writ­ing this essay I have found that these bound­ary waters have taught me some­thing about how and why I love, what fac­tors can lead me into love’s strong cur­rents or nudge me back to shore. 


Amie Whit­te­more is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Glass Har­vest (Autumn House Press, 2016). She is the 2020 Poet Lau­re­ate of Murfrees­boro, Ten­nessee, and an Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Lau­re­ate Fel­low. Her poems have won mul­ti­ple awards, includ­ing a Dorothy Sar­gent Rosen­berg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Get­tys­burg Review, Nashville Review, Smar­tish Pace, Pleiades, and else­where. She is the reviews edi­tor for South­ern Indi­ana Review and teach­es Eng­lish at Mid­dle Ten­nessee State University.